MPH: Why Aston Martin can expect podium glory with Mercedes upgrade
On paper, the team with the biggest potential for improvement this year is Aston Martin (Racing Point as was). Which may sound odd given the very strong 2020 it enjoyed…
It was a race of tension rather than drama, far removed from the traditional Montreal crash-bang sensation. The tension was beneath the surface as Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, running in a race of their own, traded punch and counter punch but without ever going wheel-to-wheel.
Both were managing fuel and brakes – this circuit being the heaviest on the calendar for both – Lewis initially more on fuel, Rosberg more on brakes. Running behind Hamilton, Rosberg could use the tow to save fuel, but the dirtier air meant less cooling for the marginal brakes. So the promised late gloves-off fight between them petered out and Hamilton’s victory was assured. The marginal fuel and brakes combined with a track temperature that allowed the harder tyre to degrade slowly enough to make a one-stop faster than a two – but which then required drivers to nurse the rubber a little to make the necessary stint length – cast the hybrid era F1 in its worst possible light, a perfect storm of an imperfect formula.
What might have livened up the spectacle would have been a Ferrari that could have pushed the Mercedes enough to find out exactly what the respective knife edges of each car’s fuel and brake consumption were. But that simply didn’t unfold, Kimi Räikkönen and Sebastian Vettel taking a distant fourth and fifth behind Valtteri Bottas who maximised the Williams-Mercedes package at a circuit to which it’s well-suited. Seb’s result was a terrific one however, given that he’d started from the back through a combination of an ers problem in qualifying and a penalty for having overtaken during a red flag in practice.
Ferrari arrived here with its upgraded combustion design and accompanying evolution in its Shell fuel, the combined effect of which was reckoned to be good for 15-20bhp. It still didn’t seem to take it back to pre-Barcelona levels of competitiveness with the Mercedes unit, but it’s difficult to assess because the Mercedes unit was itself significantly improved. These changes were made under the heading of reliability and therefore – unlike Ferrari’s modifications – did not cost any engine tokens. But they allowed the engine to be run more aggressively before encountering the limitation of knock. Together with extra cooling capacity for the ers, it made for a significant improvement.
Long straights, slow corners, the tiny rear discs of the hybrid cars, degrading rubber that cannot be pushed for the full distance, the absence of safety cars giving no margin on fuel and brakes: on this occasion these things combined to neuter one of the calendar’s traditional highlights.
In the end Hamilton did what he was expected to do here – dancing the Merc between the walls with his customary panache to take a comfortable pole position. But the build-up had not been straightforward. Incidents and spins punctuated his practice days and he’d had particular trouble bringing the tyres up to temperature. On Friday Mercedes, needing to calibrate its clutches, had sent out both cars on intermediates on a track that really demanded wets – and Hamilton aquaplaned off the track at the hairpin and lightly into the barriers. Rather as in Monaco, that rain had prevented the teams from making a full long-run assessment of both tyres in second practice. The fronts were generally taking too long to come up to temperature – and that trait was still there even in the warmer conditions of qualifying, when the track temperature was in the 40s deg C.
Hamilton was afflicted thus but no more than anyone else as it turned out. “My first Q3 lap could have been better,” he related of a lap that would have stood as pole had he not done another that shaved a few hundredths off. “My second started out worse as the tyres weren’t up to temperature, but got better as the lap went on.”
Rosberg described his qualifying – in which he was 0.3s adrift of his team mate – as ‘rubbish’. “We lost rear-end grip in Q3 for some reason. Before that it had all felt really good. From a driving point of view the Q3 laps felt good. But there was just no grip there.” The tyres really did seem to be behaving quite inconsistently. “But here we are having had a bad qualifying and I’m still second on the grid, showing the sort of strength we have.”
The fresh Mercedes power units had been revised for ‘reliability’ without the use of engine tokens and the ers featured an enlarged radiator. Essentially these changes allowed the engine to be run in more aggressive modes. By the evidence of the numbers, it seemed as if this gain was at least equal to that found by Ferrari from its full combustion upgrade, which had used up three tokens for an extra 15-20 horsepower.
As usual the red cars were a few tenths adrift of the silver ones over a single lap, but on this occasion only Räikkönen was able to demonstrate as much. Vettel’s car had suffered from a non-operative ersH as soon as it was fired up in the garage. The crew desperately tried to cure it as the minutes ticked by in Q1 and in desperation he was sent out at the end with it still non-functioning.
Severely under-powered and with massive turbo lag, he was only 16thquickest and so failed to graduate to Q2. In addition he would be taking a five-place grid penalty for having overtaken a Manor during a red flag period in that morning’s practice. Räikkönen’s first Q3 run was compromised by a major moment in which he just kept himself out of the turn four wall, but he only improved by a tenth on his less aggressive second run, which put him third, just over 0.6s adrift of pole.
Just like Ferrari, Williams was effectively reduced to a single car challenge after ers problems left one of its cars – that of Felipe Massa – unable to get out of Q1. Bottas put the sister car fourth, a tenth shy of Räikkönen. The FW37 was much happier in this environment than in the confines of Monaco, but was one of only two cars – together with the Sauber – that found it necessary to use the drag-inducing monkey seat rear winglet in order to retain acceptable rear stability.
The steady improvements made to the Lotus chassis together with the Mercedes motor improvements came together well at a circuit suited to the car’s strong traction and good tyre usage. Unlike virtually everyone else, Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado were experiencing no difficulties bringing the tyres immediately up to temperature and Grosjean was able to lap within less than a tenth of Räikkönen’s Ferrari to go fifth, with Maldonado a couple of tenths and one position behind. The latter was complaining of an apparently aerodynamically induced loss of grip on corner exits that didn’t appear to be on the other car.
Mercedes power and the absence of Vettel and Massa helped Force India get both its cars through to Q3, where Nico Hulkenberg went seventh quickest on his single set of remaining fresh options. Sergio Pérez was back in 10th, unable to replicate his Q2 time (which would have put him eighth) on account of not getting his tyres up to temperature.
Sandwiched between the Force Indias were the Red Bulls of Daniil Kvyat and Daniel Ricciardo, the former a few hundredths faster. The circuit’s configuration could hardly have been worse for the visible power deficit of the Renault engine. A re-shaped engine cover was an attempt at further minimising drag and feeding a better airflow to the skinny rear wing.
The Red Bulls were at least faster this weekend than the sister Toro Rossos, neither of which made it out of Q2, Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen going 11th and 12th respectively but with the latter taking a horribly tangled bunch of penalties and implications. Five places were for his Monaco accident, 10 for having his fifth engine of the season fitted. From his position of 12th fastest only two of the engine penalty’s 10-places could be applied. So in accordance with the regulations he would be taking a 10-second time penalty in the race.
Marcus Ericsson did a quietly effective job to go 13th fastest in the gripless Sauber, a few tenths ahead of team mate Felipe Nasr who was suffering from the after-effects of a big crash in that morning’s practice that brought out the red flags. He had been weaving, attempting to get temperature in his tyres, with his DRS open when he lost control and hit the wall hard.
Fernando Alonso’s McLaren with its updated Honda was nestled between the Saubers, struggling much more on this power track than around the tight confines of Monaco. His time was 1.8s adrift of pole. The horsepower shortfall was calculated to be responsible for 1.2s of that. Which suggests that with power parity, the car would be on a similar pace to Ferrari.
For the second time this season Jenson Button could take no part in qualifying because of an ers fault. A replacement engine was his fifth of the season, so incurring another grid penalty which couldn’t be taken – and a stop/go penalty that had to be taken within the first three laps of the race.
With the serious power shortfall of the 2014 Ferrari engine, the Manors were always going to be struggling even more than usual here. Roberto Merhi was on this occasion marginally faster than Will Stevens despite his weight disadvantage.
In recent years one-stopping has been a Montreal strategy only available to those cars that work their rubber particularly gently – Force Indias and the Lotuses of 2012/13. But it’s a quicker strategy than a two around here if you can make it work. With the improved construction of this year’s Pirelli rear – essentially a widened footprint to spread the loads – the feasibility of such a strategy opened up to pretty much everyone. But coming into the race the teams could not be certain of that, given that the second practice session, where the degradation rates of the super-soft and soft would normally have been compared, had been partially rained out.
The only way of being sure was to start on the super-soft, that way getting around the possibility of only finding out you couldn’t get the necessary second stint length on it after you’d already committed to it. So even outside the top 10, most started on this tyre. Only those needing to take a chance to rescue their races from near the back – notably Vettel’s Ferrari, Massa’s Williams and the McLarens – started on the harder tyre (the soft).
The aim was to one-stop whilst accepting the possibility of a two. The greater pace you could normally expect to run at when the tyres are only required to last the shorter stints of a two-stop was not fully accessible because of the limitation of the fuel and brake usage. The whole combination of improved tyres and heavy fuel and brakes usage straddled an awkward position and would be responsible for this race being run at a pace around 1.5s-2s off the ultimate.
The cars still made for a dramatic sight, tyre sidewalls brushing against menacingly unyielding walls of this old-school thin ribbon of track snaking around the island’s perimeter on this sunny but breezy day, the cars shaking the overhanging branches and leaves with their passage, throwing the summer blossom high into the air.
Hamilton’s start was perfect and he didn’t even need to use the aggressive angle at which he’d initially pointed his car towards Rosberg. Räikkönen jinked to Rosberg’s left as they raced up to the left-right of the first two turns, but Nico was better placed to come out ahead of the Ferrari. Bottas was squeezed out by Räikkönen as they squirmed through the exit of two then aggressively held off Grosjean’s Lotus.
1 Lewis Hamilton 151
2 Nico Rosberg 134
3 Sebastian Vettel 108
4 Kimi Räikkönen 72
5 Valtteri Bottas 57
6 Felipe Massa 47
7 Daniel Ricciardo 35
8 Daniil Kvyat 19
9 Romain Grosjean 17
10 Felipe Nasr 16
11 Sergio Pérez 11
12 Nico Hulkenberg 10
13 Carlos Sainz 9
14 Max Verstappen 6
15 Pastor Maldonado 6
16 Marcus Ericsson 5
17 Jenson Button 4
18 Fernando Alonso 0
19 Roberto Merhi 0
20 Will Stevens 0
Maldonado was initially just behind this pair but Hulkenberg placed himself perfectly on the run up to the chicane of turn three, taking advantage of the clear space around the outside as the defensive Maldonado was obliged to back off for the concertina effect on the inside. The Force India sliced in between the two Lotuses to go sixth. Following were the Red Bulls of Kvyat and Ricciardo ahead of Pérez’s Force India, Alonso’s McLaren, Ericsson’s Sauber, Massa’s Williams, Sainz’s Toro Rosso, Nasr’s Sauber, Vettel’s Ferrari, Verstappen’s Toro Rosso, the Manors of Merhi and Stevens and the McLaren of Button – which peeled in at the end of the opening lap for the stop/go penalty it was required to take.
The first lap action was tamer than traditional, no carbon fibre exchanged, positions largely maintained. Hamilton streaked across the line for the first time already out of Rosbeg’s DRS reach. But the cars out of position were soon on the move. Vettel was past Nasr, Verstappen and Alonso on consecutive laps. Alonso retaliated as Vettel ran wide at the hairpin, but it was a simple matter for Seb to re-pass once more using DRS as they got onto the long back straight. The Honda was hopelessly out-gunned around here and Alonso was picked off by Ericsson and Massa on the third lap and a few laps later by the Toro Rosso pair.
Vettel came up against the blockage that was Massa’s fast-on-the-straight Williams which in turn was being held up by Ericsson. Ferrari responded by bringing Seb in as early as lap seven, thereby committing him to a two-stop. It gave him the clear track space he needed that would pay back later as he was quickly able to repass the Manors and Button.
Jenson was hurting just as much as Alonso with the Honda’s power deficit. Trying to run it any more aggressively to keep pace with the likes of the Toro Rossos and Saubers would simply run its fuel allocation into the red. Alonso was butting up against this limitation in more cavalier fashion than Button, occasionally turning it up to go a few tenths faster. But when respecting the fuel constraint they were lapping in virtually the same times, albeit separated by around 20s on account of Button’s penalty stop. When encouraged to back off to bring his fuel back on schedule Alonso’s frustration boiled over. “No, I don’t want to do this. I won’t. Already I have big problems. Driving with this and looking like amateurs. So I’d like to race and concentrate on fuel later.” Maybe he was figuring it would break before it ran out of fuel, so why worry… Much later, it did break, as did Button’s. Exhaust and associated ersH-related problems were the cause.
Hamilton gradually eked out his lead, taking it to 2s by the sixth lap, 3s by the 11th – at which point he just maintained the gap. Rosberg was regularly driving out of Hamilton’s slipstream as his front brakes were already showing alarming temperatures. Balancing wear of the tiny rear discs against the increased temperatures of the fronts when moving the balance forwards to compensate is a particularly demanding juggling act around here.
Räikkönen was a few seconds adrift of Rosberg with Bottas keeping the Ferrari within sight, Grosjean being dropped but under no threat from Hulkenberg who was soon in trouble with his front-left tyre and having to back off to conserve it, bringing Maldonado onto his tail. Hulkenberg’s defence was perfect, though, presenting something of a dilemma for Lotus. They began to think in terms of bringing Pastor in early, though without going onto a two-stop. Verstappen went past the struggling Nasr (occasional power loss and overheating brakes) into turn one on the 11th lap, though it may all have seemed a little futile for Max given that he knew he’d need to serve a 10s penalty at his stop (see qualifying).
Ricciardo was another struggling with his tyres. Even though he was running more downforce than Kvyat he was still eating through his tyres faster and the extra wing was making him even more vulnerable on the straights. He was picked off by Pérez into the final chicane on the ninth lap. Massa had finally found a way by Ericsson, going around his outside through turn one and sitting it out wheel-to-wheel through two, light contact between the Williams rear wheel and Sauber sidepod being being made in a beautiful display of judgement from both.
Finally released, Massa was able to quickly catch up and pass Ricciardo. Two laps after that he passed his 2014 nemesis Pérez, using DRS to help him slip by under braking for the final chicane. Felipe set off in chase of Kvyat, who was doing a great job of maximising what little the Red Bull had to give this weekend. He was also nursing an overheating brake caliper, moving the brake balance around to compensate. Massa’s fight and the Williams’ speed was bringing him into the picture of this race – and he would go on to take Kvyat’s eighth place from him at the final chicane on lap 19.
Next in his sights: Hulkenberg and with plenty of life still left in his harder tyres. Vettel was making similar progress after his early stop, slicing past Nasr on the 15th lap and Alonso (again) on the 20th, albeit in rather wild fashion, having been hard up against the turn seven wall and actually nudging the McLaren when he made the pass. Nonetheless, the Ferrari had made up a pit-stop’s worth of time on the McLaren in just 20 laps.
1 Mercedes 285
2 Ferrari 180
3 Williams/Mercedes 104
4 Red Bull/Renault 54
5 Lotus/Mercedes 23
6 Sauber/Ferrari 21
7 Force India/Mercedes 21
8 Toro Rosso/Renault 15
9 McLaren/Honda 4
10 Marussia/Ferrari 0
Maldonado had been first to break ranks, unable to find a chink in Hulkenberg’s defences. The Lotus came in at the end of lap 17 for a set of new prime tyres that would now be required to do the remaining 53 laps – quite a stretch, but feasible. The Lotus is easy on the rubber and Maldonado has a good feel for how to preserve it. He rejoined between the Toro Rossos but was quickly past Sainz and Ericsson and on the way to making his strategy gamble work.
A more secure first stint distance than Maldonado’s was around 25 laps – and that’s what most were targeting. At Williams, however, the plan was for Bottas to do a two-stop. That plan would change – triggered by Räikkönen spinning on his out-lap after stopping on lap 26 from around 10s behind Rosberg. A sudden power spike had power-slid the Ferrari into a rotation out of the chicane – much as happened to him last year. “It was something we should have been able to avoid,” said Kimi later. “We should have been a little bit smarter with how we set the map. We had a setting in there that was on the edge, something that if you moved just a bit gave a massive difference in torque.” He lost around 6s with the spin – and that was enough for him suddenly to be within Bottas’ reach if he pitted in response. That’s what Williams did and even though there was a slight delay with a wheel attachment, Bottas got out ahead. With track position over the Ferrari now established, there was no reason to do another stop.
The bulk of the field stopped between laps 26 and 28 – with Hulkenberg exiting now behind Maldonado – though the leading Mercs stayed out a little longer. Hamilton pitted from his 3.3s lead on the 29th lap and was quickly underway on his fresh primes. Rosberg came in a lap later. Lewis took it relatively easy on his out-lap, the primes not coming immediately up to temperature while Rosberg nailed a hard pace on his in-lap (having set the fastest lap of the race so far one lap previously). It reduced the gap between them to just over 2s and for the first few laps of this second stint Rosberg continued to eat steadily into Hamilton’s advantage. Was a race about to break out?
This was about the respective issues of the two drivers moving in and out of phase: Rosberg had for now got his brake temperatures under control but Hamilton needed to bring his fuel back on schedule and furthermore there was now a concern about his rear brake wear. Hamilton went into management mode for a few laps, taking care not to let Rosberg get within DRS range. As Lewis got things back under control so Nico’s brake temperatures began to creep back up after a few laps so close behind.
1 L Hamilton Mercedes 1h31m53.145s
2 N Rosberg Mercedes 2.285s
3 V Bottas Williams 40.666s
4 K Räikkönen Ferrari 45.625s
5 S Vettel Ferrari 49.903s
6 F Massa Williams 56.381s
7 P Maldonado Lotus 1m06.664s
8 N Hulkenberg Force India 1 Lap
9 D Kvyat Red Bull 1 Lap
10 R Grosjean Lotus 1 Lap
11 S Pérez Force India 1 Lap
12 C Sainz Toro Rosso 1 Lap
13 D Ricciardo Red Bull 1 Lap
14 M Ericsson Sauber 1 Lap
15 M Verstappen Toro Rosso 1 Lap
16 F Nasr Sauber 2 Laps
17 W Stevens Marussia 4 Laps
– R Merhi Marussia Retirement
– J Button McLaren Retirement
– F Alonso McLaren Retirement
Grosjean’s stop had dropped him behind the yet-to-stop Massa but he was quickly able to repass him into the chicane, Felipe by now struggling with tyre grip. Just as this was happening, right on their tail the prime-tyred Vettel made his second stop on lap 35, getting onto another set of the harder tyres. Massa was obliged to switch to the options when he made his single stop two laps later. A remaining stint length of 33 laps on super-softs was long, but Felipe was doing a great job of combining attack with tyre management. However, the necessarily later stop (to keep the final stint length down) lost him position to Vettel – and he wouldn’t regain it.
Räikkönen’s advantage over the Lotuses was such that Ferrari was able to bring him in for a free pit stop and a set of super-softs with 20 laps to go. It was a gamble that might have allowed him to attack Bottas in the closing stages – but didn’t.
On the 43rd lap Vettel was hauling the tyre-struggling Hulkenberg in coming into the final chicane. He was outside but ahead of the Force India as they came to turn in. “I was suddenly aware that he had opened up the brakes again and I thought he would collide with me,” related Seb, “so I jumped over the kerb.” Hulk took the other kerb to avoid contact – and this was enough to spin him. As he was rejoining he was passed by Massa as well.
Hamilton was still only around 1.4s clear of Rosberg by this time but the Mercs were a full 20s clear of Bottas, then Räikkönen, with the two Lotuses of Grosjean and Maldonado behind the Ferrari. The newer-tyred Vettel and Massa were catching them fast, albeit from around 10s back. But before that happened Grosjean had one of his occasional lapses.
On the 49th lap he was lapping Will Stevens into the final chicane, slicing down the inside of the Manor but then moving left to take up the normal racing line way too soon – before he had cleared Stevens. The Manor’s front wing cut the Lotus’ rear tyre – and both cars made immediately for the pits. Grosjean was fitted with a fresh set of primes and rejoined 11th – behind Pérez’s Force India. He had, however, been awarded a 5s penalty for the incident – to be added onto his race time. He quickly passed Pérez and pulled out the extra 5s needed to stay ahead officially. But he was too far back to reach Kvyat before the end. Thus Maldonado became the leading Lotus as he moved up to fifth.
Vettel was flying, setting a sequence of laps. This had pulled him clear of Massa and up with Maldonado by the 55th lap. Pastor’s tyres were by now very old, Seb’s 19 laps newer, so the Ferrari had way better traction out of the hairpin and with a bit of help from the DRS was past and up to fifth on the 55th lap. There were 15 laps still to go and team mate Räikkönen was 13s up the road. For a time Vettel ate into that gap before the brake and fuel limitations forced him to ease his pace slightly.
Massa was upon Maldonado with 10 laps to go and took only a couple of laps to find a way by, nailing the Lotus for sixth down into turn 1 and 2, with the aid of DRS.
The Mercedes radio messages suggested that Rosberg would be given a chance to attack Hamilton late in the race – and with 11 laps to go, his temperatures under control, Rosberg began to push. He locked up and ran wide at the hairpin. “After that I realised I wasn’t going to be able to try anything, that Lewis was always just out of reach. I was pushing like mad trying to put on the pressure but he didn’t make any mistakes.”
“I generally had a lot of understeer,” related Hamilton, “but I never really felt too much under pressure. It felt intense but I always felt like I had it under control. I had a bit of time in my pocket to be able to pull out when I needed to.”
There were a few more warnings about fuel along the way, requiring some of those unsavoury lift and coast messages to be given out. “Just a little,” his engineer advised. “How much is a little?” Lewis questioned, “a hundred?”
“Fifty metres is fine,” came the reply. So he’d lift 50 metres before his normal braking point, let the aero drag take the initial speed off and only then stand on the brakes. And driving like this he reeled off the last few laps to take his 37th career victory, just three behind Vettel’s tally.
Rosberg followed 2.2s behind, his weekend set by being beaten in qualifying. Bottas was a full 40s back from there but gave Williams its first podium of the year after a flawless performance. Ferrari might have expected better than fourth and fifth coming into the weekend, but it was good damage limitation given the events of Vettel’s qualifying. Similar comments apply to Massa’s strong drive from 15th to sixth. Maldonado was last of the unlapped runners, in seventh, with Hulkenberg, Kvyat and Grosjean filling in the points positions. Ricciardo – the winner of this race last year – was a distant 13th, half a minute behind his team mate, gutted and confused, struggling to understand what is going wrong. A little like F1 itself at the moment, in fact.
On paper, the team with the biggest potential for improvement this year is Aston Martin (Racing Point as was). Which may sound odd given the very strong 2020 it enjoyed…
Jenson Button returns to F1 in an advisory role with Williams
Sergio Perez says that his dream of fighting for F1 titles has finally been realised upon joining the Red Bull Racing team, describing how he plans to "over-deliver" on what…
Alpine Formula 1 driver Esteban Ocon will take part in the 2021 Rallye Monte-Carlo and drive the A110S in a series of special stage runs. It will be the first…