Whitmarsh: Turning Aston Martin into F1 title contender will be '24/7' job
Martin Whitmarsh is back for another go at Formula 1 and he's got some task on his hands transforming Aston Martin into title contenders
Apologies to Lewis Hamilton fans, for he did indeed drive a wonderful race to win Monaco for the second time. But he was not the man of the weekend: Daniel Ricciardo was that man, absolutely on fire for Red Bull. He took on Mercedes and beat them on raw pace in qualifying, his confidence and commitment between the walls sometimes breath-taking to behold. He put not a foot wrong despite driving at the millimetre extremes of limit on both Saturday and Sunday. But for the second time in two races he was denied victory through his team’s actions. A disastrous miscommunication between the ‘pit-wall’ – which at Monaco is situated in huts above the garages – and the crew below meant his slick tyres were not ready when he pitted from a monster in-lap on lap 32 to change from his intermediates. A routine stop would have seen him rejoining around 8s in the lead. Instead he came out fractionally behind Hamilton – and could find no way by, Monaco being what it is.
Hamilton had done brilliantly well to make up the ground lost to Ricciardo in the early wet-shod laps when stuck behind team-mate Nico Rosberg as Ricciardo sprinted away with ridiculous ease. Hamilton did this by making a set of wets last long enough to allow him to switch straight to slicks, missing out inters. Nico just had no confidence on the wet track on which the race started, couldn’t get heat into his tyres after the safety car start, thereby losing brake temperature, in turn losing even more performance and experiencing yet more difficulty generating tyre temperatures, in a horrible downwards spiral of mediocrity. “I couldn’t go anywhere near the limit or I would’ve been in the wall for sure,” he said. Hamilton, right behind, was keeping those temperatures just fine, hustling the car, taking different lines and thinking about where he might pass his team-mate, doubtless with events of Barcelona fresh in his mind. “I’d actually decided where I was going to do it,” he said. “I was going to go past around the outside of turn three [Massenet] where you don’t often see cars pass. But there was space.”
But it didn’t need to come to that. There’s a rule within the team that if the driver ahead does not have the pace to win, he can be called upon to move aside to let his team-mate try. On lap 15 Rosberg was warned: up the pace or we switch you. He had no answer. The following lap he complied with the request to allow Hamilton – his championship rival – past. Under these circumstances, with such a shortfall in performance, it just wouldn’t have been appropriate to put his own interests above those of the team. In Barcelona it was fully appropriate; here it was not. By the time Hamilton surged past Rosberg, Ricciardo was more than 13-seconds up the road. The Mercedes made up a couple of seconds of that before Ricciardo pitted for a switch to intermediates. But rather than follow the Red Bull in, Mercedes and Hamilton together elected to stay out, to see if they could close the gap by dovetailing their first stop with a switch to slicks, thereby saving a pit stop. Hamilton did a great job to eke out the wets long enough to make that strategy work. With a tyre advantage, Ricciardo quickly gobbled up the 7s lead the Red Bull stop had given Hamilton but couldn’t quite pull a pass on track.
“That was a fight we didn’t need to get involved in,” said a supremely hacked-off Ricciardo later. But Red Bull’s conventional choice (of wets-to inters-to slicks) was actually the logical one at the time. There was no way of knowing that the wets would hold out as long as Hamilton made them and Mercedes was able to make that choice with nothing to lose (such was his advantage over the rest of the field). But even with Hamilton’s strategy advantage, this should still have been Ricciardo’s race. His in-lap pace on his inters was monstrously faster than the out-lap of Hamilton’s early change to slicks in still-greasy conditions. Then the horrible sinking feeling as he stopped – and no-one was ready for him. Asked about the choice of compound, Ricciardo answered: “That wasn’t the crucial point. The point was that period of time when I had no tyres at all…”
And that’s how it played out. Ricciardo kept the pressure on Hamilton – who had to get rude on the exit of the chicane at one point – until a few laps from the end when Daniel had finally pushed his tyres past the point of no return. He could barely bring himself to even acknowledge anyone as he fulfilled his duty to stand upon the podium, even as Hamilton waxed lyrical about his rival’s performance. “I think I took Barcelona on the chin,” Daniel said later, for once without the smile, “and took it well, but two in a row… it’s hard to take.”
Sergio Perez took an excellent third for Force India – although but for a sticking Toro Rosso wheelnut at a pit stop, that place would have been a starring Carlos Sainz’s, who instead finished a frustrated eighth.
“It’s flat-in-sixth into the swimming pool,” grinned a thrilled Ricciardo after the Thursday practices, delighting in the driveability and grip of the Red Bull – and on an absolute mission on the back of what happened in Barcelona two weeks ago. Plus, he had the upgraded ‘TJI’ Renault motor in the back. He was quickest on Thursday afternoon – a full 0.6s ahead of anything the Mercedes drivers could conjure. “I guess we have some engine mode that’s worth a bit of lap time in qualifying,” said a concerned Rosberg, “but we don’t have six-tenths worth of engine mode…” The Mercs were having trouble keeping the front ultra-softs in good shape by the end of the lap – and would consistently drop a couple of tenths to the Red Bull there. The RB12, if anything, was a little reluctant to heat up its fronts but not as badly as the Merc that was graining them much more – and therefore in worse shape by the end of the lap. The lateral loads are so low here that most cars were taking two laps to generate the necessary heat in the rubber.
Set-up changes saw the Mercs in better shape on Saturday. Two things changed between the morning and qualifying: the track temperature increased considerably – any sudden temperature changes seemingly always bad news for Ferrari – and Ricciardo was given permission to run full beans on the new Renault. “I can really feel the difference going up the hill,” said Daniel. It was reckoned to be worth around 0.15s here over the old-spec engine in Verstappen’s car.
Max had been in the mix during the practices, though had lightly damaged the car on Saturday morning, locking up on cold tyres into Massenet and glancing the barrier. There was worse to come. The fine edges of his muscle memory seem still attuned to the Toro Rosso, not the Red Bull. You can see it out on track sometimes, as he pitches the car hard into the turn, basing his turn-in point on where he’s expecting the front to slide – only to find that the greater grip of the Red Bull has it instead responding and going exactly where he pointed it. It’s only fine-tuning and around the expanses of Barcelona it didn’t much matter. As he approached the right-handed exit of the swimming pool in Q1 it did matter. The car turned to where he’d pointed it – which was into the barrier on the inside, the glancing impact enough to break the track rod for the right-hand wheel, leaving him with no means of getting around the following left. Bang. And down he came from the cloud of that amazing Spanish weekend. He would be starting the race from the pitlane in a car freshly built around the spare tub.
Red Bull had a bit of a stroke to pull for Ricciardo in Q2. After a fairly conservative first run on fresh ultra-softs, he made his next run there on the slower but more durable super-softs. If he could set his best Q2 time on these, he’d be able to start the race on them. It wasn’t necessarily going to be a faster way of running the race, but with the forecast of rain on Sunday about an hour in, it potentially gave him the necessary tyre durability to make it to the switch to rain tyres without a previous stop to replace worn-out slicks. He did it – and proceeded to Q3 to slug it out with the Mercs.
Ferrari had rather fallen out of the sharp end of this contest. Just as in Barcelona, as the track temperature came up and the track grip reduced, the Ferraris could not adapt. Where in the morning Vettel had found great braking and nicely progressive turn in, now there was front locking and understeer. It was much the same for Kimi Räikkönen who, in addition, would be taking a five-place penalty for a replacement gearbox. The pole battle therefore distilled to Ricciardo versus Mercedes.
It was a contest that almost evaporated along with the fuel in the Merc’s fuel pumps. The heat had caused a fuel vapourisation in the tightly-packaged Mercedes. Ricciardo had taken to the track as Rosberg’s Merc was being worked on in the garage. Hamilton’s seemed OK – at least until he got to the end of the pitlane where it died. Luckily he stopped it before the white exit line – and the crew was able to run down to retrieve it. Rosberg was leaving in his fettled machine as Hamilton was being pushed back. The extra delay suffered by Lewis meant he’d have time only for one run rather than the two of Rosberg and Ricciardo.
With the sun grilling its surface, the track was probably going to slow – and this too worked against Hamilton. After a couple of laps to warm through the tyres Ricciardo was aggressively into it, shaving the barriers, driving with huge confidence and panache in a car that was giving him all the right messages. Through the swimming pool section his progress was spine-tingling and that lap ended 1m 13.622s after it had begun.
Rosberg was running a minute or so behind on track, Mercedes grunt punching him up the hill to end the first sector half-a-tenth up on the Red Bull. The middle sector was almost identical, albeit achieved in different ways, the Red Bull quicker in direction change, the Merc more accelerative out of the corners. Rosberg went through the speed trap at the end of the tunnel at 184.4mph, faster than the Red Bull, though only by 2mph.
But through that last section – from the exit of Tabac, through the swimming pool section, Rascasse and the run for the line, it’s all about direction change and the ghost of the Merc’s graining front tyres was enough to see Rosberg trailing the Red Bull through there by over 0.2s. Ricciardo was fastest but with their respective second runs still to come.
Hamilton meanwhile was circulating, fuelled-up for a multi-lap run but delaying which lap to go for it, reckoning he’d find more speed from the reduced fuel load than he lost through the tyre deg. He finally let rip at much the same time Ricciardo and Rosberg were making their second runs – and he knocked over a tenth off Rosberg’s sector one benchmark. But the track was 43-deg C by now – up 5-deg from just a few minutes earlier. The grip just wasn’t there – and nor was Hamilton’s full confidence. “You definitely lose out a little around here by not having the banker lap to fall back on,” he said, frustrated that his reliability problems continue. Rosberg actually improved slightly on his second run, having brought in the tyres more gently on his previous lap, but it wasn’t enough. Ricciardo – whose second run fell short of his first – was on pole, the first of his career. “It’s been too long coming,” he said. But not in the way of complaint.
Rosberg and Hamilton – separated by around 0.15s – were second and third respectively, with Vettel a full 0.6s off Hamilton back in fourth. He was a couple of tenths faster than Räikkönen who was marginally slower than the Force India of an over-delivering Nico Hülkenberg, who hit his final lap very sweetly in the improving car. Team-mate Sergio Perez didn’t get the tyres up to temperature quickly enough and was a couple of tenths off, in eighth.
The Toro Rossos, 2015 Ferrari motors and all, were semi-quick, Carlos Sainz seventh and within hundredths of Räikkönen, Daniil Kvyat a couple of tenths off in ninth. Rounding out the top 10 for the second consecutive race was Fernando Alonso’s McLaren-Honda. It wasn’t performing as well as the team had hoped and Jenson Button was a couple of tenths off graduating to Q3. Monaco remains a bogey track for Williams, though performance was improved from last year, with Valtteri Bottas 11th, Felipe Massa 14th. Romain Grosjean was bitching about how the slow warm-up of the Mercedes drivers messed up both his Q2 out-laps, and was otherwise sure he could have pipped Alonso to a place in Q3, rather than being mired 15th, three behind team-mate Esteban Gutiérrez. Kevin Magnussen – with the new engine – scraped his snappy, difficult Renault into Q2. Jolyon Palmer, with the old engine, was 0.3s adrift of his team-mate and did not. Marcus Ericsson even got the Sauber around marginally faster than Palmer, the only Sauber to set a time, Felipe Nasr’s engine blowing-up on his out lap. Rio Haryanto pipped Pascal Wehrlein to the honour of faster Manor driver.
As Ricciardo woke up in his hotel room to the sound of a thunderstorm – after five consecutive days of beautiful Mediterranean sun – it still couldn’t dampen his spirits or supreme confidence. “I just thought: ‘It’s OK, just a few more curveballs coming my way today.’” With rain falling once more as 2pm loomed, so it became clear that the race would start behind the safety car, with everyone by regulation on full wets, such is the way of things these days. As far as Daniel was concerned, this was good, removing the jeopardy of the opening few seconds of a conventional start.
Wet tyre phase
The rumbling silver Mercedes stayed out for a full seven laps, probably longer than strictly necessary and after the rain had stopped. It wasn’t so much that the surface was impossibly wet, more that visibility in the spray was deemed unacceptably low. With the news breaking during the weekend that the Bianchi family is suing over the death of Jules two years ago, the FIA was in no mood to err on any side but caution.
As racing began in earnest, Ricciardo pulled away with ridiculous ease, the Red Bull 3.3s ahead at the end of the lap and going away, all super-high entry speeds and visible fizzing confidence, the way he’d been driving the whole weekend. Daniel’s task was made immeasurably easier by the difficulties of Rosberg behind him. “It was painful,” he said. “I just could get no tyre heat and so I lost brake temperature too and I just had no confidence in the car whatsoever. There’s no way you can drive quickly around here when it’s like that.”
Hamilton was all over him, on different lines, dropping back, closing back up, keeping temperature in those tyres – but reluctant to try anything too opportunistic as behind him loomed Vettel, Hülkenberg, Sainz, Perez, Alonso, Räikkönen and the rest. Stirring stuff to watch 900bhp tamed around narrow streets in the spray between the walls and metal barriers. Inevitably there were casualties: Palmer on the first racing lap, flat in sixth over the white lines, rear wheels spooling up, spitting him hard into the metal barriers on the old pit straight, Räikkönen a few laps later when the rears locked on a downchange into the old Loews and he hit the barrier, knocking the Ferrari’s front wing askew. Sliding straight on at Portier, squabbling with Massa, he took Grosjean with him, the latter forced to stop and reverse – putting him behind Manors for the rest of the afternoon. Kimi then proceeded to drive slowly through the tunnel trailing sparks before wisely deciding to park it. Kvyat – after going two laps down with an electrical problem – later crashed into Magnussen and retired.
Although Magnussen and Button had been in very early to switch to inters, it wasn’t clear-cut whether this was the right thing. A dry line was going down through the first two sectors but the final sector remained damp and tricky. The inters seemed no quicker, the wets more secure, giving more margin for error on a track that invites it. Vettel was first of the front-runners to try them – on lap 13. But he dropped into traffic – behind Massa’s ninth-place Williams – as did Hülkenberg, so the tyre call still wasn’t clear. Verstappen also got caught in traffic after making the switch. But a comparison of the wets-shod Manor of Wehrlein with its inters-wearing sister car driven by Haryanto suggests that the switchover point at which the track dried enough to make the intermediate faster was on lap 17.
By then Rosberg had been asked to move aside for Hamilton. Lewis was chasing down Ricciardo’s 13s gap but making only gradual inroads. He was, though, pulling away from Rosberg at between 2 and 2.5-seconds per lap, Nico seriously struggling, unable to find the confidence to push hard enough to reverse the dwindling temperatures of tyres and brakes. He had Sainz bottled up behind him and looking for a way by, Carlos rescuing a big tank-slapper through the swimming pool at fantastic speed on one occasion.
There’d been no real response to the Manor tyre comparison, but it finally became obvious that the inter was now much faster when Verstappen went around almost two-seconds quicker than the leaders on lap 20. Mercedes brought Rosberg in on the next lap and he rejoined just ahead of Vettel. But with such a big lead over the others, Ricciardo and Hamilton stayed out. There was no downside risk for them at this point. Sainz and Perez pitted together from third and fourth on the 21st lap. A sticking right-front wheelnut lost Sainz crucial time. Perez got out ahead of him – leapfrogging past Vettel and Hulk in the process – while Sainz rejoined three places back, behind Hülkenberg once again. The delay had ruined what could have been a spectacular podium for Carlos, one that would’ve been very timely on a day when there were serious under-performances from several old stagers in bigger teams. Hülkenberg too felt that an over-early stop had lost him a podium that would eventually go to his team-mate.
Red Bull finally reacted with Ricciardo to the ever-improving pace of the inters runners, the leader coming in for his set on the 23rd lap. But Hamilton stayed out, now leading and the only man still on wets. The plan was to miss out the inters, a throw of the dice because otherwise Ricciardo had them beaten. “It was crazy how long I was on those tyres,” said Lewis. “It’s difficult to understand how much to take from them, how much wheelspin you’re allowed…. The track was drying unevenly. The last sector was staying quite slow. I told the team ‘I got to stay out’. The team were saying we should [pit] but I knew I would drop behind Daniel so I eked it out as far as I could.” But even while doing this, he was going no slower than the inters-shod Rosberg, who had Perez, Vettel, Hülkenberg and Sainz bottled up behind – and Alonso’s McLaren not far adrift of that train.
Ricciardo on his fresh inters took only four laps to be on Hamilton’s tail but there was no way past. Verstappen was getting through the midfield though, putting passes into the chicane, frequently the fastest man on track. As he was chasing Gutiérrez on the 29th lap he got a massive top gear oversteer moment through the kink in the tunnel – which fazed him not at all. But maybe it should’ve done. A few laps later, shortly after changing to slicks, he stuck it hard into the wall at Massenet.
Slick tyre phase
Yes, but which slick tyre? Soft, super-soft or ultra-soft? It depended upon your situation. The pre-race theory had gone out of the window. The gentle pace of the still-damp track and the lower fuel loads meant they were brought in relatively gently – greatly extending their life. But by how much? That was imponderable, the very thing that the engineers hate but which brings races alive with uncertainty, jeopardy and tension.
Alonso outlined the challenge of this phase: “It was a very narrow dry line. One centimetre out of it and you crash. It was so demanding, lots of concentration.”
Re Hamilton and his extremely tricky task of bridging the wet-to-slick gap: could it be done? By the 31st lap his wets were absolutely finished. There wasn’t one more lap left in them. In he came. Out he went – on brand new ultra-softs (the ones saved by being forced into just one Q3 run the day before). It was crucial in his situation that they came quickly up to temperature and that defined the compound choice. They were the least durable in theory – and may not have been able to last the remaining 47 laps. But that was over-ridden by the attempt – surely doomed – to retain track position over Ricciardo. Freed of the Mercedes and told he was pitting next lap, Ricciardo let rip.
Hamilton rejoined and found a drastic lack of grip: “Oversteer snaps everywhere, you needed quick reflexes.” Ricciardo meanwhile was absolutely flying. The combined effect of an in-lap 3.5s quicker than Hamilton’s had been with how slowly Lewis on his cold, gripless slicks was snap-oversteering his way around his out-lap meant that Ricciardo was set to come out around eight seconds in front of the Mercedes. Hamilton’s attempt at missing out the inters stage would have been just a brave but doomed gamble. Except…
Cue a gutted Christian Horner post-race: “When Mercedes put Lewis on the ultra-soft, the call was made [from the ‘pitlane’ in the hut above the garage] to change the original plan of going onto the soft. We decided instead – in case Hamilton had done a ballistic out-lap – to go for the super-soft. The set of tyres called for were at the back of the garage and there was a miscommunication in what was being asked for. By the time it was realised, together with how fast Daniel’s in-lap had been, it meant he arrived and the tyres weren’t ready.” What would ordinarily have been a sub-3-second stop instead took over 13-seconds. With three sets of slick compounds and both wet and inters all needing to be available in this race at a moment’s notice, together with the unique Monaco pitlane layout, there was plenty of scope for confusion.
The half-minute gap between Hamilton and Rosberg allowed Mercedes to bring Nico in on the same lap – and tucked up right behind him as he peeled off into the pitlane were Vettel, Hülkenberg and Sainz (Perez came in the lap before). At Rosberg’s pit there was a wheelgun-related delay – and a subsequent holding – which just bolstered Perez’s undercut up to third and allowed Vettel to leave before him too. Two places lost already, he was demoted further by the ever-tenacious Alonso who hung on one lap longer, made a superbly fast in-lap, still with life in his inters, and got out ahead. Being stuck at McLaren-Honda performance subsequently left Rosberg, Hülkenberg and Sainz rueing their various delays – and allowed Vettel and Perez to put plenty of distance on them.
Ricciardo exited the pit lane just as Hamilton was approaching Ste Devote – and Lewis easily had the momentum over the Red Bull to sweep across for the lead. Daniel was understandably emotional at this point – and it showed. He briefly looked like he was prepared to try a pass in the middle of the tunnel, the Red Bull getting scarily out of shape there. Darting this way and that, he had a lot more grip than the Mercedes at this point. The Red Bull was definitely bringing its tyres in quicker. On the 34th lap he threw a move down the inside into the chicane. Hamilton braked late and missed part of the corner. Exiting with greater momentum, Ricciardo tried for the outside as they accelerated away, Lewis chopping across to the right, Daniel getting sideways under power and losing out. “What the f**k was that?” demanded Ricciardo over the radio – with some justification. He had at least some of his car alongside the Mercedes when he was chopped. The stewards looked into it, but took no action.
They did take action against Ericsson though, giving him a three place grid penalty in Canada for his collision attempting to pass team-mate Nasr into Rascasse, leading to a double Sauber retirement. It can be readily imagined how this went down in the beleaguered team.
Eventually the Merc’s tyres came in, and Hamilton had no need to be so desperate. Now the challenge was to keep the tyres in one piece until the end while responding when needed to Ricciardo pumping in the fast laps. It was a relentless battle. Yet Perez and Vettel – on their more durable softs – were only 10s or so behind and pulling far clear of the Alonso-led train behind.
That’s how it stayed. Or almost. On the last lap, Hülkenberg got better traction than Rosberg out of Racasse, both cars twitching like crazy as they accelerated up to the line – with the Force India just getting ahead. Sainz, Button and Massa filled out the points places, Jenson’s race compromised by the timing of his stops putting him behind Manors for too long.
On the podium Hamilton and Perez were letting their joy flow. Ricciardo looked ready to hit someone.
Martin Whitmarsh is back for another go at Formula 1 and he's got some task on his hands transforming Aston Martin into title contenders
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