Sunday 19 June 2016

European GP Report - Tales of the unexpected

You can never second-guess this game. Despite regular appearances suggesting the contrary. Before qualifying for the inaugural European Grand Prix we were sure that it was going to be a Lewis Hamilton cruise. Not so, it was crazy (and Lewis certainly did not cruise). Before the race we expected it to be crazy, but it was a cruise. And a cruise for Nico Rosberg who led for the whole distance; never seen by the rest after scampering off in short order.

Nico Rosberg won as he liked in Baku
Photo: Octane Photography
Frankly the F1 drivers behaved themselves too much in the tight confines of Baku's streets. The repeated carnage and repeated safety car periods from both GP2 races was not even begun to be repeated, to the point that some wondered if all pilots had made a conscious, and cautious, effort not to repeat the frolics of their junior pretenders (not that, as someone pointed out, being more sensible than them was much of a bar to clear).

The safety car was never seen. No driver binned it (Felipe Nasr nudged a wall and continued at one point but that was your lot). Aside from Esteban Gutierrez love-tapping Nico Hulkenberg at the opening turn (both continued, natch) there were no collisions either. There only were four retirements and all were technical. You could say even that the F1 driver class was too good. Not that this amounted to much consolation on what was a soporific late afternoon.

We even got overtaking, with the slipstream on the main straight plus DRS indeed being generous, perhaps too generous. We even got a split of strategies with some stopping twice rather than the expected once (though a solitary stop was the way to go and the first six home used that strategy). But somehow it didn't add up to anything like excitement.

And who would have thought that afterwards all of the chat would be about switches. Following the absurdist 'cap gate' in Austin last season I thought I'd seen everything in regard to F1's gates. But, we found out today, no I hadn't. Really in F1's gates nothing can be ruled out. Given everything said though I would not recommend trying to anticipate what the sport's next gate is going to be about. That way madness lies.

Lewis Hamilton's day was highly frustrating,
and for an unusual reason
Photo: Octane Photography
But frankly its focus likely owed something to the lack of much else going on. Lewis from his gentleman's 10th place grid slot was expected to make rapid progress, such was the Mercedes advantage. He did make progress but it wasn't quite that simple, as in the first stint his climb was rather tardy and he seemed to find Sergio Perez's Force India as something akin to a brick wall. But it was after his sole stop that things really went south for him.

Lewis's energy deployment from his power unit fell to the range of low-to-non-existent, and for the next several laps his radio discussions got frantic as his engineer confirmed apparently that it was down to the power unit mode Lewis was in, related to the switches on the car's dashboard, but also that he couldn't let on how to fix it. A consequence of the radio restrictions brought in this season. The problem was resolved eventually - Lewis said that he "didn't do anything, it fixed itself" - and the Englishman underlined as much by then setting the race's fastest lap up until that point. But by then there were but eight laps remaining and he was now trailing his next target ahead, still Checo, by around 14 seconds, so his point made he turned his engine down and cruised home. But even that might not have been as it seemed as word emerged later that the one quick lap may have cooked his tyres...

Perhaps also, as Ted Kravitz for one suggested, this talk of switches leads us to miss a crucial point that even without it Lewis's imperious pace of Friday seemed long gone in the Baku race. Whatever though, Lewis's lot was a rather ginger fifth place finish; after recent progress his points deficit to his stable mate is now back out to 24.

But the plot thickened as right after the chequered flag Merc's Niki Lauda confirmed that Nico had the same engine mode problem but had resolved it quickly. Toto Wolff clarified not long later though that in Nico's case it was much more easily righted, as while Nico engaged the wrong mode himself, so had a resultant inkling of what to change, for Lewis it was engaged by the team in advance so he didn't know where to start. "Nico was in a little bit more fortunate situation that he had done the switch change before" Wolff said, "and he just changed it back basically a couple of laps later. And Lewis was trying to figure out what it was and it took 12 laps".

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff explained that things
were far from simple for Lewis
Photo: Octane Photography
Nico concurred. "We both had a power issue out there" he said. "The problem is that with the radio clampdown they can't tell us what it is exactly, they're just allowed to tell us that there is an issue with this mode. What mode - who knows! The problem, I knew what it was and so I took the most likely switch and I switched it off and then it was working fine so that was it.

"I do put effort into that side [understanding the technical side], whether it now helped in this specific case, not necessarily..."

So not nearly as simple as Lewis not doing his homework, a conclusion some perhaps gleefully had leapt to. Instead, as Merc phrased it rather deliciously, Hamilton's challenge was of asking him to do a crossword without giving him any clues.

And the sheer complexity of the modern F1 machine should not be underestimated. "I had no idea" said Lewis later of his conundrum, "there's like 16 different engine positions and in those engine positions there's like 20 different positions".

As for the radio clampdown? "I don't see the benefit, really" Lewis went on, "FIA have made Formula One so technical as it is today...I probably had at least 100 different switch positions it could have been, at least 100, 200, and there's no way for me to know, no matter how much I study...

"It was shame I couldn't race, I wanted to race. If I had been able to resolve the power situation I might have been able to at least be part of the show and catch the guys up ahead."

Sebastian Vettel didn't get one of his flying starts,
but did maximise things to finish second
Photo: Octane Photography
Kimi Raikkonen had a similar frustrated radio debate on a similar matter later in the race. Perhaps indeed this still new rule will be revisited to some extent as while there was broad support for a radio clampdown it probably wasn't intended for a situation like this, rather it was to eliminate those cringeworthy cases where drivers were told where to brake or what laptime to hit.

Many fellow drivers supported such a relaxation afterwards when asked - Fernando Alonso spoke of an F1 car being like a spaceship - though others such as Valtteri Bottas and Max Verstappen said they were happy with how things are and the rule is the same for everyone.

Another thing that went against expectations was that Sebastain Vettel did not get another of his flying launches from third place on the grid, indeed his launch was poor though he maintained position. Daniel Ricciardo remained in second place for the moment and for Nico one of the few more probable irritants (a relative term) today didn't come to pass. Not that in Seb's view it really mattered.

"Being realistic they [Mercedes] were very strong" said Seb, "and Nico opened a gap in the first couple of laps like crazy and then just kept it there.

"Obviously it's a surprise that we didn't have safety cars, but no they're very strong so well done to them...We tried everything...".

Without those safety cars or anything else to disrupt its day, the Mercedes was always near certain to be on another level in Baku. Nico indeed was not seen again, including by the TV world feed which scarcely featured him circulating like a clockwork toy far ahead. Not that you'd think Nico will be complaining, not only with a win but with recent momentum against him firmly checked and reversed.

The Red Bulls, just like in Canada, struggled with their tyres
Photo: Octane Photography
"It's always tough to win an F1 race," Nico insisted contrary to all of the appearances we were getting in this one, "but today was special out there because I really felt at one with my car. It doesn't happen often that everything was just perfect and I can push all the way and there's no risk of making an error or even a lock up or things like that. It was a great feeling. That's what made it best actually". That was in keeping with our outward impression.

The Red Bulls meanwhile, in one thing that was in line with Canada, dropped back from a reasonably encouraging qualifying with excessive race day tyre wear which necessitated an extra stop. Seventh and eighth with Ricciardo ahead was their lot. Underlining their woe the Bulls were two of very small number of cars seen on the medium tyre. Boss Christian Horner indeed admitted afterwards that the team's experience today was "a difficult one to understand" and that "there's something that we've missed in the last couple of Grands Prix that we need to get on top of" as tyre problems were "more extenuated on our car than any other".

Vettel indeed followed Nico home a very distant second and also created some interest of his own by defying a Ferrari pit call. His team wanted him to pit early, on lap 9, in order to cover off the freshly booted Ricciardo. Seb thought not as his tyres still felt good, and indeed he stretched out his opening stint all the way to lap 21. "I was supposed to come in early but I had a good feeling with the tyres so we decided to stay out and take the risk...". And he was set fair. Had he not done so his second place may well have been under threat.

And from that man Perez, who claimed yet another podium finish, his second in three and now his seventh in total, an achievement fine enough and made more so by that all have been done in Force Indias and Saubers, not mounts ordinarily associated with the top three. He also now equals the great Pedro Rodriguez for most F1 podiums for a Mexican. The achievement today was pure Checo too - a stretched out one-stopper allied with feisty attack and defence.

Sergio Perez put in yet another fine drive for
yet another podium appearance
Photo: Octane Photography
This was summed up at the last when all he needed was to shadow Kimi to ensure his third place, as the Finn had a five second penalty yet to apply for crossing the pit lane entrance line (a punishment that looked harsh but equally has been the subject of discussions with the stewards this weekend so perhaps Kimi should have been wary). But Checo headed off all discussions by taking the place on track with a lap to run. He even had the decency to apologise to his team on his slowing down lap for his FP3 crash yesterday that got him a five place grid penalty for a gearbox change. We shouldn't forget his Force India team too, which for some years has almost doubtlessly got the best bang for its buck of any F1 team, a fact that is oddly under-commented on.

Kimi indeed pitted on the lap that Seb was asked to, and one wonders that had he gone with his team the German would have faced a similar fate to his stable mate. Few bow to Seb on brain power, and again Ferrari's strategy was found a little wanting. We're often told that teams have much more information than those in the cockpit and therefore the driver should defer, but in F1 as in anything there is no such thing as a universal rule.

F1 sometimes does its best though. The sport hasn't had a great recent record at debut venues - today, Mexico last year, Russia the year before each gave us a tepid Sunday. It's hardly a habit that F1 needs either given the importance of growth as well as that this game could do with all of the support it can get right now. Perhaps it's just bad luck. Perhaps it reflects Pirelli's tendency to err on the side of caution at new venues, plus new asphalt tends to offer low degradation of the rubber which removes a variable. Cynics will say it's that the newfangled Tilke-dromes aren't conducive to thrills.

But another rule about these new circuits it seems is that Nico Rosberg does well at all of them.

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