Norris takes maiden pole as Hamilton hits wall: Russian GP qualifying round-up
Lando Norris secured his first F1 pole position, denying Carlos Sainz at the end
The national anthem had finished, the cars were in their grid places, the drivers walking towards them. Lewis Hamilton paused for a time as he reached his Mercedes and stared off into the distance down to the first corner, as if trying to intuit how he was going to do it; how – for the second race in succession – he could overturn in the opening seconds the disadvantage of having lost out to Nico Rosberg for pole. Those opening few seconds had decided the whole race in Hungary, just as they would do here. They were worth trying to prepare for.
He’d been working for weeks with a member of the engineering team in trying to perfect the inexact science of getting the two-part clutch operation and the driver in perfect harmony after his early-season difficulties. “I’ve been working with my guy very closely. [The starts] have been a bit up and down – not his fault, mine. But we’ve worked on consistency and being very precise with whole procedure. Today was definitely the best one.”
Now he was looking at the precise topography of the track, trying to work out how to use it to get his car ahead of Nico’s once he’d made that perfect clutch engagement. “The track isn’t flat at that point. It goes uphill across to where Nico was and I was just trying to understand it.” Just trying to implant the data so that when instinct kicked in, it did so loaded with the best information.
The way it all played out in the reality of those opening couple of seconds after the gantry lights went out was probably better than anything he’d visualised. Not only was Hamilton’s start close to perfect, but Rosberg’s was poor, the clutch over-engaged, shuddering wheelspin and Rosberg making the natural reaction of burying the throttle further so that not only was Hamilton easily past him and unchallenged into the lead, but the Red Bulls swarmed past him too. Game over as far as the Hamilton vs Rosberg contest was concerned. From 43 points behind to 19 ahead as we head into the summer break, six wins from the last seven, 49 career Grand Prix wins, just two behind Alain Prost.
With two ever-more distant Red Bulls between him and Rosberg, Hamilton – with the inevitable engine penalty hanging over him – was able to turn his engine down from the second lap. The intrigue now was what Rosberg could do about the Red Bulls, how the very closely matched contest between Ricciardo and Verstappen would play out and what the correct answer to the strategic conundrums therein would prove to be.
In between watching those plotlines play out, the wheel-to-wheel stuff behind Hamilton down through the field was terrific, as it invariably is around the shortened Hockenheim where the variety of feasible lines through the turn six hairpin and how that is interlinked with the switchbacks of 8-9-10 makes it impossible to defend from a car of similar performance and a driver who wants to pass.
Then there was the intrigue: why can one guy make the tyres last better than another in the same car even while lapping quicker? Why has the Red Bull cut into the Mercedes advantage and pulled away from Ferrari? What is happening on the Ferrari pitwall and why is Sebastian Vettel having to call the shots from the cockpit? Why does the stopwatch sometimes lie?
With impressive calm, Rosberg took a second consecutive pole. Forced to abort his first Q3 lap two corners from the end when an electronics glitch cut his throttle (leaving him to get to the pits in limp home mode), there was no banker lap to fall back on as the clock ticked down. Accordingly, he was fuelled up for three laps (theoretically costing around 0.1s compared to the conventional single-lap’s worth) just in case there was a problem with the first lap. But he nailed it immediately, faster than his first attempt through sectors one and two to cross the line in 1m 14.363s, eclipsing Hamilton’s first run by a tenth. But now Lewis was out there, half a lap behind on his second run, a tenth faster than Rosberg through the first sector but then locking up heavily into the Spitzkehre hairpin (turn 6), the corner where Rosberg had got the Merc rotated perfectly, lined up, steering straight even before the apex. It was the crucial difference, Lewis unable to make up the two-tenths the lock-up had cost.
Mercedes was all it was ever about, though Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo had chipped away at their advantage throughout the weekend and ultimately managed to get to within 0.363s of Rosberg’s pole with a fantastically committed lap. The RB12 was again running an outrageous degree of rake, getting the front wing and leading edge of the floor closer to the ground, increasing the ground effect, with the leading edge and contours of the rear wing optimised for the angle at which the car was running. But the higher drag costs and the Renault motor, whilst strong, could only overcome so much of it down the long straights. Daniel had done a three-lap run in Q2 to set his time, meaning he’d be starting the race on tyres two laps older than those of his team-mate Verstappen. But into Q3 Verstappen was always trailing by around a tenth, lining him up fourth.
Ferrari had looked a close match for Red Bull through the practices but into Saturday afternoon the balance wasn’t quite there. Kimi Räikkönen was definitely the cutting edge of the Scuderia’s efforts on this occasion, as Vettel struggled – his regular irritation with the team over the radio seemed reflected in a somewhat scrappy performance in the car. Räikkönen was carrying more momentum through the long turns, Vettel’s car by contrast regularly snapping out on exit, and losing him confidence under braking. Kimi went fifth (0.35s off Ricciardo), with Seb a tenth-and-a-half behind in sixth. “The balance didn’t come together,” he surmised. “It was better this morning and yesterday than in qualifying. We know the car can be quicker, but we didn’t manage to get it in the right window; that’s our job and we didn’t succeed.”
The Ferraris generally had a couple of tenths buffer over the very closely matched Mercedes-powered contingent of Force India and Williams just behind. Nico Hülkenberg emerged on top of this mini-contest with seventh fastest, edging out Valtteri Bottas’ Williams by a couple of hundredths, with the respective team-mates Sergio Pérez and Felipe Massa rounding out the top 10. Hülkenberg was later demoted a place as penalty for Force India having handed the wrong set of tyres back at the end of practice 3. The set of super-softs used in Q1 had already been ‘electronically returned’…
Hockenheim even in its modern short format remains a power track so the McLaren-Hondas and the 2015 Ferrari-powered Toro Rossos were somewhat out-gunned and never really in with a sniff of Q3. Fastest of those not making it through was the Haas of Esteban Gutiérrez, pushing hard and in the strongest form he’s been all season. Team-mate Romain Grosjean was back in 15th, struggling with the car’s balance after it had been quickly rebuilt following a gearbox failure in Saturday morning practice. This came about as a result of his spinning across the grass on the exit of turn four. The new ‘box entailed a five-place grid penalty too. As ever, the Haas’ main shortcoming seemed to be on the brakes, the car either unstable at the rear or locking its fronts with apparently no sweet-spot in between.
Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso lined the McLarens up 12th and 14th respectively, the latter spoiling his lap before it had barely begun by running the car heavily over the severe kerbing extremities of turn one. He also claimed to have been baulked by Vettel, though no action was taken. Qualifying in between them was Carlos Sainz’s Toro Rosso, but this would be demoted three places for Carlos having blocked Massa up to turn two. He actually dived off track over the grass but did so too late. His team-mate Daniil Kvyat was distraught after failing to make it out of Q1 over 0.5s slower than Sainz. He was uncomprehending of how it could have gone so badly wrong as he fights for his F1 future and seemed in a very fragile state. It was not nice to see.
Jolyon Palmer continued where he’d left off in Hungary by wringing the best from the Renault which wasn’t actually as competitive as in Budapest – the corners here not long enough to get its front tyres switched on effectively – but he got it into Q2, a significant achievement. His 16th place there left him just one ahead of team-mate Kevin Magnussen who was less than a tenth slower, fastest of those not making it out of Q1. Pascal Wehrlein in the faster of the Manors used the Mercedes grunt well to out-pace Kvyat, team-mate Rio Haryanto and the Saubers of Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson.
A sunny Hockenheim day, a good crowd though not a sell-out – enough to create an atmosphere. Tension rising as the ceremonies are completed, until all that’s left are the cars waiting on the grid, 44 eyes watching the gantry lights, clutch bite points all chosen, revs held constant. Lights out and…
Rosberg: “I don’t really understand what happened. It was close to perfect off the dummy grid. I did the same thing and the clutch was over-engaged so I got wheelspin.” Helpless, he simply hugged the outside line and hoped not too many others would out-accelerate him on the short run to turn one. An almost instant growth of silver to his right. That much was expected. Then two splashes of blue and yellow. Damn! First down to fourth. Elbows out keeping the snapping Ferraris at bay as we head up to turn two.
Hamilton: “My man did a great job today and the procedure was perfect.” Fairly low revs and a perfect synchronisation of clutch slip and initial wheelspin, the spin of the wheels decreasing at about the same rate as the building speed until they merge, keep the steering wheel straight, avoiding that lateral uphill section of track he’d noted that might sap that last bit of acceleration. Perfect. Rear wheels clear of Rosberg’s nose ages before the turn, sweep across to take the line. Just clear air ahead, second up to first, the beginning of a perfect day at the office.
Ricciardo: The Renault engine’s pretty friendly off the line these days, plenty of mid-range to go with the good traction. He couldn’t believe his luck as that Merc ahead of him suddenly got bigger, flicked right, foot planted, slalomed around it, job done. Except, whoa, there was Max – crazy, millimetre-perfect, brave Max – to the left around the outside. Good news and bad. Still third.
Verstappen: A similarly good start to Ricciardo, staying over to the right as Daniel swerved by Rosberg and he did the same, then slalom over across Rosberg’s bows to the outside of Ricciardo. More momentum. What to do with it? Hang on in and go round the outside, being sure to stay inside those track limits, avoiding the big bump at the end of the kerbing that can launch your front wheels into the air, inside wheels almost touching the outside sidewalls of the other Red Bull. Fourth to second, only Hamilton’s Mercedes ahead of him.
The slithering pack of colour trying not to get entwined, Rosberg being hung out to dry over the exit kerb of the kink of turn five by Ricciardo. “It was very important for my race that I kept Nico behind me,” as he pointed out later. That move was actually the foundation of his great afternoon and a major part of Rosberg’s difficult one.
Vettel had out-accelerated Räikkönen off the line and was snapping at Rosberg’s heels while trying to avoid being slipstreamed by Kimi on the long kinking run down to the turn six hairpin. Behind were Bottas, Hülkenberg, Button, Massa, Alonso, Magnussen, Sainz, Palmer (already slowing with a damaged wing from a hit on Massa at turn two and on his way to the pits), Kvyat, Pérez (an over-engaged clutch, wheel-spinning start from ninth trashed his prospects), Nasr (who’d skated deftly around the mess developing at turn one between Ericsson and the Manors but would later retire), Gutiérrez (a disastrous start from 11th as the only car on the less grippy soft tyre amid a grid of super-softs). Grosjean was back among the Manors initially but soon sliced past them and was then allowed an easy passage past team-mate Gutiérrez to set off after Nasr and the rest.
Hamilton screamed by 1.3s ahead of Verstappen at the end of the opening lap. Already they were beginning to focus on controlling their pace rather than racing, as the tyres needed quite a lot of management. It was tricky to know quite how much to nurse them as the ideal race was poised closely between a two-stop and a three. The limitation was thermal degradation of the rears. The limit on the fronts was wear but you’d probably not get there before the rears had become so overheated they’d lost most of their performance as the internal core temperature crept ever-upwards. The hotter the track, the more it moved towards a three-stop. Plan A at Mercedes was a two-stop but already they were thinking about Plan B for Rosberg as Ricciardo continued to thwart his attempts at passing on track.
On the second lap Nico got a run going down the inside into the hairpin, but Daniel held on alongside around the outside. They drag-raced each other out of there up to the fast right of seven, still side-by-side, wheels thrillingly close at 180mph, Ricciardo still on the outside, perfectly placed to snatch the place back down the inside into the tight left of eight.
Asked if the Mercedes was at its most difficult when behind another car, Rosberg denied it: “We have an awesome car. The Red Bulls were difficult to pass because they were fast.” Fast and very aggressively driven, but regardless, a car with more high speed downforce by definition loses more downforce when denied a clean airflow over its surfaces. It isn’t that the Red Bull was all that much slower at the end of the straights either. That’s probably a significant clue as to how Red Bull has made its recent gains, pulling in Mercedes closer and leaving Ferrari behind – as reflected here by the red cars quickly falling away from the Rosberg/Red Bull battle. Always a car running more rake than any other, for the last two events the RB12 has been running an outrageous degree of it – beyond even that which was used in the blown exhaust era.
“Getting a benefit from rake is a very long and involved process,” Williams’ Pat Symonds explained in Hungary. “You have to develop everything else around it and the gains are incremental. You cannot just run it with rake and have it go faster. It won’t. But there are gains there. We are running 2.5 degrees more than two years ago.” Running with the nose down and tail up, the front wing and leading edge of the floor induce more ground effect (a hugely efficient form of downforce) but the rear wing has to be designed around this angle of running. Furthermore as the speed builds and the rear of the car is forced down, reducing the rake, it is possible to stall the rear wing, greatly helping its straightline speed. It’s a tricky thing to control as it must be tuned so as not to stall in the speed range of any of the corners on a given circuit. But the big step-change in power from the Renault upgrade a few races ago has essentially allowed the threshold of feasible rake to be increased. Hamilton had it all under control here, but the Mercedes had, at best, a margin of 0.3s over the Red Bull at what is still a power track.
From the second lap Lewis had turned the engine down. He was more comfortably able to do this because actually the faster Red Bull was trapped behind the slower one for the moment. As early as the sixth lap Verstappen was feeling the grip of the rears beginning to surrender and he fell to 2.7s adrift. Ricciardo was able to make the rear super-softs last longer – the same pattern we’ve seen before and which had been repeated in Friday practice. That was why Red Bull went into this race thinking it may split its strategy, with Verstappen on a three-stop, Ricciardo a two.
So when Red Bull saw Mercedes preparing to bring Rosberg in as early as lap 11 to convert him to a three-stop, fitting a new set of super-softs, Red Bull did the same with Verstappen at the same time. That way they had the three-stopping Mercedes covered with Verstappen, leaving Ricciardo still poised between two and three as required. That was why Max was fitted with super-softs and Daniel with softs when he came in a lap later. Hamilton came in from the lead at the end of lap 14 for a set of softs – and got out with the order behind him just as it had been: Verstappen, Ricciardo, Rosberg. The Ferraris had also rejoined on softs, but Vettel and Räikkönen were already trailing a respective 5s and 9s behind Rosberg, though comfortably clear of a close Bottas/Hülkenberg battle. The Williams rejoined on softs, the Force India on super-softs.
Actually, there was surprisingly little difference between the two compounds on the day as explained by Pirelli’s Mario Isola. “At the temperatures seen on Friday the super-soft was 1.6s faster. At that performance, it’s still much the better tyre even when the soft lasts seven laps longer. But the higher temperatures of the race were much more like those we saw on Saturday when the difference was just 0.9s. At that difference, the longer durability of the soft makes it very evenly matched with the super-soft.”
“This is not the race tyre,” said Verstappen part-way through his second stint as the rear super-softs surrendered just like first time around. Hamilton’s lead ballooned up to 8s by lap 25 even though Lewis was barely trying. Ricciardo was hanging on comfortably enough just behind and had even pulled out a small cushion over Rosberg, but it was obvious both to Mercedes and Red Bull that this race had migrated fully towards a three-stop for everyone. Christian Horner explained: “The degradation was just a bit higher than we’d seen on the long runs of Friday.” That meant that the transposed in-team tyre strategies at both Mercedes and Red Bull were no longer reflective of a different number of planned stops.
The super-soft-shod Rosberg and Verstappen were therefore in for their second stops several laps earlier than the soft-shod Hamilton and Ricciardo. Mercedes pulled the trigger first with Rosberg on lap 27, switching him to the softs. Red Bull responded a lap later with Verstappen, also going onto softs. Max exited still just ahead of the Merc but Nico’s up-to-temperature tyres were grippier and as they raced down to turn six, with the Merc’s DRS deployed, Rosberg made for the inside into the braking area. Verstappen moved across towards him, but Rosberg kept coming. What he then did was similar to what he’d tried on Hamilton in Austria – using his presence on the inside to run straight on, forcing Verstappen to do the same, and only then turning the wheel. He’d not locked up and ran wide, but had simply chosen to delay turning in until the other guy had no room left in which to do so. Verstappen therefore ran off-track onto the run-off area but made a big play of running way wider than he needed to. Not only would this give him a faster entry onto the following straight but it would also highlight to the race stewards what Rosberg had done. The stewards ruled that Rosberg had forced another car off circuit and that 5s would have to be served at his next pit stop (or added onto his race time if he didn’t stop again). The earlier stop would undercut Rosberg past Ricciardo and the muscular move had got him past Verstappen too. Could he now pull out the extra 5s penalty time before the third stop?
Ricciardo pitted from around 13s behind Hamilton on the 33rd lap and had a set of super-softs fitted. Hamilton stopped a lap later and – with no need to risk anything – was put on another set of softs. After this second round of stops Hamilton’s lead over Rosberg was 5.7s, with Verstappen 3s back from there and being closed down quickly by his super-soft-shod team-mate. Max may not have liked the super-softs, but Daniel loved them. “The car just came alive on them,” he said. By the 40th lap he was right with Verstappen and under team instruction Max let him through, lifting off early on the straight towards the hairpin. Ricciardo set chase now for Rosberg who had been informed he needed to be lapping in the mid-19s to stay ahead after the stops. Nico couldn’t conjure anything like that pace. “Every time I pushed the tyres just overheated,” he explained. Ricciardo had got to within less than a second when Rosberg was brought in for his final stop.
The stopwatch the team manager was using to measure the 5s before work could begin on the car failed! An extra 3s was added to the stationary time as a result. This delay was enough to comfortably allow both Red Bulls to be stopped on the following two laps and emerge ahead of the second Merc. So going into the last stint of the race Hamilton on softs led Ricciardo on super-softs by 11s. It looked for a time as if the race was still alive as Ricciardo charged on and closed the gap. But as it got to 6s, so Hamilton responded, doing just enough to stay out of reach. Verstappen – who just couldn’t conjure the same combination of speed and tyre durability as Ricciardo – fell back a little but remained a couple of seconds out of Rosberg’s reach.
The Ferraris were half a minute behind by the end. A small indication of the team’s current disarray was glimpsed prior to the second stops when Vettel was instructed to pit. “Why?” he asked. “The tyres are still good.”
“Because of the undercut.”
“Who are we trying to undercut.”
Max was at that time 8s ahead of the Ferrari, at least 6s further away than necessary to allow an undercut to work. “No, I’ll stay out another couple of laps,” said Seb…
Force India beat Williams, under-cutting Hulk ahead at the second stops, which forced Williams to leave Bottas out, trying to get him to the end on just two stops. Inevitably he was walking wounded at the end, allowing Hulk and Button’s McLaren to overtake. Jenson was masterful in the way he’d earlier controlled his advancing team-mate Alonso, pointing out to the team that they would both run out of fuel and tyres if they continued to race each other and would be passed (by Pérez). Alonso’s charge had used up more resources than Button’s controlled drive to eighth. From being on Button’s tail looking for a way by, Alonso fell to 12th, with Pérez taking the final point, just unable to reach the gripless Bottas before the flag.
“When he is on form, I think he is literally unbeatable,” said Toto Wolff of Hamilton. This was one of those days.
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