Issue 59: 2015 Austrian Grand Prix Post-Race Analysis

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24 June 2015

Race Summary: Nico Rosberg overtook Lewis Hamilton at the start to win the Austrian Grand Prix. Hamilton had an inauspicious race after receiving a time penalty. Felipe Massa came home third ahead of the prowling Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel. Valtteri Bottas claimed fifth and Nico Hulkenberg sixth. McLaren endured a double retirement for the second race in succession.

Is there a fight on for the 2015 world drivers’ title?

The red lights went out and Nico Rosberg flew by Lewis Hamilton as the world champion got bogged down on the start-line. Now we’re talking! Now we’ll see Hamilton hunt down, challenge and perhaps pass his team-mate, as he did many times in 2014.

A thrilling dice for the lead between two strong competitors was in the offing. This is what I tune in for.

However, that thrilling dice lasted less than lap. The duel was halted in its tracks by the deployment of the safety car following the heavy collision between Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen. On Lap 7, the racing resumed, but the fight at the front did not. Rosberg owned Hamilton at the Red Bull Ring, as he set a string of five consecutive faster laps than his chief rival on Laps 7-11. The German’s main advantage over his team-mate was his performance in the middle sector of the lap, where Hamilton struggled to match him all weekend.

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Hamilton did not get within overtaking range of Rosberg prior to their pitstops. However, following his tyre change, the world champion crossed the pit exit line and duly received a five-second time penalty. It was a rookie error and it was disappointingly the final nail in the battle for the lead.

Some pundits, including @therealdcf1, have suggested that Rosberg’s win in Austria is the start of the German’s 2015 title bid. I am not so sure. Hamilton has undoubtedly upped his game in qualifying, starting ahead of his team-mate 8-1 this season (in 2014 it was 4-4 in qualifying at this stage). Moreover, instead of chasing a 25-point deficit from Round 1 as he did in 2014, Hamilton still holds the championship lead having finished ahead of Rosberg 5-3 in races this season (in 2014 it was 4-4 at this stage, including Hamilton’s retirements in Australia and Canada). The world champion has secured track position over Rosberg more often in 2015, finished ahead of his team-mate more times and finished more races than he had at this stage last season. Furthermore, when Rosberg has won in 2015, it has been largely down to unique circumstances (Rosberg got lucky in Monaco with Hamilton’s strategy error and in Spain, Hamilton was stuck behind Vettel’s Ferrari for most of the race allowing Rosberg to get away at the front). But in Austria, Rosberg beat Hamilton on merit. But that’s once out of eight attempts. Hardly a championship-winning run. We need to see a lot more from Rosberg before he is truly a title contender on merit rather than on circumstance.

My disappointment in the Austrian Grand Prix was compounded by Ferrari failing to live up to their projected race pace from Friday practice, not for the first time in 2015. True, the Scuderia did not manage a representative long-run on the Supersoft tyre in practice, but there was nevertheless enough to indicate that Vettel and Raikkonen at least posed a threat to Mercedes. But Vettel never once troubled the Silver Arrows. Finishing as he did some 18 seconds behind Nico Rosberg, Vettel gave away on average approximately 0.27 seconds/lap to Rosberg. Of course, if Ferrari had managed a clean pitstop then Vettel would have maintained track position and been further up road. Instead, the former world champion was consigned to attacking Massa to recover the final podium position. Ferrari’s pitstop error did at least create some much-needed tension in the final laps of the Austrian Grand Prix, resuscitating some interest into an otherwise predictable affair. The German hunted the Brazilian relentlessly. Vettel visibly closed on the Williams in the braking zones and enjoyed sharper turn-in to slow corners such as Turns 2 and 3. But Massa had him covered. His FW37 had good traction off the slow corners and was quicker down the straights than the Ferrari. This was enough to keep the German at bay until the chequered flag fell.

The message from both the Canadian and Austrian Grands Prix is clear: in races held in cool conditions on low abrasion track surfaces and where there is little to be gained by opting for an alternative tyre strategy, Ferrari just do not yet have what it takes to match Mercedes. And any operational or driver errors mean that the Scuderia are forced to act defensively to resist a resurgent Williams rather than attack Mercedes.

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The other message from fans who watched the Austrian Grand Prix is that it was boring. I can understand the fans’ frustrations, even if @SkySportsF1 and other broadcasters and pundits cannot. Give us a battle for victory. Give us a formula that pushes the cars and drivers to the limits. No holds barred. Rationally, we know that a fight for the win won’t happen every race or very often at all in some seasons. After all, there have been periods of single-car and/or single-driver domination in every era of F1 regardless of the sporting and technical rules and regulations. Mercedes now rule when once it was Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren and Williams who were untouchable. We all recognise that domination is part of F1, but that won’t stop us asking for more competition.

Punching above their weight

In the absence of a battle at the front, the race director, broadcasters and pundits should be working harder to capture the fans’ imagination. One of the most obvious focal points of the Austrian Grand Prix was the aggressive midfield battle and the over-performance of Toro Rosso’s young chargers and Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg. Toro Rosso raced an updated STR10 in Austria that produced more downforce without compromising its good driveability and balance. Verstappen did not waste the opportunity and gave us some great overtakes on his way to eighth place. Meanwhile, Hulkenberg did a superb job of qualifying ahead of Valtteri Bottas and keeping the Finn behind him in the early part of the Grand Prix. Sauber’s Felipe Nasr and dear old Pastor Maldonado also added their spice to this midfield vindaloo. Some of these battles were shown on the world feed, but why not show more if there’s nothing going on at the front?

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The demise of a legend

Midfield battles are all well and good, but F1 is a poorer show now that McLaren is no longer racing at the front. I expected them to be racing up the pack by now, getting stuck in to that midfield battle. But no. McLaren seem to be going backwards. In Austria, they could use only about 55 horsepower of a potential 160 horsepower from their Energy Recovery System, a similar level to what Honda could deploy in Round 1. F1 needs its grandee teams to compete at the front. Less than a handful of teams can invoke passion among fans. McLaren is one them, but not in its current state. It is all too depressing to watch the championship-winning talents of Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso go to waste. And I am saddened to watch the iconic name McLaren-Honda, which will be forever associated with one of F1’s golden eras, tarnished so. It’s surely crisis time at Woking now, if it wasn’t before. Trouble is, there’s no quick fix. Roll on 2016.

@TheWheelspinner

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