F1's chasing pack: the teams making progress in pursuit of Red Bull
Red Bull remained in front at the Saudi Arabian GP, but there were some interesting developments among the teams trying to catch the world champions, as the race data shows
Mark Hughes reports from the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, as Hamilton puts one hand on the F1 title
Was that the last ember of the title-fight fire being extinguished by that broken spark plug on Sebastian Vettel’s front-row Ferrari? It did rather look like it, as Lewis Hamilton maximised the damage upon Vettel by taking his eighth victory of the season, with the lifeless Ferrari parked in its garage from the fourth lap.
Things had got tense in the last few laps as the race restarted from its third VSC. The Mercedes is not good in traffic. We’d already seen this trait compromise Hamilton when he was briefly behind his yet-to-stop team-mate Bottas. But now, with the VSC about to be cleared and backmarkers needing to be lapped, it was much more of an emergency, for his worn tyres had cooled and he couldn’t get them switched back on. Verstappen – all balls and reactions – was right with him and up ahead were two hard-dicing backmarkers in the shape of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa. Just two laps to go, having controlled things all the way, Hamilton was in real danger of losing this race.
Not that it would’ve mattered in championship terms. He could have let the Red Bull through, like when he was ambushed in Sepang last week. But that wasn’t the point. It doesn’t feel like that from inside the cockpit; in the moment, the championship is just some abstract thing. This win mattered. It probably mattered that it was Verstappen again too, as giving way to the same guy isn’t the sort of thing you want to be making a habit of. Max had got into his head, as Hamilton more or less admitted afterwards. “I was kind of like – he won the last race, ‘I’m not letting you have this one’. I was driving down the back straight at one point and I’m thinking ‘Jeez, the guy behind me is so much younger than me, I’ve got make sure I kind of man-up and show my age, make sure that I stay ahead, show that I’m actually still very young at heart’. That was kind of my thought process.”
As it turned out, the backmarkers were his saviour, just in the way that they fell. Another victory, another 25-point step towards the title as Ferrari’s challenge has just collapsed horribly in the last three consecutive events. The fat lady is getting ready to walk out on stage.
“It’s incredible to come here with this car and drive on this track. It’s always been one of the greatest but with this car, it’s mind-blowing. I wish everyone could feel what we feel. It’s always been a crazy rollercoaster ride, but with the downforce on these cars it’s insane.” So said Hamilton after securing career pole number 71, his first at Suzuka. This was where the Mercedes W08 hit form once more, on a much more amenable spread of corners to those it struggled with at Singapore and Sepang – and on a much cooler track. It always looked the car to beat and Hamilton was very much into its groove. Even before the extra engine boost of Q3 he was comfortably clear of Vettel, almost all of his advantage coming in sector one and the interconnected direction changes of the Esses. Add a small margin of engine boost to that for Q3 and his final lap there was almost half-a-second clear of anything the Ferrari could do. In fact it was the other Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas that went second-quickest, 0.35sec adrift of Hamilton. This was a pretty good recovery from an early struggle that had included a car-damaging off on the exit of Spoon earlier that morning – and a close shave in Q1 on the exit of Degner 2. A gearbox problem discovered on Friday meant he’d be taking a penalty for its replacement.
Hamilton has now set pole on every circuit on the current calendar and he was interesting on why it had taken him so long to complete his set. “Every time we’ve come here I’ve struggled to find the right rhythm and balance. I’ve either not started on the right foot or started well and then gone in completely the wrong direction with the set-up. This is the first time I’ve had the car beneath me all weekend around here. My knowledge of the car is better than it’s been and it’s enabled me to do the job. Also, I think the fact that Friday second practice was rained out actually probably helped me. I might have messed up the set-up if it had stayed dry for that session.”
Vettel, in the knowledge that Bottas and Ferrari team-mate Kimi Räikkönen were taking gearbox penalties, knew that the front row was almost a given, as the Red Bulls were just not in it around here on Saturday, in stark contrast to Sepang. So with a banker Q3 lap on board, he risked all with his final effort. “I tried everything on the last run. I knew I had to take a bit more risk, but it didn’t work, I ran out of track at the exit of the Esses. But I knew that if Valtteri got past, we would still be on the front row.” Räikkönen, having crashed at Degner 2 on Saturday morning and damaging the gearbox (incurring his penalty), was always a few steps behind. He abandoned his first Q3 lap after running wide at Degner 1 and ended up only sixth, 0.7sec off Vettel’s compromised lap.
Fourth-fastest Daniel Ricciardo, in the quicker of the Red Bulls, was a full 1sec adrift of Hamilton’s time, with Verstappen half a tenth back in fifth. This was disappointing around a track on which the RB13 might have been expected to have been competitive. But with the new generation of cars, corners that were previously differentiators had become flat for almost everyone. “A few corners that are flat-out are also power limited so we are losing more than we expected on the straight,” explained Max. “In sector one now, there aren’t too many corners on the track where you gain a lot of lap time.” Ricciardo had trimmed the car out slightly more than Verstappen but the lack of grunt was hurting regardless.
This brought the likes of the more powerful Force Indias closer, and Esteban Ocon – consistently a smidgeon quicker than Sergio Pérez all weekend – slotted in seventh, less than 1sec off the Red Bulls, with Pérez one place behind and marginally faster than Felipe Massa’s Williams. Fernando Alonso was taking 35 penalties because of the replacement of an entire power unit (a like-for-like Spec 3.7). A hydraulic leak sprang in the original and couldn’t be fixed in time. He bumped team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne out of Q3, putting the McLaren-Hondas 10th and 11th respectively, but it allowed Vandoorne to have free tyre choice for the race. The replacement of Alonso’s engine means if the Spec 4 is fitted to his car subsequently he must take another penalty.
The emphasis on horsepower around this track with the 2017 cars bumped Renault down from its usual level, with Nico Hülkenberg and Jolyon Palmer (in his last race for the team) a respective 12th and 14th separated by a couple of tenths. Palmer’s engine was replaced – a tactical move to help new recruit Carlos Sainz in Austin – the penalties putting him on the penultimate row. This promoted Kevin Magnussen’s Haas. The sister car was in several pieces after Romain Grosjean lost it on the exit of Turn 3 and finally crashed in the Turn 4 earth bank. Sainz, in his final race for Toro Rosso, made it through to Q2 but wasn’t competitive there. He too took engine penalties and would start on the back row alongside Alonso. Pierre Gasly in the other car was one of several unable to complete their second Q1 laps because of the red flags for the Grosjean crash and so was back in 17th (14th after penalties), ahead of the similarly afflicted Lance Stroll and the Saubers, with Marcus Ericsson ahead of Pascal Wehrlein.
Déjà-vu on the Ferrari radio, as concerned voices talked Vettel through switch changes in response to a mechanical ailment. They’d had the engine cover off in the garage and seemed satisfied that it was fixed as the motor was fired up – but as soon as he took off down the pitlane Vettel could feel it was still firing on five. More work on the grid, fingers crossed. Considering he must’ve been around 150bhp down, his start was great, pole man Hamilton having to ease across to the right to keep him behind. The Red Bulls were crowding him by the first corner – Verstappen sliced inside Ricciardo, this defining the rest of the latter’s race – but still behind as they headed up the Esses. Getting off line as Verstappen forged through meant Ricciardo was vulnerable to an opportunistic Ocon between turns two and three, and the Force India moved up to fourth. Following the second Red Bull were Pérez, Massa, Hülkenberg and Räikkönen, Kimi making contact with Vandoorne who was pushed out into the turn two grass and lost a load of places.
Sainz, from the back row, tried going around the outside of a line of cars on the exit of turn two, found the gripless dust and lost it, plain and simple, nosing the Toro Rosso into the barriers. “Not the way I wanted to end my Toro Rosso career,” he said after apologising to the team.
On the crazy pack raced up the Esses, down the dip, onwards up to the crest of Dunlop, back down to the tricky Degners, under the bridge, through the kink – and Verstappen, gaining fast on the down-on-power Vettel, lost no time in pouncing upon the Ferrari under braking into the hairpin. Hamilton was already up and gone but Max set chase and the others began to buzz around the limping Vettel like vultures. Spoon, 130R, the chicane and onto the pit straight before that pack could properly attack the injured car – Ocon ducking out of the slipstream one side, Ricciardo the other, with Bottas briefly making it four-abreast at almost 200mph as he scythed past too, his distinctive yellow-walled softs a choice shared by Räikkönen who had fallen back after trying to sit it out with Hülkenberg into Spoon and running out wide, losing places to Magnussen, Stroll, Grosjean and Gasly.
Sending out a crane to retrieve Sainz’s car then brought out the VSC, a feature brought about by the Bianchi accident here three years ago. Minds inevitably cast themselves back to that black day when a future that might have been was ended so brutally.
Racing was resumed at the end of lap three, with Verstappen giving strong chase, having devoured Hamilton’s former 1.5sec lead in just a couple of corners. There were a couple of crucial clues in that information. Because the VSC uses a distance-based algorithm, the driver has a choice as he prepares to restart – either he weaves down the straights to warm his tyres or he stays in a straight line to maximise the forward distance travelled. So Hamilton had used the allowance to try to warm his tyres, Verstappen had used it to get as close to Hamilton as he could.
It suggested that the Red Bull was switching on the tyres quicker than the Merc. The high temperatures (at 42deg C, up 17deg C from qualifying) generally were good news for Red Bull, less so for Mercedes. Everyone was trying to one-stop; it was significantly quicker but wasn’t a comfortable reach on the super-soft/soft combination. Normally, teams will run their tyres until around 2sec past their peak pace, but to do the one-stop here required you to make it more like 3sec past peak. This makes the car feel terrible for the driver, who becomes certain he must be losing time to the field but it’s the same for everyone and still quicker than losing the extra 22sec for another stop and making your way through traffic around a circuit where even lapping someone can take half a lap. What this meant was that the effect of the undercut was going to be massive, because the car staying out was going to be so much slower on its in-lap than the car coming out on its fresh rubber. The car in front needed as much as a 3.5sec gap to safely be able to respond one lap later and still come out ahead.
So Hamilton set about getting that gap over Verstappen by the time they got to the pitstop window, which would be from around lap 17/18. Gradually he eased it out. Verstappen gave chase but could feel the left-front was suffering the more he leant on it. Still, the Red Bull was generally within a couple of tenths of the Merc, having been more than 1sec slower in qualifying. Partly it was engine modes, most of the rest was probably the higher track temperatures.
Pérez sailed by the five-cylinder Vettel on the restart and the lap after that the Ferrari was brought in and retired from the race. It’s not known why the spark plug failed but it surely extinguished any lingering title hopes for Vettel.
Stroll ran wide at Spoon, picking up a puncture as he did so, leading him to run off again at 130R – and he pitted for fresh rubber, and the enforced two-stop took him out of points contention. Stroll’s adventures gained the recovering Räikkönen a place and Kimi then put a move around the outside of Grosjean into First Curve, following up with a move past the other Haas later in the lap, bringing him up to ninth and with a second attempt on Hülkenberg’s Renault looming. The Renault driver, like Räikkönen and Bottas, was on the harder tyre and set to stay out for a long first stint.
Räikkönen had just passed Hülkenberg at the chicane on the eighth lap when another VSC was triggered, this time for the crashed Sauber of Marcus Ericsson to be collected from Degner 2. Verstappen was less aggressive on his restart, looking after his tyres and with Hamilton now a couple of seconds up the road. Ricciardo had still not found a way by Ocon’s well-driven Force India and by the time he did – going by on the restart down the pit straight and into First Curve – he was 6sec behind his team-mate. Although he would lap at much the same pace as Verstappen for the rest of the afternoon, he was never able to make up that margin. It had all been decided between them with Verstappen’s first corner pass.
Bottas followed Ricciardo past Ocon a lap later but couldn’t make any inroads into the Red Bull pair, even as the laps went on and his harder tyres might have begun to make a difference. It confirmed that Mercedes had no significant advantage on race pace over Red Bull, which made one speculate just how a healthy Ferrari driven by Vettel might have fared had it been in position. Would Hamilton have been able to have forged out a lead of 3.5sec or more over the Vettel/Ferrari combination before the pitstops to get himself out of the Ferrari’s undercut range? We’ll never know. There weren’t really any clues from Räikkönen’s performance as his busy race – he went past Massa for seventh on the 14th lap and set chase for the Force Indias – put a lot of strain on the tyres. He would later set second-fastest lap but that was a function of being one of the few cars on a low-fuel/super-softs combination because of his transposed tyre strategy. Bottas on the same tyre strategy shaded him in the list by half-a-tenth.
The opening of the pitstop window was signalled by Massa coming in at the end of lap 17 (of 53). Up front, Mercedes kept Hamilton out there, as he just concentrated on keeping that margin beyond 3.5sec. With Verstappen now struggling with his left-front, that gap was always at least that and usually more. On lap 21, as soon as Red Bull had the gap behind to drop Verstappen into, they brought him in. It was very finely judged, as he exited only just ahead of Räikkönen despite a very quick (2.4sec) pit stop. Mercedes responded immediately, bringing Hamilton in next time through. The power of the undercut could be seen from how much gain Verstappen made. He’d stopped from 5sec behind the Mercedes but was within 1.5sec as it rejoined. Hamilton edged away and Verstappen resisted the urge this time to chase too early, preferring to keep his tyres alive for a late effort, when Red Bull fancied it might be faster than the Merc. “On the soft tyre, it was better balanced than the super-soft,” observed Verstappen, “but I wanted to make sure I kept that left-front alive.” Even so, it would develop a blister late in the race.
Ricciardo was the temporary race leader and as he kept going for another lap it looked as though Red Bull might try to use him to back Bottas and Hamilton into Verstappen. But to do so would have required him to back off enough that his place would have been under threat from Bottas. So he was brought in on the 25th lap as Bottas stayed out on his old softs, now leading by 7sec from the fast-closing Hamilton.
The Mercedes W08 is very aerodynamically sensitive to running in traffic, and as Hamilton closed down on his team-mate, while chased by Verstappen, he began to suffer in the wake. He radioed that he hoped Bottas wasn’t staying out much longer as it was costing him time. Mercedes was just about to issue instructions for Bottas to let him through when Hamilton then radioed in again, unprompted, and said he was OK where he was and the switch was delayed. At that moment, Verstappen launched an attack – and the swap had to be made after all, just a lap later. Bottas moved aside for Hamilton at the chicane on the 28th lap, then swooped across on Verstappen. The fresher-tyred Red Bull attacked hard, Bottas locking up into the hairpin but just maintaining the momentum to stay ahead – and finally pitted on lap 30. By which time Hamilton had pulled out 3.5sec.
Bottas rejoined on his fresh super-softs 10sec down on Ricciardo’s third place, with 23 laps to go. Although he was then the fastest car on track, he was too far back to be able to seriously threaten for the podium. Behind them, Räikkönen had pitted for his super-softs a couple of laps earlier and had rejoined a further 14sec behind Bottas, having leapfrogged the Force Indias. Fifth was as far as he was going to get, his weekend defined by his gearbox-damaging crash on Saturday morning.
At Force India, things were tense. “Can I attack Esteban?” Pérez had asked, with the backdrop being that after their incidents at Spa they’d been told they would no longer be free to race each other. “No, Checo. No.”
“Well, tell him he needs to up the pace. He’s too slow.”
A similar struggle was unfolding at Haas, as Magnussen and the fresher-tyred Grosjean closed down on Massa, with Romain urging the team that he could pass the Williams if they moved Magnussen aside. Spurred on by this possibility, Magnussen made an aggressive move on Massa through turns one/two, contact being made and as Felipe ran wide, so Grosjean slipped by too. Romain kept the pressure on his team-mate but didn’t judge it prudent to make an actual move on him. Gasly’s Toro Rosso caught onto the tail of their train.
Hülkenberg, on his transposed tyre strategy, had been running just ahead of this group before they’d pitted. He stayed out trying to get the 22sec gap over them, but couldn’t quite manage it before the tyres cried enough. He came in on the 38th lap and exited behind the Williams/Haas/Toro Rosso train. He passed Gasly, who locked up trying to defend and badly flat-spotted his tyres – sending him pitwards for replacements. Hülkenberg was then mounting an attack on the Haas pair just before they’d passed Massa and was looking much pacier than them on his new super-softs. But his DRS then stuck open, as the linkage on one side had failed. He pitted into retirement, not a happy bunny. In the sister car Palmer was having a solid last race for the team. He’d been passed by Alonso, who was now putting pressure on Massa’s 10th place.
That Massa/Alonso scrap would come to have an impact upon the race as Hamilton, with Verstappen a couple of seconds behind and now mounting his late attack, came to lap them. They’d not quite reached them when Stroll suffered a front-right suspension collapse, which punctured his tyre and sent him skating across the run-off at the beginning of the Esses, slewing back onto the track, narrowly missed by Ricciardo. Retrieving the Williams meant another VSC, which was in operation on laps 48 and 49.
This was a potential nightmare for Hamilton. “My tyres were very worn,” he related, “and I just couldn’t get them to wake up as we prepared to get going again.” Verstappen was having less trouble. It took Hamilton a while just to get to Alonso, finally nailing a lapping move three-quarters of the way into the lap at the hairpin. With Verstappen right behind, he was looking to pass the McLaren too as they exited out of there, but Alonso cut across to take up his line before then pulling aside between the kink and Spoon. He was later reprimanded for blue flags infringement. As this was happening Hamilton was catching Massa, but Verstappen, once by Alonso, was catching them both fast. With two laps to go.
Hamilton cannily waited until late into First Curve before lapping the Williams, thereby putting it between him and Verstappen just where the track’s layout makes it almost impossible to pull aside. By the time Max found a way by, Hamilton had just the cushion he needed to reel off his eighth victory of the season.
There was a hint of concern on the slow-down lap as he radioed about vibrations, possibly from the power unit. Nothing could be seen amiss by the team. “I don’t honestly think there’s any wrong with the engine,” said the victor. “You just point out things that you might forget to tell them. You make lots of different switch changes and the turbos make strange noises and different vibrations come in, so I’m hoping there’s nothing.”
It seems the only vibrations he was feeling were good ones.
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