OPPOSITES ATTRACT IN AUSTRIA
Hamilton and Rosberg are at it again, and this time Lewis survives the fallout
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… ■