MPH: Why Aston Martin can expect podium glory with Mercedes upgrade
On paper, the team with the biggest potential for improvement this year is Aston Martin (Racing Point as was). Which may sound odd given the very strong 2020 it enjoyed…
Mark Hughes reports from Formula 1’s final visit to Malaysia and Sepang
There was no way Ferrari was going to lose this race. Except it did. The SF70-H was by far the fastest car as Formula 1 visited the hot and aerodynamically demanding Sepang circuit for the final time. But Sebastian Vettel’s broke before doing a lap of qualifying and front-row qualifier Kimi Räikkönen’s suffered an apparently identical failure on the way to the grid.
On paper, it seemed to have opened the door to Lewis Hamilton. He had, after all, set pole in Vettel’s absence a bare five-hundredths faster than Räikkönen. But the Merc’s one-lap pace – or more specifically Hamilton’s acrobatic skills and the Merc’s 0.5sec Q3 engine advantage over the Renault-powered Red Bulls – flattered its actual race pace. The analysis from inside the team from the admittedly curtailed practice sessions of Friday and Saturday was that in race trim the Ferrari was up to 1sec per lap faster than the Mercedes, the Red Bull 0.5sec faster. The W08 just does not like circuits with a big spread of corner speeds like this, slow corners like T15, 9 and 1-2, or very hot tarmac. It takes particular exception to a combination of all those things.
The reality as the cars lined up in the muggy late afternoon, track temperature nudging 40 degC evaporating most of the remnants of an earlier rainfall, was whether Hamilton in a car 0.5sec or more slower and fighting for the world title could hold off a Max Verstappen with nothing to lose.
He couldn’t. Going into lap four, leading the race, but Verstappen all over him like a rash – probing, hassling, aggressively bobbing around, DRS now available, Lewis distracted by a power unit de-rate. Hamilton thought about fighting the corner as Max hurled it down the Merc’s inside. Against his every instinct, Hamilton let him go. He has a title to win and even if he’d held him off here, Verstappen would have done him somewhere else, so much faster was the Red Bull.
From there, Verstappen was on a cruise to his second Grand Prix victory, the day after his 20th birthday. Hamilton could be thankful to his team-mate Valtteri Bottas that he’d delayed the other Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo for long enough to keep him off Hamilton’s back, allowing him runner-up spot on a day when he might ordinarily have finished fifth behind the faster Ferraris and Red Bulls.
Vettel, much as expected, scythed through from the back in the fastest car in the place to put Ricciardo’s third under serious pressure towards the end. But because Ferrari had short-fuelled him in a deliberate strategy to make up places quickly, it required him backing off into lift-and-coast mode at a certain point in the race. This coincided with him getting to within attack range of Ricciardo’s third. “You must do it now,” he was instructed. He tried, Ricciardo repelled him robustly into Turn 1 – and that was Seb’s podium challenge over. Nonetheless, fourth from 20th was a fine effort. Some indication of Valtteri Bottas’ struggles can be gained by the fact that he finished 19sec behind Vettel despite starting 15 places ahead of him.
What should have been a glorious weekend for the Scuderia was instead a cursed one. On the slowing down lap Vettel clipped the Williams of Lance Stroll in a territorial misunderstanding that severely damaged the Ferrari and may have ensured it takes a five-place gearbox penalty in Suzuka.
Vettel’s Ferrari had been flying all weekend and he’d been tuned into it as he tried to put events of Singapore behind him. But it began to go wrong towards the end of Saturday morning practice: the motor suddenly losing power, Seb having to limp it back to the pits. With just three hours to go before qualifying, Ferrari was forced into an engine change. This would be the fourth and final un-penalised engine of the season. It was of an upgraded specification and had been intended for Suzuka introduction. It was pre-fitted with older components already in the system – turbo, ERS- h etc so as to avoid penalties on those – and ready therefore to slot straight into the car. That was still pushing it in the available time but the task was completed quickly and calmly and Seb was among the first out on track to begin Q1. Everything seemed normal as he began his attack lap, his first sector competitively quick. But coming out of Turn 4, he suffered a drastic change of engine note and the instant loss of around 200bhp. “It feels like there’s no turbo,” he reported. For the second time in three hours he crawled back to the pits. The turbo was fine – but wasn’t turning. Something in the plumbing wasn’t right and it couldn’t be rectified in time. He was out of qualifying without a time on the board, which rather took the sting out of the event.
It was an extreme turnaround of fortune for Vettel’s title rival. Hamilton’s Mercedes had been nowhere the day before, both Mercs over 1.5sec off Ferrari’s pace as they struggled with an aerodynamic imbalance and general grip shortfall that was keeping the tyres out of their temperature window. Overnight changes to the car were made and the standard guide vane that had initially been replaced here by a new, bigger version, was removed from Hamilton’s car. Bottas stayed with the new version so that the specs could be back-to-backed in Saturday morning practice. The set-up changes and the track surface’s grip build-up were more significant than any difference in guide vanes as both Mercs got to within 0.5sec of Ferrari’s pace, but they were still only the third fastest car – behind Red Bull as well.
Into the late afternoon of qualifying, the track continued to grip up and the Merc continued to improve. Now generating the correct tyre temperatures, Hamilton and Bottas were looking a close match for the remaining Ferrari of Räikkönen through Q1 and 2 and had edged away from the Red Bulls. It would all come down to the final session. Hamilton’s first Q3 lap was raggedly magnificent as he found the enhanced track grip and went with it, a full 0.9sec faster than his Q2 time (only around 0.5sec of which will have been engine mode). Even Räikkönen in a Ferrari visibly more compliant and flowing was a tenth shy of that time.
Bottas just wasn’t tuning into the new grip in the way Hamilton had been able to and was at something of a loss, the tricky car clearly affecting his confidence. “I think Q2 was OK, the lap time I set was competitive and normally the track improves for Q3, so I thought I had a good chance to improve as everyone else did. I had similar grip as in Q2 but not more than that, which we should normally get, and that’s something I need to understand. I think we had many, many times, approached the weekends in a way that led to the need to make many changes to the car. Starting the weekend like that is never ideal, you start on the back foot, you start searching and the same thing happened this weekend with the set-up. Still the car wasn’t easy to drive, so I think the answer is still pretty far away. And also me; I’m really, really far away or, at least, that’s how it feels today. It’s tricky being such a big amount of time off the pace; as a driver it’s difficult to accept. The answer is that we need to try not to let it get into your head because that’s never good. In this sport it’s so easy to try too much, so I need to take a good look at the mirror and see what I’ve done wrong.”
Out the gunslingers went one last time, Hamilton and Räikkönen the only two in contention. Hamilton crossed the line marginally slower than on his first run, Räikkönen marginally quicker than on his. The difference between Hamilton’s first run and Räikkönen’s second was less than half a tenth – in the Mercedes driver’s favour. Against the odds Hamilton had secured his 70th career pole. Would Vettel have been half-a-tenth or more faster than Räikkönen? On past form, almost certainly.
The lack of Q3 engine mode on the Renault saw the Red Bulls their usual half-a-second or so adrift, Max Verstappen heading Daniel Ricciardo in third and fourth separated by half-a-tenth. “I gave him that tenth as a birthday present,” quipped Ricciardo in reference to this being Max’s 20th birthday. Only then came Bottas’ Mercedes, a further 0.2sec off and a full 0.7sec slower than his team-mate.
Which of Force India, McLaren and Renault were quicker around here seemed to vary with the track conditions as they took each car in and out of balance. But acing it when it mattered was Esteban Ocon, who slotted the Force India sixth, within 0.7sec of Bottas, with Stoffel Vandoorne shading Hülkenberg’s Renault. An unwell Sergio Pérez took his Force India around 0.1sec faster than Fernando Alonso’s McLaren who ran wide at the final turn on the crucial lap.
The Force Indias and the Williams were enjoying the latest spec of Mercedes engine, as introduced on the works cars at Spa. Felipe Massa only just missed Q3, in 11th, a couple of tenths and two places ahead of Williams team-mate Lance Stroll. They sandwiched the second Renault of Jolyon Palmer. Bringing up the rear of the Q2 part of the grid were the Toro Rossos of Carlos Sainz and debutant Pierre Gasly, separated by just 0.156sec and amusingly each claiming that they’d not done their best laps. Gasly’s debut was very composed, his calm feedback pleasing the team – and he impressively stepped up the pace as he went into qualifying, finishing Q1 actually marginally faster than Sainz. The wide range of corner speeds at this track punished the car’s narrow set-up window.
Even with Vettel not taking part, neither Haas was able to graduate from Q1, Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen more than 0.3sec away from the required cut-off in 16th and 17th. Grosjean was in the car rebuilt after his big Turn 13 crash that brought Friday practice to an end, his right-rear tyre ripped open at 175mph over a protruding drain cover. The offending item was welded back in place and everyone tried not to think of how that scenario might’ve gone had it been flipped up into the path of a following car.
Pascal Wehrlein impressively hustled the Sauber around within a fag paper of Magnussen’s Haas time and a full half-second faster than team-mate Marcus Ericsson.
“No power. The battery is empty.” The words of Kimi Räikkönen as he drove to the grid were calm and resigned. “Yes, we see it,” said Dave Greenwood. “It’s probably from the turbo.” The Ferrari limped to the grid and was pushed to its front row position. Kimi climbed out and looked already like he knew he wasn’t getting back in as a hoard of red overalls surrounded the silent machine. There was nothing to be done, apparently the same failure as Vettel’s the day before: a component described as ‘between the compressor and the engine’ had failed, meaning the turbo wasn’t turning and so no ERS-h either.
Changing it wasn’t going to be the matter of a moment and the Ferrari was wheeled away to its garage. There was general feeling at both Mercedes and Red Bull that Räikkönen’s Ferrari had been set to walk this race. By their reckoning, it looked able to run laps around 1sec faster than the Merc and 0.5sec quicker than the Red Bull. The GPS analysis showed the RB13 and SF70H quite evenly matched on cornering speeds – the former with the edge into and through the slower turns, the latter through the fast sweeps of sector two – but the Ferrari was getting down the straights decisively faster, despite the deletion of the Red Bull’s T-wing. By comparison, the Merc was slow in the slow turns and only briefly competitive in the faster ones, until its tyres began to degrade. It had the best end-of-straight speeds but was entering them slower and actually taking longer to get down them. Its balance and tyre overheating could be ameliorated over one lap. But it was not a competitively fast race car around Sepang. Not against a Ferrari, at least. But the only Ferrari was starting at the back, so could the Merc at least handle the Red Bulls if Hamilton could remain ahead at the start? That was how it was poised as they lined up, most of the field on the softest available tyre, the super-soft, and with the plan of stopping just once to switch to the soft. The longer you could make the much faster super-soft last, the quicker you were going to be. So the Mercedes, with its faster-wearing fronts and overheating rears, was potentially going to be a sitting duck to the better balanced Red Bull around the stops even if Hamilton could somehow prevent it from overtaking him before then.
The race simulation software run by the various teams suggested that Vettel, even starting from the back, would be able to use the Ferrari’s pace to finish around fourth/fifth in a normal race. He’d get between 6-8sec of race time through having the luxury of starting on the soft tyre, a faster strategy for a fast car that was starting at the back. There was a real possibility, even pre-race, that the Merc’s tyre problems and general lack of race stint pace was going to see them both threatened by the back-row starting Ferrari. That’s how much trouble Merc was in.
The right-hand side of the grid (ie the pole side) had dried more fully from the earlier rain that the left side and Hamilton was unchallenged away from the lights, the Red Bulls dicing behind, Verstappen from Ricciardo, Bottas sweeping past them both to run around their outside in Turn 1 and going side by side with Verstappen through the tight downhill of Turn 2. Wheels almost touching, they accelerated out of there, Verstappen hanging on around the outside kink of three, just managing to hold onto the place, repelling the Mercedes again on the short run to four.
Vandoorne had made a good start and was running right behind Ricciardo in fifth. Immediately behind them, the two Force Indias and Massa’s Williams had tried to squeeze three-abreast through turn two, with Ocon caught in the middle as Pérez made decisively for the inside. This pushed Ocon into Massa, and the Williams was onto two wheels before fishtailing onwards, now behind the Force Indias and Stroll in the other Williams. Massa’s car had taken floor damage in the hit that would cost it quite a lot of performance.
Hamilton had been given a breather by Verstappen/Bottas dicing but within just a few corners Max had dramatically reduced the Merc’s lead, the Red Bull all instant direction changes in the slow turns, very much in contrast to the Merc’s visibly lazier responses. They were streaking away from Bottas who just had no pace at all, with Ricciardo all over him and very much aware that the others were escaping out of his reach. He badly needed to find a way by.
Vettel was past the Saubers, Toro Rossos and Palmer’s Renault even by the time he reached the hairpin of Turn 9 on the opening lap, where he locked up and was almost into the back of Hülkenberg, whom he would pass a lap later. It would take him longer to get by Alonso, the five laps behind the McLaren losing him around 3sec of race time, particularly costly in a charge from the back. Others were more accepting of the inevitability of the Ferrari passing and didn’t make it difficult. By lap nine he was right with Massa.
The way Verstappen was stalking Hamilton even before DRS was made available made it seem unlikely Hamilton would be able to hold him off until the pitstops. Hamilton’s brain was surely frying as he received messages that his tyres were already at the upper end of their temperature window and he tried to deal with the power unit de-rating early again. This was a particular irritation to him. He’d used plenty of battery power staying out of Verstappen’s reach at the crucial parts of track on the first couple of laps and so when DRS was enabled, he simply had less battery power available than Verstappen, who is particularly adept at varying where he harvests and deploys the extra electrical boost as a racecraft aid. As Red Bull heard Hamilton’s radio complaints of ‘de-rating’, on the third lap, they told Verstappen, “This is your moment. Go for it.” DRS deployed, he pulled out of the tow at the end of the third lap and threw himself down the Merc’s inside into Turn 1 in a way that caught Hamilton by surprise. He could have closed the door, perhaps, or even hung on around the outside and fought his way into Turn 2 and afterwards was conflicted with himself that he’d not done so. But it was an easy one to post-rationalise. “I’m naturally questioning myself. But I think overall, the long-game approach that I took is the right one. While initially it doesn’t feel like the best one, I think it is the best decision because there was no need for me to really battle with Verstappen, who was much quicker. He pulled away by up to eight-tenths a lap, so there was no way I was going to be able to keep him back around this place.”
Indeed, Verstappen would soon be just an ever-smaller blur up ahead, totally in control of the race, enjoying the car’s balance and grip and just going into tyre and car management mode, staying focused in the equatorial heat around a very physical circuit.
Vandoorne’s fifth place was under a lot of pressure from Pérez and on lap eight the McLaren ran wide into Turn 2, losing him enough momentum to allow Pérez to claim the place into Turn 4. This was a gritty performance from Sergio who remained feverish and was later having to argue with himself not to retire, so unwell did he feel.
Ricciardo was not finding Bottas quite as accepting as Hamilton had been with Verstappen, Valtteri stubbornly fighting to keep the Red Bull behind. It was lap nine by the time Ricciardo finally unlocked the puzzle, using DRS to overlap around Bottas’ outside into Turn 1, then boldly claiming the inside of two, with Bottas retaining momentum enough to grind back ahead through the kinking Turn 3 but compromised on line for the run up to four, where Ricciardo was able to throw the Red Bull down the inside under braking. Third place now his, he was 8sec behind Hamilton. But the Bottas dice meant he had a bit of rear tyre temperature managing to do before he could really set about reducing that gap. The time taken in getting by Bottas had also made it more likely he’d be facing a challenge from Vettel before the end, Seb still a few places back but only 14sec adrift and set to make up a chunk of places as slower cars ahead of him on their super-softs would stop as he kept going on his softs. Vettel used this phase of the race to sit in the slipstream of Massa’s Williams to save fuel, as Ferrari had been very adventurous in choosing his fuel load to give him a car believed to be as much as 15kg lighter (ie around 0.5sec-worth) at the start, much as Mercedes had done with Hamilton at Singapore.
The multiple car pack that Vettel was sitting in was quite tightly packed behind Vandoorne and stalemate was broken on lap nine by Hülkenberg deciding on an early stop to undercut himself up a place or two. McLaren ignored it and left Alonso out there but at Williams, Massa’s floor damage meant he was potentially vulnerable to being jumped by the Renault if he stayed out too much longer. He was brought in to defend from being undercut on lap 11. But this had the effect of undercutting him past team-mate Stroll who was brought in a lap later – much to Lance’s dismay. It was explained that the sequencing had just been to keep Hülkenberg behind and that Massa had been instructed to move aside. Given that Stroll’s car was healthier and had been running ahead, this was deemed fair. But the situation was complicated by Vandoorne, who was brought in on the 13th lap to defend from the Massa/Stroll undercut. It was very marginal whether he’d get out ahead of them, but he did so just as they were swapping positions at the end of the straight. He was able to take advantage of their slowing each other to get by through turns 1-2.
This cascading sequence of early stops, triggered by Hülkenberg, was fantastic news for Vettel on his long-running softs. The slower cars had pitted out of his way much earlier than would normally have been the case had they just been doing their optimum strategy, uncomplicated by track position considerations. But Hülkenberg had forced them all into it. So the Ferrari had cleared that midfield pack ahead of schedule, giving him more laps to make inroads to the front. He was now running sixth and catching Pérez (and Bottas just ahead) by 1sec per lap.
This is where things got strategically interesting for Mercedes and where Bottas’ poor pace was used to aid Hamilton’s cause. By the 16th lap Vettel was within less than a pitstop’s gap behind Hamilton and would be running many laps longer yet on his softs (in order to keep his second stint short enough for the super-softs). But Hamilton would be needing to pit within the next 10 laps or so. The last thing the Merc strategists wanted to do was bring Hamilton out behind Vettel, as the risk of contact would be too great. But Bottas’ struggle helped them out there. Once Vettel caught up to Pérez (nailing a DRS pass on him on lap 21) and was stuck behind the second Mercedes (lapping around 0.5sec slower than Hamilton), so Hamilton’s gap over the Ferrari began to expand once more and he’d be able to stop (on lap 26) with a couple of seconds in hand. Vettel had tried a couple of times to pass Bottas on track, but Valtteri was his usual resolute self in defence and Vettel – probably with memories of Barcelona (when Bottas had him on the grass) – didn’t force the issue.
As soon as Hamilton pitted so did Verstappen, as a precaution. The Red Bull was leading by around 9sec and under no threat whatsoever. Ferrari brought Vettel in on this lap too and such was his pace advantage that he comfortably undercut himself ahead of Bottas.
Ricciardo had not been able to get any closer to Hamilton. For the first five laps after he got by Bottas he’d took time out of the second place man to get within 6sec, but then Hamilton was able to respond. In mitigation, Ricciardo’s dice with Bottas had taken more from his tyres on a day when one-stopping meant they needed to be managed, but even so it was clear he didn’t have anything like Verstappen’s performance on the day.
With Vettel now by far the fastest man on track with his new super-softs, Red Bull left Ricciardo out as long as it dared (in order to give him as fresh tyres as possible into the last stint to counter the Vettel onslaught they knew was coming). He came in on lap 29, and exited still around 10sec ahead of the Ferrari but with 26 laps to go and now on slower tyres.
Unknown to everyone at this point, this was a tricky challenge for Vettel – for he really didn’t have enough fuel to run flat out for very much longer. If he could get to the Red Bull sometime before, say, lap 45 (of 56), he might be able to launch an attack. But thereafter he would have to be in extreme fuel saving mode. From outside it looked like just a simple chase, Vettel taking an average of 1sec per lap out of him (and setting what will stand as the all-time fastest F1 lap of Sepang along the way). But actually, the gap wasn’t coming down fast enough for the fuel restriction that was coming. Fernando Alonso, running 11th, didn’t help, delaying Vettel for a second time as he was being lapped. “Really?” said Vettel on the radio. “Come on Alonso. I thought you were better than that.” It was difficult not to think Fernando might have been settling scores. But, as ever, he did so with perfect plausible deniability, jumping out the way just before the third blue flag would’ve earned him a penalty.
Finally Vettel was close enough to get DRS on Ricciardo down the pit straight on the 50th lap, the Red Bull moving across the track to keep Vettel guessing, Seb taking a stab down the inside into Turn 1, Riccardo firmly rebuffing him by cutting across. That was it. Vettel had nothing left. From that moment he had to go into extreme lift and coast mode – between 6-800 metres in some places of no throttle/no brakes – just to get to the end. Even if he had passed Ricciardo in that move, there’s no way he could have stayed ahead. He would have needed to have reached the Red Bull a few laps earlier to have passed and then held onto the place. The Ferrari guestimate on light-fuelling had been just slightly too aggressive. Had he had an extra few kg and made it past Ricciardo, could he have threatened Hamilton’s second place? Probably not. He was 10sec up the road from there and just driving to target lap times. There was more in hand in the Merc, if needed.
But not enough to do anything about Verstappen who took his second Grand Prix victory in a more commanding manner than his first, a flawless drive that mixed aggression with control. Hamilton has now suffered a Mercedes that’s simply not on the pace for two consecutive meetings yet fortune has favoured him a victory and a second place in each of those events. Vettel, with decisively the fastest car in those races, has just a DNF and a fourth on the board. Vettel cost himself those points in Singapore, but Ferrari’s reliability bug here could not have happened at a worse time.
Bottas, in fifth, was 19sec behind Vettel despite starting 15 places ahead of him, underlining the extent of his struggle. “For me the main issue was the front end, which hasn’t really been the case many times this year. But here, mid-corner it was losing a lot of front end making it tricky to get the car turned, overheating the front left tyre and four-wheel sliding in high-speed corners. If I tried to go quicker I just slid more and struggled more with the tyre temps. So my race was just about trying to keep the tyre temps under control. It’s definitely not nice. I’m not driving at my best at the moment or in my most confident state.”
Pérez took a resilient sixth, looking pale and drawn afterwards, but satisfied to have prevailed over Vandoorne who nonetheless had his strongest Grand Prix to date, keeping the Williamses of Stroll and Massa behind him to the end, with Ocon taking the final point ahead of Alonso after repeatedly trying and failing to pass Massa around the outside of Turn 4. It was a very simple expedient for Massa to run him out of room and he perhaps shouldn’t have been as surprised as he sounded that it kept happening this way. Sainz was a mid-race retirement with an engine electrics problem in a drive that took him past Ocon after they clashed at Turn 1 and might’ve yielded a point. Team-mate Gasly was accomplished and error-free in 14th, behind the Haas pair, but reckoning he still has something to learn about F1 tyre management.
Verstappen was floating on air. “Straight away I could see our pace was good and that Lewis was struggling with traction. I just went for it and used all the battery power I could to get past him. I knew that he was fighting for the championship and wouldn’t take too many risks, so I went for it. As soon as I passed Lewis I knew from there onwards I could control the race.”
Hamilton was downcast despite the points bonus. “We’ve had certain issues through the weekend. It’s just not acceptable for this great a team, and we all know that and we need to work on those areas… I had de-rate problems through qualifying, and de-rate problems at the beginning of the race. There are switch settings and when I make a change it throws a spanner in the mix. Which it shouldn’t do. I was having some de-rates which enabled [Verstappen] to get closer, but even without those it would have just delayed the point at which he was going to catch, because they were quicker in so many areas.”
Ricciardo was clowning as usual but might’ve reflected on a low-key performance by his own standards. And Vettel? He was uncomprehending. A few corners after taking the flag, his Ferrari was a wreck at Turn 5, its left-rear wheel and suspension folded up behind the engine cover. He’d collided with Stroll as they each were going through the ritual of driving off line to pick up marbles on the tyres (to increase the weight for any post-race check). If it has damaged the Ferrari’s gearbox irreparably, there’s a five-place grid penalty to add to Vettel’s woes. With Baku and Singapore he’s arguably already cost himself 38 points (he’s currently 34 behind). He’s surely relying on Hamilton’s luck coming to an end now.
On paper, the team with the biggest potential for improvement this year is Aston Martin (Racing Point as was). Which may sound odd given the very strong 2020 it enjoyed…
Jenson Button returns to F1 in an advisory role with Williams
Sergio Perez says that his dream of fighting for F1 titles has finally been realised upon joining the Red Bull Racing team, describing how he plans to "over-deliver" on what…
Alpine Formula 1 driver Esteban Ocon will take part in the 2021 Rallye Monte-Carlo and drive the A110S in a series of special stage runs. It will be the first…