MPH: How Hamilton's Russian GP weekend went wrong
The 91st Schumacher-equalling victory will just have to wait, as Lewis Hamilton’s Russian weekend cascaded out of his control through an unfortunate series of events, albeit triggered by his own…
Mercedes finishing 1-2, Lewis Hamilton from Nico Rosberg, was just a routine story. Romain Grosjean running fourth in an impounded Lotus, pressuring the one-stopping Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel for the podium, was much bigger news. But as the outer shoulder of the Ferrari’s right-rear Pirelli collapsed with a lap to go, a much a bigger story even than the resultant fairytale Grosjean podium unfolded.
You probably heard Vettel’s comments to the TV cameras in the aftermath, but they’re worth repeating here. Asked if Ferrari had been pushing its luck trying for the one-stop around a high speed circuit notoriously tough on tyres, he responded, “How many laps was I missing? Not many. Things like that are not allowed to happen. Full stop. If it happens 200m earlier, I’m not standing here now. I am in Eau Rouge at 300kph. I don’t know what else needs to happen…
“What’s upsetting, one is the result: this is racing. For sure, we deserve to finish on the podium, but the other thing is if it happens earlier then, you know… I think it is the sort of theme that keeps going around, no-one is mentioning, but it’s unacceptable.” The reference to Pirelli was obvious.
There’d been an understandable edge of unease among the drivers ever since Rosberg’s right-rear soft compound tyre exploded at 190mph on Friday afternoon – mercifully just before he’d reached Blanchimont. Even Mercedes eventually accepted the deflation was a result of a cut to the tyre rather than an internal failure or blister. “It was a very complex cut,” confirmed Paddy Lowe, “that went through three layers of the tyre but without it initially puncturing. The cut then allowed the carcass to unwrap itself.”
The centrifugal force of the turning wheel as Rosberg exceeded 210mph down the Kemmel Straight initiated the unfolding of the tyre’s internal material, without his knowledge, before its eventual collapse. There was a suggestion that the bodywork immediately behind the tyre could have caused the cut as the tyre deformed – perhaps over the kerbing at the top of the hill out of Eau Rouge – given that it aligned approximately with where the cut was. But this theory was subsequently rubbished by Mercedes, which in the next session coated that area of bodywork with paint to check if there was any fouling – which there wasn’t.
So might Nico have just hit the kerb particularly hard on Friday afternoon? He says not. “If Nico tells us that he didn’t go off the track, he didn’t go off the track,” continued the furious Vettel. “Why should he lie to us? Same with me: I didn’t go off the track and out of the blue the tyre explodes. If this happens earlier, then I’m f***ed.”
The definition of what constituted the track at that part of the circuit was slightly nebulous, it must be said. On the lap in question, Vettel crested the hill – Grosjean hard in his wake – with the Ferrari’s right-rear medium compound tyre around a metre inside the white line and onto the red-and-yellow striped kerbing. But it’s very gentle kerbing, not much more than painted normal race track at that point, and difficult to see how it would damage a tyre.
Pirelli was insisting post-race the Vettel failure was down to wear. “The tyre was finished,” said Paul Hembery. “Any tyre that gets to the end of its wear life, you have a problem. He did 28 laps. It is more we thought the strategy was going to be based on two or three stops, which you saw the majority did. [Ferrari] felt clearly that they could make it work on a one-stop and the wear life was indicated at 40 laps – but race conditions can change that. Some factors involved in racing mean that is not precise data.”
But no lap limitation had been imposed by Pirelli on the teams. “We made our strategy at 11.00am this morning,” said Ferrari’s Maurzio Arrivabene. “One-stop was our ‘plan A’ and that was based on data. We did our job right. We wouldn’t be so crazy as to risk the driver. We have a Pirelli engineer. What do you think he is doing, but to give the team data? There was zero warning.”
Given the circuit’s clockwise direction, the usual wear limitation around here is the front and rear left-hand tyres, not the right. But Pirelli’s post-Rosberg incident investigation of all the tyres used on Friday afternoon showed several of them to have cuts in the right rear. Something on the circuit was doing this. A worn tread, such as Vettel’s, is for certain more susceptible to cuts than a less worn one. But no firm conclusions could be made on Friday. As the outer shoulder of the right rear was dragged across the track at around 190mph, was it being snagged on a seam or something similar?
But the question remains of whether it’s reasonable to expect an F1 tyre to be susceptible to delamination from the sort of circuit features that are far from unusual. Kerb serrations and shards of carbon fibre are normal race track hazards, after all. The lack of an explanation for Rosberg’s tyre failure on Friday had led to many outspoken views from the drivers behind closed doors to the FIA race steward Charlie Whiting. “What is the answer?” questioned Vettel of Rosberg’s failure. “Same as every time: there was a cut, debris, there may be something wrong with the bodywork, the driver went wide…”
Many hours after the race Pirelli issued the following statement: “Since November 2013, Pirelli requested that there should be rules to govern the maximum number of laps that can be driven on the same set of tyres, among other parameters to do with correct tyre usage. This request was not accepted. The proposal put forward a maximum distance equivalent to 50 per cent of the grand prix distance for the prime tyre and 30 per cent for the option.
“These conditions, if applied today at Spa, would have limited the maximum number of laps on the medium compound to 22.” It was rejected by the teams because it would have left no room for strategic variation among those in the top 10 starting on the option – everyone would pretty much be stopping at the same time.
The drivers as a group have long had a distaste for the style of racing the Pirellis often impose upon them – driving to a set time in order to achieve the stint lengths necessary for the optimum strategies – but now that the safety of the tyres is being seriously questioned for the first time since the mass blowouts of Silverstone 2013, so the drivers are starting to break rank in going public.
Vettel’s the first to say in public what many of them have been saying to each other and the race director for some time. With the result of the supply tender for 2017 onwards between Pirelli and Michelin set for next month, it’s all highly awkward for Pirelli.
Meantime, half a minute ahead of the exploding rubber, a Mercedes 1-2 unfolded. The team had such a performance advantage at Spa it had no need to be doing anything than a standard two-stop strategy. Having the luxury of a big lead when Daniel Ricciardo’s broken Red Bull triggered a virtual safety car on the 20th lap meant it didn’t even have to make a premature second stop to protect its track position, unlike many of the others – only increasing its advantage further.
The only impact exploding tyres had upon Hamilton’s day was when he passed the scene. “I saw the blown tyre so in the last lap I was being very cautious. Other than that it was a dream day. Nico had good pace but I always had an answer. I was just managing the tyres – no need to really push.”
As another driver observed, managing the tyres has always been a part of racing. But with F1 as the pinnacle of excellence, anything sub-standard tends to get exposed. Imposing a commerce-dictated supply upon F1 may turn out not to have been smart in the long run. Thankfully, F1 – and Rosberg and Vettel in particular – got away with it at the weekend. Imagine if either – or both – had not…
Hamilton is unusual in not counting Spa as one of his favourite tracks. Although he’d won here twice (only one counted) he’d never felt he’s mastered it. He was out-performed by his team-mates here in 2007 (Fernando Alonso), 2012 (Jenson Button) and last year (Nico Rosberg) – but this time around, with a time half a second faster than Rosberg – he felt he’d finally cracked it.
Most of that advantage came in the high-speed corners of sector two. “In the past, sector two has always been a bit of a weakness for me,” he related. “I knew the lines but somehow couldn’t quite put the corners together. But in my two Q3 runs it was great.” Either one of his runs would have stood as fastest. A sixth consecutive pole means he cannot now be beaten for the seasonal pole position award.
The Mercedes’ low-downforce Spa package included a distinctive-looking bowed rear wing that ditched a chunk of the usual downforce but not to the extent of the Monza-style wing used by the less powerful Red Bull. This was enough to see Mercedes quickest in all three sectors – although only by the tiniest margin from Force India in sector one. Through Pouhon the Red Bull was marginally faster despite its smaller wing – something that definitely caught Merc’s attention when the backdrop was of Merc being pressured by Bernie Ecclestone to supply Red Bull with engines next year…
Rosberg, awaiting the imminent birth of his first child and with his 190mph tyre blow-out on Friday afternoon, could have been forgiven if he’d felt somewhat distracted. He insisted not. The car’s balance on Saturday morning was more oversteery than he liked. “We got the balance back for the start of qualifying,” he reported, “but Lewis was just too quick in the end. He found a lot extra – which I didn’t have in my pocket.”
Rosberg’s first Q3 run was compromised by taking too much inner kerb at the Paul Frère curve – which upset the car entering the long flat-out section that follows. But even his error-free final run was half-a-second adrift of his team-mate through sector two.
The fastest non-W06 was the Mercedes-powered Williams of Valtteri Bottas, 1.3sec slower. The car was running an unusually high downforce rear wing by Spa standards, something reflected in low end-of-straight speeds, but making it almost Red Bull quick in the middle sector. The choice of wing reflected the pre-weekend forecast of a rainy Sunday and the car’s difficulty in such conditions.
Bottas emerged at the head of a very tight group of closely-matched cars and was well satisfied with his performance. The closeness of the group was reflected in the fact that team-mate Felipe Massa was only a tenth slower, but back in seventh. He’d been on the back foot after only getting out in the last moments of Q1 as his car was reluctant to start up cleanly and needed to be reprogrammed.
In between the Williams pair were Romain Grosjean’s Lotus, Sergio Pérez’s Force India and Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull. For Grosjean and Lotus, fourth fastest was a fantastic achievement, though unfortunately he’d be taking a five place grid penalty for a new gearbox.
The team had spent much of Thursday negotiating with bailiffs who had been intent on impounding the cars as former test driver Charles Pic took legal action over claims that he had not been granted the agreed number of tests last year. Grosjean tried – then discarded for the rest of the weekend – a new front wing, with team-mate Pastor Maldonado on a standard one. The wisdom of this was evident on Friday morning when Pastor crashed quite heavily at Malmedy. The car was repaired and Pastor got it through to Q3 where he qualified eighth.
Mercedes horsepower certainly played a significant part in the performance not only of Lotus but also Force India. The low-drag car was flying down the straights, with Sergio fastest of all through the first sector and hanging on as best he all the could through the fast turns of sector two. He’d had the edge over team-mate Nico Hülkenberg throughout the weekend, but a turbo leak was discovered in Nico’s car post-qualifying, necessitating the replacement of an ‘O’ ring. Furthermore, Nico locked up right at the beginning of his crucial Q2 lap, a set of circumstances that combined saw him fail to graduate to Q3, lining up 11th.
The Red Bull was a mirror image of the Force India in how it achieved its very similar lap time, with Ricciardo a full 0.8sec slower than Pérez through the first sector but a similar amount faster through the next one. Daniel looked very much at home in the fast sweeps, aggressively using up every ounce of the car’s considerable grip. Daniil Kvyat in the sister car just didn’t have quite the same ease with the place and was a crucial tenth-and-a-half slower in Q2, leaving him back in 12th.
Ferrari’s only representative in Q3 was Sebastian Vettel, a lowly ninth fastest after a lock-up into the chicane that cost him the couple of tenths that would have put him in the tight pack ahead. Ferrari’s low-drag package had proved disappointingly inefficient – not giving the straightline speed that might have been expected for the deletion of so much downforce.
Consequently, it ran even further trimmed out from Saturday onwards, finally making it quick down the straights, but only the seventh quickest car through the middle sector. Kimi Räikkönen was left back in 14th after his car’s oil pump failed on his Q2 out-lap, damaging the gearbox. A replacement unit brought him a five-place penalty, putting him 16th once all the other penalties were applied.
The Toro Rosso’s low-drag package wasn’t particularly effective and Carlos Sainz was delighted to have got through to Q3, where, having used up all his fresh softs, he went 10th. He felt it was his best personal qualifying performance of the season so far. Max Verstappen knew going into qualifying that he was taking a 10-place grid penalty for a new engine and consequently opted to sit out Q2 to save tyres for race day. He would start 18th.
Sauber was benefitting for the first time from the upgraded Ferrari motor that has been in the red cars since Montréal – Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr finding it gave a very significant performance boost. This helped Ericsson get through to Q2, where he was 13th, having crashed heavily at Pouhon the day before when trying out a Monza-type rear wing for the first time.
Nasr was less effective in dealing with the car’s lack of grip and failed to get out of Q1. He was at least faster than the McLarens though. There was massive disappointment with Honda’s three-token power unit upgrade. Far from matching Ferrari output, as had been confidently predicted, it was at best a couple of tenths quicker than before. Jenson Button did a lap he reckoned was the equal of his pole lap here in 2012 to go 17th fastest, 0.5sec ahead of team-mate Fernando Alonso. But that was still 2.7sec off the pace and over 1sec slower than would have been needed to make Q2.
Detailed GPS analysis suggested that 60 per cent of that deficit (1.6sec) was accounted for by the power unit, 30 per cent (0.8sec) from the chassis and 10 per cent (0.27sec) from accumulated losses due to not being able to run the car in optimum trim because of the power shortfall.
That same data – backed up by at least one other team – showed the car to be fastest of all through the three slow corners (though probably flattered in this by the lower tyre temperatures resultant from the power shortfall), between third-fourth fastest in the medium speed but mediocre through the high speed – partly because the wing angle appropriate for this power is low.
Yet despite that, the car was quite draggy. It was using up its full ERS deployment long before the lap was over – something which applied to all the engines at this long (4.35 mile) circuit last year, but an area in which everyone has since progressed. For parts of the circuit the Honda was minus all of its 160bhp electrical assistance.
A couple of seconds behind the McLarens, the Manor drivers Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi were very evenly matched. The various grid penalties (a theoretical total of 105 of them for McLaren, which took advantage of the recent relaxation of the sporting regs re grid penalties to introduce seventh and eighth engines on the respective cars of Alonso and Button) put the Manors 15th and 17th.
All but Nasr’s Sauber and the two McLarens started the race on the faster soft tyre – around 1.5sec quicker than the medium and reckoned good for 15 laps. The medium could do many more laps – but the soft would always be quicker. Bright skies and a track temperature of 38deg C made this even more certain.
1 L Hamilton Mercedes 1hr 23min 40.387sec
2 N Rosberg Mercedes +2.058sec
3 R Grosjean Lotus +37.988sec
4 D Kvyat Red Bull +45.692sec
5 S Pérez Force India +53.997sec
6 F Massa Williams +55.283sec
7 K Räikkönen Ferrari +55.703sec
8 M Verstappen Toro Rosso +56.076sec
9 V Bottas Williams +61.040sec
10 M Ericsson Sauber +91.234sec
11 F Nasr Sauber +102.311s
DNF S Vettel Ferrari
13 F Alonso McLaren +1 lap
14 J Button McLaren +1 lap
15 R Merhi Manor +1 lap
16 W Stevens +1 lap
DNF C Sainz Toro Rosso
DNF D Ricciardo Red Bull
DNF P Maldonado Lotus
DNS N Hülkenberg Force India
The quickest theoretical way was to two-stop, using a soft/soft/medium sequence. Only Vettel was planning to one-stop. “We looked at it,” said Lotus’s Alan Permane of the one-stop idea, “but being on the slower tyre for so long just made it a slow strategy and we rejected it.”
Was there any question of it being risky from a tyre life point of view? “Absolutely not,” replied Permane. “It was purely on the performance numbers.” Ferrari’s thinking was that it would buy Vettel track position as the others around him pitted – and he’d then hopefully use his car’s strong end-of-straight speed to defend.
Hülkenberg’s repaired power unit was not charging itself on his out-lap but began functioning as he got towards the end of the lap. Abandoning the initial plan to pit for attention, he lined up in his 11th place slot but even before the gantry lights came on he was waving his hands – and the start was aborted while the Force India was removed and retired to the garage. Everyone went round again, with the race now reduced to 43 laps. Sainz lost power on this second reconnaissance lap and would start the Toro Rosso from the pits, a lap down, and later retire.
This was the first race in which drivers had to manage the starts themselves – without any radio advice and with the bite point frozen once the cars had left the garage. Rosberg didn’t make a great job of it – the front row Mercedes bogging down and giving Hamilton an unchallenged run to La Source. Pérez flew by Rosberg’s left to slot into second, with Nico also bundled down by the dicing Ricciardo, Bottas and the fast-starting Vettel down the inside.
As the Red Bull took up third place from the Williams on the exit of the first turn, Rosberg and Vettel were side-by-side, with Nico going ahead into Eau Rouge – and the Ferrari chased hard by the Lotus pair Maldonado and Grosjean. Technically, the Lotuses were impounded but had been allowed to race, the bailiffs satisfied the cars probably weren’t going to leave the circuit when they had a grand prix to contest…
Hamilton, knowing that Pérez’s car was super-fast up the Kemmel Straight, was very anxious to get a good run out of Eau Rouge and took way more exit kerb. But still Pérez closed fast and as they went by the beam defining the end of the first sector the Force India was leading the race – albeit on the outside line for the approaching Les Combes, making it relatively straightforward for Hamilton to late-brake his way into the corner first.
Down the valley into the fast curves of sector two Hamilton pulled out great chunks of distance on the much lower downforce Force India and as they headed along the valley floor and through the flat-out kink of Blanchimont Lewis was all on his own. Under braking into the chicane Rosberg dived down Bottas’s inside for fourth, running wide onto the exit kerb but hanging onto the position. As Valtteri attempted to retaliate into La Source, the rear wheels of the Williams locked up momentarily, twitching him offline and allowing Vettel to nip through as they exited.
Maldonado took a huge chunk of exit kerb at the top of the hill exiting Eau Rouge, and suddenly the Lotus lost drive – promoting Grosjean, Massa, Ericsson, Kvyat, Verstappen, Räikkönen, Alonso, Button, Nasr, Merhi and Stevens. Kvyat made short work of Ericsson and Massa over the next couple of laps.
As Pérez came under pressure from Ricciardo, so it played further to Hamilton’s advantage and he was 3.7sec clear by the fifth lap. Rosberg was gradually closing up to the dicing Force India and Red Bull and easing comfortably away from Vettel while Bottas in the big-winged Williams was coming under increasing pressure from the flying Grosjean.
Further back, Button was running without electrical assistance and falling back from team-mate Alonso as a result. It was something he’d struggle with for the rest of the afternoon. “I’d get deployment from it in different places now and again,” he related, “but it was never really deploying and recovering as it should. It would cut immediately after Radillion, for example, and then I’d have to rely on the ICE alone. That’s a lot of power to lose and it meant I was driving the Kemmel Staright and the straight up to Blanchimont without any deployment at all. You can’t really do much in that situation.” Even Alonso’s healthier McLaren was passed by Nasr’s Sauber on the Kemmel Straight as if it were standing still.
1 Lewis Hamilton 227
2 Nico Rosberg 199
3 Sebastian Vettel 160
4 Kimi Räikkönen 82
5 Felipe Massa 82
6 Valtteri Bottas 79
7 Daniil Kvyat 57
8 Daniel Ricciardo 51
9 Romain Grosjean 38
10 Max Verstappen 26
11 Sergio Pérez 25
12 Nico Hülkenberg 24
13 Felipe Nasr 16
14 Pastor Maldonado 12
15 Fernando Alonso 11
16 Carlos Sainz 9
17 Marcus Ericsson 7
18 Jenson Button 6
Ricciardo could get close to Pérez, but even with the aid of DRS was slower at the end of the straights than the Force India. With no way by on track, Red Bull brought him in early at the end of lap seven in an attempt at undercutting him past. He came in, was switched to a set of prime tyres, and got underway again after just 2.4sec.
Force India responded, bringing its man in next lap. But a stop 1.1sec slower meant that Daniel was already accelerating down the hill past the pit exit as Sergio left there. All this promoted Rosberg to second, with the pace to pull away and no need to respond to the early stopping undercut boys. He was, however, already 8.6sec behind Hamilton.
Grosjean had used his DRS to breeze by Bottas up to Les Combes on the eighth lap, Williams calling Valtteri in at the end of the lap so as to try to undercut back ahead. Grosjean was in next lap, dropped back behind the Williams as he exited, but corrected it by repeating his earlier pass into Les Combes. This was a great fighting drive from Romain, now in fifth place, and he gradually began to ease himself clear of Bottas.
The early first stops had been triggered only by undercut attempts and defending from them. Neither Mercedes nor Vettel were even considering stopping yet and at 10 laps Hamilton led Rosberg by 7.5sec, with Seb a further 5sec or so adrift. The early stoppers had allowed Räikkönen to rise up to a distant and temporary fourth, his tyres hanging on well before pitting for another set on lap 11.
Finding a gap for Rosberg to drop into meant Mercedes brought him in before Hamilton – at the end of the 12th lap. Hamilton followed suit a lap later – both with sub-3sec pitstops, both fitted with primes. The earlier stop reduced Rosberg’s deficit from 7sec to 4.1sec. But Hamilton was playing it cool. “I didn’t need to be pushing hard on my early laps out of the pits,” he explained, “because I had enough of a margin. It was just about managing the tyres.” In this way his advantage would just spiral later. Vettel came in on lap 14 and the choice of the slower prime tyre was the first indication that Ferrari may have been going for an ambitious one-stop.
After the stops the two Mercs led Pérez, who had fought his way back ahead of prime-tyred Ricciardo, utilising the Force India’s much greater end-of-straight speed. After the Red Bull came Grosjean, Vettel, Bottas, Kvyat (on primes), Massa (primes) and Räikkönen. Things weren’t going well at Williams. The cars were slow on the soft tyre, Bottas had lost positions and when he’d pitted, one prime tyre and three options had been fitted in error.
This is a breach of regulations and he was awarded a drive-through – which dropped him four places – putting him behind Verstappen. The teenager had earlier caused sharp intakes of breath all round when he had passed Ericsson around the outside of Blanchimont, teetering over the exit kerbs to complete the 190mph move.
Red Bull had put both its cars on primes, using its much-favoured strategy of a long consolidating middle stint to be followed by an aggressive final stint on the faster tyre when most others would be on the prime. Ricciardo was hanging on in fourth around 10sec and three places ahead of Kvyat. “Its balance wasn’t as nice on the primes,” related Daniel, “but it was going OK. I think we were on a good strategy and I was looking forward to the last stint.”
He never got that far, the power unit cutting out as he came through the chicane for what would have been his 20th lap. He pulled over to the side but with marshals needed to pull it off the track, race control put the race under a virtual safety car, with the gaps (approximately) frozen. Grosjean had just passed Pérez for third into Les Combes, and the latter had just pitted in response.
As the VSC froze the gaps, Grosjean was just 15sec behind Rosberg. To have lost an average of only three quarters of a second per lap to Rosberg whilst driving a Lotus was surely some feat and it made one reflect on whether Ferrari had really made the right move in taking up its option on Räikkönen last week when a driver such as this is a free agent. “It’s not really a surprise to us he raced so well today,” reflected Alan Permane. “It was only in 2013 when the car was good and he was doing races like this week in, week out.”
1 Mercedes 426
2 Ferrari 242
3 Williams 161
4 Red Bull 108
5 Lotus 50
6 Force India 49
7 Toro Rosso 35
8 Sauber 23
9 McLaren 17
10 Marussia 0
As the VSC remained in place for the next lap, so it triggered much of the field into pitting early for their second stops. Following Pérez in on the next lap were Grosjean, Massa, Räikkönen, Verstappen and Bottas. This promoted Vettel up to third – around 5sec ahead of Grosjean as the Lotus rejoined on its prime tyres. Kvyat had sprung up to fifth as the pitters came in and he stayed out on his primes, with Pérez back in sixth ahead of Massa, Räikkönen, Verstappen, all on primes.
The ideal two-stop tyre strategy without having to worry about track position was to pit way later than lap 20/21 – running a longer middle stint in order not to leave too long a final stint for the much faster option tyre. Hence why most had been forced onto the prime in pitting in response to the VSC. Mercedes and Kvyat, on account of being on primes for their middle stint, could do this.
Kvay pitted for his options on the 27th lap, dropping to 10th, behind Bottas but now on much faster tyres than most of those ahead him. He picked off Bottas on the 29th lap, moved up a place as his pace alerted Toro Rosso into bringing Verstappen in for a third time – in order to switch to options before it was too late. Vettel meanwhile had been suggesting that Ferrari might look at switching him to a two-stop if it looked feasible, but it was already too late. On his old tyres he’d have to fend off Grosjean on track.
Hamilton – who had got a little paranoid at Rosberg closing around 1sec of the gap under the VSC ( Rosberg had not exceeded any of the sector times, but had simply judged it closer to the margins) – was brought in on lap 30, Rosberg a lap later. Lewis had asked if he could stay out an extra lap but was told if he did that Rosberg would be brought in first and so did as the team suggested. Hamilton had it all under control, and again gave his tyres a relatively easy time for the first couple of laps, giving Rosberg brief but misplaced hope, before then easing away again.
Grosjean meantime was tracking Vettel’s third place down. Seb had initially seemed to have him under control but then his tyres began to wilt – and Grosjean scented further opportunity. With 12 laps to go he was 4sec behind the Ferrari. On successive laps this came down to 3.7sec, 3.5sec, 2.7sec, 2.2sec, 1.9sec, 1.1sec and by lap 38 he was within DRS range. But the Ferrari was quick at the end of the straights and Seb was placing it perfectly. An aggressive overtaker closing down an unflappable defender: how was it going to play out? For three laps Vettel held the Lotus at bay. Was Romain saving the big move for the last lap?
Meanwhile Kvyat and Verstappen were making good use of their new option tyres. Kvyat went by Räikkönen for seventh with five laps to go, Verstappen relieved Bottas of 10th on lap 39, Kvyat followed up on Massa with three laps to go and past Pérez for fifth on lap 41.
With the Mercs half a minute up the road, Vettel and Grosjean charged down the hill toward Eau Rouge for the penultimate lap, a single flash of scarlet and black, Ferrari and Lotus. Down the compression left-right, foot to the floor – hard over the exit kerb, Vettel slightly more than Grosjean, but both well beyond the white lines. Then it happened. Bang – the Ferrari swinging menacingly for a second or so before slowing to a crawl. Two contrasting emotions: tears of joy on the slow down lap for Grosjean, pure cold anger for Vettel.
Kvyat’s fourth suggested Ricciardo would have been fighting Grosjean for that final podium place, Pérez’s fifth reflected the fact the low downforce Force India couldn’t hold onto its tyre performance for as long as the Red Bulls. Sergio in fact had bottled up close behind him Massa, Räikkönen and Verstappen – with Bottas and Ericsson last of the points scorers, Nasr following his team-mate home 11th. The McLarens of Alonso and Button finished a lap down, while Merhi kept ahead of Stevens in the in-house Manor battle.
“The balance felt fantastic,” trilled Lewis. “In fact it was getting better through the race. Then was no real need to push more than I did.”
As a thrilled Grosjean prepared for a celebration drink, the bailiffs took possession of his car and Pirelli huddled into a crisis meeting. Funny sport this one sometimes…
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