Grand Prix notebook – Austrian & British

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Recurring themes… In Austria Sebastian Vettel suffered a blown right-rear tyre when trying to run a long stint in his Ferrari – just like Spa last year. A little while later Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg clashed, just like Spa 2014, or Barcelona this year.

At Silverstone one week on Hamilton waltzed to victory, just as he had done there in the previous two years – and Ferrari was miles off the pace, as it invariably is around the track’s fast sweeps. 

It illustrated how even in the multi-analysed, vastly resourced world of F1, some problems remain intractable. Pirelli and the teams continue to squabble about the safe operating limits of the tyres, Ferrari continues to fall short aerodynamically – and that retains Mercedes the performance advantage over everyone else that ensures its two drivers are fighting each other for the world title. Which in turn draws them together like magnets. 

Vettel in Austria to the TV cameras: “I don’t know what happened. Your idea is as good as mine.” Clearly highly vexed after the tyre exploded with no warning as he raced down the main straight at 200mph in the lead, but only because he’d yet to make his stop, trying to run long in order to be on fresher tyres than the Mercs later on. “I didn’t feel anything,” he reported, “or rather, when I felt it, it was too late. It exploded out of the blue. There were no signs before that; everything was normal.” All normal, safe and secure in high-speed routine – then in a millisecond you’re in survival mode, trying to wrestle a 200mph car out of the wall as it spins wildly across the track. It was over in a flash but that flash lasts an awfully long time inside the car and can make a big impression on a driver’s psyche.

Sitting there in the wrecked car, broadside across the track, taking in the fact that it’s happened to him – again – it would be difficult not to take it personally. Afterwards he was keeping a lid on his anger – unlike at Spa last year when he lambasted the tyre company – but in a very tight-lipped way that told you it was beneath a very thin skin of diplomacy.

When a tyre explodes in such a way, throwing its internals far and wide – carcass material wrapped itself around the barge board of the closely-following Mercedes of Nico Rosberg – it’s almost impossible to assess afterwards the reason for failure. Pirelli suspected it might have been to do with the new kerbs, particularly those installed on the left-handed exit of what used to be called the Texaco chicane. New high-intensity 50mm-step kerbs behind the conventional 25mm ones were there in an attempt to keep drivers within track limits. Beyond the 50mm kerbs were concrete ‘baguettes’ that had already destroyed suspensions but which Vettel was adamant he’d been nowhere near. Either the kerbs, said Pirelli, or debris. A thin-tread high-mileage tyre (Vettel’s super-softs had done 29 laps when the explosion came) is more susceptible to debris punctures than a thick-tread low-mileage one. But also a tyre repeatedly in a nasty part of the frequency range – possibly caused by a combination of the high-step kerbs and the increased pressure limits imposed by Pirelli – might well suffer fatigue failure. If it did, it would likely fail around the shoulder. Which it did – as confirmed by slow-motion footage. 

Either way the failure would be linked to the mileage the tyre had completed, and Ferrari was attempting to run Vettel long on the first stint of a one-stop – and it was doing this because it couldn’t threaten Mercedes any way other than strategically. It certainly couldn’t do it on raw performance. 

The complication of Vettel’s tyre failure upon Mercedes was two-fold – and led to the later clash between its drivers. 1) It made the team nervous about Hamilton’s one-stop strategy. Was there a tyre risk? 2) The safety car period needed to clear the debris wiped the gap to Max Verstappen’s third place Red Bull, complicating the strategy call somewhat. 

Rosberg – because he’d started a penalised seventh as a result of a new gearbox being needed after kerb-induced suspension failure had put him into the wall in practice – was on a two-stop, as befitted his necessarily more aggressive early race laps. Therefore he’d made his first stop much earlier than Hamilton and therefore he’d undercut his way ahead of him and was now leading, with Hamilton right behind. 

So now Mercedes decided it should two-stop Hamilton too. But because that strategy change had disadvantaged him, they would bring him in first, which should have allowed him the opportunity to undercut his way back ahead of Rosberg. Except there was a delay at his pitstop with a rear wheel. Which was enough to allow Rosberg still to be in front after he was called in on the next lap and enjoyed a problem-free stop. All of which, quite understandably, conspired to alert Hamilton’s paranoia antenna. The situation was further complicated by the fact they were each on a different tyre compound now – Hamilton on the tougher soft tyre (meaning his out-lap was slow), Rosberg the more delicate super-soft. That came about because that’s what they had left from their allocation after the various practice dramas (rained-out Friday afternoon and later Rosberg’s accident).

So Hamilton caught Rosberg hand-over-fist in the late stages. On the penultimate lap Rosberg’s excessive brake wear caused the electronic braking to go into fail-safe mode, meaning the brake-by-wire was non-operative. This and his badly graining front tyres conspired to induce him into a pressure error at the first corner of the last lap, hitting the inside kerb too hard, losing him momentum up the following run to Turn Two, allowing Hamilton to grind himself ahead – but on the outside – as they reached that corner. Rosberg, ignoring the apex, as he was entitled to do, ran straight on until Hamilton was forced to either concede, drive off the circuit or risk turning in. He chose the latter and Rosberg chose not to avoid contact. “I didn’t have an accident,” emphasised Hamilton over the radio on his victory lap. Rosberg, his front wing folded beneath the car, hobbled around to fourth. 

Just four races after Barcelona, this was all too much for Toto Wolff. “Our drivers are among the two best in F1. We try to give the best possible car. We try to push the limits, it’s not always easy and we’ve had moments where the car has been letting us down. I don’t want to attribute any blame because every time you watch the video and you look at on-boards there is new information – you can’t clearly say who is more to blame than the other. I have my personal opinion and I’m not going to express it here, but it needs to be avoided. In Barcelona I was much more at ease with it because we’d had 30 races without any collision. It was clear that it was eventually going to happen. It wiped out both cars and from my naïve thinking I thought, ‘OK, that’s it, they’ve learned their lesson, they’ve seen the consequences, it’s not going to happen any more.’ But here we go – it happens again…”

Silverstone was therefore all abuzz with what the fall-out might be. Would team orders be imposed? No, they were still free to race. A final warning had been issued, some new more specific terms of engagement spelt out. Bland driver comments hide the depth of competitive intensity, but the chances of this happening again are surely not remote, regardless of ‘final warnings’. This is the world championship that’s up for grabs. “I didn’t think there was anything needed to be cleared up, anyway,” said Hamilton. “I’ll try not to be in that position again and I’m sure Nico will too. We race as we always do. We’re aware of what we’ve been told before this weekend. But that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to drive as hard as we can.”

“Yes, very clear,” agreed Rosberg. “It’s just a small modification to how we battle.”

At Silverstone any new agreement was not tested. A cloudburst pre-race meant a safety car start, but once it pulled in Hamilton drove off into the distance and Rosberg never got close, instead having his hands full fending off the impressive Verstappen. The Red Bull, running more downforce than the Mercedes, was quicker in the wet and Verstappen managed to get ahead. As it dried, the Merc was again comfortably quicker and Rosberg was able to reclaim his place, only to lose it again thanks to a penalty for a team radio transgression. 

Ferrari? Kimi Räikkönen qualified 1.6sec off pole and finished more than a minute behind the winner, in fifth. Vettel was always in traffic courtesy of his gearbox failure and attendant grid penalty. Slow and unreliable, Ferrari turned up at this most aerodynamically demanding of venues and was literally blown off the track. “We know where our weaknesses are,” said Maurizio Arrivabene afterwards. But it was a repeating phrase. He’d used it in Azerbaijan too. There he was asked to define them. “Aerodynamics,” he replied. It’s been this way for too long for a team so revered and well funded. Vettel’s anger in Austria may ostensibly have been directed at Pirelli. But might it not have been anger at finding himself placed in this situation – at having to go for a marginal strategy on tyres he doesn’t trust because the car is simply not fast enough? 

Actually, although Mercedes’ problems were taking all the headlines, Ferrari’s were far more serious. Mercedes was simply managing the route to its third consecutive championship, trying to minimise the headaches, bruised egos and shattered carbon fibre along the way. Ferrari was left pondering just how far it really is adrift of having such problems. 

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