Grand Prix notebook: Azerbaijan, Austria and Britain

Taking us to the halfway point of the championship, this three-race sequence had an interesting underlying dynamic, one that might yet prove to be the crucial shift that decided its outcome. The most significant events were two off-track rulings behind the scenes, both directed at Ferrari, that in combination with Mercedes getting a better understanding of its complex but fast ‘diva’ W08, seemed to swing the competitive balance away from red and towards silver.

Within that context, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel’s ‘road rage’ incident behind the safety car in Baku – when he deliberately threw his car at Lewis Hamilton’s after he (incorrectly) perceived he’d been brake-tested – was an expensive loss of emotional control. With Hamilton later forced to pit to attend to a loose headrest, the subsequent stop/go penalty for Vettel lost the German what would have been a valuable victory against the general competitive run of play.

FIA Technical Directive TD22 was issued to the teams on the Tuesday preceding the Azerbaijan race. This came after post-race checks in Canada suggested that four cars (all with the same engine) showed traces of oil having been used in the combustion process (significant oil residue in the exhausts), something that was specifically declared pre-season as not permitted. TD 22 stated:

“We wish to remind you that, as previously stated in various meetings and re-emphasised in TD/004-17, we consider the use of oil as fuel to be prohibited by the Technical Regulations. For the avoidance of doubt, the only fuel that may be used for combustion is petrol, and the only permitted characteristics of that petrol are clearly set out in Article 19 of the
Technical Regulations. Even though the Technical Regulations do not directly specify the permitted characteristics of engine oil used in F1, we would consider any attempt to use additional components or substances in oil for the purpose of enhancing combustion as a breach of the Technical Regulations.”

Burning oil in the combustion chamber when off-throttle could in theory allow the engine to be run leaner (and therefore more powerfully) on-throttle without the attendant risk of detonation. The principle is that the oil is sucked past the piston rings through the vacuum in the combustion chamber when off-throttle, cooling the valves and piston crown (which otherwise heat up dramatically if the mixture is run in full-power lean mode). Oil burning could, therefore, give a powerful advantage, especially for short bursts in qualifying.  

When Mercedes then proceeded to qualify a full second faster than Ferrari in Baku, it raised knowing eyebrows. But Baku’s 1.4km ‘straight’ also plays to the Merc’s more efficient harvesting/deployment, meaning it was de-rating (running out of electrical boost) later on that straight than the Ferrari. It might
not have been the (lack of) oil burning, in other words, that led to Ferrari qualifying less competitively than at any other race this year. Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo won the crazy, three-safety-car race and Mercedes’ delayed Valtteri Bottas slipstreamed past Williams rookie Lance Stroll on the line to deprive him of second. They all benefited from Hamilton’s enforced stop for the headrest and Vettel’s stop/go for the road rage.

Between the Azerbaijan and Austrian races Vettel was summoned by the FIA, as the governing body considered whether further penalties should be applied for his conduct behind the safety car. He was given a reprimand and issued a statement of apology.

Around the truncated Österreichring – a very power-sensitive circuit – there seemed little wrong with the Ferrari’s engine as Vettel pushed Bottas very hard for pole position (Hamilton struggling and in addition taking a five-place grid penalty for a new gearbox). There also seemed to be very little wrong with the Ferrari’s behaviour through the high- speed turns, where Vettel’s progress was truly spectacular. He described the SF70-H as ‘phenomenal’ through there. All of which was doubly interesting because Ferrari had been hit with another clarification. It had been asked to stiffen a slot adjacent to the front of its floor, as it was suspected its fluttering was conferring an aerodynamic advantage. Ferrari was quick regardless of these clarifications – around the Austrian track, at least. 

The Austrian race was decided in the opening two-tenths of a second – which is how long the FIA maintain it took Bottas to react to the lights going off – as Vettel insisted the pole-sitter had jumped the start. Bottas won, with Vettel coming back at him hard in the closing stages, the Ferrari much faster than the Merc on the harder tyre in the race’s second stint, but Bottas soaking up the pressure.

At Silverstone, Bottas would be hit by the same gearbox penalty Hamilton had suffered in Austria. Ferrari arrived with a modified engine that clawed back some of what had been lost with TD22. But maybe not enough, Vettel reckoning he was losing 0.6sec per lap to Mercedes just on the straights. That was only slightly disingenuous, in that the straights also played to the greater aero efficiency of the Mercedes. In qualifying the Ferrari was actually faster than the Merc through Copse – a good measure of ultimate top-end downforce – but with many of the other former corners now effectively straights thanks to the massive downforce increases of the 2017 generation of cars, the Merc was going through them faster simply because it was arriving there faster courtesy of its lower drag. The Ferrari’s higher drag is partly a penalty of its shorter wheelbase, something that confers it an advantage at other places. That aero efficiency and a truly fantastic qualifying lap from Hamilton secured him pole, 0.6sec faster than the best Ferrari could manage.

He won the race almost unopposed, joining Jim Clark as a winner of four consecutive British GPs (and five in total). The Ferraris of Kimi Räikkönen (who’d run second to Hamilton from the start) and Vettel had their left-front tyres delaminate in the very closing stages. The reasons behind that are quite intriguing, and might lead one to reflect again on the various technical rulings of 2017.

The Ferrari was much harder on its front tyres at Silverstone than the Mercedes – and around the long-duration high-speed turns of this track that was a serious disadvantage. It meant the Ferrari drivers had to nurse the fronts if they were to stay on the one-stop strategy necessary to maintain track position over Max Verstappen’s Red Bull. Through the slower corners the Mercs would arrive, turn and go whereas the Ferraris would slide the fronts initially, then as they built up their cornering force the rear would rotate the car into balance – later into the corner than the Merc in a process that put more stress into the front tyres, which eventually blistered and wore out.  

It seems the Mercedes derives a lot of downforce from its intricate forward floor, giving it a very strong front end. As the speed through the corner reduces and the ride height increases (as inevitably happens as the aero loads decrease), the forward floor becomes less dominant – and the aero balance shifts towards the rear at the appropriate time. The Ferrari – which seems to have a particularly effective diffuser and strong rear-end aero grip at high speed – seems naturally to understeer initially then as the speed falls (increasing the ride height), the diffuser becomes less effective and the balance shifts to the front. The exact opposite of what was needed with the tyre situation as it was at Silverstone. With the more flexible front floor that was banned from Austria, Ferrari could probably have balanced the car better for Silverstone. That option was no longer there.

Because the Mercedes aero concept of the last few years has been based around very low rake (in contrast to Red Bull and, increasingly, Ferrari), the hydraulic heave spring system it used last year (and which was banned by the FIA late pre-season) kept the front floor low and aerodynamically powerful without needing rake. This allowed a more benign balance change as the ride height decreased. It has taken Mercedes this long to get that benign balance back without the trick hydraulic heave spring.

Hamilton’s victory – and Vettel’s seventh place after a penultimate-lap pit stop to replace the destroyed tyres – put him just one point behind Vettel in the championship fight. How the two teams responded to the various challenges posed by the FIA’s rulings might turn out to be the story of the 2017 season.

Word on the beat

Liberty Media’s Power Unit Working Group, tasked with what the F1 engine formula will be from 2021, met recently. As well as the current manufacturers, there were representatives from the VW Group, Aston Martin and Cosworth. Everything coming out of that meeting suggests some modified version of the current V6 hybrid, possibly with the deletion of the sound-absorbing ERS-h and some additional fuel flow to increase revs. “The main direction we don’t want to go is to deploy huge budgets again in inventing a new engine,” said Mercedes’ Toto Wolff. “Power to weight should stay the same.” Yusuke Hasegawa of Honda added: “The power unit should have a high level of technology, but at the same time it shouldn’t be at a high cost and too much complication should be removed.”

With the BRDC at Silverstone confirming it had exercised the post-2019 break clause in its contract to host the British Grand Prix, Liberty Media and the circuit are in discussion about the terms of a new contract. Liberty offered to run the race without fee (or ticket sales revenue) in exchange for being given the circuit for three weeks a year, but this was turned down. 

Ferrari parted company with its engine chief Lorenzo Sassi in the days between the Azerbaijan and Austrian Grands Prix, for reasons undisclosed.  

McLaren has successfully issued a bond to raise sufficient funds to pay Ron Dennis a reported £275 million for his shares in the company. The bond, which is effect debt, is worth a reported £525m. As well as paying off its former boss, the money will also be used to consolidate debt and invest in the team. However, that does not automatically mean it can now pay out its contract with Honda and buy Mercedes engines, as was originally planned. The Mercedes management has reportedly been convinced by Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda that supplying McLaren would not be in its best interests. After tentative enquiries to Ferrari (possibly with Alfa Romeo badging) and Renault about an alternative supply apparently failed to lead anywhere, a continuation of the Honda partnership now looks the most likely outcome. In which case, can Fernando Alonso be convinced to stay?

On July 19, the FIA’s strategy group met and announced that cockpit-protection halos will be mandatory in F1 from 2018.

Sebastian Vettel holds the key to the 2018 driver market. While it is believed he signed an option (on his side) last year to possibly join Mercedes from 2018, after his current Ferrari contract expires, he is currently still negotiating with the Scuderia. In the unlikely event he moves, Daniel Ricciardo or Max Verstappen are expected to be Ferrari’s targets, though Red Bull team principal Christian Horner insists, “They are not available for 2018 at any cost.” Romain Grosjean has been mentioned as a possible short-term Kimi Räikkönen replacement, with current F2 leader Charles Leclerc – who will drive the Ferrari in the Budapest test – available for Ferrari to plug into Haas as Grosjean’s replacement. Sergio Marchionne has confirmed Ferrari is not interested in re-hiring Fernando Alonso. He also termed Räikkönen a ‘laggard’ after the Austrian Grand Prix.

Red Bull extended its rolling contract with Carlos Sainz on the eve of the Austrian GP, apparently consigning him to a further season with junior team Toro Rosso. In response, Sainz expressed his disappointment that he would be held
within the group rather than being released. This didn’t go down well at Red Bull’s home race, with Helmut Marko, Christian Horner and STR boss Franz Tost all critical of their driver’s position.