ROSEBERG BACK ON TRACK
MERC MAN DOMINATES IN BAKU
Nico Rosberg notched up his fifth victory of the year for Mercedes as F1 visited Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, for the first time. But there was disappointment for Lewis Hamilton as a problem with his engine settings hampered his recovery from 10th on the grid.
Against all expectations the European Grand Prix unfolded with no interventions from the safety car, in stark contrast to the incident-strewn GP2 races that filled the support card. As ever, track designer Hermann Tilke’s work received mixed reviews from the opinionati, but once a few problems with kerb fixings were solved earlier in the weekend this distinctive new venue began to show its potential.
A long main straight and a succession of 90-degree corners over the early part of the lap placed a premium on power and traction, so it was no surprise to see the two factory Mercedes entries setting the pace throughout. Ferrari managed to find some pace overnight on Saturday having been weak during the first two practice sessions – timely, given the arrival of company president Sergio Marchionne – but were never a threat to Mercedes during the race. Instead, the most ferocious battles centred on the remaining podium slots as Hamilton and Force India’s Sergio Perez, b oth starting in positions that didn’t reflect their speed, battled through.
Ahead of the weekend Hamilton said he had done no more than eight laps of the Baku circuit on the Mercedes simulator, reckoning that technology couldn’t adequately simulate the real thing. Going fastest in all three practice sessions seemed to vindicate that approach, but then in qualifying he committed a series of blunders.
Hamilton locked up several times, damaging all his remaining sets of the super-soft tyres, and then consigned himself to a 10th-place start by tapping the inside wall at Turn 11 in Q3, breaking his steering. He later blamed his own failure to adapt to set-up changes made before the session.
“It was nothing to do with anyone else, it was just me not doing good enough,” he said.
One of Hamilton’s mistakes in Q1 also brought frustration for F1’s other Brit, Jolyon Palmer, who had to back off on his fastest lap when the world champion went down an escape road. That made for a time half-a-second or so off his theoretical best, putting him at the back of the grid. Palmer candidly admitted that the Renault was only good enough, in ideal circumstances, for the next row on the grid at this track, but for him that wasn’t the point.
“In Q1, I think some of the top teams relax and it’s like a practice session for them,” Palmer told MN. “But for us it’s our entire session. If they’re causing yellow flags on two of our four laps it’s painful. They can do a lap a second off what’s possible for them and still get through.”
Hamilton’s exit late in Q3 not only meant team-mate Rosberg wasn’t seriously challenged for pole position, a red flag while the Mercedes was extracted from the shadows of the Unesco-listed city walls left just two minutes on the clock when the session restarted. Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo won the race to be first in line at the pit exit, while Sebastian Vettel edged his Ferrari past the Williams of Valtteri Bottas on the out-lap to maximise his chance of improving.
In the event, Ricciardo and Vettel set identical times to the thousandth of a second; Ricciardo lined up alongside Rosberg on the front row, having set his time first. A Force India ought to have occupied that spot, since Perez had actually nailed the second-fastest lap earlier in the session, but a gearbox change, the legacy of a big shunt at the tricky Turn 15 on Friday morning, meant a five-place drop for him.
The sheer number of safety car deployments and botched restarts in the GP2 races reflected badly on the general driving standards in that championship, and thankfully the more experienced heads in F1 suffered fewer rushes of blood.
As the lights went out on the start line the majority of the field got away cleanly, Ricciardo hooking up better than Rosberg before the superior grunt of the Mercedes took hold.
Further back, Felipe Massa left his braking far too late and locked up into Turn 1, surrendering fifth to Perez straight away. The amount of free real estate at this corner rapidly diminished as the midfield funnelled in, and Esteban Gutierrez tapped the back of Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India, having himself been nudged from behind by the Manor of Rio Haryanto.
Still, there was nothing to warrant bringing out the safety car, and Rosberg gradually eased away from Ricciardo, whose attention quickly turned to defending his second place from Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen.
Ricciardo’s team-mate Max Verstappen was similarly up against it at the back end of the top 10; having qualified ninth he had jumped Bottas and, like Perez, mugged sixth-place starter Daniil Kvyat, but once Bottas had cleared Kvyat it was only a matter of time before the slippery Mercedespowered Williams swept by Verstappen on the main straight.
Renault’s newly uprated power unit is a great improvement but still not quite on terms with Ferrari and Mercedes. After Ricciardo succumbed to Vettel and Raikkonen on lap five, and reported that his tyres were graining badly, Red Bull pulled both drivers in for their one remaining set of unused soft Pirellis, clearly signalling a switch to a two-stop strategy with a final stint on the unfavoured medium tyre. Pirelli had said before the race that one stop would probably be the way to go, but in the absence of data from previous races it was difficult to say accurately.
Ferrari wavered, and signalled Vettel to pit from second place to cover the likelihood of Ricciardo using the undercut to reclaim track position from him. Vettel, mindful of the team’s catastrophic strategy blunder in Montreal that cost him a shot at winning, opted to dig his heels in.
“Are you sure about this?” he said over the radio. “The pace is good.”
So Vettel stayed out as Raikkonen pitted on lap eight, putting the two Ferraris on divergent strategies. The question of whether it was the right thing to do would ultimately prove academic, since Raikkonen had accidentally wandered over the white line at the pit entry while looking for a way past Ricciardo, landing him a five-second penalty.
Stopping this early meant the risk of becoming mired in traffic as Verstappen, Ricciardo and Raikkonen rejoined outside the top 10 – Verstappen was briefly 18th before others ahead obligingly dived for the pits. For these three drivers it would be a tough road road back, but Raikkonen was clearly up for the challenge. Emerging behind Ricciardo and the Manor of Pascal Wehrlein – a potential roadblock running an ultra-long first stint – Raikkonen chased the Red Bull
through the traffic and was soon on his tail.
Rosberg consolidated his lead ahead of Vettel and Perez, who faced an early threat from Bottas, which gradually receded as the Williams fell away over the course of the opening stint. Force India saw Hamilton as the greater problem, so when he pitted on lap 15, four laps after overtaking Bottas into Turn 1, that was the signal to respond by bringing Perez in for a new set of softs. Crucially, in spite of a slightly slower stop, he left the pits ahead of the Mercedes.
As the majority of the field completed their pitstops, save for the leading duo, Raikkonen breezed past Ricciardo on lap 18 to run fourth, which became third when Bottas pitted, then second when Vettel made his stop on lap 20. Rosberg, with 40s in-hand over Raikkonen, made what would be his sole stop on lap 21 without giving up the lead.
Ferrari instructed Raikkonen to let Vettel by into second on lap 27, and in clear air the four-time champion began to push, though he had scant hope of catching the leader without the assistance of a safety car. For Raikkonen the key task was to preserve a margin of more than five seconds from fourthplaced Perez, or risk losing third place after his penalty was applied.
As for Hamilton, he was a frustrated fifth. Having reported a vibration through his brakes in the first stint, he was now down on power. An engine setting was amiss, preventing full deployment of the hybrid system, and to make matters worse the FIA’S radio-message ban hampered the team’s ability to help.
“The problem appears to be the current mode you’re in,” said engineer Peter Bonnington.
“I don’t know what you mean,” replied Hamilton. “Hard to say what it is…” Later, having spent lap after lap frantically studying the display on his steering wheel, Hamilton became desperate: “I’m going to change everything in this car.”
“Er, we wouldn’t advise that, Lewis,” was the response.
By the time he was able to resolve the problem it was too late. On lap 42 he set the fastest lap of the race at the time, then decided that saving his engine was the best way to limit the damage.
“I just turned the engine down after that,” Hamilton said later.
Rosberg took the chequered flag by a commanding 16.696s from Vettel as Perez chased down Raikkonen, finally opting to pass at Turn 1 at the beginning of the last lap. Knowing that the game was up, Raikkonen offered no resistance.
“It’s been an awesome weekend,” said Rosberg. “Everything went cleanly. I felt like I could do whatever I wanted. The track was exciting.
“I think I had the same [power problem as Hamilton], I’m not sure. It was just a question of getting out of it with the right combination of switches.”
The team later clarified that Rosberg’s issue had resulted from a change he made during the race, enabling his engineer to phrase the dialogue that followed in a way that didn’t contravene the FIA’S regulations on radio messages.
“I’m very happy and very proud,” said Vettel. “We kept our head in and, as a team, worked well.”
“The first laps were really difficult with the [tyre] graining,” said Perez. “Just basically not panicking [was the key]. The easiest thing to do would have been to stop when the graining occurred, especially when Kimi and some people behind stopped and we decided to stay out longer and it cleaned up. That was one of the keys of my race.”
Force India reaped the benefits of holding their nerve, while Ricciardo and Verstappen did well to fight back to seventh and eighth – behind Hamilton and Bottas – after a long second stint on the medium tyres. It was not the best of days for cars bearing the Red Bull logo.
Rosberg claimed fifth win of the season to open out a points gap to Mercedes team-mate Hamilton
Rosberg (right) was only really troubled at the start of the race
Clever pit call from
Rosberg was peerless in the Baku street race