Monday, 2 July 2018

Silverstone Preview - Challenging your inner Nige

Every year at around this time I experience conflict. I'm not one driven by patriotism, particularly not in F1. But even I cannot deny that there is something about the British Grand Prix.

Even to the non-patriotic, there is
something about Silverstone
Photo: Octane Photogrpahy
It can't even be said that its hardy host Silverstone has universal appeal. It's not glamourous, nor picture postcard. Instead rather exposed and windswept.

Yet still few refute that the Northamptonshire circuit bows to almost none in being part of the F1 furniture. And this is for a number of reasons.

Chiefly it is F1's home gig. Seven of F1's ten teams are based (or in Haas's case has a base) in Britain, and six of these are within a few miles of the Silverstone track. As are a myriad of companies that supply them in the F1 equivalent of silicon valley.

The venue also is among F1's most ubiquitous. It was at Silverstone that it all started in 1950, and despite sometimes extensive changes it retains much of its character - flowing, rapid and with many long and mighty turns.

While in an age wherein much core support has had its back turned on it by F1, Silverstone's crowds remain both numerous and organic.

But as ubiquitous as Silverstone itself are threats to its F1 future. And there have been more recently with the circuit activating its deal's break clause - as the current financial settlement is unsustainable - meaning it won't have a contract to host the race after next season. Given the lack of alternatives one hopes that it's mere prelude to a more viable deal being struck. Eddie Cheever summed it up not so long ago, that "F1 not having a British Grand Prix is like the Pope not going to the Vatican."

And these aren't the only ways in which Silverstone is a break from the norm. Its corners mentioned provide a very different challenge from the more technical variety of the last few stop-offs in Monaco, Canada, France and Austria. Indeed the sort of challenges as at Silverstone are rather scarce on the calendar as a whole these days. That the flowing Abbey turn apparently can be taken with the DRS open this time only adds to the challenge.

Mercedes has in previous visits had Silverstone to itself
Photo: Octane Photography
Mercedes starts the weekend as favourite. This is a track on which the silver car has always dominated at since the start of its pomp in 2014; last year it took a one-two even with Valtteri Bottas starting ninth. And for all that Austria's race was traumatic perhaps the longest-lasting implication is that Mercedes with its upgrade appeared to steal a sizeable march on its rivals.

Tyre compounds are hard - literally as the hard compound is used for the first time this year - and the super-soft unlike last year is not brought. All this is good news for Merc. Plus the thinner tread Pirelli will be used and Mercedes has won on it the two previous times it was run.

Its aero is strong; its wheelbase more suited than most to long corners. And its power unit is a factor, and not just that it can stretch its legs on the fast circuit with 70% of the lap at full throttle. Efficient energy recovery is rewarded here, as Silverstone has few big braking zones to harvest at. It is a high fuel consumption track also - which in turn further taxes energy recovery.

While rewinding to the previous similar-ish circuit this season at Barcelona Lewis Hamilton, and Mercedes. had the place to themselves there.

And then there is the Lewis factor, which could be the most influential part of all. For all that he worships Ayrton Senna you could argue Lewis's strongest parallels are with Nigel Mansell - certainly he has inherited not only Mansell's adored status at his home race but also his habit of being untouchable in it. Lewis has won the last four British Grands Prix, indeed rather wiped the floor with all comers in each of them. As used to be the case with Our Nige it's impossible to think Hamilton won't be a major factor in any Silverstone race. If he triumphs this time he'll have more British Grands Prix wins than anyone ever.

Hamilton will have plenty of support -
and he usually reciprocates
Photo: Octane Photography
The Austria weekend reminded us also that Mercedes effort is not just about Lewis. And Valtteri Bottas's Silverstone record is good - he was superb in coming through the pack in 2014 to finish third and last year to finish second, while he might have won in 2015 with ruthless Williams strategy and rain staying away. And surely his luck in '18 has to turn at some point...

Ferrari leads both championships but presumably is under no illusions that it got lucky in Austria, where it not only lost ground to Mercedes but now threatens to slip into third on pace behind the Red Bull.

Vettel in Austria admitted the Mercedes is faster on quick turns and straights which is just what Silverstone requires. Though then again the Austrian round was a warning writ large of the perils of counting chickens.

Which brings us to the self-same Red Bull which also traditionally goes well here - long quick turns suit the car's masterful aero, though in its usual bugbear it may lose out somewhat on Silverstone's long straights. As also seen in Austria Max Verstappen is in magnificent form just now and has wowed Silverstone crowds before.

Of the rest, Nico Hulkenberg will be worth watching. He'd likely be in the mix for 'best of the rest' anyway but Silverstone last year was likely his strongest weekend of the season, qualifying and finishing sixth and he would have finished a place higher without a late technical problem.

Abbey turn with the DRS open apparently
is going to be possible
Photo: Octane Photography
Haas meanwhile stunned in Austria while at Barcelona Kevin Magnussen qualified seventh and finished sixth.

McLaren's woe has been in slow speed grip so Silverstone's faster turns may provide partial salvation. For Williams though the weekend will likely provide only further galling evidence of its decline - it's odd to think the Grove pair led in a one-two throughout the first stint of this race just three years ago.

Strategy is also more intriguing than usual. Last year the usual one-stoppers were aimed for but proved marginal - both Ferraris punctured late on while Verstappen needed a precautionary late tyre change. We've also seen before that Silverstone's long turns really can tax the rubber with its high lateral loads - the 2013 visit still is spoken of in hushed tones.

And of course teams will be wary after the blistering problems hit in Austria - and Britain believe it or not is having a heat wave which is due to still be going this weekend. Adding to the confusion the track has been resurfaced since last year. Then again as noted Pirelli has got more cautious this year in the compounds it's bringing, which may make the one-stopper safer.

The long corners and lack of a big braking point at Silverstone would ordinarily make overtaking tough though Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo both had joy rising from lowly starting slots last year particularly with passes into Stowe. Both also were aided by offset strategies starting on a harder tyre. Harder compounds may have the benefit of not overheating in another's wake.

There is another ubiquity - the British summer weather, which is as big a local factor as (and you might say is even more unpredictable than) Lewis. In the last three visits rain has arrived, sometimes against all forecasts, and hit qualifying or the race. Forecasts as noted suggest his time it'll be sunny and hot throughout, but then again...

Set-up can be tricky at this track too given as noted it's a sort of layout not really encountered much these days. It also shows up aerodynamic instabilities rather ruthlessly as well as can give bum steers on the tyres. The exposed track expanse means the wind and its changing direction can also destabilise cars and alter braking points. Rain in practice can deprive teams of vital running time.

With so many squads close to home they will be tempted to shuttle back and forth from their factories to try out new pieces on track. Not everything about being at home is comfortable in F1.

But whatever is the case, just be glad that this home gig still exists, for now at least. Even if you're not much of a patriot.

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