Retirement: it’s a dirty word for racing drivers
Why are we always so keen to skip to the end? Once racing drivers hit a certain age, typically around their mid-to-late-30s, it’s so often tempting to start asking them…
Lap 26-30: this was Sebastian Vettel’s crucial time as he stayed out there on his harder tyres, trying to put right what had gone wrong in the rain of qualifying. This would potentially get him past Valtteri Bottas’ second-place Mercedes – and within around 7sec of Lewis Hamilton’s race-leading W09, but on brand new ultrasofts rather than 15-lap old softs and with 30 laps to go.
Clearing Bottas was going to be the foundation of Vettel’s pitch for victory. He needed 20sec over the Finn and by lap 27 had it up to 21sec. By lap 30 it was at 23sec Had he come in at this point he’d have cleared Bottas. But against Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes, Ferrari reckoned he’d need the maximum possible tyre advantage – especially as Hamilton was just pegging his pace to Vettel’s, ensuring he kept the rubber until he needed it. So they kept Vettel out there, trying to get to lap 40.
Lapped traffic up ahead. Carlos Sainz’s six blue flags. Come on. On the Mercedes pit wall, they gave Bottas a big engine map for two laps. He responded. As Vettel threaded his way through Renaults and Force Indias, so the gap to Bottas came back down. Then as Bottas set the fastest lap of the race to date, it was obvious Vettel wasn’t going to get that gap back out. He came in from a 20sec lead over the Mercedes. This was going to be so close. Then, the left-front wheel wouldn’t go on straight. A thump from a mechanic and it was on – but that had cost two valuable seconds when they could least be afforded.
That wheel problem finally untangled the Vettel hook from Hamilton’s collar that had been loosened already by Sainz’s reluctance to get off line. Mercedes still had the Bottas buffer between Hamilton and his main threat. Game over.
But it was only the rain of qualifying that had even made this stretch necessary for Vettel. In the ordinary run of events, he’d have taken a comfortable pole and blitzed off into the Hungary sunshine. Instead, Hamilton – for the second time in seven days – took a victory that performance said should have been Vettel’s. It was a remarkably well-judged performance from Hamilton, built upon the foundation of pole in the wet and a great ‘taking one for the team’ performance from Bottas.
Hamilton’s pole lap – his record-extending 77th – was one of those improvised threads of magic on a silver-spray-shrouded track, varying water levels from one corner to the next.
Wheel tracks through the turns would suddenly be swallowed by lakes of standing water and you’d need to coincide that with where the load was coming off the car, then trying to judge what grip might be available from the shiny braking zone looming out of the spray, ready with the lightning-quick steering responses when the car snapped out of line through the exits – or through the blind rise of Turn 4 – judging how much of the inconveniently colossal torque could be unleashed by a right foot conflicted between lap time and staying on track, seeing and feeling which part of the track the grip was on, often far away from the conventional dry line.
He danced it all beautifully and, with the other cars clearing the water slightly quicker than it was by now arriving, he had the perfect slot late in the session to get the track at its best. A few seconds earlier, Bottas had knocked the provisional polesitter from the first runs, Kimi Räikkönen, down a place – and Hamilton leapfrogged them both.
Hamilton had been rescued again by the rain, just six days after Hockenheim. For until that summer storm – which, once it had disrupted qualifying, subsided as suddenly as it had arrived – the Mercedes had been nowhere, unable to keep their rear ultrasoft rubber in anything like their temperature zone by the end of the lap, flailing around where the Ferraris were still all poise and fluidity. “Until the rain came we were just trying to do our best to be as close to them as possible,” said Hamilton. “We couldn’t have expected this.”
Bottas was within 0.3sec of him, shaking his head at the apparent inevitability of it all as he waited in the parc fermé area afterwards: “Lewis was just quicker on that lap. Obviously, he was later as well, so the track is all the time drying up, but he did a great job.”
Most of the Q3 runners did multiple laps on their first set of wets, changing to a fresh set near the end. In that first phase, Räikkönen was the fastest, revelling in a Ferrari that is much more driveable in the wet than previously. But he was unable to keep that momentum going on his fresh set, as he exited the pits behind Romain Grosjean and couldn’t find a way past. It would’ve been fascinating to have seen how he’d have fared against Hamilton on a clear track.
“Obviously it’s not ideal,” he said (a staple phrase of Räikkönen’s), “but I think what is the most important and nice thing is that the car was driveable and enjoyable in the wet today. I think I was unlucky with where we came out. When we changed to the new tyres there was a lot of grip but I just couldn’t see anything. I think we lost the chance to be on quite a comfortable pole today.”
Vettel was not at ease in these conditions. In Q1, as the thunder crashed all around but the track remained dry, he was fastest by 0.3sec from Max Verstappen – and only then the Mercedes. That had looked much like the picture seen in the practice sessions. He went quickest in Q2 by shrewdly judging that he needed to be straight on intermediates as the rest of the field went out in a vain attempt at finding one slick-tyred lap. By the time everyone else had pitted for intermediates, the track was seconds slower. But in the full wet-tyred conditions of Q3, Vettel conceded, “I wasn’t as comfortable as in the dry,” and was only fourth quickest, unable even on his new wets to better Räikkönen’s time from earlier. He seemed troubled afterwards.
But if the rain was bad news for Ferrari, it was arguably even more so for Red Bull. This has traditionally been one of the team’s best tracks – very sensitive to downforce levels and balance, relatively insensitive to power – and in the scorching heat of the practices, with the track temperature in the low 50deg Cs, it was the car which could best keep the ultrasofts in shape by the end of the lap. As such, it was generally only a tenth or so off Ferrari and comfortably clear of Mercedes. But in the rain, that same trait meant that even Verstappen couldn’t generate anything like enough temperature in the wets – and he was a gripless seventh, out-qualified by the starring pair of Sainz and Pierre Gasly in Renault and Toro Rosso, respectively.
Rather than pit for a final new set of wets, Sainz had opted to stay out, surrendering a bit of tyre grip for familiarity and a clearer track and it worked beautifully. Gasly, by contrast, had come in for his fresh set – and the team then held him until the last possible moment to ensure he got the track at its driest. Both strategies worked, given a Renault and a Toro Rosso that were nicely balanced.
Sainz habitually stars in such conditions – he’d been second only to Vettel on the inters surface of Q2 – and it was a timely reminder of his skills. Team-mate Nico Hülkenberg, also usually a star performer in the wet, didn’t get out of Q2 because of a fuel bowser problem that kept him in the garage as the track was getting ever-wetter. By the time he got out, the surface was ready for wets and on these he could manage only 13th.
Brendon Hartley got the other Toro Rosso into Q3 for the first time and went eighth quickest there, 0.5sec down on Gasly, but within less than a tenth of Verstappen who was concerned about the RB14’s wet weather trait. “It seems at the moment that this year’s car struggles a bit in the wet and we need to look into why it is different to last year’s,” said Verstappen.
“We have already experienced that we struggle to get heat into the tyres and today that really showed. Usually, I feel comfortable enough to lay down a lap in these conditions, but I just was not able to today.”
He was at least in better shape than team-mate Daniel Ricciardo who – after just scraping out of Q1 having chosen softs rather than ultrasofts, under-estimating how difficult it would be to bring them up to temperature – had failed to make it out of Q2. He was last onto the track as the conditions were worsening and, on his first lap, he was caught by yellow flags for a spinning Lance Stroll. It all left him only 12th. He was using a Spec 1 engine as a replacement for the Spec 2 that had destroyed itself in the race at Hockenheim, though in these conditions the power shortfall wouldn’t have mattered so much.
The Haas VF-18s were giving the Spec 3 Ferrari motor its debut, but this wasn’t a track where either motor or chassis would be seen to best advantage. The Haas is another car relatively easy on the rubber and which, after making it through to Q3 with both cars, couldn’t get any heat into the wets. Kevin Magnussen and Grosjean slotted in ninth and 10th respectively, the latter stuck in Verstappen’s spray.
Fernando Alonso’s McLaren was first of those not making it into Q3 and actually this was probably fairly representative of its competitiveness in the dry too: slower than the Renaults, Toro Rossos and Haas; faster than Sauber and Williams. Stoffel Vandoorne could have done with better track positioning in Q1, which he failed to get out of – 16th fastest, 0.5sec off Alonso.
Marcus Ericsson was the only Sauber in Q2, 14th, with Charles Leclerc just not getting into the groove of a quickly changing track in Q1. “I just didn’t do the job today,” he lamented, after going 17th, 0.1sec off Ericsson.
Lance Stroll made it into Q2 but immediately spun, gently nudging the barrier and so not setting a Q2 time, leaving him 15th. This destroyed the latest front wing – and a change to the old one meant he’d be obliged to start from the pitlane. Team-mate Sergey Sirotkin misjudged that the Q1 track was going to be at its quickest early and took everything from his tyres, leaving him last. It was a similar story at Force India – which went into administration on the Friday – where Esteban Ocon and Sergio Pérez in 18th and 19th reckoned they’d seriously under-achieved. The car had looked its usual lower Q3 contender in the dry.
It was delicately poised as the sun baked the track hotter than ever as 3pm approached, a development that seemed as surely in Ferrari’s favour as the previous day’s rain had helped Mercedes. But Mercedes held double front row track position., the slower silver cars ahead of the faster red ones. A further complication was the free tyre choice because of the rain of qualifying.
From Mercedes’ perspective, should it split its strategies between the soft and the ultrasoft? If you could hold position at the start, the soft would be a much better tyre strategically, with a range at least 10 laps longer, maybe 15. Besides, the Mercedes hadn’t looked great on the ultras on Friday, heating up the rears in no time. The downside of that strategy, of course, was the grippier ultrasoft’s superior startline performance. If Mercedes lost track position to an ultrasoft-shod Ferrari at the start, that might be the race lost right there. It went for ultrasofts for both cars and instructed the drivers that whoever was behind the other out of the first turn would be in the wingman role. Both agreed.
At Ferrari, they reckoned on putting Vettel on the prime strategy of softs, with Räikkönen on an ultrasoft, the idea being to try to split the Mercedes and thereby prevent one Mercedes backing up the Ferraris while the other escaped. It made sense that the better-placed car on the grid got the grippier ultrasoft. Both drivers agreed.
Hamilton kept the advantage of pole over Bottas who was therefore in a support role. Räikkönen went for their outside on the approach to Turn 1, with Vettel – after a bit of swerving to prevail over Sainz – going for the inside and going side-by-side with the other Ferrari before slotting back in behind on the exit. As Räikkönen menaced Bottas down the short hill to Turn 1, forcing Valtteri to cover the inside, Vettel went clean around the outside of Räikkönen, and almost of Bottas too.
After out-dragging Gasly, Verstappen had out-braked Sainz into the first turn (rubbing wheels as he cut across) to go fifth, chasing Räikkönen. As Sainz had lost momentum, so he’d been passed also by Gasly. Magnussen also got by later in the lap. Sainz, together with team-mate Hülkenberg and both McLarens, had started on the soft. The Toro Rossos and Haas were on the ultrasoft.
The Force Indias went around Turn 1 either side of Leclerc’s Sauber and pincered it as they fought over track space, the Sauber’s front suspension taking a hit from both sides from the rear Force India wheels. Strike one Sauber. The sister car of Ericsson had hit Ricciardo’s left-front pretty hard at Turn 1 and would be in soon enough for a new front wing. Surprisingly, the Red Bull was undamaged but lost some momentum and would complete the first lap in 16th, but with plenty of tyre life ahead of it, having started on the softs. Once DRS was enabled, Ricciardo would begin picking off the various Force Indias, McLarens and Haas.
For Mercedes, this could not have worked out better: Hamilton immediately put distance on his team-mate – 1sec ahead at the end of the lap, 3sec ahead after four – with Bottas doing exactly what was required. Vettel understood the game and simply backed off out of turbulence range so as to take care of the rubber he’d be needing later. Ferrari knew what it was going to do to prevent Bottas from allowing Hamilton to build up too much of a lead. It would use Räikkönen to force him in early, when the time came.
Verstappen was happy with the way his race was panning out. With everyone spaced behind the pace Bottas was setting, he was easily able to keep pace and the car felt good. He was looking forward to relying on the Red Bull’s strong end of stint pace to maybe make up a position or two. But he didn’t get anywhere near the end of the stint. On the sixth lap, accelerating out of Turn 2, what is believed to have been an MGUk failure occurred. Verstappen was all for continuing on the lap in order to break the rest of the engine, but was dissuaded from doing so by his engineer. He settled for pulling off to the side and swearing a lot. Christian Horner lost no time in lambasting Renault. “We pay top dollar for state-of-the-art [equipment] and it’s clearly some way below that. Let Cyril [Abiteboul] come up with the excuses.”
There was a brief VSC as the inert Red Bull was pulled through a gap in the barriers, but it was quickly rescinded and Romain Grosjean was quicker on the draw than Fernando Alonso – jumping him into Turn 2, to take 11th. “It felt like he stole my wallet,” related an irked Alonso later. Up ahead of Grosjean now were Hülkenberg and Hartley.
Verstappen’s retirement moved Gasly up to sixth, the Frenchman set for a terrific, albeit lonely, afternoon’s work. The Toro Rosso-Honda was quickly left behind by the top three teams – and would subsequently be passed by the recovering Ricciardo – but its status of best of the rest was never threatened, not even by the following Haas-Ferrari of Magnussen.
As soon as the pitstop window opened – and with a nice gap to drop into between Magnussen and Sainz – Ferrari brought Räikkönen in on lap 14. This was purely to force Mercedes into calling in Bottas in response, so as to prevent him letting Hamilton extend his 5.6sec lead.
A rear brake duct was blocked on the Ferrari and the caliper temperatures had started to creep up. The clearing of this meant the stop took over 5sec, so Bottas was under no particular pressure as he stopped next lap and got underway again after just 2.5sec. Both had swapped to the soft tyre. Mercedes reckoned it might just get Bottas to the end of the race on it. His role now was to try to stay ahead of Vettel after the latter had stopped – but that looked a tall order… the Ferrari was faster.
With Bottas out the way, Vettel upped his pace and stabilised the gap to Hamilton at around 8.5sec. At some point, Hamilton’s ultrasofts would surely begin to lose grip and Vettel’s softs would still be fine. But Hamilton was driving a very canny race, just driving to the gap back to Vettel, keeping the life in the rubber so he could extend the stint and thereby have more grip in the correspondingly shorter second stint – when he’d be needing it against a Ferrari which would by then be on new ultrasofts.
But two things: the ultrasofts were working much better than on Friday – running quicker and suffering less heat degradation. And specifically, the Mercedes wasn’t in anything like as much trouble on them. So the crossover point between when Hamilton’s ultrasofts might become slower than Vettel’s softs was continually extending. What had changed? No one knew specifically regarding the tyres. Maybe the track was in better condition, but regarding the Mercedes, Hamilton had changed his set-up considerably since Friday. “Yes, I went in the wrong direction on Friday and wasn’t happy with the balance so into Saturday I made a big change.” The car was now a little more understeery than Hamilton would ideally have liked, but that was keeping the rear ultrasofts in shape for longer.
So Ferrari wanted to run Vettel as long as possible, Mercedes was trying to do the same with Hamilton – and the tyres were taking it. Hence something of a competitive stalemate at this stage. Meantime Vettel needed to extend his gap over the new-tyred Bottas from 17sec to 20sec before stopping if he was to overcut ahead so as to be able to launch his attack on Hamilton, who finally pitted on lap 25 and was fitted with his new softs, putting Vettel into a temporary lead. He was never going to get a pit stop’s worth of gap over Hamilton but he looked on-course to jump Bottas.
Between laps 16 and 30, despite his soft tyres being 15 laps older than Bottas’, Vettel lapped an average of almost half a second per lap faster, illustrating the underlying pace advantage was still very much there. This had got the gap over Bottas out to 23sec, comfortably enough to have emerged ahead if he’d stopped then. But then he began lapping traffic and didn’t get very good breaks in it (Sainz was particularly difficult to pass) and suddenly he was in danger of not getting his pitstop gap. He opened it back out to 23.7sec by lap 32 but then he hit more of it.
Mercedes had resigned itself to the fact that Vettel was comfortably going to come out ahead of Bottas, whose role as the tail gunner on this day would have been honourably fulfilled. But now this opportunity was presenting itself. In response, on lap 38, Mercedes gave Bottas permission to run a very aggressive engine mode for two laps. He set the fastest two laps of the race so far and once Vettel had cleared the traffic, it seemed he was beginning to run out of tyre life. By lap 39 there was just enough gap left to bring him in and still get out ahead. Any longer, and at the pace Bottas was now setting, the Mercedes would rob Vettel of his pitstop gap. It would have been tight, but probably OK. But instead, the left wheel was reluctant to line up properly, the wheel gun spinning uselessly without the nut torqueing up until someone gave the wheel a hefty thump and aligned it properly. But it had cost 2sec – and as the Ferrari accelerated back into the fray, Bottas had already passed it.
So why hadn’t Ferrari brought Vettel in earlier, when he had that gap over Bottas? Because it wanted to be able to use the full performance of the new ultrasofts and stopping earlier, thereby lengthening the second stint, would have compromised that. “We didn’t want to come in, gain the position and then have the tyre fall apart at the end,” explained Vettel. There was every reason to believe he’d be able to extend it back up beyond 20sec once he was through the traffic. But Mercedes’ engine mode response to Vettel’s traffic troubles ensured that wasn’t the case.
Bottas, on softs now 24 laps older than Vettel’s new ultras, repelled the Ferrari’s attacks – with Hamilton around 8sec up the road, still in the lead but feeling the inevitable was coming: that soon, Bottas would run out of rubber, Vettel would pass and be upon him, devouring that 8sec. Hamilton admits he doesn’t care for the feeling of being the hunted, much prefers to be the one doing the hunting. But, for now, Bottas was continuing in his admirable team role, fending off the Ferrari on his old tyres for lap after lap.
The lap before Vettel’s solitary stop, fourth place Räikkönen had been in for a second stop to replace those early-fitted softs. There was enough of a gap behind that he could do this without losing a position (once Ricciardo, in fifth, had made his stop). As Bottas held off Vettel, losing him around 1.5sec per lap, so Räikkönen on his fresh softs and in clear air was able to latch onto them. Ricciardo had delivered a remarkable combination of pace, overtaking and tyre durability. He finally came in to be rid of his softs after 44 laps and on his new ultrasofts would set the race’s fastest lap.
Gasly still held sway in ‘division two’, always just out of Magnussen’s reach. Neither Renault was going well, both Sainz and Hülkenberg reporting ill-balance and an appetite for the rear softs – so much so that they pitted before the ultrasoft-shod cars around them. Hulk had tried to undercut Hartley but failed to do so as Toro Rosso responded next lap. Grosjean, after that cheeky pass on Alonso, was badly held up by the struggling Hülkenberg but let rip with a few laps of good pace after the Hülk/Hartley pit stops, to leapfrog ahead of them.
But that delay had cost him valuable time to the soft-shod McLarens of Alonso and Vandoorne, both of whom were able to run significantly longer – and do to Grosjean (and Sainz) what Grosjean had done to Hartley/Hülkenberg. “How did that happen?” demanded Grosjean on seeing McLarens ahead of him. Vandoorne was shadowing Alonso’s every move, having his strongest race of the season and looking set for a couple of points. It was cruel when his gearbox failed after 49 laps. The McLaren responded much better to the softs tyres than the Renault and, unusually, looked a faster race day car than the Enstone machine.
There was a brief VSC to move Vandoorne’s car – and Mercedes planned to bring Bottas in to replace his now-destroyed tyres (as he would have emerged still ahead of Räikkönen), but the VSC was rescinded long before he got to the pit entry. So he stayed out, tormenting Vettel even more as Hamilton ran home and free. On the 65th lap, just five from home, Bottas’ tyres had nothing left as he oversteered wildly out of Turn 1, giving Vettel the opportunity of passing on the right as they headed down the hill. As they braked for Turn 2, Vettel was well ahead but on the outside and he turned in. Bottas, on a compromised marble-covered line and no tyre grip, couldn’t brake enough and the Ferrari’s rear wheel cut across the Merc’s front wing, sending carbon fibre everywhere, running Bottas out wide and allowing Räikkönen past too.
Vettel’s tyre was undamaged and Bottas was struggling on, now with a missing endplate and flapping bargeboard. Ricciardo smelt blood and got a DRS run on the limping Mercedes down the pit straight with three laps to go. He switched to the outside approach for Turn 1, Bottas tried turning and braking to keep him back, which understeered him into the side of the Red Bull, which was forced onto the run-off area. The team wisely decided to tell him to give the place to Ricciardo to minimise the chances of a heftier penalty than the 10sec he eventually got after letting the Red Bull through for fourth on the final lap. Much to the great cheering of the many Dutch fans in the place…
Some way behind Hülkenberg, the Force India drivers were having their own battle after their two differing tyre strategies converged. Ocon held the upper hand over Pérez to the end, with Ericsson a long way behind them after his compromised race on the slow medium tyre. He was ahead of the Williams pair, Sirotkin winning out in a long-running battle with Stroll not to be last.
If Vettel had cleared that traffic quicker, or not have had the pitstop problem, and emerged 7sec behind Hamilton on much faster tyres with 30 laps still to go, would he have won? He didn’t think so. “I would have been hunting him down but with the gap he had he would’ve been difficult to catch and then it’s a completely different story – especially around here – to overtake. So I think I could’ve done the catching but not the overtake, so in the end it didn’t change the result, just made it a bit harder.”
“We had better pace than I was expecting,” said Hamilton, “but if qualifying had been dry there’s no way I’d have been on pole, probably not even the front row. So I think I could have matched his pace, but he’d always have been ahead.”
This outcome ultimately came down to Vettel’s under-performance in the rain of Q3. With Hamilton around, such things are expensive.
Why are we always so keen to skip to the end? Once racing drivers hit a certain age, typically around their mid-to-late-30s, it’s so often tempting to start asking them…
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