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 provides his comprehensive take on the 2017 United States Grand Prix
Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel fought briefly after the latter had won the drag race to Turn 1, but there wasn’t really a contest; the Mercedes comfortably had the legs of the Ferrari on a circuit where passing is easy if your car is faster. It may have been different had Seb not missed much of Friday afternoon practice to a suspected cracked chassis. He may have discovered that the car was over-working the left-front on the ultra-soft and been able to make suitable adjustments into Saturday – the sort of changes Hamilton and Mercedes had made Friday to Saturday to refine the balance for the necessary tyre durability for a one-stop. In other words, Ferrari’s continuing mechanical woes may have contributed to Vettel’s defeat here. But perhaps not; maybe the Mercedes-Hamilton combination would have been too strong regardless. They are operating in rarefied air right now, riding atop a very high wave and the sealing of a fourth consecutive constructors title for Mercedes was just a rubber-stamping of that fact. Vettel’s second place simply delayed the formality of the driver’s crown.
Beneath all the razzmatazz and rumble, there was actually a great deal of substance to this race. It saw drives of the highest calibre from the three stars of the season, a pivot point of strategic uncertainty that the outcome could have hinged upon, a mix of strategies that put recovering new-tyred cars among those staying out defending, forcing them wheel-to-wheel. New overtaking spots were invented around the Circuit of Americas, none of them more outrageous than that of Max Verstappen on the last lap at Turn 17 on Kimi Räikkönen. It was a thrilling climax to a great drive from a penalised 16th grid spot. A little too thrilling in fact, for the race stewards, who docked him 5sec of race time, giving the final podium spot officially to Kimi Räikkönen.
High track temperatures taking the tyres past their optimum, fast gusting winds that varied in intensity from lap to lap; qualifying around the Circuit of the Americas was plenty of a challenge this year – and the two starring performers were the title challengers. Hamilton was always favourite to secure pole around here – and he duly delivered it, his first Q3 lap standing as the fastest. “I love this place, the way the wind comes and intertwines with the corners, it really makes it challenging. So when you are going through the esses it’s not all the same through them, you come out and you’ve got a headwind and then a crosswind and then you’ve got a headwind and a tailwind. So you’re constantly dancing with the wind.” He got caught out by one of those gusts on his second attempt and lost a chunk of time, but his first run remained good for a 72nd pole.
Vettel was remarkable in lapping the Ferrari quickly enough to split the Mercs, his final lap just a couple of tenths shy of Hamilton, having been well adrift up to that point. This came after he’d missed much of Friday afternoon practice with a strange handling anomaly that was suspected to be from a cracked chassis. A new car was built up around the spare tub on Friday evening and Vettel had spent much of Saturday getting it tuned in. He admitted to not finding its rhythm until that last run. Räikkönen, as often happens, was more quickly into it than Vettel and looked to have the edge over him, but made crucial errors when it mattered and was only fifth quickest, a couple of tenths adrift of his team-mate.
Bottas wasn’t hiding his disappointment with only third quickest, his confidence in the tricky conditions was just not on the same level as Hamilton’s or Vettel’s. The Merc was particularly uncooperative through the slow sections and he just didn’t find a way around it as effectively as he would have liked.
Daniel Ricciardo matched Räikkönen’s time to the thousandth, but did it a few seconds earlier and so lined his Red Bull up fourth. It was a last-gasp effort in Q3, as up until that time the Red Bull had been a bit of a handful, and overly sensitive to the winds. Max Verstappen ran off track on his vital Q3 lap in the sister car and was only sixth fastest. With a clean lap he had the pace to have eclipsed Bottas’ time, helped in part by a new spec of Renault engine reckoned to be worth 0.2sec. The fitment of this and accompanying ERS-h incurred him a 15-place grid penalty and was a tactical move to be in good shape for Mexico, where it was reckoned the car would be more competitive.
The four available Q3 places beneath the top three teams were taken by the two Force Indias, Carlos Sainz (making his Renault debut) and Fernando Alonso’s McLaren. It had taken a while to get the Force Indias tuned into the circuit’s tricky demands, the set-up only really coming right into qualifying. Despite suffering a migraine Esteban Ocon delivered a neat, committed lap to go seventh fastest. Team-mate Sergio Pérez was back in 10th, still incensed with having been badly blocked on his Q1 lap by Kevin Magnussen. This entailed having to use up another set of tyres in Q1, meaning he had only one set of new ultras for Q3 rather than the two of Ocon. Magnussen later apologised for the incident, having believed Pérez was on an out-lap.
Sainz made an impressively polished Renault debut, adapting to the car with minimal fuss despite braking, steering and throttle feel being very different to that of his Toro Rosso. He made Q3 without problem and set eighth-fastest time there. Team-mate Nico Hülkenberg was taking a 20-place penalty for an engine replacement (to the new spec) and associated components and so didn’t make a Q2 run once he’d made it through, preferring to save tyres and mileage, given that he’d be starting on the back row anyway.
Fernando Alonso, in a McLaren with a new front wing, drove a lap on the ragged edge to get through to Q3 and almost matched it with his Q3 lap, placing him ninth. There was only one new wing and in the first practice session, with Alonso’s car suffering a hydraulics problem, it was put on the car of Stoffel Vandoorne who was impressively quick with it. But with Alonso’s car running properly thereafter the wing went back onto his car. On the old wing, Vandoorne’s car was ill-balanced and he couldn’t make Q3, 13th fastest and 0.6sec adrift of Alonso. He would take a 30-place penalty for replacing just about everything between cockpit and gearbox.
Williams was disappointed not making Q3, Felipe Massa missing out by half-a-tenth to Ocon to go 11th. “The lap was clean,” claimed Massa. “There was very little difference between the three cars [Renault, Williams, Force India] but we were just behind.” Lance Stroll suffered a glitch in Q1 that caused the engine to de-rate down the back straight, losing him 0.8sec. He was also given a three-place penalty for impeding Romain Grosjean, having actually been trying to get out of the Haas’ way. With his usual race engineer attending the birth of his child, Stroll was being engineered by his mentor Luca Baldisseri, who last filled the role in the Eddie Irvine/Ferrari days.
There was a half-second gap behind Massa, with Daniil Kvyat doing well to put the Toro Rosso 11th as he was fighting for his future. “That was only around 0.1sec off what was possible,” reckoned head of vehicle performance, Jody Eggington. The Russian’s driving was aggressive and clean, but one wonders if it was already too late to rescue his seat. Making his Formula 1 debut in the sister car, Brendon Hartley was impressively calm and collected but admitted that judging the available grip on one lap on new tyres was difficult. Quick and consistent on the long runs, he didn’t have the one-lap pace to quite make it out of Q1, 18th fastest, 0.8sec off Kvyat. “I think with one more run, he’d have made Q2,” said Eggington.
Grosjean lined up behind Vandoorne in the only Haas to make Q2. He’d been off in practice and the car was generally an oversteering handful around here, the team finding it difficult to get it into the tyre temperature window. Kevin Magnussen was slowest of all and didn’t even come close to making it out of Q1, disbelieving at how little grip it had.
The difficulties of Magnussen and Stroll meant a better than usual 16th fastest for Marcus Ericsson’s Sauber, the Swede much happier with his performance than team-mate Pascal Wehrlein was with his, three tenths and three places back.
Hamilton and Mercedes were sill fine-tuning on the lap to the dummy grid, Lewis asking for an extra half-a-hole of front wing to counter the W08’s understeer through the slow sections in the middle of the lap. If he was to one-stop – which was very much the preference of the team – it was absolutely crucial that the car be as perfectly balanced as possible. Rear tyre temperatures can be marginal here but can be controlled by the driver, but too much understeer and the fronts are going to wear. “It’s not an easy car,” reflected Hamilton later, referring to its narrow band of peak performance. It has a natural tendency to understeer as the speed bleeds off into slow corners, but a risk of oversteer through the faster sections (the awesome Esses, turns 3-7, in this case) if you rely too much on front wing to counter that trait. This is encoded in the car’s very DNA.
But they’d judged it perfectly between them. On Friday it had needed a lot of manhandling and the slow-corner performance was visibly worse than that of the Red Bull and Ferrari. Into Saturday it was much better. But on Sunday the track was a few degrees cooler and rougher. A storm had passed over in the morning and some of that front-end bite he’d spent Saturday finessing had faded. Hence the wing adjustment.
He was then very careful to control Vettel’s pace to the grid proper. The Ferrari needs a harder preparation lap than the Mercedes – so Hamilton kept the pace very low and didn’t allow Vettel the space needed to put the required energy in to the tyres.
Yet Vettel won the start, regardless. The respective first phases of their getaways were very similar but into the second phase, the Merc got a little more wheelspin and Vettel from the inside now had the momentum as they headed up that vast incline, Hamilton moving across to dissuade him, Vettel keeping it coming, wheels almost touching. The Ferrari was leading as they crested and simultaneously turned hard left, Hamilton tucking in behind, with Bottas prevailing over Ricciardo just behind and as they plunged down the hill to the fast sweep of Turn 2. Räikkönen and Ocon were side-by-side fighting over fifth, Sainz and Alonso doing the same for seventh. Ocon squeezed ahead of the second Ferrari as they began the Esses, and Alonso got ahead of Sainz. Then came Massa, Perez, Kvyat and the rest. Verstappen had made up three places from his 16th grid slot and as a Red Bull shark among minnows on an easy-pass circuit, he lost little time to the pack as he progressed and would be passing Pérez for 10th by the third lap.
Out already by this time were Hülkenberg’s Renault (loss of oil pressure) and Wehrlein’s Sauber (floor damage after a first lap collision with Magnussen’s Haas at Turn 12).
Hamilton claimed he’d been fairly relaxed about losing out to Vettel at the start. “Just knowing from the past that you can overtake here, I still felt confident.” They’d quickly pulled out a gap on Bottas who came under repeated attack at Turn 1 from Ricciardo but was his usual stern self in defence. Räikkönen closed down upon their battle once he had sliced past Ocon on the second lap into Turn 15.
Ricciardo made an outrageously late dive upon Bottas into Turn 1 on the fourth lap, Bottas running out way wide on the exit apron to maintain the momentum that would just keep him ahead of the Red Bull as they went through Turn 3 side by side. It was great entertainment and another reminder of just what a fantastic circuit this is in allowing the cars to actually race wheel to wheel.
This battle was already trailing Vettel/Hamilton by around 5sec. As these early laps played out, Hamilton’s confidence only increased – he could see how much Vettel was having to take from his car just to maintain this pace. On the sixth lap, Hamilton crossed the DRS detection point between the kink of 10 and the hairpin of 11 less than 1sec behind the Ferrari, giving him his first bite of the DRS cherry down the following straight. Deploying everything the engine and battery had to give and with the DRS flap open, he scythed past the Ferrari into the hairpin, taking Vettel by surprise. “Yeah, not so easy to see,” said Seb of Hamilton pouncing out of his blind spot. “Maybe I could’ve done a bit more – but he was so much quicker that it didn’t really matter.” He was already feeling that the front left was taking too much punishment and after making a cursory counter-move into the switchback of 14-15, he simply drove to the pace that tyre was dictating upon him – and the Merc edged away, out of DRS reach almost immediately, out of undercut range long before the window of the first stops opened. Gone.
Ricciardo had stopped attacking Bottas for now – as he could feel the damage it had already done to his tyres. The Finn’s resolve in battle had kept him ahead – but at a cost. That trip onto the Turn 1 apron had damaged the floor, costing a significant amount of aero performance.
Verstappen had flown by Massa on the third lap and followed up on Sainz and Alonso in quick succession. It took him only until the 10th lap to DRS his way past Ocon for sixth, by which point he was 18sec off the lead. It was impressive but also an illustration of the big performance gap behind the top three teams.
Ricciardo, complaining that his front tyres were finished, was being caught rapidly by Räikkönen and Red Bull brought him in at the end of the 12th lap, switching him to super-softs. It was impossibly early for a one-stop, but a two-stop was a comparably quick – if busier – strategy. He came out behind Sainz but immediately passed him and was setting a sequence of fastest sector times. But he only got to enjoy two laps of new tyre grip before the engine began losing oil pressure and shut itself down. He pulled off and the race continued now without his flamboyant attacks. A podium place had beckoned and the way he was going to get there on his two-stop would have entailed plenty of passes. But it remained a thrilling race even without him.
Hamilton had stabilised his lead over Vettel at around 4.5sec and was just driving to the gap at this stage, taking it easy on his tyres. Bottas was a further 7sec behind in his compromised car and being gradually closed down by Räikkönen. But from the 14th lap even Bottas was catching Vettel, as Seb was suffering serious blistering of the left-front, the price for having pushed so hard in the first few laps with a car not quite balanced. The pitstop window for a one-stop was reckoned to be from around lap 18 but if Ferrari waited that long Bottas would’ve been within undercut range. Ferrari brought him in after 16 laps – earlier than ideal if they were to remain on a one-stop – and switched him to a set of softs.
The Mercedes pit wall monitored his times very carefully. They needed to know how long they could leave Hamilton out there before he risked the undercut from Vettel’s new rubber. The out lap and first flying lap were fast and Hamilton was brought in at the end of lap 19. Despite a quick stop, he emerged only just ahead of the Ferrari. “How did he get that close?” asked Hamilton as he saw the red looming large in his mirrors. How indeed. If Vettel had simply repeated his first flying lap time, Merc calculated that they would emerge ahead by 1.5sec. Instead it was only 0.6sec. Vettel’s second flying lap had been even faster – and the reason for that was that he’d left the track on the exit of Turn 19; straying beyond the kerb there allows you to keep more momentum with no penalty.
Hamilton quickly eased away again from Vettel. Meanwhile, Ferrari passed up the opportunity of undercutting Räikkönen past Bottas at this time. Mercedes was reluctant to make Valtteri’s first stop before lap 18; any earlier and they weren’t confident he’d have the tyre range to remain on a one-stop. But Ferrari had already shown with Vettel it was prepared to pull the plug early and by lap 17 Räikkönen was within undercut range of Bottas. But they left him out there. Bottas duly made his stop on lap 18 – and still Ferrari left Räikkönen out for a further two laps. Was the idea to have him back Hamilton into Vettel? That seems the only logical answer to their choice, but the way it played out Räikkönen was running out of rubber before he got a chance to do that.
Verstappen temporarily led on his harder tyres, but the fresh-tyred Hamilton was upon him on the 23rd lap, Max fending him off at the end of the DRS zone into Turn 12, but Hamilton using his greater grip to slip by between 13-14. Verstappen stopped a lap later and rejoined fifth on fresh softs. Initially he was as much as 1.5sec per lap faster than anyone but after a few laps the pace advantage reduced and it became clear that by the time he caught up with Räikkönen he was going to have used up the rubber he would have needed to pass. Red Bull began thinking about a two-stop strategy.
In the group some way distant from the big three teams, Ocon still held sway. Pérez had undercut his way past Sainz but the Renault was chasing him down. As Ocon caught up to the yet-to-stop Massa, so Pérez and Sainz joined the tail of the train. Pérez was insisting he had the pace to pass the Williams and that Ocon should be instructed to move aside. No one was buying that and, amusingly, once Massa pitted out the way, Ocon disappeared up the road, leaving Pérez trying to fend off Sainz, the Renault eventually going past after a thrilling wheel-to-wheel contest that lasted many corners and concluded with Sainz going by on the inside approach to Turn 19 – not normally a passing place. It was a sparkling start with his new team for the man who gave very little away to Verstappen when they were paired at Toro Rosso – and he now set off in pursuit of Ocon.
Alonso had been running between the Force Indias but lost power suddenly on the 24th lap and was brought in and retired. The McLarens were slowest through the trap all weekend, a full 20km/h down on the fastest. Kyvat, Grosjean, Magnussen, Massa and Vandoorne followed on.
Towards the back, Hartley was pitted early by Toro Rosso in an effort at finding him clear track. Once he had that, he was very quick. In the four clear laps he got between laps 11-14, he was regularly the sixth or seventh fastest man on track. But after Stroll used the greater straightline speed of the Williams to pass, he would be stuck behind it for the rest of the race.
From being surprised at seeing Vettel so close in his mirrors after pitting, Hamilton had eased his advantage back out to 7sec by lap 37. Vettel wasn’t happy with the balance on the softs and was being caught now by Bottas and Räikkönen. When Red Bull threw the two-stop dice with Verstappen, it seemed Vettel’s second place would be under threat before the end – effectively pushing him into a matching two-stop. He was brought in on the very next lap and fitted with fresh super-softs. With 18 laps to go, it was about as late as you could feasibly make the two-stop work. He rejoined a couple of seconds ahead of Verstappen, also on super-softs – and they were the fastest two on track as they quickly closed down the one-stopping Räikkönen and Bottas.
Hamilton’s earlier 7sec cushion over Vettel effectively spared Mercedes the dilemma of whether to respond to the two-stop initiatives and with Hamilton serenely combining pace with looking after his rubber, they remained on Plan A. In reality they could have won this race with either strategy, such was their advantage.
Räikkönen had been given permission to run full beans on the engine in his chase of Bottas’ second place and he was now within DRS range. On the 42nd lap he passed the floor-damaged Merc into Turn 12. Vettel and Verstappen – separated by a couple of seconds – continued their charge and were up with Bottas soon enough. With five laps to go, Vettel surged down the pit straight in the tow of the Merc and flicked right for Turn 1 as Bottas defended the inside line. Seb was going for the outside pass – but there was a complication: they were also about to lap Vandoorne. Undeterred, Vettel stayed with the pass and slalomed between Bottas and the McLaren as they exited the turn. A lap later and Räikkönen – now very low on fuel – moved aside, bringing Vettel back up to second. Vettel then slowed in order to allow Räikkönen to use DRS to reduce the drag in an effort at eking out the remaining fuel.
But he had more than just fuel to be worrying about – Verstappen’s charge had taken him past Bottas and he was now filling Kimi’s mirrors with just a lap to go. He’d got into DRS range – albeit by missing out much of turn nine. Räikkönen probably thought he’d done enough in keeping him at bay at the end of the back straight, but Max had other ideas, using his greater grip to dive for the inside in the long, fast, Turn 16. In order to avoid a possibly unsighted Räikkönen turning in on him, Verstappen took all four wheels off the track at the apex. It was a thrilling pass and had the crowd cheering wildly. But he had missed out the track (twice) in order to do it.
So it was for that Verstappen – for the second time in 12 months – was pulled out of the green room. A 5sec penalty meant that the official third-place finisher was Räikkönen and it was he who joined the imperious Hamilton and resolute Vettel on the podium. Bottas, after being passed by Verstappen, had enough margin over Ocon that he was able to pit for a fresh set of tyres for the last four laps. Ocon remained impervious to lap after lap of attacking pressure from Sainz, with Pérez, Massa and Kvyat taking the remaining points. Grosjean ran out of rubber on the last lap and was passed by Stroll, Vandoorne and Hartley. Only the earlier-colliding Ericsson and Magnussen finished behind him.
Hamilton had defeated Vettel comfortably. The convention of the Ferrari being easier on its tyres than the Merc had been turned around, and Vettel’s missing long runs of Friday afternoon almost certainly played a part in that. But Hamilton was keen to make his own case too. “The car doesn’t look after the tyres on its own! The driver plays a big part too… it is how you set the car up, how you set the balance. It is the decision you make on the grid, how much wing you put in or take out, which enables you to go the distance. If I started the race with what we started with initially on the out-lap [to the dummy grid] I wouldn’t have made the target lap for the pitstop, but it is experience that helps you make those decisions and how you evaluate the laps to the grid.”
Difficult to argue with that – and impossible to argue with the vast achievement of Mercedes’ fourth straight constructors’ world championship.
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