Grand Pix Notebook

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Belgium & Italy

Rd 12 Spa-Francorchamps, Aug 24 2014

1 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull RB10 1hr 24min 36.556sec
2 Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1hr 24min 39.939sec
3 Valtteri Bottas Williams FW36 1hr 25min 04.588sec

Fastest lap: Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1min 50.511sec
Race distance: 44 laps, 191.415 miles
Pole position: Nico RosbergMercedes W05 2min 05.591sec

Rd 13 Monza, September 7 2014

1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1hr 19min 10.236sec
2 Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1hr 19min 13.411sec
3 Felipe Massa Williams FW36 1hr 19min 35.262sec

Fastest lap: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1min 28.004sec
Race distance: 53 laps, 190.587 miles
Pole position: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1min 24.109sec

Ancient battles that once seemed so important, long won and lost and probably unseen by anybody alive now, played out at Spa and Monza. As Formula 1 checked out of Europe for 2014, so the sport’s two most historic venues hosted an ongoing tussle between Mercedes drivers Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. It’s one that might prove decisive – and which from the perspective of ‘now’ feels so important.

A second-lap collision between the Mercs in Belgium – one that was adjudged by the team to be clearly Rosberg’s fault and which cost it what was likely to have been a dominant 1-2 – increased Rosberg’s championship lead considerably. But it also risked his isolation within the team and, as he arrived at Monza having been publicly castigated (and heavily fined) by his employer, it was difficult not to feel that his confidence had been dented. He was unable to capitalise fully on a technical problem that allowed him to lead into the first corner three places ahead of his pole-sitting rival. Hamilton’s subsequent recovery pace twice induced Rosberg to sail straight on up the Retifilio chicane escape road, paving the way for Hamilton’s sixth win of the season (and his 28th career victory, taking him past the tally of Jackie Stewart).

Belgium

Many millions of years ago, tectonic uplift created the perfect contours for a racing track around what is now Spa-Francorchamps. The same process, at the same time, shaped the topography upon which the nearby Nürburgring (the Nordschleife version) would later be built as Hitler became an early adopter of Keynesian economics.

Nestling in the Ardennes – a forest already with strong motor sport associations, even before Spa hosted its first grand prix in 1925 – Spa’s mini climate is notoriously capricious, partly on account of the big elevation changes created by the ancient rock uplift. This year its influence on the event was confined to the qualifying order, a deluge 40 minutes before the session leaving the track wet enough to require intermediate tyres throughout, subsequent sprinklings of light rain keeping it lubricated. The timing of that Saturday morning downpour probably shaped much of this race for, without it, we’d probably have had an entirely different order and choreography on the opening couple of race laps, the Hamilton/Rosberg incident probably wouldn’t have happened and Williams rather than Red Bull would probably have been the best of the rest after Mercedes.

Without the Saturday rain, Hamilton looked favourite for pole over Rosberg. With the cool conditions and low grip, however, Hamilton allowed his left-front carbon brake disc to glaze. Rosberg too suffered some glazing, but was less gung-ho in the braking areas to compensate and he put together a beautifully-controlled sequence of error-free laps at each crucial juncture. Hamilton’s aggression had him set to eclipse Rosberg’s time on his final run – until he arrived at Malmedy late in the lap, locked up and ran wide. The Mercs were more than two seconds faster than the opposition – and that margin was partly to do with the rain, too. In the dry of Saturday morning, the Williams-Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas had been fastest – and with a time that suggested it might be able to at least push the Mercs. But the FW36 is a car notoriously sensitive to tyre temperature and also has a small shortfall in rear downforce; rain therefore is not its friend and in the wet Bottas could do no better than sixth. This played its part in allowing Sebastian Vettel to qualify third, but the 2.2sec deficit to Rosberg would likely have been smaller in the dry, given that the Red Bull was fully trimmed out, using the bare minimum of wing angle to combat the Renault’s lack of horsepower. Ferrari went in the other direction with wing and the wet probably flattered the car, enabling Fernando Alonso to slot it fourth, in between the Red Bulls.

Rosberg made a poor start, Hamilton was in the lead even before they reached La Source and Vettel went around the outside there to grab second from Rosberg. Vettel wasn’t finished with his opening lap aggression; he had a plan. Last year he took the lead from Hamilton on the opening lap by slipstreaming him along the Kemmel Straight into Les Combes and he was going to try the same thing this year. It was likely to be the only time he’d be close enough to the faster Mercedes to attempt it; the Red Bull with its minimal wing was quick on the straight, but if he didn’t pass he’d be sure to be left behind by the Merc once they hit the middle sector, comprising the high-speed downhill swerves. Furthermore, the Renault engine seems to be able to deploy full electrical energy for longer than the Mercedes without overheating the battery. Although the energy output per lap is limited by the regulations, a bigger battery would allow longer bursts.

Whatever, the combination of all those things allowed Vettel to be fast enough to force Hamilton on the defensive inside line up to Les Combes. Vettel braked late – too late, in fact for the skinny downforce and cool tyres, forcing him across the run-off area. In that moment Hamilton’s fate was sealed, for it allowed Rosberg up to second. On the second lap he got similarly alongside Hamilton on the outside approach to Les Combes and, as they turned into the right-handed part, his front wheels were about level with the front of Hamilton’s sidepod. Conventionally, a driver would back out of the move at this time but Rosberg chose not to, staying right there as Hamilton turned left for the next part of the sequence. The right-hand endplate of Rosberg’s front wing instantly punctured the sidewall of Hamilton’s left-rear Pirelli. In racing terms it was a fairly tame piece of contact, and the stewards didn’t even consider it worthy of investigation, but in the context of both the championship and the internal politics at Mercedes, it carried enormously disruptive heft.

Rosberg, with his endplate aerodynamically damaged but still structurally sound, took the lead as Hamilton limped pitwards. When his tyre’s carcass imploded after Pouhon, he was guaranteed all sorts of aero-limiting bodywork damage. He rejoined near the back but had no pace with which to make progress and retired before the end, zero points scored.

Rosberg’s tweaked wing made his Merc no faster than the closely following pack comprising Vettel, Alonso, Ricciardo, Bottas and Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari. Ricciardo was able to use his DRS to slip by Alonso on the fourth lap and immediately began catching team-mate Vettel. Seb responded by pushing harder, got his right rear on Astroturf still wet from overnight rain and in a thrice was sideways in sixth gear. He caught it beautifully, but Ricciardo was through – and off in pursuit of Rosberg.

Mercedes began to work out when to bring Rosberg in for a new nose. Although he was hanging onto the lead, if he was undercut by, say, Ricciardo he wouldn’t have the pace to respond to the Red Bull’s new tyre pace – and with it being the longest track of the season, the damage was potentially significant. So he was brought in at the end of the eighth lap, fitted with a new nose and tyres and sent on his way.

The extra 7sec required to fit the nose dropped him behind Ricciardo, the early-stopping Räikkönen and Vettel. Kimi had become Ferrari’s main hope as Alonso had been given a 5sec penalty for some of his crew still being on the grid after the 15sec-to-go curfew. Pitting on the same lap as Rosberg had bought Räikkönen several places, but at a price that would later be paid.

Rosberg’s car was now fully fit and therefore potentially much the fastest in the field – but he was unable to find a way by Vettel in the trimmed-out RB10, Seb thereby inadvertently laying the foundations for Ricciardo’s victory. The leading Red Bull not only proceeded to pull away from Räikkönen, but left his team-mate well behind. Ricciardo would go on to pull out 15sec over Vettel in 30 laps – and was easier on his tyres into the bargain. Vettel could be seen using all the road and more, trying exceptionally hard; Ricciardo was neater, needed less road on exit and was able to carry more momentum into the turns. “It’s very unlike Seb,” said team principal Christian Horner. “We’re going to have to go through that car with a fine-toothed comb to see if we can find anything.”

The difference in pace between Ricciardo and Vettel (around 0.5sec per lap) was also imposing itself on Rosberg, who was 8.5sec off the lead by lap 17. If only he could get by Vettel, this race was still surely winnable given the Merc’s pace. But Seb was proving faultless in defence and Nico was running out of ideas. At the end of the 17th lap he tried for a late braking move up to the former Bus Stop chicane, but left it too late, locked up at high speed and ran out to the edges of the run-off area. Although he didn’t lose the place, it allowed Bottas onto his tail and the Williams breezed past along the Kemmel Straight. That error essentially cost Rosberg the race. With badly flat-spotted tyres that were putting critical loads through the suspension (monitored by the team’s telemetry), Rosberg was brought in for his second stop very early, thereby losing even more time. His pace as he rejoined on his fresh tyres was enough to jump him past Vettel and Räikkönen – and was more than 2sec faster than the Red Bulls and Ferraris would go upon their new tyres later, an advantage that underlined just how winnable this race had been for Rosberg, even after his initial delay.

Ricciardo pitted from the lead for his second and final stop on lap 27, then rejoined just under 4sec ahead of Rosberg. But by this time Rosberg’s pace was no better than the Red Bull’s on account of how much older his tyres were. Before it was too late, Mercedes decided to throw the dice with a third stop, getting Rosberg onto the option tyres on lap 34, 10 from the end. He rejoined third, behind Räikkönen, but made short work of the Ferrari. The Merc was 19sec behind Ricciardo with nine laps to go and initially catching at more than 2sec per lap. Red Bull and Ricciardo held their nerve. Daniel was instructed what lap time to do in order to have the Merc arriving on his tail just too late and he hit that target unerringly, the Merc 3.3sec behind at the end as the remarkable Ricciardo scored his second consecutive victory, with Bottas a distant third from Räikkönen and Vettel – who emerged on top of a late and hectic multi-car scrap with the McLarens of Kevin Magnussen and Jenson Button and Alonso’s delayed Ferrari. Magnussen was later given a time penalty for putting Alonso on the grass at about 200mph.

Italy

In all the grands prix it has hosted since 1922, it’s doubtful Monza has ever looked better than in the late summer of this year. But things were less sunny in the Mercedes camp; Rosberg had been fined a reported six-figure sum by his team for what had unfolded at Spa.

He lost out to Hamilton for pole on his final qualifying run, after getting an oversteer snap through Ascari – with the 2014 cars, now the sort of corner where torque can easily overcome grip. On this power track Mercedes cars took the first three rows, the Williams FW36s lining up ahead of the two McLarens.

Hamilton’s race start mode didn’t work as the lights went out. He got away in a flurry of wheelspin and was instantly passed by Rosberg, Massa and Magnussen. Bottas, however, had made an even worse start than Hamilton and, as the pack swerved around him, so it prevented Hamilton from being further demoted. Magnussen, fighting for his McLaren drive into next year, went by Massa into the first turn. They squabbled for the next couple of laps, allowing Rosberg to pull out a comfortable lead, while Hamilton hovered just behind. Massa managed to tow his way ahead of Magnussen through Curva Grande and into Roggia and, as the McLaren ran out wide, so Hamilton was able to get inside it and past for third. At the end of that lap Rosberg – who had moved his brake bias forward to protect his rear tyres – found himself beginning to lock up under braking for Retifilio at more than 200mph. Desperately wanting to avoid the huge flat-spots that would result from locking at this speed, he opted instead to go straight on through the escape road and its slalom course. It lost him about half the 4sec gap he’d built up.

A lap later, Hamilton put a simple DRS pass on Massa into Retifilio to take second – just a couple of seconds behind his title rival and team-mate. After getting the gap down to about 1.5sec Hamilton maintained station as they pulled effortlessly away from Massa, who in turn was ever more distant from a scrapping bunch held at bay by the defensive Magnussen.

Rosberg still led after the single round of pitstops, but Hamilton had decided now was the time to attack, using the grip of his fresh tyres. Within three laps he was in DRS range and looked set to pounce on lap 29. Before that happened, however, Rosberg repeated his earlier Retifilio error, handing Hamilton a lead he never lost. The domination of the Mercedes W05s was underlined by the 25sec gap to Massa’s third-placed Williams. Bottas recovered from his poor start to take fourth, while Ricciardo had a similar recovery drive to fifth, including a late pass on team-mate Vettel whose tyres were eight laps older. Magnussen was next, but was again hit with a time penalty – for an innocuous-looking racing incident at Retifilio with Bottas. Force India’s Sergio Pérez thus inherited seventh after a great defensive scrap with Jenson Button’s McLaren.

Close to the edge
Les Combes, Spa-Francorchamps

Once they’ve crested the steep rise out of Eau Rouge, the road continues to climb gently – for a long, long time. It’s still climbing as they stand on the brakes for Les Combes and some cars still do not have terribly effective electronic brake distribution systems.

Those on the Marussia and Lotus seem particularly bad and, on this crisp Friday morning, sun just beginning to break through the clouds, Jules Bianchi leaves a big blue cloud of tyre smoke hanging in the air even as the Marussia turns out of sight. In between gaps in the traffic, the sounds of the forest, the chatter of spectators and marshals, is magnified, bouncing off the tall trees.

Watching the cars from the exit of Les Combes, Daniil Kvyat is riding the wave of adventure, snap oversteer, and revelling in it. The second, left-handed, part of the turn is slightly uphill, giving a favourable camber and Daniil’s got the Toro Rosso settled by the time he reaches that, leaning hard into its caress, almost visibly eating into the life of the right-rear tyre.

Felipe Massa is another wild one here, on one occasion taking just a little too much inside kerb. In an instant the Williams surrenders its hold on the road as the inner front lifts and the outer front is asked to contribute 100 per cent of the load. It instantly gives up. Massa gets out of the throttle and the FW36’s back end steps rudely out of line before the Brazilian gets straight back on it in a big blurry hurry, equilibrium restored.

Team-mate Valtteri Bottas looks far more controlled through there, leaning against a shallow understeer to maintain a lot of momentum, distracting the car from noticing how fast it’s going. Fernando Alonso bullies the Ferrari into the right-hander, not giving its understeer a chance to build into its comfort zone as he jabs at it like a boxer, taunting the car to give him what he needs, the turbo pop-off audible as he co-ordinates his right foot with busy hands.

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