Issue 22: British Grand Prix Review

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7 July 2014

Race Summary: Lewis Hamilton won a dramatic race after starting sixth. Title rival Nico Rosberg retired with a gearbox failure. Williams’ Valtteri Bottas stormed through the field to claim second while Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo fought up to finish third just ahead of Jenson Button. Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso battled hard for fifth and sixth places. Kimi Raikkonen suffered a huge shunt, which also eliminated Felipe Massa.

The Silverstone Rollercoaster

There are few current Grand Prix circuits that regularly produce the sort of helter-skelter qualifying and close racing that Silverstone did this weekend. Fast cars, namely the Ferraris, Williams, Lewis Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo started out of position having misjudged the track conditions during qualifying. Hamilton, Bottas and Alonso scythed their way through the field in the first stint following the restart after Raikkonen’s big impact with the wall on Lap 1. Hamilton passed Hulkenburg’s Force India and the slow-starting Vettel before the red flag was shown and then made short work of the McLarens immediately after the restart on Laps 3 and 4. Trailing Rosberg by around five seconds, the Briton kept his tyres intact and then attacked a few laps before Rosberg pitted, edging closer to the leader. Once Hamilton had switched to the harder prime tyre he rapidly closed the deficit to Rosberg, which had grown to around six seconds, in part due to a slow stop for Hamilton. That Hamilton was able to eat into Rosberg’s lead so quickly whilst on the supposedly slower tyre was a surprise, but hotter than expected track temperatures meant that the prime performed better than anticipated. However, by the beginning of Hamilton’s second stint on Lap 26, Rosberg was six laps into his gearbox problems that ultimately forced his retirement on Lap 29.

With the German’s retirement, we were denied another spectacular fight for victory; Rosberg had track position, but Hamilton was marginally quicker, as he demonstrated from Lap 10-17. These are the sort of battles that bring races – and world championships – alive.

However, the real stars of the race were competing hard behind the all-conquering Mercedes. Bottas, driving what is now a very quick racing car, was able to carve his way through the field from 14th on the grid. Such was the speed of his Williams and Bottas’ overtaking prowess, he had passed 11 cars by Lap 16. His was the drive of the race. Likewise, Alonso put in a stellar performance in an obviously inferior car to battle up to fifth by Lap 15 after starting 16th. Alonso displayed true skill and bravery by going round the outside of Vettel at the 170mph Copse Corner in the overtaking move of the race. That took some large cojones! The Spaniard then put in a defensive driving masterclass to frustrate the pursuing German for 13 laps before Vettel finally went down the inside at Copse Corner. Both drivers used more than the width of the track to attack/defend multiple times and complained bitterly about the other whilst committing the same offence, but this was racing. Hard, but fair racing. Neither stepped over the line in my view and rightly, the stewards did not intervene.

One more racing lap and the battle between Button and Ricciardo would have really come to fruition. In the closing stages of the race, Ricciardo was nursing tyres that were 13 laps older than Button’s. Ricciardo was vulnerable as Button gobbled up the gap between himself and the Australian. In the end, it was a near-miss at a podium for Button or a well-judged strategy from Red Bull, depending on how you look at it…

New Challengers Emerge

In the battle for competitive advantage in 2014, Williams is now delivering the obvious potential of the FW36 and is really starting to stick it to the established teams. On his way to second place, Bottas set the second-fastest time in Sectors 1 and 3 and the third-fastest time in Sector 2. He was also 3mph faster through the speed trap than the next quickest car. The Finn matched Vettel and Ricciardo’s pace throughout the Grand Prix and was slightly quicker than Vettel whilst the German harried Alonso for fifth place. Bottas would not have been able to set such a quick Sector 2 time without a car that had such good high-speed balance and aerodynamic downforce. Likewise, his straight-line speed was a function of a low-drag chassis combined with the benchmark powertrain.

Pre-race, I expected Red Bull to lead the chasing pack given that the RB10’s superior chassis would enable Red Bull to take advantage of the time to be gained in Silverstone’s high- and medium-speed corners. Like Williams, however, Red Bull, did not have a clean weekend. Ricciardo’s decision not to run again in qualifying cost him places on the starting grid while Vettel made a poor getaway and committed very early to a two-stop strategy, unlike his team-mate. As a result, Vettel got mixed up passing cars that had switched to a one-stop strategy and had overtaken him. However, once Vettel had passed Alonso, he put in a three-lap run (Lap 48-50) that was significantly quicker than Bottas at that stage of the race. True, Bottas was on slightly older hard tyres by then, but Vettel was about 0.7sec (Lap 48), 1.5sec (Lap 49) and 0.7sec (Lap 50) faster. Vettel’s fastest lap was 0.7sec quicker than Bottas’ best effort. This indicates that the RB10 is still fundamentally quicker than the FW36, but Red Bull have now got a real fight on their hands.

All season, but particularly at Silverstone, I think we caught a glimpse of the top F1 stars of the future. Bottas and Ricciardo continue to out-perform more experienced team-mates and for my money, show their potential as future world championship contenders. Neither Vettel nor Hamilton (or Rosberg) are particularly long in the tooth and will likely be around for a few seasons to come, but Bottas and Ricciardo are likely to offer stiff competition in future title battles assuming they have a car capable of winning. One other driver in the infancy of his F1 career has caught the eye: Daniil Kvyat. It’s very early days for him, but at Silverstone he too out-qualified and out-raced his more experienced team-mate. If his career continues on this trajectory, I rate him as a future star.

The World Title Fight

The obvious conclusion from the British Grand Prix is that the drivers’ title is back on for Hamilton. It was vital for him that Rosberg did not further extend his championship points lead. Hamilton’s win is of course significant for the psychological battle, but what’s more important for the direction of the drivers’ title is whether Hamilton can cut out the unforced errors in qualifying. This is crucial. The Briton has made errors in Canada, Austria and Britain and has not started ahead of Rosberg since Spain. Out-qualifying Rosberg will force him to either overtake Hamilton on track or make something happen on strategy. And under Mercedes’ race protocols, the lead car gets preferential treatment on pit-stop strategy, another reason to prevail in the qualifying battle. Hamilton has not lost the raw pace to qualify ahead or lap faster than his team-mate, but any errors and Rosberg has been there to capitalise and will be again.

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