So, in a split-second the championship might have just turned. Sebastian Vettel suffered a 25-point loss to the man he could least afford it to, Lewis Hamilton. By his own hand.
What he was thinking in the split-second that he decided to swoop across the faster-starting Max Verstappen isn’t certain – and his account of it was less than full. Was he simply trying to block off the Red Bull before it got ahead in his patented aggressive way, not realising there was a third car inside the one he was squeezing, like at Spa last year? Or – and here’s an intrigue – was it actually the rocket-starting Räikkönen, who was on-course to catapult into the lead, he was trying to intimidate into backing off, incorrectly believing he was far enough clear of Verstappen to be able to cut across him towards the other Ferrari? Study of the incident supports either scenario.
So the pincered Red Bull flicked Räikkönen into the side of Vettel, puncturing the latter’s oil rads. As the locked-together Räikkönen and Verstappen crashed out, Vettel’s Ferrari was still leading but mortally wounded and as he spun on his own oil between turns two and three, Hamilton – who’d out-accelerated Daniel Ricciardo off the line and swooped for the outside line as the carnage unfolded – swept by into a lead he’d never lose.
This was all unrelated to the wet conditions the race began in. It was just a plain old-fashioned racing incident – as the stewards concluded. But that no-compromise extreme swooping Vettel defaults to when trying to deter a faster-starting car is going to land him in trouble every now and again. So it proved here – at a track where Ferrari was expected to dominate and where Hamilton’s Mercedes could qualify no better than fifth, more than six-tenths adrift of Vettel. It was a very expensive split-second and maybe another manifestation of Vettel’s occasionally blinding competitive rage. How expensive, we’ll see at the season’s end.
But if the incident had nothing to do with the initially wet conditions, Hamilton’s advantage over Ricciardo’s vainly chasing Red Bull certainly was. The Merc may not have been a quick car in the dry of Friday and Saturday but for some reason the team doesn’t understand, it absolutely flies on intermediates. Give such a car to Hamilton in these conditions and he’s going to be gone – which he was. Even without the incidents, Hamilton began this race convinced: “As soon as it began to rain, I knew what position I was going to finish in.” His dominance was only accentuated by Ricciardo having to nurse a gearbox problem from lap five/six, one that slowed him by around half a second per lap the team reckons. So even as it dried and everyone got onto slicks, Hamilton still had a pace advantage over the Red Bull and career win number 60 was notched up, as well as a 28-point lead in the championship.
This has been a vintage season for very special pole laps – and here Vettel delivered another of them around a circuit at which he always excels. The car’s high-rake floor pattering along the ground on the high speed sections, Vettel was carrying big momentum into the quicker turns, coming off the brakes early and onto the gas before the apexes. Through the tight confines of the final sector, walls up close and menacing, he was dancing on the very edge, brushing barriers with his calling card along the way. He was literally shaking with adrenaline as he climbed out, eyes wide, still coming down from a very special place that only a few ever access. This run between the walls invariably brings it out in him and in this case it was all the more satisfying because the Ferrari had proved a trickier-than-expected beast to tune into. Ferrari came here expecting to be the fastest, its high-rake concept being particularly well suited to the track’s demands, its engine delivering more grunt than the similarly agile Red Bull. Mercedes came here knowing it was unlikely to be pushing for pole, just as surely as had Ferrari at Monza.
But it was the Red Bulls that had set the pace from the moment the wheels were turning on Friday, and this carried through into Q1 and Q2, both of which were headed by Verstappen’s RB13, a few hundredths ahead of Ricciardo’s sister car. In Q2 the Ferraris were a couple of tenths shy – and barely any faster than a Mercedes that was being flattered by Hamilton. But for Q3 a couple of things swung the balance: 1) the Ferrari motor has a Q3 mode, the Renault does not. 2) As the track grip ramped up, so the balance of the SF70H just got better and better – allowing Vettel to unlock that special territory of his own.
Vettel: “The car was tricky at first but it came alive as the night progressed… it ended up amazing and it’s an amazing track if you feel that the car is coming alive; you can do what you want to. I knew we had it in us; it was a bit of a struggle to get there but I’m happy that we got the car where it deserved to be.”
Practice had been messy. He’d hit a wall Friday afternoon, he’d still not got the balance quite right into Saturday. But it was a lot better than on Friday, when it had lacked its usual sharp response. Masses of work went on at the simulator back at Maranello overnight. Charles Leclerc put in the hours. “That was very, very important for us,” said Vettel. “They answered a lot of questions that we couldn’t, simply because we didn’t have time enough and a lot of questions remaining.” Many in Maranello had missed a night’s sleep getting it sorted.
Ferrari had introduced a modified front suspension here, giving a wider range of possible geometries. This is believed to be linked to the beefier third damper introduced at Spa. It changed some of the data points of the car’s set-up – and this was the first time the effects of that were apparent. Hence the initial struggle. Räikkönen didn’t get as well tuned into it as Vettel, though he was consistently very quick through the first sector. He was less able to manipulate it right on the edge through the narrow sweeps and multiple turns of the final sector, and dropped 0.3sec to Vettel there, leaving him fourth fastest, a couple of tenths adrift of the Red Bulls.
Having watched his cars dominate right through to Q2, Christian Horner allowed himself a wry shake of the head as his former driver unleashed the first of his savagely fast Q3 laps in the Ferrari. The difference between them – aside from Vettel’s on-the-edge driving – was probably accounted for by the difference in Q3 engine modes. The Renault has no more to give in Q3, the Ferrari gets around 0.15sec-worth of extra grunt. Verstappen held a small but consistent edge over his team-mate and their second and third fastest times were separated by three-hundredths of a second. Vettel made a point of publically observing that the Red Bull’s new barge board extensions appeared to be modelled on those on the Ferrari. “Yeah, I asked on the radio if we were also making those parts in blue,” he grinned later.
More than 70 per cent of the Red Bull’s deficit to Vettel came in the first sector, which is the power sector. Through sector three Ricciardo and Verstappen were both a smidgeon faster, which might just mean its rear tyres hadn’t overheated as much because of its lesser power. Pretty much everyone had to begin the lap with the ultra-softs slightly too cool in order that they weren’t too hot by the last few turns. They were too much faster than the super-softs this year for anyone to consider Red Bull’s 2016 policy of going through Q2 on the harder tyre, so as to get a more flexible race strategy.
“I squeezed it dry,” said Hamilton of the lap that put him only fifth quickest, 0.635sec adrift of pole. The Mercedes was generally uncooperative around here, with an understeery balance through the slow corners and general snappiness out of them. “I was hanging on for dear life.” It was an aggressive, high-input lap and he was one of the few to actually go faster on his final Q3 run – and it was almost 0.7sec faster than team-mate Valterri Bottas, one place behind. But the Mercedes just wasn’t working around here. Probably for similar reasons that we saw it in trouble at the Hungaroring, for example. For one, it lacks the Ferrari’s low-speed downforce. For another its low-rake concept sees it run out of feasible set-ups if the speed range of a circuit’s corners are too great. It will tend either to be unresponsive in slow corners if it’s to have reasonable stability in the faster turns, or be too unstable in high speed sections if it’s to get good response in low-speed. Couple that with a track that gives one of the lowest lap time rewards for extra horsepower and there it was.
It meant that a nicely balanced Renault hustled to a great lap by Nico Hülkenberg could get within a couple of tenths of Bottas to go seventh quickest, Hulk’s last-gasp flyer just edging out the McLarens of Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne (generally very closely matched on pace throughout the weekend but Alonso just acing it when it mattered). Carlos Sainz put the Toro Rosso into Q3 ahead of some faster cars and went 10th, around 0.5sec off the Renault/McLaren pace.
Renault’s Jolyon Palmer didn’t quite nail the tricky tyre temperature conundrum and just missed Q3, in 11th, just ahead of Sergio Pérez’s Force India (understeery balance) and Daniil Kvyat’s Toro Rosso (didn’t get a good feel of the tyres and 0.5sec off Sainz). Esteban Ocon struggled even more than Pérez with the Force India’s balance and was 0.5sec adrift in 14th, just ahead of Romain Grosjean in the only Haas to make Q2.
Going out in Q1 were Kevin Magnussen’s Haas, the Williams of Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll and the Saubers of Pascal Wehrlein and Marcus Ericsson, the latter having hit the wall heavily on Saturday morning. In Q1 Massa glanced the wall and punctured but got back out and looked set to make Q2 comfortably before losing 0.5sec with a wild slide through the final corner.
For the first time in the race’s history it rained. A big thunderstorm a few hours beforehand, then a less severe but insistent downpour about half-an-hour before the 8pm start.
It wasn’t enough for the race director to declare an officially wet race, merely ‘low grip conditions’. Teams could make their own choice of inters or wets and a conventional standing start would get things underway. The top six – ie the Ferraris, Red Bulls and Mercs – all went for inters. The Renaults, McLarens, Force Indias and Saubers began on wets. Both Toro Rosso drivers were fitted with inters. There were split strategies at Haas and Williams. Wets were sure to be safer initially, but the forecast said the rain was just passing through and would be done after about four laps. If you could survive those laps, the inters were surely going to get you ahead when the wets overheated as the track dried.
You’ve probably watched what happened and have your own view of it. But here’s how each of the three parties explained it.
Vettel: “I had an average start and then I moved slightly [slightly?] to the left trying to defend my position from Max. Then I got bumped on one side as Kimi’s car hit me. I’m not sure what happened.”
Verstappen: “My start was a little bit better than Seb and I think he saw that so he tried to move to the left to squeeze me out of the line a bit but he did not know Kimi was on my other side. I think it wasn’t the smartest move and you can’t make excuses for it when you are fighting for a world championship. Kimi had a great start and was alongside me very quickly, I didn’t try and defend that as I knew it would be a long race, he then started to squeeze me also, at which point there wasn’t a lot I could do. The rear wheels are wider than the front so I was locked in the sandwich with no way out, even when I braked.”
Räikkönen: “At the start I had a very good jump, then I got hit; that was the end of our race. I don’t think I could have really done anything differently to avoid it, apart from doing a bad start and not being there.”
Actually, Verstappen had initially defended from Räikkönen, but no more than normal in a race situation. It meant that as Vettel then made his big sweep to the left, Verstappen had even less wriggle room and it was actually Verstappen and Räikkönen who made the initial contact. But with Vettel coming across as he was, that wriggle room wouldn’t have made any difference to the outcome, just to the split-second timing of it.
It was a mess that ended up with Verstappen and Räikkönen spearing off together, interlocked, and on the way collecting Alonso – who’d made a great start and a committed move around the outside, initially unsighted of what was happening to the left – the McLaren jumping high in the air and losing what would have been third place, soon to be second as Vettel spun out of the lead on the oil spraying over his rear tyres from the radiators burst by the Räikkönen hit.
Hamilton had instantly out-accelerated Ricciardo. “I felt like I had a good start, but I think Kimi had an incredible launch and then I saw this commotion happening, I was alongside Daniel. I had a great Turn 1 and came out behind Sebastian. I couldn’t really see what had happened behind. And then I came out of Turn 3 and I was just excited to be racing Sebastian. I was like: ‘It’s on; I’m ready.’ I felt it was my day, I just love these conditions.”
So, he was almost disappointed as Vettel’s greased-up rear tyres tank-slapped the Ferrari hard into the wall across Hamilton’s path.
Ricciardo had backed out of the looming Turn 1 trouble and now followed Hamilton in flashing by the spinning Vettel. “It was good that my start was very average,” said Daniel, “because it meant I had time to see what was happening. I had already backed off in case Max got turned. I was on his outside and I could see Kimi coming and I knew he had damage. Fernando I don’t think saw as much and came past me on the outside. It looked like he just braked late and tried to make the move stick, but then those cars were obviously going to [cross the track into his path]. I was just trying to play it cautious.”
Alonso’s impact threw the McLaren high into the air, tearing open the bodywork, damaging the floor, holing an exhaust and ripping many critical electrical sensors off the car so the team had no way of monitoring what was happening. “It feels OK,” he said, from back in 12th, “but it was a massive hit.” It wasn’t OK, and he would be retired before too much longer.
Safety Car 1 – Advantage inters
Out came the safety car for four laps, with Hamilton, Ricciardo, Hülkenberg, Pérez, Bottas, Palmer, Vandoorne, Ocon, Sainz, Magnussen leading the rest around. This wasn’t the best of news for those on wets, as it got the inters runners through the worst of the weather, as the rain had ceased falling by the time the safety car came in.
As racing resumed, the spray at the end of the straights made for scarily poor visibility but there was no really deep standing water and consequently no aquaplaning. “It wasn’t too bad,” said Ricciardo. “There are lots of painted lines though and the car sort of loads and unloads over them and that kept us pretty busy.”
Hamilton, enjoying an unobstructed view and revelling in how well this year’s Merc performs on inters (as was seen also on Saturday at Monza), was 3.5sec ahead of Ricciardo at the end of the first racing lap. He in turn was pulling quickly away from the wet-shod Hülkenberg and Pérez. Bottas, just behind was not enjoying things at all, struggling just to keep the Force India in sight, then losing a place to the wet-shod Palmer and coming under pressure from Vandoorne. The condition of the track was right on the crossover point between inters and wet and stayed that way for quite some time.
Ricciardo’s gearbox problem
Shortly after the restart, Red Bull saw some alarming data from Ricciardo’s car: the gearbox oil pressure was taking a dive. It was leaking oil. “At that point we were feeling it was unlikely that Daniel would get to the end of the race,” said Christian Horner. The driver was instructed to short-shift and do as much lift-and-coasting as feasible. The brake balance was switched to a less aggressive setting, taking load off the ERS-k and its link to the gearbox. The complexion of Ricciardo’s race had just changed and, unbeknown to Mercedes, Hamilton’s task had just been made easier.
Safety Car 2 – Damage limitation for the wet-shod
Hamilton had pulled out 5sec on Ricciardo when Daniil Kvyat, running 11th and dicing with Magnussen, got it wrong at Turn 5 on the 11th lap and crunched the Toro Rosso into the barriers. Out came Bernd Maylander in the silver AMG Mercedes coupe again, this time heading the pack for another four laps.
This was the ideal opportunity for the wet-shod runners to get onto intermediates, minimising their time loss with the rest of the pack held at safety car speeds. A couple of them – Massa and Wehrlein – opted to stay out, hoping to dovetail later stops with getting straight onto slicks. But it didn’t dry quickly enough for that throw of the dice to work, consigning them to a thankless night’s toil.
Up front there was a bigger apparent dilemma for those on the Mercedes pit wall. Replace the 11-lap old tyres for fresh ones – in which case Red Bull would surely leave Ricciardo out there, losing Hamilton track position? Or accept that if they kept Hamilton out, Red Bull would bring Ricciardo in, allowing him an almost-free stop? But in actual fact, there wasn’t much of a decision to be made. Track position was king in this case and, besides, in such conditions a nicely-scuffed and thinner-gauge set of used inters is often as quick or quicker than a shiny-surfaced, thicker-gauged new set that can more easily overheat on a drying track.
Hamilton was left out, Red Bull responded by bringing Ricciardo in. Such had been their advantage over the field – which had spread out a lot because of the poor visibility – that Daniel was able to get back out without losing a place, once Hülkenberg had pitted a lap later to replace his wets with inters.
“So everyone has changed tyres except me?” radioed Hamilton as he tried to keep his tyres and brakes up to temperature. “Not sure that’s a good idea.” The finer nuances of game theory are probably not easily grasped from inside the cockpit of a 1,000 horsepower car on a greasy track between the walls. Behind him and Ricciardo, now that the wet runners had switched to inters, ran Bottas, Sainz and Hülkenberg. Renault had stacked its cars in the pits, delaying Palmer just enough that he was leapfrogged by Pérez. Palmer got out just ahead of Stroll, Vandoorne and Massa. Neither Williams had stopped yet but the wet-shod Massa was about to become a mobile chicane – with Grosjean, Ocon and Magnussen having to get quite physical to find a way by after the lap 15 restart.
Hamilton sprinted away once again, relieved to find the expected challenge from a fresher-tyred Ricciardo wasn’t materialising. With his issues, Ricciardo was taking more from the inters than Hamilton, who was now deeply into his special groove. “We just struggled to look after the tyres,” explained Ricciardo. “It just felt like when I was able to punch out a good lap time, I couldn’t really maintain it, whereas Lewis could answer and then answer again. So it felt like every time we matched his pace we were taking more out of the tyre.” And the forward-biased brakes.
Bottas had absolutely no answer even to Ricciardo’s pace. While the Red Bull was lapping within half-a-second of Hamilton through this phase, Bottas’ lap time deficit to his team-mate from lap 17 was: 1.5sec, 1.6sec, 1.0sec, 1.7sec, 2.8sec and 0.6sec. He was at least just out of reach of Sainz who was doing a great job in defending from the fresher-tyred Hülkenberg.
The switch to slicks
Haas was the first to try slicks, bringing Magnussen in on the 24th lap. It was worth a shot from back in 11th but was probably about two laps premature. That at least was the analysis of everyone afterwards. Up front, both Hamilton and Ricciardo were guiding their teams, saying the track wasn’t yet quite ready.
Two laps later and Magnussen set the race’s fastest lap to date. It was time – from a performance perspective at least. But with plenty of gap on the field, Hamilton and Ricciardo were in no hurry. The logic of them staying out as late as possible was if there was another safety car restart, they didn’t want to be vulnerable on cold slicks to a warm inters-shod car that hadn’t yet pitted. Stroll was next in, then four more cars on the 27th and only then Ricciardo. He was followed in on that lap by Bottas, with Mercedes waiting until the 29th lap to bring in Hamilton. He rejoined with the gap over Ricciardo out to 8.6sec.
Everyone apart from the super-soft-shod Sainz had been fitted with ultras. With the race due to time out at two hours after 58 of its scheduled 61 laps, they just about had enough range to complete the distance – and the super-softs were only reckoned good for an extra three or four laps extra anyway.
Bottas by now was almost 25secc adrift of the leader and being pressured by Hülkenberg, who had let rip with a very fast lap once Sainz had pitted out of his way. With Carlos struggling to get the super-softs up to temperature on his out-lap, he was leapfrogged by the Renault. Could Hulk actually get a podium out of this? It didn’t look out of the question – until he was forced to pit. An oil leak led to a related problem with hydraulic pressures, and he was forced to pit on the 38th lap and eventually retire 10 laps later. Scant reward for a stirring performance.
Sainz then came under relentless attack from Pérez but again remained absolutely faultless in defence against a faster car on a faster tyre. This too was a deeply impressive performance, perhaps his best race to date. Palmer had dropped back into the clutches of Vandoorne who had earlier passed Stroll after the latter glanced the wall. Stroll hit it again under pressure from Grosjean, but managed to remain ahead of the Haas.
Safety Car 3 – Inconsequential drama
Marcus Ericsson, running a lap down, lost the Sauber over the Anderson Bridge and came to rest partially blocking the track on lap 36. A crane was needed to retrieve it and so out came the safety car – much to Hamilton’s chagrin, having built up a 9sec lead over Ricciardo. “Why couldn’t it be a VSC?” he complained.
Racing was underway again after 41 laps, Hamilton immediately pulling out a handy gap over Ricciardo, with Bottas now coming onto the pace as he tried to pressure the Red Bull, carbon dust blowing hard from its front wheels. Hamilton was urged not to pull away too much, but didn’t really understand why. It was actually a little precaution of strategy. If he’d pulled away and taken Ricciardo and Bottas with him, creating a big gap to Sainz, it created space for Ricciardo to drop into in the event of another safety car, allowing him to take a punt on fresh tyres to chase Hamilton down in the late stages – just like he’d done to Rosberg here last year.
It didn’t come to that. Everyone stayed on track, Hamilton taking a win gifted him by Vettel but one he felt he was going to take anyway. Ricciardo again pulled a result out the bag with a superbly judged drive in a sick car. Third place Bottas has looked like a number two ever since being informed at Spa that this would be his role for the rest of the season. Sainz didn’t let a battery problem distract him from keeping Pérez behind him for fourth. “We’re not letting you go,” said his engineer to the future Renault driver. Palmer salvaged a good sixth from his trying season, fending off Vandoorne, with Stroll, Grosjean and Ocon taking the remaining points.
A massive win for Hamilton. “This was a circuit where [Ferrari and Red Bull] were in another world in hotter, drier conditions,” he said. “We really had not a lot of hope… I was so happy when the rain began to fall.”