Issue 21: British Grand Prix Preview

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3 July 2014

One of the classic races

The British Grand Prix at Silverstone is one of my high points of the season. The atmosphere is always fantastic as the grandstands are packed to the rafters with fans. And the place is electrified if a British driver is in with a chance of winning. Over the 20 years or so that I’ve followed F1, Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill and Lewis Hamilton have all whipped up the home crowd and given us something to shout about. I’ll never forget Hamilton’s maiden pole at Silverstone in 2007. As he crossed the finish line opposite me and secured pole, the stand erupted with noise. Likewise, his Senna-esque drive in the wet the following year left the rest of the field trailing. Further back in time, I watched mesmerised as Mansell’s storming win in 1992 prompted a track invasion of the like rarely seen since at Silverstone. Likewise, I never tire of watching replays of Mansell’s classic move on Nelson Piquet into Stowe Corner in 1987.

Silverstone is set up to produce thrilling racing, which along with its atmosphere and history is the appeal. The track is fast-flowing in nature and offers several overtaking zones. The prevalence of medium and high-speed corners, in particular the Maggots-Becketts complex in Sector 2, places a premium on aerodynamic downforce and car balance. However, several slow turns require good low-speed downforce and with over 60% of the lap spent on full throttle, topline speed is critical. The best overtaking spot is probably still under braking into Stowe Corner, but the challenger needs to be within a car’s length of their quarry in the Maggots-Becketts-Chapel complex to pull off a move. Under braking at the end of the Wellington Straight into the Brooklands-Luffield complex is another prime area for overtaking. Lastly, expect some bold moves down the inside into Vale, especially from those drivers making last-ditch efforts to make-up places.

Straight-line speed and powertrain responsiveness are important factors for a quick time in Sector 1. After negotiating Abbey, the fastest corner on the track, the cars brake heavily for the series of slow turns that make-up the Arena Loop, which precedes the Wellington Straight. The beginning of Sector 2, the Brooklands-Luffield complex, is also taken at slow-speed and requires good driveability and low-speed grip. The rest of Sector 2 is characterised by fast, sweeping corners, including Woodcote, Copse, Maggots, Becketts and Chapel, all of which put high energy loads through the tyres. Cars that generate higher levels of downforce and that can change direction rapidly without creating aerodynamic imbalances are likely to set quicker times than cars reliant on mechanical grip in Sector 2. The final sector of the lap is dominated by the fast Hanger Straight, the medium-speed Stowe Corner and slow-speed chicane at Vale.

Will a likely rain-affected qualifying and race mean Mercedes are under pressure again?

In dry conditions, Mercedes will undoubtedly lead the way as they have done all season. The W05 Hybrid offers the best chassis and powertrain combination in the field. However, the weather forecast currently indicates rain is a strong possibility in Saturday’s qualifying session and a possibility during Sunday’s race. In the event of rain, Mercedes will not be able to so easily deploy their superior power advantage, increasing the chances of the chasing pack being able to mix it with Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. This means a Mercedes victory is not a nailed on certainty and we’re likely to see another closely fought battle for the lead, as seen in Austria and Canada. In the wet round Silverstone, Red Bull are probably the most likely challengers to Mercedes given the strength and superiority of their chassis. Yet, Williams are the team with the momentum after Austria. However, it’s not clear whether the Grove squad have managed to improve their car in wet conditions. Of the other Mercedes customer teams, McLaren’s MP4-29 appears to have a very narrow operating window and in lower temperatures, the car suffers from tyre graining, which isn’t encouraging for this weekend. Force India, meanwhile, rely heavily on their superior tyre management to bring them into play for strong points finishes. A wet race will negate that advantage to some extent and despite the high energy going through the tyres at Silverstone, the track is not very tough on tyres (last year’s race was probably an exception). Ferrari will probably benefit from the lower fuel consumption rate of a wet race, but the F14-T doesn’t generate as much downforce as either the Mercedes or Red Bull and trackside reports from Canada indicated that their car handled poorly in slow-speed corners too.

In the intra-Mercedes battle, it’s becoming clear from recent races that securing track position – preferably in qualifying – is the key determinant of success for one driver over the other. Once track position has been secured, it is very tough for the chasing driver to take it away because the drivers are evenly matched, neither make serious mistakes in races even when under extreme pressure and they’re both driving the same car. Even if the chasing driver has saved more fuel or has a better set-up and is therefore slightly quicker than the lead Mercedes, this is not sufficient to overtake. The only opportunity is to employ a contrarian strategy and hope to jump their team-mate in the pits. For example, Hamilton made his pitstop strategy work in Canada, rejoining ahead of Rosberg, but with fried brakes! For the sake of the driver’s title, Hamilton must qualify ahead of Rosberg at Silverstone or put in another storming wet-weather drive to beat him in the race.

Mansell used to say that the British crowd was worth half a second a lap to him. Hamilton will need that same gain this weekend.

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