TRACKS, TEM­PER­A­TURES & THE TYRE GAME

Driven - - Motorsport - Re­port by EG­MONT SIPPEL | Im­ages © FER­RARI / MERCEDES-AMG / RED BULL CON­TENT POOL / HAAS F1

A BLOWN TYRE ROBBED VALT­TERI BOT­TAS OF GRAND PRIX VIC­TORY IN BAKU. AND TYRES WITH LESS TREAD, AS WELL AS COOLER TEM­PER­A­TURES PLUS TRACK CHAR­AC­TER­IS­TICS SUITED TO THE NEEDS OF HIS MERCEDES, EN­SURED A HAMIL­TON MAS­TER­CLASS IN SPAIN. WHICH WAY IS THIS YEAR’S F1 TI­TLE RACE GO­ING? EG­MONT SIPPEL EX­AM­INES.

Time flies. It was only yes­ter­day, was it not, that Seb Vet­tel drove up Lewis Hamil­ton’s dif­fuser in Baku and then banged his Fer­rari into the Mercedes at 60 km/h, all be­hind the safety car.

Hamil­ton then lost the lead of the 2017 Azer­bai­jan GP, hav­ing had to pit for a new head­rest af­ter the orig­i­nal piece shook it­self loose. Vet­tel, at that point, would have been per­fectly placed to stroke his Fer­rari to an easy win, ex­cept that he, too, had to pit to serve a 10-sec­ond penalty for his ear­lier on-track mis­de­meanours.

All of this – plus a lot of crashes and chaos ne­ces­si­tat­ing no fewer than three safety car pe­ri­ods – set the scene for a re­mark­able come­back drive by the Houdini of mod­ern day F1, Daniel Ric­cia­rdo.

On lap 6 of last year’s race, Danni Ricc (as the Aussie is also known) was 17th. When the flag fell, he headed to the top of the podium. Snatch­ing vic­tory from the jaws of de­feat is a Ric­cia­rdo hall­mark, on a par with his im­pres­sive abil­ity to brake su­per-late and pull off F1’s finest over­tak­ing ma­noeu­vres since the hal­cyon days of Ayr­ton Senna.

So, in 2017, Ric­cia­rdo greatly ben­e­fit­ted from the chaos caused else­where in the field.

This year, he and team­mate Ver­stap­pen con­spired in a very in­ti­mate way– man­gling Red Bull metal with Red Bull metal – to cause the very chaos from which re­sulted a Hamil­ton vic­tory that was as un­de­serv­ing as a win would have been de­serv­ing, twelve months ago.

Karma, they call it in the clas­sics.

VET­TEL OFF THE PODIUM

At the same time, Hamil­ton vaulted to the top of the driver’s stand­ings. That was

as sur­pris­ing as the win it­self. Apart from Aus­tralia, the reign­ing world cham­pion had not been in the form of his life, up to and in­clud­ing Azer­bai­jan. If any­thing, he had been out­driven by team­mate Valt­teri Bot­tas in three con­sec­u­tive Grands Prix: Bahrain, China and Baku.

As such, the Finn was on course for max­i­mum points in Azer­bai­jan af­ter the Ric­cia­rdo/Ver­stap­pen melee, hav­ing out­lasted Vet­tel on tyres dur­ing the first phase of the race. Pa­tiently bid­ing his time to switch to fresh rub­ber, Valt­teri’s chance ar­rived when the Red Bulls tan­gled.

Alas! Wear­ing fresh new boots came to nought when Bot­tas hit some de­bris left by Ro­main Gros­jean’s baf­fling ren­dezvous with a Baku wall, un­der safety car speeds.

Räikkö­nen – who, a day ear­lier, looked set for pole with a blis­ter­ing qual­i­fier, just to botch it right at the end– fol­lowed Hamil­ton home, whilst Ser­gio Pérez com­pleted the podium af­ter hav­ing picked his way through the chaos, some­thing Checo (as the Mex­i­can is nick­named) does bet­ter than any­body else in the mod­ern game, bar Danni Ricc.

All of this left Vet­tel one step off the podium in a race where he was in to­tal con­trol. This on the back of a China out­ing which also seemed to be un­der Seb’s con­trol, up un­til two tiny mis­takes dur­ing his pit stop lap, fol­lowed by Ver­stap­pen’s clumsy tag on the Fer­rari. In Baku, the Ger­man had an­other messy moment when he out-braked him­self, try­ing to pass Bot­tas into Turn 1. The move cost him the place that would have guar­an­teed a win, once Bot­tas re­tired.

Four races into the sea­son, and Vet­tel could have been run­ning away with things if the cards had kept on fall­ing as kindly as it did in Oz.

CON­FI­DENT FER­RARI PRE-SPAIN

In­stead, Seb headed for Spain on the back of two races sans podi­ums, let alone wins.

Yet, Maranello’s spir­its were high. Fer­rari clearly felt that they were start­ing to reap the fruits of last year’s bold de­ci­sion to de­sign this year’s SF71H with a higher rake an­gle (a la Red Bull) plus a longer wheel­base (a la Mercedes; the SF71H’s wheel­base is just 2 mm shorter than the Merc-AMG W09’s, whereas the dif­fer­ence last year – to the W08’s wheel­base – was 140 mm).

In Oz, Bahrain and China Fer­rari clocked the high­est top end speeds, while Vet­tel and Räikkö­nen fea­tured promi­nently in Baku as well.

On top of that, Vet­tel had been rack­ing up pole po­si­tions like it’s go­ing out of fash­ion – and not with Hamil­ton as his stiffest test, but with team­mate Kimi prob­ing the cal­i­bre of Seb’s metal.

The Fer­rari en­gine, it was com­monly be­lieved go­ing into Barcelona, was now the best in F1, and Maranello’s aero the best bar Red Bull’s, while the chas­sis also seemed to be right up there, nip­ping at the RB14’s.

And then Hamil­ton, with Bot­tas rid­ing shot­gun, de­mol­ished the op­po­si­tion in Spain.

MERC AND RED BULL IN BARCELONA

That was a bit of a shock.

The big­ger shock was that Red Bull out­stripped Fer­rari. It is dif­fi­cult to for­get that the RB14 fires from a down-on-power Re­nault V6 and that Barcelona boasts a very long straight in­deed, where the gains made in terms of the RB14’s aero and chas­sis bril­liance in the back parts of the cir­cuit – es­pe­cially in the twisty third sec­tor – are negated by the power de­mands of the main straight.

Yet, Red Bull and es­pe­cially Mercedes man­aged to shine in Spain.

How?

Well, the W09 is an ex­cel­lent car in its own right, of course; it just needs to hit the sweet spot (as it did in Barcelona, where track char­ac­ter­is­tics have al­ways suited the Merc).

Pirelli also hap­pened to pro­vide the grid with a new tyre to race on, one with a tread depth re­duced by 0.4 mm, which seems to have made all the dif­fer­ence, es­pe­cially as it al­lowed the Mercs to heat up their front and rear tyres at equal rates.

Get­ting the fronts up to tem­per­a­ture quickly for a flier in quali was a prob­lem, pre­vi­ously, and stop­ping the rears from over­heat­ing dur­ing a race was a headache for the Sil­ver Ar­rows.

Yet, in pre-sea­son test­ing at the Cata­lan track, in Arc­tic con­di­tions, the teams all strug­gled with blis­tered tyres – the re­sult of rub­ber hav­ing been worked so hard that deeper lay­ers start to boil, form­ing pock­ets of liq­uid un­der the tyres’ skin which could burst, in hot­ter con­di­tions, pos­ing a dan­ger to driv­ers.

NEW TYRES FOR RESUR­FACED TRACKS

For Barcelona, Pirelli re­duced the tyre tread, which leaves too lit­tle rub­ber on the tyre car­cass for blis­ters to de­velop in. A thin­ner rub­ber skin also helped Merc to heat up their fronts a bit quicker dur­ing quali, while the rears were kept from over­heat­ing by the dis­si­pa­tion of ex­ces­sive heat, rather than be­ing trapped deep in­side the tyres’ rub­ber.

So, is the die cast? Will Mercedes hence­forth run away with ev­ery sin­gle race?

Not a bit of it. Pirelli has changed the tyre spec­i­fi­ca­tion for the three 2018 races that were des­tined to be run on resur­faced tracks only: Barcelona, Sil­ver­stone and Paul Ri­card.

In Spain, the cooler weather also played straight into Merc’s hands.

It won’t be cool ev­ery­where, of course, while Merc will only en­joy the lux­ury of a thin­ner tread in two of the re­main­ing 16 races, Monaco (of which the re­sult will be known by now) in­cluded.

And who took the che­quered flag in the Prin­ci­pal­ity: Ver­stap­pen or Ric­cia­rdo? Did Red Bull dom­i­nate, as we pre­dicted? Was Fer­rari back in the frame? And did Merc re­vert back to its tyre woes?

The truth is, any­thing could have hap­pened. For a game based on such a me­chan­i­cal, tech­no­log­i­cal and sci­en­tific plat­form, F1 is still a capri­cious af­fair, so that 2018’s driv­ers’ and con­struc­tors’ ti­tles might yet be de­cided as much by tyres, tem­per­a­tures and track char­ac­ter­is­tics, as by driver and car abil­i­ties.

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