Monday, 2 July 2018

Austrian GP Report - The hills are alive

As the sage Mark Gallagher noted after this one, "Ferrari will be waking up this morning dazed by how they are leading both the drivers' and constructors' championships; Mercedes at how they are not."

Max Verstappen was an unlikely - and worthy - winner
Photo: Octane Photography
Gallagher's assessment indicates that this Austrian Grand Prix was no ordinary Grand Prix - indeed it was one of those wherein advance expectation and actual outcome barely were on nodding terms.

It started though looking like it would be extremely ordinary - Mercedes armed with a technical upgrade strode a way clear and locked out the grid's front row. All spoke of two races in one with those not in silver aiming for third place at most. Then when Mercedes maintained its one-two after some first lap frolics, Lewis Hamilton ahead and poleman Valtteri Bottas boxing his way back to second after a poor get-go, that indeed looked like that.

And yet. Mercedes's empire fell within a single lap.

After 13 tours Bottas stopped with a hydraulic problem - his latest case of wretched luck in 2018. Worse for Mercedes recovering the parked car brought out the Virtual Safety Car and Merc's pitwall somehow missed the opportunity to pit Hamilton when his Red Bull and Ferrari rivals behind all did. As seen already this year in Australia and China pitting under a VSC is a boon as much less time is lost. Merc's error is somewhat shrouded in mystery though the line it gave was that it was worried about a pincer movement of those two teams behind pitting one car and not the other, yet that seemed a flimsy excuse. Some wondered if it was distracted by Bottas's retirement.

Early on it looked a cruise for Mercedes
Photo: Octane Photography
Hamilton couldn't then build up a sufficient gap to pit under green and maintain his lead. Around 10 laps later he emerged from his stop fourth at which point he appeared to have one of his chin-drops, judging by his subsequent (lack of) progress and regular pained complaints on his team radio.

As if to prove that nothing succeeds like failure Hamilton also sustained tyre blisters on a hot day when plenty had problems on that front, Sebastian Vettel passed him for third then Hamilton stopped late on with a fuel pressure loss. Underlining that the day was not of the norm this was Mercedes's first double mechanical race retirement since the Italian Grand Prix...in 1955. Little wonder Mercedes boss Toto Wolff called it his "most painful day" in F1 ever.

Ferrari therefore from a desperate situation - Vettel even got a grid penalty for baulking after his team didn't warn him of a car behind in qualifying - leads both tables again as noted, as the red pair came home second and third with Kimi Raikkonen ahead, the Finn masterful in tyre handling; realising that to avoid blistering he needed to be gentle with his tyres early in the stint.

It means that now for the last three rounds the points swing at the top has been the precise opposite of the previous - Vettel now is one point ahead of Hamilton in the championship.

"It was pretty much damage limitation but I think the pace was very good," said Vettel afterwards, "the tyre management was good, so a positive day, it could have been better..."

The Ferraris chased down Verstappen late -
but had to give best
Photo: Octane Photography
It will however have come with a lingering sense that Ferrari got away with this one and that it needs to find more pace; the Scuderia's looking like it could be slipping behind the Red Bull let alone the Mercedes.

And on that point - who actually won the Austrian Grand Prix? On a day in which it seemed all around him were losing their heads it was a certain Max Verstappen who kept his.

His on the edge pass of Raikkonen on lap one as it transpired was vital to his win, but from then on he relied on attributes which we don't always give him credit. Going almost unnoticed as he stroked his car around the track up front, keeping the rest at arm's length as they were the ones to squabble and run out of rubber. Ferrari chased him down late on - Raikkonen admitted they may have waited too long to charge - but Verstappen looked to have it well under control.

But it's not the first time he's done such a thing - his Mexican triumph late last year had family resemblance. And this time his boss Christian Horner described his "cute" tyre management, even altering his driving style to suit, as "unbelievable".

"It [the blistering] wasn't predicted coming into the race, but it is hot today and the load in these last two right corners, it is massive the amount of energy these tyres have to take up around there," Horner said.

Verstappen had plenty of home country support in attendance
Photo: Octane Photography
"So that is where Max was really cute today. He backed off through those right handers and made his time in the other parts of the circuit. A really, really mature drive."

All too at a track that bears his team's name and a round for which most of the Netherlands seemed to have decamped to cheer him on.

"It was amazing," said Verstappen of the support. "It was very hard to manage the tyres as well. We really had to look after them, a little blistering, but we managed to hang on until the end. Of course it's amazing to win here with a Red Bull at the Red Bull Ring and also so many Dutch fans around
here. It's incredible."

It's odd to think that just three rounds ago Verstappen was even more of a pariah than the Mercedes team is right now. Yet since his progress has been perfect in its symmetry - and in everything else for that matter - with a third place, second and now a win. Without his earlier wastefulness he could even be leading the table - some think he might still do before the year's out.

"I needed to catch up with the points," Verstappen continued. "Today was definitely a very good day for me and I just hope we can continue like this."

As for the rest, for Haas it was - as the film title goes - as good as it gets. In a race wherein three of the 'big six' places were cleared out (Daniel Ricciardo also stopped with an exhaust problem) Haas bagged fourth and fifth - the sort of result it's been threatening since pre-season.

Haas had a magnificent weekend
Photo: Octane Photography
Possibly though the most impressive part was on Saturday, when Romain Grosjean split the Red Bulls in qualifying and got within half a tenth of beating both of them. Then the team got its biggest ever points haul the next day - more than doubling the previous mark - and all in its 50th race. Grosjean led the pair home and thus spectacularly broke his points duck for this year.

Force India stayed out of trouble and got sixth and seventh places with Esteban Ocon ahead - making up for a weekend that had been frustrating on Friday and Saturday. Its drivers even showed cooperation that they haven't always in the past when Perez was allowed by a hobbled as tyre-blistered Ocon and as agreed gave the place back when he couldn't make further progress.

Renault meanwhile had an unusual and untimely off-race. Nico Hulkenberg stopped with an early turbo failure while Carlos Sainz first dropped down after colliding with Ocon on lap one (for which he was reprimanded) then had an extra stop thanks to blistering and then the stop was botched. He finished out of the points.

Next home after the Force Indias was in fact Fernando Alonso. His and McLaren's weekend again looked trying as Alonso had to start from the pits after breaking his front wing in qualifying, and the replacement one after a weekend wherein his team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne broke plenty was a different spec (last year's spec to be precise). Yet Alonso was another to realise that his tyres needed to be nursed early on (is it coincidence that the oldest two in the field twigged on this?) and he got his rewards with a late charge to eighth.

The Sauber pair completed the scorers with Charles Leclerc ahead, the team's first double haul since early 2015 and Leclerc's fifth race in six that he's taken points from.

Maybe though even with the conspicuous kerfuffle about Mercedes woe in this one it's all not quite as it seems - as possibly the biggest take-out from this round could not be further from it. Mercedes can be content it has stolen it a clear march on its rivals. That of everything that went down in Austria this part will have the longest and largest implications.

And Silverstone is next, which Mercedes usually has to itself and Hamilton particularly. Though then again perhaps we should keep such thoughts in check. This one was a warning writ large of the perils of getting ahead of yourself.

3 comments:

  1. José Lopes da Silva3 July 2018 at 00:00

    ...Williams was also racing. ;-)

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