ROSBERG’S FAB FOUR
LEWIS ON THE ROPES AFTER MORE DRAMA
Nico Rosberg was spotted sprinting through the paddock a few hours after the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi. In his right hand was a bottle of unopened champagne. During his spirited run, reporters tried to grab him for a word, but for the second time that afternoon no one was able to keep up with him.
This was Rosberg’s seventh consecutive grand prix victory, putting him on a par with greats Alberto Ascari and Michael Schumacher – and two short of Sebastian Vettel’s all-time record. It was a perfect weekend. Pole, fastest lap and victory – and in the world championship he’s reached 100 points, with a gap opening up over a troubled Lewis Hamilton, who finished second from a lowly 10th on the grid.
His team-mate’s woes started in qualifying after a repeat of the power unit problem he’d suffered at the previous race in China. In the days following Shanghai, an investigation of the engine back at Brixworth’s base discovered a problem with the MGU-H’S insulation and both the turbocharger and oil pumps were replaced after debris was found in the oil system.
According to the team, a similar problem occurred at the commencement of Q3 on Saturday and Hamilton was denied the chance to set a laptime. Very quickly, the team set into motion a midnight run to get replacement parts transported from Northamptonshire to the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Niki Lauda was able to source a plane, Paddy Lowe’s Russian PA co-ordinated logistics and a certain Bernie Ecclestone interrupted Toto Wolff on the phone during the team boss’s media briefing on Saturday afternoon, to play his part.
“Yes, we finally sorted the plane, got the replacement part on it and Bernie sorted the customs,” confirmed Wolff after the race. “The plane landed [at 0200hrs] with a box on it and within 90 seconds the box was in a car on the way to the track. I don’t want to know how Bernie sorted that out…”
But the engine in Hamilton’s car was to endure more problems during the race. Following a spirited drive in the early stages, he’d managed to haul his car up to second and was less than eight seconds behind Rosberg.
On lap 36, Rosberg put in the fastest lap of the race up to that point, a 1m40.450s and Hamilton – just 7.6s behind him – went fractionally quicker, recording a 1m40.266s. Then Hamilton’s engineer Pete Bonnington was forced to reveal the news that ended the fight for this race on the team radio: “We have a water pressure issue.”
Hamilton’s charge was thwarted and he slowed his pace, finishing 25 seconds behind his team-mate at the flag, but a comfortable seven seconds ahead of third-placed Kimi Raikkonen. His was the sole Ferrari left in the race following a dramatic opening lap in which Vettel was shunted into retirement by Russia’s Daniil Kvyat.
The fight for honours started in earnest on Saturday afternoon. Rosberg was the first of the frontrunners to set a time in Q1, but was quickly eclipsed by his team-mate. Again the German set a quicker lap, only to be repelled once more. The scene was developing for an intriguing duel between the Mercedes pair. Then a message flashed up from race control.
Hamilton had run wide at Turn 2 and had failed to rejoin the track at the correct point. Between practice on Friday and Saturday morning a polystyrene marker with an arrow had been placed at the far end of the Turn 2 run-off area. The race director had made it clear to all the drivers that anyone who went wide at Turn 2, must return to the track the other side of the marker. Hamilton had run wide late in the corner and felt he was in the point of no return, thereby missing the bollard. He immediately backed off on that lap – so no advantage was gained – but following qualifying he was summoned to see the stewards and was issued a reprimand.
It’s his second of the year following his reversing incident in the Bahrain pitlane: one more and it will be an automatic 10-place grid penalty.
“It’s quite funny, when I was in karting there was one steward who was there to make everyone’s weekend a bad weekend,” he said on Sunday night. “He was a complete a***hole, and I’ve heard he’s still there. He was there to ruin people’s weekends and I’m starting to see signs of him again now.”
That was the only significant drama of Q1 as the first drivers to be eliminated were Marcus Ericsson (Sauber), the Manors of Rio Haryanto and Pascal Wehrlein, Felipe Nasr – running a new Sauber chassis this weekend – Jolyon Palmer (with a new floor on his Renault) and his team-mate Kevin Magnussen.
In the second part of qualifying, it was Rosberg who once again set the benchmark and on his first run Hamilton was 0.483s in arrears. Behind them the Ferraris and Williams were comfortably into the final segment of qualifying as the battle heated up behind.
Local hero Kvyat had just scraped through into Q2 with his last run and again on his last lap in this session, the Red Bull driver just made the top 10. After qualifying there were rare smiles down at Mclaren as they had clearly made progress at a track that shouldn’t ordinarily suit the Honda power unit. But Kvyat’s gain was Jenson’s loss. The Briton was ruing missing out on Q3 by a mere 0.095s. Accompanying Button in the Q2 drop zone was 11th-placed Carlos Sainz (who lost out by 0.046s in his Toro Rosso), Nico Hulkenberg (Force India), Fernando Alonso in the second Mclaren-honda, and the two Haas machines of Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez.
It was at the start of Q3 when we received news that Hamilton had suffered his power unit problem and wasn’t able to set a time. That left Rosberg effectively unchallenged for pole position. His first run was quicker than Vettel by 0.842s and on his final run he was quicker again before running wide at Turn 13. He aborted the lap and was comfortably on pole.
An impressive Valtteri Bottas managed to squeeze his Williams into third place, which elicited an “excellent” over the radio from his race engineer Jonathan Eddolls. That became second too, as Vettel had a gearbox change and was penalised with a five-place grid penalty. Behind the Ferrari on the starting grid was the man who caused him grief at Turn 1 in China a fortnight ago… Kvyat.
As the pack headed for the Turn 2 braking zone, Rosberg led but behind him chaos was about to erupt. Raikkonen had nabbed second from Bottas, but Kvyat misjudged his braking and rammed the back of Vettel’s Ferrari. That pitched the red machine into the second Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo and caused him to slide into the back of Sergio Perez’s Force India.
As the field scrambled around Turn 2 and into T3, the Mexican began to slow with a right-rear puncture and as Vettel cautiously approached him, he was once again hit by Kvyat. As he spun into the T3 tyre wall there followed a series of foul-mouthed expletives from inside the Ferrari cockpit.
He’d calmed down by the time he spoke to media: “In the end these things happen, but obviously it’s harsh,” he said. “I don’t dislike him [Kvyat] but I think he made a mistake two weeks ago and a mistake today.”
Not only was this a disaster for Vettel, but it destroyed Red Bull’s race. Both Ricciardo and Kvyat pitted to the slower medium tyre but were unable to drive back into contention (not helped when the Russian was given a 10-second stop/ go penalty).
“When people brake in front of you unfortunately sometimes there is no time to react,” said Kvyat. “That’s what happened, I had no time to react to Seb’s braking.
“When you are one metre behind a car at 150km/h [90mph] and suddenly someone brakes, it’s unavoidable. It’s not great but sometimes these things happen. It’s probably not the nicest first lap in my career but I will learn from it.”
Vettel went to speak with his former team boss Christian Horner on the Red Bull pitwall during the race and Horner admitted later that all he could do was apologise to the German.
The safety car was deployed to clear up the Vettel incident and a further Turn 2 drama involving Hulkenberg and Haryanto. When the safety car peeled in, Bottas reclaimed second off his compatriot Raikkonen with a sweet move into Turn 2, while right behind him Hamilton – who’d avoided the opening lap mayhem – swept past Felipe Massa for fourth place.
From this position, it looked as though Hamilton could at least challenge his team-mate – if he could quickly dispose of the Ferrari and second Williams ahead of him.
The critical part of the race came during the one and only pitstop for the frontrunners. Bottas was the first to stop on lap 16 and was stationary for an ultra speedy 2.7 seconds. When Hamilton stopped for his soft rubber a lap later, he was serviced in 3.2s and emerged from the pitlane still behind the Williams. Two laps later, he found a way past at Turn 5.
At this stage Raikkonen was still circulating and when he stopped on lap 20 he was able to rejoin ahead of Bottas and guarantee his podium position – the 700th for the Scuderia. Behind Bottas was his team-mate Massa and Alonso – who took his first points of the year. Magnussen was an impressive seventh for Renault, ahead of a duelling Grosjean (Haas) and Perez (Force India). Button rounded out the top 10.
Up front, once Hamilton was told to back off, it was a comfortable run for Rosberg, who collected his fourth win of the season and increased his lead to 43 points. “Yeah, but it’s only four races from 21 and Lewis is going to come back, of course,” said a philosophical Rosberg. “He’s on it and as motivated as ever. So, it’s early days – we’re just taking it race-by-race.”
But the remaining 17 races look pretty good for Nico, with Lewis likely to be the first to succumb to a grid penalty for replacement engine parts and there’s the threat of another reprimand from one of those pesky stewards looming. Will he, or anyone, be able to catch Rosberg this year? ■
Rosberg held the lead at the start and stayed ahead
Finnish fight: Raikkonen (right) beat Bottas to final podium place
Hamilton recovered from 10th to second, but now trails Rosberg by 43 points in the championship table