ROSEBERG BACK ON TRACK

MERC MAN DOM­I­NATES IN BAKU

Motor Sport News - - Front Page - BY STUART CODLING

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.

Qual­i­fy­ing

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.

Race

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

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