2016 Austrian Grand Prix

by Mark Hughes on 4th July 2016

Gloves off. Last lap. Old tensions and new ones. Why did they take me off my one-stop strategy when it was all going to plan? Why’s he on the faster tyre now? Well, there were reasons, good ones, but this is the adrenaline of battle and all the paranoia that ensues and this is Lewis Hamilton. He lives for these high-octane moments, coming back against adversity; it’s his natural habitat and he was hauling in his prey.

From the outside this last lap was the climactic end to a brilliantly vivid race, one that included an exploding tyre at 200mph spinning the race-leading Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel out of the race. Seb was only leading because he was out-of-sequence with the Merc guys on strategy though. The real fight was always between pole-sitting Hamilton and grid-penalised Nico Rosberg. Up until this last lap that fight had been a largely strategic one, one step removed from wheel-to-wheel. But now the differing strategies that circumstance had forced upon them were playing out on the final lap. From the Mercedes pit garage it was stressful; simultaneous excitement and dread. It’s a team that continues to strive hard to provide equality of opportunity for two guys fighting for the world title. But circumstances inevitably conspire to muddy the waters where the paranoia breeds.

Hamilton’s second stop had been one such circumstance. This is all against a backdrop of his pondering how all other seven Mercedes engine users have had near-perfect reliability while he’s on his final MGU-h and turbo. “I’m trying to win the championship with effectively one engine left while Nico has four,” he’d observed. After Rosberg had popped up ahead of him after the first stops, Hamilton resolved not to ask himself any more of these troubling questions, but to just knuckle down and come back. Still I rise. It’s a singular attitude, perhaps even slightly narcissistic, but not at all untypical of showman performers, part of what fuels them.  

Rosberg is more reasonable, normal even, rational. He doesn’t thrive in adversarial combat in the same way and he’s been on the receiving end of Hamilton’s no compromise moves enough to know that he cannot give him an inch. High pressure: a braking problem, a graining front tyre, last lap, Hamilton coming to get him. Through the first turn a small error; he clips the apex kerb, gets nudged across the track, losing him momentum up that long kinking drag to turn two – and Hamilton’s coming, coming. Coming. There’s a kink towards the end of that stretch and Rosberg hugs its inside, Hamilton darting to the left, the outside, and grinding ahead but still on the outside for the approach to turn two.

When a rational man tries to draw the line between zero tolerance and actually initiating the incident, he quite often makes a bad fist of it. See Alain Prost, Suzuka 1989, Rosberg himself Spa 2014 – and now, Austria 2016. Running straight on, ignoring the inside of the corner – as he was perfectly entitled to do – he chose not to move aside as Hamilton turned in. This is a big boys’ game so why not? But if you’re going to do it, you need to ensure the hit is wheel-to-wheel. Just placing yourself obstinately there and leaving it up to fate which part of your car gets hit will likely leave you with no front wing.

Hamilton ran wide onto the run off and rejoined where Rosberg was trying to pincer him out but there were sparks flying from the front wing trapped beneath Rosberg’s car. Toto Wolff banged his fist on the desk in frustrated anger. Just four races after Barcelona, this was too much. “That’s their problem to sort out, not mine,” said a thrilled Hamilton after securing perhaps the most dramatic of his 46 grand prix wins to date. He’s quite comfortable in adversity. It’s in his make-up.   

Qualifying

The weather came in across the hills with devilment and mischief, laying to waste all those perfectly laid nerdy team perfection plans. It did this right on the point of maximum jeopardy – in the closing stages of Q2 and into the early part of Q3. So there were panicked choices to be made, destiny-deciding yellow flags and then into Q3 an initial intermediate-tyred phase followed by a rapidly drying track as the clouds scurried back from where they’d come and every lap was whole chunks faster than the previous one, making track positioning as the clock counted down critical.

What all this did too was rescue Hamilton’s prospects – because all weekend he’d been struggling in the dry, as he habitually does here. His hard, late braking style does not lend itself well to the demands of the place and he finds it tough to find his rhythm. “At first [in the weekend] there were five corners where I was down on Nico,” he said. “I was just chipping away at improvements, constantly looking at my data, trying to figure out where I was losing time. Then I was four corners down, then two and then just one corner until I felt I was in a shape where I might be able to fight Nico for pole. But then it rained and that made it a bit easier, I have to say, because it’s then about who takes the most risk, I guess.”

Just before everyone dived into the pits for slicks about half-way through Q3, Hamilton led the inters-shod order from the McLaren of Jenson Button (as ever, brilliant in conditions of changing grip), Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull, Rosberg, Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari, Nico Hülkenberg’s Force India, Vettel, Felipe Massa’s Williams, Valtteri Bottas’ Williams and Max Verstappen’s Red Bull. But with the track drying quickly and everyone on ultra-softs the positions at the top of the screen were soon changing like a fruit machine. Hamilton gambled on not pushing on his penultimate lap as that would have brought him too close to Ricciardo’s car for his final lap, though leaving him at the mercy of possible yellow flags. But there weren’t any and his final lap of 1m 07.922s was 0.5s out of reach of second-fastest Rosberg who in addition was taking a five-place gearbox penalty.

This came about as a result of Rosberg’s accident in practice three earlier that morning. Accelerating out of turn two the left-rear upper wishbone simply collapsed and turned the car sharp left into the barriers, incurring extensive damage including to the gearbox. The crew did a remarkable job in re-preparing the W07 in the three available hours, some of Hamilton’s crew transferring across to lend a hand. Rosberg got out just a couple of minutes late into Q1 and instantly set three purple sector times in an impressive display of mind over matter, doubtless comforted by the fact that his rear suspension had been beefed up (as had Hamilton’s).

Unprecedented frequency of vibrations from the kerbing is what the team believed had caused the suspension to fail. Rosberg was adamant he had not been over any of the extreme ‘baguette’ yellow kerbs newly introduced this year beyond the extremities of the conventional kerbs to prevent drivers exceeding track limits. Between the conventional striped kerbing and the ferocious yellow lumps of concrete were red sections of quite punishing contours – particularly at turn five (the exit of the old Texaco chicane) and turn eight (Rindt Kurve, where they replaced the previous Astroturf). It seems these are what were responsible for the damaging vibrations that broke not only Rosberg’s suspension but also that of Pérez’s Force India, which could take no part in Q2 after his right-rear upper wishbone folded shortly after setting his Q1 lap. But the most dramatic failure was that of Daniil Kvyat’s Toro Rosso, also in Q1. Out well beyond the track limits on the exit of Rindt Kurve, his left rear was pounding over the yellow ‘baguette’ kerbs – inflicting punishing and violent horizontal pulling loads on the suspension on the other side until it simply snapped. The Toro Rosso took a wild ride, spinning across the track and down the grassy hill, giving the pit entry wall a big hit as it continued on, shedding wheels and tripping over them on its way into the turn nine barriers.    

The previous day Max Verstappen had collapsed his front suspension after taking liberties with the baguettes. He and others had complained about the severity of them but Charlie Whiting was adamant they were staying and that it was up to the drivers to stay away from them. So they still lay in wait for the injudicious on the slippery surface of Q3 as they began their final laps. Massa was first across the line to begin his and thus had the least dry track, followed by Bottas, Verstappen, Vettel, Räikkönen, Ricciardo, Hamilton, Rosberg, Hülkenberg and Button.  

Hülkenberg – another to invariably star in conditions of rapidly changing grip – came closest to matching the Mercs so that after Rosberg’s penalty he’d be starting the Force India from the front row. Vettel on his earlier slot was around 0.5s adrift of Hülkenberg but that was still good for fourth fastest (pre a gearbox penalty), with Button next from Räikkönen, Ricciardo, Bottas, Verstappen and Massa. An imminent front wing failure would be found on Massa’s car on race morning and replacing it with the older-spec wing would entail having to start from the pitlane.

The over-achieving Hulk and Button were, naturally, delighted. The grid after the gearbox penalties were applied was Hamilton, Hülkenberg, Button, Räikkönen, Ricciardo, Rosberg, Bottas, Verstappen, Vettel and Massa. The natural order in the dry behind the Mercs was Ferrari, Williams and Red Bull – the latter more competitive here than in previous years but still up against it on a track that rewards horsepower and is less sensitive than most to downforce. Ferrari was running a new camshaft (costing one token) to go with a new blend of Shell and revised electronics for the ERS-k. In contrast to the Mercedes it was looking after its tyres beautifully when the track was dry and hot. It was also very strong on the brakes – a valuable trait around here.

Pirelli had introduced a new pressure measurement protocol for this event in an effort at preventing teams from temporarily boosting pressures above the minimum through heat management from the wheel assembly as they were measured on the car, and then having them cool and fall below the minimum when running. Instead, the pressures would be taken with the wheels off the car. Whether it was coincidence that Mercedes was struggling with extreme rear graining, developing into blisters, after just four laps for Hamilton during Saturday morning practice (five for Rosberg) isn’t clear. But in these hot conditions the Mercedes was the hardest on the tyres, the Ferrari easily the best, everyone else somewhere in between.

Both Ferrari and Red Bull got through Q2 on super-softs rather than ultras, potentially giving themselves a strategic advantage on race day. After doing their initial Q2 runs on ultras, Mercedes sent out Hamilton and Rosberg in an attempt at neutralising the Ferrari/Red Bull strategy but the rain began falling before they could even attempt to improve on their ultra times.

That late Q2 rain saw Button slide off at turn three. This brought out the yellows that spoilt the one new-tyred Q2 lap of team-mate Fernando Alonso. His first run had been on used tyres and was good only for 14th. The team, fearing imminent rain, felt it had to get a slick-tyred time in immediately and the only slicks ready were the used ones – as per the original run plan. Alonso later termed it a ‘primary school error’, which seemed a little harsh.

Esteban Gutiérrez’s Haas was fastest of those not making it into Q3 but the star of this group was unquestionably Pascal Wehrlein who qualified his Manor 12th on merit – and on the slower super-softs (as they had no new ultras left). In fact, had he been able to repeat his ultra-shod Q1 time, he’d have got through to Q3. In the dry. Even if the feat was helped by the power-rewarding nature of the track and how it’s not too punishing of a lack of downforce – and by the problems suffered by Sainz (blown engine in the Toro Rosso) and Pérez (suspension) – it remained an amazing performance. “It’s the first time all year we have been able to get proper tyre temperature,” he reported, “and that’s the difference.” Romain Grosjean was next, having damaged the Haas’ floor on his initial used tyre run by going off at the exit of turn five. Sainz had starred on intermediates in the wet phase of Friday afternoon practice, when he was fastest from Button and Hülkenberg. But the Toro Rosso was struggling in the dry – even before its engine blew without a time on the board in Q2, leaving him 15th ahead of the non-running Perez.

Going out at the end of the Q1 phase were: the Renaults of Magnussen and Palmer, Rio Haryanto’s Manor, the crashed Kvyat (who would start from the pitlane with a change of chassis) and the Saubers of Ericsson and Nasr which were unable to generate adequate tyre temperature.

Race

There are always a near-infinite number of variables playing out over a race weekend. Here are the relevant ones from this weekend:

  • The Mercedes team strategist’s job is to ensure a Mercedes victory above all else. Only then can he consider the individual races of each driver. Team will always override driver if there is a choice to be made.
  • The Red Bull Ring’s new track surface was aggressively grippy. This together with development of the cars in the last 12 months and the introduction here of the grippier ultra-soft tyre was inducing much greater brake wear. This was not fully appreciated until race day because the second practice session on Friday was rained out. The whole field was under-prepared on everything – but brake wear turned out to be the biggest issue arising from this.
  • What dry running there was on Friday and Saturday morning was conducted on a track temperature of between 45 and 53-deg C. Race day track temperatures didn’t rise above 27-deg C. This totally changed the comparison between the three available tyre compounds ultra-soft, super-soft and soft. On the hot track the ultra-softs were graining badly. The carcass temperatures were going through the roof, building up heat in the whole tyre and graining the delicate compound. The super-soft was more robust but between 0.3-0.7s slower over a single lap. The soft was uselessly slow. But in the cool of race day graining was less severe, there was little difference between the ultra and super-soft – and the soft came into its own, making one-stopping quite feasible, though not necessarily faster. Had race day been as hot as Friday, no-one would have been able to consider one-stopping.
  • The rained-out Friday session meant that the one extra set of softs chosen by Mercedes and allocated to Hamilton’s car was never used. Which meant quite by accident that Hamilton had the advantage over Rosberg of a new set of softs available for the race on a day on which that would turn out to be the best tyre.  
  • The severe new kerbs (see qualifying section) are suspected to have played their part in the suspension failures of Saturday (including Rosberg’s) and Vettel’s tyre failure in the race.

It played out like this:

The differing strategies of Hamilton and Rosberg

Because of Rosberg’s suspension failure, crash and gearbox change he was penalised down to the third row. Needing to find clear air in order to express the Mercedes’ performance, he was always on a two-stop strategy: a short stint on the ultras, a long middle stint on the softs (a used set), a short final one on the super-softs.

Plan A for Hamilton was to one-stop, trying to get to lap 23 before exchanging his ultras for his brand new set of softs. The simulations suggested this would allow Hamilton to control the race and Rosberg would eventually overhaul Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull and Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari to emerge in second.

But Rosberg made quicker progress than anticipated in the early laps. Hamilton took off unchallenged in the lead, Hülkenberg bogged down from the front row, the Force India passed before turn one by Button, Räikkönen and Ricciardo. Hulk retaliated on Ricciardo into turn three while Rosberg got himself onto the Force India’s tail after passing the Red Bulls before the end of the lap. Hülkenberg’s tyres were graining badly from as early as two laps in and Rosberg was up to fourth with a lap six move at turn two. Furthermore, although Button was doing a great job, inevitably the McLaren couldn’t run in this company for long and its holding up of Räikkönen was good news for Rosberg. It meant by the time the Ferrari and Mercedes powered their way past the McLaren on lap seven and eight respectively, Rosberg was still only 6s behind the race-leading Hamilton; far less than the simulations had suggested. This had taken a lot from Rosberg’s ultras though; the rears were graining and Kimi was pulling away. Nico was brought in, earlier than planned, on the 10th lap. But this boosted his track position. This early stop and the subsequent clear track space it got him allowed him to exploit the Merc’s performance, gaining him later track position over everyone – even Hamilton after he’d pitted from the lead a couple of laps early.  

But that still left Hamilton on schedule for the win. He’d done a great job making the ultras last twice as long as anyone else’s. “There are different driving styles you can use to nurture and take care or use and abuse these tyres. In Saturday practice I killed the tyres trying a certain way, but I studied a lot last night - my lines and where to lift and coast. It seemed to work well. This morning they said plan A meant I had to get them to 23 laps, whereas I destroyed a set in four laps on Saturday. [The weather] being cool meant I could go further anyway, but I was happy how I looked after tyres. It’s not a surprise; I've done it other races.”

Now all he had to do, on softs with 13 fewer laps on them than Rosberg’s, was keep him in sight knowing that Nico had to make another stop while he did not. But complicating factors outside of Hamilton’s knowledge meant it wasn’t going to play out that way.

Meanwhile Vettel’s Ferrari – yet to stop - was leading the race…

Interweaving strategies of Ferrari and Red Bull

Ferrari went into this race intending to one-stop both Räikkönen and Vettel. Red Bull’s plan was to two-stop Ricciardo and Verstappen. All four cars started on the tougher super-soft rather than the ultra.

Once past Button, Räikkönen kept within 3-4s of Hamilton. Button pitted early with graining ultras shortly after Rosberg had passed him, bringing Verstappen up to fourth. The McLaren couldn’t run at Red Bull/Ferrari – let alone Mercedes – pace and would fall progressively further behind them but Jenson was more than a match for any of the others and would go on to score a great sixth place. By contrast, Hülkenberg faded completely, falling ever-further back with graining tyres no matter which compound he tried and eventually retiring with no brakes; surely one of the most anonymous races ever seen from the front row of a grid.   

At Red Bull, Verstappen – whose remarkable car control had got him out of all sorts of wild situations he’d put himself in on the opening lap – passed his team-mate into Rindt Kurve on the second lap from a long way back, taking Daniel completely by surprise. Max proceeded then to leave the other Red Bull behind. “Once it settled we just weren’t quick,” observed Daniel. “I was obviously trying to push on the tyre but when everyone was improving and getting quicker and quicker we were just getting slower and slower. For now I just want to understand why and look into it. If there are things I need to do better, then I will make sure to figure that out.”

Vettel sliced past Ricciardo on the sixth lap, Daniel dicing for a few more laps before being brought in on lap 14. Verstappen pitted from a few seconds behind Räikkönen a lap later. Räikkönen assumed the lead for a lap after Hamilton pitted, by which time Vettel had risen to just 6s behind Kimi. As Kimi stopped Seb kept going. His super-softs were holding out just fine, the Ferrari and Seb together working them in a very balanced way. The one-stop was looking on-schedule. They weren’t going to be challenging Mercedes, but they looked to have more than the measure of Red Bull on the assumption the latter were two-stopping.

The longer Seb could make this stint last the less distance his second set would need to do and the more aggressive he could be. “Obviously the idea was to go on as long as possible with that set of tyres and to shape our race on that idea, but I don’t think it was an aggressive strategy, as lots of people went longer than us on the same tyres,” said Sebastian. He was running just ahead of the already-pitted Rosberg on lap 26 when at 200mph the Ferrari’s right-rear literally went bang on the pit straight, showering the following Mercedes with tyre and carbon debris as it spun across the track, bounced off the pit wall backwards onto the opposite side of the track. It was a frightening moment. There was no prior indication of a problem and the suspicion was either debris or kerb damage.

The incident brought out the safety car for five laps. The main beneficiary of this was Grosjean who had yet to make his first stop in the Haas - and so got it almost for free. It jumped him up enough to allow him to be pushing for sixth. The safety car initially worked against Wehrlein who on an unusual ultra/ultra/soft strategy had already pitted twice and was a lap behind. He was allowed to un-lap himself and get to the back of the safety car queue, from where he got his head down and drove a superb race past the Renaults, Saubers and Gutiérrez for a well-earned point. He was however lucky to get away with having reversed into his grid space, having been confused by the empty space in front of him where Massa’s Williams wasn’t (it had started from the pit lane after a cracked front wing had to be replaced by a non-identical version). 

Complications at Mercedes

Upon the restart the Mercs quickly stretched away from Verstappen, Ricciardo, Räikkönen, Bottas (soon to fade with extreme tyre graining), the yet-to-stop Sauber of Felipe Nasr, Button, Grosjean and the rest. Much of Rosberg’s car was cluttered with various pieces of Ferrari tyre and a barge board was damaged. Hamilton continued in his wake, not pressing, but just waiting for Rosberg to pit out of his way and open the route to victory.

So Lewis was perturbed when he was informed he’d be two-stopping. “I didn’t understand why,” he said afterwards, “and I still don’t really.” He admitted to thoughts of ignoring the request and staying out. “It was a sort of split decision for me. I followed their direction in the end… in hindsight I would probably try to stay out. But if I’d stayed out maybe Nico would have too.”

So what was going on? Because the safety car had bunched up the field, reducing Merc’s advantage over Verstappen, a new way had opened up for Mercedes to possibly lose this race. What if Verstappen was doing a one-stop (he was – the five safety car laps had encouraged Red Bull to switch him)? Rosberg would drop behind him when he made his second stop. What if he then couldn’t find a way past and Hamilton’s tyres proved unable to do the required 50-lap distance, requiring him to make a late stop? Putting Hamilton on a two-stop reduced the team risk.

Because Hamilton was being sacrificed, he was brought in first and from close enough behind that he should have been able to undercut his way by Rosberg who would be coming in on the next lap. Furthermore, Hamilton was to be given another set of softs whereas Rosberg had none left and would be on the super-softs (faster initially but not for long). Hamilton was expected to emerge ahead – and confidence was high that he’d be able to pass the old-tyred Verstappen.

Except: Hamilton lost a couple of seconds as the left-rear was reluctant to come off. Furthermore, the softs were slow to come up to temperature and he had a major broadside moment out of turn two. Meanwhile Rosberg’s in-lap was quick and his stop was 1.2s faster than Hamilton’s. Combined, it allowed him to exit the pits still ahead of Hamilton. Both had been managing brake temperatures, but Rosberg’s busier first stint had perhaps taken more from them. Nonetheless they quickly closed Verstappen down. Nico went past into turn three on the 61st lap, Hamilton got past a couple of laps later up to turn two.

Hamilton gave it full beans, squeezing Rosberg’s narrow advantage down. Soon Nico’s super-softs were graining, Hamilton’s softs were in great shape. Closing, closing. Rosberg’s brake-by-wire adjusted itself to a reduced performance ‘get home’ mode on the penultimate lap.

Behind them Ricciardo couldn’t keep Räikkönen behind him and after Kimi passed by and set off after Verstappen, Daniel was far enough clear that he could stop for a fresh set of ultras with 11 laps to go without losing fifth place.

As the Mercs hit each other on that last lap, Pérez’s left-front brake disc shattered, sending him into the turn three barriers. Meaning there were yellows there as Rosberg’s car arrived still leading but crippled. Hamilton passed under yellows, but you’re allowed to do that if the car ahead is in a black-flagged condition. The victory stood. Räikkönen was prevented from passing Verstappen there and so would finish behind him, but they both flashed by the limping Rosberg whose 10s penalty left his fourth place unaffected. Ricciardo (subdued), Button (over-achieving), Grosjean, Sainz (a hard-charging race after a very slow pit stop lost him many places), Bottas and Wehrlein (fairy-tale point for Manor) completed the scores. But are there now scores to be settled?

Read more from Mark Hughes

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