Hamilton’s Sunday afternoon stroll in Sochi

It was a day of milestones for Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes team in Russia. A ninth victory of 2014 meant that Hamilton is now on 31 career Formula 1 victories, moving level with Nigel Mansell and becoming the joint leading British F1 driver of all time. Hamilton’s race win and the 25 world championship points that come with it was also enough to give the Silver Arrows their first ever world constructors championship, even without the additional 18 points the team got for Nico Rosberg’s second place finish.

Despite the beautiful setting in Sochi, and an excellent track, the race itself was pretty uneventful, and certainly one of the least exciting of the season so far. The reasons for that were probably fourfold. Firstly, Rosberg’s mistake going into the braking zone at turn two on the opening lap meant that the two Mercedes drivers would be separated for the duration of the race.

Rosberg locked up heavily at turn two, wrecking his chances of victory

Rosberg locked up heavily at turn
two, wrecking his chances of victory

Rosberg and Hamilton both started well, but the long run down to the turn two braking zone allowed the German to slipstream his team-mate and squeeze up the inside. Rosberg, however, left his braking much too late, severely locking his tyres, running straight on into the asphalt on the outside of the corner. Although Rosberg swept into the lead, he had done so by running off track and gaining an advantage. Not only did he have to hand Hamilton back the lead of the race, but he compromised his entire race by having to stop at the end of the opening lap for new tyres because of the severe vibration caused by his turn two lock up.

So, on lap two the two Mercedes couldn’t have been further apart, with Hamilton leading and Rosberg right at the very back of the field. This leads me on to the second reason that the race was so uneventful; the track surface and tyre compounds. Amazingly, Rosberg was able to complete the remaining 52 laps of the race on the set of medium compound tyres that he put on at his first pit stop. Not only that, but he was able to fight back through the field to finish in second place.

Rosberg was able to do this primarily because Pirelli – like everyone else going to the Russian grand prix at a brand new track for the first time – had been rightly conservative in their choice of tyre compounds, choosing to bring the soft and medium compounds to Sochi. As it turned out, though, the track surface was very smooth and unabrasive. We saw clear evidence of this in free practice and qualifying, with drivers able to run multiple laps on the same tyre and continue to improve their lap time.

For virtually everyone, this meant that the race would be an easy one stop race, cutting down the opportunity for teams to try something different with strategy to move themselves forward. That coupled with tyres that were incredibly consistent meant that wheel to wheel battles were severely limited in Russia.

Thirdly, surprisingly, there was no safety car to close up the field. Having watched the GP2 and GP3 races at Sochi, a safety car looked all but certain in the F1 race. That was because, after the awful accident experienced by Marussia’s Jules Bianchi last week at Suzuka, race officials were understandably being extra cautious to deploy the safety car when cars were stopped on the track. This, coupled with the face that the Sochi track is a street circuit, which can make the recovery of crashed or stopped cars more difficult, meant that a safety car looked likely, as we saw in the support series races.

Grosjean pushed Sutil into a spin at turn two

Grosjean pushed Sutil into a spin at turn two

However, there were simply no incidents at Sochi. No cars stopped on track and there were no crashes. The closest we came was on lap 32 when Lotus driver Romain Grosjean pitched Adrian Sutil’s Sauber into a spin at turn two. The former received a penalty for the incident from race stewards, while the latter succeeded in keeping his car out of the crash barriers and was able to safely rejoin the race.

Finally, despite Williams showing some great qualifying pace, the Grove-based squad were simply unable to compete on race pace with their Brackley-based counterparts. With Rosberg out of contention for victory, Hamilton’s closest challenger was Valtteri Bottas in the Williams for much of the race. While Bottas was able to stick reasonably close to Hamilton over the first 15 laps or so of the race, the Englishman was in cruise control mode. We saw clear evidence of Hamilton lifting and coasting fairly early on and continuing to put in fastest laps of the race.

Hamilton crosses the line to take one of the easiest wins of his F1 career

Hamilton crosses the line to take one
of the easiest wins of his F1 career

Gradually the gap began to stretch into the double digits, with Hamilton never close to unleashing the full potential of his W05 Hybrid. The bottom line is that the Mercedes is simply too good. Reliability issues aside, the team have done a fabulous job in adapting best to the new regulations, delivering not only the class leading power unit, but a chassis and aerodynamic package that compliments that power unit perfectly. Hamilton’s stroll and Rosberg’s fight back through the field, in different ways, demonstrated that equally well.

A jubilant Mercedes team celebrate their first F1 world constructors' championship

A jubilant Mercedes team celebrate their
first F1 world constructors’ championship

Mercedes can be rightly proud of their first ever Formula 1 world constructors’ championship. Despite the cloud that still hangs over the sport in the wake of Bianchi’s crash at Suzuka it is right that the Silver Arrows take the time to enjoy this historic moment. The Frenchman is still very much in everyone’s thoughts, though, while he remains in a serious but stable condition in hospital.

While the constructors’ championship has been wrapped up three races early, the drivers’ championship is still very much alive. After winning four races in a row for the second time this season, Hamilton’s points lead over Rosberg now stands at 17; the largest that it’s been all season. However, with 25 points for a race win, and double points in Abu Dhabi, Rosberg still has every chance of beating his team-mate to the drivers’ crown. To do that, though, he’ll need to end Hamilton’s terrific run of momentum.

Reliability, seemingly the only Achilles heel of the Silver Arrows team in 2014, may still have a decisive role to play in deciding the drivers’ championship. Mercedes, and their two drivers, will hope that it’s decided on track in a straight fight, however. Formula 1 fans will certainly want that, too.

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Bianchi’s crash overshadows Hamilton’s Suzuka triumph

After being beaten to pole position at Suzuka by Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton took a brilliant victory for Mercedes in difficult conditions. Hamilton’s pass around the outside of turn one on lap 28, and the huge gap he subsequently pulled out over his team-mate, should have been the big talking point in Japan, but sadly Jules Bianchi’s crash, which brought the race to a premature end, is dominating the headlines.

Before discussing that incident, I just want to pause on the performance of Hamilton for a while. As I said, he was beaten to pole and beaten by a reasonable margin – nearly two tenths of a second – by Rosberg, but he didn’t let that bother him in the race. After the Typhoon Phanfone weather system forced the race to start under the safety car, Hamilton had the measure of the treacherous conditions, relentlessly closing down Rosberg, particularly after the switch to intermediate tyres.

Hamilton sweeps around the outside of Rosberg to take the lead

Hamilton sweeps around the
outside of Rosberg to take the lead

His passing manoeuvre on lap 28 was brilliant and clinical, with the Briton pouncing at the first opportunity and never looking back as he built a double-digit lead over Rosberg. The German was once again beaten by his team-mate in a wheel to wheel battle and that might be crucial in the battle for the championship.

Not that any of the drivers were thinking or talking about that after the race, though. The podium celebrations were understandably muted after Bianchi’s crash which wasn’t caught by TV cameras. It seems that the Marussia driver aquaplaned off the track at the top of the hill at Dunlop on lap 43, just one lap after Adrian Sutil in the Sauber had a very similar incident.

2014 JAP Ambulance Bianchi

Bianchi was transported from the track in an ambulance

Sadly for Bianchi, a recovery vehicle was in the process of removing the stricken Sauber when the Frenchman had his accident. As a result Bianchi struck the recovery vehicle side on, ripping the roll-hoop from his car. Bianchi lost consciousness before being removed from the car and the circuit by ambulance. There was very little confirmed news for quite some time after the race, but we now know from an official FIA statement that the Marussia driver had a CT scan which revealed that he “suffered a severe head injury”. He subsequently underwent surgery at Mie General Hospital before being moved to intensive care.

Everyone’s thoughts and best wishes are with Bianchi, his family and the Marussia team. No-one should be pointing the finger or trying to apportion blame. What is crucial, however, is that Formula 1 learns from this nasty incident and makes steps to further improve safety, as they did after the tragic deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenburger at Imola in 1994. Obviously, having the roll-hoop completely ripped from the car is extremely serious, but the nature of the incident is not one that the roll-hoop was designed for. We’ve seen cars roll this season and in each case the roll-hoop has done exactly what it was designed to do and held up extremely well.

If any steps can be taken to further improve the design and strength of the roll-hoops, then of course those steps should be taken. For me, though, the key learning point must surely be that, in wet conditions, if there is a recovery vehicle on the track – and by that I mean on track, in the gravel traps or anywhere in front of crash barriers – then the safety car should be deployed.

It might be time to reconsider the use of tractors to recover vehicles

It might be time to reconsider the use
of tractors to recover stricken cars

Clearly, this might mean more safety cars in Formula 1. We certainly don’t want to get into a situation where every minor incident results in a safety car deployment, like we see in IndyCar, and that’s why I’d restrict safety car deployment in such situations to wet weather conditions. In the dry, double waved yellow flags – as we have seen already – is sufficient because visibility and track conditions are normal. In the wet, cars will often crash at the same parts of the track because of rivers of water running across the circuit and aquaplaning. Formula 1 should also look to limit the use of tractors to recover vehicles, wherever possible. Cranes must be the better option in such situations, although there will always be places where their use is just not possible.

F1 heads to Russia for the inaugural race in Sochi in a week’s time in a subdued mood. It’s at times like these that race victories and championship battles take a back seat. I hope to see a complete and speedy recovery for Bianchi. Let’s hope that we see him back on the Formula 1 grid soon, fighting fit and ready to race.