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7 May 2019
Missed Apex Podcast appearance 05/05/19 - Tech Time

Here's the latest podcast / live record with Missed Apex that I was on, we talked all things tech but went a little deeper than usual on the subject of tyres given their importance this season.



For those that want to listen along it's available on all your usual pod catchers of choice, but here's a link to the aCast of it too http://aca.st/34d47e
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Wherefore art thou Williams?

I think every long standing F1 fan, no matter their allegiance, will be shaking their collective heads at the situation that Williams find themselves in. It seems implausible that a team with its heritage could find itself at the back of the grid, lest so far off the pace.

But here we are, 5 years on from their last decent car, 7 years since their last and sorry to say this, very odd race win and 22 years since their last championship. Williams are and have been for some time a nearly runner, a pale shade of their former self and in danger of falling into obscurity.
Last year’s car was written off very early, with focus shifted to the incoming rule changes for this year, but issues that tainted last year’s car appear to have been carried over. And whilst this years car, albeit perhaps not the handful of last years is well off the pace and apparently carrying yet another fundamental design problem that might not be able to be fixed during the season.
So, what’s wrong with this year’s car and more importantly what’s wrong with Williams as a team? Let’s investigate…

Risky business

Whether you like it or not, fundamentally Formula One is a business, those who invest their funding wisely usually operate the best. Notice how I didn’t say that those that spend the most often do the best?!.. that’s because whilst that’s often true there are exceptions to those rules, with Force India (now Racing Point) and Haas perhaps the best modern examples of teams that operate more efficiently with their money.

Both of these teams operate on a fraction of the budget of the big teams but have managed to exceed their own expectations in recent years. Meanwhile, Williams, being staunchly British, seem to believe that Formula One should work in a certain way and rather than look at ways to work with others to improve their overall performance have instead insulated themselves to the point of irrelevance. I can think of no better example of this than what has been very publicly witnessed in the recent Netflix documentary covering F1.

During a scene in the documentary deputy team principal Claire Williams addressed factory personnel in what she perhaps considered a rousing speech...

“To be very clear, we aren’t going down that road of a B-team. If any of you that know me well would know that it be over my dead body. You will never read in the press that Williams has turned itself into a junior or B-team”.

I saw it as a damning indictment of a team that’s too stubborn to adapt and whilst I’ve heard these kind of remarks before from Claire and the team before it was a very public way to highlight just how disconnected Williams now appear to be from the rest of the grid.

Just because you want Formula One to operate in a certain way doesn’t mean that’s how it does, with Haas the prime example of this. Having recognized that it was possible to do things differently they shook up the establishment and have reaped the rewards. And whilst no-one is suggesting that Williams suddenly adopt the same model or mentality there are ways to do what they’re doing in a leaner manner.

Boxing clever (or not, as may be the case)

There are ten teams on the Formula One grid but only six gearbox suppliers, Mercedes HPP supply their works team and Racing Point, Ferrari supply their works team, Haas and Alfa Romeo, Red Bull technology supplies their two teams, leaving the other three ‘classic’ teams to design, build and supply their own.

Williams have had the opportunity to take a Mercedes gearbox for a number of years now and very nearly did so for 2019, but at the last moment backed out. Don’t get me wrong, taking their box does come with the drawback of being intrinsically linked to some of their design and packaging decisions, but they haven’t done too bad with it over the last few years…

Furthermore, it opens up the opportunity for you to purchase some other, perhaps more cost effective, solutions from them too, such as the rear suspension arrangement.

This kind of common hardware sharing is something that the 2021 regulations are looking to promote in any case and so I'm not so sure why Williams are so reluctant to get on the bandwagon a little early, especially as it would also help them to redistribute their staff and resources onto other areas of the car.

Road map

The other thing that’s struck me about Williams in recent years is that they still have big team/unlimited testing mentality when it comes to their in-season development path. They take a scattergun approach to the problem, bringing various versions of a certain part in the hopes it’ll make their issue go away.

This, at least to me, points to a disconnect between the teams simulation tools (CFD and wind tunnel) and the performance seen on the car, something that many teams have an issue with at one time or another but one that’s blighted Williams for some time now…

That win that I’ve already mentioned, back in 2012, came at a confusing time for Williams, as that season I think I counted 8! different iterations of front wing. And I’m not talking about 8 iterations here, I’m talking 8 pretty different ideas… That year they couldn’t decide which exhaust solution worked best for them either, almost giving up on the ‘Coanda’ exhaust solution entirely (as they couldn’t make work on the track what worked in the tunnel), they tried a Red Bull-esque style crossover ramp and actually won the Spanish GP with a periscope exhaust.

This actually brings me to a crossroads of my own, as I think there are two salient topics that I need to cover.

Aerodynamics - simulation tools and real world performance

To my mind, ever since this period of aero uncertainty I’ve struggled to convince my inner voice that Williams do not have a problem with the correlation of their tools and the equipment that they haul around the world. I struggle because I wonder how a team that should be so well equipped as Williams would continue to build car-after-car knowing that they had a problem. However, I can’t think of a team that hasn’t gone through their own issues in this respect at some stage in the last decade, and so it brings me back to it. Therefore I’ve reconciled with myself that Williams must have an issue with their CFD methodology, wind tunnel or both...

It actually appears to be an issue that they’ve carried right the way through what I determine to be the modern iteration of the regulations (since 2009), which came in tandem with the decline of other giants of the sport, all of which relied heavily on the manufacture and testing of full scale parts. At every point where they’ve found themselves in a decent position since, it appears they've done it by the happenstance of a regulation change that was driven by performance factors not of their own direct creation.

To explain myself further, in 2009 the double diffuser was a design concept that was actually cooked up at Super Aguri and when that team folded their staff went off in various directions but natively arrived at the Japanese powered teams - Honda, Toyota.

By extension Williams were powered by Toyota that year and it’s my understanding that’s how they accrued the necessary knowledge to take advantage of the situation.

Bar the outlying victory in 2012, the years that intervened up to 2014 were a steady decline for Williams, with numerous aerodynamic issues faced by them along the way. One such instance, and one worth revisiting, was the one already mentioned - exhaust blown diffusers. At this point in time they had the best engine on the grid for the technology, afterall Red Bull were in the midst of winning their 4 back-to-back titles with it.

Unfortunately Williams couldn’t capitalize on this opportunity as they just couldn’t get the best from the exhaust blowing technology, firstly with the captive exhaust solution and then even less so when it required aerodynamic influence. They simply couldn’t replicate the real world effect in the wind tunnel and ended up trying numerous solutions, rather than staying faithful to one particular concept. This not only sucked a lot of time and resource but also meant that updates were constantly delayed throughout.

As the new regulations appeared on the horizon for 2014 it became clear that Renault would be one of the most expensive options and Pastor Maldonado, unhappy with his return on investment, was also set to leave.

As such the team went in search of another supplier and opted for Mercedes. This was most fruitful, as whilst they didn’t have the best chassis, by a long shot, they’d actually designed one which was hella efficient, making them a force to be reckoned with at certain circuits. Furthermore, the resultant mistakes made by the other leading teams, both aerodynamically and from a powertrain point of view gave Williams the bump they needed.

It was short-lived though, and as time passed by and they inevitably tried to add downforce the result was not kind to them and they’ve drifted down the pack. Now, their biggest issue came in 2017, when a high downforce package (one they’d campaigned against) was introduced it exposed them to their biggest weakness and the slide got even larger than it had been before.

The power vacuum - Engine Supply

I draw some parallels with the issues faced by Williams, with the ones that McLaren have faced in recent years too. McLaren’s issues were ones made by Ron Dennis and the companies overall desire to enter the road car market, issues that drove a wedge between them and Mercedes and moreover their AMG brand. However, without taking this already lengthy article down another alley, I brought us here because of Ron’s comments about needing a ‘works’ style deal to compete.
Ron, ever the shrewd operator knew what was coming from Mercedes and also knew that their performance in Formula One was about to take a hit because of their off track antics. The way he went about dealing with it was a day late and a dollar short, but nonetheless, he knew the writing was on the wall for any team that didn’t have a works association.

The last ‘works’ style deal that Williams had was back in the the early part of the noughties and took them up to the end of the V10 era, as the team found backing in the form of BMW. It coincided with the arrival of Ralf Schumacher just a year earlier and saw all involved trying to leverage the union from a commercial aspect.

It was a great tactical move to be fair, not only did they get the opportunity to work with an up and coming driver but also had the advantage of working with a manufacturer in a works style arrangement, as they provided not only their technical clout but also financial assistance.
It’s a deal that came to an end when Ralf moved to Toyota and BMW decided that they were no longer getting what they wanted from the partnership and decided to look into buying their own team and become a fully fledged works entry - finally settling on Sauber.
In the intervening years they’ve basically been buying their engine or powerunit off the peg, which means they’re essentially unable to get the absolute maximum from it, as they don’t have the resource that the lead works team does.

This has actually put them in a slightly awkward financial position too, as they’re having to pay for the engine/powerunit or giving up a seat to a driver that, that works team needs to find a seat for and ending up with some compensation from them to run him.

2006 - Cosworth Paid for the engine, chose their driver lineup - Webber / Rosberg
2007 - Toyota  Paid for the engine but had Nakajima as a test driver so likely got a discount
2008 - Toyota  Nakajima assumed a race seat role, so Toyota likely funded more of the deal
2009 - Toyota  Nakajima stayed on as a race driver, so Toyota likely funded more of the deal
2010 - Cosworth  Toyota had exited the sport, so back to paying for engines and having driver choice
2011 - Cosworth Paying for engines but extra money from Maldonado’s arrival offset expense
2012 - Renault Extra money from Venezuela helped to bridge the gap to allow for the more expensive, yet more performance orientated Renault engine
2013 - Renault Still able to afford the Renault unit with the financial backing brought by one of their drivers. Meanwhile, Bottas arrives without huge financial backing (remember the Toto Wolff connection here)
2014 - Mercedes Move to Mercedes, who were cheaper than Renault for the hybrid powerunit and still have a cache of money arriving from Venezuela, as Maldonado has been brought out of his contract. Massa replaces him.
2015 - Mercedes Status Quo
2016 - Mercedes Status Quo
2017 - Mercedes Bottas leaves for Mercedes, who give them a tickle of discount as he’s still in contract with Williams. Meanwhile, Lance Stroll takes his seat whom also brings money. Massa stays on due to the late nature of the Bottas deal
2018 - Mercedes Massa leaves, again, with Sergey Sirotkin taking up the other seat
2019 - Mercedes Lance Stroll leaves but under contract will pay a parachute payment to Williams. Take Kubica and Russell as drivers, the former of which has some sponsorship money available, whilst the latter is connected to Mercedes. Even so it’s understood he’s there on merit and Williams didn’t pursue Mercedes for a monetary deal.

Cash flow

As we can see this too’ing and fro’ing has not only been linked to engine supply but also to the prevailing money filtering into and then out of the team. I know I’ve already touched on the money and business aspect earlier in this article but that was more from a sporting perspective I think what’s also important to realise is that like any business a Formula One team needs to stay liquid, otherwise they’re dead in the water. In recent years we’ve seen numerous teams on the brink, saved at the last minute by new investment, with Lotus>Renault and Force India>Racing Point two shining examples of how the success bubble can hit you hard.

Williams, like the aforementioned, sat on this bubble in 2014 as they took fourth in the championship. But, whilst the other two were able to sustain a slightly longer lasting advancement, Williams almost immediately began their slide as they were unable to profit from the very advantage that had helped them get there and their bank balance was perhaps not being replenished as quickly as they’d like either.

The loss of Maldonado was not initially felt at Grove, as the Venezuelan was forced to buy out the remainder of his contract, with PDVSA settling with Williams for a sum in the region of $25m. Not chump change then and with the iconic Martini branding on the car bringing in circa $15m per season they were heading toward a large part of their budget already in play for 2014. Bottas and Massa both brought some budget to the table but neither anywhere near the level of money that would be needed to compete with the oil money that was set to dry up in 2015.

(I understand Bottas’ personal sponsor, Wihuri, was providing around $2m, whilst the arrival of the oil and lubricants supplier - Petrobras, coincided with the incoming Brazilian driver in a tie-up that was supposed to not only assist from a financial aspect but also a technical one, making the financials a little more difficult to tie down. Banco do Brasil also arrived with Massa and saw his compatriot - Felipe Nasr take up the third driver role too).

Williams other financial assistance in that period came from long time sponsor Oris Watches, Unilever and their Rexona branding which is thought to bring in the region of $15m per year, Genworth, Randstad, Avanade, Hackett, Dom Reilly and Esquire.

Anyone looking at the figures mentioned here that knows how much it costs to run an F1 team will notice that there’s a bit of a shortfall, one which will be supplemented by the prize money received by the teams each year. I believe that figure for Williams, based on their 2013 performance, would have been around the $50m. This is a fund that is paid to the teams over the course of several months/ the season though, rather than one up front payment, in order to save them from themselves and help them stay within a budgetary window.
Down the years many teams have asked for and advance on their prize money in order to stay liquid though, much like the one that Williams vetoed for Force India in 2018, but we’ll come back to that later.

Moving the timeline forward to the start of 2015 and the PDVSA sponsorship oil reserve has started to dry up (I don’t believe that PDVSA would have ponied up all that money in one hit, rather used a parachute payment option instead), leaving Williams with another $25m shortfall to deal with. Fortunately their on track behaviour in 2014 had seen them finish fourth and able to collect a more substantial piece of the prize money pie, which on top of they’d also negotiated a historical payment into the new bilateral (concorde) agreement that the teams sign with FOM to distribute the prize money.

Having finished the season in third place they collected approximately $75m, $10m of which was the new historical payment. You’d think $10m, that’s great, well yes it is, but let's put it in perspective with McLaren and Mercedes who’d negotiated around the $35m mark, Red Bull around $75m and Ferrari around $100m… I think they sold themselves a little short when you put it that way, but that was always why Bernie was so clever in these negotiations, as he’d deal with each of them individually behind closed doors, so they all thought they were getting a good deal, right up until they saw someone else’s…

Regardless of the smaller historical payment (although that’ll come back to bite them shortly) their income from the prize divvy was actually up, and to the tune of around $25m, the kind of shortfall they had from Maldonado’s absence.

2016 wasn’t too bad either from a financial perspective, if apples were oranges, but as we know nothing stays the same and with new rules incoming for 2017 the team would need to spend more money to accommodate the shift in any case. With the prize money pot up for 2015 the team would have got just shy of $90m in prize money to work with.
For 2017 the teams reliance on the previous years result, which saw them finish 5th, meant that their divvy was reduced to around $80m.

2018’s dividend, driven by their finishing position in 2017 (fifth) saw the team take around $80m from the pot once more, but with the team set to not only lose the funding brought to the team by Lance Stroll they had to face up to the departure of title sponsor Martini. This was about to leave the team well and truly on the financial backfoot, especially as another regulation change was looming that would suck resource like no tomorrow and their prize money dividend would also be severely impacted by finishing at the foot of the table (to the tune of $10-15m).

Now, remember them vetoing Force India’s request for an advance on some of their prize money in 2018? (nothing new for Force India, they’ve been doing it for years as a way of improving their cash flow ahead of a season) Having done that to Force India for 2018, Williams couldn’t well go cap in hand to FOM for 2019 and with the Stroll money now tied up in dealing with the Force India / Racing Point transition I’d find it highly likely the transit of money down the line to Williams for the release of Lance’s contract might well have been slow too. Add to this the late arrival of a new title sponsor, in the form of Rokit, of which I can’t pin down the financial deets of, but suffice to say that the money in play is slightly down and perhaps a little behind schedule, all of which adds up to the delays and shortages we’ve seen the team have to deal with so far this season...

2019

So, we’ve come full circle and we’re back in 2019 and need to look at the FW41, which is not only a terrible car but also a duplicit one, as the team believe that neither the car driven by Russell or Kubica seem to respond in the same way. This is just one of a myriad of issues faced by a team that are seemingly quite short on answers and now lacking the technical leadership that they once had, given Paddy Lowe’s absence.

As already mentioned, the financial hiccups that the team have faced will undoubtedly have had an impact on the design and construction of this years car and with 2018’s car being an absolute nightmare it’s hardly surprising they’re having more issues.

The black art

I think one of the fundamental issues that Williams have been having stems back to the arrival of Pirelli in the sport. When they entered in 2010 it changed the inherent design characteristics of the tyres, which in turn has an effect on many performance factors and design parameters of the cars. It goes without saying that they’re the only thing in contact with the track surface, a fact which makes how you operate them imperative to the cars performance envelope.
It’s a bit like a goldilocks equation - too little or too much in one direction and you lose performance, but if you can find that sweet spot you’ll unlock a huge amount of potential that’s difficult to make up elsewhere. It’s a design problem that’s difficult to put a finger on because it relies on the crossover of vehicle dynamics and aerodynamics, both of which Williams seem to have fallen behind with over the last few years.

As we’ve already discussed the team have struggled with aerodynamic issues that stem from transient conditions (exhaust blowing) and there is no other source of aerodynamic instability greater than the one caused by the transient nature of the turbulence created by the tyre and more so in the Pirelli construction than we’ve seen in the past.

Thinking of the tyre three dimensionally you must also sit and consider how the forces acting upon it, through a range of motions, will inherently alter its shape, now also consider that all four tyres are altering shape at different rates and you have to decide which of these aerodynamic battles to fight first.

You must also deal with the reactionary forces of the chassis upon the tyre, which requires the suspension to have compliance and/or be able to find ways to dial out issues with the tyres behaviour too.

The tyres performance is also driven by its heat cycle, with the temperature sweet spot within the working range a critical factor in one lap performance and over a race stint. Williams pace differential compared with the rest of the field, at least for me, can be explained away predominantly by their inability to work the tyres and keep them in this sweet spot. The changes made by Pirelli for 2019 have clearly moved the goalposts even further away for Williams, with thinner gauge tread releasing more heat from the tyres surface than its predecessor, which in-turn puts it a further odds with the bulk tyre temperature.

Add to this an issue that many of the other teams are having, which is that the starting temperatures from the blankets is now 20 degrees lower at the rear (100/80 oC) and you have a yo-yo effect where the front tyres are out of whack with the rears.

No, not just tyres

Now clearly I’m not trying to say that if only Williams could solve their issues with the tyres everything else would just go away. What I am trying to allude to is their overall importance to the performance of the car and moreover how big the gain can be if that performance is unlocked, not only in terms of the rest of the cars design but also the improvement that can be found each race weekend through setup.

It’s also pretty clear that the FW42, and its forebears for that matter, have become weak both mechanically and aerodynamically. Lowe tried to address this in 2018, as the team coupled numerous ideas from the front runners with their own designs. Of course it’s not as simple as copying and pasting from one car to another though and these conflicting design solutions didn’t appear neat or cohesive and made for a particularly sensitive machine on the best of days.

The FW42 retained many of these features but refined them, toning them down to allow a more cohesive base from which to build upon, but still its not translated into any notable performance increase. On top of this some of the innovative solutions that first appeared on the car, including the additional front suspension member and crazy two-part mirror housings, were gone by Melbourne. This is all wasted resource, sometimes an inevitable consequence of pushing the rules but galling nonetheless.

Add to this fact that due to the funding crisis that they find themselves in the car may actually weigh more than is necessary, as to increase the lifespan of parts to meet the next build targets the designers will not be able to ‘add lightness’.

I’m sure throughout the course of this article I’ve missed many things, some more obvious than others, but as I’m trying to build a picture of a decade long issue if I didn’t reign myself in this would have ended up being a book. I hope you’ve enjoyed what I’ve written and leave you with the following, as a sentiment of how I feel about the current Williams situation.

A ship without a rudder is still a ship, it's just one that cannot be steered in the right direction.
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29 Apr 2019
'Trumpets' race review - Azerbaijan

Matt 'Trumpets' Ragsdale breaks down all the action from the Azerbaijan GP


Ambient 20° Track 41° Humidity 38% Wind 1.25 m/s

Prelude

Clear skies with the occasional lazy cloud sailing by rained brilliant sunshine down on the hectic activity in the paddock as the moment of truth ticked ever closer. It was a penalty-palooza post qualifying, Gasly, already starting from the pitlane for missing the weighbridge, also managed to violate the fuel flow restriction with a wonky sensor. Giovinazzi was dinged a 10 spot for his 3rd CE of the season, whilst teammate Raikkonen was disqualified for having a front wing that failed the flex text, also starting from the pitlane. That moves Leclerc up to P8 on the Medium tyre and potentially, given his pace in practice, a very interesting strategy indeed relative to the rest of the sharp end on the Softs....

Formula B also looks dead interesting with Perez in P5, trailed by Kvyat and Norris. The almost inevitable Safety Car will play an important role here, early or late will benefit the long runners but if it's between laps 10-20 it could tip the balance the other way, as all the teams will look to make it a one stop given the fairly non-abrasive surface. But as always, difficulties with tyre temperatures might drive certain teams into a 2 stop.....

Summary


Lights Out!!!! Great Start Hamilton on Bottas wheel to wheel T2 and Bottas prevailed toward T3, but with the inside line Valterri keeps it. Perez managed to dodge by Verstappen while the Medium tyre cost Leclerc 2 places in the first 3 corners. Down to the end of the first lap and it was a 2 second gap and surprisingly little carnage under lap 1.

Meanwhile, Verstappen was struggling mightily with cold front tyres, barely able to fend off a charging Norris, especially as McLaren were tops in the speed traps.... Further back it was Stroll on the charge, up to P9 and Sainz next up in his sights.

Leclercs tyre temperatures were finally up to snuff and he, too was on the prowl, by Norris and lining up Perez. Behind, Sainz was by Kvyat and into the pits went the Toro Rosso driver, out on a set of Mediums. Verstappen rocked by Perez on lap 6, into T1 after dodging up the inside on the straight. AT the sharp end, 3 second interval between the Mercedes, while Vettel was losing time rapidly, 6 seconds off the back of Hamilton. Start investigation for Kubica, because why not bake it as miserable as possible. Lap 7 saw Raikkonen in and out on the Medium tyre while Leclerc had hammered his way up to P5.

Lap 9 saw K-Mag and Giovinazzi in as it was looking fierce for the last points positions in Formula B and Raikkonen's stop was covered off. Mediums were the choice of the day and the following lap Hulkenberg was in. Norris continued the trend and it was easy to see why, as on lap 11 Leclerc had a full second a lap advantage over the Mercedes....

Ricciardo and Stroll were in and the race was definitely leaning towards Leclerc as now it looked increasingly like the frontrunners were hoping for a Safety Car to give them a pit stop advantage. Lap 12 and Vettel was in as Leclerc had caught him up. Verstappen was told to do the opposite, but that was not going to be a winning strategy given the brutal drop off in performance in the Soft tyre....

Lap 13 saw Bottas in for a set of Meiums as Leclerc was just 3 seconds off Hamilton, in the lead now that Bottas had boxed. Lewis was in the following lap as Vettel was now on the chase. Verstappen was in lap 15 and out in P6, behind Gasly as Bottas was a full 13 seconds behind Leclerc and lapping no faster. Vettel was just inside his pit window at the end of lap 16 and it was Hamilton, rocking in a fast lap.

Lap 17 and Sainz had finally rolled up Grosjean, who had started on the Medium tyre, taking P9. At the front, Leclerc was now beginning to lose time to the fresher tyred chasers. 2 laps later and then it was Kvyat, by Grosjean and into P10. As the Safety Car still hovered in the background the balance was beginning to tilt to the long runners.

By lap 21 the issue for Leclerc was Verstappen, now making the push to get inside his pit window. By lap 23 it was all but done and the only question was how much time he would yield before coming in....

Two laps later and it was getting very interesting as Vettel was into the 1:45s along with Verstappen as Grosjean missed T8 and went straight on... Clearly the Ferrari much more on pace with the Mercedes on the Mediums but the times were beginning to balloon as Leclerc knocked off a personal best, but still slower than those running behind him.

Lap 28 and given the poor performance of the Softs it was still going to be another 5 to 10 laps or so before Leclerc could bail on them, but it was Bottas who had quietly rocked up to Leclerc, 1.5 seconds back and getting the official hurry up from the team, as the rest of the sharp end was beginning to collapse the gaps...

Leclerc got the message as well, and was not going to make it easy, cutting his losses to roughly 0.5 seconds on lap 30. This had the additional effect of allowing Vettel to catch onto the back of the Mercedes train without extracting too much performance from his tyres, which currently needed to be able to run to the end.....

The following lap and it was DRS for Valterri and by he went into T1 on the start of lap 32, not a real surprise, but that also brought Hamilton into DRS on Leclerc as well. Yellow flags in Sector 1 allowed Leclerc a bit of breathing room as Kvyat and Ricciardo had come together, also a big advantage for Bottas as he pulled out a 2 second advantage. On replay, it was Ricciardo backing into Kvyat as both took the runoff into T3, with Ricciardo coming up the inside and unable to get the car to turn....

Lap 33 and Hamilton was by, and then Vettel immediately on his heels as Leclerc was begging for a pit stop but the Softs lacked the performance to make it work. Lap 35 and he was in. Ricciardo was in and off went his car as he retired from the race... Also on display was perhaps a lack of strategic flexibility as the Softs looked likely not to last the distance but the time loss endured meant a 2 stop was not going to put pressure on anyone but Leclerc....

Job one was Gasly, and he was by on his outlap and a 28 second gap to Verstappen. Kvyat, the victim of Ricciardo's reverse, was also into the pitlane and retired as well. General bafflement at the Ferrari pitstop strategy continued, but it was clear that the general baked in tendency to a one stop and fear of the Softs doomed Leclerc as the team spent a long time hoping instead of thinking.

And then, painful reality, Virtual Safety Car lap 40 as Gasly suffered a power loss and rolled to a stop down an escape road. Leclerc was done and you could hear the sound of Ferrari strategists banging their heads against a wall. Grosjean was in as well, to retire as it turns out, HAAS having another less than stellar time on raceday, problems with the front right corner the issue....

Hamilton wasn't happy as he managed to lose 2 seconds under the VSC delta, putting him 3 seconds back of Bottas, not the first time that the delta system under the VSC had cost the Mercedes' man time...

8 laps to go then, and Vettel turned it up a bit, into the 1:44s and the answer was not long in coming from the Mercs, matching the pace shown by the Ferrari and then a bit. Lewis had managed to inch inside the 2 second barrier with 5 laps to go....

Two laps later and the gap between them had basically not budged, 1.7 seconds and Bottas looking firmly in control. And then Leclerc took a second, essentially free pitstop, to have a go at fast lap one presumed....

Lap 49 and Lewis decided to make it interesting, suddenly rocking up to 1 second off Bottas with and two laps to get the job done. Inside DRS on lap 50 and oh my, the pitwall at Mercedes probably not having a stress free afternoon suddenly. But Bottas inexorably inched the gap out through Sector 2, putting Lewis too far back to get a run on him... Then a bit wide over the kerbs and Hamilton's challenge was done and it was Bottas, rocking it home as Mercedes continued to dominate the results with an inexorable 1-2, 4 in a row, as Ferrari continues to chase its missing potential, both strategic and on pace, though Leclerc at least managed to snatch fast lap from the hands of Mercedes at the last minute... Best of the rest to Perez as yet another contender for the midfield raises it's head, with Stroll also coming through for a P9 finish. On consistency though, McLaren has gotten the job done and given the competitiveness the P7-P8 finish gave them a huge boost in the standings and excellent points for Sainz, who had been waiting to get on the board. Honourable mention to Ricciardo, at least trying to make things interesting by backing into Kvyat and bringing out a VSC as neither Renault nor HAAS seems to have gotten things entirely right this season... Barcelona next and the remainder of the big Ferrari update loom but even if successful, will it be too little too late for the Scuderia.....

Discuss!!!

And remember to play nice in the comments!!

Don't forget to catch up with Matt and the rest of the panel on the Missed Apex podcast too...


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27 Apr 2019
'Trumpets' qualifying notebook - Azerbaijan

Matt 'Trumpets' Ragsdale navigates the ups and downs of qualifying for the Azerbaijan GP
Ambient 16.7° Track 36.7° Humidity 68% Wind 0.8 m/s

Prelude


Cerulean skies vaulted the paddock in Baku as devilish winds swirled through the circuit and played havoc with the drivers, who were regularly taking to the escape roads when they cars failed to turn in, a product of colder than usual temperatures and the new front wing regulations that have left all the teams trying to recreate last years load on the front axle, to varying degrees of success.....

Ferrari arrived with a fair boatload of new developments, ahead of schedule, with new bits for the barge boards, diffuser, a new rear wing and with new fins for the brake ducts, to help with tyre temperature issues they had been suffering with. And lo and behold, back on a rear limited circuit ala Bahrain, and they were on it, the developments rumoured to bring 0.2 seconds to the table. Mercedes, on the other hand, struggled with the Soft tyres, and were far off in FP3, so far off that it was Max Verstappen who was planted in P3, with Leclerc ahead of Vettel by 0.2 seconds as the checquers waved, for the top 3 spots. And that despite Mercedes reverting to a deeper rear wing to match Ferrari's performance in S2 from Friday. An interesting pattern emerging with Leclerc is that he seems to outperform Vettel at the tracks where he raced F2, something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

Of course the main talking point was the manhole cover that utterly destroyed George Russell's Williams on Friday, stopping FP1 well short of completion after the recovery vehicle mashed it's crane into a bridge and leaked hydraulic fluid all over the car and track.... Things weren't helped by a number of crashes in FP2, with Stroll and Kvyat into the walls and a genuinely bizarre interaction between Hamilton and Magnussen that saw the two kiss wheels, which didn't lead to much love between them however....Gasly was nicked for missing the weighbridge and thus a pitlane start for him..... The end result was fairly compromised running for all the teams and that usually leads to interesting races.

Summary


Green Light!! Russell out first in his Williams, that was completely rebuilt after his chassis was destroyed by a manhole cover. Ferrari wasted little time rocking out behind him and the rest of the field was in close pursuit, save Red Bull. It was Bottas to the top early days, as Hamilton put it up the escape road in T3 and Stroll gave the wall an almighty whack on the exit of T2.

12 minutes to go and Red Bull were out of the pitlane as Vettel, who backed off his first lap was on a hotlap. Into S3 and he picked up a beautiful slipstream and up to P1 he went, less than a hundredth up on Bottas. Hamilton was quite far down, P6 and dropping quickly down the order as the sharper end of the midfield rocked in. Giovinazzi, P4, Albon P5 with Renault nowhere as their struggles with braking continued. Haas, in the form of Magnussen was rocking P9 but by then, with 8 minutes left in the session, Hamilton was down to P15.

Flat spot or no, Mercedes managed to keep his first set of tyres going, and he rocked around into a much more respectable P3, although the pace of track evolution would keep even the sharp end of the field on their toes. Leclerc came through and took P1 whilst Vettel had dropped to P4. With 5 minutes to go, he was through and 0.6 seconds up. but he wasn't P1 for long as Gasly came along and took it away by less than a hundredth.

2 minutes to go and it was Ricciardo, Grosjean, Hulkenberg and Russell and Kubica natch on the outside looking in, whilst Stroll was in the hotseat P15.. Verstappen in P14 was looking a bit uncomfortable but he was on a hotlap with under a minute to go and with a mostly empty track, a difficult thing to achieve, it was up to P4....

Bang Stroll goes P15, and then Kubica into the wall T8, as Ricciardo goes P15 and it's Stroll, Grosjean, Hulkenberg, Russell and Kubica going no further as they are off in search of some plov, their day done and the session red flagged for more than a bit as the car is cleared and wall repaired.....

Q2 finally underway and it was again little wasted time as the track filled up, with Mercedes again wasting little time joining the usual midfield contenders, as the shady areas of the track consumed more and more of the surface as the afternoon sun waned, making it even more difficult to get the tyres properly warmed up. Verstappen was up to the top, followed by Bottas and Hamilton while Ferrari decided to play with their pace advantage and attempt to qualify on the Medium tyre...

The first laps weren't that impressive, with Leclerc P5 and but Vettel rather far off in P11, but on the Mediums they were perhaps going to run a 2nd lap before shelving that strategy. Raikkonen was on a hot lap and then it was Leclerc, at 8:33 into the same wall as Kubica, ruining Vettel's lap at the same time. Red Flag straightaway, and with 7:41 left in the session it was Albon, Vettel, Ricciardo, Giovinazzi and Gasly (with no time) on the outside looking in and Kmag on the hotseat. On replay, it was it was the unpardonable sin of not choosing the escape road after locking up and carrying far too much speed into the corner entry that ruined the young Monegasque's day....

As the espesso machine sprang into overtime, the question of should they have run the Medium tyre popped up, given how much later Q2 was being run, with track temps down to 30°C, but the fact of the matter was it is on the drivers to manage the tyre given and it was a very understandable error by a young driver, but an error nonetheless.... That said, with 7 minutes left and the temps dropping, it was possible he would still wind up in the top ten when the dust settled, but first it was another long wait as the barriers were repaired. Red Bull decided during the wait, that Gasly, already starting from the pitlane due to his penalty for missing the weighbridge, was done for the day, no need to risk binning the car as the track got colder and colder with the diminishing angle of the sun......

28°C when the green light finally came back on and the cars headed out, Perez and Raikkonen leading the way. Onto the Softs for Vettel, in P12 with 5 minutes left in the session. Kmag had a big slide on his way through T8 on his outlap on the cement dust laid down to soak up the fluids, as did Ricciardo behind him. Fast and hard went the outlaps as the teams attempted to make up for the ever dropping temperatures...

Up to P7 went Vettel as the fastest part of the day seemed to have gone with the setting sun. In the midfield, Kmag was shuffled down to P13 and as the checquers fell it was Sainz, Ricciardo, Albon, Magnussen and Gasly going no further, off in search of some Xirdalan to quench their thirst for the glories of Q3, a sad and pale substitute..... Meanwhile the ever dropping temps were cause for concern at Ferrari as Vettel reported an inability to get his front tyres to switch on as the start of Q3 hurtled toward them like a freight train...

Another degree lost as Verstappen was first off in Q3, tracked closely by Bottas and then Hamilton. Giovinazzi, Norris, Raikkonen and then Vettel, trailed by Perez completed the set for the first runs. Verstappen setting the track ablaze in purple and to the top he went with a 1:41.447,displaced first by Bottas and then by Hamilton, who had rather obviously figured out how to get his tyres into the window... This was absolutely not the case for Ferrari, with Vettel just managing to sneak in between the two of them but without the previous advantage.

Verstappen stayed out for a second run, and managed to zip up to P2, ahead of Vettel and the second lap showing the way perhaps for Ferrari. But with 3 minutes left, would they could they copy that strategy. Perez, Kvyat Norris, Giovinazzi and Raikkonen finished out the top 9, with the stricken Leclerc in P10 barring chassis damage.....

2 minutes to go and it was the entire field out of the pits, with Mercedes doing practice starts, just strange to be stuck at the back when a fast out lap is absolutely required to get the tyres switched on....At the front, Vettel leading the way into the last hot lap as Mercedes found their outlaps compromised. Vettel to P2, just 0.09 seconds off Hamilton, but then Bottas was through and to the top, 0.3 seconds up and with Hamilton rocketing in behind but as he hit the line he was a miniscule 0.059 seconds slower than his teammate and it was pole for Valterri Bottas, followed by Hamilton, Vettel, Verstappen and Perez, now an outside favorite for a podium should the inevitable chaos of a street circuit come into play.

Leclerc in P10 has to be an interesting bet as well, given the pace of his car all weekend and with the start on Medium making everyone's strategy calls more interesting. Mercedes v Ferrari on race pace is also a bit of an unanswered question as the massive disruptions to Friday's running compromised all the teams. In the midfield, it once again will come down to those starting P11-P15 running long on the harder compounds, who have mostly had the advantage at the first 3 races. Good news for Giovinazzi, finally into Q3 for the first time after a hard start to his year and Haas fulfilled their predictions of not making Q3 as they continued to struggle with their tyre issues. Verstappen's one run was down to a lack of tyres but he remained confident heading into the race with the performance of his car......

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