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…
In Shanghai on Sunday there were echoes of Malaysia in how Ferrari’s tyre usage applied pressure to Mercedes – but only faint ones. They were heard mainly when Lewis Hamilton was apparently backing his team-mate Nico Rosberg into Sebastian Vettel a few laps before the second stops. “Pick up the pace Lewis,” he was told for the second time, “or we will have to pit Nico first.” Which of course was to threaten his victory.
They did in fact pit Nico before Lewis – in response to Vettel having made his second attempt of the day at undercutting past the second Merc. But Hamilton’s spare energy was then uncorked to dramatic effect, a couple of super-fast laps before his second and final stop showing just how much he’d had in hand, sealing his second victory in three races. Rosberg was left as runner-up, but was less irritated at that fact than at having had that place threatened by Vettel thanks to Hamilton’s slow pace early in the second stint.
“I wasn’t controlling his race,” said Hamilton in response to the idea that he was deliberately backing his team-mate into the Ferraris, “I was controlling my own race. Today the goal was to manage the tyres. My goal was to look after my car. I had no threat from Nico through the whole race.”
Rosberg – sitting right next to Hamilton as this was said – visibly bristled. When he’s irritated he has a way of talking quickly and eloquently and it was like this now. “Interesting to hear you say that you were just thinking about yourself,” he responded. “Because that was compromising my race. Driving slower than necessary at beginning of the stints was allowing Sebastian to get unnecessarily close to me. That meant longer stints subsequently and meant my tyres died towards the end of the stints.”
Once Vettel’s second bid to undercut Rosberg had fallen short at the second and final stops, so Ferrari turned down their engines and with both cars on the prime tyre for the last stint fell away from the Mercs. Because Kimi Räikkönen’s stint lengths had not been compromised by trying to undercut a Mercedes, he was in better tyre shape than Vettel at the end, his rubber four laps newer. So he was able to apply a bit of late pressure to his team mate. But essentially the difference in their weekends had been defined by Räikkönen having made a crucial error on his final qualifying lap.
In that small fact is hidden a clue to what really happened on Sunday. Because it was complex enough to trigger all sorts of readings – from conspiracy theories that this race had been deliberately loaded by Messrs Ecclestone, Hamilton and Wolff to look more closely-fought than it really was, through to Rosberg’s understandable paranoia that Hamilton was trying to help Vettel beat him. Probably neither of those scenarios are true but both can easily be interpreted to fit the observable facts.
On Saturday evening Ecclestone was in animated discussions with Hamilton and Wolff on the balcony at the back of the Mercedes technical HQ and the following day on the grid Bernie could be seen in earnest conversation with Ferrari’s Maurizio Arrivabene, as if explaining something to him. If you’re a conspiracy theorist, it would be all about fading TV numbers and concern at the prospect of a one-sided competition suggested by the qualifying superiority of Mercedes over Ferrari of almost 1sec and the ringmaster putting on his hat. Go with that if you’re so inclined.
The logic of Lewis backing his team mate – likely to be his main rival in the championship again – into the Ferraris is also not difficult to follow. It wouldn’t be the first time such a thing had happened. Whenever Mark Webber had got himself ahead of Vettel at Red Bull, he’d habitually back him up towards the cars behind, trying to make him vulnerable around the stops – and that in fact was the back story to their collision at Istanbul 2010. Those seeing the world through a prism of disliking Hamilton might find appeal in the idea that he had taken a leaf out of Webber’s book here.
If you wish for simple answers to all things, then pick whichever of the above feels a more natural fit – and miss the paragraphs between here and the qualifying report, which deal with a complex interaction of rubber, weather, downforce, balance and competitive paranoia.
But actually this is a more forensic fit than the conspiracy theories, with a far greater number of much more intricate pieces of information all pointing in the same direction. It’s about the respective performance patterns of the Mercedes W06 and the Ferrari SF-15T on the soft option and the medium prime tyres and how they changed according to the temperature of the track.
Which is where we come in with that little detail of Räikkönen messing up his qualifying lap at turn three. He did that because his rear tyres were not fully up to temperature early in the lap. The Ferrari is susceptible to that because of the gentle way it uses its rubber. Not grinding the Pirellis as hard into the track, it needs to be worked a lot harder than the Merc to get the core temperature into the tyre when the track surface is grippy – but once that’s achieved its durability is superior and it’s fast for longer.
When the track temperature comes up and its surface becomes oilier, the mechanism of grip changes; the tyre is gripping less against the track surface and more against itself as there is a temperature mismatch between the tyre’s tread and its core. At a front-limited circuit like Shanghai – front-limited mainly because of the super-long duration of turns 1-2-3 and 12-13 – this means that a tyre like the Pirelli soft, with a high working temperature range, will tend to grain more readily on a hot circuit when fitted to a Ferrari than it will on a Mercedes, which grinds the tyre harder into the track and thereby achieves a more equitable balance between tyre surface and tyre core temperature. Conversely, at lower, grippier track temperatures, the medium Pirelli – a tyre with a low working temperature range – on the Ferrari will be less susceptible to graining its front left than the Mercedes. In these conditions, it will treat both tyres better than the Mercedes – other than over a single qualifying lap when it might struggle to reach temperature by the start of the lap.
When the long runs were completed during Friday afternoon practice, track temperature was close to its optimum for grip at around 36deg C. So the Ferrari could run the soft tyre for longer than the Mercedes and at a comparable lap time – to such an extent that on the Ferrari the soft looked a faster race tyre than the medium, whereas the Mercedes couldn’t make the soft as quick as the medium.
The slower Ferrari, in other words, could access the greater performance of the faster tyre better than the Mercedes – just as at Malaysia, though not to the extent that it could make one stop less. But it did mean that it could potentially do the optimum two stop strategy on two sets of softs and one of mediums. The Mercedes, by contrast, looked consigned to stints of one soft/two mediums. It was a potentially close match, despite the Merc’s much superior qualifying pace.
But Sunday was sunny, the Shanghai sky unusually clear – and the track temperature had soared to 46-47deg C by the 2.00pm start. The picture was now potentially very different. With lower track surface grip, suddenly the Mercedes could work the soft tyre properly. Mercedes began to think about switching to the soft/soft/medium strategy that it suspected Ferrari was going to favour. But it couldn’t be sure; it was just their theory at this stage.
The Mercedes team applies a huge degree of science to the mechanisms driving the cars’ tyre usage in the Pirelli age but such calls still need to be supported by empirical evidence. So Hamilton drove the early laps cautiously – Rosberg in his wake, Vettel a comfortable third and looking to undercut Rosberg at the earliest practical opportunity – as the strategy team assessed whether the soft would indeed hold up for longer than the 10 laps or so it had managed on Friday.
“After about eight laps it felt like the tyres were going off,” explained Hamilton later. “I was feeling some movement.” Yet still the lap times held up, at the relatively gentle pace he was setting. It’s a difficult thing for a driver to judge at the best of times, as Felipe Massa – fifth for Williams after a strikingly good performance all weekend in maximising a car that was overheating the soft tyre – later confirmed.
“Around here you aren’t really driving at a true limit,” he said. “You are driving a few tenths, maybe half a second, off early in the stint because if you pushed to the maximum you’d be a second slower on the next lap and the tyres would be destroyed a lap later. So it’s difficult to judge the optimum limit.” Hamilton had no need to be risking anything, but that conservative pace was beginning to irritate Rosberg… After 10 laps Vettel lay 3.6sec behind the second Merc.
But it was Vettel’s tyres that began to fall away first. As Vettel dropped a few tenths on the 11th and 12th laps, Hamilton stepped up the pace by 0.5sec, surprised to find his rubber was actually holding up just fine; Mercedes’ analysis looked like it was spot on. “But it’s difficult to convince a driver to do something that goes against everything else he’s found out in preparation to the race,” observed a member of the technical team. It was perfectly logical that he should be proceeding cautiously when the possibility of all that theorising being wrong could have destroyed his race.
Vettel dropping those few tenths meant he wasn’t really in a positon to undercut Rosberg as Ferrari brought him in on the 13th lap and fitted him with fresh softs. Mercedes responded with Hamilton on the next lap and Rosberg the lap after that. The Ferrari had got to within 1.5sec of the second Merc but no more than that. Once Mercedes had seen Hamilton step up the pace late in the stint and heard him report that, contrary to his earlier feeling, the old softs were actually holding up fine, it had committed to matching Ferrari’s soft/soft/medium strategy.
Hamilton remained cautious on his new rubber early in this second stint – and Rosberg began to suspect Hamilton was deliberately messing with his race, his irritation intensified by the scarlet not so far behind. But it played out how it did, with Vettel again not quite having the late stint tyre performance to capitalise.
Had Max Verstappen been driving the second Merc in this situation, one might speculate that he’d have simply overtaken – for the teenager repeatedly showed a remarkable ability to come from a long way behind and pass, without locking wheels and whilst still getting rotation on the car. He’d risen to eighth place like this when with just four laps to go the Toro Rosso’s engine seized solid as he crossed the finish line, this bringing out the safety car. Had the marshals been able to manoeuvre the stricken car through the gap in the pitwall more easily and the safety car lasted just a couple of laps, Mercedes would have had an awful dilemma – one that would likely have brought far more controversy than what we actually saw.
Such was the pace advantage here of the soft option tyre over the medium prime (in the order of 2sec) that everyone but Mercedes had to use it just to ensure they out-paced the Manors and McLarens in Q1. The remaining victim at this point was Nico Hülkenberg who failed to put his best sectors together in a Force India that’s currently not fast enough to allow you that luxury. This rescued Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat from an early bath at this point, the Renault engine repeatedly suffering a sudden power loss, something that wasn’t rectified until his final Q2 run. Renault had brought no major changes to the motor since Malaysia and it had completed a reliable 4,000km on the dyno. But for some reason not yet understood the problems occur when it’s installed in the car – when it also loses 40bhp.
McLaren continues to make steady progress. Its deficit to the fastest continues to reduce – but that still wasn’t enough to make Q2. Jenson Button – out-qualifying Fernando Alonso for the second time – was a couple of tenths adrift of Force India but 2.8sec ahead of Will Stevens in the faster of the Manors. The Honda is still running well down on power – with its ERS set at around 50% of potential, the same as a Sepang – and although the car was quicker run-for-run than the Saubers through the aero-demanding middle sector, it was 10mph slower through the speed traps than Rosberg’s Mercedes.
Pastor Maldonado’s Lotus was quickest of those not making it through to Q3, a major sideways moment through the tricky turn eight, where the cars go light over a bump, denying him. He’d worked all weekend at trying to finesse a less oversteery balance from the car. Team-mate Romain Grosjean by contrast altered the front-to-rear aero balance by no more than 0.3 per cent from standard and was untroubled. He made it through to Q3 for the third time in succession, where he had the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo and the full teams of Mercedes, Ferrari, Williams and Sauber for company.
Kvyat’s engine didn’t run cleanly until his final Q2 run, this contributing to the Red Bull being only 12th quickest. Both RB11s were running low downforce rear wings to combat their lack of power. They also featured all-new front wings that abandoned the team’s previous philosophy in favour of a Mercedes-like approach.
Behind Maldonado and Kvyat came the Toro Rossos of Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. The former could probably have made the Q3 cut-off had he not locked up at turn six on his final run. The team had experienced some difficulty in accessing the STR10’s usual benign balance around a tricky track that requires you protect the front left tyre as much as possible but in which the concomitant oversteer balance makes for a difficult drive around the interconnected sweeps of the middle sector. Once Sergio Pérez had got his Force India through to Q2, he did just a token single run in order to preserve tyres for race day and he lined up 15th.
Having one more set of softs at their disposal than everyone else, Mercedes was able to do a standard two runs on fresh options in the final session. Their single lap pace advantage over the Ferrari was greater than in Malaysia – anywhere between 0.5-0.9sec – leaving the pole contest strictly between Hamilton and Rosberg.
Hamilton’s first run was 0.3sec faster than Rosberg’s, almost all of his advantage coming in the fast sweeps of the middle sector where he habitually excels. But Rosberg found all but four-hundredths of that deficit on his final run. “It was just about putting it all together,” Nico reported afterwards. “I was just building it all and had nailed my set up and my driving. I thought I’d done enough for pole actually and was very disappointed to lose out by such a small margin.”
Hamilton overdid things slightly in the middle sector on his final run, leaving his first effort as the pole lap. “The car just had a sensational balance this weekend,” he said afterwards, “much better than in Malaysia. Plus this is a good circuit for me – don’t know why, really. It just suits my driving style maybe better than some other tracks.”
The Mercs featured new front wings here and had exchanged their previous Brembo brakes for Carbone Industries, this the opposite change to that made by Red Bull for this race.
Even though its deficit to Mercedes was greater than in Sepang, the Ferrari remained comfortably the second fastest car. Because keeping the rear tyres from overheating before the end of the lap was not a problem here, unlike in Malaysia, the Mercedes was retaining its full natural advantage.
But, just as in Malaysia, the Ferrari’s optimum drag/downforce trade-off was more skewed towards the former than that of Mercedes. Its power and aero efficiency make it much closer to the Mercs down the straights than through the fast curves. This characteristic is almost certainly playing a significant part in why it was being kinder on these delicate tyres.
We are now arriving at a similar situation to that seen in the first years of the control tyre era where Red Bull’s natural advantage was being limited as they had to trade-off ultimate lap time for stint duration. Mercedes seems now to have arrived at a similar point. And, just as with the James Allison Lotuses of 2012/13, the James Allison Ferrari seems to be taking the most advantage of that. There just may be something in the concept of his cars that is optimised around relatively low performance tyres rather than ultimate downforce levels.
Having needed the security of using up one of the allocated three sets of softs to ensure they got out of Q1, the Ferrari drivers did their first Q3 runs on used softs – thereby giving them just their one final fresh tyre run in which to deliver. Vettel did so, Räikkönen did not, meaning Seb stuck his car third comfortably clear of the Williams pair whereas Kimi was behind them back in sixth, having got wildly out of shape exiting turn three. “I just need to do better laps, without these mistakes” assessed Kimi honestly.
Perhaps significantly, Vettel had spun here on Friday suggesting there was something about the Ferrari’s traits that made this part of the track tricky for them. It was to do with tyre temperatures. The Ferrari struggles to get the core of the tyre up to temperature quickly enough – and its whole approach of fuelling up for two runs, going out on used softs, doing a ‘live’ pit stop to switch to the new rubber and getting straight out (rather than going into the garage and using minimal fuel each time) was to do with desperately trying to keep heat going through the brakes and wheels into the tyres to get that first lap performance on new rubber that the car struggles to generate. It isn’t that the SF-15T over-performs in the races. It’s more that it under-performs in qualifying.
It’s a complex picture. At Malaysia, on the combination of hard and mediums, its tyre usage was so much lower than Mercedes it had given it a decisive advantage there. In Shanghai, with the temperatures seen on Friday and Saturday, the Ferrari still had better tyre behaviour over a run. But, with the soft/medium combination in the hotter temperatures of race day that picture changed completely. F1 is rarely lends itself to simplistic analysis.
Felipe Massa produced a superb lap just to get his Williams-Mercedes within 0.25sec of Vettel. The FW37 was a tricky car at Shanghai. The team had experimented running without the ‘monkey seat’ winglet on the rear wing support in chase of straightline speed. Ferrari and Mercedes were able to do this successfully, but on the Williams it caused the airflow not to reattach quickly enough after DRS had been used – and it was this that had put Massa into the turn 14 wall on Friday. In doing so he’d crunched the new spec front wing also being tried. Reverting to monkey seat and old wing spec, he finessed a balance out of it and produced the lap when it mattered. Valtteri Bottas was a couple of tenths slower, in fifth.
“This is where the car is at right now,” said Ricciardo after qualifying the Red Bull with its low downforce rear wing seventh, around 0.6sec down on Williams. The RB11 had its engine changed after qualifying after suffering a systems failure that had threatened mechanical damage. Grosjean’s Lotus-Mercedes was a further 0.4sec adrift of the Red Bull and 0.1sec faster than the Sauber-Ferrari of Felipe Nasr who just edged ahead of team-mate Marcus Ericsson, the latter making it into Q3 for the second successive race.
1 L Hamilton Mercedes 1hr 39min 42.008sec
2 N Rosberg Mercedes +0.714sec
3 S Vettel Ferrari +2.988sec
4 K Räikkönen Ferrari +3.835sec
5 F Massa Williams +8.544sec
6 V Bottas Williams +9.885sec
7 R Grosjean Lotus +19.008sec
8 F Nasr Sauber +22.625sec
9 D Ricciardo Red Bull +32.117sec
10 M Ericsson Sauber +1 lap
11 S Pérez Force India +1 lap
12 F Alonso McLaren +1 lap
13 C Sainz Toro Rosso +1 lap
14 J Button McLaren +1 lap
15 W Stevens Manor +2 laps
16 R Merhi Manor +2 laps
DNF M Verstappen Toro Rosso
DNF P Maldonado Lotus
DNF D Kvyat Red Bull
DNF N Hülkenberg Force India
The grandstands, virtually empty through Friday, were packed on Sunday, Chinese fans cheering enthusiastically as the cars sat on the grid beneath the giganta-drome proportions of the venue’s overlooking buildings and a bright blue sky. The tyre blankets came off to reveal yellow-striped soft tyres on all but the cars of Kvyat and Sainz who’d opted instead for the white-walled mediums. Which was going to prove the better tyre on race day? The outcome of the Mercedes/Ferrari fight might have been hanging on that question.
As the lights went out Hamilton – who had aimed his car aggressively over towards his team-mate on the grid – was straight into the lead from Rosberg and Vettel. Ricciardo had let the revs fall too far, triggering the Red Bull’s anti-stall and he was passed on all sides, falling from seventh to way back down among the McLarens.
Through the long, tightening radius of 1-2-3 and then out through the switchback left of four, the Williams of Massa and Bottas were jockeying for position – Valtteri going ahead of his team-mate, but with Räikkönen positioning himself perfectly to pass Massa around the outside of four and putting himself tight into Bottas’ slipstream as the pack screamed up through the kink of five and towards the braking zone for the hairpin of six. Kimi judged his move here beautifully to scythe down the inside for fourth. He and Bottas fought out the corner side-by-side, but as Valtteri slid out onto the exit kerb it lost him momentum – costing him a further place to Massa as they surged up the short following straight towards the fast interlinked switchbacks of seven-eight.
Verstappen and Kvyat snagged each other as they exited turn six, but continued without damage, the Red Bull ahead – but only up to the tight left of turn 11, where Verstappen hurled the Toro Rosso down the inside and past. Hülkenberg had made up a load of places and was in among them, going past the prime-tyred Kvyat into the hairpin of 14 after slipstreaming him down the massive back straight. Hulk was now already three places ahead of his team-mate Pérez, who headed Alonso’s McLaren, Fernando having passed Button through the opening sequence of turns. Ricciardo lay between them.
Hamilton crossed the line just over 1sec ahead of Rosberg, the two Mercs leading the two Ferraris of Vettel and Räikkönen, the two Williams of Massa and Bottas, Grosjean’s Lotus, the Saubers of Nasr and Ericsson, Maldonado’s Lotus, then the squabbling Verstappen/Hülkenberg/Kvyat/Sainz/Pérez pack. Trailing ever-more distant from Button, the two Manors brought up the rear.
After this initial burst of dicing the concern switched to feeling out the tyres in these early heavily-fuelled laps. The rear ends were initially squirmy and nervous, but this would be balanced out after a few laps as the graining process of the heavily loaded fronts began to unfold. Sainz spun to the back at turn one on the second lap, Maldonado DRS’d his way past Ericsson for ninth next time through and concentrated next on sizing up the other Sauber of Nasr. The Lotuses were going well in a race for the first time this season, with Grosjean hanging on OK to the Williams of Bottas.
The prime tyre was not working well on Kvyat’s car and Pérez demoted him another place on the fourth lap, their dice lasting from turn 14, through 15 and into 1-2-3. Team-mate Ricciardo meanwhile had begun to make progress from his compromised start and having picked off Alonso at turn 11 arrived on the tail of Kvyat. It wasn’t long before Daniil was being instructed to let his soft-tyred team-mate past, but he wasn’t up for paying that too much heed. Ricciardo tried a move down the inside into turn 11 but Kvyat fought it.
Next time through he went for the outside through the first turn and things got mighty tight as Kvyat again fought it out and prevailed. Ricciardo, seriously irritated now, fired his car down the inside of the other Red Bull into turn six, but locked up and ran wide, allowing Kvyat back ahead as they accelerated out of there. It took until the sixth lap before Ricciardo put a clean move on him. The post-race Red Bull debrief seemed set to be slightly tense.
Maldonado used his DRS to slipstream Nasr’s Sauber on the ninth lap, diving ahead into the hairpin and now directly behind team-mate Grosjean. Just behind Nasr, Verstappen was getting a sniff of Ericsson’s place. A lap later he came from nowhere with a super-aggressive move into the hairpin that took Ericsson completely by surprise. Having to suddenly swerve out the way, Marcus struggled as the Sauber’s anti-stall briefly triggered but Verstappen was through and away. Behind them, Hülkenberg retired when the Force India’s gearbox went bang with no warning. Kvyat became the race’s second retirement a few laps later when the Red Bull’s engine seized.
Up front Rosberg had remained around 1sec behind Hamilton, not wanting to risk damaging his tyres by getting any closer than that. Lewis, as recounted, had been tentatively feeling out how the softs were holding out and by now was pleasantly surprised. He upped the pace by a full second on the 11th lap – and Rosberg went with him. This was just as Vettel’s softs were beginning to surrender. The tyre picture had completely changed since Friday. In these conditions, on this compound, just as the Mercedes technical boys suspected, they were easier on the rubber than the Ferrari. Vettel was brought in at the end of lap 13, fitted with his new softs in just 2.3sec, and was underway again. “I wasn’t expecting it to be as close with Nico as it was,” he recounted later, “and maybe I should have pushed harder on my out-lap.”
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 68
2 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 55
3 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 51
4 Felipe Massa Williams 30
5 Kimi Räikkönen Ferrari 24
6 Valtteri Bottas Williams 18
7 Felipe Nasr Sauber 14
8 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull 11
9 Romain Grosjean Lotus 6
10 Nico Hülkenberg Force India 6
11 Max Verstappen Toro Rosso 6
12 Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso 6
13 Marcus Ericsson Sauber 5
14 Daniil Kvyat Red Bull 2
15 Sergio Pérez Force India 1
Hamilton was aggressively fast on his in-lap next time through, though the Mercedes stop was 0.5sec slower. A lap after that and Rosberg’s in lap was 1.2sec slower than Hamilton’s. All three were cautious on their out laps – it being crucial that the soft compound tyres were not damaged by pushing too hard immediately. Rosberg had exited the pits around 1sec ahead of the Ferrari. Räikkönen had rejoined around 5sec behind his team-mate. At Williams the soft tyre was wildly overheating by the end of the stint – particularly on Bottas’s car. There was no question of staying on it and both cars were fitted with the medium for the second stint. “We have to look at why we couldn’t get the faster tyre to work for us,” assessed Rob Smedley afterwards, “because it’s clear other teams could.”
“The car itself was quite stable and well-balanced,” said Massa, who had pulled out over 3sec on Bottas during the first stint, “but the tyre grip just wasn’t there for us. The car is better than last year’s; it’s just that others – particularly Ferrari – have progressed more.”
In pitting early to fend off a potential Nasr undercut attempt, Maldonado had ended up under-cutting his team-mate Grosjean and now ran seventh, just 3sec behind Bottas. He had been aided in this by a slow pit stop for Grosjean. Both Lotuses – like the Williams – were fitted with the prime tyre for the second stint. It seemed only the fast cars were getting the soft to work at this track temperature. The faster the car, the better it worked. Hence Ferrari, while continuing to pull away from Williams and keeping the pressure on the conservatively-driven Mercs, was never really in a position to dictate its destiny on pure performance – unlike at Malaysia. Hamilton’s careful monitoring of his car’s performance was indeed making the race look closer than it really was.
A few seconds behind the Lotuses, Verstappen was gaining on Nasr, Pérez had undercut himself past Ericsson but was on a three-stop strategy, the prime-tyred Sainz had yet to make his first stop and Ricciardo continued to push to make up for his disastrous start. Once Sainz had pitted, the Red Bull steadily caught Ericsson but Renault power didn’t give him the straightline speed to pass the Ferrari-powered Sauber, even with the help of DRS. Further back, McLaren had split its tyre strategy, putting Alonso on the mediums for the middle stint and Button on the softs.
Interestingly, the McLaren responded to the soft tyre well – just like the Ferrari and Mercedes, suggesting its downforce is of a similar order. At this point Alonso allowed Button past, secure in the knowledge that he’d be on the faster tyre for the final stint when he’d be able to come back at him.
Alonso began to experience a lack of rear grip in this stint, but it turned out not to be tyre-related. A chunk of rubber had stuck in the McLaren’s rear wing slot gap. On the plus side the Honda engines were giving no hint of trouble, giving confidence to up the ERS power for the next race prior to a major specification upgrade for Barcelona.
“Lewis is driving very slowly,” reported Rosberg over the radio on the 20th lap. “Tell him to speed up.” Hamilton was given a slightly faster target time at this point – which he adhered to. But still Rosberg felt he was being compromised.
“They kept coming on the radio asking me to pick up my pace,” said Hamilton. “and I’m kind of, ‘well, I’m trying to manage these tyres.’ It’s like you’ve got £100 and you have to spend it wisely over your stint. I was trying to make my stint go on as long as possible, while keeping….”
“How many pounds did you have left at the end?” interrupted Vettel mischievously with a big grin. Rosberg looked on, stony-faced.
“I didn’t do anything intentionally to hold anyone up,” claimed Lewis. “If Nico wanted to get by he could have tried but he didn’t.”
The man showing everyone how to overtake was Verstappen. Following his decisive moves on Kvyat and Ericsson, his next victim was Nasr – into the turn 14 hairpin on the 19th lap. Again, it was from a long way back, again he controlled the car beautifully, keeping the momentum up very late until fully alongside, then somehow still getting it all stopped and turned without locking up wheels. In the sister car Sainz lost a big chunk of time when he suddenly lost drive coming onto the back straight. After a few seconds of adjustments to the controls under instruction, it got itself going again, but he was now a lap down.
Just as towards the end of the first stint, the Ferrari’s softs began to give out before those on the Mercedes – and it was this that prevented Rosberg’s fears from being realised. By lap 28, with the second stops approaching, Vettel was in the undercut window, within 1.5sec of Rosberg and lapping at the same pace as both Mercs. Had Ferrari brought him in then, he could probably have jumped up to second (though it would have entailed a long final stint of 28 laps, half the race distance). But with the front tyres now shot, Vettel dropped 0.5sec on the 29th lap.
Hamilton upped his pace by 0.5sec at this point, Rosberg again going with him. Seb came in on the 30th lap, had his mediums fitted and charged back out – but he’d dropped too much time in those last couple of laps. Mercedes responded by bringing Rosberg in next lap and he rejoined still around 1.5sec ahead.
1 Mercedes 119
2 Ferrari 79
3 Williams 48
4 Sauber 19
5 Red Bull 13
6 Toro Rosso 12
7 Force India 7
8 Lotus 6
9 McLaren 0
10 Manor 0
The need to keep Rosberg ahead of the Ferrari had meant that Hamilton stayed out. He needed to pump in the times at this point to avoid being undercut by Rosberg. As Nico had pitted, Hamilton let rip. Having been in the mid 1min 43s, he reeled off two laps of 1min 42.2sec on his old softs, showing he still had many pounds in the bank in terms of his tyre life! This was around 1sec quicker than Rosberg was doing on his new mediums. They would stand as the only two laps Hamilton had driven properly fast during the whole race, such was the tyre concern and the logical aversion to risk when none was needed. Hamilton was brought in on the 33rd lap for his final stop, fitted with the mediums and rejoined now over 6sec clear of his team-mate.
“Can you go much faster than this?” Ferrari asked Vettel, forlornly. “Not much,” he replied. “I get in dirty air after that and will destroy the tyres.” At this point Ferrari accepted defeat and instructed both drivers to turn down their engines. The Mercs duly pulled away and Rosberg was over 12sec ahead of Vettel before the late safety car.
There were plenty of other battles still to be settled though. Räikkönen could scent opportunity on his fresher tyres and was steadily closing down the gap to his team-mate. At Lotus, Maldonado’s good day turned bad when he began experiencing serous braking difficulties. These caused him to slide straight on at the left-hander in the pit entry road as he came in for his second stop. For this year the gravel trap – which he’d beached himself in during practice last year – was no longer there and with the help of some marshals clearing him from a dangerous place, eventually made it to his pit. He rejoined but then spun at turn eight, getting going again between the McLarens of Button and Alonso, while Grosjean assumed his place in seventh just a few seconds down on Bottas.
Ricciardo, after a couple of failed attempts, finally nailed Ericsson with a super-close, beautifully-judged move down the inside of turn six. This was for 10th place – and Nasr looked too far out of reach ahead.
Button on the soft tyres had pulled out 13sec on the compromised and hard-tyred Alonso during the 14-lap middle stint. The blockage was removed from Alonso’s wing at the stop and with their tyre compounds now switched, it was Alonso’s turn to make up rapid ground on Button – though they were now a lap down. Maldonado got past Button, JB retaliated but their dice soon allowed the unimpeded Alonso to arrive on their tails. On the 47th lap Maldonado got down the inside of Button into six, but Jenson hung on around the outside and was ahead again as they swept through turns 7-8. Maldonado then nailed a late move down the inside of nine. This dice continued down the DRS zone into the turn 14 hairpin, with Alonso just a few metres behind getting a grandstand view.
Maldonado was ahead down the pit straight, Button using his DRS again and trying to dummy the Lotus driver, with a feint to the outside approaching turn 1 then a late dive for the inside. But Maldonado hadn’t fallen for it and was still on his line as Button ducked right. There wasn’t enough space and Button hit the Lotus, both cars ending up in the run-off area, still mobile but with Alonso now a long way up the road from them. The Lotus was retired shortly afterwards but Jenson was able to soldier on with just front wing damage. He was later awarded a race time penalty and two points on his licence for causing the accident.
The places now appeared set. Behind eighth-placed Verstappen ran Nasr and Ricciardo, with Ericsson just outside the points. Verstappen had gained ground on Grosjean’s Lotus until tyre deg caused him to back off. But he looked secure in eighth after a great performance. Then his engine simply seized solid in exactly the same way as had Kvyat’s earlier. “In both cases there was absolutely no warning,” said Renault Sport’s Cyril Abiteboul. “We were not seeing anything untoward on the data – just sudden failure.” The cause had yet to be determined but it was felt probable that Shanghai’s super-long back straight was probably a contributory factor. The Toro Rosso had stopped four laps short of the race’s full distance and with the car stationary at a dangerous place on the pit straight the safety car was immediately deployed.
Mercedes now faced a potentially agonising decision. If it looked as though the Toro Rosso was going to be cleared in time for at least a lap of racing, Ferrari would be sure to pit at least one of its cars for new tyres – because such was its advantage over Massa’s Williams it would have been able to do so and rejoin without losing position. The old-tyred Mercs would then have been potential sitting ducks to a fresh-tyred Ferrari. But which driver should Mercedes have brought in? Furthermore, on account of being in front they’d have to do it before Ferrari – who might respond by staying out! Whatever Mercedes did Ferrari would probably do the opposite. The risk was all Mercedes’ – and whatever decision it made would have sacrificed one of its drivers. Would they bring in Hamilton, potentially leaving him vulnerable to the safety car not coming in and ending up resuming racing in fourth having dominated at the front all race? Or would they leave him out, bring Rosberg in – only to have the safety car come in, allowing the fresh-tyred Rosberg, and possibly a Ferrari too, to pick off Hamilton?
Thankfully for Mercedes, it was spared that agonising decision through a combination of the acute angle to the gap in the pitwall the Toro Rosso had stopped at – and the very limited steering lock of an F1 car. The marshals’ manoeuvring took an age – and the laps counted down with the safety car heading the field until pulling off at the final corner of the last lap, at which point no overtaking was allowed.
Otherwise, just think of what conspiracies would have been created. Bigger ones even than those we got for what was – despite the feasibility of the theories – really just a complex game of tyre management in a volatile environment.
Maybe Rosberg will come to see it this way in time. Meanwhile, Mercedes’ Niki Lauda had a predictably down-to-earth take on it all. “Nico is just a normal racing driver upset at finishing second. Was Lewis just looking after his own race? Yes, of course and he wouldn’t give a damn about Nico’s race. All racing drivers are selfish egotistical bastards. That’s the only way you can win. Nico recovered quickly, but this weekend Lewis was just better.”
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