Bulldog Lewis bites back in Britain

With a 29 point lead in the world drivers’ championship Nico Rosberg went in to the British grand prix very much on a high. The momentum, and the luck, was with him and his team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, had the pressure on him to turn it around.

That pressure only increased after qualifying on Saturday. After looking to have the edge in tricky wet/dry qualifying conditions, Hamilton aborted his final lap when on provisional pole position, thinking that no-one would beat his time. However, that decision proved disastrous for the Briton. The final few corners of the lap were dry, and several drivers were able to beat Hamilton’s time. Rosberg snatched pole and Hamilton found himself having to start in sixth.

Hamilton was desperate to win his home race, but it looked like the odds were against him. However, just as in the last race in Austria, Hamilton started well from his lowly grid slot. After just a handful of corners the 2008 world drivers’ champion was up to fourth after passing Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India off the line and the Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull.

Raikkonen's crash resulted in a delay of over an hour before the race resumed

Raikkonen’s crash resulted in a delay of over an hour before the race resumed

That was the limit of Hamilton’s progress for around an hour, though. The race was red flagged on the opening lap after a very heavy crash for Kimi Raikkonen in the Ferrari, who ran wide, rejoined the track but was pitched into a spin after hitting a bump. It was an extremely heavy impact – registered at 47G – as the Ferrari speared into the metal Armco barrier and bounced back across the track and was then hit by Felipe Massa’s Williams. It was the end of the race for both drivers, and particularly saddening for Massa on his 200th Formula 1 race.

After the barriers were repaired and the race was restarted behind the safety car, Hamilton quickly picked up where he left off, dispatching the McLaren’s of Kevin Magnussen and Jenson Button on laps three and four and setting about closing the five second gap to his team-mate. The Mercedes cars were, once again, in a race of their own, lapping around 2.5 seconds faster than anyone else, With Hamilton reeling in Rosberg. The gap between the Silver Arrows as Rosberg pitted was just 2.7 seconds.

Nevertheless, the advantage was still with Rosberg, who had track position and the first choice of race strategies. But then Hamilton’s luck started to change. Despite another slow stop for the Englishman on lap 24 – 5 laps after Rosberg’s – which meant that he emerged from the pits over five seconds behind his team-mate, all was not well with Rosberg’s car.

Rosberg suffered his first retirement of the season at Silverstone

Rosberg suffered his first
retirement of the season at Silverstone

The German had reported gearbox trouble on lap 21, but his pace was still good on the softer option tyres; the supposedly faster race tyre. Hamilton had changed onto the hard prime tyres as he attempted an alternate strategy to beat his team-mate. On the ‘slower’ tyres Hamilton was on fire, though. He was catching his team-mate hand over fist before Rosberg again reported gearbox problems, before losing gears as he lapped Max Chilton’s Marussia and Hamilton blasted through into the lead.

Rosberg was briefly able to get going again before the gearbox failed completely, resulting in his first retirement of 2014, compared to his team-mate’s two. Hamilton didn’t look back. He was some 25 seconds clear of Valtteri Bottas’s Williams in second place, with the Finn having driven a fantastic race to claw his way up from his 14th place starting position. When Bottas stopped for fresh rubber the gap ballooned to over 40 seconds and it looked like Hamilton could continue without bothering to stop again.

Hamilton on his way to his second Silverstone win

Hamilton on his way to his second Silverstone win

As it was, Mercedes decided to pit the race leader for a second stop, but such was Hamilton’s margin over Bottas that he still emerged from the pits leading by over 20 seconds. All that was left for Hamilton to do was to bring his Mercedes home in one piece which he did with ease, winning the race by over 30 seconds from Bottas, with Daniel Ricciardo bring his Red Bull home in third, just ahead of a charging Jenson Button, a further 16 seconds adrift.

Alonso and Vettel were involved in a thrilling battle

Alonso and Vettel were involved in a thrilling battle

For a variety of reasons, it was a thrilling race. The British crowd got almost exactly what they wanted: Some fantastic racing – including some brilliant overtaking from Bottas and a thrilling fight between the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso and the second Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel (the latter beat the former to fifth place) – a win for Hamilton and a retirement for Rosberg, which reignited the championship fight, with the gap between the two Mercedes team-mates now just four points.

Indeed, the only thing that was missing was a podium finish for Jenson Button. The 2009 world drivers’ champion has never stood on the Silverstone podium, but he came awfully close this time. The Frome-born driver finished under a second behind Ricciardo. I guess the fans can’t quite have it all.

Having won his home race, though, Hamilton will hope that the momentum has now swung back in his direction. He’d like nothing more than to drive home his advantage at the next race at Hockenheim; a home race for both Mercedes and Rosberg.

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Shoddy tyres fail to spoil the Silverstone spectacle

Well, after 52 laps of the British grand prix we saw a second win of the season for Mercedes.  Considering that the Silver Arrows locked out the front row of the grid after qualifying on Saturday this was perhaps not a massive surprise, but the fact that it was Nico Rosberg rather than pole sitter Lewis Hamilton who took victory was a bit of a disappointment for the home fans.

Lewis Hamilton limping back to the bits after his tyre deflation

Lewis Hamilton limping back to
the pits after his tyre deflation

Indeed, in the opening laps of the race it looked like Hamilton was in complete control while Rosberg had slipped from second to third, behind Sebastian Vettel.  The first seven laps went perfectly for Hamilton.  Having started brilliantly from pole position, he gradually increased his lead over the Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel to around two seconds at the start of lap eight.  For reasons outside of Hamilton’s or his team’s control, though, disaster struck for the Englishman as he made his way down the Wellington straight on lap eight.  His left rear tyre suddenly deflated, forcing him to crawl back to the pits as the field streamed passed.  Hamilton rejoined in last place.

Given the tyre issues from earlier in the season and the recent furore over the Pirelli/Mercedes tyre test at Barcelona, one tyre failure in the race at Silverstone would perhaps not have been a massive talking point, especially given that it occurred on a Mercedes; the team that have suffered most with tyre wear this season.  However, the fact that the failure occurred just eight laps into the race – early in the race, where degradation wouldn’t have been a big factor – might have served as an indicator of what was to come for other drivers.

By the time all 52 laps had been completed we had seen not one, not two, but four left rear Pirelli tyre failures, plus a failure on the front left of Esteban Gutierrez’s Sauber.  Just three laps after Hamilton’s incident, the Ferrari of Felipe Massa was sent spinning off the track after another rapid tyre deflation.  Like Hamilton, the Brazilian rejoined the track and managed to trundle slowly back to the pits for a new set of rubber.

There goes another one! Vergne's tyre explodes at the end of the straight

There goes another one! Vergne’s
tyre explodes at the end of the straight

As I mentioned, though, there were four left rear tyre failures.  Number three arrived just a few laps after Massa’s and this time the debris on the circuit led to the safety car being deployed.  This time it was the Toro Rosso of Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne that was serenely making its way down the Wellington straight when his tyre suddenly exploded.  It could have been worse as the safety car allowed race leader Sebastian Vettel, and many others, to pit and change tyres.  We soon heard on Mark Webber’s team radio that Vettel’s left rear tyre was also cut; there would certainly have been a tyre failure on his car had it not been for the safety car.

As it turned out, we didn’t see another tyre failure until lap 46 of the race.  This time, it was the McLaren of Sergio Perez which had a left rear tyre explode going down the Wellington straight.  This came immediately after the race restarted following the retirement of the leading Red Bull of reigning world drivers’ champion Sebastian Vettel.  Luck had been on Vettel’s side with Hamilton’s tyre failure and his own non-tyre failure earlier in the race, but luck had deserted the German in the closing stages of the race as his Red Bull ground to a halt with transmission failure, allowing the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg to take a lead that he never relinquished, despite some heavy late pressure from the second Red Bull of Mark Webber, who recovered brilliantly after a dreadful start which saw him drop down to 15th after being sideswiped by Romain Grosjean’s Lotus at turn 1.

Fernando Alonso on his way to a third place finish

Fernando Alonso on his way to a third place finish

Another two drivers who recovered brilliantly were Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso.  Despite the former driving with a badly damaged car following his tyre failure, by the end of the race the 2008 world driver’s champion managed to fight his way back up to fourth place, narrowly missing out on a podium finish.   It was Alonso who took the final podium position behind Rosberg and Webber, though, with a thrilling late surge which saw him pass a number of cars, including the McLaren’s of Jenson Button and Sergio Perez – in the case of the latter, just as his tyre was exploding – and the Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen.  A stunning drive from the Spaniard after his poor showing in Saturday qualifying and a lacklustre start to the race.

We mustn’t forget the race winner, though.  Nico Rosberg’s third career victory was merely a footnote in the post race coverage.  The German’s victory was perhaps a little fortunate, given the early tyre problem for his team-mate Lewis Hamilton and the retirement of Sebastian Vettel.  Rosberg even survived a post race visit to the stewards for failing to slow for yellow flags, receiving just a reprimand and showing that his luck was well and truly in.  Lucky or not, though, it’s hard to begrudge Rosberg his second win of the season.

All of the attention was, unfortunately, on the Pirelli tyres, though.  A number of the drivers were heavily critical of the Italian manufacturer after the race.  Hamilton called the situation “unacceptable”, saying that “safety is the biggest issue…Someone could’ve crashed. I was thinking behind the safety car that it’s only when someone gets hurt that something will be done about it”.  Perez, Button and Massa were similarly critical, while Alonso dismissed speculation that the kerbs were in any way to blame.

Jean Tody has acted quickly to call Wednesday's meeting in Paris

Jean Todt has acted quickly to call
Wednesday’s meeting in Germany

The consensus seemed to be that something needed to be done, and quickly.  To their credit, the FIA have acted quickly:  FIA President Jean Todt has called an emergency meeting of Sporting Working Group on Wednesday.  The meeting, at the Nurburgring, will include Pirelli and representatives of all 11 Formula 1 teams and one solution could be the introduction of the tyres that Mercedes had tested at Barcelona.

Whether that comes in time for the next race in Germany is doubtful, though.  What is certain, though, is that Mercedes head in to the remainder of the season with a car that finally seems to have solved its race pace problems.  They’ve now moved into second place in the world constructors’ championship and will be looking forward to challenging for more victories, starting at the Nurburgring on Sunday.

Felipe finds form; Pastor proves perennially problematic

The ninth round of the 2012 Formula 1 season proved to be something of a slow burner.  It looked to all the world that Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso would cruise to a third win of the season, and consolidate his lead in the world drivers’ championship, until his final stint of the race on the soft tyres.  Unusually, the harder of the two Pirelli tyre compounds proved to be the quicker of the two tyre choices and in the last stint Red Bull Racing’s Mark Webber, on the hard tyres, closed in on Alonso eroding the Spaniard’s four second lead and brilliantly passing him around the outside of Brooklands just a few laps from the end of the race.  It was Webber’s second win of the season, matching the feat that Alonso achieved in Valencia.  The top two in the world drivers’ championship are the only two drivers to have one more than once in 2012.

By Rich Jones from United Kingdom (Webber) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

As brilliant as Webber’s victory was, though, it is not the Australian that I’m going to focus on in this article.  Readers of last week’s article about the competitors that I thought had room for improvement in the remaining races of the season will probably remember that I singled out two drivers for particular attention: Felipe Massa and Pastor Maldonado.  These two drivers had dramatically contrasting fortunes in the race at Silverstone, with one of the two drivers driving a great race to finish fourth, while the other crashed out after a clash with Sauber’s Sergio Perez.  You can guess by the title of this article which driver was which.  Let’s take a look at the contrasting results of Massa and Maldonado.

I’ll start off with Felipe Massa.  As I’ve mentioned before, Massa has really struggled this season.  Prior to the British grand prix Massa had managed just three top 10 finishes in the opening eight rounds of the season, with a best result of sixth at Monaco.  His qualifying form had been even worse, with just two top 10 grid slots, with a best starting position of sixth in round seven in Canada.  Although, the Brazilian was still unable to match the pace of his double world championship winning team-mate, who qualified on pole and finished second, he had a dramatic upturn in form at Silverstone.  With a fifth place grid slot, albeit 1.3 seconds slower than Alonso, Massa achieved his best qualifying result of the season, qualifying ahead of both McLaren’s, both Lotus cars and Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes.  Some might point out that qualifying was run in changeable conditions on a drying track and that Massa’s grid slot was down, in part, to an element of luck.  That would be very unfair, though, and the Brazilian’s pace in the race proved that not to be the case.

I’ve been fairly critical of Massa over the last couple of seasons, but at Silverstone he drove a great race and achieved a solid race result.  A race result that actually compares pretty favourably with the result of his team-mate if you analyse the situation.  Massa finished fourth at Silverstone, and can consider himself slightly unfortunate not to have made the top three.  Indeed, a podium finish would have been a fitting reward for Massa, who proved that the 1.3 second gap to his team-mate in qualifying was not representative of his true pace.  Massa finished the race a mere 6.5 seconds behind Alonso; an impressive result, especially when you consider that Alonso would have been running in clear air throughout the vast majority of the race while Massa had other cars to contend with and was held up behind the Mercedes of Michael Schumacher during much of the opening stint of the race.

Indeed, while Alonso dropped a place in the race, Massa had actually moved forward one place from his starting position at the chequered flag.  Alonso will, of course, get all of the attention, and deservedly so given that he’s won two races this season and leads the championship, but Massa deserves a lot of praise for his performance.  While one result does not a season make, the Brazilian’s performance at Silverstone bodes well for the rest of the season.  His upturn in form has, though, probably come too late to save his driver with Ferrari who, in my view, will replace him when his contract expires at the end of the season.

Copyright:Glenn Dunbar/LAT Photographic

Let’s move on now to look at Williams driver Pastor Maldonado’s weekend.  The Venezuelan qualified well, achieving his fourth top 10 grid position of the season with a seventh place grid slot.  Qualifying, though, hasn’t really been the issue for Maldonado this season.  Despite his victory at the Spanish grand prix in Barcelona it has been Maldonado’s inconsistent and erratic performances in races, coupled with his tendency to crash with other drivers, that have been his biggest problems.  We saw in the last race in the European grand prix at Valencia an excellent example of this as Maldonado speared into Lewis Hamilton while battling for third position on the penultimate lap, pushing the McLaren into retirement and receiving a 20 second post race penalty from the stewards.

At Silverstone, Maldonado crashed again, and again he cost another driver a race finish.  This time the driver on the receiving end was Sauber’s Sergio Perez, who Maldonado slid in to as the Mexican attempted to pass him around the outside of Brooklands on lap 12, in a very similar overtaking manoeuvre as proved to be so successful for Mark Webber when he took the lead from Fernando Alonso.  Where Alonso and Webber showed each other the sort of respect that you expect from the world’s top racing drivers racing in the premier racing class, the same cannot be said of Maldonado, who looked like he lost control in a forlorn attempt to keep Perez behind him.

Maldonado and Perez have a previous history.  It was Perez that Maldonado appeared to deliberately drive in to in Saturday free practice at Monaco, receiving a 10 place grid penalty from the stewards for the incident.  Perez branded Maldonado “crazy” as a result, while the Venezuelan insisted that the incident wasn’t his fault claiming “I was trying overtake him and I lost the car…Maybe I was too optimistic on the throttle on cold tyres”.  According to Maldonado, cold tyres were again to blame for the crash at the British grand prix.  The Williams driver also argued that he was just trying to defend his position.

It may well be the case that Maldonado was trying to defend his position, that much was obvious, but Perez, for one, was far from happy.  The Sauber driver was scathing in his assessment of the Venezuelan’s driving when interviewed by the BBC.  Perez claimed that “Pastor is a driver who doesn’t respect other drivers” and went on to argue that he “was already in front, and if not he should have given me enough space not to crash, but he tried to push me all the way to the outside”.   The Mexican further claimed that Maldonado is “a very dangerous driver and he can hurt someone”.

Perez was also clear that he was not the only driver that is of this view, stating that “Everybody has concerns about him.  He is a driver who doesn’t know we are risking our lives and has no respect at all. It is not a matter of close or not. He has no respect at all”.  If it’s true that the rest of the F1 drivers are of this view it is a pretty damning indictment of the Venezuelan.  As for this particular clash, the stewards launched a post-race investigation and determined that Maldonado was indeed guilty of causing a collision, issuing the Williams driver with a reprimand and a 10,000 Euro fine.  Given that Perez thought that Maldonado’s penalty for his crash with Lewis Hamilton in Valencia – a post-race 20 second penalty – was not severe enough, I think we can be fairly certain that he won’t be happy that Maldonado has gotten away with a fairly minimal punishment on this occasion.

So, while one previously lacklustre performer had a dramatic upturn in fortunes at Silverstone, another continued his poor form.  Also worthy of a mention, though, are the McLaren team – another of the competitors that I suggested need to up their game – who will have been delighted that their pit stops were fast and trouble free for both drivers throughout the race, but extremely concerned that their pace seems to have evaporated like the rain from the track.  Hamilton finished a distant eighth – the same position in which he qualified – while Jenson Button at least managed to move forward from his 16th place grid position, finishing 10th.  McLaren and their drivers continue to lose ground in the championship and they, along with Pastor Maldonado, will be hoping to emulate Felipe Mass’s upturn in form in the next race; round 10, the season mid-point, in Germany.