MPH: How Hamilton's Russian GP weekend went wrong
The 91st Schumacher-equalling victory will just have to wait, as Lewis Hamilton’s Russian weekend cascaded out of his control through an unfortunate series of events, albeit triggered by his own…
Ironies and pathos were everywhere in this weather-randomised race but through it all came the almost inevitable Lewis Hamilton comeback after qualifying disaster struck the day before. Ironically, his qualifying outside the top 10 gave him the superior tyre combination for the circumstances of the day: softs for a long first stint when his competition was on ultrasofts, then ultrasofts for a damp track in the second stint, when his key rivals were obliged to be on the less grippy softs. But that was just the structure beneath a brilliant performance.
Conversely, glorious polesitter Sebastian Vettel binned it while leading in the trickiest of conditions – intermittent short rain bursts, harder compound slicks old and more worn that they needed to have been as a result of Ferrari taking too long to move an out-of-sequence Kimi Räikkönen aside for him – but now the pack coming at him. Just the gentlest, smoothest of approaches to the Sachs Kurve but on a skating rink surface. The rear axle locked and, a couple of seconds later, he was banging his steering wheel in despair, tears and apologies. All this on a weekend that’s been particularly tragic for the Scuderia, as it effectively lost its leader. They don’t do emotions in half measures there.
A Wagnerian scene then, as the podium played out under the full thunderstorm that had held off for the race, Hamilton standing with team-mate Valtteri Bottas – who was instructed to hold station having forced Hamilton to get very defensive upon the restart from the Vettel-induced safety car.
A rueful Räikkönen stood with them, reflecting, perhaps, on how he’d let Bottas past in the slippery confusion of trying to lap cars off the dry line.
Rising up from disaster, to avenge Vettel’s defeat of him at Silverstone, Hamilton returned the home track punishment in a way that couldn’t have been bettered for a showman such as this. “For those who don’t know me, now you do,” he proclaimed.
It turned out that the Ferrari was the form car around Hockenheim by a handy margin – and all of that advantage was coming down the straights… to the tune of 0.5sec. The Mercedes was clawing a couple of tenths of that back through the corners, but even when it entered the straight faster, it was slower by the end of it – even with a car reckoned to have superior aero efficiency.
Ferrari has been doing great work on its power unit, giving it a clear advantage. There are suggestions that its twin battery arrangement might have allowed a recent breakthrough in allowing it to simultaneously deploy and harvest. So, for example, one battery could be deploying to the MGUk while the MGUh is harvesting for the other battery.
The recent gains, whatever they are, have been spectacular and apply just as much to the spec 1 engine still in Räikkönen’s car as to the spec 2 units in everyone else’s.
So Vettel took a comfortable pole, with a great final lap that snatched it away from provisional polesitter Bottas in the dying seconds.
Bottas did a fantastic job – particularly through the stadium section at the end of the lap – just to get within a couple of tenths of Vettel, who reported: “The car was fantastic. I could feel it in Q1 already and then in Q3 I knew I could get a good lap. It just kept getting better and better. On my last lap I knew I still had some time in me and I just pushed it as far as I could. There was a lot of adrenaline in that lap.”
It was a lap 0.3sec faster than that of third-fastest team-mate Räikkönen, who ran wide onto the fast Turn 12 kerbs on his first Q3 run, and thereafter decided to play it safe.
Bottas did enough to split the red cars in a Mercedes that was behaving pretty well. It was just overpowered by the Ferraris. He was the only Mercedes representative in Q3 after Hamilton’s car suffered a burst hydraulic seal on the power steering pump as he went over the Turn 1 kerbs in Q1.
Max Verstappen’s was the only car to get through Turn 1 absolutely flat-out in top, but even that sort of chassis performance left him only fourth fastest
There is clearly a weakness in this part of Mercedes’ hydraulic system, as it was this that put Bottas out in the race in Austria. “Clearly, this is a vulnerability we have under the high loads you see when running the kerbs, and something we must get on top of,” said Toto Wolff. “Lewis was of the opinion maybe he caused the problem and we were of the opinion maybe we caused the problem. But as far as we understand it was not caused by the driver.”
There had been an unusually high peak pressure reading as he took the Turn 1 exit kerbs in the normal way on the previous lap. On the lap in question, he began understeering wide, hit the kerbs again at a different angle, and burst the seal. With the steering suddenly desperately heavy, he was pulled out so far that he hit the more severe deterrent kerb further out, putting the car airborne.
Hamilton was immediately told to park the car to prevent engine damage but couldn’t initially bring himself to do so, even getting out to try pushing it back from around a mile away before slumping by the car, apparently distraught. Without doing a lap in Q2, he was put in 14th.
Max Verstappen’s was the only car to get through Turn 1 absolutely flat-out in top, but even that sort of chassis performance left him only fourth fastest, 0.6sec adrift of Vettel and only 0.4sec clear of Kevin Magnussen’s Ferrari-powered Haas.
Daniel Ricciardo volunteered for a tactical engine change here. If he hadn’t done so, he’d have been forced to take the penalty at the Hungaroring – one of Red Bull’s favoured tracks where it might be expected to be a contender for pole. Knowing, therefore, he was starting from the back, he did enough just to graduate from Q1 and remained in the garage for Q2, the better to save his tyres for the race.
Haas was, again, making great use of Ferrari’s power gains, helping Magnussen to be best of the rest in fifth place. Romain Grosjean had been generally a tenth or so quicker run-for-run in the other car but was forced to abandon his final Q3 lap. The track was still improving quickly at this stage, having been wiped green by a very heavy rainstorm that had washed out FP3.
The Renault was visibly very well-balanced and Nico Hülkenberg – with an upgraded front wing – reckoned his seventh-fastest time was somewhere very close to the car’s maximum. But Haas’ Ferrari power gains meant that Hülkenberg was trailing Magnussen’s Haas by 0.35sec. Carlos Sainz was running an older-spec front wing in the other Renault, and sat in eighth, around a tenth behind his team-mate.
Charles Leclerc’s Sauber (ninth) was within a couple of tenths of the Renaults after another good run, leaving Marcus Ericsson’s sister car the only Ferrari-powered machine not in Q3. Sergio Pérez put his Force India 10th with a series of good laps under pressure. Team-mate Esteban Ocon went out in Q1, just 16th fastest, 0.3sec adrift of Pérez. Third driver Nicholas Latifi had handled Ocon’s car on Friday morning, and so Ocon had not got much running on the ultrasoft in P2 – P3 was rained out.
Fernando Alonso was 0.6sec off making Q3 but that was still good enough to put the McLaren 11th, flattered by the non-participation of Hamilton and Ricciardo. It was nonetheless a lap that had sporting director Gil de Ferran waxing lyrical.
Stoffel Vandoorne’s side of the garage was a tenser place. For the second event running, he was nowhere – actually qualifying last, 0.8sec off Alonso – and the team could see on the data that the car was just not producing the same downforce figures as Alonso’s, despite running the same aero spec. Something was clearly wrong, but the solution was proving elusive.
For maybe the first time all season, there seemed to be some light in the tunnel at Williams. The new front wing had proved to be a significant step forward, far less sensitive than the old one, and Sergey Sirotkin pulled out two great laps, the first of which got him into Q2, the next putting him 12th fastest there, within half-a-tenth of Alonso.
Lance Stroll failed to make it out of Q1, getting mixed up in traffic on his crucial out-lap and failing to get his tyres up to temperature. He was ahead only of Vandoorne.
The Toro Rossos were struggling, neither Pierre Gasly nor Brendon Hartley making it out of Q1, 17th and 18th. They were only 0.3sec adrift of the works Renaults, but those are the sorts of margins that make the difference between Q1 and Q3 in this part of the field.
The rain was coming. You could feel it in the air despite the high temperature, you could see it in the moody skies off to the north. A day of opportunities won and lost on merit or fluke. That’s how it was going to be – unless those weather radars were being read wrongly. It was going to be a significant way into the race.
The first part would look just like any conventional event, where performance dominates and strategies are formed around any differentials in those performances.
So, we had a routine start, everyone holding grid positions from the first few rows, Verstappen thinking about cutting inside Räikkönen for third into Turn 1 but getting a decisive chop that forced him to think better of it. A bit of Hülkenberg brake locking into Turn 2, Magnussen getting better momentum out of there to pass the Renault for the lead of ‘division two’.
A big, noisily jubilant crowd, purple ultrasoft sidewalls on the frontrunners distinctive against the sun-bleached colours of the place, turbos whistling away, flags waving. On more durable yellow-walled softs (like most of the midfield) Hamilton was initially circumspect, before methodically picking off the slower cars around him. On the white-walled hardest tyre of all, from the back, Ricciardo was even more cautious as the mediums took a few laps to reach full working temperature.
Rather like at Silverstone, Vettel’s Ferrari was dynamite on the opening lap, Bottas left gasping somewhat and keeping a watchful eye on Räikkönen – who had dealt with Verstappen’s first lap challenges – behind.
The leading quartet quickly put big distance on the Magnussen-led midfield pack, followed by Hülkenberg, Grosjean, Pérez and Sainz. Hamilton was up with this group and picking them off without any great resistance between laps six and 14. That brought him up to sixth, on more durable tyres than all those ahead of him but 25sec off the lead. From now, the plan was just to look after the tyres – to extend the stint as far as possible, maybe even far enough that he might be able to dovetail his stop with the rain. If it played out that way, he could save a pitstop (worth around 17.5sec) and then be in with a chance.
Everyone else’s mind was on the impending rain. No one up front was running this stint aggressively; no one wanted to be forced to pit for new slicks just a couple of laps before the rain arrived. Essentially this first stint wasn’t about pace, but duration – and Hamilton’s tyre choice was better suited to that than those in the top 10 obliged to start on ultrasofts.
So a period of stalemate ensued, in which Vettel’s lead was stable at around 3.5sec. By the time Hamilton had passed Magnussen he was within 19sec of Räikkönen’s third place and with the likely potential of going faster on his more durable tyres.
So by lap 14 it was a good time for Ferrari to commit Kimi to a two-stopper, before Hamilton had a chance to leapfrog. At the same time, it put pressure on Mercedes to pit Bottas in response, thereby allowing Vettel an easier route to the possibly more advantageous one-stop strategy. Mercedes resisted the temptation to respond and left Bottas out there, still hoping to get the ultrasofts to last longer than the dry weather.
Räikkönen rejoined on a new set of softs just ahead of Hamilton. His pace was good enough that he was soon able to get within less than a pitstop’s-worth of time over Bottas – and he was pulling the old-tyred Hamilton along in his wake, until he too was set to be ahead of Bottas after the latter stopped.
On lap 25 Vettel was brought in and fitted with his new softs, rejoining a couple of seconds behind team-mate Räikkönen. This was potentially awkward. On tyres 11 laps newer, Vettel was bound to be a lot faster (around 0.7sec-worth, according to Pirelli’s degradation numbers), but not enough so that he could pass. His strategy was potentially going to be compromised by Räikkönen’s older-rubber pace. Kimi, meanwhile, wanted to make this stint last as long as possible, so as to get to the rain phase and thereby negate the extra stop he’d otherwise be making over the others. Besides, whichever of them was ahead if the rain came suddenly, would get serviced first, as they’d be obliged to stack the second car.
Bottas – having already effectively lost a place to Räikkönen – was left out in the hope of the rain arriving but by lap 28 his ultrasofts were done and he too was brought in. He came out 7sec behind the yet-to-stop Hamilton who lay third, just 3.3sec behind Vettel once Verstappen had pitted out the way to be rid of his worn ultrasofts.
The other Red Bull of Ricciardo pulled off to the side on the 28th lap with no power. “The first 10-15 laps on that tyre made it a bit of a handful,” he recounted. But thereafter he’d made decent progress and had just passed Alonso’s McLaren when “I heard something strange when I was downshifting for Turn 6 and then once I accelerated out of the corner I lost power and the engine started to sound pretty sick. A bit frustrating given that we took the penalties to get the new engine.”
‘Division two’ remained closely-contested but was still being led by Magnussen from Hülkenberg. Grosjean had fallen away a little in the first stint as his rear tyres gave out and he was working hard to fend off Pérez who would eventually get past exiting the hairpin. A few seconds back ran Sainz from Leclerc and a gripless Alonso.
Had it stayed dry, a one-stopping Vettel would have re-assumed the lead as Räikkönen made his second stop. Bottas might or might not have been able to apply some pressure. Räikkönen and Hamilton would have been running behind but on fresher rubber, but probably too far back to threaten Vettel/Bottas, and probably with their races being interfered with by one-stopping Verstappen.
For now, Ferrari was running 1-2, but not with any real stability. It was down to the weather gods. Hamilton claimed he had prayed for some sort of intervention. “I knew if the rain came, this was my chance.” Otherwise, he’d have just dropped to the back of the lead quintet when he pitted, 20sec or so behind.
Vettel was within 1sec of Räikkönen a couple of laps after pitting and was getting frustrated. Why weren’t they moving Räikkönen aside? He needed to be ahead not only in case it suddenly rained (potentially wiping away his strategy advantage and losing him track position), but this was preventing him from using his new tyres to sprint away from the Mercs. But just as Ferrari was reluctant to give this message to Kimi, so he was reluctant to hear it.
“This is getting silly,” complained Vettel. A few laps later: “I’m using up my tyres for no good reason.” Then: “Don’t you see the tyre temperatures? So, what are you waiting for?”
They were lapping in a Räikkönen-dictated 1min 18sec. Asked how fast he could go, Vettel replied: “Low 1min 17sec.” At this point Jock Clear made radio contact with Räikkönen, pointing out that he and Vettel were on different strategies and each using up their tyres unnecessarily. “So what do you want me to do?” asked Räikkönen, making him spell it out. “You want me to let him go? Please just tell me.” Yes, that was what was being asked, and Räikkönen dutifully pulled aside. Vettel took the lead and let rip with low 1min 17sec, just as promised. This was lap 39.
Mercedes got its share of team-mate dilemmas too, as the old-tyred Hamilton was now holding up Bottas, keeping him from applying pressure to the Ferraris. But Hamilton – like Räikkönen had been – was very keen to be serviced first, rather than being stacked, should the rain suddenly appear. It was getting ever-nearer. Could he hang on and get straight onto intermediate tyres? No.
How many more laps could Hamilton manage, he was asked on lap 41? “One more,” he replied. The rears were pretty much down to the canvas now. In he came on lap 42 – and because it still wasn’t raining he was obliged to take slicks. But they were new ultrasofts – absolutely the most suitable compound for a cool, damp track. He rejoined back in fifth, around 11sec behind Verstappen but just at a time when those who’d started on the ultrasofts were obliged now to be on the harder rubber.
Actually, it was a blessing for Hamilton that the rain came only after he stopped – because it turned out that fitting intermediates would’ve been absolutely the wrong thing to do.
The rain finally arrived, and quite heavily too – but initially only at the hairpin, the northern tip of the track – on lap 44. Vettel, by this time, had his lead over Räikkönen out to around 3sec. Leclerc and Alonso were straight in for intermediates.
Verstappen, after an off at the hairpin, also stopped for intermediates. It was a throw of the dice – and it didn’t pay off. “I knew as soon as I got back out there and Turn 6 [the hairpin] was now dry that we’d got it wrong,” Verstappen reported. He – like Leclerc and Alonso – would be back in within a couple of laps for a corrective change back to slicks. In Verstappen’s case it only lost him position to Hamilton, so far ahead of ‘division two’ was he.
Hamilton was now flying. “I knew my time had come with the rain,” he said.
“The ultra was a much better tyre for the damp, much quicker to get heat into. So I could see how much quicker I was going than the others.” (On lap 45 Hamilton was doing 1min 17.5sec as the Ferraris and Verstappen were in the mid-high 1min 19sec). Once Verstappen had made his intermediate gamble, Hamilton was up to fourth and chasing down Bottas at 3sec per lap. In seven laps he’d halved the 23sec deficit to leader Vettel.
But now it was raining again, though still not over the full circuit. Was the moment for intermediates finally arriving? Bottas was right with the old-tyred Räikkönen now – and they were about to lap the intense fight for the lead of ‘division two’ where Magnussen was beginning to struggle with his rear tyres and being monstered by Hülkenberg, Grosjean and Pérez. Hülkenberg and Grosjean had got moves going between turns 7 and 8, and both were grinding past Magnussen just as Räikkönen was lapping him into Turn 8. There wasn’t quite enough track width as Räikkönen went to go around the outside, locked his rears briefly and twitched onto the run-off area, allowing Bottas the momentum to pass him around the outside of Turn 9. He was now second, albeit 9sec behind Vettel.
The rain had made the track around 12sec slower and it was treacherous enough that intermediates were being readied up and down the pitlane. On the 52nd lap, Vettel just braked slightly too late on the slippery surface of Sachs Kurve, the looping left-hander in the heart of the stadium. The rear axle locked and in the space it took to try correcting the twitch, he was in the gravel trap – and from there straight-on into the barriers. It was the tiniest error of driving, but a rather bigger one of judgement – and he knew it, furiously banging his fists upon the steering wheel and apologising to his team over the radio as he cried.
Bottas, the new leader, made for the pits as the safety car was deployed.
But what tyres to fit? Initially, it was going to be intermediates, but now the rain was stopping. Hurriedly, they were exchanged for new ultras, but it left him stationary for almost 16sec. But that turned out not to be too costly, as the rest of the field was reduced to the safety car delta speed. A few seconds behind, Hamilton – revelling in how his fully warmed ultrasofts were working – was instructed to pit. He pointed out that Räikkönen was staying out. They agreed and gave revised instructions to stay out – but he’d already started down the pit entry lane. This was all happening in the midst of the panicked change of tyre plan for Bottas. Had he come in as originally requested, Hamilton would have been stacked for a long time – probably around 12sec – and there’d have been further delay as his own pre-warmed inters were swapped for ultras too. But it wouldn’t have lost his position – as Verstappen had been over half a minute behind and was now obliged to be driving to the safety car delta.
On being told to stay out, Hamilton clattered across the grass to rejoin the track from the entry road, before the actual pit entry. Räikkönen now led the race but on very old tyres that would have made him a sitting duck on the restart and so he was brought in the following lap, and Hamilton thereby assumed the lead.
If Hamilton had come in, as originally instructed, this would have been Bottas’ race. If Hamilton had been penalised 5sec for crossing over the line separating track from pitlane, Bottas would’ve won by 0.5sec. But it played out the way Hamilton had prayed for instead – and he’d made it happen that way by his questioning of the call and his sensational speed on the ultrasofts.
In ‘division two’, Hülkenberg, Grosjean and Magnussen pitted (the latter having to be stacked and losing further places) and were fitted with intermediates. Pérez pitted too but was fitted with slicks. Hülkenberg was far enough ahead that he was able to make a corrective stop to slicks without losing a place at safety car speeds. But Pérez, Ocon, Ericsson and Hartley all leapfrogged Grosjean and Magnussen as the Haas pair came back in to be rid of their premature intermediates.
The safety car was in at the end of lap 57, with 10 laps remaining. Bottas, on his new ultrasofts, had got tyre temperature much quicker than Hamilton on his 10-lap-old ultrasofts and was all over him as they went through Turn 1. Down the kinking back straight towards the hairpin, Bottas slipstreamed him and moved for the outside. Hamilton defended robustly and from there they went side-by-side through the fast right of 7, Hamilton again having to get defensive into 8. But as his tyres now came up to temperature, so the moment of crisis had passed. He was already beginning to pull away as Bottas was instructed to hold position. Räikkönen was watching closely but had no answer despite the Ferrari’s much stronger straightline speed.
“I knew my time had come with the rain”
The Mercedes drivers just eased out the remaining laps, taking care not to attack the kerbs at too acute an angle, both drivers given occasional warnings about steering loads after the hydraulic seal failure in qualifying.
In the pack behind them, Hülkenberg held on for an accomplished fifth place, winner of ‘division two’, but Grosjean starred in these closing stages, ambushing car after car: Hartley on lap 62, Ericsson a couple of laps later and the Force Indias of Ocon and Pérez in each of the last two laps to take a strong sixth place.
Ericsson and Hartley hung on for the final two points places behind the Force Indias – at least after Sainz had been penalised for inadvertently passing under the safety car.
Vandoorne struggled on with a severe engine problem after a late stop, Toro Rosso gambled on full wets at one stage for Gasly who spun once – as did Leclerc twice – while Alonso pulled off a couple of laps from the end. Alonso will be allowed an unpenalized gearbox change at the next race as a result.
Both Williams were late retirements (Sirotkin with an engine fire, Stroll with a brake circuit failure) after much more respectable showings than of late. They would have otherwise likely been fighting it out with Hartley for that final point.
The final, final point, on a day such as this, has to be Hamilton’s.
“My prayers were really answered – and it’s freaking me out a bit,” he said. The biblical storm on the podium only intensified the surreal feelings: “It’s as if the rain washed all the negativity away.”
Love him or hate him, he’s box office. And he’s leading the championship again.
But that Ferrari is devastatingly fast – and Mercedes doesn’t understand why.
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