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…
There were lots of symbolic moments in the Abu Dhabi night, as Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso completed synchronised donuts on the finishing straight. The top two title combatants this year, the top two in the race here (in the same order) and a little reminder of what might have been if the departing Alonso had made some different career decisions.
Daniel Ricciardo’s final race for Red Bull was a good one, on a transposed strategy to team-mate Max Verstappen, behind at the end but on much fresher tyres as they both closed down on Vettel. The Ferrari for a while had been chasing down Hamilton – until the latter unleashed a couple of laps that told him not to bother, that he’d had this race under control ever since the start, even despite a lap seven pitstop that obliged him to treat the tyres very gently for a long time. It was a supremely controlled drive.
Kimi Räikkönen ended his second Ferrari career with an early electrical failure whimper. Carlos Sainz on his final appearance for Renault took a great sixth, winner of the unofficial ‘Class B’, defeating Charles Leclerc in his last Sauber race. The other Renault of Nico Hülkenberg completed a scary-looking first-lap roll at Turn Nine, leaving him briefly trapped in a car that was briefly aflame but thankfully he was unharmed.
But the overriding technical factor determining the shape of this race was the near-indestructability of the hardest tyre here (the supersoft). It could comfortably have done the whole distance and so there was little downside risk for Mercedes to pit the race-leading Hamilton once the race came under a VSC for Räikkönen’s broken-down car, even though it was only lap seven. It put him back out only behind the four remaining fast cars and allowed him to drive the early laps in a tyre-conserving way so that he still had plenty of grip in reserve to fend off the anticipated late-race attacks of a fresher-tyred Vettel and the Red Bulls.
The supersoft’s durability also ensured that Ricciardo’s very late first stop (lap 33) did not give him enough of a grip advantage to use the tyre age offset over the cars ahead of him. So that brief flicker of the race really coming alive as the Red Bulls closed down Vettel, who in turn was closing down Hamilton, was quickly extinguished.
As has invariably happened at Abu Dhabi in the hybrid era, Mercedes locked out the front row. The see-sawing pattern of tyre temperatures and engine modes disguised the picture from time to time during the practices, but with the motors unleashed and the tyres carefully prepared, the silver cars had a few tenths’ advantage over the red ones. They can be loaded up with more downforce than the Ferrari – and they were.
This was particularly useful around a track on which it’s very difficult to keep the rear tyres from overheating before the end of the lap, especially when those tyres were the softest in Pirelli’s range, the hypersoft. So, while the Ferraris ruled the straights and sweeps of sector one, the Mercs were king in the twistier middle sector and close enough to the Red Bulls in the traction-demanding final sector that they were untouchable over the lap.
With track temperatures still falling in the dusk, the grip ramped up significantly on the final runs and both Merc drivers found around 0.5sec. Bottas was actually fractionally ahead at the end of sector two, but didn’t feel he quite nailed Turn 18/19, the twisty sequence around the hotel near the end of the lap. Hamilton, who’d locked up a little into Turn Eight on his first Q3 lap but was still provisionally fastest, tidied everything up for his final attempt. “The start of the lap was pretty calm,” he said, “but it got progressively more aggressive.”
With the titles won, the Merc’s rear wheel cooling holes were run open all weekend. It’s a tiny detail in a car that’s been overwhelmingly effective, but still one that agitates Ferrari. It locked out the second row, with Sebastian Vettel a couple of tenths clear of Kimi Räikkönen having his final Scuderia race (unless he one day returns for a third stint!).
“It was difficult to know where we stood,” said Seb. “In Q1 I felt we were really in the hunt but then in Q2 Lewis did a time on the ultras and I thought then that it was going to be really hard to beat them. But on the first Q3 runs (when Vettel was second-fastest, less than a tenth adrift of Hamilton), I felt we could still be there. But they just seemed to have more push left in them on the last runs.” The Ferraris seemed to find less of the increased track grip – and that was almost certainly a function of the greater downforce the Mercs were carrying, something reflected in the respective speed trap figures: 209mph for the Ferrari and 203mph for Mercedes (and 201mph for Red Bull).
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Daniel Ricciardo, in the faster of the Red Bulls, was just half a tenth adrift of Räikkönen, which irritated him as he felt certain he had a faster car in race trim and now one of them was in the way which might not have been. He’d only just scraped into Q3 though, having – like all the Mercs and Ferraris – used the slower ultra tyre. In his last appearance for the team he comfortably shaded team-mate Max Verstappen, who was struggling with tyre temperatures and had been forced to take a set of hypers in order to get through Q2. He continued with the struggle in Q3 and actually abandoned his final run. “I was just sliding about everywhere,” Verstappen said.
Romain Grosjean was in superb form and qualified the Haas seventh, within a few tenths of Ricciardo and Räikkönen. However, the time came on his first Q3 run, not on the gripper track of the second runs. “My first run in Q3 was one of the best laps of my career,” he beamed. He’d been 0.6sec quicker in Q2 than the sister Haas of Kevin Magnussen who lined up 12th.
Charles Leclerc’s Sauber nibbled closer to Grosjean on his final run to line up next, both Ferrari-powered cars a big chunk clear of Esteban Ocon’s Force India and Nico Hülkenberg’s Renault. Both comfortably eclipsed their respective team-mates, with Pérez back in 14th struggling with overheating tyres. Sainz was 11th, with oversteer and rear locking in the Renault. In probably his final Grand Prix, Marcus Ericsson put the Sauber a solid 12th’ albeit a chunky 0.6sec adrift of Leclerc.
The McLaren of Fernando Alonso, another man possibly in his final Formula 1 race, was last of the Q2 runners, with Stoffel Vandoorne 0.6sec down and back in 18th. Others in the Q1 part of the grid were the Toro Rossos – Brendan Hartley just easing ahead of Pierre Gasly, whose engine broke towards the end of his lap – and Williams, where Sergey Sirotkin was marginally faster than Lance Stroll.
The floodlights were just beginning to overpower the daylight as the cars lined up on the grid, Hamilton’s angled over towards Bottas’ and powering clean away, two silver cars leading two red ones and Ricciardo.
Verstappen’s Red Bull launched well enough but the engine coughed and dropped out of its power band as he changed up to second – and as it cleared itself he was passed on all sides, with Leclerc slicing up to sixth from Grosjean, Hülkenberg and only then Verstappen from Ocon, Sainz, Pérez and the rest. Grosjean was out wide on the run off on Turn One, as was Alonso. The former rejoined without losing places, but the McLaren was muscled back a couple of places by Ericsson and Gasly.
Through the fast sweeps of the early lap and into the tight sequence up to the hairpin, Leclerc was all over Ricciardo and slipstreamed ahead up the back straight, obliging Daniel to late-brake his way back in front into the Turn 8/9 chicane. Just behind them, Grosjean and Hülkenberg were scrapping over territory with the Haas on the outside going in to the ess and therefore on the inside coming out. Hülkenberg didn’t gave his rival room – “I thought he’d slid straight on, I didn’t know he was still there” – as he turned in from the outside and made for the apex, leaving Grosjean nowhere to go. As they interlocked wheels, the Renault was tipped onto its side, the momentum carrying into a sideways roll, the car ending up leaning against the fencing upside down, the exhausts then setting the bodywork afire.
Leclerc had retaliated on Ricciardo on the run down to Turn 11 just before the safety car neutralised the race. Trapped upside down in a burning car was a thoroughly nasty experience for Hülkenberg, but thankfully things have moved on over the years and the marshals were quickly upon it – though definitely not quickly enough for the unfortunate driver.
After the car was righted onto its wheels, and Hulk extricated, he was whisked off to the medical centre where he was found to be fine. He reported that the halo had played no part in him being trapped, that it was to do with there being no room between cockpit and wall. Grosjean continued with minor front wing damage. Only Hartley pitted under the safety car, for a new front wing to replace the one damaged when he hit debris at the Hülkenberg accident site trying to avoid the back of Magnussen.
Hamilton wasn’t convinced they’d done the right thing
Racing got going again at the end of the fourth lap. In theory, the delay had been good news for those on hypersofts, helping them eke out their life. But in fact even the hypers were holding out OK, albeit with drivers simply driving to their surface temperature rather than lapping flat-out. Behind the scenes, they are once more becoming frustrated with this type of racing as the greater performance of the cars have simply taken the Pirellis past their ability to be raced hard without overheating.
Hamilton and Bottas got the drop on the Ferraris and burst away under darkening skies, Leclerc hanging onto Räikkönen and staying ahead of Ricciardo. Verstappen, whose engine had again put itself briefly into a safety mode on the restart, was soon all over his niggly nemesis Ocon and on the sixth lap turned into the hairpin from a very shallow angle to get himself alongside the Force India mid-corner but understeering out wide, inevitably thumping Ocon sidewall-to-sidewall to barge his way ahead. He may well have been ordered to give the place back if Ocon hadn’t done that for himself by slipstreaming past down to the chicane. The dice continued up the following straight and kink, Verstappen sweeping right on the approach to the kink then switching to the left under the hard-braking zone for Turn 11, to finally slice back ahead. This put him back up with team-mate Ricciardo, albeit on the hyper tyre rather than the ultras of those ahead of him.
Räikkönen was in trouble with failing electrics and after being zapped by Leclerc into the hairpin, he trailed slowly down the back straight and was passed by several others. He was still trying to bring the motor back to life as it cut out completely just as he entered the pit straight. He pulled up adjacent to the pitwall and the race was put under a VSC.
This was a critical time for the strategists. A VSC pitstop saves you around 10sec compared to a full racing one, but there was still a long way to go – and there was only a few laps’-worth of field spread. But for Mercedes, the decision was easy: pit Hamilton in the full knowledge that a set of new supersofts would get him to the end and that he’d only drop four, maybe five, places. If they had not brought him or Bottas in, Ferrari or Red Bull would almost certainly have brought in at least one of their cars– and that would have lost Mercedes the race. As it was, Ferrari and Red Bull stayed out.
Hamilton wasn’t convinced they’d done the right thing and was asking if coming out behind all the other front runners had been the plan. They reassured him everything was under control. “Yeah, they’re way too chilled behind the wall,” he said. “I was like, ‘yeah, I’ve got a long way to go and this doesn’t feel too good right now’.” His drive for the time being would be one of gentle management while just keeping the pack in sight.
Following Hamilton in were the ‘Class B’ leaders Leclerc and Grosjean, and the case was less clear-cut for them. It entailed a big drop of positions for both, Leclerc dropping to 14th, Grosjean to the back. Yes, they’d saved those 10sec, and yes, it had allowed them to get cheaply off their hypers. But would they lose more than they’d gained as they battled their way past slower cars in the pack? We’d find out later, as Ocon now took up the ‘Class B’ lead, narrowly, from team-mate Pérez and the dicing Ericsson and Sainz.
Bottas now led but was only 9sec clear of his fifth-placed team-mate, with little prospect of stretching that out to the 21sec needed for a pitstop’s-worth of gap. Particularly as he, like everyone else, was simply driving to the tyre temperatures. Vettel trailed a couple of seconds behind the Merc, the Red Bulls equidistant behind.
As the leaders stretched out the gap to the midfield, looking to get that 21sec margin to drop into, so Bottas eased out a small cushion over Vettel. But Ferrari decided to play it bold – trying for an optimistic undercut attempt (from 2.7sec back) on the 15th lap. This, in theory, would just have got Vettel out ahead of Ocon. Except there was a problem with the right-rear wheel gun as the ultras were exchanged for supersofts. It cost a couple of seconds and brought him out just behind the Force India. Mercedes responded with Bottas next lap and he was underway still comfortably ahead of the Ferrari, which quickly dispensed with Ocon.
Verstappen felt that his hypers were just about finished and was brought in on the 17th lap for his supersofts. Actually, the team found afterwards the hypers they took off were only 60 per cent worn. The degradation rate was so low that the timing of the stops was nowhere near as critical as usual.
Ricciardo thus assumed the lead, as the only one on ultras who hadn’t been forced into a stop by undercut attempts or defences. He would run for a long time yet and pretty soon Verstappen on his newer tyres had got within the 21sec Ricciardo’s stop would cost and so had effectively passed him. Without any pressure from behind, Ricciardo’s strategists were able to leave him out there for as long as possible, trying to maximise the tyre advantage he would enjoy in the second stint. If the tyre degradation had been more like it usually is, this might just have been a winning strategy.
There was an additional potentially valuable bonus to this long first stint: there was the possibility of rain! Yes, it does rain here occasionally and by the 25th lap Verstappen was reporting the back straight to be quite wet and Turn Seven quite slippery. If inters were going to be needed, Ricciardo was going to be on a winning strategy. But it never came to that – the light localised shower quickly petering out.
Red Bull finally called Ricciardo in at the end of the 33rd lap, meaning his super-softs had a 17-lap advantage over Verstappen’s, 16 laps over Vettel’s and were 26 laps newer than those of Hamilton, who now led the race once more, around 6sec clear of Bottas. The Finn had Vettel still pressuring him and wasn’t as happy on the supers as on the ultras. With Bottas effectively acting as a shield enabling Hamilton keep things easy on his old tyres, the pace was relatively slow, enabling Verstappen and Ricciardo together to advance upon the lead trio.
Ricciardo’s first flying lap on his new rubber had been a 1m 41.2sec, whereas the previous fastest lap had been a 1m 43.0sec. If he could maintain that sort of advantage, he would have been comfortably on course to have passed them all before the end. But it wasn’t a feasible sustained pace and as he backed off to the thermal limit, so his catching up became more gradual.
Bottas meanwhile was feeling an occasional vibration through the brakes and was becoming less confident in them. Vettel was catching and soon looking for a way by. Bottas’ right-rear seemed to be the problem, meaning the fronts had to work harder to compensate. This in combination with a change in wind direction (it had turned into quite a gusty evening) meant there was now a tail wind into the tight Turn Five where before there’d been a head wind. It was this combination that caused him to lock up into there on the 35th lap. It made that whole sequence very messy for him and he was slow onto the back straight. Vettel had DRS on him and sailed past to steal his second place, with Hamilton by now more than 7sec up the road.
A lap later and Bottas locked up again, this time into the Turn 8/9 chicane, rejoining just in front of Verstappen and having to get defensive to keep the Red Bull behind. Verstappen being delayed like this as he tried to find a way by the troubled Merc was good news for Ricciardo, who was right with them a lap later. Bottas and Verstappen diced through the two DRS zones before and after the chicanes on the 38th lap, with Verstappen not quite having the straight-line speed to make it happen cleanly. Instead he did a beautiful switchback on him as they turned into the tight Turn 11/12 sequence, claiming the inside line for the second part of the corner. Bottas tried hanging on and they banged wheels, but Verstappen was through. The Merc had taken some floor damage in the hit. “It was just racing,” said Valtteri afterwards. “It was all fair.”
Ricciardo was the next to pounce, up to the chicane a lap later. They went side-by-side onto the Turn 11 braking zone but the Red Bull stayed ahead. With ‘Class B’ a long way behind, Bottas was brought in for a free pitstop in the hope that a change of tyres might help with the vibration – which it did a little. It was also discovered that the hit with Verstappen had damaged a wheel rim and given him a slow puncture.
That ‘Class B’ section was still being led by Sainz. He’d driven a great, dogged race in the Renault, keeping up a good pace on old ultras. By the time the early-stopping Leclerc had got past the traffic the stop had put him into, he’d more than lost the 10sec gained by pitting under the VSC – and furthermore his supersofts were past their best as Sainz kept his ultras in shape, unencumbered by having to go wheel-to-wheel with anyone once he’d passed Ericsson (who retired shortly after when the Sauber’s engine died). Eventually, Sainz was lapping faster than Leclerc, despite his older tyres, and managed to pull out the 21sec required to pit and exit still ahead. From there he pulled comfortably away, unchallenged in ‘Class B’.
Grosjean had been similarly hampered by the early stop, allowing Pérez to emerge ahead after pitting. For a time Grosjean was dicing with Gasly’s Toro Rosso until the latter’s Honda engine began losing power and spraying oil smoke, the precursor to retirement. Ocon had suffered a similar fate. Having assumed the class lead when Leclerc and Grosjean pitted under the safety car, he pitted on the 18th lap to replace his hypers, leaving him chasing Grosjean through the slower traffic. He passed the Haas under DRS and was chasing team-mate Pérez when he suffered an oil leak and subsequent seizure.
Magnussen had run a very long first stint on his supersofts and emerged on tyres 34 laps newer than Grosjean’s and chased the sister car down. Alonso was just about able to hang onto them, the McLaren as usual better on race day than in qualifying. “Come on, there may be a point on offer here,” said his race engineer Will Joseph. “I have 1,800 points,” replied the playful Alonso. “Well, for me, let’s make it 1,801,” came back the retort. He was 10sec and three places up the road from team-mate Vandoorne, who was splitting the Williams pair Stroll and Sirotkin, the latter struggling with a cooling problem. Hartley, on effectively a zero-stop strategy after pitting on lap one, was managing to stay out of reach of that scrap.
Up front, Hamilton’s earlier caution had paid off, as Vettel began coming at him. “At one point, I had hopes of winning,” said Seb.
With the Red Bull challenge apparently now tamed, Vettel was setting fastest sector times as he closed the gap to the race-leading Mercedes. “We were strong in the straights and we had speed, but we were struggling in the last sector to keep up, especially in the last two corners.”
Hamilton allowed the Ferrari to within 4.5sec on the 45th lap, with 10 to go, and then shaved 0.8sec off his times. Vettel continued to push hard, but Hamilton was able to match his pace and maintain the gap. Vettel remained flat out to the end, setting the race’s fastest lap, but Hamilton had it covered.
Similarly, Pérez chased Leclerc hard for seventh but the Sauber driver had it under control. Grosjean and Magnussen gave Haas the ninth and 10th place points – and Alonso, with a typical mix of tenacity, outlandishness and humour, decided on the last three laps to miss out the chicane in his chase of Magnussen. He was awarded a 5sec penalty for each offence.
It had been planned that Alonso would do the donuts at the end, to mark the conclusion of a remarkable career. But Hamilton and Vettel just made their own rubber-smoking arrangements and the three of them made their way to the start/finish straight together for a great mutual salute.
And so, in a cloud of tyre smoke, the F1 season ended.
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