Esteban Ocon signs new three-year F1 deal with Alpine
Esteban Ocon will remain with Alpine in Formula 1 until the 2024 season after signing a new deal
Far from the crash-fest some were fearing, the inaugural Azerbaijan Grand Prix was remarkably routine. No safety cars, mainly single-stop strategies, a start-to-finish demonstration up front by Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes. Given the nature and layout of the track that was perhaps a minor miracle.
While qualifying was filled with drama, and the GP2 race was at times terrifying, it’s ironic that the Grand Prix turned out to be one the least eventful races of the last few years. “I think the drivers are under-driving so much because of the tyres,” said Christian Horner, “that it wasn’t really on the edge. In qualifying, when they are pushing, you saw pretty much every driver clipping a wall or going up the escape road. But in the race, just keeping the tyres alive, nothing.”
Because pre-race the expectation was that tyre degradation was going to be very low, a one-stop strategy was going to be fastest. But that required careful nursing of the rear rubber. “Press too hard for a couple of laps and you could feel the rears beginning to go,” said Jolyon Palmer afterwards. “Around here you had to drive them at maybe a second off the pace to keep them from deteriorating.” At a second off the pace even this most demanding of new tracks with its solid walls and high-jeopardy sections was relatively easy.
Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari was a distant second, with Sergio Pérez making it two podiums from three races in his Force India – on the pace here right from the start of the weekend around a circuit that heavily rewarded the Merc engine’s top-end horsepower. Lewis Hamilton’s much-anticipated drive through the field from the 10th-place grid position his qualifying errors had left him at was thwarted by an engine mode issue and he limped home a frustrated fifth.
The very long track makes devising the most efficient spread of deployment and harvesting of the hybrid systems very demanding. Combine that with Mercedes’ messy Friday – Rosberg’s engine running out of mileage not helping – and insufficient data had been gathered. This contributed to the Hamilton problem.
Even with a 5pm start, the track temperatures were in the high 40 degrees for the whole distance. For the second consecutive race Red Bull struggled to keep control of the tyres, leaving Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen to two-stop their way to seventh and eighth respectively, a particular disappointment for Ricciardo after starting from the front row and initially keeping Rosberg in sight. Red Bull found itself in a very narrow set-up window after having to take a lot of wing off between Friday and Saturday in order to have competitive speed down the super-long straight. In combination with the increased track temperatures, the resultant sliding rear ends brought the dreaded rear graining, which quickly snowballs into runaway wear rates.
Having been passed on track by Vettel’s Ferrari, Ricciardo pitted as early as lap six to be rid of the tyres. Ferrari initially believed this to be an undercut attempt and tried to pit Vettel in response. He resisted and remained on a conventional one-stop spacing, though it probably wouldn’t have made much difference had he done as suggested. Kimi Räikkönen in the sister car did so and didn’t run so far behind. His race was compromised by a five-sec penalty imposed for crossing over the painted box section around the pit entry road – which was out of bounds unless you were pitting – when trying to slipstream Ricciardo. Unable to pull the needed five-seconf gap out over Pérez that would have got him third, he didn’t put up a fight when the Force India passed him on the road late in the race.
Pole, fastest lap, start-to-finish in the lead, this may have been the most dominant performance of Rosberg’s career. “It was a very special feeling in the car,” he said. “It felt like I could do whatever I wanted. It felt really special.” He actually suffered similar power unit mode problems to Hamilton but managed to resolve them. “It was just a matter of getting out of it with the right combination of switches.” Hamilton eventually did work it out, but much too late to rescue his race. With the problem fixed, he did a single super-fast lap but with just 10 laps to go he was too far behind for it to matter and he backed off to save the engine. So Hamilton’s weekend, which had promised so much, ended with a whimper, rather like the race itself.
A wonderfully crazy track around a beautiful city, a pinch-point just six metres wide funnelling the cars through a street that’s normally cobbled, overlooked high above by the 12th century Maiden’s Tower, a track more punishing of mistakes than Monaco – with a layout that induces them more readily. A two-kilometre flat-out stretch parallel with the Caspian coastline taking the engines into unchartered territory, a potentially terrifying pit entry with an eighth gear 200mph approach separated by the track only by painted lines, a near-flat blind exit crest (turn 13) where the cars look somewhere between breathtaking and terrifying. Low-grip undulating surface, strong gusting winds, tiny run-off areas in places. It’s a raw meat sort of track – one that caught almost everyone out at some stage during the weekend.
But most crucial of all in the forming of the grid was how it caught out Hamilton in Q3. A crucial set-up change imposed by the team out of necessity between Friday and Saturday made the car much more prone to locking its front brakes. He’d only just scraped into the final session. His first Q2 attempt had been spoilt by Nico Hulkenberg spinning in his path through turn 16 (the downhill turn onto the long straight) after a gust of wind had unloaded the Force India’s rear wing.
On his next run Hamilton slid straight on at turn seven, a tight right-hander with a bump in the braking zone and almost zero grip out of the groove. With not enough time left to pit and have another set of tyres fitted, Hamilton got going and tried again – and on this crucial final lap he was almost caught out by yellows for Esteban Gutiérrez sliding his Haas straight on at turn eight (the six-metre wide thread-the-needle corner into the Old Town). The yellow lights went out just as Hamilton was approaching the braking area. The resultant lap on his flat-spotted tyres got him through, second quickest – but a full second down on team-mate Rosberg.
It highlighted the contrast in fortunes between the Mercedes drivers. On Friday Hamilton had owned the place, improvising a dazzling rhythm around the crazy contours that left Rosberg, building up his data banks, far behind. But the set up changes overnight and perhaps an over-confidence seemed to have lost Hamilton that groove into Saturday. Braking zones that had been child’s play to pick out were now locking his wheels. Rosberg meanwhile, homework completed and understood, was in the ascendant and his confidence was returning. All was serene with him in Q3 as he completed his sequence of dominance of each of the qualifying sessions.
The ideal way to bring the tyres in was unclear. Some were going for it on the first flying lap, others – including Mercedes – were doing a preparation lap first. Some teams were varying their approaches. Into the early evening (qualifying began at 5pm) the track temperature was falling, the super-softs becoming even trickier to bring up to temperature – and only Rosberg had really aced his single multi-lap run.
Hamilton had again been caught out – this time at what is probably the trickiest point of the circuit, the steep downhill left of turn 15 with an adverse camber. He’d again locked up in the braking zone and had opted for the escape road (he’d been there in Q1 too). Yet to set a proper lap, the clock was ticking down as he began his flyer. Fastest in sector one by 0.3s, it was all going well until he took perhaps five millimetres too much lock into the right-handed uphill turn nine and glanced the wall, instantly breaking the track rod. He was out, back in 10th.
That brought out the red flags with just a couple of minutes of session remaining. Rosberg, a full 0.8s clear of the field, was not among those cars lined up at the end of the pitlane going for one final mad dash. Heading that queue was Ricciardo’s Red Bull, just ahead of Vettel’s Ferrari (once Seb had been handed the space back by Valtteri Bottas who’d been released unsafely ahead of him in the pitlane).
Also in that queue was Pérez who, remarkably, had been Rosberg’s closest match so far even though he’d be taking a five-place grid gearbox penalty after damaging his original in a crash at turn 15 in practice thee. The Force India, currently on a very productive aero development programme at the Toyota wind tunnel and featuring new slots, louvres and vanes, was well served by Mercedes grunt down that long straight and Pérez was in attacking form. Although he didn’t better his earlier time in that final dash, neither did any of the others. Without the gearbox penalty he’d have been starting from the front row on merit. “It’s such a mix of feelings,” he said. “Joy at being here but I’m still angry at myself for the crash.”
The significance of the final dash was that Ricciardo in the trimmed-out Red Bull vaulted himself up from seventh to third (and thereby onto the front row after the Pérez penalty). His lap time was identical to the thousandth to that of Vettel – but set a few seconds beforehand. Seb was gutted upon being informed of this. But fourth was better than had looked likely for much of the weekend as the team struggled to find the car’s sweet spot. Räikkönen had just one set of super-softs left by the time he got to Q3. He did an initial run on used tyres and it was this that counted for his fifth-fastest time. His new tyre run was spoilt by the Hamilton red flags.
Williams under-delivered on its potential – which in the practices looked to have been similar to Force India. But Bottas lost most of practice three when an iron cable cover in the pitlane was flicked up into the sidepod, causing extensive damage. The balance was never quite as he’d have liked it into qualifying and he was twice compromised by where he caught Verstappen’s car at the beginning of his lap. The first time the team was assuming that the Red Bull would be doing a preparation lap (as it had been up to that point) and advised Bottas accordingly, who used it to get a slingshot effect for the start of his lap, only realising that Max, like he, was on an immediate attack lap as he braked late for turn one. It compromised the laps of both. Upon the post-red flag dash, he again caught the Red Bull at an awkward point. It all left Bottas down in eighth.
Team-mate Massa struggled with both set up and how he was driving the circuit – until the final session when he fell into a much better groove. Getting his time in before the red flag also helped, leaving him sixth, directly behind Räikkönen.
Daniil Kvyat was in strong, attacking form around the streets in the only Toro Rosso to make it through to Q3 and he qualified an excellent seventh, between the Williams pair, two places ahead of the Bottas-compromised Verstappen. Max admitted that even had he got a clear run he could not have matched Ricciardo’s time.
Romain Grosjean’s Haas was best of those not making the run-off, pleased to have got the tyres working even if the car was still tricky under braking. He was ahead of Hulkenberg’s Force India (that turn 16 wind-induced spin followed by a misunderstanding over fuel level causing him to pit rather than completing his second run), Carlos Sainz’s Toro Rosso (brakes pulling to one side at the crucial moment, later taking a five-place gearbox change penalty), Alonso’s McLaren (poor traffic management from the team meaning he had to pass four cars on the lap in question), the Haas of flu-ridden Gutiérrez and Felipe Nasr’s Sauber.
Rio Haryanto was a revelation in the Manor. The only driver not to visit the escape roads during practice and qualifying, he almost made it into Q2 and shaded team-mate Pascal Wehrlein by 0.1s. Both Manors out-qualified Button’s McLaren, Marcus Ericsson’s Sauber and the Renaults of Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer. Button locked up and took the escape road, the subsequent spin turn frying his tyres.
As late afternoon reached out to early evening, it was still scorching. The track temperature was in excess of 50 degrees, hotter than at any time during the weekend.
Rosberg was untroubled off the grid, Ricciardo behind him fending off Vettel and Räikkönen down to the first corner and just a couple of bits of contact as they all squeezed through the 90-degree left of turn one (Gutiérrez into Hulkenberg, with the Haas then running out wide and forcing Haryanto off, destroying the Manor’s front wing). Pérez bustled past Kvyat and Massa, with the Toro Rosso bundled further back later in the lap by Verstappen. Next were Bottas and Hamilton. Alonso made a flyer and even briefly got around the outside of Lewis at the first turn before being pinched out on the exit, Grosjean taking advantage of the McLaren’s loss of momentum thrust the Haas ahead up to turn three. Hulkenberg, on his lower-grip softs, lost several places to the super-soft-shod cars around him and was a couple of places behind Alonso (who’d later retire stuck in gear).
From there another right-angle turn – Hamilton and Bottas side-by-side but the Williams staying ahead – a short burst of acceleration up to the medium-speed left-right turns five/six, a short chute down to the tight right of seven, on up towards the first really characterful part of the track, where it veers off steeply uphill into the narrow streets of the old town, turns 8 to 12 following in quick succession, the cars squirming under low-gear acceleration, cresting the very fast kink of 13, onward down through 14 into the steep descent of 15, a sharp downhill left-hander, continuing back down towards the coast. Turn 16 turns them around to follow that coastline for two kilometres through a couple of flat-out blind-exit kinks. The DRS detection zone is at one of them, with the first activation beginning just after the pit entry road. Cars were not allowed into the painted white box section surrounding the pit entry unless they were pitting. A second DRS activation zone was situated between turns two and three.
At the end of the opening lap Ricciardo was within a second of Rosberg as they flashed by the finish line at around 210mph and feeling pretty confident. If anything, the Red Bull had fired its tyres up quicker than the Mercedes. “At that point I thought we could get Nico,” reported Daniel, “particularly as Sebastian wasn’t catching.” But he was soon to be disabused of that notion.
Into the third lap Daniel felt the rear grip beginning to drop off already, a feeling Verstappen was also experiencing a few places back. As the Red Bulls slid so they began to grain the rear tyres. Vettel loomed ever closer to Ricciardo while Verstappen was soon feeling the pressure from Bottas and Hamilton, each of whom had elbowed their way past Kvyat. Neither Daniil’s Toro Rosso nor the sister car of Sainz further back were working well and would each retire with seized rear dampers.
Pre-race, the expectation was that the super-soft most of the field was starting on would be good for 20 laps, with the softs capable of 30-plus, enough to get you through the 51 laps without resort to the slower medium. That’s what Friday had suggested. But the hotter temperatures were inducing graining of the rears. “Those first few laps were really difficult because of that,” related Pérez. “It was basically just a case of not panicking. The easiest thing to do would have been to stop when the graining occurred.”
That is indeed what Red Bull did, but it didn’t have much choice, such was the drastic loss of grip. Verstappen was brought in on lap five (Bottas passing him at turn 16 as the gripless Red Bull ran wide there on its in-lap), Ricciardo following a lap later by which time he’d already been passed on track by Vettel. Both were fitted with a set of softs. Other early stoppers for the same reason included Massa (lap 7) and the McLarens. It effectively forced them onto the slower two-stop strategy. Felipe was suffering more rear graining than Bottas who hung on and found that the problem cleared itself, allowing him to remain on course to one-stop and to move up to fifth, still fending off Hamilton, who was already suffering a power unit glitch (more of which later).
As Ricciardo had peeled in, Ferrari was concerned that this was Red Bull’s attempt at under-cutting back ahead of Vettel. They radioed for him to pit. “Are you sure?” he enquired. “The car still felt good,” he explained later. “I had a decent feeling, the pace was quite OK, I thought, and so I was asking the team to stay out.” Although he was by now almost 10s behind the totally dominant Rosberg, he and Räikkönen were comfortably clear of Pérez, Bottas and Hamilton. Ferrari acceded to Seb’s request and instead brought in Räikkönen. This was early enough that Kimi might have been forced to two stop but the Ferrari was looking after its tyres better than most, so that was not a done deal. Räikkönen’s improved form since Montreal had enabled the team to cover both bases. Kimi rejoined on his softs in 10th a few seconds behind Ricciardo, a few ahead of Massa, all three of them having to find a way by slower cars which were one-stopping, most notably Wehrlein’s Manor which ran for a long time as high as eighth (but which would later retire).
Räikkönen was soon to have a five-second penalty confirmed, for he had trespassed into the painted pit entry lane box section as he’d slipstreamed Ricciardo as the Red Bull made for the pits. Unsighted, he’d only just crossed it, but them’s the rules. Räikkönen would finally get himself past Ricciardo on lap 19, as the Red Bull’s softs wilted just like its super-softs had done.
These included the leader Rosberg – who continued to disappear into the distance – Vettel, Pérez, Bottas, Hamilton and Hulkenberg. To keep the rear tyres from graining required a relatively gentle pace and the widely anticipated accidents and safety car phases never arrived. Some – notably Räikkönen – had short-fuelled in the expectation of safety cars and would soon need to be monitoring how much they were using. Most, however, were comfortably within fuel schedule at the gentle pace the rubber was imposing in these early – hot – stages. The track was only gradually reducing in temperature as the sun became lower over the old town up on the hill.
Hamilton was not making the expected progress. Although he managed finally to scrabble by Bottas with a DRS-assisted pass down the inside of turn one on the 11th lap, he was desperately trying to understand why he was down on power. He had reported as early as lap four that his power unit was ‘de-rating’ between turns two and three – ie the electrical boost was progressively reducing there rather than giving maximum power. He was in an incorrect mode. “What do I do?” he asked over the radio. The radio restrictions meant they were not allowed to tell him which combination of switches he should try. He’d have to work it for himself.
“I’m not sure I can finish. I’m just going to try switching everything to see if it works.”
“We don’t recommend that,” said a voice in a tone that that sounded very like Stanley Kubrick’s computer Hal from 2001.
Rosberg had earlier suffered similarly but had found the magic combination of switches to bring everything back on line. Although the team was being quite secretive afterwards about what exactly these modes were about, it seems to have been about the distribution through the lap of the harvesting and deploying of the electrical boost. This in turn seems to have been related to the enforced changes made to the car between Friday and Saturday that had so disturbed Hamilton’s rhythm in qualifying. “Nico was actually quite fortunate as he had already made a switch change before the problem that led him on the right path when the problem did arise,” said Toto Wolff. “Lewis hadn’t and so didn’t have the same clues. The problem actually only cost around two to three tenths in theory but I’m sure it felt much more as it de-rated.”
Hamilton continued to interrogate his steering wheel while travelling at up to 220mph. “I was looking at every single switch thinking, ‘Am I being an idiot here.’ I eventually got it back with eight laps to go. I disabled something, it didn’t change anything. I put it back – it didn’t change anything. I disabled it again about eight laps from the end and this time it worked itself out.” Maybe if we are going to stop engineers guiding drivers (a good thing), the systems should be less complex. But that’s a naïve thought when competitive advantage is being sought.
Hamilton was the first of the conventional one-stoppers to come in – on lap 15. He was followed in rapid succession by Pérez, Bottas, Vettel, Hulkenberg and Rosberg. The latter’s lead was so great he didn’t even lose it when he pitted, rejoining 18s ahead of the earlier-stopping Räikkönen. Because Kimi had stopped so much earlier than Sebastian, it had undercut him ahead. He might yet have to stop again, but maybe not – because his tyres were holding up. His real battle was with Pérez and he was trying to ensure he remained more than five seconds ahead of the Force India by the end, so as not to lose a place to it after the five-second penalty was applied. In the meantime, Vettel on his newer tyres was soon right with the other Ferrari and Kimi was instructed to let it through, which he did.
Pérez remained within striking distance of Räikkönen but was slightly compromised. “I’d exited from my stop just in front of Lewis so had to push straight away. It meant I couldn’t bring my tyres in nicely.” It delayed his assault on Räikkönen’s place.
A few seconds behind, one-stopping Bottas was catching his two-stopping team-mate Massa. This was resolved by Massa’s second stop on the 28th lap. But the Red Bulls had been forced into second stops several laps earlier. Without any new soft tyres left, both Ricciardo and Verstappen were fitted with mediums. Ricciardo rejoined not far behind Hulkenberg, with Verstappen a few places further back. But finally the Red Bull, on light fuel and lowering track temperatures, had found a tyre it liked and both began making up lost ground.
So Rosberg dominated, Vettel drove a lonely race rarely seeing the Mercedes off in the distance, Räikkönen kept a wary eye in his mirrors for Pérez who, on his newer tyres, was now beginning to close. Hamilton finally de-coded his computer and let rip with the fastest lap of the race so far on lap 42. Then immediately backed off once more. He was too far behind Pérez to catch and so had backed off to save the engine. Bottas was no threat behind.
Ricciardo nailed a move on Hulkenberg for seventh three laps from the end, Hulk on his tired super-softs then easy meat for Verstappen too. Max set the third fastest race lap along the way. Rosberg bettered Hamilton’s earlier effort to make his victory a clean statistical sweep. Into the penultimate lap Räikkönen didn’t make it too hard for Perez to pass him on track into turn one, knowing that he’d already lost the third place officially because of the penalty.
“A great and awesome weekend,” reported Nico after his fifth victory of the season. Vettel and Pérez up there on the podium with him largely agreed. As for everyone else, there remained that feeling of potential not quite fulfilled. Which summed up the event.
Esteban Ocon will remain with Alpine in Formula 1 until the 2024 season after signing a new deal
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