14 April 2015
Battlegrounds of the mind
Nico’s fuming. Lewis was deliberately backing him into Sebastian Vettel’s prowling Ferrari, wasn’t he? These were underhand tactics by the world champion. Lewis was out for himself in Shanghai. He was prepared to put the team’s chances of a second 1-2 finish in 2015 at risk so that he could win.
This is Nico Rosberg’s narrative of the Chinese Grand Prix.
Whether accurate or not, this is the starting gun in another intense intra-Mercedes driver rivalry. The cold war of Winter 2014-15 has just turned hot!
The bones of Nico’s beef with ‘the guy in first place’ is that in the second phase of the Grand Prix, Hamilton was not driving as quickly as his car would allow. Sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it? If you’re in a close second place, you want to catch the guy in front. If he’s opted to drive slower that makes it easier, right. However, the problem for Rosberg was that if he got too close to Hamilton, the wake or ‘dirty air’ from the leader’s car would disrupt the airflow over his car and cause his tyres to work harder, degrading them faster. This would leave him vulnerable to Vettel, who was only a handful of seconds behind. If Hamilton sped up, Rosberg could pull out a bigger gap to Vettel and make second place safe. The Mercedes strategist seemed to agree. Hamilton was twice told to pick up his pace. He duly delivered the lap times demanded of him.
However, on Laps 31 and 32, as the second round of pitstops approached, Hamilton produced two stunning laps, a second/lap faster than anyone else had managed up to that point. There was plenty of life left in his Pirellis. Post-race, this will have served only to fuel Rosberg’s suspicions.
Whether intentional or not – and I happen to think it was – Hamilton deliberately drove within himself and his car. He used the threat from Ferrari to his advantage at the expense of his team-mate. By driving tactically, Hamilton maintained an artificially small gap between himself, Rosberg and Vettel. This forced Rosberg to worry as much – if not more so – about defending from Vettel as attacking Hamilton. This approach by the world champion carried some risk, however, as it might have compromised the team’s chances of a 1-2 finish. What if something had gone wrong at Rosberg’s second pitstop, which then enabled Vettel to jump the German? A bigger gap to the Ferrari in third place would have mitigated this risk. Still, Hamilton did not take this approach to the extreme. Vettel prowled behind the Mercedes, but he was never truly within striking distance or Rosberg. Nevertheless, the intended effect of these tactics had been achieved. Rosberg’s attention was divided due to the ever-present threat of the ‘undercut’ by Ferrari in the pitstops. This was clear from Rosberg’s frustrated radio calls on Lap 21. He sounded unsure of his best move. Attack Hamilton or defend from Vettel? His was a world of indecision and uncertainty. Hamilton, by contrast, had clarity of thought and purpose.
The battle of the mind was being won by the Briton.
The dynamics of driver rivalries
Formula 1 has experienced many great driver rivalries in its 65-year history. Mansell vs Piquet, Hunt vs Lauda and Senna vs Prost stand out. In stature at least, I’m not comparing Hamilton or Rosberg to either Senna or Prost. However, all driver rivalries have some common dynamics. One driver often holds the initiative and their main competitor attempts to wrest it back. Both drivers will of course attempt to produce their best on-track performances in order to prevail, but for one driver that won’t necessarily be enough to defeat their rival. This is usually when other tactics come into play, such as psychological pressure or gamesmanship to knock the driver holding the initiative out of his stride. One driver might attempt to build the team around them to isolate their rival, if they’re both racing for the same team.
Perceptions of underhand racing tactics or their rival getting preferential treatment from the team usually serve as triggers for escalation in tight rivalries. In Hamilton vs Rosberg so far in 2014-15, the use of psychological pressure, gamesmanship and the perceptions of underhand tactics have stoked this rivalry. Think Bahrain, Monaco, Hungary and Belgium in 2014. And now China in 2015.
One factor likely to compound the rivalry between Hamilton and Rosberg further in 2015 is the higher probability that Mercedes will need to employ different strategies and even apply team orders in order to beat Ferrari at some races. When Mercedes are forced to back their quickest driver or the driver holding track position, this will almost certainly disadvantage the other Mercedes driver, likely feeding their suspicion and bitterness and playing into an increasingly toxic rivalry.
The Silver Arrows strike back
Ferrari threatened in Shanghai. But they were slapped back down to second after daring to beat the all-conquering Mercedes in Malaysia. The surprise in China was the track temperature, which stood at 46 degrees centigrade at the start. Vettel gamely held on to the Mercedes in the first phase of the race, but it in the second phase, it soon became clear that Mercedes (Hamilton) was not driving on the limit, somewhat flattering Ferrari only a few seconds adrift. Hamilton’s hot laps on Laps 31 and 32 showed the true performance of the Mercedes on the Soft tyre. This was a second/lap quicker than anything Vettel had managed on the same tyre.
However, it was only when Mercedes and Ferrari had switched to the Medium tyre, that Ferrari’s inability to keep pace with Hamilton and Rosberg became truly evident. For Ferrari, this revealed the downside of being able to keep their Pirelli tyres intact on hot track surfaces: the Scuderia still struggle to get the harder compounds of Pirelli tyres to warm up sufficiently on cooler track surfaces. Mercedes, on the other hand, do not have this problem. As a result, Hamilton bettered Vettel’s lap times on every lap after they had both switched to the Medium tyre. And by the time the Safety Car had been deployed on Lap 54, Hamilton was around 20 seconds ahead of Vettel. If they had raced to the end and if Hamilton had driven to the limit of his Soft tyres in the second phase of the race, this gap would likely have been nearer 25-30 seconds at the flag. When the conditions are right, Mercedes are still an unstoppable force.
New kid on the block
Red Bull are bold. Letting a 17-year old loose in an F1 car is not lightly done. However, Max Verstappen can really drive. More to the point, he can really overtake. Verstappen put in some great moves that really lit up the midfield battleground. My favourite was his overtake on Marcus Ericsson under braking for Turn 14 on Lap 9 when he dived down the inside surprising Ericsson. A great swashbuckling move, in the style of Lewis Hamilton!