'Spa is a crown jewel of F1, it must be kept at all costs'
With new tracks backed by huge sums of money being added to the F1 calendar, Spa must remain at all costs, says Andrew Frankel
“It’s been the best weekend of my year, by far,” said Lewis Hamilton after clinching his fourth British Grand Prix victory, his third in succession. “Everything was just perfect.” That perfection was based upon:
1) The Mercedes W07’s advantage at Silverstone – which was quite possibly bigger than at any track so far this season. High-speed aero is its greatest strength and Silverstone’s layout – even its windy gusts – played to that.
2) Without another team to challenge Mercedes – the Ferrari lacked the downforce, the Red Bull the horsepower – Hamilton’s only rival, team-mate Nico Rosberg, could offer no challenge. The key to that was Hamilton’s pace through the high-speed demands of the middle sector, but particularly the Maggotts/Becketts sequence.
Everything else – the sudden cloudburst that saw the race begin behind the safety car, the differing performance patterns of the Merc and Red Bull that was behind the see-sawing battle for second between Rosberg and a starring Max Verstappen, the strategic timing of when to come off the wets onto inters and from those onto slicks and then whether to remain on them to the end or change them – was just the way it played out. The fact of it playing out Hamilton’s way never looked in doubt from the moment the wheels began turning on Friday when the buzz had been all about the post-Austria terms of engagement for the Merc drivers. That was another factor that may just have played to Hamilton’s dominance, for whatever that internal arrangement was, it’s difficult to conceive how Rosberg would not have felt it was directed at him and it would be a strong person indeed who didn’t allow that censure to effect his performance.
His championship lead, which at one point stood at 43 points, is now down to one. It would have been four but for a 10-second penalty for having received what was deemed non-permitted instructions from his team on how to drive around a gearbox problem. This dropped him from second to an official third, behind Verstappen. Mercedes has announced its intentional of appeal.
If there wasn’t already drama enough for the showman Mansell-esque Hamilton coming into the Silverstone weekend, he went over the track limits exiting Copse on his first Q3 run and thus had his provisional pole wiped from the board, the penalty imposed by the stewards including – in a further historical twist – Mansell. Nige had had all the drivers up for a chat earlier that morning and it was agreed by all that going beyond the track limits in qualifying at either Copse, Stowe or Club would be treated with zero tolerance ‘as that was where lap time could be found’.
So to the bewilderment of the crowd, Hamilton’s name disappeared from the top of the times and fell to tenth, without a lap time alongside it, and team-mate Rosberg sat on a provisional pole. The clock ticking down, no time on the board, the pressure to do an error-free lap that was faster than Rosberg’s banker and anything Nico might subsequently do was intense. Obviously, he did it – for this was Lewis Hamilton at Silverstone and with a bee in his bonnet. Career pole number 55, 10 short of Senna, 13 of Schumacher.
It wasn’t as if there was going to be any non-Mercedes competition either, for the fast sweeps of Silverstone exaggerated its usual advantage which is largely derived from its high-speed aerodynamics, enhanced here by a lot of wind tunnel developments: new guide vanes beneath the nose, changes to the sidepod, diffuser shape and rear wing endplates. To see its change of direction through Maggotts/Becketts was like watching a speeded-up film. “They’ve given us an incredible car,” agreed Rosberg. “Through the high speed it’s on rails, it just feels awesome.”
But from the moment the qualifying clocks began, Rosberg had no answer around here to his team-mate who appeared to have been keeping something in hand during the practices. Almost all of Hamilton’s 0.319s advantage was coming in the demanding middle sector – from the Complex to the beginning of Hangar Straight and therefore including the challenges of Copse and the Maggotts/Becketts sequence – where his commitment to the car’s enormous grip was breath-taking. Rosberg reckoned that missing second practice on Friday to a water pump failure had not significantly impacted upon his weekend.
Just over one-second slower than pole, Verstappen’s Red Bull was best of the rest and a full 0.3s clear of fourth-fastest team-mate Daniel Ricciardo. The lack of ultimate top-end grunt and the Red Bull’s traditional high drag meant it was a little breathless compared to the Merc around here but was always comfortably clear of the Ferrari. “Going through Maggotts and Becketts the car is fantastic,” repoted Max, “no oversteer, no understeer.” His second Q3 time was disallowed for exceeding track limits but it was slower anyway, as the wind had picked up, giving a tricky cross-wind at Copse and slowing the car’s acceleration down Hangar. This was the first time since joining the senior team that Max had out-qualified his team-mate, something he seemed to be taking in his stride. Ricciardo had no real complaints about the car. Max was simply quicker.
Celebrating the extension of his Ferrari contract for another year, Kimi Räikkönen was significantly quicker than Sebastian Vettel. Silverstone’s fast sweeps traditionally play to Kimi’s strengths and it was so again here, though Vettel had actually been shaping up for a faster lap than Kimi’s until almost losing the car at Stowe towards the end of his first Q3 lap. His second run was spoilt before it had barely begun as he ran wide through turn one (Abbey) caught out by the gusts that are such a traditional Silverstone hazard. This all left him only sixth quickest but in addition he was taking a five-place gearbox change penalty (his third this season). The Ferrari was another car featuring a raft of updates comprising changes to front and rear brake ducts and diffuser. It evidently still lacks some aero efficiency to Mercedes, though.
There was a big gap behind Ferrari, with the Williams of seventh fastest Valtteri Bottas around 0.7s adrift of Vettel. It was a disappointing outcome for the team which felt that Bottas had extracted all there was to get from the FW38. High-speed downforce is not the car’s natural strength – but 2.3 seconds behind pole was something of a shock. Felipe Massa was in even worse shape in the sister car, unable to prevent his rear tyres from overheating before the end of the lap and failing to graduate from Q2, 12th fastest.
Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India set the eighth-best Q3 time but it was disallowed for track limits infringement, dropping him down a place behind Carlos Sainz’s Toro Rosso. The Force Indias featured further aero upgrades and in first practice the team tested its recent Mercedes-inspired rear suspension against its old layout and settled on the older one. It was somewhat hampered by its tyre selection, having not enough softs on hand to fine tune the car’s one-lap balance. Sergio Pérez was less happy with the car’s balance through the high-speed turns and just failed to make it out of Q2, 11th.
Sainz probably over-achieved in getting the Toro Rosso through, as its old-spec Ferrari motor is becoming ever-less competitive as engine development continues elsewhere. It was down near the bottom of the speed trap figures, ahead of just the Renaults and McLarens, and not particularly agile in the slower turns. But Sainz was particularly committed through the high-speed sections and put the pressure laps together when it mattered. By contrast team-mate Daniil Kvyat’s difficult recent run continued and he was back in 15th, 0.6s off his team-mate in Q2. James Key explained the background to that: “Track evolution was quite strong, so we needed to send Daniil out twice in Q1 on the soft tyre to make sure of a place in Q2. His confidence was building as the session went on. During his final run of Q2 he was looking good and took quite a big step in lap time – his second sector was a lot better, picking-up a lot of confidence in the balance of the car – but towards the end of the run he got massively blocked by a slow car that added more than half a second onto his lap-time.” That car was Kevin Magnussen’s Renault which was being driven as fast as Kevin could make it go – as he too was on his qualifying lap, albeit on old tyres.
The McLaren was working well enough that even with what is estimated now as a 65-70bhp deficit, it was able to outpace the Merc-powered Force Indias. Only Fernando Alonso was able to prove this as Jenson Button suffered a rear wing endplate failure (it became un-bonded from the floor), leaving him stranded in Q1. Fernando absolutely wrung the car’s neck to get it into Q3 and he shaved a further tenth off that effort once there (just a tenth behind Bottas). But that time was disallowed for track limits infringements, leaving him relying on a used-tyre lap good only for 10th.
The Haas cars were proving particularly sensitive to the cross-winds and 13th-fastest Romain Grosjean had a particularly lurid oversteer snap through Stowe on his best lap, which was a couple of tenths and one place ahead of team-mate Esteban Gutiérrez.
The Renaults were around 0.7s adrift of Haas, with Magnussen only making it through Q2 on account of Button’s problem. Team-mate Jolyon Palmer was a couple of tenths down and in 18th, a tenth or so quicker than the Manors of Rio Haryanto and Pascal Wehrlein which were again faster than Sauber. The Swiss team had only Felipe Nasr to represent it in qualifying as Marcus Ericsson was in hospital for a check-up following a heavy impact with the barriers after losing the car on Stowe’s wet astroturf in morning practice.
On a very British sporting weekend it was almost pre-ordained that there should be a random weather event. Around quarter of an hour before the start, the strong wind blew in a very black cloud from the west. The cloudburst lasted maybe five minutes but made up in intensity what it lacked in duration as the wind blew it onwards and away, leaving very wet cars under a now sunny sky. The pit straight, Wellington straight and Luffield were covered in deep standing water. Hence the race would start under the safety car with everyone obliged to be on wet tyres.
Rainwater gathered in the gulley of Hamilton’ rear wing spilled out over the top as he accelerated away behind the safety car and the race was officially underway, albeit neutralised. Visibility in the spray was truly awful initially, drivers reporting that they couldn’t see the rain lights of the car ahead. But it dispersed soon enough. On the fourth lap Hamilton – who almost collected the safety car at Copse on one lap – was addressing the race director by name: “Can we go, Charlie?” The safety car peeled off at the end of the fifth lap, Hamilton gunning it from Stowe to pull out an immediate lead on Rosberg, Verstappen and Ricciardo. Pitting immediately for inters were Räikkönen, Bottas, Sainz, Hulkenberg, Alonso, Vettel and others. Which brought Pérez up to fifth.
Hamilton was already two seconds ahead by the time he got to Luffield and feeling very comfortable. Ricciardo led the bunch heading for the pitlane on the sixth lap. But then Pascal Wehrlein went and beached his Manor in a gravel trap on his out-lap – and a virtual safety car was imposed. This allowed those who’d yet to switch to inters (crucially Hamilton, Rosberg and Verstappen but also Pérez) an almost free stop. Which further exaggerated the advantage of the top three and allowed Pérez to jump past Ricciardo for fourth. That and the time loss of the earlier stop pretty much defined Ricciardo’s race. It would take him a long time to catch and pass the Force India and once he’d done so he was too far behind the leading trio, who were in a race of their own for the rest of the afternoon. It made his day look mediocre in comparison to Verstappen’s but it wasn’t a fair comparison. He’d been less than a second behind his team-mate when he pitted. He was nine seconds and two places back after the random favours and penalties of circumstance had been dealt out – with further delay to come in trying to pass Pérez.
Inters stalemate phase
The other crucial hard point in your race once you’d emerged from the near-misses of the madly crowded pitlane over those couple of laps was where you came out relative to the Williams pair of Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas in eighth and ninth. Because if you were behind – like the queued-up Nico Hulkenberg, Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel, Daniil Kvyat and Jenson Button were – it was a disaster. The FW38 could generate no heat into its tyres and was dog-slow. But with no track grip out of the dry line, their high end-of-straight speeds and the absence of DRS in wet conditions, they couldn’t be passed. Bottas at least spun away four places at Vale on the tenth lap but Massa stuck resolutely to his thankless task, Hulkenberg surviving a tank slapper trying to pass out of Club at one stage. Ahead of Felipe, in seventh and sixth respectively, Sainz and Räikkönen pulled out a huge gap that would make their races relatively straightforward.
Hamilton had eased the gap over Rosberg out to between six and seven seconds and just paced himself from there. “I had more pace in hand if I needed it.” It was important actually in this phase of the race not to take everything the inters had to give – for they would have to last until the track was ready for slicks. Otherwise you’d be making a disastrous extra stop for fresh inters. So the race entered something of a stalemate – except for Verstappen, that is, who was closing on Rosberg and soon looking for a way by.
Max was quicker than Rosberg in the wet. Quite possibly the Red Bull was faster than the Mercedes in the wet. At the very least, its disadvantage was considerably reduced. It’s a car in which it’s easier to switch on and maintain tyre heat. It’s also a high-downforce/high-drag car – which is perfect for the wet (and also the opposite of the Williams). It means more of the deceleration happens aerodynamically, making it easier and more confidence-inspiring on the brakes. And this remained an exceptionally tricky surface, drying patchily, remaining treacherous off-line and with strong cross winds ready to throw you off the course, particularly through Abbey and Copse. Confidence and feel was everything and Verstappen was well-endowed with both.
Starting the 15th lap Verstappen gave an action replay of Hulkenberg’s earlier near-miss as he tried to get a run on Rosberg between Club and Abbey. The raw car control was dramatically impressive and still the Red Bull hounded the Merc around the rest of the lap, Rosberg calm and steely in defence but unable to untangle himself from Verstappen’s aggressive advances. Max’s racecraft was, as ever, impeccable. He closed the gap through Copse and the fast sweeps of Maggots and Becketts, almost touching the Merc’s rear wing, before pulling out, keeping the momentum to go clean round the outside of Nico before Chapel – and up to second.
Hamilton had a different car chasing him but he had it all under control – over six seconds up the road. Verstappen was barely a blip on his radar. It was getting close to the time to change to slicks.
Slicks and slides
Vettel – still in a frustrated queue two places behind the gripless Massa who was already 45 seconds adrift of the lead – was the first to take the gamble, the Ferrari in for a set of mediums at the end of the 15th lap. Seb was immediately setting personal best sector times and on his first flying lap set the fastest lap of the race so far. Confirmed: time to change. Seb then spun on the exit of Abbey, showing how tricky it was in the still-gusty winds on the still patchily damp surface. It lost him nione seconds – meaning he came out still behind Massa, but by three places rather than two! Worse still, the Williams was about to be no better at getting heat into its slicks than it had its inters.
Mediums were the choice of everyone. The softs would not have the range to complete the distance, the hards had too high a working temperature range to be effective on a 25-deg C track.
Because there was as yet only a small difference between inters and slick pace, there was no pressure for either Hamilton or Verstappen to stop immediately (though perhaps Mercedes might have tried to undercut Rosberg ahead of the Red Bull) and Vettel’s spin had just highlighted the hazard of coming in early. The same applied to Pérez (who had a comfortable enough gap over Ricciardo and Räikkönen not to be in undercut range), Sainz (who was far clear of the Massa-led queue) and Ricciardo. So those guys stayed out for an extra lap or, in Verstappen’s case, two.
Räikkönen led those coming in on lap 16 and he was followed in by Massa, Kvyat, Bottas and the rest. Hamilton and Rosberg were sufficiently far apart that they could both be brought in on lap 17 without the need to stack Rosberg. Verstappen pitted from his temporary lead on lap 18. He exited now seven seconds behind the serene Hamilton and four seconds ahead of Rosberg.
Pérez remained a distant fourth but now had the Red Bull of Ricciardo closing him down quick. Daniel would eventually get around Sergio’s outside at Stowe to reclaim fourth. Räikkönen was 13 seconds back from there, doing a quietly effective job in a Ferrari that, “just doesn’t have the downforce needed for this track, especially in these conditions,” as he put it. Sainz was hanging onto the back of him but being caught by Hulkenberg – who much to his relief had leapfrogged his way by Massa and could finally get his race properly underway. Sainz had half-spun at Club on his out-lap, Hulk ran wide at Abbey a couple of laps later.
Massa now had a thoroughly revved-up Alonso on his case, angry that his pleas to pit two laps earlier had been denied – leaving him still behind the Williams albeit ahead of Kvyat (whom he passed as Daniil got out of shape through Chapel), Vettel and Button.
Anyone believing Alonso lacks motivation these days needed a) to have listened to his fury over the radio at having been denied the opportunity of moving up to ninth instead of 10th and b) how he now attempted to deal with Massa. On the 21st lap he got tight into the Williams’ slipstream as they entered the Wellington straight. Placing himself firmly on the right-hand extreme of the track, he tried to pass there even as Felipe was easing right to dissuade him at 150mph. With no track width left, others would have backed off. But Fernando wasn’t for being dissuaded, put two wheels onto the green section beyond the track, the concrete base of the bridge flashing by terrifyingly close. He couldn’t pull quite enough straightline speed out of the McLaren to make the move stick. He was trying much the same again on the next lap…
Verstappen set about trying to reduce Hamilton’s margin, but he was up against a hard limit – as he proved to himself by running off track on the exit of Copse and dropping a couple of seconds on the 22nd lap. Furthermore, Rosberg was now coming back at him. The more the track dried, the faster the Merc became relative to the Red Bull. As the pace hotted-up, the approach to Abbey – with its crosswinds and damp offline – became particularly treacherous and Hamilton got very sideways on the approach on lap 25, the correction taking him out way wide onto the run-off area. But Verstappen was unable to take advantage – because he did exactly the same. This just brought Rosberg even closer.
A few laps earlier the corner had seen action as Räikkönen ran wide there, losing a place to Sainz, only for Carlos to spin there a couple of laps later, being repassed by Räikkönen and finally overtaken by Hulkenberg as the Toro Rosso got going again. Alonso’s aggressive hustling of Massa finally got the better of him as he lost control of the McLaren through the loop and spun across to the access road – allowing Kvyat, Vettel and Button to pass as he got back up to speed. Vettel nailed Kvyat at Stowe on the 28th lap and set about trying to breach Massa’s defences. He’d later let his frustration with the slow Williams boil over, running Felipe wide off the track into Village – for which he’d receive a 5s penalty to be added to his time.
By the 30th lap Rosberg was within DRS range of Verstappen. But, just as shown at Montreal and elsewhere, the teenager’s defences are formidable (even though they received censure from Rosberg on one occasion). He was losing rear-tyre grip but still placed himself perfectly, deployed and harvested his ers at all the right tactical places. “I was trying to get him to empty his battery,” said Rosberg, “but then when his was empty mine was too. So that didn’t work! At times I was doubting if I could make this happen.” Their fight remained around six seconds adrift of Hamilton who was just maintaining the gap, trying to minimise the strain upon his engine and his last remaining un-penalised components. Any time he needed to increase the pace, he could. It came easy. He was particularly amazing through sector two and the thrills of Maggotts/Becketts. “That’s my favourite section of track in the whole world, on the whole F1 calendar,” he said later. “Just big balls!” he laughed, “and wanting it so much.”
Ricciardo was 15 seconds back from their dice and unable to do anything about closing that gap but running ever-further away from Pérez who spun wildly through Abbey on the 33rd lap, bringing Räikkönen, Hulkenberg and Sainz closer. Kimi would eventually go by the struggling Force India at Stowe, leaving Pérez to come under pressure from team-mate Hulkenberg but they’d remain sixth and seventh to the flag, ahead of Sainz, Vettel and Kvyat (after Massa finally pitted in despair and tried for a set of softs).
On the 38th lap, with Verstappen’s fading rear grip making him slow through Chapel, Rosberg got a DRS run on him down Hangar Straight and repeated Max’s earlier round-the-outside move to reclaim his second place.
And that seemed to be that. Until on lap 46, with just six to go, Rosberg suddenly dropped a whole chunk of time. He was in trouble! The Merc was stuck in seventh. “Chassis default zero-one,” he was advised. It worked. The gearbox electronics re-set themselves and all seemed ok. “Avoid seventh gear,” he was then told. “How do I do that? I have to go through seventh?” The reply to that was what would cause the post-race controversy. “Yes, go through seventh.” The driver has to drive the car alone and unaided. Merc claims the car had a terminal problem and without that instruction would have retired and that the regulation’s wording allows for that. It’s an ongoing discussion.
And Hamilton’s was a story of ongoing dominance, a beautiful drive on a beautiful day and he wanted to share his joy with the crowd afterwards. The first recorded instance of a Grand Prix winner celebrating by crowd surfing. Going right back to Ferenc Szisz, we’re pretty sure that hasn’t happened before. But if the crowd reached out to him, his team-mate couldn’t. “I just couldn’t reach him this weekend,” said Rosberg, “no way.”
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