Team-mates feeling the heat

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Why the Hungarian GP was a pivotal moment for the 2018 driver market

Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Räikkönen each took one for their teams in Budapest, though in slightly different circumstances. The bottleneck created by Sebastian Vettel’s race-leading but compromised Ferrari at the Hungaroring was imposing exceptional strains upon Ferrari and Mercedes, the sort of strains that can tear apart the fault line that always exist between a team’s interest and that of the driver. But the strain held in both cases.

All Räikkönen needed to do to win this race – to take it out of the hands of his team – would have been to stay out an extra lap after he’d been called in for his tyre change. As Vettel was struggling with a steering problem, and Kimi had plenty of life in his old tyres, the Finn would have overcut his way ahead. But Ferrari’s championship challenge is built around Vettel; Räikkönen knows he is there in support. He may not like it, and his pride may sometimes compel him to let the world know via his team radio how it is, but he understands that role.

If necessary, his races will – and have been – strategically compromised in order to maximise Vettel’s result. However, if he should be leading the race from pole and in a position to win it’s a slightly different matter, ie if he’s in a race-winning position on merit he won’t ordinarily be asked to surrender the win to Vettel. Which is why he’d been so disappointed – at the time furious – about Monaco. He’d led the race from pole and still Vettel had got the better strategy and won. But there was enough of a grey area about the better strategy that the team was later able to placate him.

At the Hungaroring he had the underlying pace to have taken pole – but blew it at the chicane on his final run. “I braked with my wheels on the outside kerb and the car got loose and that really threw away the pole. Disappointing. I felt I had it quite comfortably.” With that single, small error he’d lost the opportunity of winning this race. Pole position might have allowed him to have broken free of his support role for a day, permitted him to fight for the win on even terms. But he’d failed to achieve it and therefore the usual team rules applied – even if Vettel was compromised.

HAMILTON HUSTLES

Hamilton had also blown his chances in qualifying. The Merc was a tricky car around this track, edgy and oversteery into the quicker corners but understeering through the two long, slower final turns. There was no sweet spot in between – for reasons to do with the aerodynamic philosophy of the car and the pre-season banning of its hydraulic heave spring.

When the car is poorly balanced Hamilton tries – and sometimes succeeds – in hustling a lap time from it regardless. But with Bottas as his team-mate, a pattern has emerged: Valtteri is flawless in asking the maximum from the front end of the car but not a single kph more. He drives perfectly and precisely within the car’s limitations and that is usually enough to see him outqualify Hamilton when the car isn’t working well. See also Sochi and Monaco. Hamilton twice ran wide at the fast uphill Turn Four in qualifying, and had to abandon his first Q3 run because of it. With no time on the board, the seconds counting down and the car’s balance tricky, Hamilton was forced to be conservative through Turn Four on his final run. A place on the outside of row two (with Bottas on the inside) was the outcome.

The rules of engagement are different at Mercedes and his qualifying position simply disadvantaged Hamilton from the dirty side of the grid at the start – and that played out with Bottas running third, Hamilton fourth and the two Ferraris running away at the front, Vettel 10sec ahead of the Mercs after 10 laps.

But then Vettel’s steering problems worsened. Right from the start it had been offset to the left but it was becoming steadily more so. The team advised him to stay off the kerbs, which around this place costs a lot of lap time. He dropped his pace to about the same as the Mercs were doing – and a puzzled Räikkönen quickly arrived on his tail. What to do? “Why is Seb going so slow?” he asked. “Does he have a problem?”

Before the Mercs could get close enough to take advantage, Ferrari brought them in for their tyre stops, Vettel first. But such were Vettel’s problems that Räikkönen on his old-tyre in-lap was going faster than Vettel on his out-lap – and Räikkönen only just came out behind. He might have contested the place rather harder had it been another team’s car.

As the steering problem worsened, inevitably the Mercs closed up. With Ferrari apparently unwilling to allow Räikkönen to pass his struggling team-mate, surely as soon as the Mercs were within DRS range, the Ferraris would be easy meat? Räikkönen was back on the radio: “Does Seb have a problem? I’m stuck now and the Mercedes is catching. You are putting me under massive pressure for no reason.”

The implication was obvious: ‘Mercedes is going to win if you don’t let me pass Seb.’ That is indeed how it looked. But Ferrari held firm – and then things took a different turn. As Bottas and Hamilton caught the Ferrari train, Bottas could not get to within DRS range down the main straight. The problem was where the detection point was – between the slow Turns 14 and 15, where the Merc was struggling with understeer and the Ferrari, even with offset steering, was perfectly poised. So Bottas could barely get to within DRS range and on the few occasions he did manage to push up to less than 1sec at the detection point, it punished his front tyres even more, making him yet-slower through the final turn onto the pit straight as the Ferraris pulled away. So all the DRS was doing by the end of the straight was getting Bottas back to where he’d been beforehand.

Hamilton meanwhile was puzzled. Mercedes had lost its communications system to a cracked fibre optics cable and so there had been no discussion possible. Earlier, he’d have preferred to have stayed out when they called him in for his tyre stop but he had no way of communicating that. Had he done so, his tyres were still in good enough shape that he would probably have subsequently jumped ahead of both Bottas and the Ferraris, once Bottas was slowed to their pace. Instead, he now sat behind Bottas, but not so close that his tyres would slide, and all he knew was that the Ferraris were setting a very slow pace and Valtteri seemed to be no quicker than them. Finally the comms system came back up – and Hamilton was able to request of the team that they let him at the Ferraris, that they move Bottas aside for him. If he couldn’t pass them, he promised, he’d hand the place back. Just like Räikkönen, he was saying, ‘I’m your best bet for a victory here, not the other guy.’ With less to lose, Mercedes agreed to let him try. Bottas received the call and moved aside.

Hamilton let rip – more than 1sec faster than Valtteri had been circulating. Within three laps he was on Räikkönen’s tail. Then… nothing. Hamilton was up against the same barrier that Bottas had faced. The Merc was understeering in exactly the wrong place and the DRS pass that was otherwise the only feasible way to overtake around the closely spaced corners here was just not going to happen. As promised, Hamilton handed third place back – on the last corner of the race, with Max Verstappen’s fresher-tyred Red Bull closing them down.

KIMI’S CRUCIAL ERROR

Sighs of relief all round on the Ferrari pit wall. They’d held their resolve and been rescued by the specific handling traits of the two cars at the crucial corners. Not only did they win, but their title-chasing driver led a Scuderia 1-2. The two drivers attended the obligatory the FIA press conference and gave their accounts of the race there. But the Ferrari media blackout holds – and no team principal, strategist or technical staff said a word. It’s quite the most extraordinary scene to see a team celebrate a 1-2 and then have nothing to say publicly to anyone, other than a ‘statement’ on a website.

Räikkönen, having been obliged not to win when he could have done, pointed out that it was his error in qualifying that precluded anything else. “Obviously we know as team-mates what we have to do and I had a pretty good run into the first corner on the first lap but being team-mates… we can fight but we probably leave a bit more space and are not going to force the issue as maybe against somebody else. At the end it was obviously for a one-two and I can only look what I did yesterday and complain to myself that I didn’t have a very good chance to win the race. Seb qualified first and got away first and obviously the aim was to finish one-two, in whichever order.”

Hamilton accepted that the extra three points he handed Bottas might turn out to be crucial, but that was the deal. Again, he wouldn’t have been in such a position had he qualified better. He gave the place back with eyes open – knowing that if he’s going to win this title he has to do it without preferential treatment against a driver in the other team who is the nominated number one and has the full support of his compliant team-mate.

Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne watched the race with Piero Ferrari and the expectation was that the team would confirm an unchanged driver line-up for 2018. Kimi’s deal was announced on August 22.

WORD ON THE BEAT

Rumour and gossip from the F1 paddock

With MERCEDES forsaking the DTM for FORMULA E, where in 2019 it will be joined by WEC refugee PORSCHE, the car manufacturer exodus from major traditional championships seems well underway. Commenting on the Porsche announcement, FIA president JEAN TODT said: “Porsche is a brand with a fantastic history in motor sport and its intention to join the FIA Formula E Championship, alongside so many of the world’s biggest car manufacturers, is very positive. It’s clear that the hard work done to create a relevant laboratory for developing electric vehicle technologies has been successful, and I look forward to seeing Formula E continue to be a place of great sporting competition as well as innovation. I’m very happy that Porsche is coming to Formula E, but I regret its decision to leave the World Endurance Championship.”

It begs the question of whether F1 should be more accommodating to the manufacturers as it seeks to finalise what the POST-2020 ENGINE FORMULA will be. The provisional plan is for a version of the current hybrid turbo V6, minus ers-H, possibly with twin turbos – a consensus reached by the current F1 engine manufacturers with FOM. Red Bull’s CHRISTIAN HORNER spoke out: “F1 is at a crossroads with the exodus of manufacturers to Formula E and I think the fans want to see loud V10 or even V12 engines in F1, but I think the chances of that happening are probably remote.”

The recruitment of FRÉDÉRIC VASSEUR as SAUBER TEAM PRINCIPAL(replacing Monisha Kaltenborn) co-incided with the annulment of the agreement previously reached with HONDA to provide engines from next year. Shortly afterwards, it was announced that the team would run 2018-spec engines from FERRARI (which currently supplies 2016-spec motors). Ferrari president SERGIO MARCHIONNE welcomed the partnership, saying that it could see Sauber being developed “to be more of a Ferrari B team”. This has obvious implications upon driver choice – with Ferrari eager to find F1 seats for junior drivers ANTONIO GIOVINAZZI and CHARLES LECLERC. Although MARCUS ERICSSON is expected to retain his place, given his links with the team’s owners, it would seem to leave no space for Ericsson’s current team-mate, the Mercedes-backed PASCAL WEHRLEIN. Asked what Wehrlein might be doing in 2018, Mercedes’ Toto Wolff replied: “There are many pieces still to be played out on the chess board.”

In the wake of the cancelled SAUBER-HONDA partnership, discussions took place between the RED BULL group and HONDA about providing the TORO ROSSO team with engines in 2018. That could have freed RENAULT SPORT to supply an extra team with power units, with McLAREN pushing to be head of that queue as it continued to try to find an alternative to its current Honda deal, but talks eventually stalled. At the time of writing, McLaren appeared set to to remain with Honda next season.

The go-ahead has been given for the COCKPIT HALO to be compulsory in F1 for 2018. Driver reaction has been mixed, fan reaction less so. The concept was originally devised and developed by Mercedes in 2015 but once it was in existence, the feeling is that the FIA’s hand has been forced in adopting it for reasons of potential litigation in the event of a future injury or death that could have been prevented by the halo. Although the FIA says it is open to the idea of a future cockpit canopy, the criteria by which the halo has been assessed – specifically extraction and extrication – seems to make this impossible.

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