29 Jun 2019
`Matt 'Trumpets' Ragsdale
Ambient 29° Track 52° Humidity 60% Wind 1.0 m/s
The brutal heat wave that was crushing all Europe under its iron heel ruthlessly spared no thought for the delicate flowers of the F1 paddock despite being located in the usually temperate Styrian hills, track temps headed north of 50°C as those caught unguarded in the open were hammered with merciless sunlight, a visceral assault for those who failed to take proper precautions.
The first 2 practice sessions featured a large number of broken front wings, the kerbs around the circuit being particularly vicious when challenged by drivers looking to extract every last hundredth. The official meeting to revert the tyres to 2018 spec saw a 5-5 tie, with Mercedes and their vassals, Racing Point and Williams being opposed, along with McLaren and Renault, with the in favor. Renault perhaps being the outlier as they have suffered with the tyres, but still seeing advantage with most of their opponents being even more hobbled than they are. Frankly, they would probably have voted for running with only 3 wheels as long as it kept HAAS firmly in their rear view mirror.
Also hotting up was silly season, appropriately enough with Verstappen now in the rumour mill, a performance clause potentially freeing him up to pursue a seat at, well, one would have to suppose Ferrari or Mercedes. IT all seemed rather unlikely, however as the clause was supposedly that Red Bull had to be P3 at a certain point in the season. Given that it was Marko who brought it up, it might also well have been a bit of a smokescreen for their less well performing driver, Gasly, about whom rumours of his impending departure had been strong enough for them to actively have to deny.
Off the F1 track other moves were being made by Red Bull, specifically their dropping of Dan Ticktum from the junior program with immediate effect and being brought in to take his place was Pato O' Ward, late of the Indy Lights championship and being looked at presumable to take the spot at Toro Rosso that would be opened when Gasly is moved on...
Just to keep things interesting, both Verstappen and Bottas had rather large and interesting crashes in FP2, with Bottas tripping the G metre at 25G for his frontal impact. Vettel, too, had a very large and spectacular off, but at least he managed to keep it out of the wall. Pole position looks down to Leclerc vs Mercedes and best of the rest would appear to be Sainz, though he, along with Albon and Hulkenberg will be relegated to the back due to the lot of them taking new engines this round.
Green Light!! Kubica led the way, followed but the Alfas, Giovinazzi ahead of Raikkonen. Stroll was next off the mark and as he finished up the twisty 2nd sector the first hot laps were under way. Russell trundled on track just ahead of Stroll as he fired up for his first go and it was Giovinazzi winning the early teammate battle by about a quarter second. Stroll looked to have some pace as another gaggle of midfielders rocked out of the pits, HAAS, Renault, McLaren and Toro Rosso all having jusdged it the appropriate time to go. Stroll failed to deliver and it wan an early P3 as Russell again bested his teammate.
Magnussen was first into the 1:04's ahead of Hulkenberg and then Norris was through, up a tenth on Kmag. Raikkonen complained of Hamilton blocking him, though on replay it appeared that it was more of a clumsy attempt to stay out of the way. Ferrari was out as well as the sharp end was now prowling the track and it was Leclerc to the top as Hamilton failed to get a clean first lap in. Gasly then Vettel slotted behind, but it was frequently the second lap that was the faster and with 10 minutes to go, and the Mercedes in P9 and P10 it was likely a less than 100% effort from the Silver Arrows.
Verstappen rocked up with a P5 and Hamilton did indeed improve, to P4 only though, 0.422 seconds back of the Ferrari on the Medium tyre. They had brought an extra allotment to the track relative to the other teams and it now appeared they planned to burn some of them as a substitute for the Softs, which were problematic for them in the heat of France just a week ago.
On his second go, Leclerc picked up a nice tow from Hamilton and went even faster as Verstappen on his second lap, nobbled up to P2 just 0.2 seconds off Leclerc. With 5 minutes left Hamilton had another go and could do no better than P5, the Mercedes now split by the McLaren of Norris, who had improved on his already fairly stellar first effort.
Sitting in the drop zone with 4 minutes to go were Raikkonen, Kvyat, Stroll, Russell and Kubica with Albon in the hot seat. HAAS looked to be the competitor for Macca this weekend, with Kmag P8 and Grosjean P10. And then RoGro rocked up to P6 only to be bested by Giovinazzi in a stonking lap, ahead of Sainz as well as times were suddenly improving by leaps and bounds. A slightly urgent call for Mercedes signalled they did NOT feel safe and sure enough, back out they went as the clock ticked down to a minute to go, Bottas P12 and suddenly in serious danger. Gasly and the Ferraris stayed put and traffic was suddenly thick and heavy and Kvyat had to take the long way round just to get across the finish line to start his lap. Kmag, also rocking a penalty had dropped to P15 as it was Perez now in danger and as he crossed the line he was 0.011 off the HAAS and going no further. Raikkonen was the big winner, jumping up to P11 as the checquers fell adn then it was Mercedes, with a slightly pressured second effrot rocking up to P2 and P3, just behind Verstappen who wound up going P1 as Ferrari rolled with their Medium-tyred effort and wound up P4 and P5, Leclerc and Vettel respectively.
Russell got dinged for the traffic that held up Kvyat and was under investigation. Going no further were Perez, Stroll, Kvyat, Russell and Kubica. Given that, hard to ignore the Hamilton/Raikkonen incident though there was as yet no official word from the stewards.
AS Q2 got underway, the Hamilton incident was "noted" by the stewards, yet another variable as Hamilton and Bottas led Verstappen onto the track. Ferrari joined just as Mercedes was onto their first hotlap, rocking the Medium tyre. Bottas, behind, was slightly outpointing Hamilton and it was the Finn, taking P1 from his teammate until Verstappen rocked across the line, a tenth up and P1, and a rousing cheer from his his supporters. Contra strategy, it was Ferrari on the Soft tyre and easily to the top, Leclerc with a 1:03.459 and Vettel 0.208 seconds back.
The midfield was now turning times in earnest, with Raikkonen P7 until Norris took his toy away. Kmag managed a P10 with Raikkonen P9 and Giovinazzi P8. Grosjean had a scruffy lap and broke his front wing, called in over the radio leaving him P13. Not what HAAS needed with Kmags penalty but with 6 minutes left in the session plenty of time for him to correct that error. Or make it worse......
In the drop zone were Hulkenberg, Albon, Groshean Ricciardo and Sainz with Kmag in the hotseat as everyone waited to see if Mercedes came out on Softs to make a serious run, or just to set up for Q3. 4:30 left and out came Merc on Mediums, showing they were NOT happy with their first times, and that they were quite committed to running the harder tyre at the start of the race. Their usual practice would've been to come out on the Softs, run most of a lap and then pit to get ready for Q3 so something was going slowly sideways in the Mercedes garage. Grosjean was the only other runner out as Hamilton backed off after picking up a slipstream. Bottas rocked across, P4 and improved but still not faster than Verstappen on the same tyre.
Kmag had a big off into T4and that caused Norris to back off as well, big lock up being the cause. Hulkenberg and Ricciardo too were caught up as well. This stuck a knife in all their chances and once again a mistake from Magnussen wound up promoting him to Q3, this time with a car that was still in one piece. The inevitable Shumacher at Rascasse comparisons were immediately bandied about as Leclerc had improved his time in advance of the drama.
Speaking of, Vettel had not been out for a second go and his car was now in some pieces, with both Binotto and the FIA in attendance. Going no further were Grosjean, Hulkenberg, Albon, Ricciardo and Sainz, with Grosjean set to inherit P10 once his teammates grid penalty (a five spot) was applied. Off in search of a Marzen they went as the rest turned it around for the Elysian fields of Q3...
Q3 opened with the Alfas, Giovinazzi leading Raikkonen around the track as the rest saw fit to sit tight for the moment. It did appear that they were setting Kimi up for a good slipstream as the engine cover was still off of Vettel's car and things were not looking great for the Ferrari driver. Raikkonen just managed to pip his teammate, by 0.008 seconds, thanks to the slipstream and as they rolled onto their cooling lap, it was Mercedes, Hamilton and the lead, then Norris, Leclerc, Magnussen, Verstappen and Gasly covering the rear.
Bang!!! across the line went Hamilton on his hotlap, ditching his teammate in the process but that really didn't seem to matter as Leclerc was colouring the board purple behind the both of them. It was Bottas ahead of Hamilton then and Leclerc then took their toy away, 0.351 ahead of Bottas and 0.692 seconds ahead of Hamilton. Verstappen then came through and took P3 away from Hamilton as Vettel climbed out of the car and it was game over for the Ferrari driver.
In the midfield it was Raikkonen, Giovinazzi and Norris ahead of Kmag, the 3 covered by just 0.06 seconds and a rather larger gap to the HAAS. 2 mintues to go and off they went for their final tilt at glory, again Alfa at the head, but the rest much closer behind. Lewis got the hurry up from the team as he was trying to force SOMEONE ahead of him. Norris and Magnussen took the bait and now they were interleaved, with Leclerc ahead of Bottas and Verstappen ahead of him.
Despite the madness, they all managed to get across the line in time to start their final laps, Hamilton leading the way, and up to P2 he went as Bottas and Leclerc still steamed around the track, Leclerc again putting up large chunks of purple on the board. Across the line he went, improving and behind him only Bottas was on track to displace him. Around the final turn he came, scrabbling for traction and across the line he went, P4 the best he could do on the day. Verstappen then rocked across in P3 and it was done, barring the blocking investigation.
In the midfield, it was madness as apparently Magnussen had just not been pushing the pedal on the right, as he rocked up to P5 (yes, you read that correctly) followed by Norris, Raikkonen, and Giovinazzi. The real shocker was Gasly, who wound up P9...... Yeah, not where you want to be when the rumours in the paddock concerning your departure are already strong. Gasly had been suffering with intermittent power issues in FP3 so it remained to be seen whether the cruel race gods had inflicted mechanical misfortune on him or whether he had done the job all on his own.
With rumoured degradation on the Softs not as bad as expected, tomorrow's race looks to more than make up for the monotony of strategy in France. Unanswered questions include what exactly happened to Vettel and whether or not it can be fixed without penalty, if Hamilton will get penalised for the Raikkonen incident, and whether Ferrari can run the Softs as long as they want in weather that's supposed to be even HOTTER than it was today.
Late word was that pneumatics was the issue on Vettel's car and they couldn't effect repairs in time.
Vettel out of place, Sainz, Hulkenberg and Albon at the back leaves Ricciardo chasing a pair of HAAS. Given Ferrari's strategy choice it will be interesting to see if the midfield going long will be an effective strategy. Plenty to follow and oh yeah, what exactly was that Mercedes??? A set up change gone sideways? I'm sure they'll never tell but regardless it has certainly piqued interest in tomorrow's race......
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