'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…
If Nico Rosberg had not stood way too late on his brakes the first time he used them, this could have been a fascinating slug-out between him and Lewis Hamilton. Seconds into the race he’d already got the inside line despite having lost out in qualifying and if he didn’t quite have Lewis’ raw pace, he’d now got track position on him.
As it was, Nico made a Monza-style error, locked up disastrously, gave himself square tyres, ran onto the run-off anyway, and pitted from the artificial lead at the end of the first lap. From that moment Hamilton had nothing to worry about, and he duly reeled off his ninth win of the season, a Mansell-equalling 31st in his career.
In the process Mercedes-Benz took its first Constructors’ World Championship. About the only thing that may have vaguely disappointed Hamilton – from a championship perspective – was that Rosberg was able to make his replacement tyres last the remaining 52 laps as he charged back through the field to second place.
Although Valtteri Bottas’ Williams kept the pressure on Rosberg’s place, ultimately the W05 superiority was enough that Rosberg could do what he did on what was effectively a non-stop tyre strategy. His replacement rubber did 52 of the race’s 53 laps and was still in great shape at the end – as was that of Bottas, whose final lap stood as the race’s fastest.
The amazing tyre durability of both the soft and medium compounds on this low-abrasion surface combined with a heavy fuel demand to make this a remarkably uneventful race. With drivers turning down engine modes, lifting and coasting, the loads on the tyres were reduced yet further.
Drivers of the Renault and Ferrari-engined cars were all having to heavily manage their 100kg allocation of fuel into the race’s second half at a track that now officially carries the calendar’s heaviest fuel demand – requiring more economy measures even than Singapore or Montreal. So with tyres uniformly holding up, virtually no variation in strategies and everyone behind the top four desperately eking out their fuel, there wasn’t a lot of wheel-to-wheel action by 2014 standards.
It was a race that posed a few interesting questions rather than thrilled. What would we have seen had Rosberg not messed up? Why were the Mercs so much faster than a Williams that had been able to push them close in qualifying? Just why was the track so incredibly easy on the tyres? Hamilton probably isn’t much interested in knowing, happy to be leaving Russia with his points lead over Rosberg increased to 17 points with three races to go.
Hamilton was very much in his element immediately on the wall-lined twists of this place and held a significant pace advantage over team-mate Rosberg. Late, hard braking and total ease with the resultant waywardness through the slow turns, big confidence between the walls on the faster sweeps, it all translated to a pole 0.2s quicker.
Rosberg in fact was almost bumped off the front row in the dying moments by the Williams-Merc of Bottas, who on a three-flying-lap run aced the first two sectors but in doing so had overworked his tyres by the time he got to the last few 90-degree bends of the short final sector – leading to a wild slide off track as he accelerated onto the pit straight, leaving him third a couple of tenths adrift of Rosberg.
The super-smooth and bump-free surface of the new track combined with a fairly conservative medium/soft Pirelli combination made for an unusual set of demands that rather caught the teams unawares. “The tyre usage was unusual owing to the new track surface,” said Merc’s Paddy Lowe.
“New tarmac such as this has a layer of tar on top of it, which gets worn down with time but initially makes it very hard to work the tyre enough to get temperature into it. This is the phenomenon we have encountered this weekend and also saw in Austria earlier this year. As a result, the tyre performance was improving lap by lap – and this meant we ended up electing to make a five-timed-lap run in Q3 to get the best out of them.”
That was what pretty much everyone did, meaning that in the shorter Q3 session, only one set of options – which proved around 1.7s faster than the primes – were required. The Austria-like qualities of the surface also extended to the demands of the track’s layout, with relatively few aerodynamically demanding corners and lots of hard braking and acceleration. The grid had an Austria-like pattern to it, with the Williams nip-and-tuck Mercedes-fast, the McLarens taking a step up in competitiveness, Red Bulls a long way off the pace and the excellent braking traits of the Toro Rosso enabling Kvyat to star.
At his home race he was a great fifth quickest, sandwiching the McLarens of Button and Magnussen. The latter had been the quicker McLaren driver all weekend despite having lost P3 to a gearbox broken by a suspension failure. But in Q3 he suffered a power loss that left him 0.5s adrift of his team-mate. Ricciardo was the only Red Bull driver to make it into Q3, where he qualified seventh, 1.1s off pole, 0.4s off the Toro Rosso. Alonso and Räikkönen scraped the Ferraris in, Vergne lost power in Q3 and was 10th. Felipe Massa didn’t even make it out of Q1 thanks to a serious fuel pressure problem.
There was a surreal feeling to this inaugural event around Disneyski-by-the-sea. Maybe it was partly the hangover from the shock of Suzuka, but also it was the venue. With the Dead Sea framing one side of the track and the Caucasian mountains the other three, it’s very pretty – from a distance.
But on a former brownfield site there’s next to nothing around, just a fairground, a few hotels including one fairytale neon-lit princess’ castle and everything is spaced out a car ride distance from anywhere else. Packs of dogs run around scavenging in the bins of holiday apartments built around dusty unmade roads.
Security guards are unused to and unwelcoming of any questioning of their ‘requests’ and confiscated seemingly at random items ranging from dry shampoo to tissues. One of them insisted he check that a pregnant lady really was pregnant and not concealing anything sinister. The security was ramped up on race day – as the select guard of President Putin arrived to prepare for his visit. Snipers with violin-style gun cases were strategically placed. A small squadron of MiGs made occasional fly-bys.
The circuit itself winds its way between concrete walls and a vast pit grandstand and is featureless; negligible elevation change, super-smooth and bump-free, a flat-out kink after the pit straight funnelling the cars into the first DRS zone before a very tight right-hander that heralds the start of a parabolica never-ending left that looks like a tyre killer but isn’t.
It’s flat all the way through, albeit from a low starting speed. Then it’s a tight right-hander with lots of tarmac run-off, a short straight preceding a sequence of tight second- and third-gear corners interspersed by short acceleration zones until turn 10 leads onto a curving back ‘straight’ where the second DRS zone is placed.
At the end of it is perhaps the most challenging piece of track, a negative camber curving left funnelling into a heavy braking zone for a 90-degree right. The cars looked fantastic through there, alive and dangerous. Another sequence of 90-degree bends completes the lap.
Race day was moderately warm and under blue skies there was a minute’s silence for Jules Bianchi, with the drivers all gathered at the front of the grid. This preceded the celebratory playing of the national anthem. Again, the juxtaposition felt odd. Putin hadn’t made it for the start of the race; maybe he had more pressing matters to attend to. So he didn’t see Hamilton make an initially better getaway than Rosberg but then completely fail to block the inside line, Nico then dummying across to his right to be inside even before they went through the kink.
Then Rosberg did the most bizarre thing; with the line already his, fully alongside Hamilton and slightly ahead, he delayed his braking until impossibly late, locked up his front tyres down to the chord and took to the turn two run-off, rejoining still ahead but with vibration so bad he could barely see where he was going. Advised by the team he’d have to surrender the place to Hamilton – who had taken the corner conventionally – he replied that he was coming in anyway for a new set of tyres.
He’d be joined in the pits by Massa whose stop was planned, having started on the slower prime tyre back in 18th. The thinking was that the option was so much faster – yet very durable – that the sooner he got onto it the better. So the seven places he’d made up in the first few corners didn’t really mean much – but looked great.
Behind the Mercs, Bottas had got cleanly away ahead of Button. Kvyat and both Red Bulls made poor starts, Alonso, Vergne and Magnussen good ones – and it all got a little messy through the tight turns of two and four, cars running wide, others scrabbling past. Behind Vergne and the fast-starting Magnussen through the kink of T1 Vettel was squeezing inside Ricciardo who had Kvyat to his left, Daniil chopping across Räikkönen’s bows, forcing the Ferrari to swerve.
Up to turn two Vettel used the superior grip of his brand new tyres (through qualifying outside the top 10) to outbrake Ricciardo and Kvyat – who both slid wide onto the run-off, rejoining behind Seb. Kvyat’s dander was up, though, and he retaliated into the tight right-hander of four to repass Vettel before then getting crossed up in a big way under power exiting the tight right-hander of five.
Vettel instinctively jinked to his right to pass, almost taking out Ricciardo as he did so but succeeding in getting ahead of the Toro Rosso once more. Kvyat then slipstreamed back ahead of the world champion down the back straight and into the tight turn 13. Things were getting raggedly close in the Red Bull family.
1 L Hamilton Mercedes 1h31m50.744s
2 N Rosberg Mercedes +13.657s
3 V Bottas Williams +17.425s
4 J Button McLaren +30.234s
5 K Magnussen McLaren +53.616s
6 F Alonso Ferrari +1m00.016s
7 D Ricciardo Red Bull +1m01.812s
8 S Vettel Red Bull +1m06.185s
9 K Räikkönen Ferrari +1m18.877s
10 Sergio Pérez Force India +1m20.067s
11 Felipe Massa Williams +1m20.877s
12 Nico Hulkenberg Force India +1m21.309s
13 Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso +1m37.295s
14 Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso +1 Lap15 Esteban Gutiérrez Sauber +1 Lap
16 Adrian Sutil Sauber +1 Lap
17 Romain Grosjean Lotus +1 Lap
18 Pastor Maldonado Lotus +1 Lap
19 Marcus Ericsson Caterham +2 Laps
– Kamui Kobayashi Caterham Brakes
– Max Chilton Marussia Suspension
As Rosberg trailed into the pits Alonso was up to fourth from Vergne, Magnussen and Kyvat, with the Red Bulls still snapping at his heels. Vettel slipstreamed Kvyat through the kink and was cleanly through on the inside into turn two, Daniil getting off line to defend and being passed on the exit by Ricciardo.
As DRS was enabled going into lap three Magnussen used it to pull himself up to Vergne and scythe past up the inside into two. But JEV wasn’t accepting that and went through the long 180-degree curve side-by-side with the McLaren, on the outside, a big oversteer snap as he got onto the dust to complete the brave move to take the place back into four.
Magnussen then got on the DRS again on the back straight to definitively stake his claim to the fifth place. The Toro Rosso came under attack from the Red Bulls next lap, with Vettel going past on the exit of 13 as Vergne scrabbled wide, his lost momentum allowing Ricciardo to pounce too. This was all happening right in front of Kvyat and he fancied his chances of further demoting his team-mate, but was brought up short as Vergne chopped across him, light contact being made, Vergne getting onto the run-off, Kvyat grounding out his car’s underside on the kerb, this losing him enough momentum to allow Räikkönen to pass him.
The fifth place qualifying home boy was now down to 10th and his day wasn’t about to get any better. Before too much longer it would be evident to the team that the high-wing set-up and the circuit’s demands were taking the fuel consumption into the red. Both he and Vergne were instructed to turn down their engine modes – and in this tame spec they would fade back to eventual 13th (Vergne) and 14th positions by the end.
All that early lap scrabbling was most of the wheel-to-wheel stuff done for the day. Hamilton was by now 2.5s clear of Bottas and in cruise mode, the Williams in turn a couple of seconds ahead of Button and Alonso.
1 Lewis Hamilton 291
2 Nico Rosberg 274
3 Daniel Ricciardo 199
4 Valtteri Bottas 145
5 Sebastian Vettel 143
6 Fernando Alonso 141
7 Jenson Button 94
8 Nico Hulkenberg 76
9 Felipe Massa 71
10 Kevin Magnussen 49
11 Sergio Pérez 47
12 Kimi Räikkönen 47
13 Jean-Eric Vergne 21
14 Romain Grosjean 8
15 Daniil Kvyat 8
16 Jules Bianchi 2
17 Adrian Sutil 0
18 Marcus Ericsson 0
19 Pastor Maldonado 0
20 Esteban Gutiérrez 0
21 Max Chilton 0
22 Kamui Kobayashi 0
Pre-race the expectation was that with all these walls around, the scarcity of cranes and the recent events at Suzuka fresh in mind, there was bound to be at least one safety car. Depending upon when it came out it potentially made the race strategy tricky. The soft tyre was reckoned to be easily good for half race distance, the medium for more than that, but the degradation rates were so low that the soft would remain the faster tyre throughout.
So of the remaining 11 cars outside of the obligatory option tyre of the top-10 qualifiers, four were on softs, seven on mediums. This was essentially a gamble on when they each were guessing the safety car might come out. Had they known in advance there would be nothing to trigger the safety car, they’d probably all have started on the soft – and ran it until either the front or rear right wore out its tread, and only then put on the medium. There was no real reason to do anything other than one-stop, especially as the pit lane speed limit was reduced from 80kph to 60 – increasing the pit stop loss to around 25s rather than 22s.
So Hamilton allowed his 2.5-second margin over Bottas to slowly stretch out to three seconds over the next few laps. Alonso pressured Button for a few laps, but then started getting warnings about fuel consumption – this very much a Ferrari weakness, especially compared to the Mercedes in the McLaren. But even with a Mercedes engine, if you pressed too hard, too early you would need to be paying back later – something that would restrict Magnussen to a controlled pace for the rest of the day.
“It was almost like a chilled-out Sunday drive,” he said, “because I was easing off the power 200 metres before the corners in an effort to save fuel. I was really surprised that no-one was able to catch me, in fact; I guess the guys behind me must have been experiencing the same problem.”
First lap pitters Rosberg (on primes) and Massa (options) were making good progress through the lower half of the field, Nico driving carefully to ensure he’d be able to go through without stopping again.
1 Mercedes 565
2 Red Bull/Renault 342
3 Williams/Mercedes 216
4 Ferrari 188
5 McLaren/Mercedes 143
6 Force India/Mercedes 123
7 Toro Rosso/Renault 29
8 Lotus/Renault 8
9 Marussia/Ferrari 2
10 Sauber/Ferrari 0
11 Caterham/Renault 0
Back in seventh, Ricciardo was finding Vettel to be holding him up. His speed advantage into the slower corners was noticeable, as was his needing less road on exit. “I’m losing a lot of time here,” he said over the radio, as tactfully as possible. “We need to decide what to do.”
As it turned out a front-right he’d blistered in Q2 the day before – the last-gasp lap that had got him into Q3 – decided things for him. “I could see the tyre beginning to open up,” he reported and after a few laps of pressuring his team-mate, he backed off. The team was monitoring things carefully too and brought him in very early – at the end of lap 11 and fitted him with fresh primes. That put him well down the field, a few places behind Rosberg and Massa, but he’d be seeing Vettel again later in the day.
Theoretically being on the slower tyre for so much longer should have ensured he’d lose badly out to Vettel – but as it panned out the medium was hardly any slower than the soft on race day. The tyres really weren’t the limitation for most – the fuel consumption was. That gave the tyres an even easier time than they were already getting and meant it made very little difference when you actually stopped.
As the long first stint went on Bottas watched Hamilton ease further out of sight, Lewis gradually stepping up the pace, Valtteri finally finding the rears starting to degrade.
Button stopped and rejoined on lap 22 from a couple of seconds ahead of Alonso. As the McLaren rejoined on its new primes and the Ferrari stayed out on its old options, it was going to be interesting to monitor – to see if there was going to be an undercut or overcut effect. Would even Alonso’s old options be faster than Button’s new primes, such was the low degradation rate and the reluctance of the primes to get straight up to temperature?
On lap 24 as Button completed his first flying lap in 1m 44.3s, the very same time as Alonso, that question was answered – and Ferrari brought Fernando in a lap later. A delay on the left-front cost Alonso over four seconds – which would prove to be costly as it enabled Magnussen to leapfrog him after stopping a lap later.
Both Mercedes and Williams had been monitoring the Alonso-Button tyre comparison, triggering the Bottas and Hamilton stops on laps 26 and 27 respectively. Hamilton rejoined still in the lead and now 18 seconds clear of the Williams, with the yet-to-stop Vettel temporarily between them. He came in on lap 30 and rejoined just behind… Ricciardo! Daniel had kept up a good pace, taking around five seconds out of Vettel since his stop, enough to swop places. Vettel had been warned by his engineer to respect the up-change beeps as he tried to pull out margin enough for his stop, as they were marginal on fuel.
With everyone apart from the super-long running Sauber of Esteban Gutiérrez now having stopped, Hamilton’s lead over Bottas was out to 20 seconds, but Rosberg had glided up the order as all those ahead of him came in. Now he was on Bottas’ tail. He came from nowhere down to turn two on lap 31, slicing effortlessly by the Williams from a long way back despite tyres that were 25 laps older.
It was a terrific and gritty recovery drive from Rosberg but it just emphasised – along with Hamilton’s margin despite visibly being in cruise mode – how much more pace the Mercedes had on race day than the Williams. This seemed odd, given how closely Bottas had been able to push them in qualifying – and repeated the pattern seen in Austria. Something in the W05’s arsenal was giving it a way bigger advantage over the FW36 on Sunday than Saturday despite this being a race of almost zero tyre degradation for everyone. What could it be? “That’s a very good question,” answered Williams’ Rob Smedley, “and I wish I could give you an answer.”
A clue may lie in a comparison of the respective speed trap figures of each from qualifying into race day. In qualifying, when the Mercedes customers are free to use the qualifying mode of the engine, the Williams went through the trap at a DRS-enhanced 332.6kph. On race day, with just the race engine mode plus DRS, it recorded a best of 322.8kph, a loss of around 10kph. The higher downforce Mercedes W05 went through at 327.3kph on Saturday, 322kph on Sunday, a loss of just 5kph.
Does Mercedes allow itself freer use of qualifying mode on race day than its customers? Although Bottas would end up setting the race’s fastest lap, Rosberg was always able to keep himself out of reach once he’d passed – despite the much older tyres. Hamilton had no need to be dipping into his reserves of pace, such was his margin, but the way he could occasionally pull out a lap way faster than what he’d been doing suggested he wasn’t anywhere near the limit.
At this stage Rosberg’s side of the garage was thinking of bringing him in soon. The tyres couldn’t last this long surely? “The tyres are fine,” Nico kept responding every time he was asked. “Do you think you can get them through to the end?” he was asked 15 laps from home. “Yeah, easy,” came the reply. Once it became clear Rosberg wasn’t stopping again, Bottas responded. But for everything he threw at the Merc, Rosberg would answer a lap later. It was beautifully controlled. Putin had arrived now and took his seat next to comrades Ecclestone and Todt to watch the closing stages.
It’s nice to think that one of his questions may have been: ‘Why is there no tyre deg this weekend?’ Had Pirelli been over-conservative in its choice of compounds for the unknown new track? “Perhaps,” answered the company’s Paul Hembery to Putin’s imagined question, “but even if we’d brought the super-soft, the soft could go so long that most people would still have been able to do one-stop strategies.
It’s just the nature of the low-abrasion surfaces all the new circuits seem to use. It’s very similar to Austin and Abu Dhabi. With a smooth surface like this you rely more on chemical grip from the tyre – its adhesion with the surface rather than the mechanical grip of the construction. There’s a theory that the oils that come up to the surface from new tarmac may actually be interacting with the tyre to increase its mechanical grip. It’s something we’re trying to understand.”
Bottas’ late pace left Button behind, but Jenson’s too was a great drive, extracting everything from the car. He was over 20 seconds ahead of his economy-driving team-mate now, with Alonso even more feather-footed a few seconds back and coming under increasing pressure from Ricciardo. Massa’s recovery had come up short behind the 10th-placed Sergio Pérez. For 25 laps Felipe just shadowed the Force India without once looking like making a move, with no variation in where he was placing the car.
Pérez in turn had Räikkönen tantalisingly just ahead of him but was never in a position to press the Ferrari, so desperately short of fuel was he. Vettel ran a few seconds up the road and would finish there, in eighth, the oversteer he was suffering in qualifying again the limiting factor. He finished just 4 seconds down on Ricciardo but the latter had been restricted to Alonso’s economy pace just ahead – and despite massively faster end-of-straight speed couldn’t make a pass.
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