On the grid it was confirmed that F1 has renewed its deal with Pirelli until the end of 2019. It was ironic therefore that what played out was a race very untypical of the Pirelli era, one where tyre degradation was just not an issue and drivers were able to push hard throughout, even on a one-stop strategy. “It was intense,” said one of the race’s star performers Felipe Nasr, seventh across the line in his Sauber less than a minute behind the winning Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton. “It was very different from the usual sort of race. There was no tyre saving at all. I pitted after 34 laps only because I had 100% wear – there was no tread left. But up until then the performance was still good. I much prefer this way of racing.”
Hamilton does too – though he may not have been able to record his Vettel-equalling 42nd career victory had his team-mate Nico Rosberg not been afflicted by a faulty throttle damper just a few laps into the race, having fended Hamilton off from pole, having done everything right all weekend. Despite getting only one car to the finish, Mercedes clinched the constructors championship – though had to rely on a post-race penalty for Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari to do so. This was for a desperate last-lap lunge Kimi had made on Valtteri Bottas’ Williams for third in which heavy contact was made, putting Bottas out on the spot and leaving Räikkönen to crawl the crippled Ferrari over the line in fifth. After a 30-second penalty was applied, it left him eighth, reducing Ferrari’s points haul by the decisive amount. Ferrari’s other points were garnered from Vettel’s second place, the car not a Mercedes match but close enough that Seb could apply some late pressure on Hamilton after the latter’s rear wing suddenly began under-performing with 15 laps to go. It’s suspected that rubber debris had simply clogged the slot gap – and there was plenty of that around.
Only in that sense was it a typical Pirelli race. The way the Pirelli relies much more heavily on mechanical grip than chemical – clawing its grip onto the surface more than bonding with it – means it shreds great balls of rubber off-line. These played a crucial part in determining the shape of the race for as Romain Grosjean collected a slide through turn three on the 12th lap, his right-rear got onto those marbles, causing him to over-correct, oval-style, hard into the wall. It was a big enough impact to break the Lotus’ seat and came at the perfect time for the safety car it triggered to provide a strategic dilemma. Did you come in and change to the prime tyres at this point, committing yourself to a 41-lap second stint? Because there’d been virtually no practice on Friday, no-one really knew the tyre life expectancy. It was a gamble – one that those in the top places didn’t take but most of those below did.
And that formed the structure that played out in the last laps as early stoppers Sergio Pérez and Daniel Ricciardo – running behind Hamilton and Vettel but ahead of everyone else on tyres almost out of rubber – tried to fend off the later-stopping faster cars of Bottas and Räikkönen. The crossover point between the two approaches came deliciously late in the race, thereby setting up that controversial last lap, out of which Pérez emerged with a terrific podium for Force India.
So what is it about the Sochi Autodrome that gives such untypical tyre behaviour? Mainly it’s to do with its track surface – an incredibly smooth bitumen with a high composite content that makes even the super-soft too conservative a compound. Even Pirelli’s heat-degrading mechanism is not triggered by the loads and the only limitation upon the tyre is wear. As Nasr pointed out, it works perfectly well right up to the point where there is no tread left. Which means – hallelujah – the drivers can lean on it for the full stint length.
But partly it’s also to do with how the layout imposes such a heavy fuel and brake demand. Those demands mean it’s one of the handful of tracks on the calendar that imposes some lift and coasting even with the full 100kg starting allocation, taking the tyre yet further away from being the limiting factor.
Which brings us to the remarkable Carlos Sainz, who was forced to retire from seventh place, totally out of brakes, having started from the back. He was back there because he’d spent the hour of qualifying in hospital, under observation after an enormous crash in that morning’s practice session. Declared fit, and with his Toro Rosso rebuilt, he took the start, made great progress, was one of those opting to pit under the Grosjean safety car – and with 10 laps to go was just managing his brakes whilst comfortably holding off Daniil Kvyat’s Red Bull. Suddenly the temperatures of the left-front began soaring and in no time at all that carbon fibre disc had oxydised itself to nothing. The brake ducts had become blocked with rubber debris….
The trick all seemed to be in the tyre preparation as temperatures continued to steadily fall from an already cool 26-deg C at the beginning of qualifying, down to 23deg C by the end of it. There was a choice to be made between ‘build-push’ or ‘push-charge-push’ – ie a single preparation lap or two runs on the same tyres with an ers-charging lap in between. There wasn’t one definitive right answer. Regardless of which was chosen, on the out lap you needed to bring the fronts in quite aggressively but at the same time be easy on the rears – and the extent to which you needed to do this seemed to be changing each run. Typically, the fronts were too cold for the beginning of the lap, the rears too hot by the end of it.
It’s not like the drivers had much time to get the feel of it either for the Friday sessions had been lost – the first one to a heavy diesel spillage (ironically from a track-cleaning vehicle) on Thursday evening, the second to heavy rain. The one hour of Saturday morning practice was therefore the first time they had a chance to push – and Carlos Sainz, trying to learn the circuit, pushed just a little too hard. The left-hand kink of turn 12 is approached at around 200mph and immediately after it you are braking hard for a 90-degree right, so the car is naturally unbalanced here. It’s one of the few places on the calendar where the driver has to manually close the DRS flap rather than just relying on it automatically closing when he begins braking. Was Carlos just a little late closing the flap, not allowing the airflow to re-attach as he turned in to the kink? It seems not. He’d just switched to the lower-grip prime tyre, had just changed the braking shape map to give slightly more rear bias and this combination, together with his typically aggressive way of learning a track, seems to have caught him out at the trickiest part of the circuit.
Getting out of shape through the kink, he slid left into the barriers, plucking off the Toro Rosso’s left-front wheel, leaving him very little retardation as he went straight on up the run-off area and into the TecPro barriers that shielded the conventional metal barriers. The low nose of the car lifted the TecPro above and the car punched a hole in the metal behind. Thankfully the TecPro, even though compromised, had done its job and though trapped in the car Carlos was essentially unhurt. But it meant he watched qualifying from a hospital bed, where he was detained for observation.
Which meant that only the slowest four rather than the usual five would be eliminated at the end of Q1. This was good news for Sauber’s Felipe Nasr who would otherwise have gone out at this point. His team-mate Marcus Ericsson, 0.6s slower, was eliminated. The tyre temperature sensors were not working on his crucial run – and in these conditions that was a very major problem, leaving him disappointed. Nasr had done well to get quickly into a rhythm on the super-softs, given that he’d not had a chance to try them previously because of the Sainz-shortened practice session.
The Saubers were around three seconds faster than the Manors which lined up in their usual position at the back, Will Stevens a tenth quicker than the returning Roberto Merhi. Aside from the Manors and Ericsson, the other Q1 casualty was Fernando Alonso’s McLaren – around 0.1s slower than Nasr and a full 0.4s off team-mate Jenson Button who made it through to Q2. Afterwards Fernando gave the impression that he wasn’t trying too hard to get out of Q1: “With the penalties, I was always going to start last, so we tried to minimise the laps we needed to run today. And going out in Q1 means I haven’t put too many miles on the car.” The penalties were for an additional engine. Initially a revised specification Honda was fitted, but this was removed and replaced by an older-spec unit.
Button would have made Q2 regardless and after going 13th fastest there (albeit still a chunky 0.6s off the Q3 cut-off) he considered this perhaps his best qualifying session of the year. “It cooled down a lot and had I put my new tyres on first, we could have been even quicker.” Only on his second Q2 run was he on fresh tyres, on which he couldn’t even match his old-tyre time from the first run.
The others failing to graduate from Q2 were, in order: Daniil Kvayt’s Red Bull, Nasr, Pastor Maldonado’s Lotus and Felipe Massa’s Williams. Massa’s was a drastic under-performance, resulting from his having got out of shape through turn eight, being forced to abandon the lap, and then encountering traffic and overheated rear tyres on his subsequent lap. Maldonado just couldn’t find the feel of the tyres the way he had in the practice session and was never quick – a full 1.1s off his team-mate. Kvyat reckoned the time would have come on the second lap of his tyres, but he’d left it too late going out to get a second lap. But it would’ve been marginal anyway – the Red Bull was simply out-powered around this place with its succession of low gear acceleration zones, and team-mate Daniel Ricciardo was only a couple of tenths faster. This was enough to scrape him into Q3, marginally ahead of Max Verstappen’s Toro Rosso.
Rosberg’s Mercedes had headed both Q1 and Q2, and had an edge over Hamilton throughout. After they’d each completed their first Q1 runs (the Mercs the only ones confident enough to get through that session using only the primes), Hamilton had asked his engineer to repeat what he thought he’d just heard. “Did you say a second off Nico?” He’d heard it right. He got within a couple tenths in that session and a tenth in Q2. Into the shorter Q3 session, because of the necessity of the multiple lap tyre warm-up on the Merc, there was time only for an attack lap, a cooling lap and another attack lap – all on the same set of tyres. On the first attack lap Rosberg was 0.3s faster than his team-mate, much of his gain coming in the long parabolica of turn three, where he took a shorter inside line, more than making up in shorter distance what he lost in the slower speed compared to Hamilton. On their final attempts the tyres were better through the first sector but slower thereafter – and those first laps would stand as the best. Rosberg was therefore on pole for the second race in succession, with Hamilton even having a half-spin at 13 and abandoning what was never shaping up into a faster lap.
“We got a good balance despite the limited running,” said a happy Rosberg. “We had to guess a bit where it was going to be and the guesses turned out well. I felt really comfortable in the car.” Hamilton had been on the back foot throughout and accepted that Rosberg had simply done a better job.
Around eight-tenths slower than pole, there was a close match-up between Valtteri Bottas’ Williams and Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari. Bottas put all the pieces together beautifully and even though he completed his first Q3 lap on the grass verge exiting the final turn, it was good for third on the grid, half a tenth faster than Seb. Vettel found his car to be progressively more understeery as the track temperatures cooled. “At first, in Q1 we were able to do the time on one lap. Then I lost a bit the feeling of the car,” he surmised. Kimi Räikkönen was fifth, 0.4s slower, having run wide at turn 13 on his final attempt at improving.
There was a big gap behind the Ferraris, headed by the Force Indias, with Nico Hulkenberg just edging out Sergio Pérez. “The car has a nice balance,” said Hulk, “and this is the maximum we could achieve.” Like Button in Q2, both achieved their best laps in Q3 on their first run when on used tyres as the new super-softs were still not up to temperature by the end.
Romain Grosjean got his Lotus through to Q3 as usual and recorded eighth fastest time there, in a lap almost identical to that he set in Q2, a couple of tenths off the Force Indias, which have been developed now to have leapfrogged the Lotus which has had virtually zero development of late. The Lotus was a couple of tenths faster than Verstappen’s Toro Rosso (still learning the track during much of qualifying), and Ricciardo’s Red Bull, the latter having tried a balance tweak after Q2 that didn’t work.
This is one of the few tracks where the fuel consumption is a limitation – so making a two-stop even less attractive than a one, which was already favoured because of the extraordinarily low degradation rates, estimated before the race at a hundredth of a second per lap on the prime (soft) and two-hundredths on the super-soft option. The latter was around one second per lap faster and therefore the ideal was to start on the super-soft and maximise the length of that first stint, minimising the number of laps you were on the slower tyre for the remainder of the distance. Only those out of position and looking to do something different – Pastor Maldonado, Felipe Massa, Marcus Ericsson and Fernando Alonso – started on the prime.
At 27-deg C, the track was a little warmer than during qualifying but not by anything like enough to trigger the heat degradation that’s usually the limiting factor at other tracks. On the last part of the formation lap to the grid Rosberg and Hamilton slowed the pace down to a crawl. There was a tactical reason for this: the Ferrari needs more work to get that vital heat into the tyres than the Mercedes – and this was thwarting that process. This action would come to have a consequence – but not upon Ferrari.
Rosberg – having devoted much of what limited practice running there was, to practising starts – got away well, with Hamilton tucking tight into his slipstream as they surged towards the right-handed flat-out kink of turn one, Rosberg moving right to defend the inside for the tight right-hander of two, Hamilton ducking out of the tow by flicking left. It got him ahead, but not by enough to claim the corner from the outside. Rosberg was through and into the lead. Behind the Mercs, it was all a little fruity. Bottas retained his third place off the line but with Räikkönen tucked tight onto his rear wing, the slipstream from the Williams allowing Kimi to grind past team-mate Vettel. As Bottas and Räikkönen arrived at turn two, the Williams was its usual inert self as Valtteri turned in, understeering to the outside of the corner, while the Ferrari, always more adjustable, allowed Kimi to take a lot of inside kerb, thereby placing himself perfectly to round the turn side-by-side with Bottas but with more momentum – and up into third.
Hamilton and Rosberg took different lines to each other through here all weekend, with Nico staying in tighter. This almost caught Hamilton out for as Rosberg’s heavily-laden car had its momentum checked as it grounded out over the bumps in the middle of the track, Hamilton almost ran into the back of it, Lewis flicking right trying to maintain his greater momentum, but outside of the track limits.
Hulkenberg had arrived at turn two just behind the Ferraris but the Force India’s rear tyres were well below temperature – that crawling formation lap by the Mercs – and the rear of the car just looped around. Nico got the opposite lock on but the gripless rear tyres simply didn’t respond and he kept on spinning – cars behind diving in all directions around the tyre smoke in avoidance. Alongside him on the right was team-mate Pérez and to his right was Grosjean’s Lotus. It was all a little too tight and as Hulkenberg’s spin unfolded Pérez’s right-rear clipped Grosjean’s front wing. The former was unaffected but the latter would be in at the end of the lap for a replacement wing and a switch to the prime tyres.
Verstappen tried to go around the back of the spinning Force India but it just kept coming and the Toro Rosso snagged it, puncturing Max’s left-rear and inflicting a lot of underbody damage. Max too would be in at the end of the lap, and would be stationary there a long time. Ericsson, unsighted amid the traffic and smoke, went right – smack into Hulkenberg. The Sauber and the Force India were now interlocked and stationary in the middle of the track. Safety car.
As Rosberg slowed for the SC boards exiting turn four, he was almost rear-ended by Hamilton – and Räikkönen had to flick right to avoid ploughing into Lewis. Lined up behind them were Bottas, Vettel, Pérez, the about-to-pit Grosjean, Kvyat, Ricciardo, Button, Nasr, Massa, Maldonado, Alonso, Mehri, Stevens, Sainz and the damaged car of Verstappen.
The safety car came in at the end of lap three – with Grosjean having rejoined one from the back, behind Sainz. The delayed Verstappen however was still 20s off the back of the pack as racing resumed.
The throttle pedal of Rosberg’s car had started behaving strangely when running behind the safety car and would continue to do so. When he lifted off it wasn’t returning to 0 per cent, maintaining some revs as he braked and turned into the corners, pushing him on. He retained the lead for the time being but the problem was becoming worse. Meanwhile Bottas used the surge and low drag of the Williams to slipstream his way by Räikkönen down to turn two to bring himself back up to third, with Vettel then all over the back of his team-mate. The McLarens, as ever, were running out of electrical deployment early on the straights, making them easy meat. Nasr passed Button soon after the restart and Sainz, having dealt immediately with the Manors, quickly closed down Alonso.
Going into the seventh lap Rosberg’s throttle problem had worsened to the extent that it pushed him wide over the exit kerbs at turn two. To his right a flash of silver and Hamilton was through on his way to victory. “The pedal was just coming further and further back towards me each time I used it then lifted off,” reported Nico, “but the revs as I lifted were getting higher each time. Eventually it got to the point where I was having to lift my leg so much I couldn’t steer properly.” Running wide at turn 13, he was passed by Bottas and at the end of the lap he peeled off into the pitlane to retire. He’d been quicker than Hamilton all weekend, had this time held him off and looked well equipped to take him on for the win. But it wasn’t to be.
For a couple of laps Bottas actually closed down the gap to Hamilton but only until Pete Bonnington informed him Lewis was actually doing too good a job on the fuel saving and could let rip some. At which point he trimmed over a second from his lap times and Bottas was left well behind.
At this stage of the race Räikkönen was doing a perfect job of shielding Bottas from Vettel. Kimi was clearly holding Seb up, and they got mighty close on one occasion as Vettel used his DRS to attack Kimi down to turn two, Räikkönen taking the defensive inside line, Vettel going for the outside but not quite making it stick. Ferrari seemed quite relaxed about it all, but meanwhile Bottas’ lead over them built up to around 4.5 seconds.
Before Grosjean lost it at turn three on lap 12, Massa had breezed his prime-tyred Williams past Button, Sainz did the same to Alonso to put himself on the tail of Maldonado, with Pastor then easily surging past Button and being followed through by Carlos. Next to arrive on Button’s tail was the recovering Grosjean who had just powered past Alonso. As he gained on JB through the accelerating parabolica the front of the prime-tyred Lotus suddenly washed out as the McLaren stole its air. The understeer was followed by sudden oversteer and just as Romain was applying the opposite lock the right-rear found the marbles and the car instantly spat him the way the front wheels were pointing – ie into the wall.
It looked very much like a classic oval-style accident. The Lotus hit the TecPro barriers very hard. “When I saw it coming I knew it was going to be a big hit. I released the steering wheel, closed my eyes and waited for it to be over.” When the dust and smoke around the destroyed car settled, aside from a badly banged elbow Grosjean was fine, though the side impact was severe enough to have broken his seat.
Out came the safety car again. If you were running up front it was too early to risk pitting – and Hamilton, Bottas and the two Ferraris stayed out. The time that would be lost through being on the slower tyre for the remainder of the distance cancelled out any potential upside. But just behind that group – where Pérez, Kvyat, Ricciardo and Nasr were running – it was an interesting opportunity. You could potentially gain valuable track position when some of those ahead of you would be unable to pull out the gap required to clear you, because the safety car will have bunched the field up. It all depended upon how long the likes of the Ferraris and Bottas could keep pulling away from you before their tyres wore out. If they couldn’t stretch that gap beyond 26s, they were going to come out behind. Your tyres were going to be very marginal at the end, and the faster cars on fresher tyres were going to be chasing you down very quickly, but there was really nothing to lose as those guys were definitely going to beat you if you did the same as them. This way, they might not.
1 L Hamilton Mercedes 1h 37m 11.024s
2 S Vettel Ferrari 5.953s
3 S Pérez Force India 28.918s
4 F Massa Williams 38.831s
5 D Kvyat Red Bull 47.566s
6 F Nasr Sauber 56.508s
7 P Maldonado Lotus 1m01.088s
8 K Räikkönen Ferrari 1m12.358s
9 J Button McLaren 1m19.467s
10 M Verstappen Toro Rosso 1m28.424s
11 F Alonso McLaren 1m31.210s
12 V Bottas Williams Accident
13 R Merhi Marussia 1 Lap
14 W Stevens Marussia 2 Laps
15 D Ricciardo Red Bull Suspension
– C Sainz Toro Rosso Brakes
– R Grosjean Lotus Spun off
– N Rosberg Mercedes Throttle
– N Hulkenberg Force India Accident
– M Ericsson Sauber Accident
So Pérez, Ricciardo, Sainz, the McLarens and the Manors all came in through the next couple of laps as the safety car continued to circulate. Red Bull split its strategy by keeping Kvyat out, while Nasr was offered the choice and made his own call to remain out. His reasoning was based upon the traits of his car. “I had done a long run on the primes on Saturday morning and the car was really not well balanced on them. But as soon as I put the super-softs on in qualifying the car had much better balance. Because the limitation around here is wear rather than degradation, if you can keep the car in balance the tyre wear is much lower and you can go for much longer. I knew I needed to stay on this tyre as long as possible as the car felt really good on it.” The Sauber thus rose up to sixth in the safety car queue, behind Kvyat and ahead of two guys – Massa and Maldonado – who had started on the harder tyre and thus felt it was too early to stop. To get a super-soft not to wear out over 41 laps was a very big ask. But Alonso decided to throw the dice regardless. He came out directly behind his now prime-tyred team-mate. The safety car stayed out until the end of lap 16 while the barriers were rebuilt. Behind Maldonado ran the first of the pitters Pérez followed by Ricciardo, Verstappen, Sainz, Button, Alonso, Mehri and Stevens. The latter named would be in again soon after flat-spotting his fresh tyres avoiding the back of his team-mate whose ers had suddenly malfunctioned.
Hamilton sprinted away from Bottas upon the restart, while Vettel was all over Räikkönen down to turn two, forcing Kimi to brake late enough that he had to take to the escape road. He rejoined still ahead, radioed if he should give the place back but before getting an answer decided to let Seb through anyway – into turn four. He complained that his straightline speed seemed to be down.
Also on the restart, Massa attacked Nasr but the Sauber rookie held his nerve, placing his car in all the right places until eventually Massa accepted he’d just have to bide his time and look after his tyres, brakes and fuel for now.
Once clear of his team-mate Vettel began chasing down Bottas’ second place. The Ferrari was definitely giving its super-softs an easier time than the Williams, being better balanced in the slow corners in particular. It took Vettel just eight laps to wipe out a 3.5-second margin and to get himself within DRS range of the Williams. Räikkönen didn’t quite keep with Vettel but also gained on Bottas during this time.
1 Lewis Hamilton 302
2 Sebastian Vettel 236
3 Nico Rosberg 229
4 Kimi Räikkönen 123
5 Valtteri Bottas 111
6 Felipe Massa 109
7 Daniil Kvyat 76
8 Daniel Ricciardo 73
9 Sergio Pérez 54
10 Romain Grosjean 44
11 Nico Hulkenberg 38
12 Max Verstappen 33
13 Felipe Nasr 25
14 Pastor Maldonado 22
15 Carlos Sainz 12
16 Fernando Alonso 11
17 Marcus Ericsson 9
18 Jenson Button 8
19 Roberto Merhi 0
20 Will Stevens 0
21 Alexander Rossi 0
“The rears are going,” reported Valtteri on lap 25, with Vettel hard in his wake. This was inconveniently early – for he had not yet got himself far enough clear of a seven car gaggle book-ended by Kvyat in fifth and Sainz in 11th. Verstappen had fallen out of this group, having come in for another set of tyres, as the compromised aerodynamics of the damaged car unbalanced it and wore out the rears. But with Bottas’ rear wear becoming critical, Williams was forced to bring him in on lap 26 for his new set of primes. He exited behind Sainz and ahead of Button, who had by this time repelled the challenge of his option-tyred team-mate.
With Bottas stuck in traffic Vettel was told to stay out and press on and it was virtually a done deal that Seb would come out ahead after he stopped – and with Räikkönen following not far behind, it became possible that Kimi could clear the Williams too. Ferrari’s pit stops were as slick as ever – both Seb and Kimi stationary for just 2.2s as they stopped on laps 30 and 31 respectively. Vettel exited between the safety car stoppers Pérez and Ricciardo, two places clear of Bottas. He immediately put a pass on Pérez’s Force India around turn three. “I didn’t realise how critical that would be until later,” related Seb. Räikkönen came out just behind Bottas who was trying to make his way through the slower cars. He’d gone past Sainz into turn two the previous lap and as Kimi exited the pits he was trying to do the same to Ricciardo.
Hamilton’s lead over Vettel had been 15 seconds before Seb pitted and the leader was in for his routine switch to the prime tyres at the end of lap 31, underway again after a routine 3.1s Mercedes stop. Kvyat and Nasr were last of the pitters on laps 33 and 34 respectively and when all had settled down and everyone had stopped, there were 19 laps still to go and Hamilton led Vettel by 11s with the old-tyred Pérez and Ricciardo third and fourth, Daniel on the defensive as Bottas and Räikkönen hunted him down, Sergio hoping the Red Bull could be his buffer against the faster cars for as long as possible. Just a couple of seconds behind Räikkönen was the remarkable Sainz. He later admitted he’d felt dizzy when circulating behind the safety car but as soon as racing got underway again, he forgot all about that…
Kvyat was a long way back from there but gaining on his fresh tyres ahead of Massa – who after stopping for his new super-softs on lap 31 had passed the old-tyred Alonso then slalomed between Button and Nasr, who was just exiting the pits – all on the same lap. “He came past like a rocket,” said Nasr. “It then took me four laps to pass the two McLarens – and that lost me two seconds per lap,” this rather losing him touch with Massa and Kvyat. He was followed through past the McLarens by Maldonado.
1 Mercedes 531
2 Ferrari 359
3 Williams/Mercedes 220
4 Red Bull/Renault 149
5 Force India/Mercedes 92
6 Lotus/Mercedes 66
7 Toro Rosso/Renault 45
8 Sauber/Ferrari 34
9 McLaren/Honda 19
10 Marussia/Ferrari 0
As the fresh-tyred cars hunted down the early stoppers there was some great action, Ricciardo and Bottas rubbing wheels through turn three into four, Massa trying all sorts of places to break Kvyat’s defences. It was at around this time the Toro Rosso team noticed Sainz’s front brake temperatures were rising fast. They told him to adjust the bias rearwards – which made him a little nervous after what had happened the day before when a locked rear wheel had put him into hospital – but still the left-front disc was oxydising, having got into a runaway state. As he stood on the pedal for turn two on the 45th lap, what was left of the disc disintegrated and he spun with flames licking around the left-front wheel. Massa and Kvyat flashed by as he got going again, the Williams having passed the Red Bull the previous lap. As Carlos arrived at turn 13 – the place of his Saturday accident – he was off again, nudging the barriers rather more lightly this time but enough to damage the rear wing. As he rejoined, trying to get back to the pits, a piece of the endplate came adrift before he was told to pull over and park. A marshal ran onto the track to collect the debris and was only narrowly missed by Vettel – the second time in three races Seb has been confronted by the sight of someone on the track.
Hamilton was by now feeling the back of the Mercedes to be light on grip. The team were seeing it on the aero loadings too. Something was interrupting the airflow over the rear wing – almost certainly because the slot gap had become partially blocked with rubber debris. Thus alerted, Vettel increased his pace, setting a series of fastest laps. But Hamilton had built up a big gap and it wasn’t coming down fast enough to cause him any real concern.
Bottas finally made it past Ricciardo for fourth, with the aid of DRS into turn two on lap 45. The old-tyred Pérez and a place on the podium was just 3s up the road, leaving Daniel with his hands full fending off Räikkönen. He was just doing this when, “the car began to feel very strange. It was becoming very unstable and then I had a big, big moment coming out of turn four and then suddenly it was wheel-spinning like crazy.” It was later suspected to be a driveshaft problem. He pulled it off to the side of the circuit on the 48th lap – releasing Räikkönen to set chase after the Pérez/Bottas battle, setting Vettel-matching fastest laps as he did so.
Pérez’s front tyres were right down to the last remnants of their tread by now, though still he was hanging on in third. But it was inevitable that the two fast cars on his tail were going to get by. It happened on the approach to turn 13 on the penultimate lap, as Bottas sliced up his inside, this compromising Sergio’s line through there and allowing Räikkönen to out-accelerate him as they exited. “I was really unhappy in that moment,” said Pérez, “and was just telling myself that I could not have done more.” But it was all about to come back to him.
“Last lap Kimi,” advised Dave Greenwood. “It’s all or nothing.” Again, the Williams had used its tyres harder than the Ferrari and Bottas’ rubber was also five laps older than Räikkönen’s – so Kimi was gaining fast as they rounded turn three. He wasn’t really quite close enough into the braking zone for four, but neither was Bottas very defensive into there. It was just too tempting – and Räikkönen hurled the Ferrari down the inside. But even as he did so it was apparent that Bottas was just going to take up his normal line through there. Räikkönen got his right-front over the kerb in his attempt to avoid contact – but it made no difference. They clashed heavily and Bottas was out. Räikkönen restarted, sparks cascading from the damaged underside of the Ferrari, Pérez gleefully flashing by to retake his third place. As Kimi limped home so he was passed by the flying Massa too. Kvyat and Nasr were just too far back to take further advantage but would be promoted, together with Maldonado, in the official results by Räikkönen’s 30-second penalty.
Hamilton by this time had crossed the line for his 42nd career victory, 6 seconds ahead of Vettel. Button and Alonso stayed on the leading lap, ninth and 10th. Fernando had got his super-softs to last 41 laps but the timing of the safety car had played against his choice of starting on primes and Button’s opposite strategy had worked for him. Alonso had been habitually going beyond the kerb on the apex of turn 16 and was warned about it by race control. But when he did it again he was awarded a five-second penalty. This dropped him a place in the official results – giving the limping Verstappen the final point.
This is what races can be like when tyres wear out rather than heat degrade. But this was just a peculiarity of the circuit and soon we’ll be back to drivers having to deliberately drive a few tenths off the limit for most of the distance. But looking to the longer term – which Pirelli can now do – isn’t it time F1 came up with something that allowed every race to be run flat-out?
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