Grand Prix notebook: Britain

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Mark Hughes

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Great Britain
Rd 9: Silverstone, July 5 2015

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W06 1hr 31min 27.729sec
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes W06 1hr 31min 38.685sec
3. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari SF15-T 1hr 31min 53.172sec

Fastest lap: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W06 1min 37.093sec
Race distance: 52 laps, 190.749 miles
Pole position: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W06 1min 32.248sec

Malaysia and the mirage of Ferrari’s challenge to Mercedes seemed a long time ago as everyone arrived at Silverstone. Back in March, the SF15-T was powered by an engine at least as potent as Merc’s and had good enough aero efficiency to make up down the straights most of what it lost to the Mercedes W06 in the high-speed aero sections. And on that equatorial Kuala Lumpur day it used its tyres gently enough to be able to make one fewer stop than the Merc.

It’s not been like that since the fuel-flow technical directive was issued in Spain. Denied a clever interpretation, Ferrari has been pegged back. Even its combustion upgrade in Canada failed to get the motor back to where it had been pre-Spain – relative to Mercedes, at least. But at Silverstone, despite a significant aero update, it wasn’t even the second-fastest car, leapfrogged as it was by Williams and even threatened by Red Bull. As team boss Maurizio Arrivabene summarised: “Our downforce cost us too much speed on the straights,” a very different performance pattern to that seen early in the year.

The Mercedes advantage was always going to be evident here and it played out that way – but with a twist to enliven the race: Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas snaked their fast-starting Mercedes-powered Williamses past the Silver Arrows off the grid, setting Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg a tough challenge, lending the event some tension. A smattering of rain at two-thirds distance brought with it some jeopardy too – and gifted Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel the opportunity to steal the final podium place as Hamilton-Rosberg recorded another Merc 1-2. This overturned Williams having beaten a faster Ferrari in the previous two races, but it was damage limitation. The trend for Ferrari was worrying, though Arrivabene played it down afterwards: “We are going to have tracks in our favour and other tracks where we are struggling.”

Confirmation of that struggle first came in qualifying, where the red cars of Kimi Räikkönen and Vettel were relegated to the third row, behind an all-Mercedes front row and two Williams FW37s. Räikkönen’s deficit to Hamilton’s pole was 1.13sec, Ferrari’s biggest since Melbourne. It was blustery, with a traditional Silverstone cross-wind into Copse, and the Ferrari seemed more affected by this than most. “These kind of conditions and this kind of circuit layout are not good for us,” said Räikkönen, who arrived here with rumours buzzing about his future. Ferrari has an option on his 2016 services but had yet to exercise it; Bottas, Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hülkenberg were all being touted as possible replacements. So it was a timely moment to outqualify Vettel on merit for the first time, not that he saw it that way: “I don’t care if he’s in front of me when we’re in these positions, fifth and sixth. It makes a difference if we’re P1 and P2. Maybe people look differently, but it’s just a number.”

Vettel was running with a little more downforce than Räikkönen, helping him into and through the tight twists of ‘The Loop’ preceding Wellington Straight, the sort of slow, acrobatic turns where Seb habitually excels over Kimi. But through the fast sweeps of Copse and Maggotts-Becketts, the Finn was able to maintain comparable momentum despite the lower downforce – and then get the benefit of better straight-line speeds. As they exited Chapel onto Hangar Straight on their best laps they were each doing 158mph, but by the time they buzzed through the speed trap just before backing off for Stowe, Räikkönen was at 201mph, Vettel 198. But giving perspective to these numbers, Hamilton was exiting Chapel at 160mph and going through the trap at 203. Through the high-speed aero demands of sector two – from Brooklands to the Chapel exit – the Merc was more than half a second faster than the Ferrari, with the Williams halfway between. The Ferrari can no longer claw back on the straights what it loses in the high-speed bends, unlike the pattern of the season’s early races.

Since then, a lot of downforce had been added. A massive upgrade from Spain onwards and further significant changes here – a new front wing, better directing the air vortices to spin advantageously ahead of the sidepods, a new floor, detail changes to the diffuser and refashioned rear brake ducts. But could it be that the updates were planned around more horsepower than they actually have at the moment? The point at which the lap time benefits of extra downforce get overtaken by the concomitant extra drag moves up and down with the engine’s power. Essentially, the Ferrari appeared not to be able to carry the drag its downforce was producing at Silverstone.

As the Mercs got trapped in the first stint, so the Ferraris were trapped in a group behind the quick-starting new Force India VJM08 of Hülkenberg. Räikkönen ran directly behind Hulk, Vettel a couple of places back from there. Even with the benefit of DRS, neither had the end-of-straight speed to deal with the Force India. Ferrari switched to a two-stop, rather than the standard one, in order to break the stalemate. These early stops got them ahead of Hülkenberg after the latter stopped. Meantime Hamilton had undercut his way past both Williams drivers to lead the race, courtesy of an out-lap 1.3sec faster than anything they drivers could muster. Rosberg, however, was still stuck behind them, with a switch to a Ferrari-like two-stop planned to get him ahead.

As it turned out, the rain ensured everyone had to two-stop. It arrived on lap 35 of 52 – but awkwardly at first, only at selected parts of the track, meaning intermediates couldn’t be considered as they’d have burned out on the dry sections. This is where Vettel’s race began to come alive. That extra downforce kept temperature in his tyres better and his amazing reflexes through the wet sections of Luffield and Woodcote allowed him to close on Räikkönen and slice his way past.

Rosberg’s race lit up similarly to Vettel’s at this point and for much the same reasons of tyre temperature. Hamilton had used up much more of his rubber, while Rosberg had been contained to the speed of Bottas. With more rubber, the German was able to maintain tyre temperature after going through the wet sections in a way that was impossible for Hamilton. Once the rain had begun, Rosberg made short work of the Williams pair – and closed on Hamilton by two seconds per lap. Still the rain refused to fall over the full circuit, delaying the tyre stops – and Hamilton was faced with the prospect of losing this race. Had he stayed out one more lap, he’d have been devoured by Rosberg. The situation forced him to make a decision – and at the end of lap 43 he headed pitwards. Magically, just as his intermediates were fitted, the heavens opened. He’d now won the race, barring mishaps.

Vettel made the same call about 20sec later, the Williams pair having missed the chance. It allowed him to give Ferrari a result it didn’t really merit on the day. Was it just a circuit-specific blip? Or a more worrying slip from the sort of form that gave Vettel his early-season victory? “Here, I think Williams was just a bit too quick for us,” Seb said.

As for Räikkönen, the rain’s timing could hardly have been worse – maybe even in career terms. Having led Vettel all weekend, it ruined his race. First, Vettel’s higher downforce came into its own. Second, it led Kimi to gamble on an early switch to inters. Had the full rain arrived just as he pulled in – the slice of luck Hamilton later had – he could conceivably have won the race. As it was, the dry track sections quickly reduced his inters to gripless, cold slicks, so he had to stop again when the heavier rain finally came. Like Ferrari, he could stand at the halfway point of the season wondering where it might all be heading.

Trackside view
Village, Silverstone

Just a bit of sunshine and Silverstone is in its full garden party splendour. The Village people – i e the spectators in the stand outside Village turn, the slow right-hander into the tight loop – whoop and cheer as Lewis Hamilton the showman exits the pitlane for his weekend track debut, giving a wave of acknowledgement before getting on with the programme.

Felipe Nasr’s Sauber is struggling with this turn, the aero forces haemorrhaging off as the speed comes down under braking. After turn-in he’s having to wait, wait, wait, speed decreasing in order to make that apex, the turn just not joined up like it is with, say, the Ferrari, which is its usual fluid self. Felipe pushes on, getting more adventurous with the braking each lap – until the Sauber cries enough, snaps wildly out of line and goes sliding to a halt at 90-degrees to the direction of travel.

Over at the faster expanses of Becketts/Chapel, fifth gear into sixth, it’s the two Toro Rosso guys who are providing the thrills, getting very familiar with the zone beyond the grip limits – but in quite different ways. Carlos Sainz has an understeer balance and, as he stubbornly refuses to surrender, it pulls him out to a part of the exit kerbing that makes it very awkward for him to get across to the right-hand side of the track for the left of Chapel – where again he gets pulled out wide as a result.

By contrast Max Verstappen releases some steering after initial turn-in to the first curve, at the place where Sainz’s understeer begins – instead letting the car breathe for a moment and then putting a bigger, later turn-in on it, triggering a high-speed oversteer that he catches – twice – as the car gets on that exit kerb.

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