F1 frontline: March 2018

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Lewis Hamilton was at his best in 2017… for the very reason that Toto Wolff believes the Mercedes F1 team fell short of peak performance

Stability versus response has long been a racing driver’s set-up dilemma. For example, in last year’s F3 European championship the fast guys found that the traits of the control tyres – with rears that didn’t like a sudden increase in load – meant the car needed to be set up to pivot delicately around a small degree of steering lock. Such a set-up demanded the car be driven with minimal steering input. But when the less experienced or gifted guys got into such a car, they’d try to drive it in the conventional way and struggle with the resultant oversteer. They didn’t have the sensitivity, precision or confidence to combine big entry speeds with minimal steering inputs. For them, the best way was to tune out the oversteer, giving them something a bit more confidence-instilling. Their engineers would shake their heads and insist the fastest set-up was the nervous one and that’s the way all the fast guys had it. But while that may have been true, it wasn’t the fastest way for the guys who couldn’t drive it that way.

While the dilemma is exaggerated in F3 because of the tyre traits, it’s there in most categories, especially in winged single-seaters that by default want to understeer through slow corners and oversteer through faster ones. The more instability you can tolerate without losing momentum in the fast turns, the less understeer you’ll have in the slow turns and the faster you’ll be over the lap. If you are adept at getting the car turned with the minimum of steering lock into the slow turns by manipulating the weight with the brake and throttle pedals, you will shave yet more lap time. But a car set up to respond like this, if driven with more steering, will be a difficult, oversteering beast.

Lewis Hamilton last year was very good at getting around the Mercedes W08’s low-speed understeer in this way, manipulating the weight, minimising steering inputs. It was a very different style to the late turn-in/bold steering of his early F1 years with McLaren, but was the way he achieved his mastery over a fast, but often difficult, car. Its narrow set-up window meant through fast corners it could be a little unstable even while understeery through slower ones. But it was fast if you could live with that.

Meanwhile, the team in which Hamilton was performing was a relatively serene place, with traits almost the opposite to that of the car, the Hamilton-Bottas pairing providing a much more stable atmosphere than the preceding Hamilton/Rosberg. Once the title battle between Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel began to get serious, there was no question of who was the team number one. At Spa, one race after Hamilton had handed him third place back on the last lap, having failed to pierce Räikkönen’s defences, Valtteri Bottas was informed that he would be supporting Hamilton’s title quest for the rest of the season. The average qualifying deficit to Hamilton up to that time had been 0.18sec, but in the six subsequent races it was 0.5sec as he seemed to lose confidence and ceased to be a factor.

It actually made the team’s task simpler, less ambiguous. Only once Hamilton had virtually wrapped up the title did Bottas come back on song, with strong performances in the final three races. The circumstances of Ferrari’s imploding title challenge made things yet easier for Mercedes and there wasn’t really all that much for Toto Wolff to manage through race weekends. But that happy, easy environment isn’t, he believes, the most appropriate one for a racing team. Having signed Bottas partly because of a personality he felt would make an easier pairing with Hamilton than had Rosberg, by the end of the season Wolff was saying this: “We are not trying to build a new family here; we want to be the most effective racing team, and an effective racing team needs stress, needs tension, needs disruption as much as it needs calmness and a positive attitude and mindset. Like everywhere in life you want to have the mix of both, probably the recipe for success.” He wants the team more like a nervy (but quick) racing car.

If Ferrari and/or Red Bull can step up their challenges to Mercedes this year, increasing the pressure, and Bottas can maintain a more consistent internal threat to Hamilton, that cosy atmosphere is probably going to be lost. But interestingly, Hamilton reckons he reached his highest personal level of performance over a season in 2017 – and he attributes that partly to the easier atmosphere in the team. With Bottas there, the tensions of the Rosberg years and the mistrusts they created were gone, he said, and it allowed him to concentrate on performing. Upon being asked if he could have reached this level with Rosberg still in the team he gave an unequivocal, “No.”

Interestingly, when a relaxed, civvies-wearing retired Rosberg showed up at the British Grand Prix last year I asked him if psychological warfare had been part of his game plan against Hamilton, he replied: “Sure. It’s all part of performance, so it’s something to which you have to pay attention. He’s one of the fastest guys of all time so is incredibly difficult to beat, so you have to use everything.”

This tallies with Wolff’s comment that, off track, it was Rosberg who was creating the conflict, more so than Hamilton. It made Wolff’s job more stressful, gave him more managing to do. That was OK, especially given the performance advantage they had over the other teams. But Rosberg openly admitting that part of his game was trying to slow Hamilton tallies with Hamilton’s feeling that without him, he was performing better.

For this year, as Bottas settles in and tries to string together his peaks, is there going to be a conflict between the sort of competitively edgy, nervous team Wolff seeks and the serene environment that Hamilton reckons allows him to access his best stuff?

Since he began covering Grand Prix racing in 2000, Mark Hughes has forged a reputation as the finest Formula 1 analyst of his generation