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Second-best Mercedes gambled in the hope of a safety car at the 2019 Russian Grand Prix… and Ferrari presented it to them. The full race story from Mark Hughes
Lewis Hamilton celebrates victory at the 2019 Russian Grand Prix, with champagne in one hand and his trophy in the other” src=”https://motorsport-magazine.s3.eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/03020701/hamilton_on_podium.jpg” style=”width: 100%;” width=”1000″ height=”667″>
Photo: Motorsport Images
At no stage of the weekend was the Mercedes a match for Ferrari. So the team offset its tyre strategy – just to do something different. There was no way it was going to win this race just by doing the same as its rivals. Starting on the slower medium tyre rather than the softs of Ferrari, Mercedes planned to stay out longer in the hope of catching a VSC or a safety car in the gap between the Ferrari pit stops and its own.
Remarkably, that’s what it got. Yet-more remarkably, it was provided by Ferrari itself, which instructed Sebastian Vettel to stop the car on its out-lap after the pit stop for an electrical insulation failure of the ERS system that made the car ‘live’. For safety reasons, it chose not to allow Vettel to bring the car to the pits. And in that moment lost Charles Leclerc the race.
It was a trying day for the man who’d set his fourth consecutive pole the day before, as Vettel appeared to have reneged on an agreement to swap positions after being allowed to take the lead at the start to prevent Hamilton getting Leclerc’s slipstream. Such pre-race agreements often fail to stand up to competitive strain – and this was one such occasion as Vettel let rip with his best stuff and found a way to delay the agreed swap for as long as possible.
Ferrari has the fastest car right now, but internal tensions are intensifying.
Leclerc was on pole for the fourth-successive race Photo: Motorsport Images
Another Leclerc-Hamilton front row, another chance for a direct comparison of the Ferrari and Mercedes laps.
The straight is super-long at over 1km including the Turn One kink and by the time they arrive at the braking zone for Turn Two, Leclerc is almost 0.3sec ahead already. Although Leclerc is barely any faster through the speed trap here (the Ferrari just over 199mph, the Mercedes just under, at 14th and 15th fastest respectively), the damage to Mercedes has been done by the Ferrari’s greater acceleration and how much longer it has been close to its terminal velocity.
Hamilton’s speed is actually flattered through here by having got some tow from Bottas’ sister Mercedes ahead, whereas Leclerc isn’t close enough to Vettel to have received the same help. Showing the dominance of drag in determining the differences in terminal speed, the Mercedes-powered Racing Point is the fastest through the trap at 204mph.
On the exit of Turn Two, Hamilton is allowing his car to run wider across the exit kerb, careful not to take too much energy from his tyres in the early part of the lap. As ever around here, the conundrum is how hard to use the tyres in the first sector to not have them running too hot in the series of right-angle turns that end the lap.
After trying every possible variation through the practices, Mercedes had found there was no ideal solution for them. It was best to be conservative early in the lap, live with the slightly under-temperature fronts for the first corner, not be too aggressive with the power on the exits – and take the payback in sector three. Ferrari found that, for them, it was ok to push from the start of the lap, maximizing their advantage in that ‘power’ sector, even while accepting they’d lose a little towards the end of the lap in the ‘downforce’ sector as the tread surface became a little too hot.
The Ferrari on song in Turn Three Photo: Motorsport Images
As they begin the long parabola of Turn Three that winds around the concert venue, the Mercedes is still losing time, with some combination of under-temperature fronts or Hamilton’s nursing of the rears. As they begin braking for the right-angle right-hander of Turn Four, the Mercedes is 0.4sec down. Leclerc is more assertive and positive with the steering into this turn, Hamilton quite tentative, the differences in how they are treating this sector quite visible.
The Ferrari pulls out more time on the short straight between Four and Five, and they cross the beam that marks the end of the first sector here separated by 0.474sec. With that sector completed, Hamilton begins to hustle the car more and he’s hard on it through Turn Five, matching Leclerc. They’re pretty much identical through the following kink of Six, the not-quite-right-angle Seven and tight Turn Eight.
The Ferrari begins pulling out time as they accelerate flat through the kink of Nine and onwards down to the braking zone for 10. From there it’s a long drag down the back straight, underbodies chattering along the track, forced down into the surface by the downforce. Through the kink of 12 that precedes the hard braking for 13, Leclerc is almost 0.7sec ahead of Hamilton and is travelling 2.5mph quicker, the Mercedes near the bottom of this trap.
It is as they begin the tight twists of the final sector that Hamilton begins to get payback for the Mercedes’ greater downforce and his taking it easy on the tyres earlier in the lap. He takes big chunks out of the Ferrari at each of the remaining six right-angle turns. Leclerc’s rears are way over-temperature by the time he’s at Turn 16 and he has a wild power oversteer moment, hard up towards the wall. He sort of floats the car into 17, in contrast to Hamilton’s much more planted Mercedes, and is correcting oversteer again even before he’s at the apex. It’s a similar story through the final turn onto the pit straight. Leclerc’s struggles at the end of the lap mean he’s a couple of tenths slower in that sector – but overall he’s ahead by a healthy 0.402sec. The first Ferrari driver since Michael Schumacher in 2001 to set four consecutive poles.
“The car felt amazing,” he enthused later. “Through the sessions the balance was better and better. I was adjusting a little bit the aero balance and I just felt more and more confident.” He’s flying high at the moment.
Hamilton made big time gains in the right-angled corners of sector three Photo: Motorsport Images
Hamilton was delighted just at having split the Ferraris (he was just a couple of hundredths faster than Vettel). “That last lap was my best of the weekend – as it should be – no mistakes or anything like that, so I really feel like I got everything and maybe a little bit more from the car… [I was] just trying to put the perfect lap together, feeling like each time I’m getting as close to that as possible and then you finish the lap, and you look and see you’re four-tenths off pole or whatever.”
Vettel looked troubled as he sat in the press conference afterwards. “I was pretty happy with the car actually,” he said. “I just felt that there was more in the car that I couldn’t get to.” His more sudden steering inputs did not appear to be working as well as Leclerc’s more flowing approach. Leclerc has the car in a constant slide in the low-speed corners, controlled by brake overlap and throttle application, very Ricciardo-like. Vettel appears to be trying to get the car to do more on the steering, but it wasn’t working with this car on this track and he was losing time with scrappy mid-corner moments in the middle sector.
Both Mercedes had gone through Q2 on the medium tyre just to do something different to Ferrari, reasoning they weren’t going to beat them doing the same. Valtteri Bottas abandoned his final Q3 run after a big moment exiting Turn 13, losing his ‘unbeaten by a team-mate in qualifying’ status around here. He’d been nip and tuck as quick as Hamilton up to that point, but relying on his first Q3 run dropped him down to fifth, pipped by Max Verstappen’s Red Bull, although the latter would be taking a five-place grid penalty for a new engine.
The Red Bull had looked Ferrari-quick on Friday but the track seemed to evolve away from it into Saturday when the car became a bit of a handful, its prodigious front end grip seeming to have a more upsetting effect on the rear. Verstappen spun and had a couple of moments in morning practice while Alex Albon (also taking the engine penalty) crashed out at Turn 13 in Q1, going into the barriers backwards without setting a representative time. He’d start from the pitlane.
At 1.6sec off pole, Carlos Sainz’s McLaren headed ‘Class B’, sixth fastest. The McLarens had been out of balance on Friday and the track evolution seemed to help improve their front-end response. Sainz put his final lap together beautifully and that was all that separated him from team-mate Lando Norris who was a couple of places behind after a scrappier final sector.
The McLarens were split by the Renault of Nico Hülkenberg, who had the edge on team-mate Daniel Ricciardo throughout. The latter was back in 10th over 0.3sec adrift. Unlike Hülkenberg, he’d needed to use an extra set of softs to ensure getting out of Q1 and so was restricted to just one run in Q3.
Romain Grosjean was back in the Melbourne-spec Haas and although he’d generally been slower than Kevin Magnussen’s later-spec car, the latter made a mess of his final Q2 lap, leaving him 14th. Grosjean proceeded to deliver a good Q3 lap to go ninth.
Hülkenberg split the McLarens Photo: Motorsport Images
Both Toro Rossos were taking engine penalties so Pierre Gasly’s 11th-fastest time put him only 16th on the grid. Daniil Kvyat couldn’t even take part in qualifying at his home track as his engine broke on Friday and with a 10-place penalty anyway, there was no point.
Sergio Perez felt that real progress was being made with the Racing Point and but for a moment at Turn Seven would comfortably have made Q3 rather than going 12th fastest. Lance Stroll was 0.3sec and three places behind in the other car.
The Alfas were not working well on this smooth, gripless surface and it was all Antonio Giovinazzi could do to go 13th, never a Q3 contender. Kimi Räikkönen failed to get out of Q1 in 16th, 0.1sec off his team-mate.
George Russell squeezed his habitually good lap from the Williams, just 0.5sec off Räikkönen. Robert Kubica was over 1sec adrift and puzzled about why he was 2km/h slower through the speed trap at the end of the straight despite entering it faster.
Starting third on the grid, Vettel was leading by Turn Two Photo: Motorsport Images
The arrangement at Ferrari was clear, but always open to ambiguity. The idea of an agreement for the start was logical. The run to Turn One is so long that, other things being equal, the car which slipstreams the pole-sitter will be one-and-a-half grid lengths ahead by the time they arrive at Turn Three. Mercedes ran a similar plan to protect their positions last year. But the Ferrari plan this time was slightly different, as Mattia Binotto explained afterwards. “We agreed that Charles would give the slipstream to Seb and then not defend the position [into Turn Three] so as to not allow Hamilton an opportunity. That was the deal. Then Seb would later give the position back.”
It was predicated on Vettel beating Hamilton off the grid from one place behind, but that was actually a fair assumption. He was on the cleaner side of the track, he was on the soft tyres with Hamilton on the mediums and the Ferrari has more power.
Vettel’s getaway was perfect and he was almost instantly past the Mercedes and tight into Leclerc’s slipstream just as planned. Leclerc played his part to perfection too, staying left and allowing Vettel cleanly into the lead into Turn Three. Leclerc tucked in behind his team-mate as they entered the turn ahead of Hamilton, Sainz, Bottas, Norris, Perez, Verstappen, Hülkenberg and Magnussen.
“I would have got him anyway,” Vettel said of his lightning-fast start, which was, in fairness, better than Leclerc’s
In a typical first lap pinch point, Grosjean was pitched hard into the barriers on the approach to Turn Four. He’d been passed by Magnussen and was on the outside of a three-abreast group funnelling into Four. Giovinazzi optimistically made himself the meat in a Grosjean and Ricciardo sandwich and was pincered, his left spinning the Haas into the barriers, his right puncturing the Renault’s rear tyre. Ricciardo limped around with body damage for a new tyre and would later retire, Giovinazzi would later stop for a new nose.
Grosjean climbed from his wrecked car and the safety car was deployed while the whole mess was cleared up. It wasn’t a great first lap for Alfa, as Räikkönen had jumped the start, then stopped just as the race got underway, dropping to the very back and picking up a stop/go penalty into the bargain. The race got underway again as lap four commenced.
Where the Ferrari plan began to unravel was the method by which Vettel would give back the position to Leclerc. It created the tiny sliver of ambiguity needed for competitive will to assert itself. Leclerc was told his team-mate would let him by the next lap. But Seb’s restart lap had been 0.3sec faster than Leclerc’s and he was pulling away. They’d put some daylight between them and the harder-tyred Hamilton, but still, it seemed risky to co-ordinate a switch-around with the Mercedes not so far behind.
Vettel’s initial reaction over the radio on being instructed was revealing: “No, I would have got him anyway,” he said of his lightning-fast start, which was, in fairness, better than Leclerc’s. Probably realising that wasn’t going to wash as a reason to dishonour the agreement he’d made, Vettel then suggested they wait until they’d pulled out more of a gap on the pack before swapping. This was actually eminently sensible, conveniently so for Seb, who continued pushing on. Hard.
Ferrari informed Leclerc of the revised arrangement. “I did as agreed,” objected Leclerc. “You put me behind him. We’ll talk later.”
Vettel stretches his lead ahead of Leclerc Photo: Motorsport Images
It was a tricky situation they’d got themselves into and the ghost of Monza Q3 was hanging around too, unsaid. After the couple of laps Seb had suggested they do before trying the switch, he was almost 1.7sec ahead, with Hamilton by now over 4sec behind Leclerc. The request was put to Seb again. “He’s too far behind,” replied Vettel. “How can I let him by when he’s not here?”
“I tried to stay as close as I possibly could for two or three laps,” explained Leclerc, “but then it was very difficult to follow, especially first and second sector. The tyres overheated and then I dropped back a little bit.”
Perhaps rattled by the situation, Leclerc had been having a few moments, the odd lock up – and Seb had been clean and fast. “He needs to catch up,” the leader suggested. Here was Vettel the hard-edged competitor fighting his corner against the onslaught of time. He wrote that beautiful poem about time to honour the passing of Charlie Whiting. Here he was fighting it tooth and nail. The younger guy with less time in his body had surfed time better than him in qualifying, and has been doing so increasingly often. But that doesn’t mean you surrender to it. The qualities that make someone a champion competitor just won’t allow it. Was there possibly a way Seb could stretch time and allow him not to break the agreement, but to somehow make it impossible to honour? Yes, there just might be.
The Mercedes were simply slower than the Ferraris… The only possible rescue would be if there was a VSC or safety car.
It was lap eight when Vettel was pointing out that Leclerc needed to catch up in order to be let by. Coincidentally, this was the first lap that Hamilton, on his more durable medium tyres, began lapping faster than Leclerc. Hamilton was doing a fantastic job of keeping the pressure on, of not allowing the faster Ferraris to escape completely while their rubber was grippier. “It was like doing qualifying laps every lap,” he related afterwards. “They were much faster than we expected.” He’d pulled himself far, far away from team-mate Bottas who’d taken until the seventh lap to pass Sainz’s McLaren. So as Hamilton began edging into Leclerc’s 3sec margin, Ferrari was forced to abandon for the time being the idea of slowing themselves further with a switch-around.
Mercedes had chosen the mediums to allow them to run longer, to be able to stay out leading for a few laps after the faster Ferraris pitted and hope for a VSC or safety car, which would gift them 10sec at the stops – and might sneak them the win. Furthermore, if Hamilton could apply undercut pressure to Leclerc, then it might force Ferrari to compromise Leclerc’s strategy. At this stage it was looking like Hamilton might unknowingly be helping to make it impossible for Vettel to invert positions with his team-mate.
But actually, the gap stabilised. The softs on the Ferraris were much more durable than Mercedes had reckoned. “Before the race our estimations of whether the soft tyres would last or not, we thought either we’ll be correct or they’ll be correct. And ultimately, I think they were right, because the soft tyre was much stronger than we anticipated,” surmised Hamilton.
On lap eight it looked as if he might be able to get within undercut range of Leclerc in the next four to five laps. Actually, he could only nibble away at the gap and by the 21st lap it was only 2.1sec, with the undercut reckoned to be just under 2sec. This obliged Ferrari to bring Leclerc in for his fresh mediums on the 22nd lap and he was underway again after a 2.5sec stop. He exited 10sec behind Bottas, with Vettel’s lead over Hamilton standing at 6.3sec. Hamilton was closing that down but such had been Vettel’s earlier pace that it wasn’t going to be for a few laps yet that undercut pressure could be applied to him.
Of more concern to Ferrari was Vettel’s gap over Leclerc. With a pit stop costing 24sec, Leclerc had rejoined 28sec behind Vettel but lapping faster courtesy of his fresh tyres. Here was the simple and obvious way to switch positions to align with the pre-race agreement: just leave Vettel out long enough for Leclerc to be less than 24sec behind. Ferrari insisted this wasn’t the motivation for leaving him out for an extra four laps after Leclerc stopped. “No,” said Mattia Binotto. “It was to protect us from the possibility of a safety car coming out with Hamilton leading.” That too was powerfully logical, just like Vettel’s earlier reasoning for not swapping yet. And it was just as conveniently logical for Ferrari, as Vettel’s argument had been for him.
Vettel’s stop was 0.5sec slower than Leclerc’s, but that wasn’t decisive. He exited from the pits many car lengths behind. The switch had been made and Ferrari was set to retain its 1-2, as both would be able to pull out time on the old-tyred Hamilton who after stopping would have rejoined further behind than before the stops. The Mercedes were simply slower than the Ferraris, even in race conditions and that’s how it was set to play out. Mercedes would have run Hamilton as long as possible on the mediums (probably another 15 laps or so) to increase his grip advantage over the Ferraris once onto the new softs, against Ferrari’s mediums. But they’d almost certainly not have got close enough to even try for an overtake before the flag fell. The only possible rescue from that fate would be if there was a VSC or safety car.
Which is exactly what they got. Courtesy of Ferrari itself. On Vettel’s out-lap he lost the MGU-K. Ferrari explained afterwards that it was the symptom of an insulation failure of the ERS system. The car itself was now electrically charged, a potential hazard, and Vettel was instructed to stop the car as he approached Turn 15, only a few hundred metres before the pit lane entrance. “Are you serious?” Vettel asked. He did so and made a radio plea to ‘bring back V12s’. Ferrari insisted it was for reasons of safety it didn’t allow Vettel to bring the car to the pits. We’ve had such situations before in the hybrid era. There is a plug-in allowing for a rubber-gloved operative to discharge the electricity into another battery to render the car safe. But Ferrari decided otherwise.
But that wasn’t the only electrifying thing about Vettel’s performance. His controversial stint bore all the hallmarks of vintage Vettel. He’s not ready to lie down yet.
Spark extinguished: marshals wheel Vettel’s car away Photo: Motorsport Images
It was, though, a disaster for Ferrari. By instructing Vettel to stop the car, they triggered the VSC that would lose Leclerc the race, as Hamilton was able to pit with the field slowed. He’d been running 19sec ahead of Leclerc before the VSC with a 24sec stop still to make. Now that stop would only be 14sec relative to Leclerc – and he emerged in front on his fresh softs. Bottas was brought in from 7sec ahead and so came out still behind the Ferrari. Everyone else who’d yet to pit did so now too. This included Verstappen who had been running a distant fourth after a busy first stint that saw him pass Perez, Norris and Sainz in reasonably quick succession.
The McLarens were ruling Class B after early position-protecting stops that would come to disadvantage them with the advent of the VSC. Sainz retained his place at the head but Norris (and Perez) were jumped by Magnussen as one of those who’d stopped under the VSC.
Hülkenberg’s race came apart at this point. He’d been running tight with Perez after an early stop in which the car had fallen off the front jack. A later stop to attend to a loss of power dropped him further back. The VSC worked well for Albon from his pit lane start in that it bunched the field and brought cars previously out of range within his sights. The Red Bull driver had engaged the Toro Rossos in battle as he made his way through the field, his predecessor Gasly coming back at him several times. Now he was set to rapidly pick off Stroll, Perez and the McLarens.
Still under the VSC, Russell suffered an apparent brake failure in the Williams and slid straight on into the barriers, luckily at quite low speed. The other Williams of Kubica was brought in and retired as a precaution. Russell’s crash brought out a full safety car, which triggered Ferrari into bringing Leclerc in from second, sacrificing track position to Bottas in exchange for being able to swap his seven lap-old mediums for a new set of softs. It was essentially a gamble for the win, surrendering a sure second for the hope that the new rubber would carry him past both Mercedes.
The safety car came in at the end of lap 32, with 21 laps still to go. Hamilton took off into the distance, Bottas concentrated on trying to keep Leclerc behind him. He was able to do so more comfortably than he’d anticipated. The Mercedes’ greater downforce had allowed it to be a faster car than the Ferrari through the tight sector three all weekend – and this was allowing him to pull the gap out to around 1sec by the time they entered the pit straight each lap. Even DRS and the Ferrari’s straightline speed advantage was only buying back that distance by the time they arrived at Turn Three. “I just concentrated on not making any mistakes through the last two corners,” related Bottas. He’s invariably faultless in defence and the longer he kept the Ferrari behind, with Leclerc using up his tyres, the better his chances were.
Hamilton leads while Bottas fends off Leclerc Photo: Motorsport Images
They were running a pace that left the medium-tyred Verstappen well behind, though the Red Bull in turn pulled out distance on the Sainz/Magnussen/Norris/Albon train. Albon picked off the slower cars in some inventive places over the next few laps to claim fifth. His lap times were comparable with Verstappen’s – and in fact got him close enough to prevent Max getting a free pit stop for a set of new tyres and an attack on the fastest lap.
Leclerc was alternately backing off and attacking Bottas, conserving and releasing his extra electrical energy. But Bottas always had him covered. At this point Leclerc thought about the possibility of fastest lap, which at that moment stood to Hamilton at 1min 36.1sec. “I think that time may be possible,” he relayed. No sooner had he said that than Hamilton went around in 1min 35.7sec to put the issue to bed. Leclerc had used his tyres too hard in attacking Bottas to be able to match Hamilton, who’d been able to conserve the rubber.
After being passed by Albon, Norris on his old rubber was a bit of a sitting duck then to Perez. The Racing Point was running strong and Sergio was able to put a move on Magnussen into Turn Three. K Mag went straight on trying to defend and didn’t pass the correct side of the keep left sign as he rejoined, which earned him a 5sec penalty that would later lose him a further place in the official results to Norris. Hülkenberg was being slowed less by his reduced power than Stroll was by his overheated tyres, allowing the Renault to pass for the final point. Sainz was faultless in taking the unofficial Class B honours in sixth, Perez had driven a typically tenacious race to follow him across the line.
Hamilton ultimately cantered to win number 82. “We weren’t confident, but we came through. It feels like it’s been a while [since winning] and this makes it feel like the first time.” It was a win gifted from Ferrari but which would not have happened had he not stayed so relentlessly close to them before the fateful VSC. Leclerc had plenty to reflect on in taking only third on a day when it was all set out in front of him: “I think the trust doesn’t change and we need to trust each other, Seb and myself, because I think it’s usually important for the benefit of the team in some situations to know that you can count on the other car, and vice-versa – I mean in both ways.”
“I think it’s luxury,” said Binotto when asked of the problems of keeping the competitive instincts of his drivers under control within the team. “Because we have two fantastic drivers.” That’s probably not what was being said behind closed doors.
Nostrovia: another Mercedes win in Sochi Photo: Motorsport Images
|1||Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes||1hr 33min 38.992sec||26*|
|4||Max Verstappen||Red Bull||+14.210sec||12|
|5||Alexander Albon||Red Bull||+38.348sec||10|
|7||Sergio Perez||Racing Point||+48.728sec||6|
|11||Lance Stroll||Racing Point||+1min 0.821sec|
|12||Daniil Kvyat||Toro Rosso||+1min 2.496sec|
|13||Kimi Räikkönen||Alfa Romeo||+1min 8.910sec|
|14||Pierre Gasly||Toro Rosso||+1min 10.076sec|
|15||Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo||+1min 13.346sec|
|4||Max Verstappen||Red Bull||212|
|6||Pierre Gasly||Toro Rosso||69|
|8||Alexander Albon||Red Bull||52|
|12||Daniil Kvyat||Toro Rosso||33|
|13||Sergio Perez||Racing Point||33|
|14||Kimi Räikkönen||Alfa Romeo||31|
|16||Lance Stroll||Racing Point||19|
|18||Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo||4|
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