MPH: The technical battles raging on behind-the-scenes in Formula 1
Amid the flurry of nine grands prix in 11 weekends, there have been a few developments in the regulations and as we catch a rare pause for breath before next…
Nico Rosberg tried to get away from the formation grid in second gear, triggering the Mercedes’ anti-stall. But everything else about his Bahrain evening was serene. His two major rivals – pole-sitting team-mate Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel in the potentially faster-starting Ferrari – were accounted for before the race had barely begun, Seb blowing his engine, Lewis blowing his pole.
The only possible remaining threat – Kimi Räikkönen in the other Ferrari – had already wheelspun his way backwards into the pack when Hamilton was hit hard at turn one by the Williams of an optimistic Valtteri Bottas. Mainly dusk sky in Nico’s mirrors after that, the dicing pack an ever-smaller detail he didn’t even need look at.
Vettel’s demise on the formation lap rather took the sting out an eagerly anticipated contest in which he was expected to out-drag the Mercs again, just as he had in Melbourne. Partly it was Ferrari’s excellent getaway traits, but also it’s to do with what has now emerged as a clutch hardware problem on the Mercedes, something that cannot be fixed for a couple of races at least. That all became irrelevant with Seb’s retirement and Räikkönen’s botched start.
Mercedes played Rosberg’s race very conservatively, having no need to do anything else. Räikkönen eventually ground his way up to second and Hamilton – nursing a heavily damaged floor and a slightly damaged front wing from the Bottas hit – emerged from an initial eighth place to take a comfortable podium, well distant of the best-of-the-rest, aka Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, another coping with front wing damage throughout the race.
The new Haas team and Romain Grosjean again starred. A good car that’s easy on the rubber and aerodynamically benign, smart tyre strategy and a top driver saw the 150-strong team take a very convincing fifth place. Eighteen points in two races and out-performing teams with 600 people, spending £200 million, it has confirmed that the non-factory team model has now changed.
Strategically, the race pivoted upon how the hardest of the three tyre compounds, the medium – which was expected to come into its on as the twilight track temperatures fell – just did not perform. Which was unfortunate for Williams, which committed early to it. Felipe Massa – running an early second after his team-mate had initiated the turn one carnage – plummeted to a lapped eighth, only around 10s clear at the end of the McLaren-Honda of Alonso stand-in Stoffel Vandoorne, taking a point on his debut after a combative but composed performance. Another rookie to shine was Manor’s Pascal Werhlein, 13th after fighting all race with the Saubers and beating the compromised Force Indias.
Such feel-good stories, and good, hard dicing (albeit a long way behind Mercedes and Ferrari) mercifully took the focus away from the continuing dysfunction behind the scenes.
So here we went again: cars sitting in garages as the clock counted them out. An empty track at the end. F1’s governance system had failed again and the exact same qualifying procedure that hadn’t worked in Melbourne was used again here – with much the same result. Q3 wasn’t quite so bad this time – because Ferrari did two runs, unlike in Australia where it threw in the towel after one so as to save tyres for race day. This time it was encouraged enough by its pace to make it worth fighting out. On the first Q3 runs Vettel had actually split the Mercs. Though this was largely because Hamilton had run wide at the final corner, the pace of the red cars was much closer to Mercedes than anyone expected – within 0.1s on those first runs. But that was put into perspective by Hamilton’s final effort, in which he shaved a full 0.5s off the previous best.
Rosberg – running ahead on the road – also improved a chunk from his first time and as Hamilton approached that final corner where he’d gone off a few minutes earlier, he knew he was a tenth down on what Rosberg had just done. “So you’re approaching that corner conscious of what you’d done the previous time so you’re tempted to brake earlier, take it slower – but I couldn’t afford that. The lap was already down to Nico’s so I knew I had to get back a tenth, probably two tenths by the time the lap was finished. So it was massive pressure.”
It was the lap that finally eclipsed the 2005 3-litre V10 practise time of Mark Webber’s Williams-BMW. Rosberg was a scant eight-hundredths slower. “It was a good lap,” he said in resigned tone. “Lewis was just a bit faster.”
Pushed to the limit, the Mercs were finally revealed to be around 0.5s faster than Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari – the Merc’s step-change in pace rather taking Vettel by surprise. Räikkönen was a couple of tenths adrift of that, in fourth, most of his time loss to Seb coming in the first sector where his calmer steering inputs again prevented the tyres from reaching temperature as quickly.
The others making it into the eight-car Q3 were – in speed order – Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull, the Williams pair of Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa plus Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India. Ricciardo had, as Christian Horner pointed out, “squeezed absolutely every last ounce of performance from the car today.” He and his engineer had worked away on getting a set up that was going to work increasingly well as the track temperatures fell in the desert dusk (qualifying began at 6pm). It could hardly have been in starker contrast to the fortunes of team-mate Daniil Kvyat – the first to be rejected in Q2 and therefore starting 15th. He’d been relatively quick in the hot track temperatures of that afternoon’s practice, but there was simply no pace at all in his car by the time it mattered.
Hulkenberg had done a second Q2 run to bump himself up from what would have been 11th place. Ideally he’d have liked to have qualified ninth and had free choice of starting tyres – but of course it’s impossible to judge how much faster to go to achieve this, and his lap just eclipsed that of Romain Grosjean’s Haas, putting him into Q3. Eighth was better than 11th would have been, but ninth would’ve been better still.
Hulk’s late second Q2 run worked perfectly for Grosjean. He would be starting on ‘pole’ for those with free tyre choice and for the race had two fresh sets of super-softs and a fresh set of mediums – the theoretically perfect combination for race day.
Toro Rosso knew it wouldn’t be particularly quick here: “Of the first four tracks this one is the toughest for us because it demands a lot of stop-start longitudinal performance. Our longitudinal performance is much weaker than our lateral,” explained James Key. They had made their tyre allocation choices based on this expectation. “Had we had enough super-softs for a proper job in Q2 we could probably have made Q3,” Key surmised. As it was, Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz went 10th and 11th respectively. For the second time in succession, Sainz’s time in the previous session was faster than anything Verstappen did, but he failed to reproduce it.
McLaren’s story this weekend was inevitably centred around the medical condition of Fernando Alonso. Based on scans he’d had done in Spain, showing a cracked rib from his Melbourne shunt, his doctor had declared him fit to drive. Based on the same scans, the FIA doctor in Bahrain disagreed. So Stoffel Vandoorne was flown over from Japan to make his grand prix debut. On Saturday Ron Dennis challenged the FIA’s decision – but to no avail. Vandoorne – who had never driven the car at this track on the simulator – spent the practice sessions getting familiar with it, made a fairly conservative Q1 run that came close to getting him eliminated, but then put together a great lap in Q2 that slotted him in 12th, around 0.15s faster than team-mate Jenson Button, who was 14th. In the circumstances it was deeply impressive. Although Button would have been marginally ahead had he put together his best sector times, that is part of the challenge – and one than Vandoorne managed perfectly. Button, suffering some understeer in Q1, elected to add more front wing for Q2 and could feel immediately he left the pits that it had given him too much oversteer. The rears were thus too hot by the time he began his timed lap. It would have been nice to have seen this contest continue – but of course they’d run out of super-softs…
Slotting between the McLarens was the second Haas of Esteban Gutiérrez, consistently within a tenth or two of Grosjean – and way quicker than the struggling Kvyat’s Red Bull.
It was a difficult call whether the star of qualifying was Hamilton, Vandoorne or Pascal Wehrlein, who, in the Manor, was last of those to be eliminated in Q1, just 0.3s slower than Kvyat and out-qualifying the Saubers, the Renaults and Sergio Pérez’s Force India. It was a monstrous performance, building nicely on that superb first lap of the race in Melbourne. It’s now also clear that the pace of the Manors in Melbourne was not representative, that it actually is comparable with that of the Sauber. “We’ve managed to get a better understanding of what we have,” surmised sporting director Dave Ryan.
Pérez was in an unrepresentative 18th through a team timing miscalculation. He’d made a two-lap first run, making the turnaround for the second run more marginal, but even so it was still possible to have got him out in time. The first run time was all he got on the board. Magnussen, knowing he’d have to start the race from the pitlane in the Renault as penalty for missing a weighbridge request in practice, did only one unrepresentative lap, which was officially 19th quickest. He was confident that with a straight run he’d have been in Q2. His team-mate Jolyon Palmer, however, was struggling badly with the behaviour of his car, oversteering and being bounced off line by the kerbs and could do no better than 20th. Rio Haryanto’s Manor and Felipe Nasr’s Sauber were at the back, the latter in all sorts of bother with the balance of his car, which was suffering the same fundamental problem as in Melbourne, with wild instability under braking from what the team later suspected was a floor problem.
Sunset was approaching as the cars began leaving the garages, floodlight bulbs shining like diamonds against a darkening grey, shadows and light falling across the sandstone, neon numbers and driver names glinting from the pit wall, guiding everyone into place. The arguments, silliness and politics of the weekend up to this point felt like fading mirages. The track temperature sat at 29-deg C, down from 40-odd earlier in the day. This was to be strategically significant to what played out: the bitumen surface was expected to be down to the early-20s by the second half of the race, at which point the medium tyre ought to have been coming into its own and the soft would be subject to graining.
Based on what the teams had found during the long runs of Friday practice, three-stopping looked likely to be the favoured way of running the race, but not everyone agreed. Williams, for instance, reckoned two-stopping would be better. That relied heavily upon the medium behaving as expected, as its longer duration would be needed to get the stint lengths required. Even outside those in the top eight who were obliged to start on the super-soft on which they’d qualified in Q2, the softest tyre was the most popular choice. Its extra grip would be vital off the grid. Practice suggested that on a full-tanked car it would be around 1s faster than the soft, which in turn would be around 1.5s faster than a medium. But the degradation rate of the super-soft was heavy, at around 0.25s per lap – the long uphill fourth-gear turn 11 putting a lot of thermal stress into the right-rear in particular, lots of low-gear acceleration zones, not much recovery time. Only Sainz, Kvyat, Magnussen, the Manors and Saubers were on the softs at the start, everyone else going with super-soft.
Strategists and data engineers busied themselves as the cars set off on the formation lap, Rosberg’s erroneous selection of second gear rather than first needing the anti-stall to rescue him – a close call. Along the back straight towards turn 11 a big cloud of blue smoke burst from Vettel’s Ferrari. He kept going, desperately scrolling through his menu trying to find some clues, before it finally blew properly on the run down the hill before the first corner. Initial analysis suggested it had ingested either part of a broken valve or injector. Ferrari is adamant it was unrelated to the turbo failure suffered by Räikkönen in Australia. Vettel wasn’t the only formation lap retirement either: Jolyon Palmer trailed his Renault into the pits with suspected hydraulics failure.
“There was something in the procedure,” said Hamilton of his poor start, “but also it was down to my reaction.” As in Melbourne, he was slow away, this time engulfed in wheelspin. Rosberg, whose start was less bad but not brilliant, surged instantly ahead, perhaps surprised that there was no flash of red in his peripheral. Räikkönen’s finger had slipped off the clutch paddle, giving a more brutal getaway than he intended, momentum compromised by excess wheelspin, as the Williams pair and Ricciardo flew past him.
Nico was fairly conservative with his braking point into the first turn, Hamilton was tucked up behind him and – not realising Bottas was in his blind spot – didn’t block the inside line. It was as if Valtteri took a moment to realise there was a gap there – and by the time he decided to act upon it by releasing some braking pressure, it was too late; that gap was no longer going to still be there when he arrived. The Williams nose crunched hard into the side of the Merc, sending Lewis briefly broadside, partly blocking the track. It was just luck for those behind whether they profited or lost in the confusion, but there was a lot of broken carbon fibre. Bottas had suffered both front and rear wing damage, Hamilton’s floor was heavily damaged, a piece of his front wing endplate missing. Ricciardo lost one of his endplates, as did Kvyat, the McLarens came perilously close to hitting each other, Button coming out of the confusion better placed than Vandoorne. Grosjean had used his new super-softs to cleanly out-accelerate Hulkenberg and the Force India then hit the back of Verstappen’s Toro Rosso, requiring Hulk to pit for a new front wing.
Bottas squirmed sideways on the exit of the turn, allowing Massa to flash easily by as they went through the switchback and headed uphill to the tight turn four, Rosberg already sprinting away into the desert evening. Behind the Williams duo were Ricciardo, Räikkönen, the Haas pair Grosjean and Gutiérrez, Hamilton, Verstappen, Button, Sainz, the fast-starting Pérez, Vandoorne, Wehrlein, Kvyat, the pit-bound Hulkenberg, Ericsson (who had lost a chunk of power that would take a lap to return after an initially fast start), Haryanto, Nasr and – from his pitlane start – Magnussen.
Hamilton, even with his compromised car – the team later reckoning the damage was costing around 1s per lap – quickly dealt with Gutiérrez and homed in on the other Haas as they flashed down the pit straight at 200mph, skid plate sparks flying from fuel-laden cars, Rosberg leading Massa by 1.6s already. Pérez ducked out of Sainz’s slipstream down to turn one but, on the marbles, couldn’t get the Force India stopped quickly enough, crunching him into the Toro Rosso. So that was both Force Indias with broken wings and Sainz with a puncture, all three of their races ruined.
Hamilton was able to use his DRS to slip by Grosjean on the fourth lap and almost immediately latched onto the back of the three-car train being led by the compromised Bottas from Ricciardo and Räikkönen. This seemed to spur on Räikkönen who pulled out from behind the Red Bull into turn one going into the sixth lap, flicked left and went around Ricciardo’s outside to take fourth place. Already Rosberg’s lead was out to almost seven seconds.
Even with the help of DRS Ricciardo didn’t have the end-of-straight speed to deal with the super-fast Williams ahead of him and as soon as it was feasible to do so – at the end of the lap after being passed by Räikkönen – Red Bull brought him in for his first stop. Coming in so early in combination with a move to the soft – rather than medium – tyre effectively confirmed Ricciardo to be on a three-stop strategy. Williams responded by bringing in Massa from his distant second on the next lap. This kept him just ahead of Ricciardo as he rejoined – but on the medium tyre, suggesting Williams was probably sticking to its two-stop plan. Just as this was happening Räikkönen was putting a clean DRS pass on Bottas to go second. “I was almost a pit straight behind Rosberg by this time,” observed Kimi, “so I knew it was going to be tough to do anything about him.” A lap later Hamilton repeated the manoeuvre on Bottas to go third. But Lewis was suspecting this was as far as he might progress. “With the damage, I just didn’t have much rear end on the car and when I tried to push to close on Kimi I realised I just didn’t have his pace.”
Bottas was brought in for his stop at the end of the lap and, like Massa, was switched to the medium tyre. But Valtteri’s challenge was about to be seriously blunted by the imposition of a drive-through penalty for his first corner hit of Hamilton – served on the next lap, the double pit visit putting him just one from the back, 24s behind Massa. He would go on to close almost all of that deficit down in the remaining 47 laps, despite his damaged wings
Massa’s pace just wasn’t holding up. Upon initially rejoining just ahead of Ricciardo he was only around 0.4s slower despite being on a tyre reckoned to be around 1.5s slower – and with the Red Bull likely to be having to make an extra stop over the Williams, it looked OK. But subsequently the pace just wasn’t there.
Button had pulled his McLaren off to the side on the sixth lap after it cut out with what was suspected to be an ers-related failure. He’d been running a couple of seconds ahead of Vandoorne and just behind Verstappen. “I was running comfortably, saving a lot of fuel, my tyres were in good condition, and I was just cruising behind the cars in front. We were going to try something a little bit different with the strategy; the cars we were sat behind finished fifth and sixth, and I felt like we could have had a good fight with them.” A couple of laps later Gutiérrez – running just ahead of Verstappen and a couple of seconds behind team-mate Grosjean – was also out, with a broken front-left brake, possibly from an ingestion of debris.
Ferrari kept Räikkönen out until the 12th lap. There wasn’t really any undercut threat from Hamilton, but it was important he got out ahead of the Massa-Ricciardo dice. With a very fast and efficient stop, Ferrari succeeded in this and on his new softs he emerged back on track just ahead of them – with Ricciardo using the situation to pounce upon Massa up to turn four.
With Rosberg running so far ahead of Hamilton, Mercedes was able to bring them both in on the same lap next time around, Rosberg being matched with Ferrari’s strategy of the soft tyre and a likely three-stop. Hamilton, on the other hand, was fitted with a set of mediums – throwing the dice with nothing to lose and maybe being able to use strategy to beat Räikkönen. First, though, he would need to find a way by Massa and Ricciardo, having emerged just behind them. Kvyat on his old softs had yet to stop. Räikkönen had passed him up to turn four and he was soon to be devoured by his fresh-tyred team-mate too. As one Red Bull was passing the other into turn one, just behind them Hamilton was making the same move on Massa. Two laps later he’d also make it on Ricciardo to reclaim his third place.
Nico had stopped a little beyond his marks at his stop. The delay from this and the extra lap on old tyre had reduced his advantage over Räikkönen from 14s to 10 but the Merc was soon edging steadily away again. But to give a little illustration of how things are in the Pirelli era, Rosberg was lapping around 8s slower than his qualifying time. Taking that 8s, it can be split up roughly as follows: extra fuel load 2.5s. Slower tyre compound 1s. Lower power unit settings 1.5s. That accounts for five of those eight seconds. Track temperatures were much the same as in qualifying. The rest – 3s – is a measure of how far the driver must be away from his and the car’s limits in order to keep the tyres in shape to achieve the necessary stint lengths. “You just get in race rhythm mode,” is how Grosjean described it. “It’s very different from how you drive the car in qualifying.” And that is the number one thing that needs to be fixed as F1 considers its future format on a whole range of issues.
Grosjean was enjoying himself out there, though. He’d pitted on the 11th lap – the team’s first live pit stop, accomplished in a little over 3s – and had another brand new set of super-softs (the benefit of not having got into Q3) fitted and would soon be chasing down Massa. “I really like soft compound tyres. I am able to feel them very well and manage the degradation. Throughout the practices I could feel that the car worked best on the super-softs and it was always our plan to base our strategy around this and the soft.”
Kvyat finally peeled off for his first stop at the end of the 16th lap and was fitted with another set of softs. It seems that Williams’ lack of pace had steered anyone away from trying to two-stop with the mediums – and soon Hamilton was confirming that the tyre simply wasn’t working. The track was taking a long time to cool. “Normally you’d see the medium come into its own here as the track got down into the low-20s,” explained Pirelli’s Paul Hembery, “and at that temperature the soft would have more of a problem with graining. But the track just never quite got that cool – and so the soft was fine and able to keep its performance advantage over the medium.”
“Initially the two stop on the medium for Lewis looked promising,” observed Paddy Lowe, “as he was gaining on Kimi despite running a slower compound. However, it soon became apparent that the medium was degrading as badly as the soft, so that strategy unfortunately began to unwind quite quickly. We therefore converted him back to a three-stop.”
After all had stopped, Rosberg was leading Räikkönen by 11s and pulling away, Kimi a further 10s clear of the compromised Hamilton who was in turn pulling away from Ricciardo. Grosjean had passed the gripless Massa into turn one and on his fast super-softs was on schedule to pull the time out over him to buy the extra stop he would be making. Massa was now under threat from the soft-tyred Verstappen and not so very far clear of Vandoorne, followed distantly by the recovering two-stopping Bottas, then a trio of slower cars – the Saubers and Werhlein – about to be devoured by Kvyat. Not so far behind Kvyat was Magnussen, pushing the Renault clear of Haryanto, the two Force Indias and the soon-to-retire Sainz whose Toro Rosso’s floor was damaged by his earlier punctured tyre, making for a dire lack of rear grip. The Force Indias simply did not have the pace to overcome their early delays and were going through their rubber quickly.
Verstappen was able to take advantage of Massa’s lack of pace, diving ahead into turn one on the 20th lap. A few seconds up the road from there, Grosjean, on super-softs that were 13 laps old, was able to pass Ricciardo (on 18-lap old softs) into turn four at the beginning of the 24th lap. Red Bull responded by immediately bringing Daniel in and fitting him with a new set of softs. Haas remained true to their plan of basing their strategy around Grosjean’s preferred super-softs – and, knowing they were planning to fit a used set of them next before switching to the soft for the final stint, they didn’t want to respond to the Red Bull strategy. That place had already been lost – for even had Romain come in the lap after Daniel he’d have been back behind him. Ricciardo was slightly compromised by that front wing damage, but even so the Haas was a serious threat to Red Bull on merit at Bahrain.
In bringing Hamilton in on the 28th lap, getting him off the mediums and back onto super-softs, Mercedes was surrendering his two-stop plan. Ferrari responded next lap and simply matched Hamilton’s tyre choice, as defending second now took priority over any hopes of threatening Rosberg. Mercedes brought the leader in on lap 30 and he too got a set of used super-softs for a short penultimate stint. As Ferrari again initiated the stops for the final time, Mercedes brought Rosberg in for a Ferrari-matching set of softs but Hamilton was left out for an extra couple of laps. That was just one last throw of the dice. If there had been a safety car after Räikkönen’s stop but before Hamilton’s, Lewis would likely have been able to jump his way past the Ferrari. There was no downside, given how far clear they were of fourth. But it wasn’t to be.
With Verstappen apparently in stale mate – unable to make inroads on Grosjean but pulling away from Massa – Toro Rosso threw the strategic dice, pulled him in on the 26th lap and fitted him with the dreaded mediums, figuring the falling track temperature might finally bring them into their own. It didn’t happen. Grosjean continued to pull away, the Haas and Romain together looking after the tyres beautifully. It may be significant that the car’s suspension has been designed by the same man responsible for the tyre-friendly 2012-13 Lotuses that Grosjean used to light up the tracks with. Meanwhile, Massa was coming back at Verstappen now that they were both on the medium. Before it was too late, Toro Rosso backed out of the two-stop plan and would return Max to a set of softs at his third stop on the 46th lap. This brought him out just ahead of Bottas, 11s behind Massa but on vastly faster rubber than either of them.
Kvyat’s offset tyre strategy (he’d started on the softs) allowed Red Bull to bring him into contention with the Verstappen/Massa contest by fitting a couple of sets of super-softs at his second and third stops. He rejoined from his final stop a few seconds behind the old-tyred Bottas, passing him a few laps later – the pair rubbing wheels at turn four – and setting chase for Verstappen and Massa. Max went ahead of Felipe at the end of the back straight with five laps to go and on the last lap he was followed through by Kvyat, demoting Massa down to eighth only a few seconds clear of Bottas. Vandoorne was always just a little way behind this contest and took the final point
But this was all a lap down on the winner, Rosberg taking two from two – and five on the trot – after a fairly conservative and unchallenged drive. Räikkönen was within 10s at the flag but that was just Nico doing no more than he needed to. Given Kimi’s performance it would have been interesting to have seen whether a fast-starting Vettel could have challenged for the win, but that will remain forever a what-if. Hamilton’s third place represented good damage limitation, but the damage was partly self-inflicted. Yes, the Mercedes clutch system is not great, but Rosberg made a much better fist of it and that was the crucial difference between their evenings. Hamilton was half a minute down on his team-mate at the end and a similar distance clear of Ricciardo, fourth the absolute maximum the Red Bull could have achieved and not all that far clear of the remarkable Grosjean/Haas combination. The last time an all-new team scored so well in its first two races was in 1973, with the similarly British-based but American-owned Shadow outfit.
Verstappen’s sixth place was better than the Toro Rosso warranted, given its unsuitability to the track and represented an under-performance from Kvyat in qualifying and Williams’ devotion to that two-stop and the unsuitable mediums. Massa in particular was struggling and had Bottas given himself a clean run, he might conceivably have been up with Grosjean/Verstappen. Whether Williams could have taken enough advantage of the softer tyres and a three-stop strategy to do better than that will doubtless be debated in Grove in the coming days.
From his pitlane start Magnussen got himself within a few seconds of Vandoorne by the end and ahead of the battling Saubers and Wehrlein’s Manor, Pascal doing a great job to split the Swiss cars, though Nasr was still struggling with a serious handling problem. Behind the Force Indias – Hulkenberg using an extra stop and a set of super-softs to beat Pérez – was Haryanto, who showed a respectable turn of speed on occasion, backing up the evidence that the Manor can race wheel-to-wheel with other cars this year on merit.
But with the racing out of the way, the teams, Bernie Ecclestone and Jean Todt can now get back to arguing.
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