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11 Oct 2018
The great Mercedes turnaround

It seems to me that most people are blaming Ferrari for dropping the ball this season, and whilst they've clearly scored plenty of own goals, for me it's an impressive performance from Mercedes who've accelerated past them that we should be focused on.
In the early, to mid stages of the season many had suggested that Ferrari had become the team to beat, and in some respects that was true. Their car seemed to offer more performance on any given Sunday, not only from a well-rounded chassis and aerodynamic platform but from an ever-improving powerunit.

I, on the other hand, had been cautious of the Ferrari optimism and in the places I often frequent, suggested that Mercedes still held the keys to the championship, if only they could unlock the W09’s potential. After all the W09 is the direct descendant a problem child, one that team boss Toto Wolff gave the ‘diva’ moniker and one that would need a steady nerve to wrangle.

The W08 was originally conceived with a very specific hydraulic suspension system, a design that was subsequently diluted by a technical directive just ahead of the cars launch / pre-season testing. The source of the clarification in regard to this type of suspension was their closest rivals, Ferrari, of course, who themselves were looking to either learn more about the system or sow the seed of doubt at the FIA.

It’s something that’s part of the game in fairness, these systems start out pretty innocuous but become more complex over time. Its brethren - FRIC a prime example of this, with that system removed from use in a similar fashion during 2014.

I think it would be fair to say that this technical directive changed the landscape of the 2017 championship, not only for Mercedes, who now had a much less compliant car but also for Red Bull who’d been investing in their own system based on a similar idea.

Fast forwarding to 2018 and Mercedes had been working away feverishly in the background to make improvements, knowing that Ferrari could now be considered a title rival. Sticking to their guns, and rightly so, the W09 features the low rake, long wheelbase concept, as the team shun ongoing speculation of a switch to a high rake car, like Ferrari had done in 2017. Whilst Ferrari improved upon their novel sidepod solution from last season, joined by several others, Mercedes opted to press on with their more conventional inlet and side impact support spar layout.



In a teaser video for the W09, James Allison actually pointed out just how much work the team had done in this regard for 2018, repackaging internals and altering their aerodynamic profile. But it wasn’t long before the team realised they had to make a fairly substantial upgrade in this regard, with an entirely new concept installed in Austria to coincide with the new powerunit specification taken a race earlier, in France. 



The design takes inspiration from Ferrari’s concept but falls some way short of achieving the same result purely because a new chassis would have been needed to rehouse the upper SIPs. Even without this pivotal piece of the puzzle the new design serves the purpose of guarding the sidepod and the inlet from the wake generated by the front tyre, even if it's not pushed as far back and placed into clean flow like the Ferrari version.  

Whilst the ongoing aerodynamic development programme is clearly significant in the W09’s success story I think it’s also apparent from their pace of development when compared to Ferrari that they may have chased their tail a little, perhaps going down a few blind alleys even. However, where it really pales in significance is the work done by the team in terms of their suspension and tyre management throughout 2018. Tyre management is considered somewhat of a black art, with any number of variables narrowing their operating window and, for me at least, could explain some of the pace difference between the lead duo in the opening phase of the season.

It’s a subject that tends not to get too much coverage as it’s just not something that’s easy to see, but for those of you that don’t know there’s actually two main temperatures to consider when we talk about tyres: the bulk or core temperature (ie the temperature within the tyre) and the tread or surface temperature.  Both play a crucial role in the overall behavior of the tyre over one lap and a full race stint, with energy added into either having a domino effect.

This makes understanding and operating the tyre absolutely crucial and with Ferrari’s SF71-H seemingly much easier to set up out of the box it gave them somewhat of a head start every race weekend, when compared with Mercedes, something they accepted in the early part of the season and worked hard to dial out of the car.

Having yo-yo’d throughout the early to middle stages the championship seemed to being determined by who could get the best from their car at a given circuit, neither really having a significant advantage over the other, which made tyres even more of a pivotal factor. But as this knowledge and setup window began to converge things got even more interesting, as the driver also became an overwhelming factor. Of course, I’m not suggesting that they aren’t always a factor, but when the margins become exceptionally close you then need that extra few percent from the man behind the wheel to extract everything the car has to offer.

Mercedes ‘home’ race in Germany offered some rest bite for the Silver Arrows, as Vettel failed to capitalise on a golden opportunity to nudge out his points tally, showing a chink in his and Ferrari’s armor at the same time.

The Belgian GP proved to be devastating in the opposite way, previously the happiest of hunting grounds for Mercedes it was dominated by Ferrari who now seemed to have a short-burst power advantage over their closest rival as they got out onto the straights.


But it was Singapore, considered Mercedes bogey track, that would prove to be the site of their greatest victory, as the team clearly stumbled upon the answer to their woes. It’s easy to see that the team had installed an optimized rear wing for Singapore but it was the more difficult to spot changes on the rear suspension and rear brake setup that really made the difference.

These are the changes that I believe unlocked the W09’s potential, altering the cars setup window and behavior, whilst allowing them to manage the tyres more effectively. A change to the preparation of the tyres (heating cycles with the blankets etc) coupled with the extremely slow out-lap on the way to the qualifying lap, Hamilton nailed what must go down in history as one of the qualifying laps of the sport. I say this not only because he seemingly nailed every single apex but because of the leap made from his fastest lap in FP3 (1:38.558) to his Q3 laptime of (1:36.015) - that’s just over 2.5 seconds quicker, an unprecedented margin between sessions from the Brit, as displayed below in a chart put together by my cohort Matt Ragsdale, comparing the improvement between FP3 and qualifying for both Hamilton and Vettel in 2018.


(To put that into perspective, Bottas who also made a strong leap forward from FP3 to qualifying was 7 tenths behind his teammate but only made a leap forward of just under 2 seconds).

This set the scene for a remarkable victory for Mercedes, who for the last few rounds had been on the back foot. Their form since then has been indicative of a team that has found that special something - which for me comes primarily from the tyres and their operation. This has left Ferrari reeling and whilst there has been speculation that their powerunit advantage may have been quelled by the installation of a second sensor on their energy store I do not buy it.

Rather I’d suggest that much like the other more aggressive fuel and energy modes already used by the teams, they have to be measured against reliability, meaning you cannot run them flat out all the time. For example, Mercedes cannot and have not run their ‘qualifying’ or ‘party’ modes for extended periods in the past, it’s simply a risk vs reward scenario that requires the engineers to play close attention to not only performance but durability, something we’ve often heard Mercedes refer to as a matrix.

Wrap up

I want to see a fight, the sport needs to see great drivers go toe-to-toe but the reality of this sport is that rarely occurs, as it’s an engineering challenge as much as it is a sport. Mercedes and Ferrari have given us two cars which are fundamentally so very different but manage to be within a few tenths of one another on any given day and that for me is a fantastic achievement, when we consider that everyone complains about a lack of design diversity. It’s there, for some reason you just can’t see it!

In fact, here’s a rant, I often here the statement that if all the cars were painted the same colour you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, I disagree, I know I would. This isn’t the 1970’s, lairy designs aren’t ever going to work, the only reason they did in the first place is that you had to test those designs in the real world to figure out you’d either got it demonstrably right or wrong in the first place, now we have cutting edge simulation tools that prove if it’s going to work before a real part is even made.

Anyway, I digress… this championship, although not done of course, will go down as one of Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton’s greatest achievements should they be victorious, as they’ve had to work extremely hard to overcome the advances of Ferrari. Meanwhile, I have nothing but admiration for the Scuderia, as they have improved immensely at a point in time when other legacy teams, such as McLaren and Williams have faltered. The SF70H and SF71H have been truly fantastic pieces of machinery that have catapulted the team back toward the front of the grid and shows that they’re prepared to take calculated design risks in order to take the fight to Mercedes.

Can I just say that this article and many of the improvements that might hopefully come on stream for the site in the future are thanks in part to the generosity of my patrons. If you'd like to support the site and my efforts then that's the place to do it - www.patreon.com/somersf1. However, I do deal in another currency - please share the article and my other content too, whether it's just word of mouth or  through social media.
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8 Oct 2018
'Trumpets' race report - Japanese GP

Matt 'Trumpets' Ragsdale
Ambient 29° Track 40° Humidity 49% Wind 1.4 m/s

Prelude

Oppressive heat blanketed the circuit, sunlight dripping on the paddock in a polar inverse to yesterday's weather. With the sweltering track will come tyre issues, particularly blistering and those worst off will be the runners on the Super Softs, which in the top 10 would be everyone but Mercedes and Grosjean. Not particularly good news for Vettel, in P8 after Ocon was indeed demoted for going too fast under the red flags in qualifying.

According to Pirelli the fastest strategy was either a one stop or a one stop, or possibly a one stop (notice a theme here) involving Softs and Mediums, or Supers being slightly slower, with a 2 stop listed as, well, even slower... Verstappen looked to be the joker at the start, with the best chance to get some sand in the gears of Mercedes, though with Ferrari's quick starts Raikkonen can't entirely be ruled out.

Summary
Lights Out!!!! Hamilton off the line and immediatley cut over in front of Bottas. Verstappen with a decent start was also in the mix and suddenly it was Vettel around both Toro Rossos. Hartley was the biggest loser off the line, down to P9 by time they exited the second turn. Vettel kept the pressure up and side by side with RoGro he went as they headed into Spoon and well in front on the way out. Verstappen had a lock up into the final chicane and went onto the grass, but kept it moving and when he re-entered the track he wound up punting Raikkonen off the track.

K-Mag had a puncture which he picked up from being tagged from behind from Leclerc at the start. Around the circuit he went, shedding carbon fibre shards as he limped back to the pits. 

The Verstappen/Raikkonen incident opened the door for Vettel who took full advantage of his opportunity and rocked by his teammate, and as the first lap rolled into the books he was up to P4 and the Safety Car was deployed as the marshals were charged with recovering the carcass of his tyre. Verstappen picked up a 5 second time penalty for not rejoining the track safely. The good news for K-Mag, as such, was that having lost a lap by time he boxed for new tyres, he would be able to reclaim it before the Safety Car was called in. The bad news was that the incident with him and Leclerc was being investigated, and it looked likely he would pick up a penalty.

Lerclerc was in for a new front wing during the Safety Car, along with Sirotkin and Ericsson for some Mediums. Lap 7 was to be the last lap before the race resumed and pretty much everyone was happy to get some slow laps to help save their tyres. Ricciardo had also had a fairly good start, up to P10 and as the weaving and tyre warming commenced in anticipation of the restart...
Lap 8 and they were off, just as Gasly reported RoGro with fire. Bottas was a bit slow and for a moment Verstappen looked to have an opening, but it was nothing doing. Behind Vettel was biding his time and into Spoon he struck, up the inside but Verstappen kept his foot in it and CONTACT, with Vettel picking up a spin and Verstappen losing bits and pieces of bodywork. P19 for Vettel with ALL the work to be done in front of him, as at the front, Hamilton swanned about without a care in the world.

On replay, Verstappen's PU was clipping and Vettel was suddenly closing at a massive rate, just not quite enough to get him by before Max wheeled over to take the apex. In other exciting overtaking news, Ricciardo was up and by Perez with his trademark latest of brakers move, executed with surgical precision. Lap 12 and Raikkonen, being told that he was now 3 seconds back of Verstappen pointed out he was going as fast as he could... Hamilton reported some hesitation in turn 5 on throttle, which Mercedes promised to have a look at whilst Ricciardo continued to carve through the field, by Grosjean and into P5.

Vettel was up to P15 as it was reported that Raikkonen had some damage to his car from the incident with Verstappen, and it was beginning to show in his lap times with Verstappen, who was just about to clear his penalty the following lap. Delightedly for the phlegmatic Finn, it was also having a negative effect on his tyre wear, as Ferrari's day was going exactly as one might expect as the racing gods had clearly turned their backs on the Scuderia...

Lap 18 and Raikkonen was in and out with a set of Mediums, as he was looking to avoid getting jumped by Ricciardo, and was P10. given Verstappen's penalty the door was now opening for Ricciardo to snatch the last podium spot from his teammate, needing just 4 more seconds as the Hamilton kicked off the 20th lap. Vettel was up to P12 but his tyres were basically done. Danny Ric was chunking nearly a second a lap out of Max and with the undercut, he would have already been good. Of course, as the trailing team member on circuit, he was not entitled to that so it was going to be the hard way for the Aussie. Lap 22 and Red Bull brought in Verstappen to forestall him being stuck behind Raikkonen, who had just about got into his pit window. Alonso picked up a 5 second penalty for going off and gaining an advantage in his battle with Stroll, who, you guessed it, also picked up a 5 second penalty for forcing Alonso off.

No further action for the Vettel/Verstappen incident, and Ricciardo was then in the next lap, and out on a set of Mediums, ahead of Raikkonen who was bleeding large chunks of time. Hamilton was in on lap 25 and also out with a shiny new set of Mediums. This left Ricciardo vs Verstappen for the last podium position as the most interesting thing on track. Verstappen had the immediate advantage with the Softs, but Danny Ric on the harder compound was playing the long game.

2 laps later and Vettel was in, and out with a set of Softs, P16 and chasing Sirotkin, whom he was by with nary a fuss an equal number of laps late. Leclerc banged past Hulkenberg for the last points position as well, firmly by into the final chicane. Hamilton continued to complain of minor annoyances, this time upshifts, as the lack of an opponent gave him ample time to examine all the potential faults in his car.

Lap 30 and Grosjean was in for a set of Mediums, out behind Sainz in P7. Vettel had come upon a serious scrap between Ocon, Leclerc and Perez, and was by Leclerc without too much fuss, but only after a bold move on Ocon. Gasly's pit stop saw him out behind Ericsson and he was having quite the lengthy battle with the Sauber, which he finally won on lap 34. Vettel reclaimed P6 from Grosjean the following lap and it was now a rather lengthy 40 second gap to his teammate. Lap 37 and Gasly picked up, get ready, fastest first sector for the race to that point. Yes I did just use the word fast and Honda in the same sentence without irony. Less happy was Leclerc, whose tyres were going rather savagely off and entertainingly, Lewis interrogated his engineer as to whether he'd been on a break. Indeed he had been and mystery solved, the lack of radio chatter explained.

Hulkenberg in with a problem and retired, lap 39 and Danny Ric was on the radio with a gear question to do with a PU performance issue. Red Bull were not particularly fussed and told him to carry on, holding 5th gear if he chose. Leclerc was off with an issue, something broken according to him, after he had a trip through the gravel outside Degner 1. Virtual Safety Car was deployed, even though Leclerc parked up rather smartly by a marshals post.

It was a quick one, thanks to the thoughful driving of the Sauber, and although Mercedes made their way to the pits, it was nothing doing as the VSC ended before they made it to the pit entry. The VSC advantaged Max, and he was inside DRS on Bottas as they rounded on lap 43. RoGro complained that Perez had ambushed him under the VSC, and the Frenchman was certain that Perez had broken the rules in order to get past him.

Lock up for Bottas into the hairpin as he came upon Alonso and suddenly, the door was wide for Verstappen. Not for long, though, as with full deployment the Mercedes was off into the distance once more. Hartley was the next backmarker to slow Bottas, and once again Max was just within DRS. The issue for Bottas, and Ricciardo as well the others on the Medium, had to do with losing temps in the Mediums under the VSC and thus performance on the restart of the race.

Lap 48 and the tyre issues were on the other foot, as Verstappen now had some concerns, about his Softs. Again Red Bull seemed not too fussed, as Bottas missed entirely the last chicane, which put him once more within DRS of Verstappen, entirely wiping out his hard won 2 second lead with his mistake. Not for long, though, as Verstappen was forced tail off the back of the Merc, according to Max due to the PU. Lap 51 and it was Sainz, sticking the knife in deep as he rocked past Gasly, putting the Toro Rosso out of the points with 2 laps to go and crushing Honda's chance of scoring points in their home grand prix. Although they cold take solace in the fact that it was his chewed up tyres that were mainly at issue.

But Gasly still had a role to play in the race, and it was to bring Verstappen back into DRS on Bottas, as Valterri was balked before getting by him as the last lap got underway. A lock up into T11 for Verstappen ended the dramatic chase, and it was Hamilton, across the line, extending his lead to in the WDC to 67 points. Putting Danny Ric onto the Mediums forestalled any internecine drama as he finished 5 seconds off, though by the regulations they had little choice. If one wanted to be pedantic, they did bring him in a bit early, but given his start from P15, it was a good result all round for Red Bull.

Less happy was Grosjean, who was still banging on rather firmly about how he was overtaken at the end of the VSC period by Perez. According to Romain, he lost a 2.4 second gap and that was with him positive by just 0.3 seconds. Of course, at least he FINISHED the race, which was not true for his teammate who retired rather anonymously on the 9th lap due to the damage the punctured tyre did to his car. The retirement of Hulkenberg allowed Perez to sneak into a 3 way tie with Kmag and Hulk, for the lead of the Formula B championship. On the Constructor's side, it was a 6 point gap as HAAS gained another 3 on Renault. Down to the wire that one will go.

Also a shame for Honda, who looked strong in the race and, but for the the tyres running out, would've finished with a very well earned point. Regardless of that point, the point was that the proof of concept for their spec C engine had been established, and perhaps that does indeed go a long way towards explaining the fairly relaxed attitude at Red Bull, their long PU nightmare nearly at an end...
With COTA up next, Ferrari will be looking to salvage some glory and no doubt Mercedes will be keen to deny them any balm for the savage wounds that have been inflicted as Red Bull look to play spoiler, but the it's the battle for the midfield, fierce and completely unpredictable, that's stealing focus as the circus heads for its savage and inevitable denouement.

Discuss!!!

And remember to play nice in the comments!!
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6 Oct 2018
'Trumpets' qualifying notebook - Japan

Matt 'Trumpets' Ragsdale summarises the qualifying action from the Japanese GP
Ambient 26° Track 28° Humidity 84% Wind 4.3 m/s

Prelude

Angry, grey skies loomed over the paddock as qualifying prepared to kick off at stupid o' clock, at least for those of us on the suddenly wrong side of the world. No amount of gin or caffeine can really focus the brain in such extremities, and it's just experience and a savage ability to ignore what's in one's own best interest that allows one to carry on at such times.

As for FP3, Hulkenberg managed to trash his car very nicely in the challenging conditions, which was a wet/dry affair with brutal winds but it was Ocon, reported for not slowing sufficiently under red flags that had perhaps the most to fear, as the reporting is automatic and there is precious little wiggle room for the offender. Oh, yes and Vettel was a tenth slower than Hamilton and apparently missing his magic finger buttons on the steering wheel. Also flying about were the rumours of a second battery sensor, which had apparently been run since Monaco but magically still was the reason Ferrari were suddenly looking seriously off the pace...

Summary

Green Light!! Vandoorne was first off, tailed by Grosjean and K-Mag, the Williams pair, Sirotkin leading Stroll, followed on, and then it was Ferrari, Raikkonen leading Vettel. Not lots of wasted time as the weather had been highly unpredictable and getting a fast time in under not entirely terrible conditions might wind up paying dividends at the end of the session. McLaren on the Softs due to their, ummm, unusual tyre allocation.

Grosjean was first to the top, with a 1:30.504, his teammate 0.2 seconds behind and not bad, considering he lacked information on his rear tyres as he was on his outlap. The wind was vicious, but even more so, was Vettel, going P1 and 0.6 seconds up on Raikkonen. 12 minutes to go, and Hamilton was on it, trying to take the top spot away as the clouds overhead darkened and Mercedes tried to sneak their bankers in ahead of the weather. Job done, Lewis to the top and 0.35 tenths up and adding to the indignity for Ferrari Vettel was off with a spin. Fortunately, Ericsson was immediately off, in a far worse way in Dunlop, trashing the front and the rear and drawing the red flag, along with everyone's attention.

In FP3 Vettel had complained of having a pointy front end, and his little pirouette did rather seem to indicate that the team had not entirely solved the problem to Vettel's liking. Renault was the first to the end of the pitlane as the interlude created by Ericsson's off and subsequent red flag ticked to its end. Vandoorne was in the mix with them, on a pair of precious Ultrasfts and both K-Mag and RoGro were out as well, chasing Ocon's time perhaps. and successfully, at least in the case of Grosjean, who wound up P6, ahead of Ricciardo and just a second off the time of Hamilton.

On the outside looking in, were Alonso, Stroll, Ericsson and Vandoorne as everyone got ready for their last runs at the glories of Q2. Not helping at all, however was the fact that rain was falling in the pits. Perez was the first to do no better than his last effort, P10 and well off his teammate. Hulkenberg was next up, P11 his result, until Stroll deposed him. Gasly claimed P9 as both McLarens days were done. Leclerc to P6!!! and then it was Sainz into P12, dropping his teammate into P16.

Thus it was, with the dust settling, Hulkenberg, Sirotkin, Alonso, Vandoorne, and Ericsson going no further and off in search of Funazushi as the rest turned it around to get ready for the rigors of Q2...

Hamilton was first off as the pitlane opened, but Raikkonen behind was impatient and blew by him. Not much in it for Kimi, but Bottas was surprising, topping Hamilton in S1 and following through, going 1:27.987 and to the top, as Ricciardo reported a loss of power, ultimately pushed down the pitlane and into his garage as Horner failed to look amused by that development. Vettel was P3 followed by Raikkonen and Verstappen with Ocon maintaining his best of the rest status.

In the drop zone at the halfway point were Leclerc, K-Mag, Sainz, Stroll and Ricciardo, with all the work to do as they turned it round to have one final go for the ultimate palmares of Q3. Save, of course, Ricciardo whose engine had grenaded in a rather creative way. Rather disappointingly, the rain rocked in and the runners all began to bail on their efforts. Even that wasn't enough as Leclerc, in P11, had an amazingly tasty spin, catching a bit too much kerb and doing a full loop, before carrying on.

With the weather hindering everyone's efforts, the session was basically done and off in search of some sake went Leclerc, Magnussen, Sainz, Stroll and Ricciardo, as the rest got ready to do battle for the ultimate prize, pole position.

A rainbow graced the sky for the start of Q3, surely signifying the fact that BOTH Toro Rosso's had made it through into the rarefied atmosphere of Q3. Hamilton managed to turn the tables on his teammate in the early runs, going 1:27.76 and hanging at the top of the sheets with both Mercedes on the Supers. Ferrari had, rather perplexingly, started the session on Inters, necessitating a swing through pitlane to exchange them for the rather more sensible Supers. Even with the Supers, though, neither Ferrari could come anywhere close, as the window for setting fast times was rapidly evaporating given the increased rainfall. Both Vettel and Raikkonen were caught out, P4 for Raikkonen and a thoroughly disastrous P9 for Vettel as the strategic misery of the Scuderia continued to make itself known. P3 belonged to the Red Bull of Verstappen, which was no doubt as delightfully surprising to him as it was to Horner.

Even more rain on its way was the call as the cars returned to the pitlane to get ready for one, final effort, and with drops of rain on the cameras it was the Force Indias out on track, desperately trying to get a lap in before the rain shut it all down. Hamilton bailed on his run as the rain was properly falling, and the weather utterly destroyed Ferrari's effort as well, both Raikkonen and Vettel slithering off the track in lieu of setting anything that resembled a proper time. The fact that Ferrari dithered about on the Intermediates at the start of the session wound up doing them no favors whatsoever and as the checquers flew, it was with Vettel's championship hopes even more firmly shredded. Grosjean topped best of the rest and shocker Hartley just behind him in P6, taking full advantage of the extra running he had to climb ahead of his teammate, a result he absolutely needed, with Marko breathing down his neck.

So for Ferrari it was a world turned upside down for the race, with Vettel starting P9, and Raikkonen P4 on the Supers whilst Mercedes had managed to get out of Q2 on the Softs. Also rather astonishingly managing that trick was Grosjean, aided by the influx of rain at just the right moment. Advantage HAAS in the Formula B competition, then. Brilliant result for Honda, P6 and P7 as they saw their Renault rivals utterly vanquished by their new, C-spec PU. All of which promises some excitement tomorrow, save, rather sadly, at the front. Unless, of course, Verstappen gets the jump of all jumps at the start, or the rain gods see fit to continue the experiment they started today...

Discuss!!

Remember, Play Nice in the Comments!
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1 Oct 2018
'Trumpets' race report - Russia

Matt 'Trumpets' Ragsdale takes us on a journey through the achievements and mis-steps of the Russian GP.

Ambient 24° Track 25° Humidity 65% Wind 1.3 m/s

Prelude

Well, Well, the 2018 Russian Grand Prix is off to a rather interesting start as the F2 race experienced rain, as in strap on the wets kinda rain, which was not at ALL predicted. With luck, a similar lack of predictability will attend the F1 race, which might possibly make up for the rather ill fated Q2 which saw most of the participants sitting out the session in order to gain a tyre advantage, thanks to the penalty situation for Toro Rosso and Red Bull. Which does raise the rather interesting and related question, which is why then did not those who did run, HAAS, Force India and Sauber, take the Ultrasofts as they would've been through regardless. And to those who would reply "what about a sneak attack" well, much like the top teams, they could've just chucked them out on the Hypersofts JUST IN CASE, at the end of the session.

Anyhoo, that's all water under the bridge so to speak. And speaking of water, tiny spits of rain were reported just as the drivers wandered out to the grid, just to the point where it was not at all clear which tyres should be run.

So, to recap this race might well be a parade once the Ferraris and Mercedes exit the 3rd and 4th turns, but the midfield situation is positions 5-10 running the Hypersofts, which will start to go off between lap 9-12, Renault in P11-12 on the Softs, along with the Red Bulls at the back, then the remainder on the Ultrasoft, save Gasly....Fascinating contest at a track where it is known to be difficult to overtake. Absent that, the big question will be what Mercedes will do with Bottas, should he remain ahead of Hamilton after the pit stop sequence. All of which will, of course, be known once the lights go out....

Summary

Lights Out!!!! Rocking start from Vettel as he went side by side with Hamilton as they headed into T1. Bottas pulled to the right as they entered the turn, handing his teammate a lifeline for the run to T2 and off they went, Lewis firmly tucked into Valterri's slipstream and showing his flanks to the Ferrari. But it was deep into T2 Hamilton went, a puff of smoke from his engine into the braking zone. Vettel took to the inside, only to be run out of room on the exit as they rocketed down towards T3, the early dicing done and worth the price of admission. Interesting, in that Mercedes had updated it's oil venting to mirror that of Ferrari, suggesting they had chased down whatever gains were possible and decided it was, indeed, worth the price of admission.

But as predicted most of the action was in the midfield and it was Leclerc, with the early move on K-Mag taking P5 the following lap. This put the HAAS driver squarely in the sights of Ocon while behind, Max Verstappen was taking advantage of the momentum of his brilliant start and by the end of the lap had moved up to P10. Ricciardo, by contrast, was taking his time and was languishing, having been boxed in at the start then collecting some front wing damage from hitting some debris..

Lap 4 saw Gasly spin, which manuoevre his teammate had performed 2 laps earlier. He kept it out of the barrier but was called in, and there was apparently a larger problem, as both cars were retired. Brake failure looked to be the cause, but regardless their day was done.

Lap 6 and Alonso was in, off the Ultras and onto the Softs, whilst Verstappen had worked his way up to P6 with a gap of 19 seconds to the front of the race, where Lewis was maintaining a gap of 1.4 seconds or so, and Vettel had sagged to 2.5 seconds, although whether that was due to lack of pace or just general maintenance of tyres had yet to be determined. Further back, Ricciardo was up to P11 and Williams chose to pull the trigger on Stroll, bringing him in on the 9th lap for a set of Softs, clearly the tyre of the day. During that Hulkenberg put quite a move on Grosjean, no doubt aided by the Hypersofts going off. Further up, Ocon continued to harry K-Mag, who wisely chose to pit for some new tyres the next lap, releasing Ocon who was now on it to take the position through the pit stop sequence.

At the front, Vettel had turned it up, and was inside 2 seconds again as Hamilton was just hanging out around a second to Bottas as the pit stop window was WIDE open at this point in the race. Lap 11 saw Ocon and Leclerc in and it was Kmag, saving the place and by Ocon as he emerged with a set of Softs, but with a nearly 3 second gap to recover, the undercut was clearly working.

Lap 13 and Bottas was in, and Hamilton was through and rocking it, fast lap with Vettel well inside the undercut window on him. Bottas emerged P5 on the Softs and sure enough, Vettel was in for the undercut at the end of the following lap. Crucially for the Ferrari driver, Sirotkin was lingering for Lewis to catch on his inlap and getting round the Williams did him tremendous damage, nearly a full second once the accounting came in.

Thus it was Lewis in and out as Vettel rocked purple sectors and it was wheel to wheel as Hamilton was out of the pitlane. And it was Vettel emerging the victor after several corners of breathless action, but not for long, as he then locked up into T13, opening the door for Hamilton. Around the final corners and into the straight it was Hamilton giving chase with DRS looming. Around T1 and down the long straight they went with Hamilton closing at an alarming rate and then, for a moment, it looked as if they would touch as Vettel closed the door into T2.

Hamilton thought he used 2 two moves defending, and was on the radio even as they hammered down to T3 with Lewis attached to the gearbox of the Ferrari. T4 was where Hamilton did the deed, in they went and Vettel defended, drifting wide through the turn and Hamilton again went to the inside but this time there was nothing Vettel could do and Hamilton was by and off in pursuit of his teammate.

Adding salt to that wound, it was announced on Lap 18 that Vettel was being investigated for moving more than once to defend, down the straight to T2. All that excitement had released Bottas, and he was now rocking nearly a six second lead in effective P1, with Verstappen ahead having yet to stop. This was beginning to become a concern for Raikkonen, who was FINALLY brought in, on lap 20 to keep him inside the pit window of Verstappen.

The battle for best of the rest, meanwhile, was being won rather savagely by Leclerc in his Sauber, who had established a nearly 10 second lead over KMag, whose pace was more than a bit suspect and bottling up the Force indias rather badly. Lap 21 and Ocon was almost in DRS, which was rather important as Hulkenberg had nearly cleared the trio from HIS pit window. 3 laps was the prediction from Force India, and the clock was ticking.

Up front, Hamilton had caught his teammate and was within DRS and Vettel, sensing what was up, immediately lifted his pace and took an entire second out of them both. The proximate cause of this was Verstappen, who was now just 2 seconds up the road from Bottas, who seemed rather stymied by the rather wide Red Bull. Ricciardo, meanwhile had finally climbed up to P6 with his damaged car, the best to be expected under those circumstances.

Lap 25 and Mercedes made the call, Bottas pulled over and Hamilton rocked by. Hot after Verstappen went Lewis as Vettel rocked up to Bottas and on the edge of DRS. Nothing doing though, as he was too far back to make a move, and Vettel lingered just about a second back as the race as the race whirled on.

Further back, Perez was given the green light to attack Kmag with his fresher tyres and Ocon dutifully yielded the position and Sergio was quickly into DRS and on it. Further up the field, Hulkenberg was no doubt enjoying the fact that all this battling was just slowing the trio even further. Verstappen continued to maintain his pace, low 1:38s which was matching what Hamilton was doing. Bottas was running around 0.2 seconds slower and the gap from Vettel to Hamilton was around 3 seconds total. Onto the radio was James Vowles, explaining to a somewhat miffed Bottas that Hamilton had a blister and they needed to make the move to help protect his tyres.

Raikkonen was enjoying his fresh tyres and lap 29 saw him become the fastest thing on the track, for the moment anyway, well inside Verstappen's pit window now and chasing down teammate just 6 seconds up the road. This was clearly aimed at trying to keep Ferrari in the WDC as in the event Vettel got round Bottas Kimi would be there to have a go as well. Also enjoying a renaissance of pace was KMag, who had apparently been playing possum earlier but was now running into the 1:39s, foreclosing the possibility that Hulkenberg would get by him in the pits. This translated to bad news for Perez, who, in the event that he couldn't get round K-Mag, was due to give Ocon his position back.

Adding to the drama, lap 32 heard Hamilton radio in that he was sensing a hesitation from the engine, which was calmly responded to by his race engineer. Perez was then informed he had 2 laps to get by and then he needed to give the spot back, as they were anticipating Hulkenberg pitting then. Magnussen's slow pace was down to fuel saving, and, having passed the critical point, he had turned the wick back up and in fact, was beginning to pull away from Sergio.

Lap 36 and Hulkenberg was in, and out behind both Force Indias as Perez' timer ran out. Given that Perez was 1.6 seconds back and DRS was the requirement, it looked all but done for him and indeed, the position was swapped back within half a lap, with nary a fuss, and off they raced toward the checquers, P9-11.
At the front, the question was what tyre would Verstappen choose for his final stint. Ultras would seem the obvious choice, but the Hypers offered a larger offset to Raikkonen's Softs, but give him fewer laps to make up the difference. Ricciardo was in lap 40, but with a wing change it was a long stop and he was out behind Leclerc. Hamilton had crept up to just 1.3 seconds back of Verstappen, not making life any easier for the Red Bull driver but the prospect of him attacking Raikkonen over the last laps was EXACTLY the spectacle the race needed.

Lap 42 and Hamilton had a go at the Red Bull, up the inside into T2 as he had DRS on the straight, but Max rather brutally shut the door, knowing that Lewis was not in a position to be taking too many chances. After a brief discussion of tyre temps, Max was told to push in anticipation of him boxing. But second thoughts assailed the driver and he argued to be left out. But ultimately to no avail as he was in lap 44 and out he went on some VERY fresh tyres, with 14 seconds and 9 laps to go. One would think in an ideal world that would've been happened a bit sooner, but it's also possible RB were holding out for the slim possibility of a safety car.

The deal was done, regardless, and off Verstappen went, nearly a second a lap faster than Raikkonen, which sadly was not going to be enough to catch him by the end of the race. At the front, Hamilton had a minor lock up, which was enough to bring Bottas inside the 2 second barrier. That didn't last long as Lewis then set fast lap the following, which was the 47th of the race. Hulkenbergs new tyres were not working at all for him and he was ignominiously passed by Grosjean as the race wound down to its conclusion....

No hope for Verstappen, then, as Raikkonen set a personal best on lap 48, just as fast as Verstappen on the previous circuit, leaving Vettel versus Bottas as the only possible contest in the finale. He was just 1.2 seconds off and 4 laps to go as the race wound down but that was complicated by the need to lap Magnussen, which doubled the gap between the Ferrari and Mercedes. This did nothing to improve Sebastian's mood, and the tone of his radio call following could accurately be described as bitterly sarcastic, as he noted the amount of time it took out of his effort to catch Bottas.

It was at this point that he let the gap go, 2 laps left and it went out to 4 seconds. FOM helpfully played the message from Bottas in which he was told that the position swap would be discussed AFTER the race ended. Subtext there being, no, in fact, you will not be given that position back now that Hamilton was clear of trouble. Ouch.....

And thus, with only a minor amount of fuss, Hamilton took the checquers and a 50 point lead with 5 races left in the season. For the math challenged, had Mercedes let Bottas back through, it woudl've been a 43 point lead. It was such a drama that even Wolff was on the radio to the nearly emotional Bottas, promising a full accounting. In the closing laps, K-Mag showed that the HAAS could indeed run laptimes with the Sauber of Leclerc, suggesting that the Sauber might be running much more efficiently in the race, at least with regards to their fuel usage, which in turn means they are more aero efficient. Verstappen's bid for a podium came to naught in the end as he caught a graining phase in his pursuit of Raikkonen and of course Riccardo's race was toast as he caught damage on lap 3, that wasn't fixed till lap 39 or thereabouts. But P5 from the back was still a fairly nice birthday present for young Dutchman.

But the real star of the day was Leclerc, of course, making a vicious move on K-Mag then sailing off into the distance, the only midfielder not lapped by the sharp end and a real marker for Sauber, that their increased investment was finally paying off. And not bad for HAAS, either, as Renault had a decidedly off day with neither car in the points, Hulkenberg caught out needing to save fuel when he was on his fast tyres at the end of the race and Sainz taking fairly heavy damage from Sirotkin on the first lap, which removed a chunk of his floor and removed some fiddly aero bits as well.


The end result was the gap between HAAS and Renault was down to just 11 points with 5 races left and Magnussen tied with Hulkenberg on points, though he was listed as ahead in the table, presumably on countback. Also a bright spot for the Toro Rosso team was the performance of the new spec Honda PU, which was proclaimed as being fully ahead of its immediate Renault rival, admittedly by the team principal, so grain, salt, apply...

Not yet fully explained, however, was their double retirement, which was decidedly due to mechanical issues. Gasly described it as a brake failure, but it was across both cars so some serious looking to be done. With luck, they'll be rocking the new spec PU in Suzuka, which should liven up the midfield even more, as if it needed any help. So it's off to Japan with Ferrari looking to salvage their pride with both championships receding into the distance, Red Bull looking fairly sporty with their latest iteration and keen to make trouble, whilst HAAS will be both looking to close in on Renault and defend against Force India, with Sauber and Toro Rosso more than eager to play spoiler.

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