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…
A beautiful day, a sea of 20,000 people dressed in orange, a 10-hour drive from Holland but they don’t care. They came all this way last year just to see Max Verstappen taken out at Turn 1. Then there are the Austrians, for whom Red Bull is very much the home team. Such a shame for both sets that the Red Bull Ring is perhaps the most power-sensitive and downforce-insensitive track on the calendar. Hopefully he’ll get further than Turn 1 this time but he doesn’t stand a chance, surely.
This race has got Mercedes written all over it.
Out go the lights and Verstappen has a grandstand view of Kimi Räikkönen on his grippier, faster tyres going between the two Mercedes into Turn 1 with inches to spare. Verstappen sees Valtteri Bottas forced onto the run-off as Lewis Hamilton takes the lead, chased by Räikkönen. Verstappen slots into third just ahead of the returning Bottas. Through there, up the long drag with a kink in it, he can see Räikkönen’s Ferrari getting sucked into Hamilton’s slipstream, and can feel his car doesn’t have the straight line speed to join that particular contest. He can barely believe his luck as he watches Räikkönen try to use his greater momentum to go around the outside into Turn 3 as Hamilton places his car perfectly, the Ferrari’s inner front momentarily locking and Kimi running wide. But Räikkönen keeps his foot down on the run-off and chops still just in front of Verstappen. It would be so easy, circumspect and understandable for Verstappen to back out of it at this point, what with the ‘Crashtappen’ tag and the pressure that came with that sequence of early season accidents. But he’s never let those outside criticisms into his head – they are for the others. He just does as he’s always done. He flicks right as the Ferrari continues to move across on him and puts a wheel on the grass even as they squabble down there side by side – enough to let Bottas get a run on them both to go clean around their outside into Turn 4, the Mercedes now 1-2.
Verstappen’s not finished with this Räikkönen fight yet.
Tight into his slipstream as they exit the long, looping Turn 7 and head into the fast chicane of 7-8. He’s got a run on the Ferrari and is partly on its inside as they turn into the first, left-handed, part of the sequence. Neither are backing out of it, sixth gear and still accelerating, wheels getting closer, closer, closer… thump. They touch, Red Bull right-front against Ferrari left-rear, Räikkönen forced to apply a blink opposite lock, as Verstappen finally grinds ahead. At that moment he won the race. With a little help from the gods of soft drinks.
Just as in France the Mercedes had a significant single-lap advantage over the Ferraris. After qualifying third, 0.3sec adrift of pole, Sebastian Vettel would say he left some time on the table but not enough to have changed anything. But although the outcome was similar to Paul Ricard – with Bottas this time edging out Hamilton for pole rather than vice-versa – the reasons behind it may have been subtly different.
This was a heavily updated Mercedes, with pared-back sidepods that went some way to taking Mercedes towards Ferrari’s design philosophy and which improved rear-end downforce, in particular. It worked – perhaps even too well initially, as its drivers spent much of Friday wrestling with understeer. Regardless, Bottas was excited.
“I could feel straight away that the rear was more stable,” Bottas explained, “and so it was really then just about getting a better balance around the rear, and we managed to do that for Saturday.”
Also, for the first time in recent memory, the Mercedes was finding all the extra performance from the softest tyre. Traditionally, its forward-biased aerodynamics have been more adversely affected by the greater aerodynamic disruption created by the softer tyres as they bend more under lateral load. The updates appear to have moved the centre of pressure rearwards, perhaps giving a less aero-sensitive car than before. It also appeared to have made feasible a greater degree of rake.
In France, the thin gauge tyres had been assigned a contributory role in Mercedes’ dominance in that it restricted that tyre ‘bendiness’ – and maybe that was accurate, maybe not. Here we were back to the standard gauge Pirelli, but with the updated car, it perhaps didn’t matter.
Finally, there’s that Phase 2.1 spec engine. It’s worth a couple of tenths. Bottas was 0.3sec faster than Vettel (but Vettel reckoned a perfect lap would’ve been perhaps a tenth faster than his actual lap). All of that suggests the Mercedes chassis was working comparably well to the Ferrari around a track which particularly suits the red car – and that the crucial difference was then being delivered by the engine. It was tighter than Vettel’s lap made it look, but the Mercedes definitely had the edge.
Emotion, dilemma and discussion on the Mercedes pit wall.
Hamilton over committed into Turn 3 on his first Q3 run and Bottas produced a near-perfect lap. That meant for the second runs Hamilton was a little more cautious than Bottas could afford to be. The end difference was a couple of crucial hundredths in Bottas’ favour as he secured his first pole of the season.
Vettel, like Hamilton, made a mess of his first Q3 run, going too deep on the brakes into Turn 4. Everything hung on his final effort which was slightly less gung-ho than it might otherwise have been. This put him a tenth-and-a-half and one place ahead of team-mate Kimi Räikkönen, who did a three-lap first Q3 run in an attempt at getting the tyre temperatures right, but still he found the balance imperfect, the car reluctant to change direction enough in the fast middle sector. Vettel was then awarded a three-place grid penalty for having inadvertently impeded Carlos Sainz’s Renault in Q2. This rather reduced the point of having used the softest tyre available (the ultrasoft) in Q2 (in contrast to Mercedes and Red Bull which used the supersofts) for its greater acceleration off the grid on race day.
Things weren’t going smoothly at Red Bull. Like Mercedes, it operates an alternating policy on which driver leaves the pit ahead of the other in Q3. In France it had been Verstappen’s turn to run ahead so here it was Daniel Ricciardo’s. Sounded simple enough, but there was an unforeseen complication. Because the ultras seemed to take a time to come up to temperature on the Red Bulls, they would do a two-lap first run, with time then for a single-lap second run. Ricciardo assumed that after the first attack lap, they would swap positions on the slow lap in between so as to even out who got the tow. But Verstappen reasoned it was his turn regardless of how many laps the runs were. So, as Ricciardo backed off on the slow lap, so too did Verstappen – until they were down to a first gear crawl. Verstappen’s engineer encouraged him to pass: Max refused to do so. Emerging from this handbags situation, Verstappen went fifth quickest and Ricciardo a tenth or so slower.
Christian Horner put it all in perspective later: “We have a very simple policy here that has operated for the last seven years and that is to alternate who drives out of the garage first from race to race. This is the only way to keep it scrupulously fair between both drivers. This weekend it was Daniel’s turn to drive out of the garage first. In the heat of qualifying he felt that on a track like this where a tow can sometimes help, he could be at a slight disadvantage going out first. Last weekend it was the reverse and he benefited. Now that both drivers have had time to review what happened they have a rather different view of things than they did in the heat of the moment.”
Arguably worse than that was the fact the RB14 just wasn’t very fast around here. It’s a power-sensitive track and despite Renault Sport now allowing a ‘party mode’ worth around 0.15sec, that still left it adrift of Mercedes and Ferrari. But it was more than that. The cars were not particularly quick around the turns, either, and generally had an understeer balance. It was enough to see them split by the over-achieving Haas of Romain Grosjean who, as ever when the car is in that narrow band of balance he likes, was devastatingly fast and able to shade an under-performing Red Bull. He needed only one set of ultrasofts on which to get through Q2, leaving him two runs in Q3 like the heavy-hitters. Kevin Magnussen was a couple of tenths slower and behind Ricciardo. The Haas had almost a second over the works Renaults at such a power-sensitive track, leaving Sainz and Nico Hülkenberg ninth and 10th. They both reported not really being able to feel much difference from the newly available quali mode on the engine.
Force India is beginning to feel the pain of the financially-imposed brake on development parts and Esteban Ocon was a couple of tenths away from making Q3, in 11th. Sergio Pérez didn’t even make it out of Q1, 17th after getting caught in traffic and then falling foul of yellow flags.
Pierre Gasly was finding the Toro Rosso well balanced and was happy with his lap, but this track exposed some of the Honda’s remaining weakness and he lined up 12th. Team-mate Brendon Hartley was struggling back in 19th and, going back and forward between the standard front wing and a new one, his running was a little disrupted. He was 0.3sec off Gasly and later decided to take an engine change, which lost him only one grid place.
Charles Leclerc got the Sauber through to Q2 where he out-qualified Fernando Alonso’s McLaren to go 13th, 0.5sec quicker than his team-mate. But he’d be taking a five-place grid penalty for having a new gearbox installed, after the original failed towards the end of FP3.
McLaren continues to experiment in the practice sessions, trying new parts in an effort at understanding why the aero problems apparent at the track are not evident in simulation. Its development has stalled as others have moved on. Alonso squeezed into Q2 and went 14th there, a couple of tenths faster than Lance Stroll’s Williams. After an MGUk needed to be replaced, the team decided to start him from the pitlane, thereby allowing a new front wing to be fitted. Stoffel Vandoorne looked set to make Q2 but was caught out by late yellows for a Leclerc off and was only 16th.
Stroll wrestled the Williams into Q2 and repeated that lap once there. It had looked as if he was about to be pipped to the Q2 place by team-mate Sergey Sirotkin but the Russian was another to be caught by the Leclerc yellows and was only 18th, albeit still faster than Hartley and the Sauber of Marcus Ericsson.
Even after that incident-filled first lap it didn’t look like this was going to be a Red Bull day. If Verstappen could just hold onto that third behind the two Mercedes he’d surely be doing well – for every indication from Friday running suggested the RB14 was just not on the pace of either the silver cars or the red ones. Verstappen had been helped by Vettel’s grid penalty and had been tenacious in fighting his way by Räikkönen. But the Ferraris looked the best on the tyres – maybe even more important today on a track 10deg C higher than on Saturday – and the Mercedes looked the fastest. The Red Bulls looked also-rans.
Hamilton and Bottas crossed the line at the end of that frantic opening lap already many car lengths clear of the Verstappen-led pack comprising Räikkönen, Ricciardo, Grosjean, Magnussen, Vettel (having been pushed out wide at Turn 1 and being passed on all sides), Hülkenberg, Ocon, the fast-starting Stroll, Sainz, Pérez (always good at finding the first lap gaps), Leclerc (about to run through the Turn 5 gravel trap and rejoin near the back), Gasly, Ericsson, Sirotkin, Hartley and Alonso (from the pitlane). In the pitlane already was Vandoorne’s McLaren with front wing damage after a crunch against Hartley. The car refused to get going again for about half-a-minute, meaning a hot afternoon running at the back. Hartley would later retire with transmission trouble.
“In the end, we made a mistake”
At that morning’s Red Bull briefing, they’d discussed the tyre situation. A much hotter track than any seen on Friday or Saturday might mean the pre-weekend assumption that this would be an easy one-stop race might not be correct. Just watch out for signs of rear graining. Like Mercedes, they’d started the race on the supersoft, slightly tougher than the ultrasofts on the Ferraris, but the Ferrari seemed to be able to run anything. So once into his third position, the car still heavy with fuel, Verstappen didn’t even think about chasing the faster Mercedes; just let them go and kept an eye on the mirrors.
Vettel was quickly on the move from his compromised opening lap, down the inside of Magnussen into Turn 1 to begin the second lap, a tougher, tyre-rubbing move on Grosjean in the other Haas into Turn 4, lap three. Then steadily he began eating into the gap to Ricciardo, for whom this was a tricky situation. Held up by Räikkönen but being caught by Vettel, he badly needed to pass Kimi. So he attacked and just hoped he wasn’t taking too much from those possibly-delicate tyres. Feinting this way and that, pushing, probing – and all the while Räikkönen immune, Vettel edging ever-closer.
Hülkenberg in ninth was holding up an Ocon/Sainz/Pérez train (Stroll in the understeering Williams having fallen out of this group). That particular bottle was uncorked on the 12th lap as the Renault’s turbo blew spectacularly, Hülkenberg pulling up with the rear of the car well ablaze. His wouldn’t be the last retirement, and certainly not the most significant. Two laps later Bottas was pulling off to the side with no drive. A hydraulic leak from the power steering (around a part that has been the same for the last three years) had steadily deprived the system of pressure until there was none left to operate the valves, the gearshift or assist the steering.
The pack raced on for another half-a-lap or so until it became clear the marshals at Turn 4 needed a little more time to manhandle the car out of the run-off and onto the perimeter road. At which point race control applied a virtual safety car.
Emotion, dilemma and discussion on the Mercedes pit wall.
The sniff of real opportunity at Red Bull and Ferrari, both of which prepared to do a double-stack stop with their cars, saving 10sec over a conventional race speed stop. Race leader Hamilton, at this point, was only coming around Turn 6. There was plenty of time to bring him in. The concern at Mercedes was that whatever it did, Red Bull and Ferrari might do the opposite with one of their cars, so losing track position and potentially putting Hamilton down to third and maybe later being backed into the other Red Bull and Ferrari.
“In the end, we made a mistake,” admitted Toto Wolff. “In 80 per cent of these situations you are better off pitting. We had half a lap to react and we didn’t. We were discussing what to do, the different scenarios, and that whole loop took too much time.” So, without instruction to do otherwise, Hamilton drove on past the pit entry as Verstappen, Räikkönen, Ricciardo and Vettel all pitted (as did Grosjean, Ocon, Sainz, Stroll, Gasly, Leclerc and Alonso but not Magnussen, Pérez, Sirotkin, the soft-tyred Ericsson or Hartley). All those who stopped were switched to the hardest tyres (the soft), which had looked absolutely indestructible on Friday and were surely good for the remaining 55 laps.
All of which looked to have lost Hamilton a race he’d been in control of. He was still leading, but the chasing pack had effectively gained 10sec on him – and he’d only been 5sec clear of Verstappen when the VSC was applied. On tyres already 16 laps old, he needed in the next 10 laps or so (before they wore out) to pull out 7sec on Verstappen, 5sec on Räikkönen and 4sec on Ricciardo – all of them on fresh rubber. Wasn’t going to happen. In fact, his rears were wildly overheating before too much longer. Even Vettel – who had lost 3sec being stacked – could have been ahead of Hamilton after the latter finally pitted on lap 25 if only he’d been better informed by the Ferrari pit wall. As it was, Hamilton rejoined in fourth, with Verstappen now heading a Red Bull 1-2 from Räikkönen (Ricciardo had, after another five laps of applying the pressure, finally found a way by Räikkönen on the 19th lap into Turn 4, with the help of DRS).
To say Hamilton was dismayed at the turn of events would be an understatement. “So, am I now fourth? I want to say something,” he said, “but…” At which point chief strategist James Vowles came on the radio, saying that he had made a mistake, apologising but that all was not lost, just trying to put some fight back into the dispirited driver. “For me, James is one of the best strategists ever,” said Wolff later. “To have the guts to say that was my mistake in order to get Lewis out of the mindset of ‘how can this possibly have happened?’ took a lot.”
Hamilton had enough pace to close down Räikkönen, but not enough to then go past him. In fact, as Räikkönen took care of his tyres early in this second stint, it had the effect of backing Hamilton into the chasing Vettel.
This was all happening around 6sec behind Verstappen whose lead over his team-mate was steadily growing. In fact, it looked like Red Bull might even have been using Ricciardo to give Verstappen the gap that would allow him not to overwork his tyres. But it wasn’t that at all. Soon a very ugly dark strip could be seen on Ricciardo’s left-rear. Those ‘indestructible’ softs were graining badly after just 15 laps. The damage had been inflicted in that earlier chase of Räikkönen, who now closed back in on the limping Red Bull, with Hamilton and Vettel tight behind.
It was becoming obvious now that the hot weather had completely changed the tyre picture and this was, in fact, a tyre conservation mission. By the time this had become apparent, only a few had been conserving. Further back, Sainz was suffering even worse blistering than Ricciardo and after being passed by Pérez, pitted for a set of super-softs on lap 34. He rejoined but was only slightly faster than he’d been on the blistered tyres. That illustrated the dilemma for those running at the front. Running new tyres at the conservative pace necessary to keep them alive until the end did not offer enough of a pace advantage over old blistered tyres to make up the pitstop loss. But could the old blistered tyres hang on?
Ricciardo’s couldn’t – and after being repassed by Räikkönen into Turn 4 he came in for a set of supers on lap 38. He rejoined 20sec distant from the lead quartet but still well clear of Grosjean who was unchallenged in the ‘best of the rest’ race. Haas team-mate Magnussen had run a long first stint on the ultrasoft. This dropped him a place to Ocon but on much fresher rubber he, together with fellow late-pitter Pérez, was soon all over Esteban. Magnussen would get by Ocon, who then pulled aside under team instruction to allow the newer-tyred Pérez a crack at the Haas on the understanding that if he failed he would hand Ocon the place back on the last lap.
Hamilton had attacked on his new softs – and suffered the inevitable rear graining consequence. This had enabled Vettel to get within DRS range and on the 39th lap he made a beautiful move on the Mercedes, slipstreaming it up the hill out of Turn 1, getting alongside on the outside through the flat-out kink, kicking up the dust with his rear wheels but staying committed, this putting him on the inside for Turn 3, where he refused to back down. Third place was now his, with team-mate Räikkönen just a couple of seconds up the road. Might Ferrari play team orders for the sake of Vettel’s title aspirations? It would be a brave call, given how early in the season it was – and at the very venue it had infamously moved Rubens Barrichello aside for Michael Schumacher all those years ago. But the Ferraris seemed immune to the graining – and although Verstappen was managing his tyres quite nicely, could a full-blast Ferrari assault take the Red Bull past the graining of no return? Vettel rather than Räikkönen was surely the man for that job. But the question wasn’t asked and Räikkönen was left free to run his race uninterrupted.
Hamilton, despite his blisters, hung onto the back of Vettel for a time – and even ran in a higher engine mode for an extended time in an effort at passing. But Vettel always had him under control and soon enough Hamilton’s blisters were so bad he was brought in for a second time, on lap 52, rejoining just behind Ricciardo. A lap later Daniel pulled off into retirement – an exhaust leak had overheated the underbody and the engine had protectively switched itself off. Hamilton might have taken little cheer from the bonus fourth place, but his day was about to get worse. On lap 62, the fuel pressure took a dive – and he coasted to a halt. The first double mechanical retirement from Mercedes in the hybrid era.
That retirement distilled it down to Verstappen vs Ferrari.
Vettel closed on Räikkönen, but then Kimi would respond. All the while Verstappen just drove to the gap back to Kimi, keeping out of DRS reach, hoping they didn’t force a pace on him his tyres couldn’t handle. On lap 58, both Ferrari drivers were given permission to run higher engine modes. They closed in, but Max was able to respond just enough, taking time to ask the team how his tyres looked compared to theirs. A thin strip was appearing on his left-rear but nothing too serious. Räikkönen was gaining slowly, but later rued having taken it easy for a little too long.
Similar battles were going on further down the field. Alonso had driven a strong race to get himself past the two Williams, and Gasly and Leclerc. Ericsson had run his original softs until lap 46 and so was on vastly fresher tyres as he chased them down. As at Force India, so at Sauber, a team deal was agreed whereby Leclerc pulled aside to let Ericsson have a crack at Alonso’s eighth place on the understanding he’d get it back on the last lap if the chase proved fruitless.
Both Pérez and Ericsson stayed good to their word: Sergio having no answer to Magnussen’s pace and Marcus being repelled by Alonso. Fourth and fifth by Grosjean and Magnussen respectively would be a terrific result for the little Haas team, sixth and seventh representing crucially important points for Force India ahead of Alonso and the two Saubers.
Only with around three laps to go, when the Ferrari assault had proved not as savage as he’d feared it might be, did Verstappen begin to believe he was going to win. Here, of all places, at Red Bull’s home track, in front of the orange-clad crowd going crazy and letting off their orange smoke bombs, here at the track where Red Bulls are never competitive. So it came to be, Räikkönen a solid second, Vettel third, in a drive of damage limitation that would surely have been a victory had he not impeded Sainz in qualifying. Just one more little part of Verstappen’s fairytale result.
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