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13 May 2018

 Ambient 16° Track 36° Humidity 50% Wind 2.6 m/s


Overnight at Montmelo saw a hammering rain and as the track went green for installation laps there were massive grey clouds hanging over the circuit at the back of the pitlane, and an oculus of blue at the exit, the promised land, a paradise of dry tarmac. But the weather forecast promised otherwise and the likelihood of precipitation exceeded 50% as the start of the race approached.

Pirelli forecast a 2 stopper being fastest, Super, Soft, Soft with a first stop around lap 16, conveniently ignoring the fact that the top 8 cars all chose to qualify on and will start with the Softs. Why? Well, according to reports of a driver meeting with Pirelli, Vettel put it best in stating there simply weren't big enough gaps between the compounds. The evidence is hard to ignore when HAAS made Q3 with Softs and had he not been fueled for an extra lap, Danny Ricky would likely have been P5 instead of P6 on the Softs vs Max on the Supers. Of course, starting on Softs Pirelli do admit a one stopper could work, with a single stop around lap 35, and that would've been the plan for the top teams, but with a not merely green, but abundantly verdant track the fact of the matter is that no one was quite sure what the best way round would be.

Temps matter too, and if the teams get it wrong a radio full of complaints will absolutely be broadcast for our entertainment. AS to overtaking, the challenge at this circuit, according to an interview with Toto Wolff, is that the approaches to both straits are high speed, and the wash from the leading car make it somewhere between difficult and impossible to stay close enough for an overtake, even with DRS. So look for drivers taking a few strategic shots, which has become the norm in these days of advanced aero.

Of course, none of this will matter if the rain actually comes, and as I wander off for one more espresso the random fact that Hartley has a brand new engine, the Hulk is hopelessly out of position and apparently the Williams is suffering from a stalling condition that is "depriving the drivers of confidence" seem worth mentioning, as the anthems play and pageantry rocks into full swing....   


Lights Out!!!! The massive run down to T1 saw good start from Hamilton but it was Vettel into P2 by Bottas who was struggling a bit. Contact for Alonso, and BANG!!!! RoGro and Hulkenberg both were involved in a race ending incident.

RoGro spun the car after Magnussen understeered in front of him, taking air off his car. He then collided with Hulkenberg as the car didn't spin off the track, but rather back across the circuit at T3 in huge, billowing clouds of smoke as he had kept the throttle pinned. Gasly, too, looked to have been collected and in no surprise to anyone the Safety Car was straight out.

As they waited for the lengthy cleanup to begin, it was Hamilton, Vettel, Bottas, Raikkonen and Verstappen in the top 5. Alonso had tagged Sainz just prior to the Grosjean disaster and they were both full off the circuit then Grosjean, hung it around the outside chasing Magnussen and the rest you know.

Much argument on the telly about whether Rogro should've kept the throttle pinned, so have fun with that in the comments. Actually, not so much argument as bafflement but still... Palmer on 5 live was adamant that it was exactly the wrong thing to do, unless you were in a front wheel drive car...Lap 4 and the complaints about the slow Safety Car were led by Sainz and as lap 6 ticked over word came down that Safety Car was going to come in, with Hulk, Gasly and Grosjean all gone from the race.

Restart!!! Big slides as Hamilton got a good jump, Bottas looked racey for a moment but he, too couldn't hook it up and it was status quo ante. Alonso was the only one to get it done, nipping Ocon round the outside of T3 and up to P10. Danny Ricky went wide and that brought him into the  sights of Kmag, now within DRS of the Red Bull. At the end of lap 7 Alonso, too, was on the gearbox of Leclerc running in P9.

Lap 9 and the frontrunners were evenly spread at 2 second intervals as presumably they waited for DRS or the first pit window to open before making any moves. Vandoorne got rocked with a time penalty for not rejoining correctly after going off at T2, legacy of decision precipitated by Verstappen in practice, who wove his way round the speed bumps and argued himself out of a penalty by pointing out he didn't HIT them, as per the reg. Whiting clarified this for the race and Stoffel fell afoul of it.

Lap 11 and the clouds over the circuit were looking ever darker, and team radio were bouncing back and forth between plan A and B's as the early and relatively lengthy Safety Car changed fuel usage profiles considerably.

At the front, Hamilton had buried the throttle and opened the gap to nearly 6 seconds by lap 14 as the 2 stop beckoned. Bottas had closed up the gap and was well within undercut on Vettel and surprising no one, Danny Ricky radioed in he was faster than Max and could he please be allowed to overtake. Apparently the original plan to let them play unsupervised had undergone some revision.  

Lap 17 and it was Vandoorne chasing down Perez, the closest battle. Then Vettel and Ferrari pulled the trigger on a two stop the following lap, out on a Medium to prevent the undercut from Bottas. Mercedes responded by having Bottas push and he promptly set fast lap, whilst Vettel was out behind KMag, which, umm, OK that looked to be fun as it was just 2 seconds between them.

Lap 20 and Bottas was in, but with a problem on the back left costing him time, about 1.5 seconds, and on exit, he was out right by Kmag and Vettel split the difference, leaving Bottas behind Kmag and Vettel racing off into the distance.

Ricciardo was next up for the Ferrari driver, stuck behind his teammate but 12 seconds up the road. Bottas rocked by Kmag and lap 21 entered the history books as he continued his chase of P2 on the podium. At the front, Hamilton had managed to stretch his lead over Raikkonen to 15 seconds and continued to slowly stretch his lead, looking to clear the Ferrari from his pit window.  

Lap 22 and Alonso was in, out in P16 and chasing Leclerc once again. Lap 25 and suddenly Raikkonen slowed, with a loss of power. Frantic radio with the team yielded no immediate satisfaction and as they struggled, Hamilton took advantage to pit with no threat from Ferrari. Verstappen did manage to get by, but with a stop looming for them.

It was the end of the road for Kimi, though and he pulled over as Hamilton warmed up his Mediums and got to grips with his race. Sainz was in lap 26 and Perez followed him 2 laps later. AS the pit stop cycle continued, it was Ocon, Vandoorne, Ericsson and Sainz taking the last of the points paid positions, with Sainz the only one to have made a stop.
Lap 29 and it was a savage defense through T1 and T2 for Ericsson, fending off Sainz at least for the moment, but it was clear that it was just a matter of time for Carlos to have that spot as the Sauber had yet to stop. Hamilton caught a radio message that he did NOT need to manage his pace to make his tyres last, and he continued to run just a bit faster than Verstappen ahead, content to manage till the Red Bulls chose to pit. Looking backwards, it was clear that both Bottas and Vettel were running at a pace that meant neither would be cleared from the pit window so the strategy looked to be running as long as possible, then using fresh tyres to make up ground late in the race, and/or rain and Safety Car giving them essentially a free stop.

Lap 31 and disaster for Ocon, right rear refusing to go on and it cost him nearly half a minute as he made his first and only stop. Ericsson, Vandoorne, and Kmag continued to be the only runners without a stop. Lewis had gradually closed up to Verstappen and lap 33 he was on the edge of DRS as the lap kicked off. Down the back strait he went, just inside DRS and taking no chances. Ricciardo was in and out, P5 and Mercedes finally figured out what Hamilton knew as soon as he came out, that RBR were on a one stop with track position and were a threat if he couldn't make his tyres last.

Kmag was in and out, P6 on Lap 33 and then Verstappen was in 2 laps later, P4 and on the Mediums. Thus the die was set, lap 36 and Verstappen was chasing Hamilton's pit window while at the front Lewis matched his fastest lap. Ericsson was the last in, changing out his Mediums for Softs, and on the radio Mercedes asked for feedback on tyres if they were to convert to a one stop, with Verstappen 21 seconds behind and putting Bottas and Vettel both into serious jeopardy should they stop for a second time.  

The Alonso/Leclerc battle, which had been simmering and occasionally boiling over all race, hotted up again lap 40, but the enormous aero that Macca were running did Fernando no favours as he rocketed down the strait, unable to close the door all the way before he ran out of real estate.
Lap 41 and Ocon was out with a PU failure, bringing forth the Virtual Safety Car as the Force India was recovered. At the front, Hamilton had eked out another second but with the VSC Mercedes now had the option to lose less time for a stop.

While Mercedes dithered, Ferrari jumped, with Vettel in for new Mediums, but at the cost of being out P5 and Verstappen and Bottas to chase down. And again the kaleidoscope shifted and lap 43 saw the VSC off. Alonso, the wily veteran, got the jump on Leclerc and vitally, Verstappen ran dead into the back of Stroll on the restart, taking a big chunk of his front left endplate. Williams' woes continued as Sirotkin had an odd moment where he lost it all by himself. Perez took P10 away from Stroll with little effort while much to the consternation of the aerodynamicists, Verstappen carried on at the same pace.

Unfortunately for Max, that pace was about half a second a lap slower than Vettel and as lap 47 ticked over the Ferrari driver was just about in DRS. Vandoorne was then out with a loss of power, pulling over at pit exit as the strict PU regulations continued to bite....

Fast lap for Hamilton, into the 1:19's as Vettel worked his way free of traffic to continue the pursuit of the Red Bull, who was now nearly 2 seconds up the road. Sadly for the entertainment value, Kmag was demonstrating the superiority of the HAAS by running significantly faster than the rest of the midfield, while not quite being on the pace of the sharp end, putting him in a bubble with a  half minute or so either side of him in a lonely P6. Which, perhaps, was a comfort to the HAAS pitwall as the likelihood of him losing bodywork in a battle was virtually nil.

Lewis' fast lap didn't last long, as Danny Rick, sensing a shot at Vettel, turned up the wick and began chasing, taking nearly a second out of the Ferrari.  Sebastian, meanwhile, was keeping up the pressure on Verstappen, within 2 seconds and looking to take the podium away from the Red Bull and the long slow slog to the end of the race commenced.

10 laps to go and the threat of rain hung in the air, but was far enough away that the teams were being dismissive of the issue. With things having set, telly managed to ID some damage to Perez, the result of the Force India driver destroying Verstappen's endplate, which had flown off down the front strait. Still, that didn't stop him from banging past Leclerc on lap 60, as the Sauber ran itself dry of energy and was essentially defenseless down the front strait. Lap 61 and Sirotkin again had some kind of an off, which didn't make primetime. In completely unrelated news, F1 TV, having turned out to be in no way ready for primetime (reddit comments were savage, and apparently it was a huge amateur hour effort) is indeed offering refunds to all those who signed up. That said, the bones of it are promising indeed, and if nothing else the replays and archives are a tremendous resource.

Sainz had a fuel dropout issue, and was told to be careful round T3 but with 4 laps left, and Alonso 6 seconds back, it was more a management issue than a serious threat. Bottas complained of losing tyre temperature as he underwent fuel saving, lift and coast keeping his brake temps down, which sounds good until you realise that brake temps help keep tyre temps up, and the older the tyres the more likely they are to lose temps and drop out of the window.

Still, a minor diversion, and as Hamilton crossed the line for the win, something had gone south for Verstappen in the final lap, and he just barely crossed the line ahead of Vettel. Hartley, too, ran into issues on the final lap and looked to be coasting down toward the checquers, pulling off the track and parking it by the pit exit.

A fairly faultless weekend for Mercedes, and perhaps some regret on the Ferrari pitwall, as they paid the price not only for an aggressive pit strategy for Vettel, but possibly for how hard they have pushed their PU, the loss of Raikkonen having severely complicated their strategic day. The fact of the matter is, though,they were never really on it this weekend, and the new surface and slightly thinner tyres did them no favours whatsoever.Excellent result for Red Bull, but a brutally unhappy day for Ricciardo, not allowed to challenge Max (?) and regretting savagely taking on fuel for 2 runs for his last shot at Q3. Hindsight being 20/20, Hamilton in the cooldown room told Bottas that he should've pulled over on the run down to T1 at the start to give Valterri the benefit of a tow. Instead, he wound up helping Vettel by trying to cut him off. Meaningless in the end, it was still a nice insight, and clearly Hamilton sees this as his first proper victory of the year, regardless of the WDC standings.

Smashing race for Magnussen, and also for Grosjean, just for completely different reasons. Still, HAAS' package looks to be maintaining its advantage over the midfield, the only question being when they will be able to pull off the high double points finish that is clearly within their grasp at the moment. That in turn leads to questions about RoGro, who once again seems to be struggling with decision making at key moments. He was brought in to lead the team, but under pressure of struggling with the car, seems to be spiraling and it will be interesting to see what the rumour mill chunks up in the lead up to Monaco.

The other entertainment was Verstappen's times with the damaged (entirely removed) endplate. With the new front wings coming in next year, and despite the pleas of the aero boffins, one wonders exactly why the complaining from RBR. Maybe it won't be the utter disaster they are currently predicting...

Despite the seeming dominance of Mercedes at this track, the season is far from over and Monaco offers a serious shot for the fizzy drinks team as well as the Scuderia. Horner offered post race that Ricciardo had a spin under the VSC that cost him 12 seconds, explaining the end of his challenge to Vettel.

And remember to play nice in the comments!!


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