3 Dec 2019
Ambient 26.6° Track 30.6° Humidity 60% Wind 1.2 m/s
A gentle breeze wafted silkily through the paddock as the low ripe sun hung on the edge of the horizon, belying the frantic preparations underway as the teams got ready for the last race of the year. And yet again, Ferrari under pressure as the FIA determined there was a significant discrepancy in the fuel reported to be in Leclerc's car versus the amount that was ACTUALLY in his car. To be investigated after the race, but given the focus on Ferrari and their fuel system it's not a good look, to say the least, regardless of the cause.
Predicted to be a one-stopper, Medium-Hard ideal, it's primarily Vettel and the top 10 midfielders that will be facing a challenge as they start on the Soft compound. Bottas at the back due to engine penalty will be looking to make maximum forward motion in order to keep the shot at a podium alive. The start, as always, will be crucial, with Hamilton very much wanting to have clear air to sail off into, instead of a visor full of Red Bull or Ferrari. Likewise, if neither team gets in front of him early on, then it will very much be game, set and match such was the advantage on race pace the Mercedes' appeared to have after the second free practice.
The midfield, on the other hand, has it all to do, with 6th in the WDC on the line, between Gasly and Sainz, and potentially 5th in the Constructors down at Renault, after Toro Rosso's epic finish in Brasil. Those starting on the harder tyre from P11 down also look to have a potential advantage, and both Gasly and Perez are have to be counted as contenders for best of the rest as the formation lap approached.
Lights Out!!!! Great Start by Hamilton, and he comes over and covers off the inside as Verstappen couldn't quite get there. Leclerc was on the back of Verstappen and up the inside he went, taking P2 away from the Dutchman into T8. Further back, Magnussen was on the attack and had launched himself into P9 by the end of the first lap and it was Gasly, tagged by Stroll who was the big loser, into the pitlane for a new front wing as the rest of the field raced off into the twilight.
Norris had also managed to get himself ahead of Sainz and Ricciardo and as they settled down, it was quite the good launch for the McLaren youngster. AS lap 4 got underway, the issue at the sharp end was with Vettel, whose Softs were not going to be long for the world, stuck behind Verstappen on the longer lasting Medium tyre, watching his race disappear up the road.
Even worse, DRS was disabled due to a technical issue, disadvantaging not only Vettel, but also Bottas, who had climbed up to P14 but had fetched up behind the very slippery Racing Point of Lance Stroll. That did seem to induce a bit of creativity as Bottas rocked past him into turn 5, not the usual overtaking spot, and got on with it. Stroll reported that damage to his front right was making it quite difficult to control the car. Hulkenberg had retaken P9 from Magnussen and into lap 6 Stroll was into the pitlane to have his car sorted.
Giovinazzi was the next victim of Bottas, and Kmag, after putting up his usual good fight, was passed by Perez as his HAAS simply lacked the pace to run with the big dogs. AT the front, Leclerc had let Hamilton go, and the Mercedes had extended the gap to nearly 5 seconds. On the radio, it was plan A for Leclerc, which was most likely beating Verstappen based on the current timings. There was trouble at Red Bull as well, with Max unhappy with the ICE behaviour and Red Bull insisting he stay in mode 6 and not access mode 7.
By lap 9, despite the issues, Leclerc was falling into the undercut of Verstappen and he was told to push by Ferrari, and he dutifully knocked off the fastest first sector of the race. The following lap saw Norris in for a set of Hard tyres, and out in P16. Though whether that was to release Sainz from the pressure of Ricciardo or whether it was simply optimum strategy for Norris remained to be seen. Confounding the issue was the fact that the pit stop was not trouble free, with the rear left sticking and costing him extra time.
Lap 11 and Bottas was into P10 and within Albon's pit window, nice driving by the Finn and he was within a second of the Racing Point of Perez, just ahead. Leclerc had no answer to escaping the undercut with Verstappen hanging roughly 2.5 seconds back of the Monagasque. Ricciardo was into the pits on lap 12, and out with a set of Hards and Norris was well clear of him.
The following lap both Ferraris were in, a double stack, both onto the Hards, but it was Vettel suffering an issue, and losing massive chunks of time as the front left simply refused to play ball. This put him out behind not only Bottas, but Perez as well. Vettel wasted little time getting round Perez, but it cost him a big lockup as he set off in chase of Bottas.
Albon was in lap 14 and Vettel's quick work on Perez had ensured he stayed ahead of the Red Bull driver, as Albon emerged from the pitlane. The race on track now was between Leclerc on fresh tyres and the pit window of Verstappen, one which the Ferrari was winning by about 4 seconds on lap 15. IT was 6 seconds that he needed to trouble Hamilton and he was slowly nibbling little bits out of that lead, but it looked not nearly enough.
In the midfield, Sainz' pit stop had spat him out behind Ricciardo, and after a few laps of battle, he was back round the Renault driver and locked in behind Norris as they were all stuck in the Grosjean train, the Frenchman running long on his Mediums and holding up the race on fresh tyres just behind him, with no DRS to help the passengers. Bottas had gotten stuck behind Hulkenberg and Mercedes was watching his race evaporate, as he was slowly falling into direct competition with the midfield. And Vettel was now on his gearbox and on lap 18 he had a proper go, but Bottas was able to fight him off and Vettel dropped into his slipstream and kept the battle running. The German popped out into clear air and had a go yet again, but Bottas picked up the tow of Hulkenberg down the straight and was able to get round the outside and maintain his position.
But that was about to be academic, as DRS was enabled and Hulkenberg let Bottas go, bottling up Vettel as the Renault driver was headed for the pits and a set of Mediums. Out just behind Norris and Sainz (who had been held up by Grosjean) he made short work of Sainz and with DRS it was now a different race for the Renault driver as he set after Norris.
Lap 21 saw Magnussen into the pits and he was out in P14, just behind Ricciardo, an effective P11 once the trio of Perez, Kvyat and Raikkonen finally decided to come in. The reinstatement of DRS saw an end to the interesting overtakes and at the front, it was indeed coming down to the race for P2 as Leclerc was hanging 30 seconds back of Hamilton but about 3 seconds up on Verstappen, who would have a big tyre advantage when he finally deigned to visit the pits. From the radio played on lap 23, he was starting to have more issues with them and it wasn't going to be long now. A bit of excitement further back as there was contact between Kubica and Giovinazzi. During that contretemps, Raikkonen was into the pits, leaving Kvyat and Perez as last of the long runners. The stewards decided to have a look because, one presumes, they were bored and had nothing better to do.
Into lap 26 and it was all on, Verstappen in for a set of Hards, flawless stop for Red Bull and that led to Mercedes pulling the plug on Hamilton, called in for the following lap. Verstappen was out with 5 seconds up the road but crucially, with Kubica and Stroll ahead of him as well. Hamilton was in, and out 7 seconds to the good on Leclerc. Verstappen was in some unhappiness about how his PU was working, saying something was not correct, but no further details were immediately forthcoming, aside from a change of settings, as he called it "massive handbrake effect" likely engine braking not working as expected. No further action on the Giovinazzi/Kubica contact as the race settled down for it's second act.
AT the front, Hamilton was loving his new tyres, and was rocking purple sectors, but the real interesting fight was a bit further back, with Sainz in a Renault sandwich and tight on tyre life as he was first in of Formula B. Bottas was still rocking his first set of tyres, and there was now a nice gap for him to fall into, just behind Albon and at the end of lap 29 they pulled the trigger on the move. In, out, off on some Hards and chasing Albon 12 seconds up the road with just Gasly in the way.
Verstappen continued to be vociferous about his braking, and Red Bull were sounding more and more like there was little or nothing that can be till after the race. Still, he pronounced it the best compromise and regardless, was whittling away at the gap to the Ferrari ahead.
Lap 31 and it was DRS time, but the massive straight line advantage kept Leclerc ahead for the moment and the battle rolled onto lap 32. Down the back straight it looked to be done and despite grabbing DRS from Russell, Verstappen was later on the brakes and up the inside. Leclerc hadn't given up and at the end of the following straight he jumped outside and had a proper go. It came to naught, as it appeared on look back that Leclerc initially hadn't fully defended the inside as he lapped the Williams, opening the door for Verstappen.
Leclerc, having lost out, was then pushing for Plan C, presumably a 2 stop. The question for Ferrari now was giving up P3 on the road, as Vettel was slowly coming under pressure from Albon. Though with the fuel discrepancy, Ferrari might as well do some experimenting, since those sorts of technical lapses are almost certain DQs.
In any event, lap 36 and the window was disappearing rapidly as he had just 2 seconds between Bottas and Albon to hit. It would at least give the commentariat something to talk about. The following lap it was down to 1 second and it looked more and more like Ferrari was choosing to NOT put Leclerc and Vettel onto the same patch of tarmac, for no reason that anyone could possibly think of.
In the midfield, it looked very much like the battle for P8 was being kicked to the end of the race as they were all now hanging at quite respectable 1.5 second intervals. The super long stint of Kvyat and Perez meant they were likely going to whack on some fresh tyres and have a good chase, to liven up the proceedings. Perez was in to box on lap 39 and he chose to grab a set of Hards, so that left just Kvyat as longest runner. Plan C for Ferrari as well, and it was again a double stack, Softs for Leclerc and Mediums for Vettel. Bottas also chose that lap to have a go at Albon, and with a lovely move he was by, despite some fight back from Albon. That left Leclerc the next target, 5 seconds up the road, but on brand new Softs.
Farther back, Perez was making best use of his Hard tyre, and rocked by Ricciardo as Kvyat was into the pits for his fresh set of tyres, and quite possibly the last stop of the year. Sainz suggested that it was a good time for a stop if Macca wasn't sure about getting to the end. Lap 43 and Sainz was in for fresh Mediums, as his race was very much on as he was tied with Gasly on points in the WDC, immediately destroying my previous speculation. Ricciardo chose to pit as well, leaving only Norris as the passenger in the Grosjean train whose race seemed to have survived the journey.
Bottas was told his race was very much on but he was still losing time to everyone save Albon, directly behind him. Norris requested the same strategy, but McLaren demurred, thinking the least amount of damage to their overall finishing points would be done be keeping him out on track.
Lap 46 and the battle between Perez and Hulkenberg was well underway, but the wily Renault driver was doing his dead level best to frustrate the Racing Point driver, his years of experience serving him well. With DRS though, there was much less recourse and the following lap it was done, starting on the Medium tyres looking more and more like the winning strategy as the end of the race approached, especially with the long stint without DRS.
Kvyat, following in Perez' footsteps, surprised Hulkenberg on lap 48 and despite some swervy movement from the the German, nervelessly was by the Renault. Stroll was out of the race the same lap and Perez was rocking a half second advantage over Norris ahead, who was given the green light to use his tyres hard to the end. Vettel also looked on track to catch Albon by the end and with 5 laps to go, it looked like a decent finale was on. But wait, Bottas was then authorised to turn it up to 11, well, mode 2 which was quali, for the last 5 laps and with 4 seconds between them. On the road, Sainz needed a single point to take sole possession of 6th in the WDC. Otherwise, it was looking to be a 3 way tie, which would favour Gasly.
3 laps to go and Sainz was 1.7 seconds back of Hulkenberg. By the close of lap 53 it was 1.3 seconds and up the road a bit, Norris was doing the business on Perez, keeping him at bay despite the tyre disadvantage. AT 0.2 seconds it should be mentioned however. Lap 54 and Vettel with DRS looked like he had it done on Albon, but incredibly late on the brakes he managed to keep the spot, but only for a bit as Vettel rocked by down the back straight. Sainz was in DRS with Hulkenberg and Perez had DRS on Norris as the last lap was on.
Massive defending from Norris kept him ahead of Perez as they headed to the back straight it was Perez, by the McLaren driver and into 7th place, claiming best of the rest in the race and taking 10th in the WDC to boot. Bottas was into DRS on Leclerc, but it was just a bit late and Sainz, with exultant radio, was by Hulkenberg and into 10th, a double points finish for McLaren. AS for the race leader, it was a pretty boring day at the office, if you ignore the fact that he rocked up a grand chelem as well.
On the radio, Hamilton was quite assured that despite appearances, it was not as easy as it looked from the outside. Bottas, meanwhile, had a stonking run to P4 from the back of the grid, despite 20 laps with no DRS to help him. It was not that far from a P3, and with a few more laps of quali mode, it looked to be a foregone conclusion for him to have made the podium, such was the dominance of the Mercedes on this weekend. It was a proper valedictory from Renault thanking Hulkenberg for a great tenure only to have him reply "I wish I could say the same" to much laughter from his race engineer as the great wheel of time turned another tick and Ocon prepared to take his seat at Renault for testing next week.
P6 in the WDC for Sainz, passing Hulkenberg on with 10 corners to go (and with a massive lock up to boot) to take it away from Gasly is the kind of story you think they might want to show on the telly, but I guess we plebes know nothing and that's far too boring so we were left to just see it on the timing screens. And that's leaving out calling his own second stop to be in position after he saw the writing on the wall as Perez was coming through like a freight train. That gain was Hulkenberg's loss, however, as Kvyat's 9th tied him with the Renault driver and on countback P13 was his as Hulkenberg said his goodbyes, for the time being at least. No change on the Constructor's side.
Despite losing out to Perez on the last lap, Norris was ecstatic on the radio with his engineer, Andy Jarvis, who was leaving McLaren and after laughing and teasing him for getting a bit verklempt, Norris himself wound up contributing to the waterworks, in a stunning display of everything that has made Lando such an amazing addition to the paddock and McLaren.
Down at HAAS, Steiner thanked his drivers for their efforts and almost sounded like he was pleading with them to not leave the team in the off season, though given the way F1 seats are at the moment, it's hard to see where the might traipse off to, without leaving the sport all together. Despite that, it was Grosjean's long stint, bottling up the front runners in Formula B, that provided all the non-televised fireworks at the end so at least they can congratulate themselves on positively contributing to the last race.
The collision at the start of the race scuppered any chance Toro Rosso had of closing the gap to Renault, which would be cold comfort as they stare at the massive gap in points to McLaren ahead of them. Alfa find themselves in a position not too dissimilar to HAAS, except with slightly more points. Little progress and unable to keep up with the top teams in their division. Still, a bit of a smile as Giovinazzi appears to have gotten on top of racing at this level, gradually developing the consistency necessary to stay in F1.
With much bigger smiles on their faces were Racing Point, despite the late retirement of Stroll, as Perez delivered a masterful drive, running super long on his opener with the Mediums and then carving through the field with fresh tyres, seizing P7 on the last lap after an epic defense by Norris. Had he finished behind Norris, he also would've lost 10th in the WDC to boot so pretty much everything was on the line for them during that final lap. Promising signs for next season and glimmers of an even fiercer battle amongst the midfield.
Red Bull will be happy with P2, big signs of progress with Honda and real hope that they will be competitive next season, especially if Albon can continue his progression. Three way fight might be optimistic, but RBR look more and more like they will start tilting the scale in their direction.
Which leaves Williams, who have a new driver to look forward to, and Ferrari, who, well, have a stewards' inquiry to look forward to in the short term, and some more restructuring in the longer term, having ditched their head of aero, Alessandro Cinelli and their head of vehicle dynamics (?), Giacomo Tortora, who is off to greener pastures at Mercedes. Still the picture one gets is one of a team with a fair amount of potential in what seems like perpetual disarray. The biggest lack at Ferrari is not so much the vehicle or the drivers, but the culture itself, something Marchionne had seen and set out to remedy before his passing. The question of whether or not Binotto can deliver on his unfinished plans remains, but if he can then the last year of these current regulations might well be the best......
A fond farewell then to Hulkenberg and Kubica, the former ranking high amongst the close but no cigar category and the latter, despite having lost out 21-0 in qualifying, still managing to outscore his teammate as well as Williams only point of the season in the thoroughly rain deranged race in Germany. OF course, as much as anything else, the mere fact that he was able to return to F1 after his horrific rallying accident was a testament to what might have been, and his name will continue to echo in F1's hallowed halls....
Next week will see the teams reach their final conclusions regarding Pirelli's proposed 2020 tyre as out of season testing gets underway, so even though the racing is done, there are still a few laps left in 2019 for the hardcore fans.....
And remember to play nice in the comments!!