Is Aston Martin Sebastian Vettel’s best chance at F1 title since Red Bull?
Can Aston Martin return Sebastian Vettel to his title-winning best?
The sixth round of the 2017 F1 season brings controversy – Mark Hughes reports from Monaco
They sang along to the Italian national anthem, all the Ferrari mechanics, engineers and catering staff as they stood below the new Monaco podium in the late afternoon sun. Sebastian Vettel conducted them as if they were his orchestra, pure delight writ large on his face. Kimi Räikkönen stood to his right devoid of expression, a thousand yard stare, clearly furious. Similarly with the Champagne as Vettel enthusiastically sprayed it around, Räikkönen giving his bottle a half-hearted scowling shake. A few moments earlier, in less public surroundings, Vettel had offered Räikkönen his hand for the ‘mutual respect’ upright handshake – and Kimi had hesitated before reluctantly accepting, and with those green eyes looking directly into Seb’s with undisguised fury, briefly acquiesced, turned and walked away.
Räikkönen, the pole position man and early race leader, called in by his team five laps earlier than Vettel on a day where it was always the overcut that was going to work – and not the undercut – was monstrously hacked off.
It all fitted with the pre-race speculation that Ferrari, with the ‘wrong’ driver on pole, would find a way around the pitstops to do the switch. It’s something it’s perfectly entitled to do, and with a world championship to try to win it was the logical action, albeit a deeply unpopular one with the watching world. But if there was such a plan, it seems no one had informed Räikkönen of it. How else to explain his righteous anger?
There are a few nuances to how it happened that open up different interpretations to be put upon Vettel’s victory on a day where his likely title rival Lewis Hamilton could do no better than seventh in a Mercedes that had proved incredibly difficult all weekend. But whichever of them is the accurate one, Räikkönen felt a man wronged. After the podium, he walked to give stony-faced answers to the grid interviews and from there to the press conference, as he is contractually required to do. What else is he contractually bound to?
Räikkönen’s pole lap was a thing of beauty, like a 12-year rewind back to when the car gave him all the messages he needed to instinctively do his thing: just the smallest angle of steering giving him the quick, progressive rotation into the corner and then the beautiful precision of throttle movement against grip. It’s a style that requires a very amenable car and even though this year’s Ferrari has the widest operating band of all them, he’s struggled so far this year to get it working consistently the way he likes it. Vettel’s not shy of using steering to make the car do what he wishes, he doesn’t rely so much on delicate weight transfer at the crucial part of the corner to generate the rotation. But at Monaco it all came together finally for Kimi. Through the practices he trailed Vettel, sometimes by a significant amount, but after tweaking away with race engineer Dave Greenwood and his guys into Q1 the feeling was there and Räikkönen was transported back to the 2005 McLaren, back when no one could live with him. It’s a style that works to particularly devastating effect through a sequence of bends like Monaco’s sector two – quick sweeps but with no margin for error. That’s where the bulk of his advantage over Vettel came from, and it even led Seb to over-strive there on both his Q3 runs. On Saturday afternoon, in a sweet-handling SF70H, Räikkönen was simply slightly faster than Vettel. To the tune of 0.043sec. In this way was a new record set for the interval between poles – eight years, 129 Grands Prix.
As would be expected, Vettel looked less than delighted at his team-mate’s achievement. With the value of pole so crucial around this place and with his title rival Hamilton only 14th fastest, this was sort of an inconvenient time for Kimi to rediscover his mojo. Seb said all the right things about it – but through barely concealed gritted teeth.
But if there was a lap better than Räikkönen’s it was almost certainly that of Valtteri Bottas, third quickest, a couple of thousandths shy of the front row, in a Mercedes that was a vastly more difficult proposition than the Ferrari, requiring a much more intricate preparation to the lap and considerably more manhandling. It invariably needed two preparation laps to get some sort of balance between the front and rear tyre temperatures – and those laps needed to be at a crawling pace (generally 6sec slower than the single full lap of the Ferrari) in order to bring the fronts up to temperature without the rears overheating. On such a low-grip surface and low-energy corners, even the ultra-soft compound took an age to turn on. The Mercedes is a visibly more softly sprung car than the others, (something confirmed by the wheel-top analysis of other teams, where in-car footage is analysed and the position of the wheel tops relative to the chassis is measured as speeds rise) because it has a nicely benign aero platform (ie the downforce remains consistent through a range of ride heights, roll, pitch etc). But around such a slow circuit as this, with lots of steering lock, it’s too much and needs some support from the tyre. Which is why the Mercedes doesn’t pick up as much lap time as the Ferrari from lower pressures – and why Pirelli’s reduction in the stipulated minimum a few days before the event (to 17 front/16.5 psi rear, down from a 19 front/18 rear) was good news for Ferrari. A stiffer set-up on the long wheelbase Mercedes (now without the sophistication of the hydraulic heave spring, banned on the eve of the season) just brings with it too slow a weight transfer, locking fronts and understeer.
So Mercedes tried a major set-up change between first and second practices that proved disastrous, before moving back to a more conventional arrangement from Saturday onwards, but still it needed the multiple slow preparation laps and was a handful through Casino, Tabac and the swimming pool section (with its flat-in-sixth entry), edgy and nervous between understeer and oversteer, poor traction as it rolled too much. Lewis Hamilton was all at sea with it, could make no sense of it at all. But Bottas just worked with what he had, chipped away at understanding where he could find time with it like this – and put it all together magnificently on his final Q3 run, using its formidable grunt to go quickest in sector one, limiting the damage as best he could through the middle sector (he was heart-in-mouth dramatic through the swimming pool section all weekend) and then nailing the throttle outrageously early out of Rascasse, running hard up against the barrier there, before skimming along the inside barrier of the old pitlane to minimise the distance to the timing beam. It was arguably the qualifying lap of the season so far.
Hamilton – who came within an ace of dropping the whole thing into the Massenet barriers – had been in and out of the pits in Q2, trying to find that elusive sweet spot but with no other option, came out for the run that was going to get him into Q3, even if he was consistently a couple of tenths adrift of Bottas. That lap was shaping up okay after two sectors – but then Stoffel Vandoorne crashed his McLaren at the swimming pool exit and the session ended under yellows. Hamilton was out – only 14th quickest (13th after penalties to others). On such a day, Vettel really could have done with pole…
The Red Bulls – with new T-wing and modified diffuser – were well-suited to the track and generally challenging Mercedes hard as the second-fastest car. Their strongest sector was the middle one, where the power shortfall was least costly. Generally, as the track temperature increased (and it was at times up to 54-degC) the RB13 began to understeer. Max Verstappen qualified his fourth, 0.318sec off pole, while fifth-fastest Daniel Ricciardo was furious with the team at being sent out into traffic on his crucial final run. The car needed a very hard preparation lap for the tyres – and that was something that wasn’t possible. He was barely any faster than the sixth-fastest Toro Rosso of Carlos Sainz, the STR12 well-suited to the track’s slow turns, with Sainz extracting a beautiful lap, right on the edge, at the perfect time. Daniil Kvyat had been quicker all weekend but ran into a multitude of problems, getting called to the weighbridge at just the wrong moment in Q2, this compromising his out-laps and leaving him in traffic. Like Hamilton, he was poised to make Q3 on his final run when Vandoorne crashed, leaving the Russian a very frustrated 11th.
As ever, Sergio Pérez was flying around Monaco’s streets and put the Force India a solid P7, a couple of tenths adrift of Sainz. Team-mate Esteban Ocon, on his first visit to the track, had been impressively well-matched to Pérez through the practices but near the end of P3 clipped the barrier exiting the swimming pool, breaking the right-hand track-rod and leaving him no way of steering clear of the wall. It was all hands to the pumps to get the car fixed in time for Q1. The feeling and confidence just wasn’t quite there in the repaired car and he was 16th quickest.
Romain Grosjean pulled a mega lap out of the bag in the last moments of Q1 after having spun the Haas at Mirabeau. A solid Q2 lap got him into Q3 where he was a few hundredths shy of Pérez to go P8. Team-mate Kevin Magnussen was 13th fastest, having been compromised by the very slow out-lap of Hamilton ahead of him and then getting caught out by the Vandoorne yellows. Generally Magnussen was happier with the car than Grosjean, who was struggling to get the front and rear tyres into the window simultaneously.
As expected, the McLaren was quite respectable around Monaco, its slow-corner performance very good. Vandoorne was flying and had gone sixth quickest in Q2 and was pushing for more when he did the Verstappen/Ocon thing of clipping the Turn 15 inside barrier and breaking a track rod, putting the car hard in the wall on the exit of the swimming pool section. Technically, he’d made it to Q3 but would be taking no part in it. He was also taking a three-place penalty for his Barcelona accident.
The returning Jenson Button was impressively within a tenth or so of Vandoorne, working away through the weekend after admitting he was having difficulty adapting to how late it is now possible to brake with these cars. Nonetheless, with the help of his team-mate’s crash, he made it through to Q3. His ninth-fastest time there counted for little though as the engine penalties (ers-h and associated changes) he’d be taking meant he’d start at the back. When his new-spec floor had to be cannibalised to replace that on Vandoorne’s car, replacing it with an old-spec one meant he was obliged to start from the pitlane.
The Renault was another car really struggling to keep the tyres in the correct temperature range and Nico Hülkenberg did a good job just to pull 12th fastest Q2 time out of the hat. Team-mate Jolyon Palmer failed to make it out of Q1. He’d lost valuable track time on Thursday after the car broke down on track.
As his been a theme of recent years, Monaco was not bestowing any favours upon Williams. Felipe Massa was only 15th, having messed up his first Q2 run and been caught out by the yellows on his second. In the other car Lance Stroll was 0.5sec adrift of Massa’s first run in Q1 and failed to graduate from there, in 17th. A hydraulic leak meant he didn’t get to complete a second run. He’d hit the Massenet barriers hard on Thursday afternoon and generally was not finding a good rhythm around the place. At Sauber, Pascal Wehrlein narrowly out-qualified team-mate Marcus Ericsson but they were a half-second adrift of the next slowest car.
It wasn’t so much a race, as a train of fast cars. Monaco has always been this, but this year it was more so. It seemed that every time one of the new wider cars tried to pass another around such confines, there was a collision. The old passing place into the harbour chicane disappeared, a casualty of the new bigger-tyred cars with so much more traction out of Portier and such massive braking power into the chicane.
Tyre behaviour was also at the route of the race’s big controversy – Ferrari’s strategy. The compound choice was Pirelli’s softest – ultra, super-soft and soft, with the latter unused by anyone – but still there was only the tiniest performance degradation. The ultra that virtually everyone started on was somewhere around 0.5sec faster than the super but almost as durable. The pre-race theoretical ideal was a one-stop race with a stop at around 28 laps, but with a very wide window around that point.
But the complication was that of warm-up on the new tyres. We’d just watched two days of practice and qualifying observing which cars needed two preparation laps and which required three before both front and rear tyres were up to temperature. So switching from a set of used ultras to new supers meant it was highly likely the car staying out longer on its used but hot tyres would gain track position at the stops over a rival pitting earlier and rejoining on cold, slow-to-warm rubber – ie the overcut.
The first stint
So that was how it was poised as they lined up at the lights after the pageantry and the minute’s silence for the Manchester victims. The opening seconds unfolded without undue drama, both Ferraris getting away well, Räikkönen ahead of Vettel into Ste Devote, Bottas taking a little look down the inside of the second Ferrari but thinking better of it, the two Red Bulls of Verstappen and Ricciardo behind making slight tyre-to-tyre contact. Sainz, in sixth, was decisive in dealing with Pérez just behind, damaging the Force India’s endplate slightly. Next came Grosjean, Kvyat, Hülkenberg, Magnussen and Hamilton, the latter having out-accelerated Vandoorne off the grid.
This order was static for a long time, save for Hülkenberg pulling the Renault off with an arc of gearbox oil spraying out the back after 15 laps. Otherwise, all that changed were the gaps. The Ferraris ran away from Bottas who only gradually edged away from the Red Bulls. Räikkönen had initially got the gap over Vettel out as far as 2.4sec but by lap 15 Seb was reeling him back in, just putting himself back in play for the stops – whenever they might come. The Mercedes of Bottas was already 7.5sec adrift of the lead.
On lap 16 Force India reluctantly instructed to Pérez to pit from his seventh place for a replacement front wing. They could see from the loadings on the telemetry it was about to fail and indeed the endplate drooped into sparking uselessness on his in-lap. Although he rejoined only a few cars from the back, his pace on his fresh super-softs was interesting: yes it was slower than he’d been on his ultras, but not by all that much. Just a little bit of compromise from the car ahead might allow a healthier following car to undercut, after all. That was information filed away by all – not least by Red Bull where they suspected they might be able to hold onto their tyre performance longer than might Bottas in third.
Although Räikkönen/Vettel had pulled an average of 0.5sec per lap on the Bottas-led pack behind, from the 15th lap onwards Räikkönen’s pace levelled off as Bottas and the Red Bulls continued to improve. By lap 22 Bottas was just 4.9sec behind Vettel, who was being restricted to Räikkönen’s pace. What was happening here? From lap 22 onwards Kimi suddenly dropped a further 0.7-0.8sec from his earlier pace – and now the Bottas/Verstappen/Ricciardo group began to gain by three to four tenths each lap. Furthermore, even Sainz was going faster, meaning they might no longer clear the Toro Rosso if they stopped now. This hadn’t been the Ferrari plan – which was now being seriously compromised by Räikkönen’s pace. “The plan was for us to pull away,” confirmed Vettel, “which we did. But then…” He was diplomatic with what he said next, saying Bottas had good pace. That wasn’t the feeling at Mercedes. “No, we were never a serious threat to the Ferraris,” said Toto Wolff. “We were focused on the Red Bulls behind. We heard the radio traffic where Seb was asked to switch to strat. 5 [a more aggressive engine mode] and Seb had replied, ‘No, it’s not necessary.’ He was just cruising at that point.”
So, why was Kimi so slow at this phase? Did he have a problem? “No, not really,” he replied enigmatically, devoid of emotion. “The car was behaving well, not really having any issues. We had to take it a little bit easier here and there but nothing to complain about.” Had he used up the tyres? “The rears were going a little bit, but nothing too bad.” Still no explanation from him about why he’d slowed so much. He simply wasn’t up for offering one.
The loose pre-race plan at Ferrari was to have the first car stop on lap 34. But at Räikkönen’s suddenly slowed pace, that might be too late to prevent Bottas and/or Verstappen from under-cutting Vettel.
The stops: what happened?
There is what happened, then there is why it happened. At the moment, because Ferrari is effectively a closed shop to media at the command of Maurizio Arrivabene who insists it should be satisfied with his post-race ‘statements’ (which tell us nothing of any interest), we can only speculate on ‘why’ by looking for the most forensic fit with the facts. But first, here is ‘what’: as Bottas was catching the Ferraris, so Verstappen was catching Bottas even quicker. “I was starting to struggle with the rear tyres,” explained Bottas. So Verstappen got to within undercut range of the compromised Merc before Bottas had quite got to within undercut range of Vettel. Repeat: the undercut would only work if the car ahead was compromised. Otherwise staying out longer would get you the place. Red Bull was in the fortunate position of having two bites at the Bottas cherry: use Verstappen to try for the undercut, leaving Ricciardo out to attempt the overcut. Hopefully for Red Bull, both would work. Verstappen was brought in on lap 32, forcing Merc to respond with Bottas on lap 33. It didn’t quite work for Max – but only because he ran wide of his marks and was slow away, which combined cost him around 1sec. He rejoined less than 1sec behind the Merc, with both of them a few seconds behind the yet-to-stop Sainz. With those two out the way, Ricciardo began to fly. He was always going to, because the overcut was always going to be powerful and he’d kept his tyres in great shape while just conserving and circulating behind his team-mate. His pace on his old ultras was around 1.7sec per lap faster than Bottas and Verstappen on new supers. Furthermore, Bottas and Verstappen were about to be stuck at Sainz’s pace for a few laps, so just exaggerating Ricciardo’s advantage over them. He was easily going to jump both of them.
Ferrari was clearly deeply concerned now that Vettel – still having to dawdle along at the pace Räikkönen had chosen for the last few laps, without explanation – was in danger of being overcut by Ricciardo. They needed to get Räikkönen out of Seb’s way. Urgently. So that Vettel could use the performance of the Ferrari to not only switch positions with Räikkönen but also see off the Ricciardo threat. So Räikkönen was brought in the lap after Bottas – lap 34 – and sent out behind traffic (the about-to-be-lapped Button and Wehrlein). And what do you know, Vettel now began to fly too… From the Räikkönen-dictated 1m 17.0sec, Vettel was quickly down to mid-low 1m 15s, half-a-second faster than Ricciardo (who was brought in on lap 38). Vettel pitted on lap 39, with five clear fast laps after Räikkönen, and emerged over 2sec ahead, now fully in control of the race.
Ferrari had knowingly brought Räikkönen in on a lap where it was certain he’d encounter lapped traffic. Because they had to. Otherwise Ricciardo would have got between the two Ferraris… Räikkönen would surely then have upped his pace once more and Vettel would have been demoted to third.
Which begins to suggest the ‘why’.
The stops: why did it happen?
Clearly there was some internal friction unfolding at Ferrari, with Räikkönen slowing up for no apparent reason that he was prepared to offer later, and to the point where it was endangering the team’s 1-2, with Ferrari responding by bringing him in on a lap where he was guaranteed to hit traffic, in addition to being overcut by Vettel. Combine all that with Räikkönen’s obvious post-race displeasure, which went way beyond the behaviour of competitive disappointment, and a scenario begins to suggest itself.
Did Ferrari inform Räikkönen pre-race that at the stops the plan was to put Vettel – as the Scuderia’s title challenger – in front, by running him longer and overcutting Räikkönen? Did Kimi refuse to go along with it? Did he try to frustrate that plan by backing Vettel into the cars behind at the crucial time? Try to make Vettel vulnerable to being undercut by Bottas or a Red Bull? Ferrari would have been forced to respond by pitting Vettel first – to defend the undercut attempt. Which would then have allowed Räikkönen to have upped the pace once more and used the overcut to stay ahead of Vettel. That plan was foiled by Verstappen reaching Bottas before Bottas could quite put Vettel under undercut threat.
This is only conjecture, obviously. But it would fit with what we observed far better than Ferrari’s – and Vettel’s – official explanation. It was perhaps telling that Vettel and Ferrari were so on-message together afterwards, with an explanation that just does not stack up. “The tyres started to slide and Valtteri and the pack were catching. Then [after Räikkönen had been brought in] it was like I had a second set of tyres, a couple of laps where the car was really, really good, so I pushed… I was quite surprised I came out ahead.”
“As the driver ahead, Räikkönen was given priority and was pitted first,” said Ferrari. Priority means given the choice, not necessarily being brought in first. Particularly on a day when that was always going to be the losing strategy.
Kimi was asked if he chose to come in when he did. “No, I was called in.”
Was it planned, Vettel was asked, to stay out longer than Räikkönen? “No, not really.” Not really? Surely it’s a yes or no question.
How did Räikkönen feel about being called in before Vettel? “I don’t know. Obviously it didn’t work out very well for me. But apart from that I have no idea. That’s about as much as I can say about it right now.”
Had he received an explanation from the team about why he was pitted when he was? “I don’t know… It’s not up to me to answer that.”
Second stint dramas
Once out front Vettel was in full control and let rip. Räikkönen by contrast appeared to lose interest. With Seb lapping in the low 1m 16s, Räikkönen was in the mid-17s, allowing Ricciardo to close up on him. Vettel got the gap out to over 12sec before then backing off for the last few laps.
Bottas and Verstappen were stalemated in fourth and fifth respectively, with Sainz sixth but under pressure from Hamilton. Mercedes had ran Lewis long – bringing him in on lap 47, and this had allowed him to overcut his way past Magnussen, Kvyat and Grosjean. He was frequently the fastest man on track on his old tyres, but reckoned the car still to be difficult. “You were lucky if you managed to get a corner just right, so I was quite surprised by the pace.” He chased Sainz but there’s nowhere to pass and the Toro Rosso driver easily absorbed the pressure.
Magnussen suffered a puncture – as later did Ocon. Pirelli reported that there were cuts to the same part of the left-rear treads of both tyres and the suspicion was a raised drain cover on the exit of Ste Devote. The track was also breaking up there in the race’s latter stages, melting under the sweltering heat and the big tractive forces of the cars.
Kvyat was running eighth behind Grosjean and ahead of Vandoorne, the latter coming under pressure from the recovering Pérez. On lap 60, Button tried an optimistic move on Wehrlein up the inside at Portier. It’s been successfully done before, but with the old narrow cars. These ones simply don’t fit two-abreast there and with a sickening predictability the Sauber began to roll as it interlocked wheels with the McLaren. The roll was halted by the barrier, leaving the car on its side. Button pulled off with a front wheel askew as the safety car was deployed. Wehrlein was thankfully fine, albeit trapped in the car until it could be moved. Those cars with a big enough gap behind – Verstappen, Pérez, Massa – pitted for fresh tyres. Stroll retired not long after, his brakes overheating after a duct became blocked with debris.
Räikkönen offered Vettel no threat upon the restart six laps later, Ricciardo thumped the Ste Devote exit on his cold tyres fending off Bottas but amazingly got away with it. Pérez went for the inside of Vandoorne there – and, again, the wider cars meant there simply wasn’t room, as the McLaren was bundled onto the marbles and from there into the barrier. It was quickly moved. A lap earlier Ericsson had got out of the groove there unlapping himself from the safety car – and he too had an embarrassing exit. Pérez set chase for Kvyat but misjudged a move into Racasse that ended with the Force India into the side of the Toro Rosso, leading to the latter’s retirement and a pit stop for Pérez. That all elevated Massa into ninth, ahead of the recovering Magnussen and the Renault of Palmer. So ran the high-speed train to the end.
And so was clinched one of Vettel’s most controversial victories. Ferrari had done nothing wrong, had not broken any regulations and its choice of favouring Vettel strategically was totally logical in the context of the championship contest. Fans may not have appreciated it, believing they were watching an un-tilted contest between the team’s two drivers, but the sport is frequently more complex than that. It’s a pity the team couldn’t be more straightforward in explaining the situation or at least have the management answer questions about how it ran its race. Meantime, was this the end of a beautiful friendship? Did Räikkönen’s Indian summer pole presage the destruction of the delicate equilibrium of his role at Ferrari as Vettel’s number two? “It’s pretty clear to me that Ferrari has chosen their number one driver,” said Hamilton of the added dimension to his increasingly difficult title challenge.
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