Goin' up, goin' down: 2021 Hungarian GP
F1 pins scattered as one man tries to save his career, whilst the two drivers with a combined aged of 76 provide the most intense racing – here's our Budapest barometer
Nico Rosberg used to be impressed that his dad knew Nigel Mansell. As a kid, he thought that was a real claim to fame, much to Keke’s amusement. Now here was Nigel interviewing Nico about winning the Mexican Grand Prix. That’s probably not what was running through his mind, though; more like elation, mixed with relief that he’d bounced back in the most resounding fashion from his recent over-shadowing by his team-mate.
Turn one at Austin seemed to be still resonating within Nico as he came into this weekend. With his desire at the maximum, Hamilton with the title already in the bag, this was never really a contest; it was Rosberg all the way. Two tenths faster in qualifying, hard and firm down to turn one, always with the pace to respond to whatever Hamilton threw at him.
The only way Hamilton might have taken the race was to have stolen it – which was a possibility when Mercedes took the precaution of making an extra pitstop with both cars. Rosberg, as the leader, was brought in first. Hamilton was supposed to come in next lap. But he ignored the call, his tyres put back in their blankets as he argued over the radio about the necessity to stop.
The previous tyres were on the canvas, he was told, referring his first set of options that had stayed on for 28 laps. He was now on the primes, way more durable – and so that wasn’t really an issue. The primes that had just come off Rosberg’s car after 20 laps still had 60 per cent tread. The issue of course was obvious – and went unsaid; the safety stop needed to be applied to both cars in the interests of fairness. Reluctantly Hamilton came in, two laps after Rosberg, and had his ‘safe’ tyres fitted. “I think that was the wrong call,” he complained over the radio. Which from his point of view, it was. From the team’s, there was no question of priorities to answer.
If Hamilton’s stance sounded unreasonable, it was. But a reasonable mind is not typically a trait of the very top performers in any sport – and that’s something that has perhaps counted against Rosberg in his on-track dealings with Hamilton. The events of Austin had triggered in Nico an unreasonable state of mind – an anger, as Mercedes boss Toto Wolff put it. There was no way he was coming out of turn one in second place. That was the feeling within the team before the start.
When Niki Lauda was asked if he was nervous about what might be about to unfold at the end of that long straight, he was typically forthright: “Yes, I am.” Maybe Hamilton sensed all this, perhaps realised this wasn’t the day to force the issue at the first turn. He’d slipstreamed Rosberg all the way down there, then Nico positioned himself perfectly in the middle of the track and there was never a sliver of feasible daylight for Lewis to thrust himself into – not even if he’d been in his most unreasonable state of mind. That was all she wrote – until those precautionary tyre stops.
The only reason Mercedes had the luxury of being able to make precautionary stops was the half-a-minute advantage it had over the third place Red Bull of Daniil Kvyat after 46 laps, an average of 0.7sec per lap. With a stop taking 24 seconds, there was no downside to the precaution – other than the unforeseen hazard of an unreasonable competitive mind. Mercedes wanted to make this stop because it could, thereby minimising the puncture risk of a worn tyre and to have a tyre with better warm-up in the case of a safety car restart.
Furthermore, it wanted to make the stop before there was a safety car, because to have pitted then would have involved stacking Hamilton in the pits – and thereby quite possibly losing him positions. In other words, the precaution was partly to protect his position.
The safety car duly came three laps after Hamilton reluctantly agreed to come in – as a result of Sebastian Vettel crashing his Ferrari. It was the end of a frustrating day for him. He’d turned in on Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull at the first corner, giving himself a puncture. He later spun at turn 10, rejoined, then went straight on there into the barriers a few laps later. “No, no problem with the car, just me,” he assessed afterwards. “The car was a bit edgy, but I was the one driving it. I just tried too hard.”
The safety car left Kvyat vulnerable to a Williams with much greater end-of-straight speed and a better-performing tyre compound, enabling Valtteri Bottas to take an excellent podium spot, this after an earlier collision – again – with Kimi Räikkönen. This time it was the Ferrari that was out on the spot.
Overall, the return to Mexico should be counted as a great success. The place was packed with fantastically enthusiastic fans and it’s refreshing when F1 goes to a ‘new’ venue where there’s already a big fan base. A big part of the reason for that, of course, is the presence in F1 of Force India’s Sergio Pérez – and rarely, if ever, has a driver been so cheered for an eighth place finish. But actually, it was an impressive drive.
His single-stop strategy – he was one of the few not to stop during the safety car period – appeared to have left him extremely vulnerable on very old tyres, but he’d kept enough life in them to maintain his position to the end. He finished behind team-mate Nico Hülkenberg only because the unexpectedly low tyre degradation actually rewarded those – like Hulk and the Williams drivers – who had been forced to pit early at the first stops.
There was not a great deal of overtaking and most of the explanation for that can be put down to a very conservative tyre choice from Pirelli – “If we had a grippier tyre we could follow more closely onto the main straight,” said one driver, “and place ourselves better to pass.” The other contributory factor was that the thin air made the DRS less effective – because there was a lot less drag to dump. “I think with a softer tyre here next year,” said Mercedes’ James Vowles, “this could be a superb track for passing.
The 2000m altitude of Mexico City brought out some fascinating challenges for the teams. The low-grip newly laid surface presented the drivers with a similarly difficult task. With air 23 per cent thinner than at sea level, downforce and drag were reduced accordingly. Even with Monaco-level wings, the cars were generating less downforce at full speed than they do at Monza with their skinny wings and the fastest car at the end of the straight (Massa’s Williams) recorded a cool 226.4mph – 16mph up on the speed of Ayrton Senna’s Lotus here in 1987.
On the engine side, to get the same power as usual required that the turbo/compressor be run proportionately faster than their usual circa 100,000rpm. The regulation limit (of the MGU-H on the same shaft) is 125,000 but each manufacturer has to declare to the FIA a theoretical burst point for the blades of the turbine. These differ for each of the four engines but the Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault are all lower than 125,000rpm.
In terms of which engines could compensate through turbo speed the losses incurred by the air mass, it appeared that the Renault lost marginally less than Mercedes, which in turn lost less than the Ferrari. “We are back pretty much to our normal power,” said Renaultsport’s Remy Taffin, “but there doesn’t seem to be a big spread. The bigger problem by far is the cooling. Although the ambient is typically only around 22-deg C this weekend, that is the equivalent of something like 35-deg C in Sepang, so everything is right on the limit.”
Brake and engine cooling proved very marginal on several cars during the practices, and Rosberg’s rear brakes actually caught alight during the first practice session. Mercedes always seems to be the first to encounter brake cooling problems in marginal conditions – and it was so again here.
Competitively, the combined effect of all these challenges seemed to reduce Mercedes’ usual advantage – with both Ferrari and Red Bull snapping hard at their heels. But come Q3 and, as usual, Mercedes had extra power available from its most aggressive engine mode – and the pole fight distilled down to Rosberg vs Hamilton. For the fourth race in succession, that honour fell to Rosberg, with a beautifully judged aggressive lap on his first Q3 run that was almost 0.2sec faster than Hamilton’s equivalent.
This set an all-time team record for the most front row lock outs in a season (13), surpassing McLaren’s 1988 benchmark. The low grip of the track meant the tyres were not giving their best until the second lap. With the track temperatures falling, no-one was able to improve on their second runs and the duel rather petered out. Rosberg looked more confident on corner entry, kept his brakes from locking into the tight turn 13 – which Hamilton didn’t – and took time out from him under braking for ‘Mansell turn’ at the end of the lap.
This corner is so named in honour of Nigel’s move on Gerhard Berger around the outside of Peraltada in 1990, but that great corner has been lost. Instead, short of what had been the approach to the banked turn, the track goes 90-degrees right (turn 12) into the ‘baseball stadium’, so named because of the epic height of the stands. This section has been used for IndyCar, but the layout of the track is different, with a very tight first gear left (turn 13) followed by a second gear right leading onto Mansell Turn (16) which rejoins the baseball section with the old Peraltada about halfway through its length, curving the cars back onto that long main straight.
The DRS activation point is very early into the straight on account of DRS not having much effect because of the thin air. The surface was super-smooth and low grip but bumps were already beginning to form in some of the braking areas by Saturday. The remainder of this short track (2.7 miles) is much as it was when F1 was last here in 1992, with an interlinked right-left-right sequence at the end of the straight leading onto a shorter back straight – another DRS zone, followed by the 90-degree left of turn four, leading into the tight stadium area, with a slow double apex turn six turning the cars back around for a short burst of acceleration up to the tricky left of turn seven. Ostensibly fourth/fifth gear, its camber and low grip was inducing understeer on entry, the cars clambering over the exit kerbs and then over to the left to line themselves up for the thread-the-needle S bend of eight-nine and another tighter S of 10-11, where the cars were super-spectacular in trying to get the power down. The whole place had a great party atmosphere, not unlike Interlagos.
Lewis professed to be not too concerned about losing out to Rosberg for pole – which might even have been true – because the run down to turn one was so long. There was a definite resolute purpose about Nico coming into this weekend. Even Toto Wolff described Rosberg’s lap as controlled anger. He was still very sore about what had unfolded at turn one in Austin and gave the impression that, with the title already decided, he was not prepared to come out of turn one in second place here.
Vettel eventually went third quickest, 0.4sec off pole in a Ferrari that worked well through the sweeps of sector two and the tight stop/go of sector three but lost time on the 1.3km straight of the first sector. He too set his best time on the second lap of his first Q3 run. “I pushed harder on my final run but I think I was too aggressive as the car was just sliding all over the place. They [Mercedes] were just a sniff too quick for us.”
Team-mate Kimi Räikkönen was in the wars. On Saturday morning the exhaust overheated and melted a lambda sensor, resulting in an engine stoppage and fire, which also damaged the gearbox. The engine was not destroyed, merely damaged, and will likely be used again. It was replaced with an older unit for qualifying but in the rush to put the car together, there was a brake-by-wire fault, forcing Kimi to call it a day early in Q2 after a spin. He was 15th fastest but taking a five place penalty for the new gearbox. The team then elected to fit a fresh engine – his sixth of the season – incurring a further 10-place penalty. All this did in reality was drop him one place to Fernando Alonso.
The Ferraris continued with the Mercedes-like three-piece turning vane beneath the nose and revised front wing introduced in Austin.
Come qualifying and the Red Bulls had lost some of the form they’d been showing through the practices and ended up 0.5sec adrift of Vettel, with Kvyat and Ricciardo lining up fourth and fifth respectively, one thousandth of a second apart. “I just struggled to find the right feel with the car,” reported Daniel. “The asphalt was changing every time – it had grip, then it didn’t. So it was a bit challenging.” Even in this thin air, they were still having to take some wing off for optimum lap time and were one of several cars that needed their bodywork opening up to improve the cooling. This seriously compromised the car’s aero efficiency – and the team elected not to run the monkey seat between diffuser and rear wing in the chase for straightline speed.
The Williams team lined up fifth and sixth in the order of Bottas and Massa, much of their lap time coming from their prodigious straightline speed. Through the twisty stuff the FW37’s rear ends were somewhat wayward.
Massa and Toro Rosso’s Max Verstappen did well to get into Q3 given that their final Q2 runs came late – when it had begun to spit with rain through the last couple of turns. Once into Q3 Verstappen edged out the Force Indias to go eighth, with team-mate Carlos Sainz failing to make the cut back in 11th, half a tenth slower than Max when it mattered, feeling he’d timed his run too early when the track was still improving. Verstappen had lost valuable track time when he’d put his car in the wall at Mansell turn early in second practice. Like the Red Bulls, the Toro Rossos needed their rear bodywork opened up extensively to meet the cooling requirements of this place.
Having only one set of softs left for Q3, the Force Indias went out late, hoping to catch the track at its fastest. In fact the track temperature had dropped 2-deg C and there was actually less grip. Local hero Pérez at least out-qualified team-mate Hülkenberg for ninth.
Romain Grosjean suffered a front suspension problem as he was part-way through the Q2 lap that looked like it was going to get him into Q3. Forced to abandon the lap, he qualified 12th, one ahead of Lotus team-mate Pastor Maldonado. The Lotuses were not finding as much time from new tyres as most other cars.
The Saubers were a difficult drive, the combination of soft springing and full braking causing them to scrape their underbellies and thereby locking wheels. Marcus Ericsson got his through to Q2 where he went 14th, while Felipe Nasr locked up at turn 13 on the crucial Q1 lap and failed to graduate from there, 17th.
Fernando Alonso’s McLaren was marginally faster than Nasr. The car was pretty quick through the tight final sector but its limited ers deployment meant big punishment on the very long straight. Through the trap at the end of there it was 11mph down on the fastest. Jenson Button didn’t take part in qualifying – for the third time this year – after a misfire was found in his new spec 4 engine (as introduced on Alonso’s car in Austin) too late to be able to change it. Both were taking penalties for their various engine and component changes – Alonso 15 of them, Button 70. The Honda was unable to run its turbo any faster than at conventional altitude tracks and as a result was around 40bhp down on its usual output. Alex Rossi was a couple of tenths quicker than Will Stevens – who was restricted to just one run because of a throttle problem – in the Manor match-up at the back, around 2.3sec off the McLaren.
The teams’ radars were forecasting a thunderstorm. But we never saw it. The sun shone hard and brought the track temperature up into the 50-deg C range. This was unchartered territory. The feeling was that Pirelli’s choice of medium/soft was a very conservative one. “Even if they’d brought soft/super-soft it would still have been too hard,” said one engineer.
The practices had suggested that the medium was much the better race tyre – more durable and actually faster after about four to five laps. The problem with the soft seemed to be rear graining. “Rear graining is a nightmare,” said Williams’ Pat Symonds, “because unlike front graining the driver cannot really control it. It just gets worse and worse and opens the tyre up.”
If that could be controlled and you could get to, say, 15 laps before having to stop, then the medium was in theory good for the remaining 56 laps. But it would be marginal. Rear wear would make it vulnerable to failure. So if there was a late safety car, where you could get a stop for free, then most would take it – on the grounds of security. But if you were forced by the soft’s rear graining to stop too early, then you’d be forced onto the less advantageous two-stop. Everyone apart from the three world champions out of position at the back – Alonso, Räikkönen and Button – started on the soft. That way you didn’t need to commit to a one or a two-stop strategy without knowing the duration of the shorter stint.
What actually happened was the high track temperatures helped ease the graining problem for almost everyone, so a genuine two-stop didn’t really come onto the radar. The problem areas would be brake temperatures and – for some more than others – engine temperatures. That thin air density combined with the high ambient was going to require those to be heavily monitored and controlled. With 23 per cent less air to cool the brakes, greater straightline speeds because of the low drag of the thin air and more stopping to be done because of the lower entry speeds resulting from the reduction in downforce, the brakes were going to get a severe work-out.
As usual, Ferrari had played safer than Mercedes on ducting – with big inlets. Mercedes, with the assumption it would be running at the front, preferred to control the wear by controlling its pace. Red Bull, being the no-compromise entity it is, went extremely racy on ducts, as did Toro Rosso – to an extent that seriously worried Brembo.
The crowd, knowing little of this, was simply excited to be present at their first home grand prix in 23 years, the first in which there was a home hero to cheer for 45 years. The atmosphere in the crazy, chaotic place was electric. Mercedes made its now traditional crawling formation lap, helping the tyre pressures drop to a grippier level. Rosberg and Hamilton made pretty equal starts, with Lewis tucking tight into Nico’s slipstream. Kvyat got away better than Vettel, with Seb slicing between the two Red Bulls, then pulling to their outside as they reached the braking zone. Rosberg placed his car in the middle of the track and braked at the optimum point, leaving Hamilton no option but to tuck in behind. “That was probably the most important part of the race today,” said Rosberg afterwards.
Vettel and Ricciardo, meanwhile, were side by side, Seb slightly ahead. The Ferrari cut across the Red Bull’s nose, leaving Daniel nowhere to go. The only casualty from the contact was Seb’s left-rear tyre, which took a puncture. This caused a bit of chaos as Vettel limped around on his way back to the pits. Bottas benefitted best from the queue the Ferrari created and Massa – who had got away ahead of Bottas – lost out, as Valtteri and Verstappen swerved around them between turn six and seven.
At the end of the lap Rosberg screamed by 0.6sec ahead of Hamilton, the Mercs already having opened up a gap to Kvyat, Ricciardo, Bottas, Verstappen, Massa, Pérez, Hülkenberg, Sainz, Maldonado, Grosjean, Ericsson, Nasr, Rossi, Räikkönen, Button and Stevens. Vettel trailed pitwards and was fitted with a new set of primes. Alonso came in and retired the McLaren. “We knew from yesterday we had a problem with the MGU-H rotation speed that couldn’t be cured. So we did a lap just for the public,” said Fernando.
Räikkönen and Button quickly dealt with the fast-stating Rossi but only the Ferrari would then make further progress. Button’s McLaren was running out of electrical deployment very early on the straight, making passing impossible. It was going to be a long, hot afternoon for JB.
1. N Rosberg Mercedes 1h42m35.038s
2. L Hamilton Mercedes 1.954s
3. V Bottas Williams 14.592s
4. D Kvyat Red Bull 16.572s
5. D Ricciardo Red Bull 19.682s
6. F Massa Williams 21.493s
7. N Hülkenberg Force India 25.860s
8. S Pérez Force India 34.343s
9. M Verstappen Toro Rosso 35.229s
10. R Grosjean Lotus 37.934s
11. P Maldonado Lotus 38.538s
12. M Ericsson Sauber 40.180s
13. C Sainz Toro Rosso 48.772s
14. J Button McLaren 49.214s
15. A Rossi Marussia 2 Laps
16. W Stevens Marussia 2 Laps
DNF F Nasr Sauber (Brakes)
DNF S Vettel Ferrari (Accident)
DNF K Räikkönen Ferrari (Collision)
DNF F Alonso McLaren (Power Unit)
Rosberg was already out of Hamilton’s DRS reach as the feature was enabled into the third lap. Bottas used his DRS to take a serious look at Ricciardo down to the first turn, as Massa did the same to Verstappen. Neither move quite succeeded – and these drivers were presented with something of a conundrum, for to follow too closely for too long was going to overheat their brakes and engines. The monitoring was already happening up and down the pitlane – and some were more concerned than others. The two Mercs streaked away from the field but both drivers were being cautioned about brake temps. Engine temperatures weren’t an issue there, but were at both Red Bull and Toro Rosso – as were the brakes. But the other pre-race worry, the soft tyres, seemed to be behaving very well… on most cars.
The exceptions were the two Williams and Hülkenberg’s Force India, all of which were soon experiencing the dreaded graining rears. Williams had no way of knowing they were almost unique in this. In the assumption that everyone around them would be suffering similarly, it planned to be aggressive against Red Bull, going for the undercut as early as possible – while still being able to remain on a one-stop. So Bottas was pulled in on lap eight, Massa (and Hülkenberg) lap nine. Red Bull declined to respond, figuring that Williams must be doing a two-stop to have come in so early.
Bottas dropped down behind Button upon rejoining – partly because of a fairly slow stop at 3.2sec. The speed of the right-front change would be a recurring problem for both Williams throughout the race. Ferrari would later do the fastest stop at 2.3sec, while Red Bull and Mercedes both averaged around 2.6sec. A stop of 3.2-3.3sec is fantastically quick by any normal standards, but at the white-hot end of the front of an F1 field, it’s half-a-second off the pace. Massa rejoined behind Bottas and they each made short work of Button. The Red Bulls and Verstappen’s Toro Rosso would stay out for another dozen laps or more as they sought to extend their soft-tyred stint to more safely accommodate a one-stop.
But actually, that turned out in hindsight to be the wrong way to go. The early stops of Bottas, Massa and Hülkenberg boosted their positions after the first stops (on account of the undercut effect of their new prime tyres while those around them persevered with their old, fading softs) but there was no concomitant penalty – because the primes proved durable enough to allow those early stoppers to remain on one-stop strategies. The later safety car – allowing everyone a free stop – just helped them even further, preventing them from having to defend late in the race on worn-out tyres.
Before the Red Bulls and others made their late first stops, there were a few developments further down the field. Vettel had rejoined after his lap one stop 17sec adrift of the back of the pack, but going quickly on the prime tyre that was proving a faster race tyre than the option most of the rest of the field was on. By the 15th lap he’d caught the back of the pack and was ahead of seven other cars. He’d just made that eight by passing Button when he spun at turn 10. He rejoined but had lost 12sec and four of those hard-won places.
Grosjean was able to emerge from Lotus’s early stops ahead of team-mate Maldonado – despite having pitted a lap later. Maldonado’ new primes didn’t immediately fire up and his out-lap was slow enough to be surpassed by Grosjean’s in-lap. They’d continue to battle for the rest of the afternoon, but Grosjean retained the upper hand. Sainz, having passed Hülkenberg on lap four, lost out to him by pitting later and coming out a couple of places behind. Pérez stopped on the 18th lap, rejoined behind Sainz and proceeded conservatively from there, looking to eke out his tyre life in his characteristic fashion. Räikkönen – on his prime tyres, not planning to stop for a long time yet – was making good progress and was an out-of-sequence sixth by the 20th lap.
1. Lewis Hamilton 345
2. Nico Rosberg 272
3. Sebastian Vettel 251
4. Valtteri Bottas 126
5. Kimi Räikkönen 123
6. Felipe Massa 117
7. Daniil Kvyat 88
8. Daniel Ricciardo 84
9. Sergio Pérez 68
10. Max Verstappen 47
11. Romain Grosjean 45
12. Nico Hülkenberg 44
13. Felipe Nasr 27
14. Pastor Maldonado 26
15. Carlos Sainz 18
16. Jenson Button 16
17. Fernando Alonso 11
18. Marcus Ericsson 9
19. Roberto Merhi 0
20. Alexander Rossi 0
21. Will Stevens 0
By this time Rosberg seemed to have established a margin over Hamilton. Lewis would occasionally put the hammer down and set a fastest lap, only for Nico to respond next time around. They were by now almost 15sec clear of third place Kvyat who was around 5sec ahead of team-mate Ricciardo, who in turn was around 7sec in front of Verstappen. Kvyat was brought in at the end of the 21st lap, stationary for 2.3sec and underway on a fresh set of primes. Daniil rejoined still in front of Bottas and Massa. Ricciardo, having taken less from his rear tyres, stayed out for a further three laps and rejoined behind the Williams pair. Williams’ early stops had jumped both their cars ahead of Ricciardo.
“My pace on the options wasn’t very good,” said Daniel, “but I was much happier when I got onto the primes.” Playing it tactically, he ran a gentle pace for the next few laps, saving his tyres and brakes, ready to attack the Williams pair later on, in the knowledge that his tyres were 15-16 laps newer.
Just ahead of the Williams/Red Bull battle lay the yet-to-stop Räikkönen, with Bottas quickly closing him down. Valtteri caught him on the 22nd lap into turn five, the first part of a left-right sequence that’s tricky to defend. On his newer tyres, he went for the outside and rounded there side-by-side with the Ferrari, ready to claim the inside for five. Räikkönen refused to give him room and dived for the apex, clipping his right-rear against the Williams’ left-front to the terminal detriment of his suspension. Yet again the two Finns had come together, but this time it was Kimi who was out. Valtteri’s car was somehow undamaged.
The pace of the Toro Rossos was compromised quite early on by very high brake and engine temperatures. Verstappen thus fell off the back of the Williams/Red Bull battle and dropped behind the early-stopping Hülkenberg after pitting on lap 25. He was aiming to one-stop, though the early-stopping Sainz was committed to a two-stop.
As the Mercedes stops approached, Hamilton aggressively closed the gap Rosberg had opened up. By the 25th lap, on the eve of Rosberg’s stop, the gap had shrunk from 2.7sec to 1.8sec. Rosberg came in for his mediums. Hamilton stayed out for an extra two laps. “We wanted to see if Lewis had more pace once he was in clear air,” explained Mercedes chief strategist James Vowles. “On the first lap it was about equal [with Rosberg] but after that he was slower. So that’s when we brought him in.”
Rosberg’s long stint had essentially ensured Hamilton did not have the tyre grip left to make possible the overcut. With no-one else to worry about, Rosberg and his engineer had shrewdly ran long to extinguish that risk, using the privilege of the leader’s first call on strategy. It all had the effect of extending Rosberg’s lead to 3.5sec, just underlining how he seemed to be in full control of this race. It was a completely dominant, polished and smart performance – and left Hamilton powerless to attack.
The focus on the Mercedes pitwall was now to establish more than a pitstop’s worth of time over third place so that the precautionary extra tyre change could be made, while still looking after those very hot brakes. There had even been a precautionary back-up plan in place for the pitstops if the brakes were above a crucial temperature threshold: if necessary, there would be a slow lift-and-coast in-lap. But it wasn’t necessary in the end. “Both drivers did a fantastic job of managing the brakes,” said Vowles. A stop would take around 24sec and Hamilton’s gap over Kvyat at this stage was just over 21sec.
Pérez’s steady drive was progressing nicely. He made up a place as Sainz, with his overworked and under-cooled brakes, locked up into turn four and missed out part of the track, obliging him to surrender the place – which he did in the packed baseball stand, to the delight of the crowd there. Carlos would later make his planned second stop and drop behind the Lotuses and Ericsson’s Sauber.
Vettel’s recovery from his earlier spin had come up short when he reached Maldonado. With the Ferrari’s tyres by now very old and the Mercedes-powered Lotus quicker than the Ferrari down the straights, Seb was making no further progress. He pitted on lap 35 for a fresh set of primes and went a lap down. Not long after that he reported debris at turn 10. It’s true there was a piece of something off the racing line there – but it hardly justified the safety car that Vettel was shrewdly trying to invoke, one that would have allowed him to unlap himself and wipe away much of the deficit to the cars in front now he was on his new tyres. The race director seemed wise to his ruse, and a marshal subsequently removed said debris. Vettel was thus foiled, but it was difficult not to admire the man’s tenacity.
With the necessary gap over Kvyat established, Rosberg was called in for the precautionary second stop on lap 46 – and he duly complied. “I didn’t want to come in because I was really comfortable at the time,” said Nico. “I had a good gap to Lewis so it sort of reset things a little bit, going on another set of tyres – so I wasn’t too happy with that but I understand that it was the better thing to do.”
Now came the interesting part. As Rosberg left the pits so the crew readied Hamilton’s tyres and Lewis was called in. With the tyres out of their blankets and his crew at the ready, Hamilton continued flat-out on to another lap. Was he going to defy the team order to pit and steal this race? “Can I ask why?” said Hamilton. “I’m feeling very comfortable on these tyres.” His engineer answered as best he could. But it was a less than full explanation.
The reality was pretty obvious to all concerned as Hamilton toyed with the idea of a defiant victory, stolen by disobeying a team instruction. Perhaps he just didn’t have the stomach for the volcanic fall-out that would have been sure to follow. He reluctantly came in two laps after Rosberg and rejoined just over 4sec behind. “That was the wrong call,” he insisted. “Keep me informed on what the wear of those tyres was.” Just like Rosberg’s, they were just 40 per cent worn after 20 laps and would comfortably have made it to the end. But that wasn’t the point.
1. Mercedes 617
2. Ferrari 374
3. Williams-Mercedes 243
4. Red Bull-Renault 172
5. Force India-Mercedes 112
6. Lotus-Mercedes 71
7. Toro Rosso-Renault 65
8. Sauber-Ferrari 36
9. McLaren-Honda 27
10. Marussia-Ferrari 0
At around the same time, Ricciardo had judged that he’d done enough tyre and brake saving and now was the time to launch an attack on the two Williams ahead of him. Massa’s rear tyres were now beginning to suffer and, unbeknownst to Ricciardo, Williams was already figuring it would need to stop Felipe again. Bottas looked like he’d be able to get to the end on his set. Ricciardo did a clean DRS pass on the tyre-compromised Massa into turn one on lap 51.
Then Vettel crashed. Again the problem corner was turn 10, the Ferrari this time going straight on before spinning across the grass and side-on into the barriers. “Sorry,” he reported to his team over the radio. “I’ve done a shit job today.” It’s an extremely rare occurrence.
The safety car was immediately deployed – and most of the field elected to take the free tyre stop on offer. There was a tricky decision to be made by Red Bull. It was going to be vulnerable to Williams upon the restart given the difference in straightline speeds. So it took the gamble with both cars to fit soft tyres. These were typically quicker than the mediums for the first lap or so but slower thereafter. That superior restart performance might be just enough to keep them ahead at the vulnerable point. So both Kvyat and Ricciardo were fitted with them.
At Williams Massa was brought in first, Bottas a lap later. “The key for us at his stage was to make sure we got Felipe serviced,” explained Rob Smedley. “If we’d served Valtteri on that lap we’d have lost time on Felipe’s stop. Then we saw that Kvyat, Ricciardo and Hülkenberg had pitted so we didn’t want to leave Valtteri out on worn tyres and we pitted him the lap after, just watching the safety car delta to make sure we got him out still in front of Ricciardo.” The only ones not stopping at this point were the two Mercs, Pérez and Button. With Pérez, the logic was that he’d have lost a place had Verstappen chosen not to pit. It was deemed better to defend, especially as Verstappen’s pace was not great, courtesy of him having to heavily manage temperatures.
So they lined up behind the safety car in the order of Rosberg, Hamilton, Kvyat, Bottas, Ricciardo, Massa, Hülkenberg, Pérez, Verstappen, Grosjean, Maldonado, Sainz, Ericsson, Nasr, Button, Stevens and Rossi. Hamilton was desperately trying to get a run on Rosberg, but Nico had it all under control as they sprinted away to begin the 58th lap, with 13 to go. As Red Bull had feared, Bottas was able to effortlessly pass Kvyat down the straight to take third place. Rosberg ran across the run-off at turn seven, but Hamilton was unable to take advantage – and a few seconds later he got wide across the turn 10 kerbs. Nasr’s brakes overheated themselves to nothing – and he pulled off into retirement. Rossi repassed Stevens in the Manor competition and would remain ahead to the end.
Pérez looked to have a tough task on his hands on tyres that were 40 laps old, fending off the fresh-tyred Verstappen and the Lotus pair. But the combination of his canny earlier conserving and the difficulties faced by Verstappen meant he was even able put some distance on them. He reckoned it one the best drives of his career and it was difficult to disagree. Without the safety car Hülkenberg ahead of him may well have had to make a second stop that would have dropped him behind.
Hamilton in his chase of Rosberg got wide again on the 64th lap, undoing the inroads he’d made on the leader in the previous couple of laps. He rattled off a series of very fast laps to close the gap back up, but he was running out of laps. When Rosberg responded on the 67th lap, it was essentially game, set and match.
He duly reeled off perhaps the most impressive victory of his career, having controlled Hamilton all weekend. Bottas’s third was reward for a tenacious drive though Kvyat, after perhaps his best race, could consider himself unlucky to lose out on the podium. The remaining positions remained unchanged – Ricciardo, Massa, Hülkenberg, Pérez, Verstappen and Grosjean the points scorers.
Rosberg stood on that fabulous podium overlooking the baseball stadium section and threw the trophy high in the very thin air.
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