MPH: The technical battles raging on behind-the-scenes in Formula 1
Amid the flurry of nine grands prix in 11 weekends, there have been a few developments in the regulations and as we catch a rare pause for breath before next…
The points table might have said there was nothing at stake in this season finale, but for Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton there was a psychological war to be won or lost. And – as befits the man in form – it was Rosberg who won it, to head into the off-season as a driver who beat his team-mate for the last three consecutive races, the pole-sitter for the last six.
This was arguably the most convincing of all his recent wins – and essentially it was won in resounding fashion during qualifying. Rosberg’s recent form had pushed Hamilton into trying something different on set-up but that only seemed to increase Rosberg’s advantage. So once Nico had won the start, pulled out a decent gap, Lewis’s last remaining hope was a strategic one. His was the quicker Mercedes in the second stint – and he made his tyres last better. So that put in place an intriguing possibility.
On this occasion Mercedes was happy to let him go with it, to try to get that middle stint to be 10 laps longer so that he’d be on tyres calculated to be 0.8-1sec faster than Rosberg’s for the last 14 laps – the calculated minimum required to be able to overtake here. Before he got to try that, however, he came up with an alternative strategy of his own. Just as in Mexico, he began to ponder about what would happen if he just didn’t make that second stop, if he just stayed out there leading after Rosberg had pitted. Could he steal this win, using strategy to do what his qualifying pace had failed to?
Would it have been possible on tyres that had been on since lap 11? It was on lap 39 that he asked the question, with 16 still to go, his lead just under 12sec. “If I backed off now, how much would I lose?”
“Virtually impossible,” he was told by his race engineer Pete Bonnington. “Just give me the numbers,” responded Lewis. “It’s not even worth doing the calculation,” was the decisive end to that discussion.
Later the calculation showed that he would have lost the lead on around lap 46, nine from the end, on tyres around 2.5sec slower than Rosberg’s; he would have been a sitting duck, even around this place. Furthermore, they’d have been in real danger of falling off the cliff in terms of rear heat degradation, to an extent that may even have made him vulnerable to Kimi Räikkönen’s third-place Ferrari.
So Hamilton duly came in for his second stop, 10 laps after Rosberg had made his. “I just did as I was told, pretty much,” he said. “I’m not sure whether or not I could’ve taken it to the end. But some part of me wishes I could just have given it a go.”
Who knows how faithfully theoretical analysis and driver-feel reality would have overlapped? But still, the possibility of victory was not yet extinguished. For a few laps of his final stint Hamilton was on schedule to make the outcome hang in the balance – just as the strategists had predicted. But then he seemed to surrender, as if mentally exhausted, bewildered at how his could be happening, panicking at how distant Rosberg seemed to be.
At which point, with just four laps to go, Rosberg nailed one of his fastest laps of the race. Just to show how it probably would have been even had Hamilton not surrendered.
Rosberg’s pole lap was a beauty and his run of form is now feeding upon itself, for not only was he oozing confidence, but it had triggered Hamilton to make a key change to his car coming into this weekend, one that backfired on him. Hamilton had chosen to discard the usual heave-spring/damper across the front suspension for an older spec version that he felt might have given him the balance and response he sought for the slow turns of the final sector.
The change just increased the gap between them and Rosberg’s sixth consecutive pole wasn’t even close, achieved by the margin of 0.377sec. Most of that came in the final sector, the sequence of short, sharp direction changes that used to be Hamilton’s personal territory. Not this weekend. Nico had the edge throughout as Lewis repeatedly locked his front tyres trying to shave the margins at a time when Rosberg was calm, confident, composed.
Hamilton had led the way in Q1 and Q2, but only as he sought to establish those unresolved braking limits at a stage where Rosberg was only doing enough to get through to Q3. Once there he gave a full display of what he’d been keeping in hand throughout. His first Q3 run was a good banker lap, his second close to perfection, his pace running Hamilton literally ragged. It was a beautiful lap and he was understandably elated: “I haven’t done a lap like that very often in my career. That was pretty cool.”
Rosberg seems to have been less affected by Pirelli’s increase of the minimum tyre pressures post-Spa, especially on slow corners. His driving style through such turns is less dependent upon aggressively grippy response from the front end upon turn-in. The way Mercedes has had to respond to that change post-Singapore in terms of its set up has perhaps hurt Hamilton. Certainly, he believes so. Others – even within the team – are less sure about that. The re-think on set-up after the disaster of Singapore has been fundamental. Rosberg has been leaving no stone unturned in understanding the full implications of those changes…
So coming into the weekend off the back of Rosberg’s recent advantage, Hamilton wanted to try something different. “[The problem] has been there for a little while now,” he said. “It gets a little better in the race [than in qualifying]. I was more comfortable in the beginning of the year. Coming into this weekend I tried to make some changes and took something off the car trying to get around it – but it’s maybe not helped me here.”
The Merc front suspension is hydraulically linked side-to-side and this is very effective at keeping the inner wheel planted on the ground, which is normally a good thing. But sometimes the momentary lifting of the inner wheel – transferring all the cornering load to the outer tyre – causes the outer tyre to load up more quickly, giving sharper initial response. This was what Hamilton was trying to achieve by reverting to the previous spec heave spring/damper across the suspension. But instead, before he even got that far into the corners, that lesser loaded inner wheel was prematurely locking up under Hamilton’s heavy braking. His practice sessions were punctuated by lock-ups and even a spin. Having not been allowed to ‘go freelance’ on strategy, he’d done it on set-up instead – and it had worked against him.
“There was a component that’s in theory worth about a tenth-and-a-half,” he explained, “but it’s something I wasn’t really thinking was working for me, so I took it off. I tried something different and it didn’t work. I was anticipating a slight loss in car performance – I tried to get around that loss and tried to claw it back in some other ways of doing the set-up, so it was about exploring this weekend.”
As usual, the Mercs were finding less than everyone else from the super-softs. Typically the option tyre’s advantage over the prime was around 1.5-1.6sec. On the Mercs it was more like 0.7-0.8sec. But with the main competition being Ferrari, Mercedes could continue to rely on its more aggressive qualifying engine mode to maintain its margin as more than comfortable.
The best non-Merc was Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari at three quarters of a second slower than Rosberg’s pole. That probably flattered the Merc’s advantage slightly – as even Kimi admitted that the lap “still was slower than what the car could have done around here.” He was another not entirely happy with his braking performance – but all weekend he’d looked to have a small edge over team-mate Sebastian Vettel. Disastrously, Seb failed to make it through Q1 after the team misjudged how much improvement over his prime-tyred lap he’d need to make to ensure qualification to Q2. Essentially they misjudged how much faster Felipe Nasr’s Sauber was going to go on its final lap. So Seb aborted his option-tyred lap four corners in, leaving him 16th.
Sergio Pérez pushed Räikkönen hard for third on the grid, only losing out by three hundredths of a second. He had the Force India into a great consistent groove around here and the Mercedes power modes helped him do the rest. “The analysis we carried out after the weekend in São Paulo has really paid off and we’ve learned a huge amount about the car,” explained Pérez. “It’s a shame that tomorrow is the final race of the season because the car is working so well.”
Team-mate Nico Hülkenberg had not followed the same set up direction and was much less happy at a full second slower, back in seventh.
The Red Bull was dynamite through the twists of sector three – or that of Daniel Ricciardo’s, at least – and was only slower through there than Rosberg. But down the long straights of the rest of the lap the Renault engine/high drag combination was breathless. The upgraded engine in the car at Brazil had been replaced by the standard motor here. Ricciardo was fifth quickest, albeit a significant few tenths adrift of Pérez. Daniil Kvyat missed most of Saturday morning practice to a wastegate problem, but had not been gelling that well with the place even prior to that. He needed all the available super-softs to get to Q3 and so was restricted to just a run on the single set you are allocated for Q3 only. That lap that was half-a-second adrift of Ricciardo’s and good only for ninth.
Although the Williams were comfortably fastest at the end of the long straights, they were not getting their front ends into the turns anything like as well as last year, unable to generate the front tyre temperature in time. This was putting them at the wrong part of the track as the power went down, and thence further time loss through power sliding. It all left Valtteri Bottas sixth and Felipe Massa eighth.
The remaining Q3 qualifier was the Toro Rosso of Carlos Sainz, a good outcome after repeated electrical problems with his power unit through Friday. He just managed to edge team-mate Max Verstappen out of Q3, leaving the Toro Rossos 10th and 11th.
Jenson Button’s McLaren was only a tenth adrift of Verstappen, in 12th, and might have been joined there by the sister car had Fernando Alonso not suffered a punctured left-rear tyre on his final Q1 lap, leaving him 17th. Button was delighted with his lap – 1.8sec off the Mercs – and frustrated, for the purposes of comparison, that Alonso wasn’t taking part in the session.
Pastor Maldonado’s Lotus was a couple of tenths adrift of Button in 13th. This was only the second time all season he’d out-qualified team-mate Romain Grosjean – though it wasn’t a straight comparison. On his final appearance for the team Grosjean didn’t get to complete a lap in Q2, the car stopping with a gearbox failure, leaving him 15th. The replacement of the gearbox gave him a five-place grid penalty.
Felipe Nasr got his Sauber through to Q2 where he went 14th, Marcus Ericsson was mired in Q1, 18th after being forced to abort his final attempt with a power unit glitch. Will Stevens comfortably out-qualified Manor team mate Roberto Merhi who flat-spotted and just wasn’t at one with the circuit at all. For the race they would re-think the set-up completely, which entailed taking the car out of parc fermé and starting from the pitlane.
As 5.00pm approached the cars sat on the grid of this oasis of glitz carved out of desert scree and dollars. It’s an undeniably impressive sight, glamour in the oncoming dusk, the sun preparing to leave, the shadows already long. New neon-lit units along the pitwall showing each driver where to line up were a new feature just adding to the twinkle. Mechanics protectively stood around their machines, drivers just disembodied helmets ensconced cosy inside. The pageant of it all, the clear-the-grid horn – jacks, cameras, tyre blankets, generators, tools all gathered up by the worker bees, leaving just the gladiators beneath the floodlights – then the limbering-up formation lap, shadow boxing on wheels. It all works.
Rosberg got a way better start than Hamilton and a crucial piece of his weekend slotted perfectly into place as he surged through the fast left-hand sweep on a perfect trajectory, no need to defend. Hamilton’s slow getaway forced him to chop across Pérez’s fast-accelerating Force India, Sergio forced to lift momentarily – enough to cost him momentum to Räikkönen’s Ferrari, Kimi prevailing as they turned in, third and fourth. Towards the back, Alonso came across on Nasr, the Sauber’s front wheels rubbing alongside the McLaren’s rears, cannoning Alonso into taking out Maldonado’s Lotus. Vettel narrowly missed getting involved and used his momentum to make up a couple more places. Maldonado was out, Alonso got going again, pitted for a new nose and would later take a drive-through penalty, all rather ruining his day. Nasr’s wing endplates were damaged and he would be an early pitter on lap four for a new nose.
Rosberg ran away into the night, Hamilton, Räikkönen and Pérez equally spaced behind. Hülkenberg was initially up with his team-mate but couldn’t hold onto that pace without damaging his front tyres and so he’d soon be falling back into Daniel Ricciardo’s clutches, protected from it only by the Force India’s much greater end-of-straight speed.
Just behind Daniel was a lively old first lap scrap featuring Kvyat’s Red Bull, Massa’s Williams, Sainz’s Toro Rosso, Bottas’s Williams and Verstappen’s Toro Rosso. Sainz swept around the outside of the Williams pair through turn three to take up station behind Ricciardo and Kvyat as they braked down from eighth gear to second for the tight left-right of turns five-six. Kvyat was protecting the inside line into there from Sainz but got hung out to dry over the turn six exit kerbs for his trouble, putting him on a disadvantageous bit of track as they all scrabbled around the hairpin of seven. Sainz got a much cleaner run out of there to sweep decisively by, leaving Kvyat to be out-accelerated by Massa, Verstappen hard on their heels.
1 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1hr 38min 30.175sec
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes +8.271sec
3 Kimi Räikkönen Ferrari +19.430sec
4 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari +43.735sec
5 Sergio Pérez Force India +1min 03.952sec
6 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull +1min 05.010sec
7 Nico Hülkenberg Force India +1min 33.618sec
8 Felipe Massa Williams +1min 37.751sec
9 Romain Grosjean Lotus +1min 38.201sec
10 Daniil Kvyat Red Bull +1min 42.371sec
11 Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso +1min 43.525sec
12 Jenson Button McLaren +1 lap
13 Valtteri Bottas Williams +1 lap
14 Marcus Ericsson Sauber +1 lap
15 Felipe Nasr Sauber +1 lap
16 Max Verstappen Toro Rosso +1 lap
17 Fernando Alonso McLaren +2 laps
18 Will Stevens Marussia +2 laps
19 Roberto Merhi Marussia +3 laps
DNF Pastor Maldonado Lotus
They were joined by Button and Vettel and they arrived at the end of the straight into the tight chicane of eight-nine as single lump of seven cars. They exited in the order of Sainz, Massa, Kvyat, Verstappen, Bottas, Vettel and Button. Max made an out-braking attempt on Kvyat into the tight left of 11 at the end of the straight, locked up and had to take to the run-off area, allowing Bottas to nip by him.
Undertray sparks spat high into the air as cars heavily laden with fuel ground out over the bumps. Rosberg crossed the start/finish line at the end of the lap already 1.4sec clear of Hamilton. So that first stint was laid out for everyone; ever-increasing dusk between the two Mercs, Räikkönen, Pérez and Hülkenberg then a tight Red Bull/Williams/Toro Rosso fight. Only then came the first of those – Vettel – to start on the prime tyre.
All but five cars at the back had started on the super-soft tyre. It was set to have a short life as the fronts grained quickly away. Initially over 1sec faster than the soft prime tyre, it became slower around six laps in. The optimum strategy was a two-stop, the soft being plenty durable enough to make that feasible even with the early stop to change the graining super-softs. Those on the transposed prime/prime/option strategy – Vettel, Grosjean’s Lotus, Ericsson’s Sauber and the Manors – would therefore rise artificially high early on, given how early the super-soft runners would have to pit. This would also entail that the strategies of the two Ferraris would run interference with each other at various phases of the race.
Vettel was losing a lot of time in these early stages, stuck as he was behind Verstappen. Button’s tactic was to remain always within DRS reach of Vettel, so that the Honda’s early clipping of its electrical power down the straights wasn’t so punishing. A few seconds behind him, Grosjean was just keeping his nose clean on his primes, ready for a long stint and running ahead of Ericsson’s Sauber, the Manors of Stevens and Merhi, followed at a distance by the delayed cars of Nasr and Alonso.
With the enabling of DRS into lap three, Sainz’s seventh place was easy meat for the much faster Williams of Massa. Red Bull aggressively led the undercut challenge by bringing in Kvyat as early as lap five and Ricciardo a lap later, Daniel passing Hülkenberg on his in-lap with a late lunge at the end of the first DRS zone into the eight-nine chicane. The Red Bull stops created the usual cascade of chain reaction responses. Force India, seeing the Red Bull boys getting ready for Ricciardo, brought in Pérez. Williams brought in Massa to protect him from the Kvyat undercut, meaning Bottas had to stay out. Hülkenberg, Sainz and – finally – Bottas and Verstappen followed them in over the next couple of laps. They all changed their super-softs for the more durable softs. All this activity so early in the race allowed the prime-tyred Vettel and Grosjean to glide up to fourth and fifth places with just the yet-to-stop Rosberg, Hamilton and Räikkönen ahead of them.
There was drama at Bottas’s stop, for he was released just as Button was arriving. They collided, the McLaren’s right-rear cutting across the Williams’ front wing. Valtteri was forced to do a full lap back to the pits again with his smashed wing – this taking him out of contention for the rest of the evening. Luckily Button got away with just slight rear wing endplate damage and he continued, but the delay lost him the DRS zone he’d been relying on to suck him along faster than the Honda would otherwise allow. This in turn meant he’d be using more fuel, requiring him to lift and coast for extended periods. There’d been a delay at Sainz’s stop too, an extra 3sec for a sticking wheel nut allowing Kvyat to get back ahead of him.
While all the pitlane action was going on Rosberg extended his lead over Hamilton out to almost 5sec. On these tyres, Hamilton simply had no answer to him and Lewis was hoping that the reset of a switch to the primes would allow him an opportunity. Rosberg and Räikkönen each came in at the end of the tenth lap, Hamilton a lap later – with the latter underway after a superb 2.2sec Mercedes pit stop. He had to pass the yet-to-stop Vettel, and the couple of laps he spent trying to do this increased Rosberg’s advantage to just over seven seconds by the 15th lap.
For once, Räikkönen’s race was going smoothly, the Ferrari was nicely balanced and although he was gradually falling away from Hamilton it was only by two or three tenths each lap; this pace was enough to build him a big cushion over Pérez who was having a quiet race on his own, maintaining a good pace whilst looking after the rubber. Ricciardo hauled the Force India in for a time until Pérez managed to put the yet-to-stop Grosjean between him and Daniel. Ricciardo’s lack of straightline speed left him trapped there for the time being, initially pulling Hülkenberg along in his wake until Hulk again suffered the early onset of front tyre graining and the resultant understeer. Something about his driving style and set up was simply not working this weekend, slower than Pérez and using more rubber in the process.
Räikkönen’s stop had brought him out a few seconds behind Vettel, but on much newer tyres Kimi was soon right up with him. This created the unusual situation of Vettel being moved aside to smooth Räikkönen’s passage. That was lap 16.
Once clear of Vettel, Hamilton in clear air and on the prime tyres felt good in the car for the first time all weekend. He began to eat into Rosberg’s lead. Nico tried to respond, but this just initiated graining of his front tyres. Hamilton was suffering no such problems. This combination would have strategic implications. The most efficient way for each of them to run the races was now different. Rosberg was clearly going to have to be brought in earlier than Hamilton to be rid of these tyres – but not too early that it left him too many laps to do in the final stint. The challenge for Hamilton now was to get close enough to Rosberg to try an on-track overtake before Nico was brought in.
1 Lewis Hamilton 381
2 Nico Rosberg 322
3 Sebastian Vettel 278
4 Kimi Räikkönen 150
5 Valtteri Bottas 136
6 Felipe Massa 121
7 Daniil Kvyat 95
8 Daniel Ricciardo 92
9 Sergio Pérez 78
10 Nico Hülkenberg 58
11 Romain Grosjean 51
12 Max Verstappen 49
13 Felipe Nasr 27
14 Pastor Maldonado 27
15 Carlos Sainz 18
16 Jenson Button 16
17 Fernando Alonso 11
18 Marcus Ericsson 9
19 Roberto Merhi 0
20 Alexander Rossi 0
21 Will Stevens 0
22 Kevin Magnussen 0
Verstappen, following in the wake of Sainz, felt that on these tyres he was quicker and if he could get past could launch an attack on Kvyat. So on lap 18 Sainz was instructed – quite firmly – to allow his team-mate by, on the promise that the favour would be returned if Max was unsuccessful in this endeavour. Just two laps later Max locked up badly into turn eight, giving his front tyres two huge flat spots. Forced to pit for replacements immediately, he had consigned himself to a less than ideal strategy – and Sainz was once more the cutting edge of the Toro Rosso challenge. This was rather blunter than usual, the car simply not very competitive on the slower sections. The Red Bull pair and Massa put distance on them.
Kvyat’s race in tenth, keeping the pressure on Massa, became detuned as his ERS electrical control unit began to run too hot, requiring a much less powerful setting to keep the temperatures under control. Ricciardo in turn was having to control his brake temperatures ad so could offer no challenge to Grosjean.
Vettel and Grosjean, separated by 17sec, finally made their first stops on the 23rd lap. The Ferrari rejoined in sixth, a couple of seconds behind Ricciardo. Grosjean got going again in ninth, between Sainz and Button. But both Vettel and Grosjean would need to stop again for a short final stint on options. Before then, the two-stoppers – Pérez in fourth, Ricciardo fifth, Hülkenberg seventh, Massa eighth, Kvyat ninth, Sainz 10th – began peeling in for their second stops, initiated by Hülkenberg. This flurry occurred between laps 24-27 and saw Kvyat undercut his way by Massa for tenth, but now really struggling with his power unit. Massa would later repass with the help of DRS.
The target lap for Rosberg’s stop to be rid of his graining fronts was 31. By lap 29 Hamilton had got the gap down to just 1.3sec, but he wasn’t going to get close enough to try a pass – nor was Mercedes going to risk that. Nico duly came in on the 31st lap for a fresh set of primes. Hamilton’s existing tyres were still in great shape – as he illustrated by setting the race’s fastest lap so far at 1min 46.5sec. But Rosberg’s first flying lap on his new primes put that in perspective at 1min 45.4sec.
He was 19sec behind Hamilton and gaining, so there was no question of Hamilton being able to get a pitstop’s worth of gap (around 22sec here). The optimum theoretical strategy was for him to get another 10 laps out of this set, which would give him tyres 10 laps fresher than Rosberg’s for the final 14 laps – and even opened out the possibility of him going onto super-softs, though that wouldn’t have given the usual advantage, given how quickly they grained.
The Mercedes chief strategist is often effectively playing chess against himself in giving each driver the maximum opportunity of taking the win without compromising the other. And this was a classic example. Hamilton could have been brought in the lap after Rosberg, would have rejoined a couple of seconds behind and on the same tyres, with not enough performance advantage – if any – to be able to overtake. That’s probably how Rosberg would have preferred it had he been given the choice at this point and it would have been a safe Mercedes 1-2. But, because Hamilton had kept his tyres together better in this middle stint, his theoretical ideal was to continue to push, losing chunks of time for 10 laps to Rosberg’s newer tyres, and then get out on faster rubber.
If he could keep that initial 19sec gap from shrinking below 13-14sec before he stopped, then he had a realistic chance of challenging for the win. He would be coming out on tyres calculated at 0.8sec faster from about 9-10sec behind with 14 laps to go. But critically, the pace he needed to do to keep his lead at more than 13-14sec before he stopped was around 1min 46.3sec – and he just wasn’t quite quick enough to do that as Rosberg forced a very hot pace. This was essentially when Rosberg clinched the win his earlier troublesome middle stint had put in jeopardy – Hamilton didn’t quite have the pace to take advantage.
It was during this phase that they were each being given instructions on engine modes. The backdrop to this was that Rosberg’s engine began the race with 2300 miles on it – very near the end of its rebuild life – while Hamilton’s had done only around 1000 miles. They were out of sync because of Rosberg’s Monza engine failure. In order to keep the available power through the race available to them equal, the limitations being applied to Rosberg because of his high mileage were also being imposed on Hamilton; again, the conflict between the team trying to provide equality and a driver looking to maximise his chances. When Hamilton questioned it, he was told if he didn’t turn to the requested mode, Rosberg would be given a more powerful one.
“I’m not sure why they were doing that,” said Lewis, perhaps disingenuously. “I had lots of life left in my engine.” Had their power modes been allowed to differ to reflect the different mileages of their engines, it may just have made the crucial difference in keeping Hamilton within target before he pitted. But that would still have required he make the overtake in the final stint. Had there been a safety car after Rosberg’s stop but before Hamilton’s, then Hamilton would have been gifted the win. But that didn’t happen either.
Instead, Rosberg ate heavily into Hamilton’s pre-stop lead. So now Lewis had another idea, just as in Mexico. What if he backed off to save the tyres and didn’t make a second stop? It would require that his tyres – fitted on lap 11 – would last 44 laps. The longest anyone else got a set of primes to last was 31 laps. Not only was this against Mercedes team policy, it probably wouldn’t have worked. The Merc strategists were certain about it – that he’d have been a sitting duck on tyres 2sec or more slower and passed, easily, around lap 46.
1 Mercedes 703
2 Ferrari 428
3 Williams-Mercedes 257
4 Red Bull-Renault 187
5 Force India-Mercedes 136
6 Lotus-Mercedes 78
7 Toro Rosso-Renault 67
8 Sauber-Ferrari 36
9 McLaren-Honda 27
10 Marussia-Ferrari 0
Hamilton was not convinced. “I could have looked after the tyres to make them last a lot longer.” It would have been fascinating to see it play out – as we pondered in a column on this site last week – but there was no logic from Mercedes’ perspective in trying it.
Räikkönen’s second stop came the lap after Rosberg’s, which again put him behind the yet-to-stop Vettel, and again Seb had to move aside for Kimi. Vettel came in on the 39th lap and Ferrari fitted him with a set of options. Although they were slower on average over a stint, the super-softs were quicker initially – and given that Vettel would be coming out behind Ricciardo and Pérez and would need to pass them quickly, the super-softs were the logical choice. This is how it played out, neither the Red Bull nor the Force India in any shape to offer much opposition to a new-tyred Ferrari, as Seb regained his fourth place, albeit a long way behind Räikkönen.
Hamilton’s stop was two laps after Vettel’s, by which time that earlier 19sec lead over Rosberg was down to just under 10sec. Which meant he re-joined 12sec behind. The choice of tyre over such a short final stint on a light fuel load was actually quite closely matched – and so Hamilton and his engineer were given the choice. Hamilton had no opinion, despite repeatedly being pushed to make a call on it. Eventually ‘Bonno’ decided for him – primes it was.
Grosjean made his stop on lap 43 and on his super-softs rejoined 11th, behind Sainz. He chased the Toro Rosso down, made the DRS pass and set off to do the same on the struggling Kvyat for ninth a couple of laps later. Just up ahead was Massa and just beyond that Hülkenberg, each on very old tyres. But Romain, in his final drive for the Enstone team, ran out of laps. Probably one more lap would have been needed for Massa’s eighth.
Seventh-place Hülkenberg, having struggled to make his first set of primes last, made his final set last longer than anyone’s – but had to set a pace considerably slower than Pérez’s to achieve that. Once he’d got his brake temperatures back under control, Ricciardo was able to pressure Pérez’s fifth place, but never more than that because of the respective end-of-straight speeds of the two cars. Pérez had been pushing hard to ensure he passed Vettel when Seb pitted. This took a lot from his tyres, helping Ricciardo to close up. But it was another composed and efficient drive from the Mexican who seems to have found a better way through the challenge of the Pirellis than his team-mate.
Sainz’s finishing position just out of the points was a thankless reward for a good, hard afternoon’s work in a Toro Rosso unsuited to the track. Verstappen was 12th across the line but awarded a 20sec penalty for having gained an advantage by leaving the track during his lap 46 dice with Button. Jenson had been defending hard from Max – who’d fallen behind through having to visit the pits for a drive-through for having ignored blue flags – and they banged wheels, Max going off the circuit on the exit of turn 17. The penalty dropped Verstappen to 16th and promoted Button to 12th, Jenson relieved to be a lap down as he was hard up against the 100kg fuel limit.
The delayed Bottas was an official 13th, ahead of the Saubers of Ericsson and the badly compromised Nasr. Seven laps from the end Alonso – way back on account of that first lap skirmish and resultant extra two visits to the pits – asked that he could come in and have a set of super-softs fitted. The combination of a light fuel load with brand new option tyres gave him the challenge of trying to set the race’s fastest lap. That may sound ridiculous in a McLaren, but actually the combined lap time effect of fuel load and tyre deg are huge – as he demonstrated by setting third fastest lap of the race, just 0.5sec adrift of Hamilton’s Mercedes. He finished ahead only of the Manors, where Stevens had comfortably eclipsed Merhi all weekend.
Into his last stint on his newer tyres, Hamilton ate into Rosberg’s lead – but not by quite enough. He was in the high 1min 44sec when Bonnington advised: “We need mid-low 1min 44s.”
“I can’t do that Bonno,” he replied.
And that summarised his day. Just not quite there. Rosberg was more than satisfied, having recorded three consecutive victories for the first time in his career, and with the psychological upper hand heading into winter. “I’m ecstatic,” he said. “It was really master-managed. How I had to control my pace and manage the tyres, then push hard. In that last stint I had really good pace on tyres that had a lot more laps on them than Lewis’. I’m enjoying it so much right now, enjoying that I progressed a lot at the end of the season, too late for the championship of course, but still a great feeling. Next season can come tomorrow for me.”
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