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…
Lewis Hamilton dominated the 2019 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, taking pole position, fastest lap and victory to bring the season to a close
Photo: Motorsport Images
Lewis Hamilton’s race win was never in doubt in a Mercedes that enjoyed its habitual big margin of superiority at Abu Dhabi. In six years, the team has yet to lose a race here or fail to lock out the front row. There’s something in its team cars’ DNA that allows them to be super-good at keeping their rear tyre temperatures under control in sector three and at changing direction there.
So Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari – with a cloud hanging over it after the FIA found before the race in a random check that the team had declared a significantly smaller fuel load to what was actually in the car – chased for a while, but in a forlorn way.
He’d used the Ferrari’s straightline speed advantage to zap past Max Verstappen’s Red Bull on the first lap but he was never really in a position to hold onto it over the race, Ferrari bringing him in early to keep track position but in the almost certain knowledge that early stop was going to lose it the place later.
In the end they had to convert him to a two-stop just to have a chance of holding off the back of-the-grid-starting Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas for third. Without the 5sec of race time that the lack of DRS for 16 laps cost Bottas in his charge through the field, he’d almost certainly have made the podium.
Bottas struggled to pass Hülkenberg without DRS Photo: Motorsport Images
Even without having to spend the first stint behind the Ferrari, or without the Honda mapping glitch that afflicted the car after its pit stop and for the rest of the race, the Red Bull didn’t have the stuff of the Mercedes around here. “It wouldn’t have made the difference,” admitted Verstappen of the advantage enjoyed by Hamilton.
A crashed server in race control meant the race had to do without DRS for the first 16 laps – and this had an effect on the strategy through the field, as cars on fresh tyres were taking much longer than usual to get past old-tyred cars.
Sebastian Vettel, on a transposed tyre strategy to all the other top three cars, was switched to a two-stop but only to make it more certain that he could beat Alex Albon. It was plain long before that he was going to lose out to Bottas for fourth, especially after the latter was given a big qualifying engine mode on his new engine for many consecutive laps.
A long way behind, the ‘Class B’ battle was a cracker, initially between the McLaren and Renault teams but with Sergio Perez eventually taking a Racing Point bulldozer to their strategies to pull a beautiful last-lap move on Lando Norris for best of the rest.
Hamilton celebrates taking pole Photo: Motorsport Images
There wasn’t much to touch a Mercedes around Abu Dhabi as soon as the wheels began turning. The Ferrari’s lower drag would tend to put it ahead in the first sector but its downforce shortfall and hot tyres in sector three left it well adrift over the lap. The Red Bull’s spread of performance was more like the Merc’s but not quite as aggressively grippy in the slow turns of the final sector.
So it was always going to be about Lewis Hamilton vs Valtteri Bottas, with the latter having the benefit of a brand new engine (his second of the weekend after the original new unit sprang a pneumatic leak on Friday) but the certainty of starting at the back. Mercedes let him run a full-on Q3 regardless and the contest was a close one.
Hamilton had been talking in the lead-up about how he was using this weekend to experiment with a few techniques with this car that put him in an unnatural place and which he’d been avoiding as he chased the title. He seemed to have got some way to feeling more comfortable as he put two near-faultless Q3 laps together, the final one sealing him pole number 88, but only his fifth of the season.
Bottas, second fastest, was just under two tenths shy but conceded that, “Lewis was going just a bit too quick.” He’d given his mechanics some work to do on Friday evening after clashing in FP2 with Romain Grosjean in a territorial misunderstanding. “I think in the end I was just slightly off with my set up,” he considered of what is always a tricky conundrum given the rapidly falling track temperatures at dusk. “I felt more comfortable in the car yesterday.”
This was the sixth consecutive front-row lockout for Mercedes at this venue.
Bottas second quickest but started from the back Photo: Motorsport Images
Max Verstappen: “They were just very, very fast in that last sector, especially the off-camber corners.” His best, good for third-fastest, was 0.3sec off Hamilton, and he reckoned there wasn’t much more to squeeze from the Red Bull.
Alex Albon was 0.5sec off his team-mate, in sixth, and not improving on his first Q3 time – and not happy. He described his performance as “average”. Getting the tyres to be up to temperature by the start of the lap but not too hot by sector three was the usual tricky conundrum at this track and both Red Bull drivers were seen to be weaving heavily on their out-laps. Like the Mercedes cars and Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari, both Red Bulls got through Q2 on the medium tyre.
The Ferraris were stubbornly unable to keep the soft tyres from overheating by the final sector, no matter how gently they were treated on the out-lap. In fact, it was in trying to be super-gentle that Vettel spun on an out-lap, the rears too cool as he rounded the final corner to begin the flying lap. No harm was done, but he continued trying to find a way of unlocking the soft’s theoretically better potential into Q2 – and never did find that sweet spot.
Doing both his Q2 runs on the soft (Leclerc did his first on the soft but set a better time subsequently on the medium and would therefore start the race on that tyre) seemed a strange choice for Seb when it had shown such big degradation in the Friday long runs, but he believed its greater startline and lap one performance might offer him his best hope for race day.
Ferrari left it too late for final Q3 run Photo: Motorsport Images
But it was in Q3 that things got dramatic at Ferrari, specifically going into the final runs. Leclerc had qualified marginally faster on the first, albeit around 0.4sec off Hamilton. In order to get the maximum from the track, Ferrari left it until as late as possible to send both cars out, Vettel ahead, at the back of the queue with the seconds ticking down.
It was like a miniature version of Monza Q3 as the pack backed off albeit for different reasons this time. Vettel slowed to make a gap to Albon in front who in turn was doing the same to Bottas ahead of him. It all meant that Leclerc didn’t get to the line in time before the chequer came out.
In Vettel’s subsequent lap, a big cold-tyre moment at Turn One meant he still didn’t beat Leclerc’s first run, putting them fourth and fifth before Bottas’ penalty. “We knew it would be tight and we were well aware of the risk we were taking,” said Mattia Binotto, “but we had to take it.”
McLaren was best of the rest, with Lando Norris in seventh. He’d trailed team-mate Carlos Sainz throughout but the latter was compromised in traffic on his out lap and thus started his only new-tyre Q3 lap on cold tyres. This left him ninth. If he’d repeated his Q2 time he’d have been ahead of Norris. Hindsight says that he need not have made that second Q2 run as his first would have got him through – and then he’d have had the benefit of two new-tyre Q3 runs. But it would have been a gamble.
Renaults sat alongside McLarens on the fourth and fifth rows of the grid Photo: Motorsport Images
Sandwiching Sainz were the Renaults of Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hülkenberg, separated by 0.3sec in the latter’s final race for the team. The RS19s had been a handful in the dusk of Friday second practice and the team did a great job in understanding the tricky variables to bring a decent chassis balance on the cooling track in the equivalent Saturday session.
Sergio Perez was looking good in the Racing Point after his first Q2 run and a contender for Q3, but that tricky tyre temperature juggling act caught him out on his final Q2 attempt, as he suffered a big oversteer moment at Turn One, ruining the lap before it had barely started and leaving him 11th. This was just a tenth or so faster than team-mate Lance Stroll who was a couple of places back.
Neither Toro Rosso driver quite found the key to the tyre temperature puzzle, leaving Pierre Gasly and Daniil Kvyat 12th and 14th. Kevin Magnussen in the standard spec Haas throughout couldn’t better 15th but he’d gone 0.3sec quicker in Q1 than Romain Grosjean who thus lined up only 16th. On Friday, Grosjean had been running an updated aero spec with which he was very happy and looking like a top 10 contender but the new parts were destroyed in his practice crash with Bottas.
Alfa Romeo seemed to hit the track a little too early on their final Q1 runs, leaving both Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Räikkönen mired down in 17th and 18th, only a few tenths faster than the Williams of George Russell who completed a clean seasonal sweep of qualifying over Robert Kubica in the latter’s likely farewell F1 appearance.
Lights out for the final race of the season Photo: Motorsport Images
With daylight in its last throes, Hamilton burst away from pole unchallenged by Verstappen, the two Ferraris (Leclerc ahead), Albon, the McLarens, Renaults, Magnussen and Perez.
Just behind there, Stroll oversteered into the nose of Gasly, who hit Perez a glancing blow. The latter just about got away with it but Gasly’s race was ruined by having to pit for a new nose at the end of the lap which took an age to attach. Stroll in his damaged car later retired for reasons believed to be associated with the impact.
Each 90-degree corner the silver car disappeared further out of Leclerc’s sight
Behind the Racing Points were the Alfas (Giovinazzi ahead) and – by the end of the lap – Bottas, then Kvyat, Grosjean and the Williams pair, with Kubica passing team-mate Russell on the first lap, as he often has done in the latter part of the year. Russell tried to retaliate at Turn Five but made contact with the other Williams, inflicting some bodywork damage on the Kubica car, which nonetheless stayed ahead.
Up the first back straight, Leclerc powered his Ferrari cleanly past Verstappen and could even hold Hamilton in view for a couple of corners. But then came sector three, where the Ferrari was pretty awful all weekend and the Mercedes was superb. Each 90-degree corner the silver car disappeared further out of Leclerc’s sight. Hamilton crossed the line already 1.6sec ahead and would edge it out by around half-a-second per lap for the next few.
Verstappen had to get his elbows out to fend off the soft-tyred Vettel on the first lap but thereafter pulled himself clear and would spend his first stint just keeping out of Leclerc’s turbulence zone, ready to get close enough to apply undercut pressure as the pit stop window opened later on.
Hamilton leads as Vettel attacks Verstappen on the first lap Photo: Motorsport Images
For those starting on the medium – ie all the cars of the top three teams apart from Vettel’s – it looked likely to be a comfortable enough one-stop. That strategy was followed by pretty much all those who hadn’t made Q3. This would penalise those who’d made Q3 but had used softs to do so (the McLarens and Renaults) and were therefore obliged to start on them. Perez, starting 10th after Bottas’ penalty, was on the mediums, with Kvyat’s Toro Rosso on the hards. They’d both be causing havoc among the McLarens and Renaults by the end.
The first hint of Verstappen’s engine problem came on around the sixth lap, with a slight power loss that led the team to instruct him to go up a mode in compensation. Bottas by this time was making his way through the backmarkers and lower midfield but taking a little longer to do it than if he’d had DRS. Most of his moves were coming into the first chicane – Turns Eight/NIne – after slipstreaming up the back straight.
By the 10th lap he was up with the very tight-packed McLaren/Renault group which was led by Norris from Sainz, Ricciardo and Hulkenberg. With a pace advantage of over 1sec a lap, Bottas would get through them soon enough – and then his evening’s real work would begin, with the sky black now and the floodlights taking over fully.
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Some way behind the McLaren/Renault struggle, Perez had passed Magnussen after a few laps, leaving the Haas to be pressed by Räikkönen once Giovinazzi had pitted early. After a time Räikkönen’s tyres would be past their best and this was costing Kvyat, on his hards right behind, serious time loss, unable to pass without DRS.
Albon was keeping Vettel in sight but not going at anything like Verstappen’s pace. “I don’t feel very at home with this car in these short 90-deg corners,” he said afterwards. “It’s a bit like the last sector at Sochi, where I was also losing time. I’m looking forward to understanding what I need to do in the tests here this week.” He was also being careful to drive to the tyres, assuming he needed a long first stint to make the one-stop strategy work.
Grosjean blocked McLarens as Hülkenberg sped on Photo: Motorsport Images
In ‘Class B’ Norris locked up on the eighth lap, flat-spotting his tyres – and he made his first stop prematurely early. This put Sainz at the head of that queue but with undercut pressure from Ricciardo, he came in at the end of lap 11, with Daniel following the next lap. This allowed Hulk, without undercut pressure, to stay out for a lot longer – and this is where the lack of DRS really came to his aid. The Norris/Ricciardo/Sainz group had exited behind the slower, old-tyred Haas of Grosjean and without DRS were unable to pass it. So their new-tyre pace was being artificially restricted as Hulk kept his old softs going remarkably long.
Vettel’s soft tyres were also hanging on much better than they had on Friday and even as the pit stop window began to open from around the 11th lap, he was less than 5sec adrift of Verstappen and lapping only slightly slower than the tougher-tyred Leclerc.
Hamilton had the illusion from the car that he was out there on his own, no other cars in his field of vision
Verstappen kept himself on the back of Leclerc as that window opened and the Ferrari didn’t have the pace in hand to pull itself clear. Ferrari needed to respond to keep track position and he was brought in at the end of the 12th lap. But this decision was made complicated by the fact that Vettel’s softs were now falling away and he needed to be brought in soon too. The solution – because the Ferraris were sufficiently spaced – was a double-stack stop. There was a problem with the left-front of Vettel’s car and the wheel had to be forced on, this costing him around 4.5sec.
At the moment that Vettel pitted, Albon had not really been within range of the Ferrari. But with Vettel’s delay, now he was. There was a real chance and Albon was instructed to give it everything on his in-lap, on lap 13. The in-lap was round 0.5sec faster than Vettel’s had been (but slower than Leclerc’s), the stop was reasonable, as his hard tyres were fitted in 2.8sec. But he exited just behind Vettel – so the early stop and the compromises that would later impose on Albon’s race had been for nothing. Temptation had extracted a price.
He and both Ferraris were now on hard tyres, theoretically durable enough for the remaining 43 laps. But not at any great pace.
Vettel had come out behind Bottas and briefly gained on the Mercedes as Valtteri was temporarily stuck behind Hülkenberg and without DRS to combat the Renault’s strong straightline speed. On tyres 12 laps newer, Vettel even took a look at the Mercedes into the Turn Eight chicane. But as soon as Hulk pitted out the way, Bottas was able to easily pull clear of the Ferrari regardless.
As Leclerc pitted, Verstappen pressed on but was 9sec adrift of the leader and with no real prospect of eating into that gap. His race was already about working out whether, on his still-healthy mediums, he could pull a pit stop’s-worth of gap over Leclerc – or whether he’d have to pass it later on-track, using what would be a significant tyre advantage.
Hamilton out on his own Photo: Motorsport Images
Hamilton’s evening was passing by in a blur of braking points and apexes, giving the illusion from the car that he was out there on his own, no other cars in his field of vision. “I definitely wasn’t expecting to have that extent of pace advantage,” he related afterwards. “Our long-run pace [on Friday] was quite good and I was told that we might be a tenth or two ahead but then in the race we had a bit more of an advantage than that. Once I got out in the clear I was able to manage my pace pretty well in that first stint and manage the tyres. I just had to go as long, basically, as Max was going.”
Hülkenberg was able to keep going on his softs until the moment the DRS was back on line. This was lap 17. A lap later, he pitted. Had he done it a lap earlier, he’d have overcut himself into the lead of the group. As it was, he emerged just behind Sainz and was then able to use his softer tyres (he’d gone onto mediums) to help slipstream himself past the McLaren up to the first chicane – with the help of DRS. Sainz tried to retaliate a lap later but over-committed, running wide onto the run-off and obliged to give the place back.
So with that ‘Class B’ battle running in the order of Norris/Hulkenberg/Sainz/Ricciardo, the yet-to-stop Perez on his mediums was running 16sec ahead but needing to extend that to 21sec if he was to leapfrog ahead. Out on his own, he proceeded to put in a remarkable stint, typically Perez in its combination of pace and tyre usage.
He was followed around 10sec back by the other long-runner, Kvyat, whose pace was also holding up extremely well. Magnussen ran a few seconds behind the tail of the McLaren/Renault battle ahead of Räikkönen, Grosjean and Kubica, who was running well despite his Russell-inflicted first lap damage, keeping behind him Giovinazzi whose early stop gamble had failed.
The Alfa took a lunge at the Williams at the first chicane on lap 23 and they hit quite heavily, side-on. It was a clumsy bit of driving from Giovinazzi who finally made the move stick the following lap but it had damaged Kubica’s car extensively. He made his stop a couple of laps later but his compromised pace thereafter allowed Russell to come from behind and pass easily.
Contact in the battle for 15th Photo: Motorsport Images
Verstappen couldn’t get the required gap over the newer-tyred Leclerc to get a pit stop on it. As his tyres finally began giving out, he fell short of the 21sec needed by around 5sec. He pitted on the 25th lap for his hards and rejoined 5sec behind the Ferrari but on tyres 13 laps newer, he was catching it quickly. Mercedes brought in Hamilton the next lap and he rejoined without losing the lead, on new hards and over 7sec clear of Leclerc.
Verstappen was fastest man on track as he chased down the number 16 Ferrari. He had taken over this role from Bottas, who finally made his stop in the 29th lap, once he’d comfortably got enough of a gap over the yet-to-pit Perez to clear the Racing Point upon rejoining. Valtteri was running sixth but with enough of a pace advantage over the older-tyred Albon and Vettel ahead of him that he was comfortably going to catch and pass them.
Although Verstappen was lapping quickly, he was complaining of a ‘massive hole in the torque curve at part-throttle’ ever since his pit stop. Yes they could see it, the team informed him, but there was nothing they could do about it. He adjusted his driving as best he could and continued to close down on Leclerc’s second place.
He finally nailed the Ferrari at the chicane, with a bit of DRS help, on lap 32. Leclerc briefly reprised Austria and Silverstone by going wheel-to-wheel with the Red Bull up to the following Turn 11, trying for the outside. But Verstappen gave him nothing, and that was that. The pair were now in what was their natural performance order on this day.
Verstappen takes second place from Leclerc Photo: Motorsport Images
“What about Plan C?” suggested Leclerc after watching the Red Bull pull away. This involved ditching his old tyres and switching to the brand new set of softs he’d saved by doing his second Q2 run on mediums the day before. They said they’d look at it. “Plan C, Plan C,” he urged. It was perhaps a little early to go for softs with 20-odd laps still to go, especially for the often-conservative Ferrari pitwall. But on low fuel, they’d surely be fine. Hulk had got his to last 18 laps when on a first stint fuel load, after all. They waited until the 38th lap to bring him in for that second stop. In the five laps since being passed by Verstappen he’d lost 7sec to him.
Vettel was thinking along similar lines. He was still a few seconds clear of Albon and seemed to have him under control but Bottas was closing fast on them both. Before the Mercedes had quite reached them, Ferrari acquiesced to Vettel’s wishes and brought him in. This was on the same lap that Leclerc had just pitted, entailing another double-stack stop. This one went rather more smoothly, Vettel’s mediums fitted in 2.7sec.
He exited as, 20sec up ahead of him, Bottas easily passed the old-tyred Albon into the chicane and charged onwards, closing the 2sec gap to Leclerc. At this point Bottas was allowed to use mode two, a qualifying mode normally used for one lap at a time. But with nothing to lose and a new engine that didn’t need to be saved, he was allowed to run it for a few consecutive laps. The gap to Leclerc came down but, thus alerted, Ferrari gave Leclerc a big mode too and the gap stabilised.
Vettel got his head down for the final 17 laps and caught up the big deficit to the older-tyred Albon, going past him for fifth place with two laps to go into Turn 11 after Albon had aggressively held him off down the straight. Alex had been caught between two stools strategically but was not satisfied with his performance.
Sergio Perez produced a standout drive Photo: Motorsport Images
After a remarkable stint, Perez had finally come in to be rid of his original mediums at the end of lap 37. This put him out on fresh hards just a couple of seconds behind the tail of the ongoing McLaren/Renault struggle. But they were all on much older and slower tyres, prizes just waiting to be plucked.
Four laps later he picked off Ricciardo into the chicane and as the Racing Point’s threat became very apparent, so Sainz surrendered his place in the queue behind Norris/Hülkenberg – and made a second stop, for a set of softs.
Two laps later Ricciardo did the same, but that delay had lost him the place he’d earlier gained over Sainz. This left Perez chasing down Hülkenberg. He took a look at the outside of Turn 11 with 10 laps to go but couldn’t quite make it work. It was just a matter of time, though, and he finally nailed the move at the first chicane the following lap. Next in Perez’s sights, the ‘Class B’ leader Norris’ seventh place.
Kvyat had stopped three laps after Perez and he too was on a late charge, chasing Hülkenberg and bringing Sainz with him. The Toro Rosso, front wing endplates sparking, went by the Renault into Turn 11 with five laps to go. This was as Perez was relentlessly hunting down Norris. As the one- and two-stop strategies converged on the final lap, this is where all the thrills were. Hamilton was taking the flag and the fireworks salute as these lower battles were still being settled.
Perez pulled off a beautiful move on Norris around the outside of Turn 11 to take seventh – and just Racing Point’s second ‘Class B’ win of the season. It was a wonderful drive. Norris was very dispirited about it all afterwards, very hard on himself. “I was just too polite. I’d been driving a very different sort of race, trying to look after my tyres on the one-stop, just eking everything out. But I needed to have switched into a different mode as Perez came at me and I shouldn’t have let that place go. Very disappointed.”
Sainz got by Hülkenberg at the very same corner a few seconds later for the final point, one which clinched him sixth place (over Gasly) in the drivers’ championship. In taking advantage of Hulk’s lost momentum, team-mate Ricciardo rubbed in the misery by also passing him.
Hamilton’s winning margin over Verstappen was just under 17sec but it could’ve been more. His fastest lap was 0.5sec faster than Bottas’ despite just a race engine mode, just underlining his dominance.
Leclerc’s podium was as much as could’ve been asked of a Ferrari around here and the team was doubtless relieved just to be fined $50,000 for the fuel load offence. An extra 4.88kg (5% of the maximum) was found to have been in the car which, in a fuel-limited formula, is worth lap time. Without his delays behind Hülkenberg because of the lack of DRS, Bottas wasn’t quite able to make the podium, but it still wasn’t a bad result from last on the grid. Vettel and Albon were never really factors.
The fireworks lit up the night sky, the boats in the harbour pumped up their music – and the 2019 season partied to a close.
Photo: Motorsport Images
|1||Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes||1hr 34min 05.715sec||26*|
|2||Max Verstappen||Red Bull||+16.772sec||18|
|5||Sebastian Vettel||Ferrari||+1min 04.357sec||10|
|6||Alex Albon||Red Bull||+1min 09.205sec||8|
|7||Sergio Perez||Racing Point||+1 lap||6|
|8||Lando Norris||McLaren||+1 lap||4|
|9||Daniil Kvyat||Toro Rosso||+1 lap||2|
|10||Carlos Sainz||McLaren||+1 lap||1|
|11||Daniel Ricciardo||Renault||+1 lap|
|12||Nico Hulkenberg||Renault||+1 lap|
|13||Kimi Räikkönen||Alfa Romeo||+1 lap|
|14||Kevin Magnussen||Haas||+1 lap|
|15||Romain Grosjean||Haas||+1 lap|
|16||Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo||+1 lap|
|17||George Russell||Williams||+1 lap|
|18||Pierre Gasly||Toro Rosso||+2 laps|
|19||Robert Kubica||Williams||+2 laps|
|DNF||Lance Stroll||Racing Point|
*Includes point for fastest lap
|3||Max Verstappen||Red Bull||278|
|7||Pierre Gasly||Toro Rosso||95|
|8||Alex Albon||Red Bull||92|
|10||Sergio Perez||Racing Point||52|
|12||Kimi Räikkönen||Alfa Romeo||43|
|13||Daniil Kvyat||Toro Rosso||37|
|15||Lance Stroll||Racing Point||21|
|17||Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo||14|
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