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28 Jul 2018

Brought to you by Matt 'Trumpets' Ragsdale - @mattpt55

Ambient 25° Track 32° Humidity 62% Wind 1.9 m/s


Brutal heat on track was the story of FP3, with the track up to 58°C by the end of the session, which saw Vettel looking quite comfortable at the top, and Mercedes, to the surprise of no one, struggling a bit with the tyres given the high track temps. Even with that, Bottas was just a tenth off Vettel's time and in possession of FP2, but a late run saw him spinning off the same spot on the track as his teammate, Hamilton, in T6, and giving the Armco a firm test, which, fortunately for Merc, left him reasonably undamaged. Lewis was able to do no better than P4, having been unable to put 3 solid sectors together, and a radio call with his engineer revealed not only were they working on a 2 lap prep, but that the rears were overheating whilst the fronts were in the window on his car, which was the factor robbing him of grip in the twisty middle sector.

Red Bull were even worse off after a promising FP2 and the appearance of being in it for the win. Today's session left them well off the pace, looking for answers where there are none. But the questions are fairly straitforward, is their slump in form due to a lack of punch from their spurned PU partner Renault; a McLarenesque chassis fault; or a total dedication to 2019 given the need to package (and develop) the Honda PU that they have selected. Of course, that's a false choice and the answer is certainly down to some of each, shaken, not stirred.

Renault and HAAS once again battled for best of the rest in FP3, and that struggle will continue in qualifying as well. One would suppose that HAAS will have the advantage, with all Ferrari teams now having the new spec PU. But the real story of the midfield had to be Force India having gone into administration. The short story is that supposedly Mercedes used Perez as a stalking horse to make it happen, as Force India owe the driver $4 million but the combined Daimler, HPP and GP group somewhere in the neighbourhood of $13 million. Probably worth chucking in that it was Williams, the sole team to vote to refuse to allow FI to get early release of last year's prize money that probably started them down the path.

Of course, owing stupid amounts of money is hardly unusual in this sport, and in general this is being spun as a positive thing for the team as they will be able to continue racing as usual as a new owner is found, likely with deep enough pockets to get the team back up to speed rapidly. Given that VJ Mallya is once again off fighting extradition to his home country (and reportedly had been demanding an unreasonable amount of money for the sale), it would seem they have a point. Of course, a competitive midfield team on the block has a variety of would be owners circling, and the strongest rumours currently link Papa Stroll to the deal in such a way that his progeny would wind up moving from Williams to the currently more competitive Force India.

As the start of the session approached, spots of rain were reported on track as a grey wall of clouds descended, blocking off the sun. With time whittling away the rain increased in intensity, raising the spectre that once again the weather would play a prominent role in setting up the grid for tomorrow's race, and with an 80% chance if rain reported, expect chaos as the track opens for Q1....


Green Light!! Thunder and lightning just as the pit opened and it was Mercedes, Bottas leading Hamilton and Leclerc right out of the gate. Raikkonen, Ericsson and Hulkenberg next, then Ocon Vanddoorne and Alonso. Sirotkin Sainz Gasly Magnussen and Grosjean with Hartley Vettel, Verstappen and Ricciardo batting clean up as Mercedes launched their first hot laps. All on Inters as it kicked off. Mercedes radioed the rain was coming from T14, but until it showed the track was drying, making life difficult for all the runners.

Bottas was up to the top with his first effort, then Hamilton went faster yet, but it was Raikkonen who really had the good lap, going 1:25.988 and nearly a second faster than Lewis. Vettel slotted into P2, about 0.3 seconds back and it was Hulkenberg, rocking up to P4, splitting the Mercedes with perhaps the most impressive performance with just 12 minutes left. Verstappen set an early time but had some kind of issue, bringing Horner onto the radio and urging all to get on with it.

But the rains still held off, and as drivers began to notice their Inters were disintegrating on the almost dry track, the teams urged them to hold course as their radars told them it was all about to kick off. Renault and Sainz took the bet and he was off on a set of Ultras with 9:30 to go, as Vettel jumped up to the top, with a 1:25.176.

Round he went, purpling the board and well clear as he hit the line, with a 1:22.679, immediately overshadowed by Magnussen who went up by 0.2 seconds, but the pair of them more than 2 seconds clear. Hulkenberg was next to the party and to the top with Ericsson following through P2.

6 minutes to go and the rain was coming back as the top teams, having waited, were just finishing outlaps as Grosjean, Hartley and then Raikkonen went P1 successively. Despite the rain, the track continued to favour the dry tyres and with 5 minutes left it was Raikkonen, Verstappen, Bottas, Hamilton, Hulkenberg and Sainz as the order changed second by second. Ricciardo, on the Soft tyre for some reason, could only go 18th and with 4 minutes left it wsa Gasly, Magnussen, Ricciardo, ad Sirotkin in danger of relagation, with Stroll in the hot seat.

That quickly changed as times continued to fall, and in the blink of an eye and with 2:30 left it was Ericsson, Obon, Stroll Magnussen and Sirotkin. At the sharp end, the battle continued as well, with Raikkonen now into the 1:17s and P1 followed by Vettel. Even as he set that, it was Lewis purpling the leaderboard and to the top with a 1:17.419, illustrating the extraordinary evolution of the track throughout the session.

Under a minute left and Ricciardo was the big name in danger, P13 as the flag fell but all behind him with the chance to improve. Vettel went a second faster than Hamilton to claim P1 then it was Gasly to P11 as Kmag was all over it and headed for home through the final sector. Hartley put up a P10 then it was Alonso P9 before Kmag popped up P10. Stroll then went P13 and finall it was Danny Ric, getting his act together and going P12 having saved his bacon with a last minute effort. on the outside looking in were Vandoorne, Leclerc, Ocon, Perez and Sirotkin, off in search of some paprikash as the rest turned it around for Q2.

During the interlude, the rain that was predicted for the first Q1 began to creep onto the track, and as the light went green at the pit exit, it was reported tp be widely falling across the entire circuit.

HAAS were first out for Q2, on slicks to try and sneak in a fast lap before it got too bad. Vettel was chucked out on Inters with most of the rest sticking with the Ultras, quite the bet given how fast conditions could change. At the other end of the line, it was Raikkonen with a last minute switch, suggesting a bit of uncertainty as to the best compound. And just then, the rains came. Verstappen had a massive slide T11 and just kept it out of the wall and as the entire rest of the field poured into the pits, Vettel set off onto a clear track with potentially the best conditions to be seen for the entire session.

1:28.636 told the story, 12 seconds slower than Q1, and it looked to be a lock on P1 as things continued to worsen with the rest of the field still on their outlaps. Magnussen was first off, and turned a 1:32, Sainz then came through with a more reasonable 1:30.771 for P2. Stroll had a slide, T8 across the track on exit and dislodged his front wing as multiple drivers were reporting acquaplaning. Verstappen to P3, and Hamilton to P4 as Raikkonen was in difficulty, having been last off and then stuck in the pits with a problem. Still, he managed a P8 and as Ricciardo trundled across the line, P13 was the best he could do.

K-Mag rethought his strategy, and was out on the Wet tyre, going P9 with his teammate P10. Under 6 minutes to go, both Toro Rossos were in good shape, P5 and P7 for Gasly and Hartley respectively, and conversely it was Hulkenberg and Ricciardo in difficulty as push was well on its way to meet shove.

4 minutes to go and Ericsson was off to have a go as the track had emptied, and Hulkenberg joined him on his lonely circuit. Alonso, Ricciardo and Stroll were the other three on the outside looking in, but the rain had decreased in intensity. Alonso radioed that they should wait until the last sector improved and with 1:44 left he was out with a set of the Wets on to have a last shot at making Q3.

With a 2 second gap from P11 to P10, and the rain not abating, it looked unlikely at best. The glory shot of the Williams at 3 minutes to go, coming down the straight, showed just what Brawn et al mean when the talk about outwash from the front tyres, spray billowing bowlegged out from the front axle.

And just as Alonso predicted, there would be no improvement as the track conditions stayed worse with fewer runners on track to clear water.

Thus it was Alonso, Ricciardo, Hulkenberg, Ericsson and Stroll going no further, off in search of some palinka to drown their sorrows as the rest got ready to tilt for all the marbles. Renault confirmed it was a problem with the fuel bowser that accounted for his surprise exit of Hulkenberg, keeping him off track during the best conditions of the session, but there was rather less information immediately available for Ricciardo's ouster. Turns out it was Stroll, spinning directly in front of him and bringing out the yellows, that put the knife firmly into his chances as by time he reset the best times had gone away.

Bottas, Verstappen, Hartley, Hamilton Vettel, Sainz, Gasly, Magnussen and Grosjean were out straight away for Q3, with Raikkonen trailing out well behind the rest of the field. Team radio reproted that the weather would worsen for the first half of the session.

The first hot laps were just as mental as could be imagined, Verstappen first up with a 1:38, then immediately topped by Bottas and then Hamilton to a 1:37.564 and the top of the leaderboard. With Raikkonen behind looking to be on a good lap, there was not much in it, and Raikkonen eventually managed P3, with the top 3 covered by just 0.2 seconds. Verstappen kept his foot in it, as did the rest of the field, the Wet tyres good for multiple runs as long as the track stays wet...

Raikkonen improved to P2, but it was Hamilton, putting on a masterclass up to a 1:36.648. Bottas, looked to have a bit harder time, but still managed to edge out Kimi for P2. With the full Wets clearing water at a tremendous pace (65 litres a second), and conditions gradually improving, it was Raikkonen, just past the 5 minute mark, who put it on provisional pole as Vettel emerged on a new set of tyres.

3 minutes to go, and both Mercedes were in for a new set of Wets with just enought time for an outlap and one more go as Sainz split the Mercedes on his new tyres. The rest of the midfield were Gasly in P6, then Hartley P8, Magnussen and Grosjean rouding it out with Verstappen stuck in there at P7, out of place but struggling with balance.

Hamilton's first go round came up 0.2 seconds off Raikkonen and with just a minute left, Vettel was off on his final turn, in P4 and behind Sainz. Kmag P9 with one more go as RoGro was massively balked by Verstapen. Hamilton, was turning up purples in his fierce battle against Raikkonen as Vettel finished off his final sector, and went P2 as he had a bit of a moment out of the last turn that cost him some time. Bottas next and to the top!!! Provisional pole for the Finn as Lewis rounded T14 and once again took P1, making it a front row lockout with just Gasly left to go. No surprises then as Gasly didn't threaten the sharp end but surprise enough for Toro Rosso as he did go P6. Mercedes managed once again to stun Ferrari and with Raikkonen and Vettel behind them, followed by Sainz and Gasly, tomorrow's start was looking fairly entertaining. Indeed, given the long, Barelona-esque run down to T1, the potential for tears is large, but the lingering question is for whom those tears will be shed.

The advent of the wet generated some interesting observations, particularly the swap in performance between Mercedes and Ferrari once the track was fully wet. Given Mercedes general advantage one would have to assume that they have been running shed loads more downforce than Ferrari, but crucially, the advantage on corner exit for Ferrari reported by AMuS seemed to be greatly lessened in the low traction environment. Red Bull, too, suffered greatly in the wet, rather a big surprise given the common wisdom, but again, it suggests that they are running the lowest possible amount of downforce in order to equalise the power deficit between Renault and the top two PU manufacturers. Or it could be more problematic, as Verstappen was vociferous in his displeasure about the lack of balance in the car and P7 was clearly not the result expected for the enfant rainmeister.

Also displeased was Magnussen, who was forthright in stating that Hamilton backed him up through T14 and then compromised his final run, despite Lewis having a clear track ahead. RoGro had a similar complaint about Verstappen (to the point of HAAS reporting it) perhaps explaining them being at the back of the top 10. A first Q3 for Hartley and brilliant result for Toro Rosso, with Gasly P6 and Hartley P8 and a real chance for points in the race.

Tomorrow's race will be hot and dry by all accounts, and the train race that Hamilton bemoaned yesterday might well work to his favour, if he is at the head once they clear T1. Regardless, tyre management will be the key for the entire field, and remembering that Vettel ran a stupidly long stint on the Ultra's hints at their abilities to keep that tyre working. Conversely, the struggles Hamilton had in FP3 show the challenge Mercedes face, creating a gap without overheating the rears. Of course, with a wet qualifying, free choice of tyres is also on offer and it will be interesting to see what those at the sharp end choose for their first stint....


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