Grand Prix notebook

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Great Britain & Germany

Rd 8 Silverstone, July 6 2014

1 Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes W05 – 2hr 26min 52.094sec
2 Valtteri Bottas – Williams FW36 – 2hr 27min 22.229sec
3 Daniel Ricciardo – Red Bull RB10 – 2hr 27min 38.589sec

Fastest lap: Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes W05 – 1min 37.176sec
Race distance: 52 laps, 190.262 miles
Pole position: Nico Rosberg – Mercedes W05 – 1min 35.766sec

Rd 9 Hockenheim, July 20 2014

1 Nico Rosberg – Mercedes W05 – 1hr 27min 54.976sec
2 Valtteri Bottas – Williams FW36 – 1hr 34min 03.703sec
3 Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes W05 – 1hr 34min 05.094sec

Fastest lap: Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes W05 – 1min 19.908sec
Race distance: 67 laps, 190.424 miles
Pole position: Nico Rosberg – Mercedes W05 – 1min 16.540sec

Great Britain

This event is historically so reliant upon the weather gods. It can be either glorious summer garden party in the English countryside or mud bath from hell – like Glastonbury with wheels (and lower volume). This year the gods played a teasing but ultimately canny game; it was largely warm and lovely, but what rain there was came at a perfect time to mix up the grid, creating an element of uncertainty. How that got to play out on race day was a heavy Kimi Räikkönen lap-one crash, which red-flagged the race for an hour, and then the opening salvos in what was shaping up to be a truly fascinating all-Mercedes contest. Ultimately we didn’t get to see the full Nico Rosberg vs Lewis Hamilton battle, as the probability waves finally caught up with the German to give him the mechanical retirement equivalent to Hamilton’s in the first race. With Rosberg’s broken gearbox taking him out of the reckoning, Hamilton was left to take the year’s most dominant victory yet – with a half-minute margin over the second-placed Williams-Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas, who in turn was comfortably clear of the Red Bull of perms-grinning and perma-competitive Daniel Ricciardo.

Williams and Ferrari probably thought they were being shrewd in Q1. But their strategy backfired: after waiting until the very last moment to make their final runs, to take advantage of a drying track, it rained again. Fernando Alonso, Räikkönen, Bottas and Felipe Massa were all stranded near the back of the grid.

The other big teams played it safe and so Q3 was all about the usual Hamilton vs Rosberg game, with Red Bull playing lead support given the absence of Williams, and McLaren being flattered with three/four normally faster cars sidelined among the also-rans. Hamilton looked to have the edge in pace on Rosberg and had set a faster time on their first Q3 runs. But that had been with heavy rain falling in the last sector. Everyone’s times through there were about 4sec down on those of their best in the dry. With the rain continuing to fall in the pitlane as the clock counted down, several were contemplating not even making second runs. This included Hamilton. It was his turn to have first call on the timing of the runs this weekend and he’d elected to go first. But if he didn’t really want to make a second run? Rosberg also felt it unlikely anyone was going to improve, but thought ‘what the hell, let’s give it a go’. So as his crew began removing the tyre blankets, Hamilton felt obliged to go out, too – and he left the garage first, the pair trailing at the back, marginal on whether they’d get over the line in time to begin their laps before the chequer fell.

“Tell Lewis to hurry up,” demanded Rosberg over the radio, anxious that Lewis might make it while he might not. Also – the rain had stopped in that final sector. It was all still to play for. There was potentially 4sec of lap time up for grabs. In the heat of the moment Rosberg – who crossed the line with less than a second to spare – grasped this, Hamilton did not. Lewis locked up into turn three, losing perhaps half a second. So he unnecessarily abandoned the lap – and allowed Rosberg through. The final sector was indeed 4sec faster than before and Nico took pole by the margin of 1.3sec over Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull. Having not completed a lap when the track was at its driest, Hamilton was back in sixth – and distraught. All he’d needed was to have finished his lap ahead of Rosberg. Ricciardo hadn’t even bothered doing a second run, so convinced was he the track was going to be slower – and so he was down in seventh. Jenson Button’s McLaren, Nico Hülkenberg’s Force India and Kevin Magnussen’s McLaren lay between the two Mercedes W05s on the grid.

The Mercs can run very slowly without risking engine overheating. So Nico and/or Lewis – whichever is on pole – tends to run very slow formation laps if there is a Renault-engined car on the front row. The concertina effect of this further down the grid is very stop/start, something Massa was discovering to his cost. Unable to complete his planned sequences of burn-outs, he was flustered as he sat on the grid with his tyres under-prepared and he transposed the normal movements on the paddles as the gantry lights went on. It was only as they went out that he discovered he was trying to start in second gear – and the field left him well behind. Within the space of three corners the Williams was mixing with the back of the pack. Which unfortunately left him unsighted as Räikkönen got into bother, having slid into the run-off area at Aintree before catching a deep rain gulley that pitched him hard into the Armco on the right, just by the bridge. Massa had to spin to avoid T-boning the Ferrari in the cockpit side. It was a beautiful minimising of a potentially lethal moment, but he caught Kimi’s car a glancing blow – enough to knock the Williams driveshaft hard into the gearbox, to terminal effect.

So with the red flags and lights showing, and Kimi in the medical centre with bruising to his legs and ankles, the cars lined up on the grid in race order: Rosberg, Button, Magnussen, Hamilton, Vettel etc. Vettel’s start had been terrible, not helped by Rosberg’s tactically slow pace. Seb had been instantly jumped by the McLarens and then lost out in a wheel-banging match with Hamilton through Village.

More than an hour later they restarted with a single lap behind the safety car before Rosberg again vaulted into an immediate lead from the McLarens. With Rosberg soon circulating in the 1min 38sec bracket, the McLarens with the very same engines were three seconds slower… Hamilton quickly dispatched Magnussen and Button to lie second, within 5sec of Rosberg and matching his times.

Also on the move: Bottas. The Williams was performing superbly, off the leash for the first time all weekend after various practice dramas. Its low drag and big power were allowing Bottas to pass with impunity. From ninth on the restart, he was flying past Magnussen around the outside of Stowe on the 13th lap, a move he repeated a couple of laps later on Button. There was nothing he could do about the Mercs, but he was unchallenged by anyone else until the end. He’d been able to do what Vettel’s Red Bull could not. Seb had spent the early laps being badly held up by the McLarens but was simply too slow at the end of the straights to do anything about it, even with DRS. So Red Bull had brought him in early, to undercut his way by. Which would have been fine except everyone began migrating from two to one-stop strategies because the tyres were holding up far better than anybody had expected – and now Vettel had pitted too early to be able to do the same.

Staying out a few laps longer than Vettel – but still pitting earlier than most – brought Ricciardo up to third. He was then switched to a one-stop, leaving him defending hard from Button on slow, heat-degraded tyres late in the race. It was a great performance from Jenson, fourth place flattering the McLaren almost as much as his qualifying position had. Against the backdrop of Ron Dennis having suggested he should be ‘trying harder’, it was a good riposte. He’d fended off Vettel, then done the same with Alonso for lap after lap, Fernando unable to find a way by.

Alonso then encountered Vettel as the latter was rejoining from his enforced second stop. This was the beginning of a wonderful scrap. They diced inches apart, on one occasion Vettel’s wheels almost kissing Alonso’s sidepod as they raced in top gear towards Copse. Alonso went around the Red Bull’s outside there, Vettel did the same to the Ferrari a few laps later. There was a real edge of animosity to this epic battle and they were each on the radio complaining of the conduct of the other. At one point Alonso was given a warning flag after getting all four wheels beyond the exit line at Copse, but at least there were no penalties as the FIA moves towards a more lenient approach on race day driving offences. After finally nailing the Ferrari into Copse, Vettel quickly pulled away, fifth place poor reward for a great day’s work, sixth even less so for the fantastically tenacious Alonso.

That was the dice of the race. We were denied what potentially might have been a rival one for the lead by Rosberg’s gearbox failure on lap 29. The Mercs had just completed their first stops in what were planned as two-stop races and no one else was even within sight. Rosberg continued with the option tyre, Hamilton was switched to the supposedly slower prime. But perhaps in the heat of the day it wasn’t slower, for Lewis quickly began to carve big chunks out of Rosberg’s lead. Partly, though, this was down to Rosberg’s developing transmission problem.

As Nico’s car finally jammed itself in fifth gear, Hamilton was by in a flash, Rosberg pulling off a few corners later.

The crowd roared its approval and did so again as he took the second home GP victory of his career. The championship pendulum had just swing back in Hamilton’s favour.

Germany

The scorching weather continued into the German weekend, but Hamilton’s luck initially did not, failure of his front-right Brembo brake disc pitching the Mercedes hard into the Sachskurve barriers during qualifying. With Hamilton sidelined, it left the way clear for Rosberg to take his fifth pole of the season. Hamilton’s gearbox had been damaged in the accident, entailing a five-place penalty and 20th on the grid. A precautionary change of discs to the Carbone Industrie type was made. Rosberg, who’d been using Carbone fronts and Brembo rears in qualifying, had the latter changed for Carbones for the race. Rival teams felt that this should have entailed a pitlane start.

The layout of Hockenheim favoured the Mercedes power unit and the low drag of the Williams FW36, which qualified second and third in the hands of Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa. Even Kevin Magnussen’s Mercedes-powered McLaren squeaked ahead of the Red Bulls, with Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari just behind them. All cars were running without the FRICS suspension systems developed over the previous six years after the FIA’s Charlie Whiting had sent a letter out to the teams in the previous week. The cars appeared a little more skittish in the braking areas and tended to have a more understeery balance, but lap time loss was reckoned to be measurable in tenths rather than seconds.

With Hamilton out of his hair, Rosberg was utterly imperious and led from start to finish, beating Bottas by more than 20sec. Overcast conditions made race day around 20 degrees C cooler than Friday or Saturday and this changed the tyre pattern considerably. It went from being a rear- to a front-limited race and the possibility of two-stopping – rather than three – came onto the radar. Rosberg and Bottas each managed to two-stop, running as they were in undisturbed air for most of the race. The more frantic nature of others’ races meant three stops for most, though. This included Hamilton who, after damaging his wing in a misunderstanding with Jenson Button, came through from his 10th row start to be pushing Bottas hard for the last five laps. But he’d arrived on the Williams’ tail perhaps a lap too late, after his option tyres had already given their best – and Bottas was perfect in his defence. The sister car of Massa rolled at the first corner after clashing with Magnussen, this also delaying Ricciardo who in taking evasive action ended up having to work his way up from 15th.

Alonso finished fifth, the Ferrari meat in a Red Bull sandwich – and he’d battled hard with both. Vettel took fourth, having taken up where he’d left off at Silverstone in his fight with Alonso. Ricciardo recovered brilliantly to engage Alonso in a terrific dice. For a race where one guy had led from beginning to end, it had still somehow been a thriller.

Close to the edge
Mobil 1 Kurve, Hockenheim

So this Friday is one of those scorching south German summer days that Hockenheim has conjured so often in the past, the rays radiating off the concrete stadium with the weather-bleached seats, the smell of barbecue in the air. “These cars,” says a veteran marshal at the entry to the stadium section, “they are capturing everything for themselves – for their turbos and stuff so there is nothing left over for the noise. But I like how they look. Very much.”

How they are looking through Mobil 1, the quick right-hander there, is a fast handful. Drivers are trying to lean on an understeer balance, hoping that the slide remains stable through the crucial phase of the turn up to the apex.

They’re understeering because they’re set up that way. With a track temperature already in the high 40s and Saturday expected to be even hotter, the concern of everyone is keeping the rears alive, with so many traction-limited corner exits around the lap. That is making them difficult through the faster stuff.

Sebastian Vettel is regularly the most spectacular and on one of his early laps, that understeer balance bursts – gives him full-on slide-wide surrender and he has to get out of the gas, transfer the weight to the front and then rescue a resultant wiggle of a tail slide, and this little adventure takes him out all the way beyond the exit kerb onto the newly laid Astroturf.

Next lap through he’s still attacking; this time the front sticks and he’s way out wide on the kerb – but only because of the sheer speed of the car. He leaves the fake grass untouched and accelerates towards Sachskurve. A brief wisp of tyre smoke from the inside left tells you he’s left nothing on the table there and that this is looking much more like the Vettel we used to see before this year.

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