Sunday 3 July 2016

Austrian GP Report - Surpassing yourself

So the Red Bull Ring lives up to its reputation. Both for entertainment and for the strange, somehow, occurring. We got that, plenty of that indeed, in the Austrian Grand Prix weekend even before we reached the race's final lap. Yet that last tour threatened to surpass any of the drama - and strangeness - that this track has been the scene of before. Even team order gate of 2002 now has a rival. You suspect the goings-on therein this time will be debated for as long as with about as much fury.

Lewis Hamilton won out, but as in qualifying
there were adventures getting there
Photo: Octane Photography
We can jump straight to the juicy bit. As we entered the final lap today an intra Mercedes tete-a-tete for the win was playing out, with Nico Rosberg ahead of a closing and apparently quicker Lewis Hamilton. As they entered that last lap it appeared though that Nico had just enough of a gap on his team mate to hang on, but on the run out of turn 1 to turn 2, the track's main overtaking point, Lewis took metres out of him, a consequence apparently of Nico clouting a kerb at that same first turn.

Nico covered the inside line and Lewis with the momentum went for the outside, but under braking for that hairpin Nico by appearances simply speared straight on and his hand movements (or lack of them) on his steering wheel told their own story, that he'd made little attempt to make the corner and instead had crudely sought to run Lewis out of road. There was contact between the silver pair and this time the biter was bit as while Nico exited the corner still in front the shower of sparks from his Merc was telltale - his front wing was askew and Lewis passed easily for the win. Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen got by Nico too before the lap was out, leaving the latter an ignominious fourth.

Afterwards representatives of the Merc team seemed oddly reluctant to apportion blame and both bigwigs Niki Lauda and Toto Wolff spoke of Nico having brake-by-wire problems, which may mitigate but doesn't detract all that much from his ham-fisted approach. Nico spoke absurdly too of being "just very surprised that Lewis turned in, that caused a collision", ignoring apparently that Lewis had given him plenty of space - there was a veritable gulf between the apex and where Nico's car was at the point of contact - and that the Englishman had 'turned in' because there was a corner there and he was close to the track's outer edge. For Lewis it was hard to see what else he can be accused of beyond trying to lead a motor race.

The calm before the storm. Hamilton closes in on Rosberg
Photo: Octane Photography
This was reflected in his words afterwards. "Naturally as humans we are biased, I honestly don't feel that I am biased right now", Lewis insisted. "I went to the outside, I believe I was ahead going in, but he was in my blind spot so I just left loads of room, I just left tons of room for him to make the corner, and as I got to the white line I began to turn and, boom, big hit. Pretty sure he hit me rather than the other way".

Booing of Lewis was audible during the podium ceremony which one can only assume was inspired by a combination of partisanship among the Germanic crowd and ignorance, though Ted Kravitz said later that he'd spoke to a few fans whose opinions were swayed by the trackside PA commentator for whatever reason saying it was all Lewis's fault.

As for Nico, in the broader sense there are from today a few unwelcome echoes of the past for him, all to do with his apparent inability to play a percentage game even when in a strong position points-wise. And it's especially odd for someone known for formidable brain power. Just like in the infamous Spa 2014 collision between the Merc drivers when again he had a points lead but sat it out crudely with his team mate (according to Lewis) "to prove a point". Just like in Hungary last year too when again Nico was set late on for a healthy points swing over Lewis but got into a needless spat with Daniel Ricciardo, which like today bit him. Does Nico in spite of his cerebral nature (or maybe even because of it in a roundabout way) feel some sort of nagging need to prove himself in such matters of on-track cojones? Additionally, Lauda was likely onto something when he noted that "if I know my brakes are not working properly anymore I wouldn't fight as hard as he did. So in my view Nico is a bit more to blame".

Whatever is the case a certain 18 points at least for Nico today was slashed to 12, meaning Lewis is now but 11 off him at the table top, and it might have got worse for Nico as the stewards blamed him for the late clash as well as for continuing with a broken front wing, though the punishments of a reprimand, 10 second penalty and two points on his licence didn't cost him any places today. And significantly, Lewis wasn't investigated.

Nico Rosberg had come through the pack
strongly after his sixth place start
Photo: Octane Photography
An irate Wolff afterwards spoke of "brainless" drivers (surely harsh on Lewis) and the possibility of team orders being imposed. "The only consequence is to look at all the options available on the table, and one option is to freeze the order of a certain stage in the race" he warned. "It's unpopular, it makes me puke myself, because I like to see them race, but if racing is not possible without contact, then that's the consequence."

On that latter point while we may rail we can understand his outlook - as it seems the Mercs lately cannot go wheel-to-wheel without colliding. Heck even the incendiary Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost only collided once as stable mates (and twice in total). As I said, this one, on several levels, will run.

True to form for this circuit there also was some strangeness about even in getting to this point when the fun started, even with that - not in line with all expectation - the cream of the Mercedes had risen to the top in the race as outlined. Lewis starting from pole on the delicate ultrasoft tyres that he insisted were good only for a few tours in fact stretched them out to lap 21 before stopping to change, all the while managing a healthy gap of around four seconds to the Ferraris behind. But the latest demonstration that there is a lot more to Lewis than being merely fast but brainless.

Ordinarily this would have set him up nicely for victory, and it appeared that way even as Nico jumped him at the stop. Nico had looked racy from his sixth place start and had ditched his ultrasofts early (on lap 10) and in effect cleared cars ahead in an undercut. And he still looked racy even when on soft tyres 11 laps older he seemed able to peg his chasing team mate's pace. But surely he needed to stop again as a 60 lap stint to the finish was a no-no, and that indeed is what Lewis was advised by his team. Furthermore Lewis probably could have covered the charging Nico with an earlier stop but Merc's priority at that point was racing the one-stopping Ferraris (more of them anon).

Hamilton's extended first stint looked to set him up well
Photo: Octane Photography
But to some incredulity, not least from Lewis, both Mercs were pulled in again. "Everything was going well, doing everything I was asked to", said Lewis later, "my strategy, Plan A, was [going to lap] 23, then to the end of the race. Then obviously I was with Nico and told not to let him go any further because he's going to have to stop, which I did, but then I had to come in.

"I was definitely battling with that decision in my mind but I took the team's direction and came in".

The team at least gave Lewis the privilege of the possible undercut by stopping him first, but an iffy stop (his second of the day) as well as running wide at turn 2 on his out lap combined to ensure that he remained behind. It was game on though, with Lewis again on soft tyres and Nico, with a set fewer to play with (he'd only selected one set of softs for the weekend to Lewis's two), put on the supersofts.

There were 16 laps to go and just two seconds between them. Lewis then edged up on his team mate, and Rosberg's left front tyre looked conspicuously marked. "We only had 16 laps to go and the supersoft is softer than the soft and it's faster", Lewis went on, "so for sure I'm like 'how am I supposed to get by with a disadvantage by being behind and also a disadvantage from the tyre compound?' Fortunately I just dug as deep as I could, I'm like 'it is what it is I'm going to do everything I can whether it's right or wrong, I'm just going to go and give it everything'. And I stand here I gave it absolutely every ounce of everything I had".

Yet just when it looked like Nico had done enough to hang on though on the final tour he lost momentum on the kerb on the inside of turn 1. Which is where we came in.

Max Verstappen put in a fine drive to second
Photo: Octane Photography
A pity in all of this is that fine drives further down may not get their due attention. Not least the drive from the eventual runner-up Verstappen, who did a similar sort of stretched out one-stopper that Lewis thought he was going to get, and he finished 25 seconds up the road from his team mate Ricciardo, who got P5. Ricciardo had a late, presumably unplanned, additional stop, which may suggest the Bulls aren't totally on top of their in-race tyre issues.

Neither it seems is Ferrari with its strategy woes. After quali, even with modest starting slots - Kimi P4 and Vettel P9 after a gearbox penalty - many reckoned the red cars could be sitting the prettiest of all, with good inherent pace and starting as they were on supersofts which unlike Merc with the ultrasoft would allow a comfortable one-stopper. Things began to slide away from them partly when Lewis's first stint lingered on much longer than thought. They slid away further when the team made yet another odd call, pitting Kimi so that he emerged behind the Red Bull pair, which kept him from any victory contention. It slid away altogether as Seb slid literally from the lead, and from the race, when a rear tyre went pop on the main straight on lap 27. In another echo with before it has been suggested that just as in Spa last year the Italian team simply was stretching out a stint too long, but like then too Ferrari presumably will point out to Pirelli that they'd expect the tyre to lose some performance first before the big bang bang... Seb indeed said afterwards there was no advance warning of the failure.

Had it not been for Mercedes gate it would be this that probably would be consuming our energies just as it did post Belgium last season. Paul Hembery will therefore be more glad than most of our last lap contretemps.

The Ferraris seemed compromised again by poor strategy
Photo: Octane Photography
Further down while Jenson Button as expected couldn't maintain his elevated starting slot of third he made good on it with a fine drive to sixth place, while Pascal Wehrlein came through a lot of the chaos - including Sergio Perez's brakes failing on the final lap - to bag the final, and probably vital, point for Manor. Astonishingly it's the first circuit of the year that he has previous experience of, and perhaps it showed.

There is a lot good about this sport, and indeed whatever else went on in the latest Austrian visit it's hard to say observers were not entertained. Of course not all that many would go so far as to suggest that F1 - as it would for this venue - was living up to any reputation for entertainment, but perhaps on this most recent evidence it should start to develop one.

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