Month: May 2015

Issue 55: 2015 Monaco Grand Prix Post-Race Analysis

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30 May 2015

Race Summary: Nico Rosberg won the Monaco Grand Prix for the third consecutive year. Sebastian Vettel came home second for Ferrari with Lewis Hamilton close behind in third place. Red Bull drivers Daniil Kvyat and Daniel Ricciardo took fourth and fifth places. Jenson Button secured McLaren’s best finish and first points of 2015, taking eighth place at the chequered flag. Williams endured a disappointing weekend with Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa making no impression on the race and struggling home to 14th and 15 places respectively.

I was not able to cover the 2015 Spanish Grand Prix or preview the 2015 Monaco Grand Prix due to some personal circumstances. However, WheelSpinF1 is now back!

 

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

It’s been almost a week since the 2015 Monaco Grand Prix. I wandered around in shock and surprise for a few days after race day. How could Mercedes get it so wrong? What made them decide to pit Hamilton from a commanding lead of over 19 seconds with only 13 laps remaining?

In the 25 years or so that I have been glued to F1 motor racing, I cannot remember such a glaring strategic error that resulted in the loss of an almost-certain victory. Like many fans, I watched speechless as Hamilton rejoined in third place. He had thrown away the lead and the win. Did that just happen?

Mercedes’ reason for stopping Hamilton for a second time? They said their numbers added up. They assumed that they had sufficient time to pit Hamilton and get him out ahead of Rosberg and Vettel. However, on his in-lap to the pits, Hamilton caught the safety car, which had been deployed after the crash involving Verstappen and Grosjean, and then he lost even more time in the pits when Mercedes had to wait to release him safely.

Subsequently, radio transcripts revealed that Hamilton had questioned Mercedes’ original decision to keep him out on track rather than pitting as he assumed that Rosberg and Vettel would pit for new Supersoft tyres, leaving him vulnerable to attack at the race restart.

Then, in a post-race interview, Niki Lauda conceded that prior to pitting Hamilton, there had been “a lot of radio chatter and confusion” as Mercedes’ engineers, strategists and management discussed the decision.

As fans, we have a partial view of F1. The teams have a lot more data than we do on which to base their decisions. However, these factors above indicate three things to me:

1. Regardless of whether Mercedes’ numbers added up or not, it is surely not controversial to suggest that pitting the Briton and getting him out in front of Rosberg and Vettel was always going to be a close run thing. A ‘normal’ pitstop at Monaco took 24 seconds. Hamilton had a lead of 19 seconds, although he did not need the full 24 seconds because the rest of the field was at two-thirds racing speed whilst under safety car conditions. However, any delay, which is not unlikely at Monaco, would have left the Briton vulnerable to losing track position. This was Mercedes’ real error: forgetting or downplaying the fact that at Monaco, track position is king. You do not put anything else above it. Not switching to faster tyres, not anything. Not doing your maths properly is embarrassing, but giving up track position so willingly is terrible judgment.

2. Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff said that Hamilton had questioned Mercedes’ original decision to keep him out on track rather than stop for a second time because his tyres were losing grip. Hamilton said afterwards that he assumed Rosberg and Vettel would stop for new tyres. But why did Mercedes listen to Hamilton on this occasion? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for F1 drivers taking the initiative and making calls that might go against the team view. Drivers are after all in the unique position of actually being able to feel what the car is doing rather than having to interpret what the car is doing by looking at the data feed. However, Mercedes’ decision to pit or not to pit Hamilton had less to do with how Hamilton’s car felt to drive and more to do with where the Briton was in relation to his pursuers. On this score, Mercedes had better information than Hamilton. They presumably knew that they would not stop Rosberg a second time whilst they surely had enough timing data to know that Ferrari could not stop Vettel and bring him back out in third place. The team should have overruled the driver, but they didn’t.

3. In the aftermath of the race, some fans called for Mercedes’ strategist to be fired while at least one pundit has said leave the strategist alone. Both views overlook the real problem in my opinion. The fact that Mercedes changed its original decision not to pit Hamilton together with the chatter and confusion on the Mercedes radio suggest instead that when it comes to making critical decisions under high-pressure, the Mercedes leadership is not always up to the job. There needs to be someone charged with making that final call, coldly assessing the facts relevant to the decision as well as the risk and reward. Is Mercedes sure they have the best decision-maker? After all, this is not the first time that Mercedes have stumbled over strategic decisions mid-race. Think back to Malaysia earlier in 2015 or Hungary in 2014. The radio chatter that was broadcast in those races indicated doubt and confusion on the pitwall, not cold and clear thinking. I can’t imagine Ross Brawn calling Hamilton in for a second time at Monaco last weekend…

 

There’s a storm coming…

What is the likely effect of the Monaco Grand Prix result on Hamilton and the psychological battle with Rosberg? In mine – and I’m sure many other peoples’ view – Rosberg was gifted a race win that he did not deserve. He was well and truly beaten all weekend. In qualifying, Hamilton secured pole by a third of a second while Rosberg locked up on his hot laps. And in the race, to be almost 20 seconds ahead of your team-mate on the same tyres shows the true gulf in class between the Briton and the German.

Hamilton, to his credit, did not turn his fire on Mercedes after the race. Hamilton from seasons past might well have publicly attacked his team. I think the disappointment of losing a win at Monaco will fire him up rather than knock him down, as it might have done a few years ago. I see Monaco as having a similar effect to Belgium in 2014 on Hamilton. I predict that Hamilton will move up a gear from Canada onwards.

@TheWheelspinner

 

 

Issue 54: 2015 Bahrain Grand Prix Post-Race Analysis

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6 May 2015

Race Summary: Lewis Hamilton won a lights-to-flag victory at Sakhir ahead of the marauding Kimi Raikkonen in second. Nico Rosberg claimed third after being overtaken by Raikkonen in the dying laps. Valtteri Bottas held off a recovering Sebastian Vettel who required a front wing change mid-race. Daniel Ricciardo’s motor hit the self-destruct button as he crossed the line in sixth place after yet another Renault power unit failure.

Hamilton supreme in Sakhir

I expected more from Ferrari. I anticipated a stronger challenge to the Silver Arrows in the first half of the race in particular. True, Vettel got ahead of Rosberg twice as Ferrari used the undercut to take advantage of grippier tyres and gain track position, but it quickly became clear that the former world champion did not have the legs to stay ahead. The pace of the Mercedes meant that Rosberg could come back fighting each time. It’s also true that a contrarian tyre strategy enabled Raikkonen to pressure Rosberg and steal second place in the closing laps when Mercedes’ brake-by-wire system failed. However, any repeat of the Malaysian Grand Prix when Ferrari undercut Mercedes and stayed comfortably ahead was dashed because Mercedes’ pace on the Soft tyre was faster and as consistent as the Ferraris. The lap chart shows that Hamilton was quicker than Vettel on most laps in the first two stints of the race when both drivers were on the Soft compound tyre. Meanwhile, Rosberg was more or less a match for his countryman in the opening two phases. Unlike in Malaysia, Ferrari did not hold an advantage over Mercedes on the softest tyre compound.

It is interesting that on a rear tyre-limited track with an abrasive surface and a few fast corners adding to thermal degradation on the tyres, Ferrari could not pull out a win. However, Raikkonen could just maybe have won on pace had he been given another couple of laps on the Soft tyre at the end. The secret of his race was making the Medium tyre work in the second phase when his lap times more or less matched those of Lewis Hamilton in the 1 minute 39 seconds range. He drove smoothly and consistently on the Medium tyre followed by an electrifying final stint to hunt down the Mercedes. However, Ferrari had probably kept the Finn out for too long on the Medium tyre as he lost roughly 8.5 seconds to Rosberg in the final two laps before he pitted (Lap 39 and Lap 40). That gave the Finn more time to make up when he attacked on the Soft tyre. So in truth, passing Hamilton and winning on pace alone would have been a long shot. However, as it turned out, had there been another racing lap, Raikkonen probably would have had the brake-less Hamilton. Oh so close!

Vettel, on the other hand, was compromised several times – or rather he compromised himself. In fact, I thought he drove a careless and error-strewn race; his costliest error was running off the track at Turn 14 and damaging his front wing on Lap 35. This ended his challenge for the podium and ensured he spent the rest of the race failing to find a way past Bottas’ Williams with whom he almost collided under braking for Turn 1 on Lap 53.

I don’t understand why Nico Rosberg got some people’s vote for Driver of the Race. Sure, he put in three good overtaking manoeuvres on Vettel, but these were only necessary to wrest back a second place that should have been his from the beginning. Rosberg’s first pass on Vettel enabled him to recover from a poor qualifying session while his second and third overtakes were needed because, unlike his team-mate, he hadn’t built a big enough gap to Vettel to edge clear of the undercut. Rosberg was unlucky to lose second place at the end to Raikkonen. Nevertheless, in my opinion, Rosberg drove like a number two driver under pressure in Bahrain. He dug deep and attacked, but he was still nowhere near Hamilton. To give him some credit, at Sakhir at least, Rosberg managed to match Hamilton on fuel usage, something he did not achieve last season. He has clearly worked on his driving style.

Incidentally, Raikkonen was my Driver of the Race for his performance on the Medium tyre and for giving us an edge-of-the-seat finale!

However, it is the world champion that is the real star of the season so far. Hamilton has no challenger for the title currently. He has dropped only seven points. And although he had three wins in the bag at this stage last season, unlike in 2014, he is now 27 points clear of his team-mate. This advantage is not insurmountable, however. Indeed, Rosberg and Ferrari should not be written off. Although the world champion is sweeping all before him, title battles can turn quickly. A reliability problem in qualifying or the race for Hamilton or a freak accident with a back-marker and the battle is back on. In the next few rounds, Hamilton and Mercedes can expect a challenge. Barcelona’s sweeping fast corners will probably cause Mercedes some rear tyre degradation problems, enabling Ferrari to gain. While the return of the Supersoft/Soft Pirelli tyre compound combination for Monaco, Canada and Austria will aid Rosberg’s challenge if last season is still a reliable guide (Rosberg had the advantage on this tyre combination as he out-qualified Hamilton 5-1 and out-raced him 3-1). Then there is Ferrari’s planned engine upgrade for the Canadian Grand Prix, rumoured to be worth another 20-30 prancing horses. The Scuderia will surely move closer to Mercedes.

Hamilton reigns supreme for now. But this fight is not done.

Renault under extreme pressure

The French manufacturer experienced their fourth engine failure in a race this season in Bahrain. Things are looking pretty dire for Renault. They have been overtaken on power by Ferrari, McLaren-Honda are beginning to snap at the heels of Toro Rosso and Red Bull and Renault are less reliable than in 2014. What first appeared to be small issues in testing are fast turning into a disaster. Like all the powertrain manufacturers, Renault has spare tokens available to fix and improve unreliable parts, but the complexity of these engines means there are unlikely to be any quick fixes. And all the time Renault are searching for reliability fixes they are not concentrating on adding horsepower, unlike Honda, Ferrari and Mercedes. Who’d be a Red Bull driver now?

@TheWheelspinner