Pitlane to podium for Hamilton in Hungary

A dejected looking Lewis Hamilton walks away from his smoking Mercedes in qualifying

A dejected looking Lewis Hamilton walks away
from his smoking Mercedes in qualifying

After another dreadful qualifying session for Lewis Hamilton in 2014, the Briton looked certain to lose even more ground to Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg in the fight for the world drivers’ championship. Hamilton failed to set a time in Saturday qualifying, after a fuel leak on his Mercedes caused a huge fire putting Hamilton out and giving his Mercedes team a gigantic task to rebuild a car that was almost a total loss.

In contrast, as we’ve seen so many times this season, Rosberg had a trouble-free qualifying session. The German cruised to pole position by around half a second from the Red Bull Racing of Sebastian Vettel. It looked very much set fair for another win for the world drivers’ championship leader.

Sadly for Rosberg, though, the weather certainly wasn’t set fair. A huge downpour around 40 minutes before the start of the race threw a spanner in the works and added a huge amount of spice into the race mix. Nevertheless, though, Hamilton started the race in the worst possible position – the pitlane – and Rosberg in the very best starting spot. It would need a mighty drive from Hamilton, and some of the luck that had been so sorely missing from his season so far, if he was not to fall further behind in the championship race.

The race didn't start well for Hamilton, either, as he spun on the opening lap

The race didn’t start well for Hamilton,
either, as he spun on the opening lap

It certainly looked like luck was against Hamilton in the opening laps. The 2008 world drivers’ champion spun on the very first lap, on just the second corner of his race. Hamilton scraped the barrier, but crucially didn’t cause much damage to his car. Rosberg meanwhile, serenely streaked clear in the lead of the race. By lap eight, though, Hamilton had clawed his way up to 13th position, ahead of the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, and then the safety car came out after Marcus Ericsson slammed his Caterham into the wall at turn three – a 20G impact.

Not only did the safety car wipe out Rosberg’s substantial lead over the second placed Williams of Valtteri Bottas, but it fell at an awful time for the German. Rosberg was unable to pit immediately as he’d already passed the pitlane meaning he, as well as Bottas, Vettel and Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari all had to do another lap while the rest of the field streamed in to change from intermediate tyres to, for the most part, soft option slick tyres.

Still, though, Rosberg was in fourth position while Hamilton was 13th as the restart was further delayed by Romain Grosjean crashing his Lotus with the safety car about to release the cars. All was not well with Rosberg, however. Smoke was coming from the left rear brake on his Mercedes and as the race restarted on lap 14 Rosberg fell like a stone.

Perez climbs from his wrecked Force India

Perez climbs from his wrecked Force India

Hamilton on the other hand, was going very much in the opposite direction. By lap 17 the two Mercedes cars were running fifth and seventh, with just the Red Bull of Vettel separating the two Silver Arrows. Another safety car came out on lap 23, however, as Sergio Perez slammed his Force India into the pit wall after spinning coming out of the final turn.

As the safety car came in on lap 27, Alonso led, while Rosberg was up to third and Hamilton fifth. There was no further progress for either driver until Rosberg pitted on lap 33. Almost immediately, Sebastian Vettel had an almost identical accident to Sergio Perez, but managing not to hit the pit wall as he spun out of the final corner. That let Hamilton through and straight onto the back of the out of position Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne, who had done a tremendous job to hold up Rosberg before the latter pitted.

He couldn’t do the same up against Lewis Hamilton, though, with the Englishman executing the pass of the race on lap 34 to pass the Frenchman around the outside of turn four. Hamilton was now second, with Rosberg 13th, but moving swiftly back up the field after his pit stop. Crucially, though, Hamilton was now a full pit stop ahead of his team-mate. When he eventually made his second stop on lap 40 – from the lead – and fitted the slower, but more durable medium compound slick tyres, we was able to emerge ahead of his team-mate in fifth position.

Rosberg was able to close up to Hamilton, but not close enough to make an overtaking manoeuvre. The team-mates were on different strategies. Rosberg was on the fast option tyres and due to stop once more, while Hamilton was on primes and due to run until the end of the race. Hamilton was asked by the team to let his team-mate through, but Rosberg was simply not close enough and Hamilton was unwilling to lose a significant amount of time to wave his championship rival through.

Ultimately, the decision to put Hamilton on an alternate strategy cost both him and Rosberg the chance to win the race. Hamilton was unable to close in on Alonso and Rosberg was unable to pass Hamilton, with Daniel Ricciardo leading the race by a significant distance from the Spaniard. Ricciardo pitted again for Fresh option on lap 54, rejoining behind Rosberg, with the latter making the same change on lap 56, emerging in seventh.

Alonso, Hamilton and Ricciardo battled for victory in the closing laps

Alonso, Hamilton and Ricciardo
battled for Victory in the closing laps

Alonso – on soft option tyres – led from Hamilton, but Ricciardo was closing rapidly on them both with his new rubber. Similarly Rosberg was catching the leaders at an alarming rate on his fresh tyres, but it was Ricciardo who was in the best position to win the race, and he duly did.

First of all he moved ahead of Hamilton around the outside of turn two on lap 67 and just a lap later overtook Alonso in turn one. The Australian was gone, but Rosberg was now on Hamilton’s tail. The Englishman was just able to hold his team-mate off to claim the final podium position and reduce the championship deficit to 11 points. An almost unthinkable result after their contrasting fortunes in qualifying.

It was Ricciardo who took his second win of the season, though. The Australian will be hugely satisfied with his performances at Red Bull, which have put his four-time world championship winning team-mate, Vettel, in the shade. As we head into the mid-season break, though, it’s Rosberg with the championship lead, albeit slightly reduced. Hamilton, though, may well think that the luck may now be turning in his favour.

Advertisements

Marussia: Ahead of Caterham by a nose?

Thanks to  Express Insurance for sponsoring this post.

So, the new 2014 formula 1 cars have been launched and the first test has been completed.  As always, the focus is on the teams expected to be at the front of the grid – Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes and Red Bull – and their perceived successes and failures at this very early stage of the year.  But what about the teams at the back of the pack?

Marussia and Caterham are now entering their fifth year at the pinnacle of motorsport and the massive regulation change this year offers both teams their best opportunity to start moving up the pecking order.  Even if outright pace is still lacking, the expected reliability issues and higher rates of attrition in races will mean that those elusive points scoring finishes are finally a real possibility for both teams.  Which of these two, back of the grid teams stands the best chance of delivering in 2014, though?

The Caterham CT05 certainly can't be descibed as a 'looker'!

The Caterham CT05 certainly
can’t be descibed as a ‘looker’!

Let’s start by looking briefly at Caterham.  The Leafield based team certainly generated a massive amount of interest when their 2014 challenger – the CT05 – was revealed to fans and media at Jerez.  We expected some odd-looking cars this year thanks to the regulation change that requires the nose of the cars to be lower, the aim being that they are less likely to launch into the air in accidents.  The Caterham, though, is perhaps the oddest looking of all of the 2014 F1 cars, with an extremely aggressive nose solution that looks, frankly, hideously ugly.  The team won’t be too worried about that if their car proves to be quick, though.

As I’ve already alluded to, however, outright speed may not be enough to deliver a winning package in the brave new world of Formula 1.  Reliability is expected to be a major issue.  Formula 1 has turned its back on the 2.4 litre V8 engines used in recent years and moved to new 1.6 litre turbocharged V6 units paired with Energy Recovery Systems – ERS – which are more relevant to modern road cars.  This is a huge change for the sport, and making these packages work reliably is, on the basis of the first test proving challenging for one manufacturer in particular.

Renault's 2014 F1 Engine

Renault’s 2014 F1 Engine

Unfortunately for Caterham, that manufacturer is Renault, who supply the team’s powertrain.  Renault engine cars suffered badly at Jerez.  Over the course of the four-day test, Renault engines completed a paltry 151 laps, with world champions Red Bull Racing struggling the most with just 21 laps completed.  Admittedly, it’s much too early to write off Renault, but this doesn’t bode well for teams that use their power units.

This is where, perhaps, Marussia might have the upper hand on their rivals.  The Anglo-Russian team, based in Banbury in the UK, had used Cosworth engines in their first four years in F1.  However, the British engine manufacturer decided to drop out of the sport at the end of 2013, choosing not to produce one of the new breed of 1.6 litre V6 turbocharged units.  Marussia therefore were forced to switch suppliers and opted for Ferrari engines and ERS systems.  On the basis of Jerez testing, this looks like it will give Marussia an advantage over Caterham.  Despite Marussia missing the first couple of days of testing, with the new MR03 turning up on day three of the four day test, Ferrari engined cars completed 444 laps, nearly three times the number of laps completed by cars running Renault engines.

The Marussia MR03 is, at least, more aesthetically pleasing than the Caterham CT05

The Marussia MR03 is, at least, more aesthetically pleasing than the Caterham CT05

Marussia have also opted for a more conservative approach to the nose of their car.  If this is an indication of their general approach this, paired with a seemingly more robust power unit, might indicate that Marussia might have the edge in terms of reliability over Caterham.  With both teams unlikely to set the lap time charts alight, this might prove critical in 2014.  But, of course, that’s not the full story in terms of reliability.

As it turned out, Caterham proved to be the most reliable of the three Renault powered teams – Lotus were absent – at Jerez.  The CT05 completed 76 laps over its four days of running.  That’s just over half of the total number of laps completed by Renault cars at the entire test.  While that’s only just over half of the number of laps completed by Force India – the Mercedes powered car that competed the fewest number of laps at Jerez – it does at least indicate that the Caterham itself is probably pretty reliable.

In contrast, in comparison to the two other Ferrari powered teams, Marussia completed the fewest number of laps – just 30.  Granted, the team did (as I mentioned earlier) only run for half of the test, so that might not be significant, but it does indicate that reliability is something that Marussia won’t necessarily be able to count on to give them the advantage over Caterham, particularly as the former have to adapt to a new engine supplier while the latter does, at least have stability with Renault.

Caterham's 2014 driver line-up: Kobayashi (L) and Ericsson (R), either side of third driver Robin Frijns

Caterham’s 2014 driver line-up: Kobayashi (L) and Ericsson (R), either side of third driver Robin Frijns

While Caterham have stability in terms of their engine supplier where their rivals don’t, it’s Marussia that have stability in terms of their driver line up, while it’s all change at Caterham.  Marussia have retained Frenchman Jules Bianchi – an undoubted talent – and Englishman Max Chilton in 2014, while Caterham have gone for an all new pairing of Japanese driver Kamui Kobayashi – making a welcome return to F1 after a year out of the sport in 2013 – and rookie Marcus Ericsson, who makes the step up from GP2.  The pairings are probably fairly evenly matched, but because Marussia know their two drivers pretty well this might afford them a slim advantage, at least to begin with.

It is, though, unlikely that we’ll see either Marussia or Caterham making big steps forward.  Williams, who struggled in 2013 and were the team most under threat of being overtaken by Marussia or Caterham in the constructors standings, look to have made an inspired move by switching from Renault engines to Mercedes power units, meaning that the target for the two ‘newcomer’ teams is likely to be the Red Bull junior team, Toro Rosso.

A Minardi at Monaco in 2001, driven by future double world champion Fernando Alonso

A Minardi at Monaco in 2001, driven by future double world champion Fernando Alonso

Toro Rosso, the team that was formerly Minardi, one of F1s great minnows, have also swapped engines, but it looks like they’ve made the wrong choice in switching from Ferrari engines to the same Renault units used by ‘big brother’ Red Bull Racing.  Still, though, Toro Rosso probably has a bigger budget than either Marussia or Caterham, and let’s not forget that they are also grand prix winners, albeit at the hands of now four-time world drivers’ champion, Sebastian Vettel, way back in 2008.  They’re likely to retain the advantage over the new boys.

So, while 2014 presents a huge opportunity for Marussia and Caterham, their prospects don’t look all that promising.  If it proves to be the case that Marussia and Caterham are still battling it out between themselves at the back of the pack it’s a worrying situation for F1.  Indeed, unless the long mooted budget cap is agreed, the only opportunity for either team to make big strides forward might be to follow the Minardi example and sell up to someone able to inject a significant amount of cash.

Caterham Boss Tony Fernandes has threatened to pull out of F1

Caterham Boss Tony Fernandes
has threatened to pull out of F1

Caterham owner Tony Fernandes has already threatened to pull out at the end of the year if results do not improve for his team, and you have to wonder whether Marussia might be in a similar position.  It would be sad to see either team go the same ways as the other 2010 new entry, HRT, but unless either can take advantage of the opportunity afforded to them by the regulation change this season, that may well happen.

What do you think about Marussia and Caterham’s prospects for 2014 and beyond?  Will either team score points?  Will Marussia be ahead of Caterham by a nose?  Comment below!

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.

Rosberg plays his cards right to win in Monaco

Well, it’s the race that everyone wants to win. The one Formula 1 race of the year that sees the glitz and glamour of the sport brought absolutely to the forefront amid the gleaming yachts in a gambler’s paradise: Monaco. As it turned out, the result of the race was never really in doubt, despite plenty of thrills and spills in the Principality – Nico Rosberg, 30 years since his father Keke tasted victory at the same track, led from lights to flag to take a dominant and well deserved victory.

As ever in Monaco, track position was crucial. As all Formula 1 fans know, overtaking around the tight, twisty street circuit is incredibly difficult, which makes qualifying vitally important. Qualifying, of course, has been the great strength of Rosberg’s Mercedes car, and it was no great surprise to see the team take their fourth straight pole position on Saturday. Indeed, it was another front row lock out for Mercedes, with Lewis Hamilton under a tenth of a second slower than his German team-mate.

Rosberg leads the field into Sainte Devote

Rosberg leads the field into Sainte Devote

The big question was whether Mercedes had the race pace to compete, given the extreme difficulties that they experienced with tyre degradation in the last race at Barcelona. If Mercedes could lead into the first corner, and successfully manage their tyres, it was odds on that they would win the race. The fact that Rosberg started well, and beat his team-mate Hamilton off the line and into turn one, set his race up perfectly. As it turned out, tyre management was never an issue for Mercedes and Rosberg never relinquished the lead at any point in the race to take a brilliant second career race victory.

Massa's crash in the race was almost identical to his crash in practice a day earlier

Massa’s crash in the race was almost identical
to his crash in practice a day earlier

That might make the race sound a little more straightforward than it actually was. The result could have been even better for Mercedes had they not had a bad roll of the dice with the first safety car period. Surprisingly, and unlike their immediate competitors, lap 31 of the race arrived and neither of the Mercedes cars had pitted. That meant that when the safety car came out following a heavy crash for Felipe Massa on lap 30 – a carbon copy of the one that he experienced in Saturday morning free practice – Mercedes were forced to pit both cars on the same lap. This allowed the Red Bulls, both of which had been released by the safety car, to jump ahead of the unfortunate Lewis Hamilton, who missed out on the opportunity to challenge his team-mate for victory and take his third podium of the season.

Hamilton put Webber under heavy pressure as the race restarted, even drawing alongside him at Rascasse, but was unable to get ahead of the Red Bull. Indeed, despite further chaos later in the race the top four of Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber and Hamilton remained in that order for the remaining 48 laps. Behind them, though, there was plenty of action with McLaren’s Sergio Perez and Force India’s Adrian Sutil putting in some great overtaking manoeuvres at the chicane and at Lowe’s hairpin respectively.

monaco_grosjean2It was at Perez’s favourite overtaking place, coming out of the tunnel into the chicane, that we saw the incident that resulted in the second safety car period on lap 63. Lotus’s Romain Grosjean had his fourth crash of the season, ramming into the back of, and mounting, Daniel Ricciardo’s Toro Rosso, leaving debris strewn across the track and putting both cars out of the race. Grosjean definitely had a weekend to forget, and that incident resulted in an investigation by the stewards after the race, who handed the Frenchman a 10 place grid penalty for the next race in Canada.

Maldonado before the incident with Chilton

Maldonado before the incident with Chilton

Perhaps even worse, though, was the incident that resulted in a red flag on lap 46. Williams driver Pastor Maldonado pulled alongside Marussia’s Max Chilton on the approach to turn 16. Chilton inexplicably moved across on Maldonado, pushing the Venezuelan’s car into the barriers and momentarily into the air before it speared head on into the barriers. Maldonado said afterwards “I didn’t expect Chilton to cross my line. It is very dangerous”. Certainly the stewards agreed, handing the Englishman a drive through penalty for the incident.

Indeed, that incident might have had a big impact on the result of the race. With the red flag, the teams were able to make changes to their cars and, crucially, change tyres. That benefitted Red Bull Racing, and Mark Webber in particular. The Australian had pitted to change tyres on lap 25, six laps earlier than both of the Mercedes cars and his team-mate Sebastian Vettel. It seemed that it was Red Bull, rather than Mercedes that seemed to be struggling a little with tyre wear and without the free tyre change afforded to the teams by the red flag period, we might have seen Webber struggle with degradation in the closing laps of the race. That’s all speculation, though.

Vettel led home Webber and Hamilton to take second place

Vettel led home Webber and
Hamilton to take second place

Rosberg and Mercedes will certainly have been delighted by victory around the streets of Monaco. Not even a pre-race protest by Ferrari and Red Bull about a tyre test following the race in Barcelona could spoil their party, although we’ve certainly not heard the last of that particular controversy. Despite not taking victory in Monaco, the big winner in terms of the championship was second placed Sebastian Vettel, though. The German saw his world driver’s championship lead over Kimi Raikkonen balloon to 21 points after the Finn could only manage 10th place after a puncture on lap 69 following an incident with Sergio Perez at the chicane. After only managing seventh place in Monaco, Fernando Alonso is a further eight points adrift n third place in the standings.

We head next to Canada in two weeks; a track with similar characteristics to Monaco, but many more overtaking opportunities. It’ll be interesting to see whether Mercedes can maintain their momentum there, or whether degradation will prove damaging to them once again.