2020 Russian Grand Prix preview: Will Hamilton equal Schumacher's 91-win record?
We are now officially in the second half of the 2020 Formula 1 season and after a what must feel like a luxury week off for the teams and drivers,…
Forty-one grand prix victories, the same as Ayrton Senna. Lewis Hamilton had to bundle his pole-sitting team-mate Nico Rosberg aside in the opening few seconds to do it, but his main work for the day was essentially then already done, give or take a bit of managing engine temperatures and worrying about a tyre he’d flat-spotted.
Eased onto the turn two kerb within seconds of the start and forced to back off, Rosberg was zapped by Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari and Valtteri Bottas’s Williams – and would spend much of the rest of the race getting those places back. Which of course just made Hamilton’s job all the easier. “It was just beautiful up front there, it’s like sailing. When you go through those corners, it’s flowing. Also, knowing that this was the race I’d be equalling Ayrton who had quite a history here.”
Rosberg remained polite – actually said that that opening lap dice was ‘fair enough’, but had a face like he was sucking lemons for the duration of the press conference, only breaking out into polished charm when asked a question, then reverting back to a bitter repose. “It was important that I won today,” he said in reference to his disappointment, “and it didn’t happen. I had to back out of it – and that cost me the race basically.” You might reckon the post-race team debrief to have had an edge to it.
In terms of racing etiquette it wasn’t so much that Hamilton was out of order in going through turn two side-by-side on the inside and then scraping Rosberg against the exit kerb to secure the lead. It was more that from a team-mate perspective, he could have still taken the lead without stealing quite as much track space from him – and then Rosberg wouldn’t have been passed by the two cars immediately behind. It wasn’t dirty exactly, but pretty ruthless.
There were a couple contributing factors making that move of Hamilton’s possible. The first was that Rosberg’s engine was already running too hot – costing him the acceleration that might have allowed him to be more cleanly ahead of Hamilton off the line. The other was that as soon as it was apparent Hamilton was faster away, there was, for a tiny fraction of time, a window of opportunity for Nico to chop ruthlessly across Lewis’s bows. But he didn’t appear to even consider it.
Were the positions reversed, Hamilton would almost certainly have done that – and therein lies a crucial difference between them. Fifteen years ago Hamilton and Rosberg were first and second in the European Formula A karting championship as team-mates. Team principal Dino Chiesa was asked what differentiated them, what decided which one of them was first and which second. “Propensity for risk,” he answered.
“Lewis will stake everything on winning and Nico is more controlled.” People don’t really change, from karting teenagers to multi-millionaire megastars, and we saw this proven again in the opening few seconds of this race around a track where Rosberg had already done the hardest bit by beating Hamilton to pole. It was an irresistible force against a moveable object.
The first few seconds were the crucial ones – and that’s just as well if you were watching on TV. For Mercedes and Ferrari – the two manufacturers being ‘unhelpful’ about providing Red Bull with engines for next year – were barely seen on the FOM-controlled footage for the rest of the afternoon…
Rosberg fought his way by Bottas on track and Mercedes undercut him past Vettel at the second stops to secure him runner-up, leaving Ferrari to a 3-4 finish with Seb and Kimi Räikkönen. On Honda’s home ground Fernando Alonso caused a stir by pointing out over the radio that he felt he was driving ‘a GP2 engine’ on his way to 14th in the McLaren-Honda and certainly some of the closing speeds of other cars as the Honda ran out of ers power part-way down the straights was alarming. But at least it ensured the team plenty of TV coverage.
With the hardest possible combinations of Pirelli compounds (hard and medium) for the high-speed curves of Suzuka, there were no question marks this time about Mercedes’ tyre temperatures. The W06s with their new rear wings were the fastest things in the place, normality resumed after the apparent mirage of Singapore.
Friday’s practice sessions were rained out and the only dry preparation for qualifying was the one-hour session on Saturday morning. Tyre pressures had been increased by Pirelli from last year at 21.5psi front (a 2psi increase) and 20.5psi rear (up 1.5psi), maximum camber angles reduced. The tyres were visibly crowned in the middle at these pressures and the trick was going to be keeping the tread from overheating with the loads spread over such a thin strip.
“There’s been a big increase in the performance of the top cars,” said Pirelli’s Paul Hembery, “and this is in response to that. But of course the changes are based on the performance of the fastest cars so there’s a bigger gap between the front runners and those who are a bit behind.”
It played into Mercedes’ hands and the battle for pole was only ever between Rosberg and Hamilton. It was decided in the former’s favour for only the second time this year. The crucial runs were the first ones, when Rosberg pretty much nailed his lap but Hamilton locked up into the hairpin and was a bit scrappy through the chicane at the end of the lap, this accounting for a difference of 0.076sec in Nico’s favour.
Hamilton was confident that his second run was shaping up to be significantly better, but then came the red flag in the dying moments of the session. Kvyat had suffered a sizeable accident after getting his outer wheels on the grass in the sixth gear approach to turn 10, the kink before the hairpin. At that speed there was no rescuing the moment and the Red Bull speared across the grass, bounced off the barriers, rolled and landed right way up minus two wheels. Kvyat was unharmed but visibly shaken. The session was over and Rosberg was on pole.
Hamilton has never been on pole here. “It’s been a bad track for me,” he said. “Why? I don’t know. It’s never been a comfortable circuit for me. I love the circuit but I have never felt comfortable here. The set-up has never really come together I guess. I think it’s me; some years I’ve not had the car but generally it is me. I come focused and prepared but it’s just not a track I feel comfortable on – it’s a weird sensation. But today I felt I had overcome a large part of that – and last year in the wet I did so, too.”
Bottas emerged at the head of a tight scrap between Williams and Ferrari, with third fastest time, only 0.5sec off Rosberg. This made the top three grid places a repeat of last year’s. Bottas’s ‘line of least resistance’ style around here is very distinctive – concentrating on minimising the time the tyres are under lateral load, even if it means shallow entries and lots of track to spare on the exits at places like 130R and the final sweep onto the straight. It seems to work well for him.
The Williams-Mercedes was well suited to the track – over one lap, at least. The busier and more aggressive Felipe Massa’s first Q3 run was a scrappy one and like everyone else he didn’t get to complete a second one. He was 0.3sec off his team-mate and two places behind.
Nestled between the Williams was Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari and there was some disappointment that the heavily upgraded car that had such a glorious debut in Singapore couldn’t give the Mercs a harder time around the more conventional demands of this track. Still running visibly low at the front and scraping its belly on the track, Red Bull-style, at the end of the straights, it lacked the sharp direction change of the Red Bull through the Esses, where most of its deficit lay.
Sector one essentially comprises the Esses, sector two a mix of hairpin, fast corner and straight, with sector three formed by 130R and the chicane. The Ferrari was respectively 1.3, 0.67 and 1 per cent off, underlining where its weakness lay. Vettel said the car only came alive in Q3. Prior to that he’d been trailing team mate Kimi Räikkönen. When it mattered, Kimi was 0.1sec off his team-mate and in sixth place.
The Renault’s power deficit meant the Red Bull wasn’t anything like the force it had been in Singapore, though Ricciardo admitted not getting the best from it on his crucial lap, where he trailed both Mercs and Bottas through the Esses. “There was maybe a couple of tenths in there I didn’t get on that lap,” he assessed afterwards. But even that would only have moved him up to Massa/Räikkönen territory, instead of seventh.
Team-mate Kvyat, devastatingly quick in the wet sessions of Friday, looked scrappy and over-aggressive in the dry, like a driver under pressure. Concentrating on using every last scrap of track width on corner approach and entry, he went just a little too far with this on his Q3 run, ending up with a destroyed RB11. Because he’d used up all his other option tyres getting through, this was his only run and so he failed to record a time. He apologised to the Red Bull mechanics for the work he’d given them. He’d be starting from the pitlane in a car built around the spare tub.
Though Lotus didn’t even have a hospitality unit and its freight arrived two days late – both problems due to the team’s financial straits – on-track things were going surprisingly OK. Romain Grosjean again got himself through to Q3 and recorded a lap there within 0.6sec of Räikkönen to line up eighth. Team mate Pastor Maldonado was always a vital couple of tenths slower and never looked like making it out of Q2, ending up 13th.
Sergio Pérez was the faster of the Force India drivers and the only one in Q3. Planning on one late Q3 lap on his only set of option tyres, he never got to complete it because of the red flags and so lined up ninth, ahead of Kvyat. Team-mate Nico Hülkenberg was a couple of tenths slower and 11th fastest but taking a three-place grid drop for his Singapore clash with Massa. “I can’t complain too much about our performance today,” he said. “I think my qualifying lap was pretty good and I felt I was pushing the car to its limit.”
It was a day of missed opportunity for Toro Rosso, for the STR10 was very well suited to the fast sweeps of this place. However, Max Verstappen’s car stopped at the hairpin with electrical failure after he’d set his Q1 lap, meaning he could take no part in Q2, putting him 15th. He was later awarded a three-place penalty for choosing to stop his car on the racing line after initially having coasted to a safe place.
This was Carlos Sainz’s first visit to the formidable track and so he could’ve done without the rained-out Friday sessions (impressively, he was quickest in the first of them). He got in 20 dry laps and was beginning to enjoy himself when on his final Q2 run he picked up a big vibration in the front tyres, preventing him from setting a representative lap, putting him 12th (11th after Hülkenberg’s penalty). The vibration was traced to a tyre temperature sensor having come loose within a wheel rim. Under normal circumstances both cars should have breezed into Q3.
The Honda engine in the McLaren struggled to harvest enough braking energy around this place to keep its battery fully armed – and so the drivers were having to be advised of which was the most efficient engine mode to be in just as they were starting their attack lap, so as to best deploy what energy was there.
The team forgot to advise Button, leaving him to guess – which led to him running out of electrical boost for much of the lap. That was the essential difference between him not getting out of Q1 and Fernando Alonso in the sister car making it through to Q2. Alonso then did a lap of which he was very proud – to put himself 14th. On Honda’s home ground, it cannot have been nice.
Button was ahead only of the Saubers and the Manors. The Saubers, updated at Singapore, were still not working as the team had hoped. There was a lack of correlation between simulation and the track. That said, both Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr might have made it through to Q2 but for various dramas. Ericsson had been lucky to get away with a spin on the entry to Spoon on his first run, when he’d put a wheel on the artificial grass. Without a reference first lap he was relatively cautious on his second, leaving him 17th. Nasr was caught out by the yellows for the Verstappen stoppage.
At Manor Will Stevens got in a representative lap but Alex Rossi did not. He was caught out by the yellows for Ericsson on his first run and aborted – and both were caught by the Verstappen yellows on their second.
It was the lack of Friday dry running and an ambient temperature 8deg C higher than forecast that combined to make the cooling levels chosen by Mercedes a little marginal. Rosberg’s engine was already running too hot as he lined up on pole, with his car angled over towards Hamilton. Lewis got off the line only slightly faster but it allowed him to get far enough alongside his team-mate that he could sit out that dramatic first turn side-by-side on the inside.
Rosberg hung on around the outside as the seventh gear turn one merges with the fourth gear turn two. He probably fought it for a few milliseconds longer than he should have done – for had he tucked in earlier behind Hamilton he wouldn’t have needed the big lift that lost him places to Vettel and Bottas – but then again he might’ve been figuring Lewis was going to leave him more racing room than he did.
“I didn’t really feel it was particularly close,” said Hamilton later, “but the inside line is the inside line, so I had my corner and we were very, very close [spot the disconnect there?] but I was basically understeering, running out of grip. I imagine Nico was running out of road, but that’s what happens when you’re on the outside.”
Hamilton-Vettel-Bottas-Rosberg bundled out of there up the hill for the beginning of the Esses. Further back, the races of Massa and Ricciardo were destroyed almost immediately. Felipe had been slow off the line, Ricciardo from the row behind tried to squeeze between the Williams on the left and Räikkönen on the right and Red Bull’s left-rear rubbed against the front-right of the Williams, puncturing both – and giving both very long drives back to the pits.
Pérez, having squeezed around the limping Massa, then tried to crowd Sainz into turn one but Carlos had nowhere to go because Hülkenberg was already to his inside. Pérez’s wheel hooked itself over the Toro Rosso and bounced the Force India onto the grass and through the gravel, puncturing a tyre along the way. He too would be in at the end of the lap.
The Lotuses of Grosjean and Maldonado took up sixth and seventh – ahead of the fast-starting Hülkenberg, Alonso, Sainz, Ericsson, Button, Nasr, Verstappen, Stevens and Rossi, with Kvyat joining in at the back from his pitlane start in his rebuilt Red Bull and soon scything through the tail-enders.
Everyone apart from Button had started the race on the faster option tyre. Although no-one was confident of their data given the lack of dry running, the hard was reckoned good for around 25 laps, the medium for 20. The latter was around 1sec quicker and because its degradation wasn’t expected to be much worse than the hard, it was logically the favoured tyre. Two-stopping was theoretically the quickest way. But in these temperatures, who knew?
Hamilton’s opening lap wasn’t quite as impressive as that of Vettel in Singapore, but almost. He crossed the line already 1.6sec ahead of Seb – and just kept on stretching it out from there. Bottas, Rosberg and Räikkönen were evenly spaced behind in a game of high speed stalemate. Gradually Vettel began to pull out distance over Bottas, making for a frustrating situation for Rosberg, who was soon being warned about engine temperatures and instructed to go into a low power mode for five laps. He was never in a position to attack Bottas, though was obviously capable of lapping faster than the Williams.
Räikkönen gradually fell off their pace, but continued to pull out distance on the Lotuses circulating together, with Hülkenberg tight on their tail but unable to find a way by. It used to be the Lotus was comfortably faster than the Force India, but development has necessarily stagnated on the E23 while the VJ08B has had downforce continually added to it.
A gap quickly opened back to Alonso and it was soon apparent just what a hazard both McLarens were on the long straights as the energy recovery system suddenly ran out of juice part way down. The Honda’s compressor is simply too small to feed the ersH with enough heat to work with and cannot run fast enough to compensate in shaft speed what it lacks in size in terms of heat generation. So as it suddenly runs out of the system’s extra 160bhp and all the other engines are still delivering theirs, there would be sections of straight – as at Monza – where the car was abruptly 200bhp down on those around it.
This is a bigger differential than we used to see on race days between the turbos and the DFVs in the ‘80s. “It was scary,” said Button. “You’d be coming down the back straight approaching 130R, look in your mirror and there was no-one anywhere near, then as you arrive at the corner they are alongside you! On the pit straight you had to leave room on both sides.”
Nasr and Verstappen went either side of him in formation at a frightening speed differential to begin the fourth lap. Sainz dived past Alonso into turn one at the beginning of lap six and Fernando wasn’t shy about giving his views over the radio. “I could drive at this pace in a GP2 car,” he raged. “Embarrassing. Very embarrassing.” It certainly would be for the Honda people. A lap later and Ericsson followed his team-mate past Alonso at the same place.
It was soon apparent that everyone’s option tyres were holding up just fine. There’d been concerns before the race that at the high pressures Pirelli was insisting on they would be overheating their treads, but it turned out not to be an issue. “Actually, I don’t often say this,” said Hamilton. “But the tyres were pretty amazing.” That certainly wasn’t a universal view if the disbelieving expression of Vettel alongside was any guide. Asked if he agreed with Lewis, Seb simply said: “No comment really.”
But because the tyre performance was unexpectedly robust, it became possible for teams in a position to undercut (or vulnerable to being undercut themselves) to think in terms of making early stops without that forcing them onto the slower three-stop strategy.
Of the potential undercut contests, Rosberg was hovering closely around Bottas, Valtteri unable to escape. Hülkenberg was all over the Lotus pair, Nasr was closing on Alonso. McLaren brought Fernando in on the ninth lap to protect him from a Sauber undercut attempt, though Nasr came in the next lap regardless. A slow stop with a sticking wheel left him further behind the McLaren.
Williams decided to be tactically brave and bring Bottas in early – on lap 11 – to defend from a potential Rosberg undercut and though the stop wasn’t the fastest, he would remain ahead even after Rosberg stopped. Lotus realised that Maldonado was vulnerable to Hülkenberg but was confident it could at least use Pastor as a buffer to keep Grosjean ahead – but that turned out not to be so, as Hulk had so much more speed he was able to leapfrog them both.
The Force India came in on the 10th lap, Lotus responded with Grosjean, sacrificing Maldonado who stayed out. But Hülkenberg’s out-lap was monstrously fast and just too much for Grosjean to be able to do anything about, despite pushing as hard as he could on his in-lap.
Up front, Hamilton had been getting the same warnings as his team-mate about engine temperatures and was switching from mode to mode accordingly, though still eking out distance on the Ferrari. “We never did get on top of the temperature issues,” said Toto Wolff. “It was something we had to manage the whole race.”
Mercedes had no need to worry about responding to Vettel coming in on the 13th lap and left Hamilton out there for another three laps, thereby minimising the distance required of his remaining tyres. Upon the completion of the first round of stops Hamilton on options led Vettel on primes by around 7sec, with Bottas (options)/Rosberg (primes) a few seconds back from there and Räikkönen (primes) running a lonely race in fifth.
Hülkenberg (primes) was 7sec behind and obviously not set to progress any further up the field, the Force India unable to run with the big boys but pulling away from the Lotuses (options) and Sainz, who was doing a quietly effective job and steadily gaining on Maldonado.
The Saubers, having passed the McLarens early in the race, found themselves behind them again after the stops, through various calamities. Just before stopping Ericsson had spun at Spoon, just as in qualifying. He got going again, but the 8sec he lost meant that after he stopped he lost places. Team-mate Nasr never really got going into the second stint, feeling his car becoming increasingly wayward – and Ericsson was able to pass him on the 15th lap and set off in chase of Button again.
Just up ahead from there, a slow pitstop had brought Verstappen out behind Kvyat and they were line-astern advancing upon Alonso. In the midst of their chase Max had an attempt at passing Daniil around the outside of 130R at around 200mph. He got on the marbles beyond the kerbing, applied a shallow angle of opposite lock and accepted it hadn’t worked… Kvyat remained ahead but was complaining of poor braking, especially into the hairpin.
Those who’d stopped on the first lap – Pérez, Ricciardo and Massa – were out of sync. Massa’s necessarily crawling pace as he’d limped back with a front wheel scraping the ground had left him two laps down. But Pérez and Ricciardo were gradually hauling themselves into the midfield and would soon be among the big line of traffic in Alonso’s wake.
We’d now get to see a direct comparison between the two tyres for the first time all weekend and, if anything, the prime looked faster than expected. But Hülkenberg’s set had taken a bit of a thrashing as he’d made that huge out-lap to pass Grosjean and they didn’t hold up for as long as had been expected. Observing this, Lotus decided to extend its middle stints on the options, so as not to give the prime too long to do at the end.
Upon rejoining still behind Bottas, Rosberg had launched full attack mode and was able to exit 130R much faster and cleanly out-brake the Williams into the chicane for third. Next in his targets was Vettel, around four seconds up the road. Although he’d have to ease off every now and again to keep his engine temperatures under control, Nico would gradually haul himself up to the Ferrari in this middle stint.
From his compromised starting position, Kvyat was the race’s only genuine three-stopper and once he pulled in for his second stop on the 20th lap, it left Verstappen clear to launch an attack on Alonso. Fernando was placing the McLaren cannily, bringing the apex speed at the chicane right down, then getting a clean exit onto the straight. It seemed to be frustrating Verstappen, who would light the Toro Rosso’s rear wheels up out the chicane, allowing Alonso to pull out the gap necessary to protect him from his vastly slower end-of-straight speeds.
Eventually Max figured out what he needed to do, got cleanly out of the chicane from further back – and breezed past the McLaren under DRS before turn one on the 26th lap. At which point Fernando let loose with some further comments about his ‘GP2 engine’. Thereafter however, he’d be protected from further attack as a way behind him Ericsson was struggling to keep the Sauber’s tyres in good shape, but was defending strongly from a bunch of faster cars – Pérez, Kvyat and Ricciardo – which might otherwise have been able to catch and pass Fernando, just as they’d done Button.
Sainz had got himself onto the Lotus pair’s tail on the eve of the second stops and on the 27th lap was told to do the opposite of whatever Maldonado did at the end of the lap. For a moment it appeared as if Pastor was lining himself up for the pitlane and so Carlos prepared to carry on. But as the Lotus then stayed out, Carlos swerved heavily into the pit entry lane, but he took out the rubber bollard there, damaging his front wing.
He was delayed 16sec while a replacement was fitted – and so the Lotuses were off the hook. They continued with their long middle stints now there was no undercut threat from behind. Sainz found that his car was now much more difficult as there had been some floor damage in the bollard incident. In addition his brakes were playing up, the rears locking badly. Team-mate Verstappen began to track him down.
During this middle stint Hamilton extended his lead over Vettel out to around 10sec, but it wasn’t as serene as the gap made it look. He was constantly having to manage the engine temperatures and on one occasion locked up into the chicane, putting a flat spot on his front left. For the second half of the stint he was therefore suffering a bad vibration – and was pressuring his team about when he could come in. Not yet, as they needed to ensure his final set of primes wouldn’t be over-stressed towards the end.
1 L Hamilton Mercedes 1hr 28min 6.508sec
2 N Rosberg Mercedes +18.964sec
3 S Vettel Ferrari +20.850sec
4 K Räikkönen Ferrari +33.768sec
5 V Bottas Williams +36.746sec
6 N Hülkenberg Force India +55.559sec
7 R Grosjean Lotus +72.298sec
8 P Maldonado Lotus +73.575sec
9 M Verstappen Toro Rosso +95.315sec
10 C Sainz Toro Rosso +1 lap
11 F Alonso McLaren +1 lap
12 S Pérez Force India +1 lap
13 D Kvyat Red Bull +1 lap
14 M Ericsson Sauber +1 lap
15 D Ricciardo Red Bull +1 lap
16 J Button McLaren +1 lap
17 F Massa Williams +2 laps
18 A Rossi Marussia +2 laps
19 W Stevens Marussia +3 laps
DNF F Nasr Sauber
Of more immediate concern to the Mercedes strategists was how they might get Rosberg past Vettel. Around 10sec back from there, Bottas had found himself unable to escape from Räikkönen, setting up a potential game of who dared pull the pitstop trigger first between Williams and Ferrari.
Ferrari was therefore working on two crucial fronts as the second stops approached. It mugged Williams by bringing Räikkönen in on lap 28 and getting him turned around in just 2.2sec – the Ferrari stops consistently the fastest in the pitlane all afternoon. Williams responded next lap with Bottas. The stop wasn’t quite as quick and Valtteri came out just behind. But with Ferrari’s other car, they were mugged by Mercedes, who brought Rosberg in on the 29th lap.
Although the stop was slower than Vettel’s subsequent one, Rosberg’s out-lap pace was just too much for anything Seb could conjure on his in-lap. “We underestimated how quickly Nico could go,” accepted Seb. “It shouldn’t have been a surprise because we could see the car’s pace from what Lewis was doing with it. In hindsight, had we come in a lap earlier we’d probably have been able to come out still ahead.”
Hamilton’s second and final stop couldn’t come soon enough for him and his damaged front tyre – which was discovered to be down to the canvas. He rejoined still 10sec in front and the Mercedes 1-2 was in place, with just a final routine stint to go, managing temperatures along the way but otherwise untroubled, each car on a fresh set of hard tyres. As Mercedes turned down the engines, so Ferrari followed suit.
“It would have been an insanity to think we could race them,” said Maurizio Arrivabene. “If we’d kept ours turned up, they would have responded.” Maybe not though – given just how marginal the Merc’s cooling was. The Ferrari generally does seem to be less troubled by temperatures, adding to the impression of a slightly more robust, lower maintenance car, albeit not quite as fast.
The respective fastest laps of Rosberg (1min 37.15sec) and Vettel (1min 37.91sec) were probably a fair indication of their relative performance here. However, on the first flying lap of his final stint Hamilton let rip seemingly just for the hell of it and set a time a full second faster than Rosberg’s best, set just a couple of laps earlier on his first flyer. This was no more than Lewis indulging himself – and an indication of how generally the Pirellis dictate a pace some way off the limits of the drivers and cars. Even on a good tyre day like this.
Williams in turn just didn’t have quite the raw pace of the Ferrari, generally around 0.3sec adrift. Bottas trailed around in Räikkönen’s wake for the final stint, around 15sec behind Vettel by the end, but a long way clear of Hülkenberg, delivering an impeccable drive for Force India and in turn well clear of the Lotus pair Grosjean and Maldonado.
Lotus’s precaution of the long middle stint saw them on fresh tyres with a lower fuel load than anyone else – hence their flattering places in the fastest lap list just a couple of tenths off Vettel. The reality is they were around 1sec slower than the Ferrari. Romain’s front tyres were in shreds as he came in for his stop on the 33rd lap, having locked up badly at the chicane the lap before.
“I could see the canvas flapping as I was doing my in-lap, which was a bit worrying,” he smiled. In these last few races of his four-year Lotus career he’s delivered some desperately needed results for the terribly pressured team – and this was a good day for Maldonado to deliver one of his occasional flawless performances too.
The final couple of points places were the preserve of Toro Rosso. With his damaged car proving very tricky to drive, Sainz could do nothing about fending off Verstappen and simply pulled aside to let him through into the chicane nine laps from the end. “They told us we could fight,” said Carlos, “but there was no point. I was just limping by then.”
It was on this lap that the race-long contest between the Manor drivers at the back reached a dramatic conclusion as Stevens lost front downforce through 130R, having just been lapped by Bottas. The car spun on the exit, and stopped fully broadside across a track wreathed in tyre smoke. Veering left just in time and popping out of the smoke cloud was Rossi, 18th place now his.
He’d been pressuring Stevens all the way through, this playing its part in Will having sped in the pitlane, for which he’d have 5sec added to his race time. He was in the midst of trying to pull that 5sec out over Rossi when he spun. It was a terrific little battle. There were plenty of them in the midfield too, largely thanks to Ericsson’s tenacious defence in a slow Sauber.
He eventually had a further moment at his bogey corner of Spoon, getting a little out of shape over the astroturf and allowing Pérez and Kvyat through for 12th and 13th. Their long struggle to pass the Sauber essentially protected Alonso and allowed him an 11th place finish. Ron Dennis later said he was unimpressed with Alonso’s negative comments. Fernando in turn had been unimpressed with driving a car such as this. Button was five places further back in his, having been passed by Ricciardo.
Rosberg, in between glaring off into the distance, agreed with Hamilton that this was about the best the car had ever been. “It was fabulous,” said Nico. “It was just on rails.”
It allowed Hamilton to express himself on a circuit that hasn’t always gelled with him. “I’ve struggled here for years,” he said, continuing where he’d left off in qualifying, “yet I do love driving it. I was able to get the balance in just the right place. Bonno, Ricky and the whole crew did a great job to get the car, with the short amount of time we had, into a beautiful window. I was really able to work my lines and improve. It was just beautiful.”
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