Hamilton & Verstappen set to clash again in 'total commitment' F1 title battle
It is with some trepidation that we step back into the debate on Lewis Hamilton vs Max Verstappen this week. Ahead of the unloved Russian Grand Prix – hands up…
Mark Hughes reports from the Red Bull Ring, as Bottas brings himself into the reckoning
Valtteri Bottas might have had Lewis Hamilton’s gearbox penalty or Romain Grosjean’s Q3 breakdown to thank for his second victory of the season. But who’s to say he wouldn’t have won it anyway; it wasn’t conclusive. Nor was the charge laid at him by Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo that he’d anticipated the start. The FIA looked at the footage, measured the reaction time as 0.201sec – which is quick but not super-natural. The loose guideline – it’s not a regulation – is that anything beneath 0.2sec will be treated as suspicious. There are people who can regularly test at 0.17-0.18sec, but the human average is around 0.3sec. Vettel’s in this instance, from alongside Bottas on the front row, was 0.364sec, thereby making Bottas’ reaction look faster than it was. But those times are just the gaps between the lights going out and the car beginning to move, rather than actual reaction times. There is inevitably some residual delay – maybe less than half-a-tenth – in the car’s mechanicals, a gap between the driver releasing the clutch paddle and the wheels beginning to turn. So long as the car takes more than 0.2sec to begin moving after the lights have gone out, the stewards are generally satisfied. But that doesn’t mean that the driver didn’t make a lucky gamble to release in anticipation of the lights – which Bottas admits he did.
It was hugely important for Bottas to win the start; for the indications were that the Mercedes was faster on the ultra-soft but the Ferrari quicker on the super-soft. So if Vettel could get ahead from the start on the ultra-shod first stint and thereby supress the Merc’s greater speed, he’d in theory be able to pull away when both were on the super-softs for the second stint. Had Bottas not won the start, in other words, Vettel would’ve been damn-near impossible to beat. So it was crucial for Bottas he set pole and once he’d done that, vital he win the start. Everything hung on that. So he had a plan…
Rewinding back to Saturday, if an electrical connection on Grosjean’s car not come adrift, stranding the Haas and bringing out yellows that curtailed everyone’s final laps in the dying seconds of Q3, it was feasible that Vettel might’ve taken pole and not Bottas.
But Bottas did take pole, did make a better start than Vettel and did win the race. Into the second stint of this one-stop race, with the ultras exchanged for super-softs, Vettel quickly closed down the gap that Bottas had built up in the first stint to be right on his tail for the final few tense laps as they navigated their way through slower traffic, the Merc with big blisters across its rear tyres, the Ferrari’s rubber in near-perfect shape.
Just a few seconds back, Daniel Ricciardo – in a Red Bull that in race conditions was barely any slower than the Merc and Ferrari – navigated those same backmarkers under pressure from the chasing Mercedes of the grid-penalised Hamilton. Sweat was trickling down from his brow and stinging his eyes as he remained resolute in nailing the braking zones, not allowing Hamilton even a sliver of daylight.
The picturesque but short Red Bull Ring is the most power-sensitive track on the calendar but, unlike Baku, there is no problem with having enough electrical energy to deploy full power on demand wherever it’s needed. So we were back to approximate power parity between the Mercedes and Ferrari motors here, regardless of rulings about oil burning. Ferrari – whose engine chief Lorenzo Sassi had parted with the team last week for reasons currently unclear – was still the focus of FIA attention however and for here had been obliged to stiffen its floor.
Yet for all the off-track manoeuvrings the two cars qualified within four hundredths of each other, Bottas on pole from Vettel. It could just have easily swung the other way – and might have done had not the broken-down Haas of Romain Grosjean brought out yellow flags as everyone was making their final Q3 runs. At Mercedes it was Bottas all the way, his second pole delivered in typically unflustered, undramatic fashion. “The car was nice and stable for the qualifying and I was just able to build up the confidence and this is a track where you really need it in those high-speed corners. Once we found the balance, we didn’t really touch the car at all. The laps were getting better and better and that was the result.” The Merc W08s featured new front wing, barge boards and diffuser.
Vettel was absolutely flying, visibly wringing all there was to get from the well-balanced Ferrari SF70H, which he described as ‘phenomenal’ through the high speed sections – the left-right sweeps of turns 6-7-8 (the former ‘Texaco’ chicane) and the sixth gear blind of nine (Rindt Kurve) – and although he was rueing the yellow flag, he accepted that he’d been on the lucky side of such incidents in the past, “usually against Valtteri. So what goes around comes around, I guess.” It seemed a relief for him to be able to talk about his car’s performance rather than his Baku incident. “Valtteri told me he still had a bit of a margin,” he continued, “but I don’t think I had that much more to get, maybe a sniff in the last corner.”
Hamilton was a couple of tenths adrift in third, his qualifying compromised by an indifferent first Q3 run as he tried the ultra-softs for the first time, having gone through Q1 and Q2 on the super-softs. The reason for that was to do with the tyre strategy adopted in compensating for a five-place gearbox penalty the team knew he’d be taking coming into the weekend. Post-Baku inspection had revealed the problem and although it was possible the unit could have done the race here, there would’ve been a significant reliability risk attached and it would not then have been feasible to have used it at Silverstone, when a penalty would have been incurred anyway. So the decision was taken to take the hit here. Hamilton had been super-quick during Friday on all three tyre compounds (although around here there was relatively little lap time difference between the ultra, super and soft; it was simply derived with slightly different handling balance), but with the track temperature falling into Q3, the car didn’t feel quite as it had on the ultra in practice.
Even without the yellows, he wasn’t set to have improved on his final run as he’d just had a big oversteer snap out of the newly-numbered turn three (the old turn two) and major understeer into turn four. Only third fastest plus the five places didn’t put him in the best of moods and he clearly felt disappointed with his own performance. Had only getting onto the ultras in Q3 contributed to this? “Well, I’m experienced enough. That shouldn’t have been a problem.”
Räikkönen, fourth quickest but a hefty 0.4sec adrift of Vettel, had been pretty despondent after Friday, the balance he sought from the Ferrari proving elusive. “We pretty much started from zero again on Saturday morning,” he related, “and considering that, it’s not too bad.” He just wasn’t as confident in the car as Vettel, particularly upon corner entry and was losing a chunk of time into the challenging final two turns to the on-fire Vettel.
Räikkönen’s time only just kept him out of reach of the Red Bulls, which were not quite the force they’d been in Baku, but unchallenged for fifth and sixth, Daniel Ricciardo just over a tenth quicker than Max Verstappen. Ricciardo had lost a lot of Friday running to a problem with a new spec of MGU-h, which led Renault Sport to replace the new units with older-spec versions on all those engines fitted with it. Verstappen had been quicker through the practices but was just a little over-aggressive in striving for more in Q3. He squeezed in three ultra runs, but made significant errors on each of them, ending up with a spin out of turn seven. Ricciardo, having needed to use up more of his ultras to ensure safe graduation from Q2, had just one run but made it count.
Whenever Grosjean can get through the narrow window of feasibility his braking overlap driving style makes of the Haas’s inadequate brake-by-wire system, he remains super-quick. The Q2 lap that got him into Q3 was nudging into the Red Bulls and he delivered the seventh-best Q3 time before the car then stopped with an electrical cut-out. It didn’t look the easiest of cars to drive but Grosjean reckoned it had good grip. Team-mate Kevin Magnussen had been quick too, but was unable to take part in Q2 after his left-rear wishbone broke in Q1, leaving him to start 15th.
Force India plugged away from initial ill balance to Q3 respectability, Sergio Pérez and Esteban Ocon going eighth and ninth. They would likely have been behind Carlos Sainz’s Toro Rosso, however, had the Spaniard not been denied his new-tyred Q3 lap by the yellow flags. His 10th-best time was set on used tyres and had he merely repeated his Q2 time he’d have been eighth. Team-mate Daniil Kvyat lost the balance of the car between the morning practice session and qualifying and was 0.3sec slower in Q2, putting him 14th.
Nico Hülkenberg’s Renault was around half-a-tenth shy of making Q3 and would line up 11th. He described it as a ‘sweet lap’ and reckoned that’s all there was in the car. Jolyon Palmer’s season still hasn’t really got off the ground and he failed to get the other Renault out of Q1, but the 0.171sec deficit to Hülkenberg illustrates the small margins. He would start 16th.
After the seemingly inevitable Honda MGU-h failure, the new Spec 3 engine had to be removed from Fernando Alonso’s McLaren before qualifying and replaced with the older spec unit (costing around 0.15sec of lap time). He qualified this 12th. Subtracting 0.15sec from his time would have him theoretically just squeezing into Q3 at Ocon’s expense. Stoffel Vandoorne in the sister car retained the newer engine and was 0.15sec and one place behind.
Paddy Lowe drew parallels with what can only be described as a disastrous qualifying for Williams to what he experienced at Mercedes at Singapore 2015. The cars simply refused to get their tyres into the temperature window and drastically lacked grip all weekend. The FW40 featured a major aero upgrade with new nose, wing pillar, Mercedes-like barge boards, new floor, diffuser and engine cover. But with the tyre temperature situation, it was difficult to know where the problem lay. Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll could do no better than 17th and 18th respectively, separated by half a tenth. They were ahead of only the Saubers, where Marcus Ericsson was a couple of tenths quicker than an engine-compromised Pascal Wehrlein. The latter would have his power unit changed for the race, obliging him to start from the pitlane.
There was talk of rain on the way, but we never saw it. The verdant valley setting remained favoured by the sun, the track around 44deg C as the heat haze hung around the cars – and so in hindsight the tyre strategy that had so compromised Hamilton’s qualifying had served no purpose. Of the top 10, only he was on the red-walled super-soft rather than the purple-striped ultra. There wasn’t all that much difference between them in performance around here but its durability was greater. It had also been chosen by Hülkenberg, Magnussen, Stroll and Wehrlein. On the yellow-walled soft, with yet greater range, were Palmer and Massa. The rest were on the ultras, but even these were good for at least half-distance.
Bottas made the perfect getaway, so good it got him investigated. Vettel’s reactions were 80 per cent slower, but that was plenty enough to allow him to retain his second place up to turn one, as the initially faster-starting Räikkönen had his hands full trying to defend from Ricciardo, with Grosjean right behind, then Hamilton who was squeezing up the inside of Pérez.
Both Verstappen’s Red Bull (a clutch problem, triggering the anti-stall) and Sainz’s Toro Rosso (an engine misfire) were painfully slow away, leading to a domino effect accident into turn one. With others slaloming around the two slow-movers, Alonso arrived with the crawling Verstappen to his left but about to turn in. Fernando played it cautious, backing off early, checking his mirrors but Kvyat – perhaps distracted from having squeezed between Sainz and the pitwall – was caught out and couldn’t avoid slamming into the back of the McLaren, spinning it into the side of Verstappen. The Red Bull retired with a broken driveshaft (much to the great disappointment of the three-quarters of the crowd dressed in orange), the McLaren also too heavily damaged to continue. Kvyat was in for a new nosecone and rejoined at the back. He’d later take a drive-through for the incident and finish last despite quite respectable pace (sixth in the fastest lap list). Sainz would retire after trying for many laps to clear the misfire under instruction. Magnussen was forced to run way off track to avoid the carnage and would later retire the Haas with no hydraulic pressure.
Bottas and Vettel were already sprinting clear of the field as they surged up the hill for the first time through the kink, with Räikkönen grinding past Ricciardo through there, only for Daniel to catch the Ferrari driver by surprise with a sublimely judged counter-move down the inside of turn three at the top of the hill. Räikkönen had to take to the run-off area and was passed also by Grosjean as he rejoined. This created a concertina effect behind, as Hamilton – the meat in a Force India sandwich – had to back off to avoid hitting Grosjean, this losing him momentum and allowing Pérez, who had sliced inside, to out-accelerate him. Ocon, who had got ahead of Pérez up the hill but was on the outside, now had to lift to avoid Hamilton. Pérez’s racecraft in these moments was that of an experienced, tough old hand. He’d lost two places but made them both up again – all within less than 30sec of the start. Behind them was a gap, with Palmer then running the Renault onto the turn three run-off and being passed by Sainz and the fast-starting Williams’ of Massa and Stroll, each of whom had made up seven places aided by the first corner carnage. But they would have no trouble running in that position and once past Sainz, would run comfortably with the Force Indias, vastly more competitive in race conditions than over one lap of qualifying. Hülkenberg’s Renault had gone in the opposite direction to Williams, triggering the anti-stall off the grid and sinking from 11th to almost last. He wouldn’t figure and, complaining of dire lack of grip, would persevere to 13th, just ahead of the Saubers.
Ricciardo had to get defensive on Grosjean down to turn four as did Pérez with Hamilton. On they all screamed through the fast sequence of the former Texaco chicane, up the hill towards the blind exit Rindt Kurve and turn 10, taken almost as one, as the downhill exit merges into the entry of the final turn. Bottas completed the opening lap already 1.4sec ahead of Vettel and pulling away. The Merc was simply a faster, grippier car on the ultra and Bottas began to feel very good about the day ahead. Vettel wasn’t really dropping Ricciardo but they’d both been on the radio claiming that Bottas had jumped the start. The stewards would later conclude that he had not.
“The main thing was the car was only moving after the lights were out,” he said. “It was probably one of my best starts even if a bit risky, but I knew I had to make a good start.”
“From my point of view he jumped the start,” said Vettel, “I was sure that he did; it looked like it from inside the car.” Upon being told of the FIA’s measured time of 0.201sec, Vettel answered simply. “I don’t believe that.” Which is a controversial view, particularly one week on from Baku and the fall-out that followed.
Bottas later gave further detail. “With the start lights, there is always variation [in the gap between] all five lights being on and them going off. But the variation for quite a long time has not been massive, so you know more or less when it is going to be off and you are so alert at that point and you are gambling between your reaction and guessing. Sometimes you get a mega one and sometimes you’re a bit late and today was my best reaction for the light. As long as you’re positive [ie the car began moving more than 0.2sec after the lights went out], it’s fine… We are doing a lot of start practice and reaction time practice and in those practices you can hit better times than 0.2sec many times. It was just the perfect start really and you just need to be alert.”
Ricciardo: “As Valtteri said, the main thing is it was positive, so he was fine. The lights were held for a long time, more than normal. For sure, he went after the lights went out but I guess he got lucky. I did it in Formula 3 once. In theory it’s not a natural reaction, I don’t believe, but as Valtteri said if it’s plus then he’s safe. But I don’t believe he reacted to the lights. I think he got lucky with when the lights changed.”
Grosjean played the defensive game from Räikkönen’s quicker Ferrari for as long as he could, but Kimi was able to retake the fourth place into turn four once DRS was enabled on the third lap. Hamilton nailed a similar move on Pérez there two laps later to go sixth and another a lap after that to deprive Grosjean of fifth. By which time Bottas was leading Vettel by over 3sec and Hamilton was 14sec behind his race-leading team-mate.
Bottas had already done enough to get himself out of Vettel’s undercut range, giving Mercedes the luxury of not having to anticipate any Vettel move. But they had also instructed him to open out a gap as they were concerned about a possible jump-start penalty. The crucial gap here was that to Grosjean and the Force Indias because of how much more time you’d lose running at their pace rather than that of the Ferraris and Red Bull ahead. The usual penalty for a jump-start would be a drive-through, which around here costs around 14.5sec. He had made that gap over Grosjean by the eighth lap and soon after it was confirmed that the stewards were satisfied with his start.
Hamilton’s race would be less straightforward. He gradually gained on Räikkönen but was having to do some brake temperature management amid finding that the rear super-softs were not gripping very well. He arrived on Räikkönen’s tail on lap 19, by which time Kimi was struggling with a blistering left-front tyre and a dashboard problem that was not allowing him to reset a failed software function that would have allowed him to re-balance the car. Even so, Hamilton could find no way past and for the next 10 laps would be stuck at Kimi’s pace, around 0.5sec slower than that of the leaders.
With Bottas out of Vettel’s undercut threat, Vettel out of Ricciardo’s and Daniel in turn out of Räikkönen’s, there was a stalemate in the top three for the latter half of the first stint. But with Hamilton right behind Räikkönen as the stop window opened, Ferrari needed to act first to prevent Hamilton undercutting. The crucial gap for this was ensuring you exited still ahead of Grosjean, so as not to be slowed. Räikkönen had made that gap by the 29th lap – but still Ferrari left him out. Initially the Mercedes pitwall could hardly believe its luck: how had Ferrari missed that opportunity? By the following lap Hamilton would have that gap over Grosjean too. “Do the opposite of whatever Kimi does,” Hamilton was told on the 30th lap. Räikkönen continued for another lap, so Hamilton came in and was fitted with a set of ultras.
It had by now dawned on Mercedes what Ferrari’s logic of leaving Räikkönen out was: if he could stay less than 20sec [the pit loss time] behind Bottas, it would mean Bottas would rejoin from his stop behind a yet-to-stop Räikkönen whose old-tyre pace could back Bottas into an already-pitted and closing Vettel. Ferrari would indeed leave Räikkönen out for 13 laps after Hamilton’s stop and Bottas by now was going no faster than Räikkönen, so couldn’t get the pitstop gap. They would have to fall into Ferrari’s potential trap, then hope Bottas’ new tyre grip allowed him to pass the old-tyred Ferrari before Vettel caught them both.
But before that played out, Hamilton’s stop threatened an undercut on Ricciardo, forcing Red Bull to bring him in for fresh super-softs two laps later (lap 33). This in turn made Vettel vulnerable to Ricciardo’s undercut threat, so Seb was brought in the following lap and also fitted with supers.
Hamilton’s pace on his new ultras was easily going to see him gain a position over Räikkönen when Kimi eventually stopped. In other words, Ferrari sacrificed Räikkönen one position in order to attempt to help Vettel beat Bottas. Be under no illusions about that. Vettel is their champion designate – and logically so.
Mercedes watched to see if Räikkönen would suffer enough delay lapping Palmer that they could get Bottas’ pitstop gap over him. But when Kimi accomplished this without too much trouble on lap 41, Mercedes finally called Bottas in and fitted him with new super-softs.
“I’d just been trying to get clear of Kimi actually,” related Bottas, “trying to get ahead of him because for sure he was going to try and hold me back to help Sebastian. I wasn’t actually questioning anything; it was not my decision to stay out, I was trusting the team and their strategy because they can see much more than I can in the car. The tyres were okay until the last lap before the stop when I told them there was not much left in them and we had to stop.”
He ran slightly past his marks, giving the wheel-man on the right-front a struggle to get the new wheel on, costing around 0.7sec. It just further ensured Valtteri exited behind the temporarily race-leading Räikkönen. Vettel by this time was just 3sec behind the Merc, the Ferrari much happier on the super-soft than it had been on the ultra and Vettel absolutely wringing its neck with the scent of victory just up ahead. He was lapping in mid-high 1m8sec while the old-tyred Räikkönen (and therefore Bottas) was in the low-mid 1m9sec. Bottas needed to pass Räikkönen immediately. He did so. Räikkönen got a little out of shape exiting turn three on his old tyres, Bottas got a DRS run on him and went by cleanly into turn four to retake the lead.
Räikkönen was finally brought in on lap 44 and rejoined fifth, 9sec behind Hamilton. But although Ferrari’s Räikkönen ploy had been foiled, Vettel was still catching Bottas hand-over-fist. Ricciardo was around 4sec adrift of Vettel but not lapping any slower as he sought to keep himself out of reach of the charging Hamilton.
So that’s how the second stint played out – Vettel eating into Bottas’ lead, Hamilton doing the same to Ricciardo. But an interesting aside: the Ricciardo-Hamilton duel was running slightly faster than that of Bottas-Vettel as Valtteri began to struggle with a badly graining left-rear.
“It was a bit of a déjà vu with Seb coming close in the final laps like in Russia and I could feel the blister getting worse and worse and it was affecting more and more the stability of the rear. Every time I was approaching a right-hand corner it was always more tricky and with the back markers as well: sometimes I was losing time, other times he lost more time.”
Räikkönen had for a time been catching Hamilton, but after being forced onto the marbles lapping Palmer again and running wide at turn one, his worn tyres lost their temperature and his challenge was effectively over.
Hamilton was finding that on the ultras his car was a little oversteery. “Normally you’d give the team a balance check before you were due in, so they could adjust the front wing flap at the stop,” he explained, “but because I hadn’t realised I was coming in until they said do the opposite of Räikkönen, I didn’t ask for any wing change; it was all a bit rushed. Ideally, we’d have taken some front wing out at the stop.”
Hamilton’s rears were wearing fast, but as he chased down Ricciardo he was still the fastest car on track. Daniel was absolutely nailing the Red Bull, desperately trying to stay out of Hamilton’s reach. He was doing a great job but with five laps to go Hamilton was there, looking this way and that for a way through. At much the same time Vettel was reaching Bottas’ DRS range. It was all building to a suitably climactic end. Vettel, Ricciardo and Hamilton took turns at the fastest man on track, but usually it was Hamilton, who six times in the last 10 charging laps went quickest, to Ricciardo’s three times and Vettel’s once. They – and Räikkönen – all did a best of 1m 07.4sec, underlining just how closely matched W08, SF70H and RB13 were around here.
The Red Bull was the fastest car of all through the last two turns and Hamilton just couldn’t get close enough to get a run going down the pit straight. Ricciardo concentrated on just hitting the brakes as late as he could. “I knew if I kept my line and braked late, in theory he couldn’t get past.” But a small error through turn one with two laps to go meant he was slow up the hill, Hamilton using his greater momentum through turn three to get a DRS run going down to turn four. He was actually ahead of the Red Bull as they approached the turn – but on the outside, and Ricciardo calmly placed his car to thwart the Mercedes.
Bottas was doing a similar soak up the pressure job, just as in Sochi. Both battles had to negotiate their way through similar fights a lap down, one between Palmer and Stroll for 10th (in which the Williams remained ahead to the end) and another between Ocon and Massa for eighth (which went the way of the Force India driver). A double points finish had looked unlikely for Williams after qualifying. Behind Palmer ran Vandoorne, who took a drive-through for a blue flag infringement, though it didn’t lose him a place. Grosjean was last of the un-lapped runners after a terrific drive keeping himself just out of Pérez’s reach all day, the gap rarely more than a couple of seconds. Sixth place was the reward.
Bottas’ cool-headed victory brings him within 15 points of Hamilton and 31 of Vettel. He’s adamant he is not ruling himself out of championship contention. Vettel admitted to being hacked off at not winning, hence why Bottas’ start was really irritating him. Ricciardo was his usual beaming self and Hamilton took satisfaction from a drive where he’d been 19sec behind the leader with half the race done, to just 7sec by the end. Upon looking at his destroyed ultra-soft tyres post-race, team members were shaking their heads that he could have been doing the times he was.
All of which sets up things rather nicely for Silverstone.
It is with some trepidation that we step back into the debate on Lewis Hamilton vs Max Verstappen this week. Ahead of the unloved Russian Grand Prix – hands up…
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