'Wild scenes' in the F1 stewards' room: inside view from a penalty controversy
It could have been the corner that changed the course of the title race. The door closed on Lewis Hamilton, but he went on to win the grand prix after…
With Lewis Hamilton’s victory the Silverstone crowd got what it came – and expected – to see. Kimi Rӓikkӧnen’s first lap accident made them wait for an extra hour or so under a hot sun, but that just heightened the anticipation. While that crowd may have been convinced they were going to see their man win regardless of his qualifying faux pas the day before, it was difficult logically to see how that might transpire, what with his only rival starting from pole five places ahead of him and all.
But actually, most of those five places weren’t especially significant – given that the Mercedes W05 had a stunning pace advantage over everything else around Silverstone’s high speed sweeps and the DRS zones worked well enough to get you easily past slower cars. Lewis was up to second early-doors and only 5s behind Rosberg. Phase one of Hamilton’s assault on the race was complete. The crucial phase was set to come later as their differing strategies played out.
As it happened, Nico Rosberg finally suffered the mechanical retirement the waves of probability were always due to deliver and offset what they did to Hamilton in Melbourne. And that was how Hamilton actually won the British Grand Prix. But he might have been going to win it anyway. With Mercedes’ favoured offset tyre strategy, it was expected that into the second stint the hard-tyred Hamilton would have lost time to his medium-tyred team-mate and that it would all come down to the final stint in what was expected to be a standard two-stop race.
But actually, in the heat of the day, with a track temperature hovering around 40-deg C, the hard was working beautifully – particularly on a Mercedes with all that downforce. Hamilton was chasing Rosberg down at 1s per lap and it seemed inevitable he would catch – and probably pass him – in the middle stint. He’d presumably then have been left defending in the final stint when Rosberg finally got onto the hards. But that wasn’t what fate had in mind.
Tyre performance was only part of the reason the gap to Rosberg had been reducing so fast. He was suffering gearbox issues from as early as lap 20 on the downshift. A few laps later it was also hesitating on the upshifts and on lap 28 around the Village loop it didn’t change gear at all. In a flash of silver onto Wellington straight, the lead – and the momentum Rosberg’s been enjoying since Monaco – evaporated like a mirage. A few corners later, he was pulling off onto the Maggotts/Becketts grass. That crowd had been right all along, damn the logic.
Aside from the speed of the hards, the other tyre surprise was the durability of the options (medium). This allowed most of the field to switch from planned two-stop races to one-stop. The exceptions were Hamilton – just because he could, with a 41s advantage over Valtteri Bottas’ Williams – and Sebastian Vettel.
In Seb’s case it was because he’d made his first stop as early as lap 10, as Red Bull had tried to undercut him past a McLaren before the general possibility of one-stopping came onto everyone’s radar. It was this that made it one-stopping Ricciardo, and not Vettel, the Red Bull driver on the podium, desperately eking out his tyre life in keeping the newer-tyred McLaren of Jenson Button behind him.
“I felt like I’d let everyone down yesterday,” said Hamilton after his error in the final Q3 run that left him on the third row. With sector three having been wet in the previous Q3 runs, but the rest of the track dry, it was tricky slicks territory – and there was potentially up to 4s of lap time available in that final sector (from half-way down Hangar straight to the finish line) if it dried quickly. The rain had stopped, the wind was up and as the first few cars ran through, they found an enormous increase in grip. So in hindsight it didn’t really matter if you made a bit of a mess of turn three by locking a brake – as Lewis did, this triggering him into unnecessarily abandoning the lap and also springing Rosberg free from behind him to allow him to complete the pole lap. By a margin of 1.6s from Vettel.
“I was getting wheelspin in fifth gear in the early part of the lap,” said Button, who qualified the McLaren a superb third, “and I got on the radio and said we should probably abandon, but they said, ‘no, keep pushing there’s a lot of time on the table in sector three.’ So I pushed hard. It was an aggressive lap.”
Rosberg had figured this all out beforehand. “I knew I had lost four seconds [to a dry time] in that final sector on my previous run, so even if I was slow on the rest of the lap, I still had a chance of going a lot quicker in those last three corners even if it was only halfway dry – and that’s the way it turned out.”
In fact, he almost didn’t get across the line to begin the lap in time. There was a backstory to why – and it concerns the ongoing competitive psychology between the two Mercedes drivers. With the seconds ticking down before they needed to get out, the two Mercs were sitting side-by-side in the garage. It was Lewis’ choice this weekend of who went out first and he’d chosen himself. But he was making Rosberg sweat, leaving it as late as possible. Eventually Rosberg’s crew cracked, began taking the tyre blankets off – and at this moment Hamilton’s blankets were removed quicker and Lewis got out ahead.
At the very back of the queue it was marginal whether Rosberg was going to get across the line and he had to do so sitting right on Hamilton’s gearbox. It would have been easy enough for Lewis to have got himself ‘accidentally’ crossed up enough to get himself across the line but denying Nico – but he chose not to.
Hamilton then only needed to stay in front of Rosberg for the lap and Nico couldn’t have done a better one, given how close to Hamilton he’d had to cross the line. But instead Lewis locked up early in the lap – enough of a moment under normal circumstances to have ruined it, and so Lewis backed out of it, abandoned the lap and let Rosberg past to set pole, and for Vettel, Button, Nico Hülkenberg’s Force India and Kevin Magnussen’s McLaren all to slot themselves between the two Mercs.
Lewis was distraught. It was an incident that betrayed a certain lack of clarity of thought in the heat of the moment – but also a lack of guidance from his side of the garage. Saying to him, ‘if you abandon this lap, take care not to delay Nico,’ was introducing a concept that was inappropriate, in that abandoning was just about the only way to mess up.
Hamilton had been fastest throughout the weekend – all the way up to the very last lap of qualifying. It seemed a massive own goal. But not as big as that at Williams and Ferrari; all four of their cars failed to make it through Q1 after an attempt at getting the best of a drying track by going out late backfired on them when the rain hit, unspotted by their radars.
Had it not been for that, the race would probably not needed to have been red flagged on the first lap, for Kimi Rӓikkӧnen wouldn’t have been trying to fight his way past Caterhams onto the Wellington straight, wouldn’t have got onto the run-off there and wouldn’t have hit a big rain gulley as he rejoined, sending the Ferrari tank-slapping into the Armco just by the bridge.
It was a heavy impact, the car bouncing back onto the track, with Kamui Kobayashi’s Caterham and the Williams of Felipe Massa collecting it. Massa, unsighted, reacted wonderfully well to a potentially lethal situation, effectively spinning his car to avoid t-boning Rӓikkӧnen, the actual impact much less than it might have been. The race was red flagged.
Kimi was taken off to the medical centre with bangs and bruises to his legs and ankles after his 47g impact. Massa limped back but with fatal rear suspension damage to the Williams from his hit with the Ferrari. He’d only been so far back because the Williams had virtually stalled from its 15th place grid slot and got away a solid last.
The first race lasted only a few corners, but was crucially important in determining the shape of the Grand Prix. Rosberg had blasted away into an unchallenged lead, helped by fellow front-row starter Vettel bogging down on the second part of the clutch release. Button vaulted from his third place grid start to second, with Magnussen following him through past Vettel. Seb’s lost momentum out of Abbey on the way down to Farm had Hamilton swarming all over him and going around the outside into that corner, banging wheels as he did so. As they passed through there, so the grid order of the restart was determined.
It took an hour and five minutes to replace the damaged Armco and get the race underway again with a single lap behind the safety car. A few took the opportunity of changing tyres on the grid, including both Red Bulls, which were switched from the option to the prime tyre, as both had already lost places and standing start traction was no longer a factor. Alonso went in the other direction.
“When we were sitting on the grid for all that time we were discussing possible strategies,” he explained, “and we thought that because of going out early in qualifying we had lots of fresh tyres available and that this could make it possible to extend our stint lengths enough to maybe do a one-stop. We’d assess it as we went on.” Having started on the prime, by switching to the option he could be on the more durable tyre throughout, enhancing the one-stop feasibility.
Rosberg sprinted away from the McLarens as the safety car pulled off, with Hamilton, Vettel, Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat’s Toro Rosso following. Bottas in the Williams was immediately flying. The FW36 was nip and tuck with the Red Bull as the second-fastest car but the events thus far had disguised this. As well as good high speed balance, its combination of aero efficiency and the sheer relentless grunt of the Mercedes engine made it fantastically raceable; pretty fast onto the straights, comfortably fastest of all by the end of them.
1. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes 2h26m52.094s
2. Valtteri Bottas, Williams +30.135s
3. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull +46.495s
4. Jenson Button, McLaren +47.390s
5. Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull +53.864s
6. Fernando Alonso, Ferrari +59.946s
7. Kevin Magnussen, McLaren +1m02.563s
8. Nico Hülkenberg, Force India +1:28.692s
9. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso +1m29.340s
10. Jean-Éric Vergne, Toro Rosso +1 lap
11. Sergio Pérez, Force India +1 lap
12. Romain Grosjean, Lotus +1 lap
13. Adrian Sutil, Sauber +1 lap
14. Jules Bianchi, Marussia +1 lap
15. Kamui Kobayashi, Caterham +2 laps
16. Max Chilton, Marussia +2 laps
17. Pastor Maldonado, Lotus +3 laps
Nico Rosberg, Mercedes 28 laps
Marcus Ericsson, Caterham 11 laps
Esteban Gutiérrez, Sauber 9 laps
Felipe Massa, Williams 0 laps
Kimi Räikkönen, Ferrari 0 laps
The low drag of the car in combination with the efficiency of its power unit allows it to be the most economical in the field too, making possible a significant degree of under-fuelling and consequent weight advantage in the early laps. Bottas was passing cars like they weren’t even there, his favourite spot being into Stowe at the end of the circuit’s second DRS zone, the other being down the Wellington straight.
Hamilton quickly dispensed of the McLarens, taking Magnussen for third down the inside into Copse on the third lap, Button into Brooklands a lap later. Rosberg was still only 5s up the road; for Hamilton all was not lost. Also on this lap Bottas nailed the dicing Kvyat and Ricciardo (struggling in the early laps on his hard tyres) to vault up to seventh and a lap later was past Hülkenberg into Vale. Alonso was making similarly good progress a few places back, passed Kvyat out of Woodcote on the sixth lap and quickly closed on the Hülkenberg/Ricciardo dice.
The Force India was slow this weekend, Hulk aiming to one-stop and doing his best to eke out tyre life, but it was too quick down the straights for Ricciardo to do much about. Danny had an unsuccessful stab into Vale, this only tripping him up and allowing Alonso past the Red Bull. The Ferrari wasn’t so limited on straight-line speed and Fernando was able to DRS his way past Hülkenberg into Brooklands on the ninth lap. His moves were incisive and bold, the Ferrari working quite well, but he’d have to take a 5s penalty when he pitted for having overshot his grid slot.
The third and fourth place McLarens were lapping in the 1m 41s range as the Mercs were in the high 38s. For Vettel, soon tucked tight behind Magnussen but without the straight-line speed to be able to pass, this was a familiar conundrum. Probably genuinely the next quickest car after the Mercs, he was losing big chunks of time at McLaren pace. “With a clear track at that stage, we think Seb could have been doing high 39s,” claimed Christian Horner afterwards.
So despite being on the hard tyre, Red Bull brought Vettel in as early as the 10th lap, an aggressive undercut attempt on the McLarens on what was assumed was going to be a two-stop race. Vettel, now on options, got underway but McLaren didn’t respond. The early stop meant Vettel was unable to follow the general migration to a one-stop strategy – not only keeping him behind the McLarens but also losing out to team-mate Ricciardo.
Ferrari’s one-stop choice for Alonso may have only been planned on the restart grid, but at Williams it had been the preferred option all along. Because Bottas was clearing the cars ahead of him so effectively, and taking relatively little from the tyres, it was shaping up into a very feasible strategy. On the 14th lap Bottas got a DRS run going on Magnussen but it looked as they arrived at Stowe that he hadn’t done quite enough to make it work. But he simply hung on around the outside with a substantial speed advantage and the car just took it, not even riding him wide onto the exit kerb as he claimed the place.
Next target: Button. He repeated the Magnussen move at Stowe three laps later to take third. The Mercs however were now half a minute up the road and lapping 1s faster. Their race day advantage around the Silverstone sweeps was perhaps greater than at anywhere else so far this year.
Magnussen next came under attack from Alonso. The Ferrari, whilst not quite as quick Bottas and Vettel, was more than a match for the McLarens. He was past Magnussen down the inside of Stowe on lap 15 and soon chasing hard after Button. This was the beginning of a long, hard dice, Alonso trying into Vale and into the DRS zones, Button always using his power advantage tactically to keep just out of reach.
Alonso never did succeed in finding a way by. On lap 20 coming through Becketts he’d been surprised at how the Ferrari had snapped into oversteer. It did it again the following lap – and the team was looking at the data and seeing a reduction in rear downforce. Turned out a stone had lodged in the slot gap of the rear wing – and it would remain there for the remainder of the race.
1. Nico Rosberg 165
2. Lewis Hamilton 161
3. Daniel Ricciardo 98
4. Fernando Alonso 87
5. Valtteri Bottas 73
6. Sebastian Vettel 70
7. Nico Hülkenberg 63
8. Jenson Button 55
9. Kevin Magnussen 35
10. Felipe Massa 30
11. Sergio Pérez 28
12. Kimi Räikkönen 19
13. Jean-Éric Vergne 9
14. Romain Grosjean 8
15. Daniil Kvyat 6
16. Jules Bianchi 2
Hamilton had whittled that initial 5s deficit down by a couple of seconds as their first stops approached and Rosberg was brought in at the end of lap 18. After being stationary for 2.7s he was underway on a fresh set of options. So far ahead of everyone else were the Mercs that he rejoined second. The plan was for Hamilton to do his middle stint on the primes (to allow him to be on the supposedly faster options vs Rosberg’s primes for the last stint).
So although Rosberg on his fresh tyres eked out the gap over Hamilton’s old-tyred car at this phase of the race, it was calculated still to be a net gain for Lewis to stay out for a few laps yet, as he’d have been losing more time on the primes. By the time Hamilton came in on lap 24 Rosberg had added a couple of seconds to his advantage. This was extended by a further 1.7s as there was a fixing delay with the left-rear wheel at Hamilton’s stop. Lewis on his primes rejoined now around 6s behind Rosberg.
But look at this! Hamilton was immediately flying on the supposedly slower tyres. He took a couple of tenths out on the 26th lap, then progressively bigger chunks. Partly it was because Hamilton’s Merc was flying on the hards – “The balance was fantastic, even though I’d missed the long runs on Friday” – but partly it was because Rosberg was beginning to suffer gearbox problems; initially slow downchanges, subsequently reluctant upchanges.
The gap came down from 6s to 4s in just three laps and Hamilton was set to be upon him very early into his stint. We were denied the battle though as on the 29th lap, having just dropped 2s, Rosberg limped out of Village stuck in fifth gear. Hamilton passed to a roar of approval from the crowd and a few corners later Rosberg pulled onto the grass. Hamilton was leading the British Grand Prix – by 24s over Bottas.
The contest was essentially won and Bottas looked secure in second. The final podium place was up for grabs though. Ricciardo was best placed for it. He didn’t have his team-mate’s pace this weekend but unlike Vettel had pitted late enough that he was able to convert to a one-stop strategy when it became apparent that the degradation rates were lower than seen in Friday practice. Once Vettel made his second stop Danny was running third, but with not much of a margin over the newer-tyred Button.
The other battle was one of honour between those old combatants Vettel and Alonso. The Red Bull was comfortably faster over the lap but found itself mixed up in Alonso’s space because of the extra stop imposed upon Seb by that early failed attempt at undercutting the McLarens. He made his second stop on lap 34 and this time exited in the space between Button and Magnussen – critically almost alongside Alonso, who scrabbled ahead into fifth place into turns three and four.
This made Seb perfectly placed to use DRS on Fernando and he was duly able to slice past under braking for Brooklands. But on tyres not yet fully up to temperature the Red Bull was sliding more than the Ferrari through Luffield, giving Alonso a better exit onto the straight and through Woodcote. Vettel blocked the inside up past the old pit straight and Alonso, with not an instant of hesitation, simply drove clean around Vettel’s outside through Copse. In doing so he got slightly outside the white exit line there.
Race control had said there would be a zero tolerance policy of this during qualifying but nothing was said about the race. Vettel was immediately on the radio pointing out the ‘transgression’, while the battle continued to rage. On lap 37 Vettel got a DRS run on the Ferrari down Wellington straight and got by under braking for Brooklands, going around the outside approach to the left hander, but Alonso hung on around the left-hand side and was able to cut back across Vettel’s bows on the exit.
“He cannot do that!” Vettel protested. “If I hadn’t lifted I’d have crashed into him.” It happened again like that a few laps later. It looked exactly like hard, uncompromising, gloves-off racing and it was difficult not to agree with Niki Lauda’s comments earlier in the weekend that F1 has become over regulated.
1. Mercedes 326
2. Red Bull 168
3. Ferrari 106
4. Williams 103
5. Force India 91
6. McLaren 90
7. Toro Rosso 15
8. Lotus 8
9. Marussia 2
10. Sauber 0
11. Caterham 0
Alonso was given a black/white warning flag and advised not to drive outside of the track’s limits – this at least a more satisfactory way of handling the inevitable skirmishes and compromises of flat-out racing than we saw with Romain Grosjean’s pass on Massa in Hungary last year. It wasn’t long before Alonso was counter-accusing, saying that Vettel was outside the track limits on the corner leading onto Wellington straight, allowing him to be going faster as he activated his DRS.
“Sometimes he was three or four car widths off the track there,” he complained afterwards. “But it’s not a big deal, it was just racing. But because he had been complaining about me, I mentioned it on the radio.” Indeed Vettel continued to report Alonso’s straying beyond the Copse exit line, his comments becoming quite resigned and laconic. “Another one,” he said, followed next lap by, “and another one.”
On the 45th lap Vettel tried around the outside of the Luffield sequence, which didn’t quite work but got him onto the straight faster than the Ferrari. This time it was Alonso hugging the inside line past the old pits, Vettel going for the brave option around the outside, wheels terrifyingly close as they played their high-speed game of chicken. Vettel couldn’t quite get fully ahead before the corner was upon him and Alonso swept over to the left to claim his approach line – triggering another bout of complaints from Vettel.
Two laps later Vettel tried the same move again and, helped by Alonso having suffered a twitch onto the straight, this time made it work. This was breathtaking stuff, the pass just as brave as Alonso’s had been. Once this decisive move had been made, the Red Bull was able to pull comfortably away, just underlining how utterly tenacious Alonso had been.
Meanwhile Ricciardo had a late challenge on his hands from Button. Danny had made his first stop on the 15th lap, when it was still assumed he was two-stopping. Button had kept going until the 28th lap, McLaren having switched to a one-stop. “Can we make these tyres last another 15 laps?” Danny was asked. “Yes, I think so,” he replied. But they were going to require some nursing and with three laps to go Button was upon him and looking for a way by. He couldn’t find one, as Danny was perfect in defence.
Hamilton’s Jackie Stewart-equalling 27th Grand Prix victory ended up an emphatic one. Furthermore, with his Melbourne retirement now cancelled out by Rosberg’s here, it has brought the championship contest to life, Lewis now within four points of Nico. “I came here wanting to turn the emptiness and negativity of yesterday into a positive,” he said. He certainly managed that.
Bottas was 35s behind by the end – but it could easily have been more. Hamilton had made his second stop only as the no-risk option, as he was so far ahead he could make it and still re-join with half a minute’s lead. Williams, just like Hamilton, had redeemed themselves from their Saturday errors – and Bottas had responded to an increasingly impressive FW36 with enormous aplomb. “He was superb today,” said Rob Smedley. “His racecraft was fantastic. He’s a very good driver who I think has the potential to be a great one.”
Ricciardo’s final podium place on a compromised strategy after iffy qualifying also had to count as a good save while the closely following Button still awaits his first British Grand Prix podium after all these years. He’d nonetheless performed superbly all weekend and had flattered the car. Vettel pulled out 6s on Alonso in the last five laps to secure fifth. “I think I would still have been sixth if I’d started from pole” said Alonso. “That’s just where we are.” Magnussen was a couple of seconds behind, well clear of Hülkenberg, Kvyat and the other Toro Rosso of Jean-Éric Vergne.
But essentially, for most of the crowd, even the best of the drives behind fell into the category of a bit of noise to fill the gaps between Hamilton’s passage each lap.
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