2020 Russian Grand Prix preview: Will Hamilton equal Schumacher's 91-win record?
We are now officially in the second half of the 2020 Formula 1 season and after a what must feel like a luxury week off for the teams and drivers,…
A measured and composed performance from Hamilton cuts the gap
In Lewis Hamilton’s third win of the season, Max Verstappen’s starring cameo role at the start was key. His take-no-prisoners around-the-outside pass on Sebastian Vettel through the first turn vaulted him immediately up to second, putting a slower Red Bull as a buffer between Hamilton and his pursuers, and in clipping Vettel’s right-front wing ensured the championship leader was in damage limitation mode for the rest of the afternoon rather than fighting it out with Hamilton as he might otherwise have been doing.
Vettel staged a superb two-stopping comeback in a floor-damaged Ferrari that salvaged fourth place and kept him leading the championship, but Hamilton was never challenged, heading a Mercedes 1-2 the day after equalling Ayrton Senna’s 65 pole positions with a stunning lap. Verstappen’s Gilles Villeneuve-like shining role was not rewarded, the Red Bull an early retirement with lack of battery power. His team-mate Daniel Ricciardo could thank Force India that he was able to get a podium, as an intra-team battle between Sergio Pérez and Esteban Ocon – with the two-stopping Vettel catching them – was not resolved from the team’s pit wall as Pérez refused to comply with Ocon’s request to be allowed to attack Ricciardo on his newer tyres. This left the rookie vulnerable to a super-aggressive Vettel into Turn 1 with a few laps to go.
Bottas was almost 20sec behind his team-mate at the end, his dealing with Vettel into Turn 1 also a crucial part of how Hamilton’s race panned out. Räikkönen limped home seventh after a late brake-by-wire problem that cleared a path through for the recovering Vettel. Lance Stroll took his first two points after a solid race for Williams, Romain Grosjean secured a point after a remarkable drive on what was effectively a zero-stop strategy, the Haas having been forced to pit for a new nose at the end of lap one after being assaulted by Carlos Sainz, this having triggered a big accident that took himself and Felipe Massa out. Fernando Alonso was running the McLaren in the points late in the race but the engine – almost inevitably – let go.
As the sun steadily warmed up the track through Saturday morning and into qualifying, so it gave us a great picture of the dynamic driving the traits of the Mercedes and Ferrari and the varying form of their drivers. That which is more usually just a hard definition snapshot was this time revealed as a continuum of how – with these super-sensitive 2017 tyres – each car and each driver is affected by whatever the track temperature happens to be.
During the cooler and dusty conditions of Friday it was Ferrari all the way and Räikkönen in particular. Kimi was straight into the groove he’d been in during much of Monaco, the front of the SF70H responding faithfully to just the smallest steering angle, allowing him to be hard on the gas confidently early into the many slow, wall-lined turns. Vettel wasn’t quite so at ease, comparably quick at his peak, but locking brakes more frequently and having a few more moments generally. But he was in better shape than the Mercedes W08, which – though fast and grunty and loaded up with slightly more wing – was a car that required a lot more manhandling, Hamilton and Bottas frequently intervening with emergency responses to keep them out of the wall.
Saturday morning and the track had gripped up and the sun was shining more brightly. The Ferrari was still an easier 1m12sec than the Mercedes, but Räikkönen had lost his balance and Vettel was more comfortably into his groove. The increased grip had changed the car’s balance towards mild understeer, giving Vettel all the confidence he needed to properly commit and get the feel for the car into the corner that he needs. Räikkönen was finding it slow to respond to his inputs, taking him out wide on the exits, fighting to keep it out of the wall. “What the hell is happening with these tyres?” he demanded at one stage after lightly brushing the Turn 4 wall. Although they are nominally softer than last year for any given compound, the effect over a contact patch that is much larger is that of a significantly harder compound than before. It takes a lot of preparation to get the required energy into the core of the tyre to allow it the bending hysteresis that gives it its grip. So the surface has to be prepared delicately and only then leant upon – and the handling balance of the car is obviously critical to this. Each driver has his own feeling of a car, just in the way he is physiologically wired up, how all the various sensors for lateral g and rotation are feeding into his inner ear. They can adapt around that, but just like handwriting, the basic feeling is set. A certain balance of car will suit one driver better than another, but the effects of that are this year amplified by these super-sensitive tyres.
At Mercedes, the car was still a handful but it was moving away from Bottas and towards Hamilton as the track temperatures came up. Its traits are very different to those of the Ferrari. As the track temperature increased, so its front end – invariably reluctant to get the tyres temps quickly enough into the corner – was beginning to switch on. When it had been understeering on Friday, Bottas’s way of not over-stressing the front end and just driving within its grip limits was giving him similar speed to Hamilton’s way of trying to wrestle around that trait. But with the improved front response, Hamilton’s more gung-ho approach into the turns was beginning to pay him back with lap time. For the way Bottas feels a car, that improved front grip was just giving him the sensation of rear instability.
So the increase in track temperatures had given the Ferrari more understeer, the Merc less understeer. As things were poised on Saturday morning, the Ferrari still appeared to have a small edge. By qualifying time the track temperature was up another 8deg C to 44 – and getting hotter as the session progressed. “I don’t know. The car just seemed to come to me,” reported Hamilton after securing a Senna-equalling 65th career pole. The team was seeing massively increased grip through Turns 1 to 4 for no reason it could readily understand, and Hamilton was going with it. As his confidence in the track grip-enhanced balance of the car increased, so he was able to just relax into that zone where his best stuff becomes accessible to him, skimming the walls with precision as if it were child’s play. Equal with Bottas in Q1, a tenth faster in Q2, by the time it all mattered, he left his team-mate 0.6sec adrift, full commitment into the final turn, off the brakes super early and carrying outrageous speed in, even though the pole was essentially already secured.
Into the gap between the Mercs was Vettel’s Ferrari, the car still happy for him and his advantage over Räikkönen increasing. But with Hamilton’s Merc for the first time revealing its peak to be slightly higher, so Vettel was triggered into over-striving, trying to find the last drops of time that just weren’t quite in the car, locking up at the hairpin on his first Q3 attempt, staying out to get the banker in, then doing a slightly scrappy final run. “Yeah, in the last run I pushed too hard, lost time in Turn 2 then tried to catch up.” It left him 0.3sec off pole. His best sector times would have had him within 0.15sec.
Third and fourth-fastest Bottas and Räikkönen were left reeling somewhat at how their chassis balance had got away from them, leading Bottas to go too deep into the hairpin, Räikkönen with an error early in his best lap that left him 0.5sec adrift even of Vettel’s compromised lap. “I made a mistake in corner two… just couldn’t make the laps very good and paid the price for it. It was a little bit more tricky today than yesterday just to get the good feeling with the tyres.”
The Ferrari featured a new rear wing, specifically for low-downforce tracks, with a spoon-shape central profile. The sidepod barge boards had lateral slots rather than the previous vertical ones.
The Red Bull RB13 continues to be improved under Adrian Newey’s guidance and with a raft of under-the skin aero improvements was within a couple of tenths of the Mercs and Ferraris in Q2, but a full 1sec off pole in Q3. Partly that was Hamilton’s personal improvement, but the rest was engine modes, the quali mode for the Renault reckoned to be worth less than one tenth. Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo went fifth and sixth, as usual in their own no-man’s land well ahead of Williams/Force India, well behind Mercedes/Ferrari.
Felipe Massa put the Williams where it deserved to be, seventh and a couple of tenths clear of the Force Indias (Pérez narrowly out-qualifying the new-to-the-track Ocon). Lance Stroll was a Q1 casualty, struggling for pace against Massa but in addition a victim of the yellow flags at the end of that session for the crashing Sauber of Pascal Wehrlein. Nico Hülkenberg squeezed his Renault into Q3, Jolyon Palmer 0.8sec adrift of him in Q2 and back in 15th.
Daniil Kvyat squeezed a better lap out of his car than team-mate Carlos Sainz, putting the Toro Rossos 11th and 13th. Kvyat may well have made Q3 with a less rushed preparation lap for his final run after being called to the weighbridge. Sandwiched by the Toros was Fernando Alonso’s McLaren. At somewhere between 90-100bhp down (according to their numbers, but disputed by Mercedes), that calculates out at 1.5sec. So when Alonso qualified within 1.2sec of Hamilton’s Q2 time, he reckoned it was “effectively pole.” Stoffel Vandoorne was another to be caught by the Wehrlein yellows and so failed to get out of Q1, his lap good only for 16th.
Haas – back to Brembo brakes – was having its usual fight against tyre temperatures, its operating window particularly tiny. Romain Grosjean qualified 14th, the yellows-effected Kevin Magnussen 18th. At Sauber the heavy braking demands of the track suited Marcus Ericsson well and he had a consistent edge over Wehrlein even before the latter crashed.
A beautiful but very gusty Montreal day, the place as usual packed with an enthusiastic crowd, all of whom will have walked across the bridge with the placards of each of the previous Canadian Grand Prix winners as the event celebrated its 50th anniversary. Going into the race this looked strictly a contest between five-time Montreal winner Hamilton and 2013 victor Vettel, so probably no new placards would be needed for next year. The high track temperature was much as it had been in qualifying, which seemed to be good news for Mercedes, while the Ferrari could be relied upon to be quick regardless. If Vettel didn’t win the start, how was a straightforward playing out of this race going to be winnable for him? It wasn’t entirely clear. It was set to be a one-stop race, the degradation rates of the ultra, super and soft all low, with even the ultra seemingly good for at least 40 laps if required. Even more than usual, a lot was hanging on how the start panned out.
Hamilton got a pretty good one, Vettel an average one that allowed an aggressive Bottas to slice through to his left (locking up his fronts as he did so). As Vettel was forced to give the Merc room, so he was passed around the outside by the rocket-starting Red Bull of Verstappen whose racing instincts had no delay. But as he scratched by into second his left-rear glanced the Ferrari’s right-front wing endplate, which was left to flap around as Vettel exited the sequence in fourth place, behind Bottas and ahead of Ricciardo, Räikkönen, Pérez and Ocon. Vettel couldn’t see the damage from his vantage point but as he drove through Turn 6 he felt it somewhat wayward. He put it down to the gusty wind and cold tyres. He wouldn’t find out otherwise for a while because the race was then put under the safety car. There’d been a big shunt at Turn 3 as Carlos Sainz and Romain Grosjean had interlocked wheels as they raced up the preceding straight side by side. Sainz claimed later that Grosjean had been in his mirrors’ blind spot, though he appeared to be trying to intimidate the Haas driver. As Grosjean remained resolute, the collision spun the Toro Rosso wildly mid-pack, causing it to enter Turn 3 backwards, where it took out Massa’s Williams before burying itself into the barriers. It could easily have had more serious consequences. Grosjean would pit at the end of the lap for a new nosecone, taking the opportunity to switch from the ultras to the super-softs, with the ambitious intention of not stopping again. Sainz and Massa stepped out of wrecked cars.
The safety car was in at the end of the third lap, Verstappen immediately trying for a run on Hamilton up to the final chicane, side by side but on the outside it was nothing if not opportunistic. Hamilton held him off, Verstappen then coming under attack from Bottas down the pit straight but the positions remaining unchanged. Bottas was struggling with badly flat-spotted front tyres – “I could hardly see for the vibration and I think I need to see a dentist too!” – and the team was monitoring the loads very carefully, concerned about possible tyre failure.
Hamilton sprinted away, the marginal part of his day’s work now done – with slower cars between him and the Ferraris, both of which were compromised anyway. Upon the restart, with full loadings upon it for the first time a chunk of Vettel’s endplate snapped off, one part flying high into the air, another bouncing beneath the car and damaging the turning vanes and front-right corner of the floor. This was later calculated to have cost a theoretical 0.2sec per lap but the changed balance it brought to the car wasn’t to Seb’s taste and probably cost more than that in reality. This makes it impossible to judge the actual comparative pace of the Merc and Ferrari – as Räikkönen was in trouble from early on, brushing the Turn 8 wall on the restart lap. Pérez immediately grinded by for sixth, but the Ferrari took some suspension damage that upset its balance and may have played its part in his later brake-by-wire problems.
Vettel was running fourth with his damaged wing and realised as soon as he braked for Turn 1 that he was in trouble and should have pitted for a replacement under the safety car, when the time loss to the others would have been so much less. “But we didn’t realise.” At safety car speeds, there was little apparent problem. Telemetry showed the loads on the wing were normal at these speeds and the team had looked at stills of TV images which suggested the damage was relatively light. They could see it was cracked but the problem appeared manageable. Until they began racing again. Vettel was all up for staying out regardless, as to stop with the field bunched so tight would obviously put him at the very back. But he was advised it was too dangerous, that total failure was imminent. While that discussion played out he went round again, before finally pitting at the end of the fifth lap and having a new nose fitted together with a set of super-softs. He rejoined at the back.
Hamilton by this time was easing the gap over Verstappen out to 2sec, with Bottas unable to offer a challenge thanks to his flat-spots. The plan at Merc was to stop Valtteri as early as feasible so as to get him off the damaged tyres. All he was trying to do at this stage was stay within undercut range of Verstappen while waiting for a gap to drop into after stopping.
But on the 10th lap it became unnecessary to challenge the Red Bull because Verstappen suffered a sudden and total power loss as he exited Turn 2, a sad early end after such a fantastically spirited effort. The problem resided in the energy store but was still being investigated at the time of writing. The car was stopped at an awkward place, requiring the marshals to push it backwards to an opening and so the race was put under the VSC. It was a little early to be getting rid of the fast ultra-softs and so only the two Renaults came in to make the most of the 12sec advantage of stopping while the field was at VSC pace, the reasoning being they could then defend the places they’d make up in the mid pack. Both were switched to super-softs and Hülkenberg used this strategy as the foundation for a combative performance (many super-close moves in defence and attack against the likes of Magnussen, Stroll and Kvyat) to take eighth place, with Palmer just out of the points in 11th.
Four laps of VSC plus the earlier safety car laps had made it less marginal on fuel for everyone, the ultra softs were holding up fine and so it was flat out from the lap 14 rescinding of the VSC until the finish 56 laps later. Hamilton had no need to be anywhere near the limit of course, his lead over his team-mate around 6sec. They had a comfortable gap over the Ricciardo-led pack behind, Daniel surprised to find that he was able to hold off a Mercedes-powered Pérez who enjoyed the added benefit of DRS. But the Mexican was carefully monitoring his resources as well as fending off Räikkönen, with Ocon in turn right behind the Ferrari. Kimi despaired of finding a way through the queue and Ferrari brought him in aggressively early on lap 17 in an attempt at undercutting his way past. Red Bull responded with Ricciardo next lap and Force India with Pérez the lap after that. The order between them remained the same. Force India split its strategy by keeping Ocon out there, running a very distant third, but losing time to the new-tyred Ricciardo/Pérez/Räikkönen. Although this would put Ocon behind the group upon rejoining after a stop 13 laps later than that of his team-mate, he’d be on fresher super-softs (to the tune of over 0.3sec per lap). Ricciardo had been fitted with softs. They weren’t a great compound on the day, but that is only in hindsight.
Softs were also what Mercedes chose for Bottas when he was brought in on lap 23 and exited third behind the yet-to-stop Ocon. Bottas had been one of the few to try the soft on Friday and had liked it, even if it was slightly slower than the super-soft. The thinking of putting him on it now was that it gave them coverage to get to the end of the race after such an early stop if they hadn’t been able to pull a pitstop gap over third in the event of an inopportune safety car (always a real possibility here). It had much less wear for an apparent small cost in lap time. But that was Friday’s picture. In the heat of race day, it was significantly slower than the super-soft.
Ricciardo was finding much the same. “The soft took a while to get going and then for a few laps it was good, but then you couldn’t really get anything out of it. It was really hard to find the grip with it and easy to make a mistake, hard to be consistent. Pérez on his super-softs was coming at me and we weren’t particularly quick, so it was demanding of the concentration, especially with the way the wind was throwing the car around.”
Initially Hamilton had been keen to use the soft for his second stint too. But as they left him out there still with plenty of life in his ultras, so they were able to monitor Bottas, and the realisation dawned that the super-soft was in fact the better second stint tyre. The nominal pre-race plan had been to bring Hamilton in on lap 21, “but everyone stopped behind me and I was still comfortable on the ultras, so we had the opportunity to see how everyone was comparing on the other tyres. We saw that Vettel was going well on the supers and so that’s what we chose.” Hamilton was brought in on the 32nd lap, and was followed in by Ocon 26sec behind. Hamilton rejoined still leading (by 9sec over Bottas), with Ocon emerging sixth on the tail of the Ricciardo/Pérez/Räikkönen train.
As Hamilton pointed out, Vettel was indeed going well. After his enforced early stop, he’d made up many places as the midfield pitted and by now he was 3sec behind Ocon, and soon to be on the tail of that train. Räikkönen had been unable to pierce Pérez’s defences and so on the 41st lap Ferrari, with little to lose, brought him in for a fresh set of the fastest ultra tyre. The numbers suggested he’d be back where he was by eight laps from the end, but on faster rubber than those around him. As Vettel had been unable to find a way by Ocon, so Ferrari suggested he adopt Räikkönen’s strategy too. He initially felt he’d prefer to stay out, but eventually judged the team’s suggestion was better. But that wasted a crucial few laps – which he could have used later. Once onto the ultras after a second stop on lap 49, he was flying. He exited 7sec behind Räikkönen but lapping around 0.6sec faster as they quickly caught the Force Indias. He’d almost caught his team-mate when Kimi suffered his brake-by-wire failure coming up to the final corner on the 60th lap – forcing him onto the Turn 13-14 run-off, Vettel passing as Räikkönen was forced to take the regulation slow route back to the track. His rear brakes had ceased functioning entirely. “If I braked hard, there was nothing there at all,” he explained. “If I braked gently I got some braking.” After being guided through various re-setting of parameters, none of which worked, Räikkönen concentrated on just bringing the car home. Vettel meanwhile, his dander fully up and enjoying the chase, was reckoning a podium could still be on. Ten laps left in which to pass both Force Indias and Ricciardo.
Vettel’s task in this had been made easier by a bit of mutiny in the ranks at Force India. On his newer tyres, Ocon had sat for many laps on Pérez’s rear wing, with Ricciardo tantalisingly just in front of them. Adamant he could pass Ricciardo, he had requested Pérez be moved aside. Sergio was not up for complying, pointing out that he felt he might pass Ricciardo once they reached the lapped traffic. “Just let us race, please,” he urged. Eventually he was told he had three laps in which to try to pass the Red Bull and if he didn’t manage it, he should allow Ocon through. But this was just five laps before the end… From a team perspective it was a situation that should probably have been resolved earlier and more firmly and Ocon remains convinced it cost him and the team a podium. What happened was that before those three laps were up, Vettel was upon them. As Ocon got off line exiting the final chicane on the 66th lap, having tried to pass his team-mate on the approach, Vettel was able to take advantage by running tight in his slipstream down the pit straight and moving for the inside into Turn 1, all while Ocon was almost alongside Pérez. It was very tight as the Ferrari got onto the dust and swayed menacingly under braking and just scraping by in a fantastically finely judged manoeuvre. Ocon fought it out until there was nowhere to go but the run-off. He was not impressed, angered that he’d been put into this situation and also by Vettel’s move. It was, though, a fully legitimate pass, albeit a tough one, effectively giving Ocon the option of taking to the run-off or having a collision with him. For a man leading the world championship, it was impressively committed – as it could so easily have resulted in a 25-point swing. Instead, he was through and chasing Pérez, whom he passed – after a couple of straight-on moments at the Turn 8-9 chicane – in more straightforward DRS fashion into the chicane with a lap to go. Ricciardo and the podium remained just out of reach.
It was one of Hamilton’s more straightforward victories but it had been largely bought and paid for by his qualifying effort the day before. Mercedes knows it was fortunate to deliver a 1-2 on such a day, as both drivers were aided immeasurably by Vettel’s problems. Ricciardo’s Prost-like performance in delivering Red Bull a podium was a nice counter-study in Verstappen’s early Gilles-esque display.
Räikkönen hung on to seventh, behind the Force Indias and a couple of seconds in front of the tenacious Hülkenberg. Stroll, after a solid race in which he showed some fighting spirit, albeit against slower cars, took his first points, with Grosjean – who had not pitted again after that lap one stop for a nosecone – over-delivering with 10th. Alonso had been running ninth, between Stroll and Grosjean, when the Honda engine went bang four laps from the end. The team’s official post-race press release suggests that McLaren’s patience with Honda is finally nearing its end. It would be a surprise if they are still so powered next year.
“Next we go to Baku,” pondered the race winner. “The trickiest part will be the tyres, getting them in the window on such a smooth surface.” That consistency remains Mercedes’ worry. Hamilton’s car somehow fell into the window in Montreal, but the team don’t fully understand why it went so right. It was a lucky 1-2, forged upon a mega and historic pole lap and a gung-ho young guy in a Red Bull.
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