The Scuderia proved it can blitz the timesheets in Germany and Hungary, but key mistakes meant that Mercedes ended both weekends on top
GERMAN & HUNGARIAN GRANDS PRIX
The word started filtering through on Saturday morning in Hockenheim: emergency board meetings at Fiat-Chrysler and Ferrari as it became apparent that Sergio Marchionne was in a coma from which he was not going to emerge. This came in the midst of the Scuderia’s second consecutive title campaign, a situation that could not reasonably have been envisaged from just a couple of years earlier, when the team appeared to be in a state of imminent competitive collapse against the ongoing Mercedes onslaught on F1’s hybrid era.
It was largely Marchionne’s velvet revolution in 2016 that had led to the creative outburst that gave F1 some worthwhile competition. Here we were mid-season, 2018, and Ferrari appeared to have Mercedes on the run: more downforce, more power and Sebastian Vettel had recaptured the points lead with a controlled victory at Silverstone, a circuit that had been expected to play to the Merc’s primary strength of aerodynamic efficiency.
So emotions were doubtless intense behind a stoic facade in Germany, as the Scuderia tried to get on with the business of winning a race around a track that seemed well-suited to the SF71H’s strengths. Qualifying revealed the Ferrari to be gaining 0.5sec down the straights, with the Mercedes clawing back just 0.2sec of that through the corners. GPS analysis suggested the Ferrari’s biggest power advantage was seen early in the lap and it decreased progressively down to near-parity by the end. This had rival boffins scratching their heads, but it helped put Vettel on a comfortable pole – which he’d almost certainly have clinched even if Lewis Hamilton’s Merc hadn’t suffered a hydraulic leak in Q1, stranding him out on track and condemning him to 14th on the grid.
But heatwave Europe was threatening to break into thunderstorms – and this would be Hamilton’s salvation. As the Vettel-led field circulated relatively slowly, trying to extend the life of the ultra-soft slicks so as to maximise the chances of dovetailing their stops with the arrival of the rain (and thereby potentially saving an extra stop), the front of the field wasn’t getting too far away from Hamilton as he made his way through the midfield. Furthermore, because he’d qualified outside the top 10, Hamilton had free choice of tyre compound, enabling him to be on a longer first stint than any of those up front. By fluke, his mechanical problem in qualifying had put him onto the perfect strategy for the circumstances of the day.
When the rain finally arrived, it initially did so only on part of the track – and it never did get wet enough for intermediates (although a few tried, but immediately pitted again). So into the second stage of the race, on a merely damp track, with everyone having made their stops, all the frontrunners apart from Hamilton were obliged to be on the harder compound tyres, whereas what was needed were grippy ultra softs like those Hamilton was now on. That qualifying mishap was the gift that just kept giving. But he was making brilliant use of it, lapping an average of 1.7sec faster than leader Vettel, cutting a 23sec deficit down to less than 10sec in a short space of time. In between them were Räikkönen’s Ferrari and Bottas’s Mercedes. If he could pass them, Hamilton was on course to be right with Vettel well before the end – and on a track where overtaking is relatively easy.
As it turned out, he didn’t need to pass anyone. Vettel crashed out, locking up on the greasy surface into the Sachskurve before ploughing through the gravel trap and into the barriers. Bottas and Räikkönen both pitted during the ensuing safety car period to be rid of their worn, hard, tyres – and Hamilton just avoided pitting after a radio communications mix-up, clattering over the grass between pit entry lane and track, a move than won him the race. On a Ferrari track.
For such a sporting disaster to have unfolded for the Scuderia on this, of all weekends, was surely gut-wrenchingly tough. But the team could take heart that it at least had the fastest car – and that the opportunity to make amends was the very next weekend, in Hungary. Marchionne’s death was confirmed on the Tuesday between the two races. A victory at Budapest would surely be the best possible tribute to the man who rejuvenated the Ferrari challenge.
In conditions even hotter than at Hockenheim, the Mercs were having difficulty keeping their rear tyres alive around this sinuous track where the car seems forever in a corner, with little respite – and the Ferraris appeared to have an advantage of about 0.3sec per lap. Then, for the second time in six days, the heavens opened to rescue Hamilton’s weekend. The thunderstorm began on the eve of qualifying and stopped shortly afterwards. It allowed Hamilton to work his magic, though he may have been beaten to pole by Kimi Räikkönen had Ferrari not sent the Finn out into the spray of traffic when on his fresh wets at the end of Q3. He’d been significantly faster than the Mercs in the wet running just before that and, had he made the same improvement as everyone else between his worn and new wets, he’d have comfortably shaded Hamilton’s time. Vettel could just get no feeling for the car on wets and lined up on row two behind Räikkönen, with Bottas on the front row alongside Hamilton. Yet again, Ferrari had been foiled by the weather.
Mercedes used Bottas as wingman, holding off the Ferraris as Hamilton escaped, pitting early in response to Räikkönen doing the same, then keeping Vettel behind him until he had no rubber left on his tyres. By which time Hamilton’s victory was secure.
It was just one more swing against the competitive pattern in a season that’s been full of them. Mercedes technical director James Allison summarised it: “These are all small, small margins, which is why this championship has yo-yoed one way and the other. It’s quite interesting to note that in the 12 races we’ve had so far, only five have been won by the car that most people would agree was quickest on that weekend. Seven have been won ‘against the head’, three of them we’ve stolen, two of them Ferrari have stolen and two Red Bull have had. It’s been a very, very intriguing year where these very small differences – maybe an error, maybe a moment of particular genius, or just sheer good fortune or ill fortune – is what is determining who’s coming home smiling at the end of the race. None of it is set in stone.”
That was Ferrari’s one consolation as Vettel headed into the summer break 24 points behind Hamilton.