Sunday 12 October 2014

Russian GP Report: Russian stroll

Mario Andretti opined some years ago that - contrary to what us outsiders may assume - being in first place is actually the easiest place to be in a Grand Prix. There you have unique privileges, as out of all competitors you and only you are able to drive within yourself, merely at the pace of those who trail. To save your strength, your car, your fuel. It's a virtuous circle in other words. In F1, nothing succeeds like success.

Lewis Hamilton triumphed once again today
Photo: Octane Photography
And Lewis Hamilton benefited from it today. From the end of the first lap the tension in the inaugural Russian Grand Prix of the F1 era was over who would finish second at the very most.

As both Mercedes drivers had predicted the lengthy run from the start and subsequent big stop at Turn 2 (which despite names was the first turn as far as everyone was concerned) was vital. And indeed Nico Rosberg's launch was good enough for him first to draft and then get just ahead of his team mate and title rival on that run. But he seemed to get a bit overexcited at this and missed his Turn 2 braking point by what looked a distance. He ran well off into the benign tarmac run-off at the exit, which meant he'd have to give Lewis the place back. But even worse for him the resultant flat-spots on his tyres meant he had to pit at the end of the opening tour also, leaving him next-to last.

From that point on Lewis it seemed spent an hour and a half trying to drive slowly. Observers noted his on-board shots, all early lift and coast before corners, could have been mistaken for a practice session out lap. But he never looked threatened. Granted, Valtteri clung on gamely in the early part but Lewis's periodic fastest laps gave hints as to the full content of his hand.

Gradually he sneaked clear even of Bottas. By the chequered flag he cruised in at the pinnacle of the order 13.6 seconds ahead of the next guy. We may associate Lewis with all-action pilots such as Gilles Villeneuve, but that was a controlled drive out front of which Jackie Stewart would have been proud.

The next guy just so happened to be Rosberg, who after his lap one boo-boo did as much as reasonably could have been to rectify the situation. His engineer noted next time round that the plan now was to run the rest of the way - a whole race distance minus one lap - on that set of Pirellis. This was met with a general intake of breath, but Nico knuckled down.

Even in tyre conservation mode, indeed even with tyres much older than those around him in the second part of the race, he still had the legs of everyone aside from his stable mate. It was a reflection in part that as many have pointed out the medium tyre had virtually zero degradation at this track. It reflected also just what an advantage the Mercedes has this season. As an observing Jenson Button noted therein 'even on a bad day you still finish P2'.

Mercedes today wrapped up a richly-deserved
constructors' title
Photo: Octane Photography
And appropriately today was the day that - after inevitability that arguably stretches back to cars first turning a wheel in Jerez pre-season testing - the constructors' crown was officially placed on the Mercedes head. The drivers' crown will go to Brackley too almost certainly, as now the determined Daniel Ricciardo in third is 92 points adrift with 100 renaming available. Christian Horner indeed admitted defeat today.

Maybe even that fight is becoming foregone. Lewis now is 17 points clear of Nico with three rounds remaining, and working on the (not unreasonable) assumption that the Mercs will be one-two everywhere Lewis only needs to win one more time for the championship to be his.

And it cannot be denied that since the summer, certainly since Spa and all that, little has gone right for Nico, and at a crucial time in the championship battle. Some has not been his fault, see Singapore. But some has, see both today and Monza. Perhaps in addition to the errors the outer edge of pace has gone too. And Lewis has not relented while this was going on; today making it four wins on the bounce for him.

Some have argued of Nico succumbing to pressure; others that he lost confidence and intra-team support following the Spa contretemps. As I argued elsewhere though Nico's been making periodic errors all season, it's just that before the summer break he tended to get away with them. Perhaps it's all so simple as that his luck has run out.

For Lewis, it transpired that his day within the cockpit had been exactly as it had appeared to outsiders: 'It's different when you lead from the start and you don't have a battle' he said. 'It's still challenging, you're looking after your car, you're looking after your gearbox the whole time, it's like the longest race of your life when you're out there on your own. I was just hoping, looking after the tyres, no flat spots, let's not make any mistakes today.'

And adding the bottom line: 'If I needed the pace, I had it.'

Nico Rosberg's day was framed at the start, and had to follow
his team mate home second
Photo: Octane Photography
Nico meanwhile, like most others, found it hard to look beyond his race-opening error: 'I'm focussed on the mistake that I did as that was unnecessary, it was a throw-it-away chance. It was my corner and I would have taken the lead, and with the pace I had today I think it would have been possible to win.

'Just braked too late, too hard. Misjudged it. That's it.

'Then of course it was damage-limiting today, by coming all the way through back to second, and that's just thanks to my car, it was just amazing, so good.'

On his marathon race-long run on a single set of Pirellis, even he had doubted it for a while: 'I was sure I would need to do it (stop again) as already halfway through the race it started to feel bad on the tyres, a lot of oversteer and degradation...but then somehow they just stabilised and I just nursed them through to the end. But even at the end I could have pushed harder...'

We don't know of course what would have been without Nico's early indiscretion. As outlined he certainly drove well for the rest of the way. But then again, the evidence of the entire weekend almost was that Lewis had the measure of him.

Bottas indeed claimed third not far behind Nico. 'We really thought we could fight for the win or with the Mercedes, but they were surprisingly quick today' said the resigned Finn afterwards.

The McLarens were next up, continuing the strong pace shown pretty much all way through in Sochi, with Jenson Button ahead. That's now two fourth places in a row for Jenson, and at precisely the right moment as far as his future employment is concerned. But Jenson - almost unnoticed - has been bringing home as much bacon as his McLaren allows for most of the season.

Jenson Button put in another good drive
Photo: Octane Photography
Kevin Magnussen followed them home, ahead of the struggling Ferraris and Red Bulls, Alonso leading Ricciardo, then gaps back to their team mates with Vettel ahead. Jenson noted too afterwards that with double-points on offer in the final round McLaren catching Ferrari in the constructors' table might not be out of the question.

It wasn't a scintillating race - sadly for the Russian track's opening visit. A few sought to attribute it to the design of the 'typical Tilke' circuit, which I thought rather unfair and unfortunate. More likely was that the tepid fare could be attributed to the almost zero degradation of the tyres, particularly the medium, and that meant next-to no variation in pace from car to car - 'there was no advantage from being on an old or a new hard tyre, so it was quite a static race' said Horner later, aptly. Both the asphalt - that it'll be less new and therefore less like a table top - and the compounds selected - that they'll be less conservative - will be different next year.

Add to this too that most had to drive today with one eye on the fuel gauge, and that the expected safety car, which might have livened things (as it did indeed in the GP2 race yesterday) never arrived. All in it would be way too premature to write the circuit off. Let's not forget either that even Valencia - the track that the Sochi doom mongers have used primarily as a comparison - after years of being an ugly duckling proved a very fine swan indeed on its sadly final visit in 2012.

And in recent weeks, removed from the bewildered and frustrated figure of mid-summer, Lewis Hamilton is one who can tell us of the plausibility of tales of rapid redemption. That things can look very different very quickly. Barring unreliability or another unusual occurrences, it's looking like his drivers' title to lose.

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