OK, so Mercedes won, Nico Rosberg making it four in a row to start the new season. But it probably wasn’t panning out that way. Ferrari had every reason to believe the red flags brought out by Fernando Alonso’s huge accident after colliding with Esteban Gutiérrez cost Sebastian Vettel the race. The Ferrari’s rocket-like getaway – and the correspondingly mediocre starts of the front-row Mercs – had put the Scuderia 1-2 in the opening seconds and it looked like that was going to be the foundation of the result.
It wasn’t an absolute certainty it would have played out that way. Rosberg had just undercut his way past the second Ferrari of Kimi Räikkönen and was within 5s of Seb with two-thirds of the race still to go – and the Mercedes probably was an ultimately faster car than the Ferrari. But its advantage was certainly nowhere near what it had been in qualifying the day before – and with track position king around an Albert Park track on which it’s particularly difficult to overtake, you’d reckon Vettel would probably have had it covered.
But then on the 200mph run down to the turn three braking zone, the race’s complexion changed. Alonso – slipstreaming Gutiërrez’s Haas, Esteban defensively in the middle of the track, Fernando bobbing around on the inside – switched across to the outside at just the moment Esteban was easing that way to take up his line. The gap was no longer there, the McLaren’s right-front hit the Haas left-rear and an aircraft-type accident unfolded with extraordinary violence, the McLaren rebounding into the wall on the left, then rolling as it dug into the gravel trap before rearing into the air once more, ending its flight a crumpled wreck on its side in the wall. Amazingly, Alonso was able to crawl out essentially unharmed, a fantastic testimony to modern safety standards.
The timing of the subsequent red flag, with everyone free to fit new tyres for the restart, formed an awkward strategic Y. There were 39 laps still to go; a set of mediums might have been able to stretch that far but no-one really knew (Friday practice had been rained out), a set of softs probably would not, a set of super-softs certainly wouldn’t. So this new era of three available Pirelli compounds increased the uncertainty. Mercedes felt quite comfortable with its choice of running non-stop on a set of mediums, its confidence enhanced by the massive mileage it conducted on this tyre through Barcelona testing – and the fact that it was a problem-free tyre around here last year. Ferrari’s calculations suggested the total time of that choice versus that of a supersoft/soft combination with a pit stop was actually very similar but there was a reluctance to go with the medium. With the track temperatures already beginning to fall as afternoon turned to early evening, there was a real chance that the tyre wouldn’t have switched on, especially on a Ferrari that still tends to be the first car to suffer with under-temperature fronts. Ferrari therefore felt more comfortable being aggressive and lined Vettel and Räikkönen up for the restart on the super-softs.
The mediums on the Mercs switched on just fine upon the restart. Vettel pulled away initially from Rosberg, but not for long and not by much. Rosberg was just 1s or so behind as Seb made his stop for softs 16 laps after the restart – and Nico saw only daylight and lapped cars in front of him for the rest of the day. Unbeknown to the outside world though, there were all sorts of dramas with Rosberg’s car which the team – under the new radio restrictions – were not allowed to inform him of. Mercedes was expecting to have to retire the car, but it somehow held on.
Räikkönen’s Ferrari, however, did not, retiring with a suspected blown turbo. Lewis Hamilton – who had given himself a busy day after blowing his start from pole and falling back to sixth – came through for runner-up and fended off a late challenge from the recovering fresh-tyred Vettel. The rest, headed by Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull, were a long way behind. Romain Grosjean gave the Haas team a fairytale debut with sixth place, a tremendous effort from all concerned, aided by the red flag giving them a tyre change without losing position, but that was a piece of luck capitalised on with a superb pressure drive from Grosjean – and a car with a good turn of speed that might be expected soon to be a lower Q3 qualifier. The mood was rather lighter in the Haas camp than Toro Rosso where a civil war had broken out between ninth and tenth finishers Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen.
Given the farcical aspect of Saturday’s new format qualifying as well as the despondency felt then by the apparently huge Mercedes advantage, Sunday painted a vastly brighter picture. Ferrari may have lost the race but it’s fast enough to give Mercedes grief – and the new qualifying format has already been binned.
A total disaster. There was barely a dissenting voice from that verdict of the new qualifying system. The broad intention – of creating more jeopardy to mix the grid up – may have had merit, but the detail of it had not been adequately thought through. Damon Hill best summed up the wet squib aspect of how it led pole to being set with four minutes still to go: “Lewis had time to wave his own chequered flag.”
That chequered flag was waved to a long-empty track, leaving many fans bewildered about exactly what was going on – why everyone had apparently given up. They might have wondered too why the Ferrari drivers – a long way off provisional pole – were waving to them as they walked up the pitlane, still with several minutes of the session to go. The new countdown system had induced everyone into doing their laps early in order to avoid the drop, many using up their tyre allocation long before the session was over. That was in Q3. In Q1 and Q2, the countdown system meant insufficient time for those near the drop zone to get in second runs – and thus they sat in their garages meekly awaiting the inevitable, like lambs to the slaughter of the clock’s relentless dictates.
Hamilton’s pole lap was over 0.8s faster than Vettel’s Ferrari and 0.3s faster than Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg. But the Mercedes advantage was only amplified by the new qualifying system. In the Ferrari garage Vettel and Räikkönen were climbing out of their cars to walk to the weighbridge while the two Merc drivers were still out there fighting for pole. Both Seb and Kimi each had enough super-soft tyres and could have gone out for another run, but elected to keep them for the race instead. In Q2 they – unlike the Mercs – had each had to make second runs to keep themselves safe from the drop. Once the Scuderia had judged that Hamilton’s first Q3 effort – 0.5s faster than what Vettel felt was a very good lap – was not within reach, they judged it better to save a set of super-softs for race day than to surrender them chasing an impossible time.
Rosberg meanwhile – who had messed up his first run by running wide over the turn nine exit kerb – was able to leapfrog himself ahead of the Ferraris on his second run. Hamilton, running behind Rosberg on track as they made their second runs, could see from his dash read-out that he was 0.3s up on his team-mate after the second sector, and decided to ‘bank’ that advantage and take it relatively easy in the final sector to ensure pole. There was a further 0.2-0.3s to come in that final sector he reckoned – which if true would have made his advantage similar to the 0.6s gap he had over Rosberg here last year. This was his 50th career pole.
Thus Vettel’s deficit to Hamilton grew from the 0.5s it had been after his sole Q3 run to over 0.8s by the time Hamilton had made his second. So, what was the actual Mercedes true one-lap pace advantage over the Ferrari? Vettel reckons there wasn’t all that much more to find had he made a second run – maybe a couple of tenths, at most. And if Hamilton’s spare 0.2-0.3s was genuine, it would suggest the actual 0.8s margin was about right on this track on this day.
Engine mode magic again seemed to be a key area of Mercedes advantage over Ferrari, its pace and speed trap readings stepping up dramatically into Q2. A lot of the work on the Mercedes power unit over the winter has centred around improving the duration of the combustion, moving that detonation threshold further back and allowing more power to be used more safely for longer. Furthermore, the cool track temperatures – around 25 degrees – further played against Ferrari. “Yeah, I think we would have been better if the temperature had been a little higher,” admitted fourth-fastest Räikkönen. “In the first part of the lap I didn’t really have enough front-end grip, but as the tyres came up to temperature later in the lap it was actually good.” Räikkönen’s low-input steering style invariably makes him more vulnerable to this Ferrari trait than Vettel and he was 0.35s adrift of his team-mate.
Toro Rosso and Williams were closely matched as best of the rest, with Max Verstappen’s Ferrari-powered STR11 narrowly edging out Felipe Massa’s Williams. Carlos Sainz, in seventh, helped ensure both Toro Rossos out-qualified the parent Red Bull team. Had Sainz repeated his Q2 time, he’d have out-qualified Verstappen, but the lap just didn’t quite come together, Carlos feeling that the track may actually have been better in Q2. Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo was eighth, a few hundredths adrift of Sainz, but also failing to match his own Q2 time after keeping a set of super-softs back for the race. Team-mate Daniil Kvyat failed to make it out of Q1 (in 18th), not getting the heat into his tyres quickly enough to avoid being at the bottom of the pile as the countdown proceeded. That was about the only randomisation the new system produced.
Force India played the Q3 cut-off perfectly, both Sergio Pérez and Nico Hulkenberg choosing not to do second runs even though they had the time and the tyres to do so. Strategically, being able to start on fresh rubber of their own compound choice, was a powerful advantage over the likes of Ricciardo and Sainz who were obliged, through making Q3, to start on the tyres with which they set their time in Q2. Whether there was any judgement in the Force India drivers’ first runs being slower than those of the Toro Rossos, Massa and Ricciardo is debatable, however, that just seemed to be the Force India’s natural level here, a vital tenth or so behind the Toro/Williams/Red Bull pace.
The Williams of Valtteri Bottas was left mired in Q2, 11th fastest, after being forced, by Verstappen right behind him, to push harder on his out-lap than intended, meaning his tyres were overworked well before the lap was over. A problem was later found with the Williams gearbox and he’d be taking a five-place penalty for its replacement. The McLarens of Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, respectively 12th and 13th, were much improved since last year, comfortably eclipsing Renault and Sauber but still over a second off the ultimate pace, tallying with a power shortfall of around 100bhp.
The pace gap from McLaren to Renault directly behind – around 1.5s – was exaggerated by both Renaults having used up all their super-softs just in getting through to Q2. In the dry the RS16 seemed to be around 0.7s adrift of the McLarens. Jolyon Palmer, on his debut, did well to out-qualify team-mate Kevin Magnussen, his cause aided by the latter getting compromised by traffic on the lap in question. Regardless, Palmer’s handling of the car always looked aggressively confident.
The Saubers failed to make it out of Q1, Marcus Ericsson staying in play one car longer than Felipe Nasr with a lap that was a couple of tenths adrift of the Renaults. Behind the compromised Kvyat came the Haas team of Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutiérrez. These cars comfortably had the pace to have made it into Q2 at Renault’s expense but fell victim to the team’s operational newness. They’d each been near the front of the queue but each then had compromised laps – Grosjean by getting caught in the traffic, Gutiérrez by locking up. The inexperienced team was slow in turning them around as they returned – and ultimately didn’t get out in time to have their laps count before the countdown spat them out. Gutiérrez missed by 15s, Grosjean by half-a-minute, but their times on those laps – had they counted – were on a par with the McLarens.
The two Manors of rookies Rio Haryanto and Pascal Wehrlein made up the back row of the grid, a couple of seconds off a Sauber pace. The former would take a grid penalty for his part in a pit lane collision with Grosjean during practice.
Below is an approximation of the potential one-lap pace around Melbourne on that day, with those track temperatures, taking out the various randomising factors.
Mercedes: 1m 23.5s
Ferrari: 1m 24.4s
Williams: 1m 25.2s
Toro Rosso: 1m 25.4s
Red Bull: 1m 25.6s
Force India: 1m 25.6s
McLaren: 1m 25.8s
Haas: 1m 25.8s
Renault: 1m 26.5s
Sauber: 1m 27.0s
Manor: 1m 29.0s
By race start time, 4pm, the teams had agreed unanimously to ditch the countdown qualifying system and revert to what we had before from Bahrain onwards. Plus the sun was shining. Not only did that make Albert Park – always a most agreeable venue anyway – even nicer, but it offered hope of a more competitive Ferrari. The Mercedes advantage in qualifying is partly to do with a more potent engine mode range, but the cool track of Saturday had hurt Ferrari further. Now those things were less critical.
The tension was cranked up a notch as the start was aborted, the field sent on its way for another formation lap. The problem was Kvyat’s Red Bull, which had suffered an electrical failure related to the ERS-h just short of the grid. It was the second successive year he’d retired before the race had even begun. The race was duly reduced a lap to 57, with much of the field hoping to stop just once but accepting it might be necessary to move to the slower two-stop. With the top eight obliged to start on the super-softs on which they’d qualified in Q2, they were possibly at a strategic disadvantage to those directly behind, with free choice of starting rubber.
The super-softs were around 1s faster than the softs which in turn were around 1s faster than the mediums. But the degradation rates of each were expected to be inversely corresponding. The slow (60kph) and long pit lane and relatively low degradation rates meant it would be faster to stop just once – if each tyre set could be made to last that long. This wasn’t known for sure thanks to Friday’s weather. But for sure it would be easier to achieve if you could avoid the necessarily short opening stint a used set of super-soft imposed upon the top eight. Just behind, the Force Indias of Pérez and Hulkenberg began on the softs, as did Bottas, Button and the two Haas machines. Everyone else opted for the startline traction of new super-softs.
Startline performance was Hamilton’s problem as the gantry lights went out. The combination of the new single-stage operation of the clutch together with how the radio restrictions now apply to its operation – putting it fully back in the driver’s control – did what it was intended to do by bringing more variability to the quality of the starts. Hamilton’s was awful, the car bogging down badly, Rosberg’s alongside was average from the dirty side of the grid, but Vettel’s from row two was a flyer, enabling him to thread between the silver cars even before the first turn. Rosberg tried to reclaim the lead from the Ferrari by braking late on the inside, but Seb was the crucial amount ahead as he turned in, Rosberg’s late braking took him out wide, to where Hamilton already was, forcing the latter to back off, Lewis lightly catching his front wing on the back of the other Mercedes. As they were sorting themselves out, Räikkönen used his greater momentum to ease past them both for second. In the opening seconds Ferrari had apparently put themselves in control of their own destiny. With Kimi as Seb’s back-up, they could surely now control this race.
Hamilton’s lost momentum allowed Verstappen and Massa to overtake as they all accelerated out of that first right-left sequence and the wildly dicing pack headed down beneath the trees, two Ferraris leading the field. The 2016 season was at last properly underway.
Hamilton had to get his elbows out to fend off Sainz and they headed Hulkenberg, Ricciardo, Alonso, Palmer, Pérez, Button, a fast-starting Wehrlein, Ericsson, Nasr, Bottas, Grosjean, Haryanto and the initially misfiring car of Gutiérrez. Magnussen had collected a puncture against another car and was limping the yellow Renault pitwards in a shower of sparks. Hulkenberg and Ricciardo traded blows, almost touching through the switchback of turns three-four. Turn five used to be a comfortably flat kink. In these cars, especially heavily laden with fuel, the drivers are picking their lines very carefully and trying not to let the wheels spin up as they accelerate beneath the tree cover of the tight turn six, then bursting out into the bright sunlight as they surge through the kinks of seven-eight and up to the hard braking zone of Clark chicane, a long curving ‘straight’ connecting that to the blind approach of the fast, thread-the-needle, left-right of 11-12, the latter’s exit treacherous. Running between the park’s lake and the parallel main road, a short straight up to the tight left of 13 and onwards towards the final slow-speed stop-go sequence back onto the pit straight.
Vettel led his team mate by 1.5s at the end of the lap, Rosberg took stock just behind Räikkönen, already easing clear of Verstappen while Hamilton was darting all over the back of Massa’s Williams. It would be another three laps before Lewis was able to sling the Mercedes down the inside into turn three and set off after Verstappen.
Rosberg closed upon Räikkönen but even when DRS was enabled couldn’t do anything about passing. This was shaping up beautifully for Vettel. Hamilton was soon complaining that he couldn’t do anything about getting past Verstappen either despite being potentially much faster. As his front tyres grained up every time he ran too long in the Toro Rosso’s slipstream, Hamilton was urging the team to think of an alternative strategy. Although the new pits to radio restrictions were largely still in place, the specifics of a team being able to discuss strategy with a driver had been eased on the eve of the race.
Massa was struggling for pace in these early laps and soon Sainz was bottled up behind him. Both Toro Rosso drivers were complaining that they were rapidly losing grip – but still Sainz was tight behind Massa. By the eighth lap, the window of opportunity had opened to bring Carlos in to attempt to undercut past Felipe. Williams did not respond, trying to stay on its one-stop schedule, with Sainz now committed to a two. In the other Toro Rosso Verstappen was soon complaining about his tyres and urging the team to bring him in – but wasn’t getting any response.
Vettel continued serenely on his way. His gap over his team-mate was out at around 2.5s and Rosberg had despaired of finding a way by Räikkönen on track. On the 12th lap – as soon he he’d pulled out enough time over Hulkenberg that he could clear the Force India if he pitted – Mercedes brought him in. He was fitted with a new set of soft tyres and got out critically just ahead of the Force India. This forced Ferrari into prioritising Vettel. Räikkönen had effectively already lost the place – so close had Rosberg been behind him when he pitted, so much quicker would he be on his new tyres than Kimi could go on his old. The urgent need was to protect Vettel’s position – and so Seb was called in on the next lap, and fitted with another set of super-softs – the new ones he’d saved by not doing a second Q3 run the day before. He exited around 1s ahead of Rosberg, putting Räikkönen into a temporary lead.
Vettel was followed into the pits by Verstappen who, despairing of getting the team to bring him in to replace his degrading tyres, took matters into his own hands and told them he was coming in. They didn’t have his tyres quite ready yet and he was delayed a few seconds, though still emerged just in front of his team-mate. Hamilton saw clear space ahead of him for the first time, now a distant second to Räikkönen. Mercedes had effectively now split its strategy, with Rosberg likely to two-stop, Hamilton going long enough to one-stop.
Even with Kimi complaining that his tyres had gone, Ferrari kept him out – as he might potentially have been needed to help Vettel who was about to be closely sandwiched between the two Mercs. With Rosberg on his tail, Vettel had quickly caught the old-tyred Hamilton. But he dealt with him easily, the tyre performance difference allowing Seb to go around Hamilton’s outside at turn two. No longer needed for protective duty, Räikkönen was brought in on the 16th lap and fitted with his fresh super-softs. He was followed in by Hamilton who had a set of the slowest but most durable mediums fitted – confirming him on a one-stop.
The various undercut attempts had brought the first stops forward and effectively swung the race towards a two-stop for most, with just Hamilton, the Force Indias and Bottas going for the alternative. Williams had intended this strategy for Massa too, but his tyres degraded too quickly to make that possible – and he’d pitted on lap 11. The crowd saw some passing in this phase as the pitted fresh-tyred cars picked off those struggling on old rubber, Ricciardo getting wild cheers from the crowd as he did this.
So after the flurry of stops was over, Vettel on his super-softs led Rosberg on his softs by just over 5s, with Räikkönen a very distant third. Hamilton’s slow pace and late stop – a necessary penalty in converting him to a one-stop – had got him leapfrogged by the earlier-pitting cars of Ricciardo, Verstappen and Sainz. Daniel had been fitted with new super-softs saved from the day before and now lay fourth, though some way behind Räikkönen. Behind the Toro Rossos and Hamilton lay Massa, the yet-to-stop Haas of Grosjean, Bottas, Hulkenberg, the yet-to-stop Gutiérrez, Alonso, Palmer, Pérez, Ericsson, Button (who’d had poor pace on the soft tyres of his first stint and fallen way back), Nasr, the Manors of Wehrlein and Haryanto and the delayed Renault of Magnussen.
The race was quite nicely poised at this point – with the tyre variance between Vettel and Rosberg particularly interesting. Rosberg’s softs could potentially stay in shape for as much as 10 laps longer than Vettel’s super-softs, but the latter would be around 1s faster initially. Could Vettel use that initial rubber advantage to extend his 5s lead over Rosberg, or did the Mercedes have the pace to allow Nico to stay with – or even close on – the Ferrari despite the harder tyre? After they’d each pitted their laps were as follows:
Vettel Lap 15: 1m 30.7s, 16: 1m 31.8s
Rosberg Lap 15: 1m 32.0s, 16: 1m 33.3s
It looked like Seb was going to sprint away. But that pace advantage would then likely have decreased until – after around 10 laps – the softs became faster than the super-softs and Rosberg might have been expected to close back into whatever gap Vettel had pulled out. Ferrari would have kept Vettel out until just before Rosberg got close enough to undercut. Mercedes would have kept Rosberg out several laps longer and after each had pitted, Vettel on the softs he’d be obliged to use, would still be in front but on older tyres than Rosberg for the final stint. Leading the race but in a slower car on slower tyres, could Vettel have hung on at the front? That was how the race was shaping up until Gutiérrez made his fateful move left at just the moment Alonso had decided to switch sides. It was no-one’s fault, just a momentary dead zone of interfering waves.
Seeing Alonso clamber out – “I wanted my mother to see I was OK. I know she watches on the tv,” – was a massive relief after the extraordinary violence. It was good to see the wheel tethers did their job in containing what otherwise could have been a lethal hazard for spectators and marshals.
That was lap 18, with 39 to go. With the race neutralised, everyone was free to fit new tyres – totally changing the complexion of the race. Ferrari, as recounted, was nervous of the medium tyre – and thereby took themselves out of being able to one-stop. Mercedes didn’t think there was any real question and went confidently with mediums and the intention of not stopping – and was surprised as the blankets came off the Ferraris to reveal the red-striped super-softs. “There was a concern that the medium might not get straight up to temperature and that Nico might have a tough job to hold off Räikkönen on the first lap,” recalled Toto Wolff afterwards, “but otherwise, it was to us the obvious choice.”
Red Bull and Toro Rosso opted wholesale to try to get to the end on new softs – certainly an aggressive choice, but the Red Bull at least is usually easier on the rubber than most others. The red flag was perfectly timed for Grosjean. As the only driver who’d yet to stop, he got his tyre change – onto mediums – for free and thus remained in ninth place, just behind Hamilton (who had his damaged front wing changed) and Massa and ahead of Bottas and Hulkenberg.
With the turn-three barriers repaired and the debris cleared, the safety car led the pack away and as it pulled off before the pit lane entry, racing was underway as Vettel sprinted off and Rosberg gave chase. Räikkönen – as often happens with him on restarts – was left behind initially. He came back at Rosberg later in the lap but those mediums on the Mercedes had switched on just fine and Nico was able to fend him off.
Räikkönen pulled comfortably away from the squabbling Red Bull/Toro Rosso group behind him, this group towing along Hamilton who was again frustrated in not being able to pass. Three laps into the restart and Räikkönen was heading slowly down the pits, with a fire burning merrily in the Ferrari’s airbox after a suspected turbo failure.
The now third-placed Ricciardo began to put distance on the Toro Rosso pair and it soon became clear that neither Verstappen nor Sainz were going to be able to make their softs last the remaining distance.
Vettel on his super-softs quickly got the gap over Rosberg out to around 3s, but thereafter the Mercedes had him pegged and after 10 laps was beginning to eat back into that gap. As far as Nico was concerned this race was coming to him. What he didn’t know – because of the radio restrictions – was that his front-right brake caliper temperature was creeping ever upwards and giving the team real cause for concern. Previously, they would have alerted him and he could have compensated with his settings and driving style, but until it was actually dangerous rather than merely not on-course to last the race, Rosberg couldn’t be told. When it reached a critical threshold of temperature an alarm would go off in the cockpit and it continued to creep up towards that level. “But then it stabilised – at a high temperature – and stopped climbing,” recounted Wolff. “Just before that point, we thought we were going to have to retire the car.” A piece of debris was later found in the brake duct.
Both Verstappen and Sainz were on the radio encouraging the team to bring them in for new tyres as the softs were just not working for them. These tyres have a higher working temperature range than the mediums and as the track cooled into the evening it seems they just fell below the threshold at which they work – on this car at least. Normally, they wold be expected to be around 1s faster than the mediums – but the latter have a lower working range and seemed to be better suited to the now-cooling track. Their pace was falling away and there were still over 20-laps to go. They wanted to change while they still had a chance to recover, the team was unconvinced there would be a net gain in stopping and was monitoring the times and gaps of those behind. Then Sainz locked his fronts, this forcing the issue. “We have to come in now,” he announced, and was given permission to do so. He got out on his new mediums just behind Pérez, who was having a very quiet race.
As Verstappen saw Sainz disappear out of his mirrors and into the pitlane he was understandably miffed. He too had been asking to pit but had not received permission. As the driver running ahead, he might have expected to have been given priority – but Sainz’s locked brake had changed that. In a fury, he announced to the team he was coming in. He arrived there and his mediums were not ready, delaying him further vital seconds. He was even less impressed when he rejoined to find that Sainz was now ahead of him. He began to vent over the radio, letting the team know just what he thought.
As the Toro Rossos pitted out of his way, Hamilton was given a clear track – and became the fastest man on track, cutting into Riccardo’s third place at about 1.5s per lap. Massa trailed a long way behind, constrained by the soft tyres he’d been fitted with at the restart, but always a few seconds clear of the remarkable Grosjean who was keeping the closely following Hulkenberg and Bottas at bay for lap after lap with not the slightest hint of error. A few seconds behind them, and running a few tenths slower, came Palmer.
Up to the turn nine chicane on lap 33 Sainz put a beautifully judged on-the-limit braking move onto Pérez and set off after Palmer’s ninth-placed Renault. Verstappen followed him past the Force India the following lap and latched himself back onto Sainz’s tail. “Can I pass him?” he demanded over the radio. “He is holding me up.” It was actually Palmer who was holding them both up – but that was a subtlety Max wouldn’t have been in the mood to hear. “Affirmative,” he was told. On one occasion down to turn three he came mighty close to collecting the sister car as Carlos continued trying to find a way by Palmer who was giving as good as he got and playing hard but fair. Sainz was informed he should move aside for his team-mate but saw no reason to comply – given the history between them over this very matter.
Meanwhile, up at the front Vettel’s super-softs were past their best. Ferrari kept him out for a couple of laps longer, to give him a short enough final stint that he could attack hard to make up the pit-time loss (around 24s). Rosberg had cut into that earlier 3s deficit and was now just 1.4s behind. The Ferrari came in on the 35th lap and had its new softs fitted. It rejoined fourth, around 10s behind Hamilton who was continuing to chase down Ricciardo, around 10s adrift of Rosberg. Nico’s brake caliper temperature was slowly coming back down but he was now troubled by the left rear tyre. Again, the team couldn’t specifically advise him about what the Pirelli engineer was telling them – that at his rate, it could not possibly get to the end. As the tread wore down, the temperature was dropping, the grip reducing. Nico could feel the loss of grip and backed off as much as he could.
Ricciardo was in no position to take advantage, his soft tyres rapidly losing temperature and grip. Red Bull eventually surrendered its attempt at getting through without stopping, bringing him in for a set of super-softs (a used set from qualifying) with 15 laps to go. Thus Hamilton inherited second and Vettel third as Ricciardo rejoined behind Massa and quickly chased the Williams down. He went past under DRS into turn one on lap 46, to great cheers from the crowd.
Vettel and Hamilton were lapping at a similar pace and, once alerted, Rosberg had to respond to ensure they didn’t reach him before the end. Given the state of his left-rear that was a tricky thing to accomplish and there was a lot of engine mode manipulation necessary. As Hamilton’s mediums eventually faded, Vettel was catching at around 0.5s per lap. Aided by Hamilton locking up at the turn nine chicane, by the 53rd lap Vettel was within DRS reach, but next time through he oversteered wide through turn 15, the tight left-handed penultimate corner. Two laps later, he slid right off the track there and onto the grass. That extinguished his challenge on second place.
Back to the Toro Rosso drivers: on the 42nd lap Sainz had taken advantage of Palmer’s dire lack of rear tyre grip as the Renault accelerated out of turn two to pass him around the outside. Now off line and with his momentum checked, Palmer was also an easy pass for Verstappen. Max’s fury was visible in his driving, and on one occasion he got the Toro Rosso hugely sideways over the astroturf of the fast turn 12 exit. Sainz soaked up all the pressure.
Just up ahead of them, Grosjean had broken the Hulkenberg/Bottas challenge and was now easing clear, well on the way to give Haas an historic F1 debut. Still Verstappen, in between swearing his fury over the radio, was looking for a way of passing Sainz. Five laps from the end Sainz locked up his brakes into turn 15, Verstappen refused to back out of it – and they touched. Sainz’s car reared into the air but continued as Verstappen spun. Max got going again, having dropped five seconds, all of which he would claw back in the remaining few laps as Sainz caught up to the Hulkenberg/Bottas train. “It’s ridiculous. We could have finished much higher up today,” fumed Max after crossing the line 10th, still behind his team mate.
Rosberg’s winning margin over Hamilton was 8s as another Mercedes 1-2 unfolded. But there’s plenty to suggest the silver cars’ dominance has been significantly reduced. “I was glad to see the Ferraris on the super-soft at the restart,” said the victor. “I wasn’t sure that was going to be the case. But we need to keep an eye out for the red guys.”