TRACKS, TEMPERATURES & THE TYRE GAME
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.
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.