Grand Prix notebook

Rd. 11 Hungaroring, July 27 2014

1 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull RB9 1hr 53min 05.058sec
2 Fernando Alonso Williams FW36 1hr 53min 10.283sec
3 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1hr 53min 10.915sec

Fastest lap: Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1min 25.724sec
Race distance: 70 laps, 190.531 miles
Pole position: Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1min 22.715sec

Pre-race rain and an accident: the two crucial, and linked, random factors that blew this race apart, turned it from what was going to be a start-to-finish routine victory for Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes into a thrilling four-car, multiple-strategy climactic battle. With 10 laps to go Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari was leading but being caught by Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes (which had started from the pitlane). And that, in turn, was being caught by Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull, all of them being reeled at a rapid rate – from a long way back – by Rosberg. They were on course to be together by the last couple of laps – and so it proved. Ricciardo emerged from the adrenaline of combat as a hugely popular victor, his second win in the past five races helping cement his new-found standing as an F1 ace.

This was a difficult race for the usually dominant Mercedes team. Quite aside from having to guide one of its cars through from the back, an awkwardly timed safety car triggered by Caterham driver Marcus Ericsson’s heavy accident brought the ideal strategies of Rosberg and Hamilton into conflict. Trying to react to rapidly changing events, while keeping an overview on the very different races of both its drivers, proved too much for the still-inexperienced senior management who allowed a radio call to be made to two-stopping Hamilton to move aside for three-stopping Rosberg. Hamilton – in the midst of his own fight for victory – refused to back off and both drivers were left feeling let down. Mercedes’ Niki Lauda later admitted the call had been made in panic and should not have been issued.

The W05 was still the fastest car, but by a reduced margin on account of the track’s constant twists and turns. This prevented Merc’s engines from stretching their legs and getting the full benefit of how much further down the straights they can be boosted by the ERS-K feeding energy externally to the crankshaft. The long-duration turns also rewarded Red Bull’s strengths and, to a lesser extent, those of Ferrari.

Hamilton failed to record a lap as a chafing fuel line within the vee of the engine caused a fire that left him with a burnt-out car, but Rosberg duly put his on pole by 0.486sec from Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull, Valtteri Bottas’ Williams-Mercedes, Ricciardo and the Ferrari of Alonso. Felipe Massa was a little adrift of his usual pace, in sixth, and only barely faster than Jenson Button’s McLaren. Massa’s Williams was fitted with an older-spec floor less aerodynamically effective than that on Bottas’ car. The only other new floor had been destroyed in the Brazilian’s first-corner accident at Hockenheim the week before. In the opening part of Q3 it was raining at Turn One and, with everyone pushing hard in case this turned out to be the driest the track was going to be, Kevin Magnussen locked up his McLaren under braking and hit the barriers hard, side-on. He was OK but the car wasn’t. The session was red-flagged and the rain had stopped as the remaining nine got going again. It was initially still damp at Turn One, everyone cautious through there – except Bottas, who was 1.2sec faster than anyone. Had it rained as everyone completed their first flying laps he’d have been on pole from Ricciardo and Rosberg, but instead the track dried and a more conventional picture emerged.

Hamilton’s car was rebuilt around the spare tub and Mercedes elected to start him from the pitlane, where he would have Magnussen in the repaired McLaren for company. A brief downpour had exhausted itself about half an hour before the start. The still-warm air dried the flat parts of the track very quickly, but in the dips of Turns Two-Four, where the standing water had been, it was still treacherous and everyone started on intermediates. Rosberg ran away and hid from everyone in this initial phase of the race, helped by Bottas having gone around the outside of Vettel through Turn One. The Williams, which is very sensitive to tyre pressures, was not working as well as in the scorching heat of Saturday but was still mighty quick on the straights and Vettel never looked like being able to pass it. Instead, Seb concentrated on saving fuel while keeping himself just out of reach of Alonso. Rosberg was 10.5sec clear of the Bottas/Vettel/Alonso group by lap eight and they in turn had pulled out a good gap over Button and Ricciardo, the latter frustrated by the McLaren’s combination of slowish pace but strong straight-line speed. Hamilton had progressed up to 14th but was already more than half a minute adrift of the lead.

That phase was rendered meaningless when Ericsson crashed. He was in fifth gear and tucked up tight behind Pastor Maldonado’s Lotus as he exited Turn Three. The inters were worn, the track was still greasy there and the back flicked out suddenly. He’d only just got the correction on when the rear suddenly gripped again, flicking him hard into tyre barriers that bounced the wreckage back to the edge of the track. It looked like a big impact and the driver was not initially moving in the cockpit. The safety and medical cars were sent out immediately. As it turned out, Marcus was unhurt. But because of the possible urgency, the usual safety car procedure – whereby drivers simply have to adhere to a safety car ‘delta time’, guided by a read-out on their dash and the safety car itself tries not to disadvantage anyone in when it actually comes out – did not apply.

Which meant it came out directly in front of Rosberg, who was just beginning his ninth lap, and too late also for Bottas, Vettel and Alonso to pit. Button and Ricciardo headed the rest of the field in being able to stop while the front four had to lap at the actual safety car speed (about 20sec slower than the delta time would have been). This totally altered the structure of the race, robbed Rosberg of his afternoon stroll, transposed the fortunes of the two Red Bull drivers – and brought Hamilton into the mix. Through canny strategy, brilliant driving and great tyre usage, Alonso managed to make himself a contender for the win despite having to do that slow safety car lap. Ricciardo could thank his lucky stars Button’s pace had held him back far enough not to have to follow the safety car. It all made for a fascinating kaleidoscope of strategies and drives that dazzled even the most jaded onlookers as the pieces fell into place in those hazy-mazy closing laps.

Misled by its radar system, McLaren took itself out of contention on this day of opportunity, when a less than fast car might have half a chance, by putting Button on inters at his stop and leaving Magnussen on his. The rest of the field switched to slicks – the correct choice, as it turned out. After their agonisingly slow in-laps, the four leaders emerged from their stops in a pack now being led by Ricciardo, Button and Massa. Rosberg emerged just behind Felipe, having been 23sec ahead of him before the safety car. Bottas suffered a slow stop and was delayed as another car left its pit just in front of him, so was way back in 11th – well behind Vettel/Alonso – and with no great pace to make a recovery thanks to inappropriate tyre pressures/temperatures.

Upon the restart Button used his inters to pass Ricciardo for a brief but doomed lead. Alonso was able to take advantage of Vettel being temporarily stuck in ‘harvest’ rather than ‘power’ mode to zip past him and Jean-Eric Vergne’s Toro Rosso for sixth – which became fourth as the McLarens made their corrective stops for slicks and rejoined at the back. Hamilton passed four cars on the first lap of the restart to place himself right behind Vettel. Rosberg was in trouble at this point, with overheating rear brakes (worrying echoes of Montréal for Mercedes). Alonso dispatched him too and was followed through by Vergne. This was to prove a decisive moment in Rosberg’s race. After nursing the brakes back to their correct temperature, he was unable to pierce Vergne’s defences for the next 16 laps, unable to use the Merc’s greater pace as the trio ahead of the Toro Rosso pulled away. This in turn allowed the following Vettel and Hamilton to stay with him. The Vergne pass and Rosberg’s inability to repass essentially prevented him from being able to win even despite the loss incurred at the first safety car.

A second safety car period came on lap 23 after Sergio Pérez, in eighth, got his Force India onto the still-damp artificial grass at the final turn, which spun him hard into the pitwall. This came shortly after team-mate Nico Hülkenberg had crashed out while trying to repass Pérez. The first two – Ricciardo and Massa – took the opportunity of stopping for fresh tyres, though this early in the race it effectively guaranteed they were three-stopping. Williams also brought Bottas in at this time. The rest stayed out. The second safety car essentially split the field into two- and three-stoppers – helping create the sensational final few laps through the jumbling of performance and track position.

Rosberg’s continually frustrated attempts at passing Vergne led to him having to straddle the ideal strategies. He made his second stop on lap 32 – late for a three-stop, way too early for a two – just to clear the Toro Rosso. He would three-stop, doing two short stints on the faster option tyre, putting him a distant fourth into the last few laps but going at a different rate to those ahead of him: Alonso (leading), Hamilton and Ricciardo. They’d each had very different paths to those positions.

Alonso: “We were thinking maybe we’d do a late third stop. That would have got us a safe fourth place and we need the points. But if we could stay out, lead and defend, even if we lost positions we still would only drop back to fourth.” He stayed out and did rather better than that, inheriting the lead when Ricciardo made for the pits at the second safety car and staying there until Fernando’s second and final stop 15 laps later. As Ricciardo made his third stop on lap 54 so Alonso was in the lead again, and this time hoping to hang on to it – but knowing it was going to get desperate, trying to get a set of options to do 32 laps. It almost worked. Second was close to a miracle result and probably only Alonso could have made those options last that long.

Hamilton: After Rosberg pitted before him, Lewis desperately needed to do what Nico had failed to do – overtake Vergne – if he was to be able to jump in front of him at his stop. He made the move on lap 34, right-rear kicking up the dust on the outside approach to the fast Turn Four and then driving clean around the outside of the Toro Rosso. It was breathtaking in its audacity – like Grosjean’s move there on Massa last year, but staying within the white lines. It ensured he was 3sec ahead of Rosberg as he rejoined, but on slower prime tyres that he planned to run to the end. Rosberg, on faster tyres, was soon upon him and expecting to be allowed through. That’s when the team’s radio call came.

Hamilton, just a few seconds down on Alonso and looking set to be fighting out the win with him and Ricciardo, refused to back off. “I was never going to lift off and lose ground to Fernando and Daniel just so [Nico] could have a good race.” Hamilton agreed he’d move aside if Rosberg got within DRS reach. But he never did.

“Why’s he not letting me past?” asked Rosberg. He lost between 9-10sec in the next 11 laps, but for some reason chose not to try to get into the DRS zone. After Rosberg made his final stop on lap 56 it was noticeable that Hamilton’s pace picked up…

He was attacking Alonso’s lead into the last few laps. But only for as long as it took for the three-stopping, option-tyred Ricciardo to arrive on his tail. Then he had to defend. But it was against an unstoppable force, the grippier Red Bull going around the Merc’s outside at Turn Two to force its way past down the inside of Three. After Ricciardo then passed Alonso for the lead, Hamilton had another bite at the Ferrari cherry – but only until Rosberg caught him. He had to be a little rude with his team-mate at Turn Two on the last lap, holding him out over the kerb to stay ahead for the final podium place. Not a bad result from the pitlane.

Ricciardo: The equally paced three-stop turned out to be the way to go. Ricciardo maximised the advantage of that and the timing of the safety cars to stunning effect. He conserved the fast-wearing options when he needed, let rip with the pace at the appropriate times – and maximised his late grip advantage to monster his opponents aside, going past Alonso for the lead into Turn One with two laps to go. Grand Prix victory number two.

“The first victory was special,” he said, “but it left me wanting more. I was just as hungry for this second one. It feels like I can enjoy it a bit more. When I crossed the line this time, everything felt a bit more real.”

Close to the edge
Turn 2, Hungaroring

Turn Two, a steeply downhill, long-duration understeer generator if ever there was one. Except it isn’t any longer. With the current generation of cars generally struggling for braking stability, for the first time in many years this is now an oversteer corner.

There are two approaches, depending upon exactly how unstable the car is under braking. Only the Mercedes and McLaren look comfortable here and their drivers are tucking in tight and early, minimising the distance covered. Everyone else – even the normally stable Red Bulls, which on this Friday morning are beset with locking fronts – is running out wider, making a greater ‘vee’, keeping more momentum going but covering a greater distance. As they make that vee they all, to a greater or lesser degree, slide out their tails. Jules Bianchi’s Marussia gets the ‘most sideways’ award from Romain Grosjean’s Lotus, two cars that have suffered poor braking stability all year.

Up at the fast sweeps that form Turns 10-11 the cars are much more impressive, drivers audibly revelling in the engines’ driveability as they accelerate out of Turn Nine, a corner that is now traction-limited but never was before. Lag-free, with electrical power filling any holes in the mechanical power delivery, cars allow drivers to get creative, using the throttle to manipulate the spinning wheels and also move weight around as required.

Nico Rosberg is early on the attack through 10, a fifth-gear right-hander that has the Mercedes snapping into oversteer. Lewis Hamilton looks less aggressive on the exit but carries even more momentum into 11. Daniel Ricciardo is carrying an outrageous entry speed into this corner, then controlling it with a beautiful, shallow oversteer; he’s fizzing with confidence. Kimi Räikkönen is manhandling the Ferrari out of 10; it looks dramatic but the inputs look slightly out of sync with what the car’s doing, as if it’s not giving him the messages he needs. A snapshot from a hot, dusty Friday in rural Budapest, 2014.