Mark Hughes on the fascinating Russian Grand Prix, the fourth round of the 2017 F1 season
Closing, closing on the race-leading Mercedes. So close now on the penultimate lap Vettel could almost reach out to it, the late afternoon Sochi sun low in the sky but still bright, tyre marbles littered either side of the groove in the track, clearly defined even through the smeared yellow-tinted visor. The Ferrari was in the Seb groove as well as the track’s, flowing and nimble, covered in rear downforce just the way he likes it, just the way that makes him look once more like the Red Bull era multiple world champion. Letting rip, fuelled by the adrenaline of the chase.
Valtteri Bottas had been ahead of him ever since slipstreaming past down to Turn 2 on the opening lap. Bottas had extended his lead in that first stint to take him out of Seb’s undercut range. But Ferrari left him out after Bottas pitted so as to give him another bite at the cherry. Rejoining on tyres seven laps newer, the chase was on. Seb loves this car, loves this track. For all that Bottas has his own very special rhythm between the Sochi walls, he’d given himself a big flat spot into the tricky Turn 13 with 15 laps still to go – and that’s when Vettel really began to scent blood. What had been a 4.6sec gap evaporated down to DRS range. Now, one lap to go, that Merc is squirming under braking, Seb is watching the carbon dust blowing from its front wheels, seeing it slip and slide out of the turns, its seven-lap older rubber beginning to surrender. Now Vettel’s got DRS on the final straight to begin the last lap, gaining, gaining….
The boy-faced Bottas stood on the podium a few minutes later, flushed with success. His first Grand Prix victory. He’d faced down a late Vettel charge, stayed calm and focused even after the lock-up, when it would have been so easy for it all to have unravelled. Just as calmly, he’d placed himself perfectly to take the lead into Turn 2 from the second row, getting the slipstream on the long run down there to be in front even before the braking zone, chopping across the Ferrari without compromise. The surprising thing – and the real key to the victory – was how he had then quickly put distance on the front row Ferraris of Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen. All weekend up to that point the Ferrari had looked a quicker, more flexible, more raceable car.
Just what had happened? How had it turned? And where was Lewis Hamilton this weekend?
Here was one of the most intriguing and nuanced qualifying sessions we’ve ever seen. It resulted in Ferrari’s first front row lock-out in nine years, Vettel taking his 47th career pole less than a tenth clear of Räikkönen, with Mercedes relegated to the second row, Bottas a hefty half-second quicker than Hamilton. The fascination was in what lay behind that order. The differing traits of the Ferrari SF70-H and the Mercedes W08 already seen in the first three events were exaggerated around the singular traits of the Sochi track, with its super-smooth surface and unusual layout. It meant the hard compounds and stiffer 2017 constructions of even the softest tyres in Pirelli’s range required a very intricate preparation – one that brought Mercedes a conundrum to which there was no answer.
Getting a balance in temperatures between the surface of the tyre and its core potentially meant multiple preparation laps. The smooth surface meant even with the ultra-soft it would take an age to generate adequate heat in the core of the fronts, the cooling effect of the two long straights exacerbating the problem. Push too hard and the tread surface would simply overheat before enough load had been fed into the core, keeping it inelastic and gripless. Instead, the loads had to be massaged into those fronts progressively over one or two gentle laps. Not really a problem in itself, but there was a concomitant hazard: by the time you’d finally done that, there was a real chance the rears would be too hot to not surrender in the final sector of the attack lap, with its five consecutive hard acceleration zones out of slow right-angle turns. Ideally therefore, you needed to be ready for the qualifying lap after just one gentle out-lap. Generally, the Ferrari could do this but the Mercedes needed an out-lap plus a further slow preparation lap to get the fronts up to temperature – and therefore the risk of overheating the rears. To combat this required diff. settings through the final sector that gave a general understeer balance.
Considering just the best sector times rather than the individual Q3 laps, after the first two sectors there was only one hundredth of a second covering Hamilton, Bottas and Vettel. But putting those together with a good time in the traction-dominated final sector proved out of reach of the Mercedes. Bottas dropped enough to miss out on the front row by four-hundredths – and Hamilton dropped a massive half a second after oversteering wide over the Turn 13 kerb. Räikkönen, a couple of tenths down on the trio after two sectors thereby had enough life in the rears to be quickest of all through that final sector. It was almost enough to have sneaked him pole, but Vettel shaded it by six hundredths.
Ferrari’s greater tyre flexibility allowed it the luxury of experimenting in Q2 with two runs each for Vettel and Räikkönen. The first Q2 run would comprise just an out-lap before the timed lap. Next time they did an out-lap plus a prep lap before going for a time. That comparison allowed them a more informed choice for Q3. It was a luxury Ferrari had given itself by saving a set of ultras through using super-softs to get through Q1. For Q3 they chose to go for the time immediately after the out-lap, thereby better controlling the rear temperatures. It was an approach that was forever just out of reach of the Mercedes.
Two Mercedes traits were probably contributing towards this. Its more aggressive turn in (once the fronts were up to temperature) would be imposing higher initial loads on the rears. Secondly, still running 6kg overweight and with no facility therefore to use ballast, it was quite probably running a more rearwards weight distribution than the lighter Ferrari, contributing towards making the set-up and tyre preparation more critical.
Regardless of Merc’s problems it was another illustration of the great job Ferrari has done with this car. “I don’t know how much it’s to do with Mercedes struggling,” said the delighted pole winner. “But to be honest I don’t really care. It’s more important for us that we do what we need to and we didn’t have any problems. The car was phenomenal around here, a real pleasure to take to the limit. If you have a rhythm here it feels fantastic. It’s a track where it’s important to have trust in the car so you can sort of let go and attack.” The balanced way the car was using its tyres was a crucial part of that confidence and not something the Merc was instilling in its drivers in quite the same way.
Räikkönen was contending for pole right up until getting out of shape through the final corner, probably as the rears finally gave up. “I got some traffic on the out lap and couldn’t really make the tyres work as well as on the first run. I tried to get it all back at the last corner.”
Bottas also had a small moment in Turn 13-14 that arguably lost him pole (he ended up 0.1sec adrift of Vettel) but as this was likely just a function of the car as it was through that sector, it might also be argued that pole was never realistically within reach. Hamilton was struggling more than Bottas to resolve the difficulties of that final sector – and that’s where he lost all his half-second deficit to him. “I just wasn’t quick enough today,” he said. “It was all in the last sector. I’ve been struggling there all weekend with the balance and it’s been tough to utilise the tyres… that was the best job I could do today.”
Red Bull was a full 1.8sec off the pace, with fifth-fastest Daniel Ricciardo only a couple of tenths and one place clear of Felipe Massa’s Williams on this power-sensitive track. The heavily-revised Barcelona car cannot come soon enough. Earlier in the weekend Daniel had observed that following the Ferrari and Merc in the early laps of previous races, “they just have more downforce at the rear [than us], just carrying a bit more grip in the rear and that’s where all the lap time is in these cars. Compared to the Williams I think we have more rear downforce and we may be better on the tyres but they have the straight-line speed.”
Max Verstappen was a couple of tenths slower and lined up seventh in the sister car. “In Q2 I had a really bad feeling with the rear tyres and I suddenly lost grip, especially going into the last sector. The time just fell away there as I didn’t have the heat in the tyres.”
The Williams of sixth-fastest Massa was precisely 2sec adrift of Vettel’s Ferrari, Felipe putting together the complex tyre preparation well and delivering a solid lap. Team-mate Lance Stroll fell short of Q3 by a couple of places after a compromised out-lap and a snap of oversteer in Q2.
Nico Hülkenberg qualified the Renault R.S.17 within two tenths of Verstappen, lining him up directly behind. Team-mate Jolyon Palmer was in the wars. The team rebuilt his car around a new tub for this weekend, he lost an engine on Saturday morning, missing most of that session and, trying hard to play catch up, slid wide and took too much Turn 4 kerb – pitching him into the barriers at the end of Q1, leaving him back in 16th. Difficult days for him at the moment. Both Force Indias made it to Q3 where Sergio Pérez edged out Esteban Ocon for ninth by 0.1sec. The Toro Rossos were not at their best around this layout but both Carlos Sainz and Daniil Kvyat, 11th and 13th, were pushing visibly hard. Their in-team competition seems to be driving them right to the edge. Sainz edged it on this occasion by two hundredths but would be taking a three-place grid penalty for his Bahrain accident.
Kevin Magnussen in 14th was the only Haas driver to make it through to Q2. The team was going backwards and forwards between Brembo and Carbone Industrie brakes and eventually reverted back to the former, this rather dominating their weekend and leaving them struggling with the balance of the car. Romain Grosjean was particularly afflicted and beside himself with frustration – especially after yet again getting caught out by yellows at the end of Q1 (for Palmer’s off), his initial Q1 lap leaving him last on the grid.
Fernando Alonso scraped the McLaren-Honda into Q2 with a lap he didn’t match once he was there as he lined up 15th. The Q1 effort was, he informed the world, a great lap in a car with great balance… Stoffel Vandoorne was 0.7sec adrift and two places back, just ahead of the Saubers of Pascal Wehrlein (who went off at the end of Q1 in turn 13) and Marcus Ericsson. Vandoorne knew however he was taking a theoretical 15-place grid drop for the replacement of yet-more Honda components and the actual Q lap time was immaterial and didn’t represent a serious effort.
The hard points of this fascinating Merc vs Ferrari race – which more than ever was defined as a straight one-stop by the smooth surface and tougher 2017 tyres – were built around track position and cooling levels. And a great pressure drive from Bottas.
The choreography of the opening few moments – once the original start had been abandoned and the race shortened by a lap for the broken down McLaren-Honda of Fernando Alonso on the formation lap – was partly determined by how much more grip there is on the clean (pole) side here than the dirty side. It’s a low grip surface that doesn’t get much use and which had barely any support races on it this weekend. So pole-sitting Vettel and Bottas from third on the grid were much quicker away than second-placed Räikkönen.
It was also determined by how big the slipstream effect is as they accelerate up to beyond 200mph even from a standing start on what effectively is a 1km straight with a kink in it. If you’re in second and in the slipstream, you’ve an excellent chance of passing – especially if, like Mercedes, you were running a smaller rear wing than the Ferrari. With 10sec of top gear full throttle, the tow is worth around nine metres. Bottas was past and into the lead even before they reached the braking area for Turn 2. “I felt like I had a tent dragging behind me,” explained Vettel of the phenomenon of how the car behind can suck the air towards the car in front, hobbling it, and benefitting from the hole in the air the lead car is punching. “There was nothing I could have done. I had the outside line [up to Turn 2] but nowhere to go and that’s part of why we lost the race.”
Behind them Räikkönen and Hamilton shimmied wheel-to-wheel away from the grid, Hamilton grinding ahead on the outside but then brought up short as Vettel flicked to the outside as he was passed by Bottas. This in turn allowed Räikkönen back down Hamilton’s inside as they funnelled in to Turn 2. Near the back were the usual skirmishes. Palmer, with a Sauber to his left couldn’t give Grosjean, slightly ahead on his right, any more room as the Haas came across to take up the line. They interlocked wheels and were out on the spot. Just before the safety car for this incident was deployed, things got tight at Turn 4 between Hülkenberg and Stroll, the latter spinning and rejoining near the back after simply applying too much lock as he was squeezed by the Renault. The safety car stayed out for three laps, allowing those who had gambled on the slower super-soft rather than the ultra – the two Saubers and Stoffel Vandoorne’s McLaren – to be rid of them, ready for two stints on ultras, calculated as around 9sec faster over a race distance than one each of super-softs and ultras.
We lost Ricciardo from seventh place at this point. The safety car laps had allowed his rear brakes to catch fire and there was no putting them out. The other Red Bull of Max Verstappen had got ahead of him before Turn 2 to run fifth, Daniel then having lost out in a wheel-rubbing contest with Felipe Massa’s Williams through there. Benefitting from Ricciardo’s retirement immediately ahead of them were the Force Indias of Sergio Pérez and Esteban Ocon. Verstappen was told to wind his brakes as far forward as he could, as a precaution.
“I was even more pleased with the restart than I was the start,” said Bottas, of how he simply streaked away from the Ferraris after taking masterful command of the rolling start sequence.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this, surely? Hadn’t the Ferraris been the ones which could more instantly switch their tyres on in qualifying? Wasn’t it the Ferraris which had looked better on the ultra-soft than the Mercedes?
It was all about the cooler, smoother airflow that gets fed to the radiators of the leader compared to those in dirty air on a day when cooling levels were very marginal. With two cars as closely matched at the front as Mercedes and Ferrari, every tiny advantage counts – and the aero benefits of one level of cooling package (ie closing up one row of exit vents) will typically be around 0.1sec per lap. Last year Mercedes may not have risked trying to match the forecasted ambient temperature so closely when choosing the cooling levels they’d be committed to from Saturday onwards. But this year both Mercedes and Ferrari ran as close as they dared to the forecast – which was that it would be 3-deg C cooler than on Saturday. It was in fact 3-deg hotter, a swing of 6-degrees C as the expected cloud cover never arrived. Suddenly, both the Mercedes and Ferrari were potentially under-cooled.
So Bottas streaked away and Ferrari warned both Vettel and Räikkönen they needed to back off to bring the engine temps back down after the safety car. Hamilton was being given the exact same message by Mercedes. In fact one of Hamilton’s cylinders began to cut out – as it’s programmed to, once a critical temperature is reached. So Vettel, Räikkönen and Hamilton cruised for a few laps as their engineers anxiously monitored the temperatures.
At this stage Ferrari remained confident it had the pace in hand to get that gap back later. It believed it had intrinsically the faster car around here, better able to balance the tyre loads through the three sectors without over-working them. Meanwhile, Mercedes was a little bemused. They weren’t expecting to have been able to pull away like this. They had assumed it would be like Melbourne, leading but with Vettel tight behind, using the Ferrari’s greater tyre range to either undercut or overcut them. At this stage Mercedes didn’t know that Ferrari had much the same cooling issues they were suffering with Hamilton’s car – and which was only just below the radar on Bottas’ too.
But a couple of things. With his engine temperatures back under control, Vettel was allowed off the leash on the 12th lap, from 3.7sec behind. With the first stops expected in the early 20s, he needed to get that gap back to undercut/overcut range. But when he went to lean on it, the front tyre grip just wasn’t there. The high track temperatures and the extra front camber Ferrari was using was ripping up the outside of Vettel’s left-front. Every time he leant on it, the blisters would begin opening up. It was at this point Ferrari – with Bottas able to match and even improve on anything Vettel did and well clear of undercut/overcut range – realised the race was getting away from them.
Where was Hamilton?
Räikkönen was suffering similarly and a further 5sec adrift at this stage, but comfortably clear of Hamilton. As well as his cooling issue, which he could control by engine settings and backing off, Lewis was also struggling to get the tyres in their operating window, just as he had been all weekend. “I can’t explain it right now,” said Hamilton afterwards. “There’s lots of work to be done in figuring it out. But I just couldn’t get the car or the tyres really working, snaps of oversteer. From around lap 25 I was having to turn the engine down to stop the cylinder cutting. That was costing me around 0.7sec.” But even when the engine temperatures were under control, those of the tyres were not. “I had different settings to Valtteri in the mid-lower speeds ranges – the diff. and stuff like that. That went back to Saturday when the direction he was able to go in I just couldn’t. For whatever reason it just didn’t work on my car.”
It was a remarkably quiet weekend for Hamilton, not at any point in contention and completely eclipsed by his team-mate. At the time of writing the team was still trying to understand what wrong turnings may have been made in the complexities of trying to get the Sochi tyre equation right.
Track position again
So now Bottas was out of Vettel’s range, there came the Mexican stand-off between the two teams of when to pit. From lap 19 Bottas was far enough clear of fifth-place Verstappen to have dropped into clear air after stopping but Merc preferred to keep him out for as long as possible, to minimise the length of the second stint on super-softs they were not confident of being as quick on as the Ferrari.
Ferrari, by the same token, reckoned they’d keep Vettel out as long as possible, try to get Bottas to wear his old ultras out before them. Then, depending how the gaps were looking, try to either under or overcut him. On and on it went, the degradation rates on this super-smooth circuit so low, the gap back to Verstappen, Massa and the Force Indias so massive. As such, Räikkönen and Hamilton became potentially valuable pawns in the game. As the inevitable happened and the Ferrari’s greater tyre range began to tell, with Vettel cutting back what had been a 5.5sec deficit on lap 20 to 2.5sec within six laps, and with lapped traffic looming, Mercedes pulled the plug. The traffic was a significant factor as Merc recognised it would probably lose more time to it than would the Ferrari. In the wake of another car, the W08 is more difficult than the Ferrari. So on the 27th lap, just before reaching the dicing Kvyat and Magnussen, Bottas was brought in from the lead and fitted with his super-softs.
Ferrari left Vettel out, and on his old ultras he was doing comparable lap times to Bottas on his new supers-softs. Mercedes knew there was no way on earth they were going be as quick as the Ferrari after Vettel stopped and that Seb was going to be chasing Valtteri down fast.
At this point Mercedes was looking seriously at using Hamilton as a foil to help Bottas. If they could just leave Lewis out until after Vettel had stopped he could be used to delay the Ferrari in its chase of the leader. But that plan ran aground with Hamilton’s greater tyre wear – and he had to be brought in on lap 30, his rears absolutely finished. Räikkönen was in a similar position – with slower pace than his team-mate but greater tyre deg. So he too had been brought in – on the 29th lap. Still Vettel stayed out on his old rubber, going remarkably quickly and actually pulling out time on Bottas. It was a tactical rather than wheel-to-wheel race, but no less fascinating for that. The result was still very much in doubt.
The timing of Vettel’s stop was now being determined by the gap back to his closing team-mate Räikkönen. A stop would cost around 25sec and by lap 33 Kimi was just 27sec adrift and closing fast on his new tyres. Just before it risked undercutting Räikkönen ahead, Ferrari brought Vettel in. He rejoined on super-softs seven laps newer than those on Bottas’ race-leading Merc and soon began cutting into Valtteri’s 5sec lead. It would have been 1sec less than that had there not been a 1sec delay with getting on the front-left.
At this point, his team job done, and his place over Hamilton secure, Räikkönen dropped right off the pace for several laps, keeping his engine cool, not eating into its life, saving fuel – and controlling an overheating brake caliper. With this all done, and when it no longer counted for anything, he let rip with the sort of lap he could have been doing, a 1m 36.844s, a full half-second faster than Vettel’s best even as Seb was chasing down Bottas! It would stand as the race’s fastest lap and was probably no more than Räikkönen’s pride flagging up that he was doing a job for the team rather than trying to contest a place with Vettel. The day before they were each asked if Räikkönen would move aside for Vettel if required. Vettel insisted he wouldn’t expect such external help. Räikkönen’s answer was more measured. “We know what we’re doing. We’re driving for Ferrari.”
The final chase
Now the chase was on. Seventeen laps to go, Bottas with a 4.6sec lead over Vettel who had tyres that were not only seven laps newer but which the Ferrari worked much better than the Mercedes – and Vettel with the scent of victory. This was going to be a great test for Bottas, the biggest pressure imaginable for a driver yet to win a race.
Down the gap came. Three tenths on the 36th lap, another 0.3sec next time around. Bottas knew the Ferrari was going to be on his tail before too much longer. On the super-softs, a tyre with a higher working temperature range, his car just didn’t have the same feeling as on the ultras. “All through the first stint on ultra it was good, the front and rear of the car were working together,” explained Bottas. “But on the super-soft it was more tricky.” The car was just not flowing as nicely. These were the hard realities, to be logged in the mind and driven around. Without emotion. The very thing that has always been among his greatest assets as a driver. But into Turn 13 on the 38th lap – a very tricky high speed approach in to a slow right-hander with overlapping raking and cornering – he just misjudged how much grip the cool 11-lap old fronts had. They locked up as he braked and he was in that awful situation where you must continue to slow, but are desperately trying not to flat-spot the tyres. They seemed locked for an age as he ran as wide as he dared, giving the bridge parapet only the narrowest of misses in order to widen the line as far as possible.
At Ferrari they were straight on the radio to Vettel. He smelt the burnt rubber as he arrived there a few seconds later. Game most definitely on. He flashed by the start/finish line 3sec behind. “I had lost the tyre temperatures after I’d flat-spotted,” explained Bottas. “It was a case of not panicking, just trying to work the tyres back up to temperature.” It took a couple of laps to do this – by which time Vettel was within 1.8sec and still closing. Bottas got a bit of a break lapping traffic on the 44th lap as Vettel arrived upon it at a more awkward place. But he was soon right back upon his prey. With a couple of laps to go he’d got DRS on the back straight. Then onto that last lap. So close he can almost touch it.One lap to go, that Merc is squirming under braking, Seb is watching the carbon dust blowing from its front wheels, seeing it slip and slide out of the turns, its seven lap older rubber beginning to surrender. Now Vettel’s got DRS on the final straight to begin the last lap, gaining, gaining….
But Bottas had DRS too – from Felipe Massa’s lapped ninth-place Williams, which had lost its earlier sixth place, a slow puncture having forced Felipe into making a second stop. When Massa didn’t go out of his way to move aside for Vettel through the long turn three and Seb had to lift, it was game over. Bottas was safe. Might he have tried with DRS down the back straight but for that? If we’d had the extra lap that was docked at the start, would he have been able to do it? Maybe not. It remains an extremely difficult track on which to pass.
Bottas kept the emotions in check considering the personal enormity of the result. A Grand Prix winner at last, a driver doing everything in his power to establish his credentials as a world title contender despite who his team-mate is. Vettel’s support driver Räikkönen finished 11sec down in third, well clear of a struggling Hamilton who was a further minute clear of Verstappen who had the loneliest race of his career (he kept himself amused by watching the lead battle on the big screens as he passed by). Pérez remained ahead of Ocon, giving Force India another good haul of points from sixth and seventh, with Hülkenberg’s Renault chasing them down ahead of Massa and Sainz. Vandoorne’s McLaren actually finished the race, even if it was only a lapped 14th ahead only of the Saubers.
The winner took stock a couple of hours later, trying to take it all in as he was ushered from one place to the next. “With the tyres, the lock up and the vibration, the backmarkers and Sebastian coming, it was not easiest of races to win. But we held it together at the critical points and that makes it feel even better. For my first one, it’s very special.”
The team behind him – which felt it had plucked a victory against the odds with a slower car – could only agree.