Hamil­ton and Ros­berg are at it again, and this time Lewis sur­vives the fall­out

Motor Sport News - - Austrian Gp Report -

Like sil­ver mag­nets, Lewis Hamil­ton and Nico Ros­berg seem ir­re­sistibly drawn to one an­other on track. In Aus­tria, they clashed once again, in a last-lap bang that de­cided the vic­tory. Ros­berg was deemed guilty, Hamil­ton es­caped to vic­tory. But of greater con­se­quence was the threat from Mercedes that it might have to re­sort to team or­ders to keep its war­ring duo apart.


Some ses­sions, like days, are bet­ter than oth­ers. And the 2016 Aus­trian Grand Prix qual­i­fy­ing hour was as­suredly a cracker.

Dry, wet, damp, dry-again con­di­tions, on a thickly hu­mid af­ter­noon around this in­tense lit­tle speed­bowl of a cir­cuit, high in the Styr­ian hills, made for non-stop ac­tion, with a lib­eral sprin­kling of magic-dust per­for­mances through­out the pack.

A pole for Lewis Hamil­ton, num­ber 53, was the least sur­pris­ing re­sult for F1’s most gifted driver, and its most ca­pa­ble team. But he had to work for it, com­bin­ing all the giddy tal­ent that has al­ways al­lowed him to fi­nesse the ragged edge of grip, with method and pre­cise ap­pli­ca­tion. Team-mate Nico Ros­berg had been quick­est in both Fri­day prac­tice ses­sions; Fer­rari’s Seb Vet­tel topped FP3, then Ros­berg led Q1. When it mat­tered though, in the Q3 dry­ing-track tum­ble-time shoot-out, Hamil­ton had it cov­ered: “It was a re­ally fun ses­sion,” he said. “When it rained, in those con­di­tions it’s a lit­tle bit more about who takes the most risk, I guess.”

So there’s the tal­ent; here’s the pre­cise ap­pli­ca­tion: “At one point there were five cor­ners where I’m down [on Ros­berg]. Then it’s four cor­ners, then two, then just one. Then it rained and I was think­ing, ‘Jeez, I’ve fi­nally got into a po­si­tion where I can bat­tle with Nico.’”

Ros­berg set sec­ond fastest time, although P2 would not be his. He was hit by a five-place grid penalty af­ter a size­able shunt in FP3, caused by the fail­ure of his right-rear suspension. A re­sult­ing gear­box change trig­gered the drop and Nico wound up in P6, af­ter a gear­box penalty for Vet­tel was also ap­plied.

Slo-mo footage of Ros­berg’s ac­ci­dent ap­peared to show the fail­ure of his W07’s up­per-left-rear wish­bone, pitch­ing the Mercedes nose-first into the bar­ri­ers on the up­hill ap­proach to turn two.

His car was re­built af­ter a lung­bust­ing shift by both his and Hamil­ton’s me­chan­ics, work­ing to­gether. “We didn’t find the root cause of the fail­ure,” said prin­ci­pal Toto Wolff, “but we strength­ened the part.”

Ap­par­ently sim­i­lar, though not nec­es­sar­ily re­lated, fail­ures were to be­come a wor­ry­ing week­end trend. Force In­dia’s Ser­gio Perez suf­fered a right-rear suspension fail­ure in Q1; later in the same seg­ment Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat had one of his own, af­ter run­ning wide over the kerbs on the exit of turn eight. This trig­gered a big shunt for Kvyat in which all four cor­ners and the nose of his STR11 were swiped.

Ac­cusatory fin­gers were im­me­di­ately pointed at the so-called ‘baguette’ kerb­ing, present here to pre­vent driv­ers from run­ning be­yond the cir­cuit lim­its. It was reck­oned that race-speed pas­sage over these yel­low bumps set up high-fre­quency vi­bra­tions through suspension com­po­nents, caus­ing their struc­tural in­tegrity to fail. Fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tions were made into the di­rec­tion of load be­ing trans­ferred into suspension parts as driv­ers crossed the ‘baguettes’.

Hamil­ton, when quizzed, de­scribed the kerbs as “quite dan­ger­ous”. “There were a cou­ple of in­ci­dents,” he added, “and I don’t know how many more it will take be­fore a car ends up in the wall. The idea is good… But per­haps an­other so­lu­tion is go­ing to be needed.”

Safety con­cerns aside, it seemed cer­tain that Sun­day’s race would be in­ci­dent filled, as the com­bi­na­tion of un­pre­dictable weather and grid penal­ties had de­liv­ered a hotch-potch start­ing or­der, rather than a neat two-by-two.

Along­side Hamil­ton would be Nico Hulken­berg, un­der­lin­ing the consistent good form this hard-bat­tling mid­dleweight team has re­cently pro­duced. Hulk has al­ways been handy in mixed con­di­tions and his performance here was rem­i­nis­cent of his eye-grab­bing pole for Wil­liams at a soggy In­ter­la­gos in 2010.

With four min­utes of Q3 re­main­ing, Hulken­berg was P1 as he, Felipe Massa, Hamil­ton, Kimi Raikko­nen and Ros­berg all traded times. Stay­ing out long­est on the dry­ing track, choos­ing the most op­por­tune mo­ment to switch to Pirelli Ul­tra­softs… these were the key de­ci­sions.

In the event, Hulk was pipped only by the Mercs and his even­tual P2 start slot seemed fair re­ward for his verve. “I was op­ti­mistic and ex­cited out there,” he said. “They were spe­cial cir­cum­stances, but the car has made huge steps for­ward since Barcelona. We’re on a good slope, with good mo­men­tum too.”

A re­mark­able P3 went to Jenson But­ton, who’d made it through to Q3 for the first time since Abu Dhabi 2014. He ben­e­fit­ted, of course, from Ros­berg’s penalty and a sim­i­lar five-place drop (gear­box) for Vet­tel, but But­ton’s out­right fifth-fastest time re­flected both his own gos­samer touch and the on­go­ing im­prove­ments to the Mclaren-honda combo.

“P3 is mega!” he en­thused. “I al­ways love those con­di­tions and I was just try­ing to save it for the last lap. I took a lot of risks but it all worked out to­day.”

Raikko­nen lined up fourth (with sixth-fastest time); Vet­tel (fourth quick­est) was a pe­nalised ninth. Fer­rari had promised bet­ter than this through free prac­tice and Vet­tel, com­mend­ably, pointed to his own

fail­ure to de­liver, rather than crit­i­cise his team: “With hind­sight I should have taken more risks,” he re­flected. “It didn’t come down to the pace, or the car, it came down to the driver, and the three driv­ers that were in front of me took more risks. The later you crossed the line, the bet­ter it was.”

Wil­liams and Red Bull closed out the top 10, with Daniel Ric­cia­rdo fifth, Valt­teri Bot­tas sev­enth, Max Ver­stap­pen in eighth and Massa 10th.

Quite a jum­ble, then, at the sharp end and with the likes of Pascal Wehrlein (a bril­liant P12), Fer­nando Alonso (P14) and Perez (P16) start­ing out of po­si­tion, the stage was set for a fraught Sun­day. Throw in a fore­cast 10-de­gree overnight drop in tem­per­a­tures and a 50 per cent chance of Sun­day rain…who knew what lay ahead?

As Vet­tel him­self noted: “To­mor­row, any­thing can hap­pen.”


Some­what like Aus­tria it­self, the Red Bull Ring is small, in­tense, res­onates to the echo of past grandeur and has an agree­able habit of pro­duc­ing mo­ments of ex­cep­tional qual­ity.

So it was with the 2016 Aus­trian GP – a grip­per from start to fin­ish with a dra­matic cli­max and a tan­ta­lis­ing coda.

The win (his 46th) went to Hamil­ton, but only af­ter a last-lap bump-’n’-grind be­tween him and (you guessed it) Ros­berg that gave Lewis the lead and rel­e­gated Nico to fourth.

Their T2 col­li­sion was the lat­est in a – se­ries of ‘great­est hits’ that also in­cludes Bel­gium 2014, Austin 2015 and most re­cently Spain 2016. And while Hamil­ton emerged from the scrape with body­work dam­age in­suf­fi­cient to pre­vent him scarper­ing through Turn 3 to the che­quer, Ros­berg lost his front wing, then two places, to Ver­stap­pen and Raikko­nen, as he nursed his crip­pled ma­chine over the fin­ish line.

Opin­ions dif­fered as to whether this was a cruel out­come for Ros­berg, who had bat­tled his way to the lead from sixth on the grid, or whether the ev­er­ag­gres­sive, in­stinc­tive and op­por­tunis­tic Hamil­ton fully mer­ited the win, hav­ing started from pole, over­come a safety car strat­egy in­ter­rup­tion and then pre­vailed in wheel-to-wheel com­bat when a late, late pass­ing op­por­tu­nity arose.

The roots of their clash be­gan with the demise of Ros­berg’s brake-by-wire sys­tem in the fi­nal sec­tor of the penul­ti­mate lap. This left him try­ing to de­fend against a charg­ing Hamil­ton and a mis­take of some kind was in­evitable. It hap­pened into Turn 1 on the fi­nal lap: Ros­berg missed his brak­ing point, com­pro­mis­ing his trac­tion on exit and giv­ing Hamil­ton the op­por­tu­nity to drag along­side on the steep up­hill run to Turn 2.

Ros­berg then ap­peared to brake late into T2 – whether un­avoid­ably or in at­tempted de­fence – and ran deep into the right-han­der, with no chance of mak­ing the apex. Trou­ble was, Hamil­ton had al­ready edged up on Ros­berg’s left (the out­side line into the right-han­der) and was in no mood to help Ros­berg ease his way around a wide line and emerge still in front.

Con­tact! Hamil­ton lost aero­dy­namic body­work ex­trem­i­ties; Ros­berg his front wing, which tucked it­self un­der the chas­sis floor as both driv­ers gunned it down­hill to­ward T3. Hamil­ton was through and away now; Ros­berg lucky still to be cir­cu­lat­ing. Both, in­deed, were ex­tremely for­tu­nate still to be rac­ing, for even mi­nor con­tact in F1 can re­sult in bro­ken suspension, punc­tures, or shat­tered aero parts.

Team boss Toto Wolff knew it and was caught by TV cam­eras fist-pump­ing in fury as his pair tan­gled. Post-race, he was at his emol­lient best in front of a con­tro­versy-hun­gry media gag­gle, but his un­der­ly­ing tone was far more omi­nous than it had been when con­fronted with a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion in Barcelona this year. “I need to cool down in a bucket of ice,” he said, “and then we will make a de­ci­sion” – that “de­ci­sion” be­ing whether or not it was now in­evitable that Mercedes im­pose team or­ders on its driv­ers if they’re again run­ning 1-2. An out­come was ex­pected be­fore Sil­ver­stone.

“I don’t want to at­tribute blame this time,” Wolff added. “It’s not black and white and every time we look at it there’s more in­for­ma­tion. But the bot­tom line is that there can­not be con­tact be­tween our two driv­ers. Any team will take the same po­si­tion.”

Had this race been a re-run of Spain this year, where both Merc driv­ers ended up in the kitty-lit­ter, the ben­e­fi­ciary would once again have been Ver­stap­pen, who none­the­less stormed to sec­ond on a bold one-stop strat­egy (56 laps on a set of softs!) that kept him ahead of Raikko­nen’s no­tion­ally faster Fer­rari (is any of this sound­ing fa­mil­iar?)

In the event, for­tune pre­vailed for Hamil­ton, although his im­me­di­ate de­light at vic­tory had cooled to some­thing more con­trite when he came to speak to the media: “I went very wide and left him plenty of room,” he said. “He col­lided with me, and I didn’t see it as con­tro­ver­sial, although it was very close be­tween us there. I’m happy that I didn’t give up and pushed all the way.”

Ros­berg was in­ves­ti­gated by race stew­ards for caus­ing an avoid­able ac­ci­dent and was pe­nalised with 10 sec­onds added to his race time (not af­fect­ing the clas­si­fi­ca­tion) and two penalty points. He was also rep­ri­manded for con­tin­u­ing to race with a dam­aged car.

While Nico felt keenly the sanc­tions and the loss of a pos­si­ble vic­tory that left him only 11 points ahead of Lewis in the ti­tle chase, greater woe be­fell Vet­tel, whose right-rear Pirelli su­per-soft ex­ploded on the start-fin­ish straight on lap 27, in a near-per­fect reprise of Nigel Mansell’s Ade­laide ’86 blow-out. Vet­tel, lead­ing from Ros­berg, con­tained the ini­tial burst, slowed his Fer­rari, but then looped un­con­trol­lably into the pit wall and back across the track. Twen­ty­seven race laps on tyres that had also en­dured qual­i­fy­ing was ask­ing too much of this gen­er­a­tion’s fre­quently frag­ile rub­ber and Vet­tel could only rue an­other op­por­tu­nity lost. As team boss Mau­r­izio Ar­riv­abene noted: “Seb, with­out his tyre fail­ure, was go­ing to fin­ish very high on the podium. I don’t know where, but very high.”

An­other vic­tory shot lost and nine races into a 21-race sea­son Fer­rari have yet to win a race; they left Aus­tria trail­ing Mercedes by more than 100 points. Raikko­nen was the Scud­e­ria’s sole podium rep­re­sen­ta­tive and he was as un­der­whelmed as ever at any­thing other than a win: “I’m dis­ap­pointed but it’s bet­ter than noth­ing,” was his pithy ob­ser­va­tion.

Else­where, there was greater joy for lesser re­ward. Jenson But­ton steered his Mclaren-honda to sixth, hav­ing run re­spectably in P2 in the race’s early stages. This was by far the most com­pet­i­tive out­ing yet for the mod­ern Mclaren-honda era, much to But­ton’s de­light: “Sixth has made me very happy,” he beamed, “but more im­por­tantly fight­ing up the front was good as well.”

Even more com­mend­able was the week­end-long com­pet­i­tive­ness of Manor’s Wehrlein. A point for 10th af­ter P12 in qual­i­fy­ing was a ter­rific re­turn for a team whose full an­nual bud­get prob­a­bly wouldn’t cover Lewis Hamil­ton’s jet fuel bills… ■

Hamil­ton chased down and caught trou­bled rival

Happy Hamil­ton, de­spite the last-gasp crash with Ros­berg

Pascal Wehrlein was the qual­i­fy­ing hero and grabbed a point

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