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.

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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.

Is there a star at STR?

At the end of the 2011 Formula 1 season the second Red Bull team, Scudderia Torro Rosso (STR), surprised most of the paddock, media and fans by replacing both of their race drivers; Spaniard Jaime Alguersuari and Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi. The purpose of STR is to develop drivers capable of stepping into the senior Red Bull team in the future, which worked to great effect with the reigning double world champion Sebastian Vettel who made the transition from STR to the senior Red Bull Racing team in 2009, having brilliantly won the 2008 Italian grand prix for STR; becoming the youngest race winner in F1 history aged just 21 years and 74 days old.

Jaime Alguersuari, 2011 Canadian GP
By Mark McArdle from Canada (2011 Canadian Grand Prix) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Both Alguersuari and Buemi were deemed not to be good enough to be able to make the same transition as Vettel. Dr Helmut Marko, advisor to Red Bull and the overseer of the Red Bull driver development programme, was quoted in the Gazzetta dello Sport as saying, in justification of the decision to drop Alguersuari and Buemi “Toro Rosso was created to give young drivers a chance. Alguersuari and Buemi had that chance for three years and after that period it’s possible to evaluate a drivers’ development. We didn’t see in them any possibility of growth. Both are Grand Prix drivers, but for us that’s not enough. We want Grand Prix winners”.

Given those strong words from Marko, it seems highly likely that the services of STR’s current driver pairing of Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne and Australian Daniel Ricciardo will also dispensed with if the team does not detect winning potential in them. So, halfway through their first season in F1 are Vergne and Ricciardo doing enough to justify their drives at STR? And does their form suggest that they might have what it takes to be grand prix winners and possibly replace veteran Mark Webber at the end of his newly extended contract with Red Bull Racing at the end of 2013?

Daniel Ricciardo, 2011 Japanese GP
By Morio (photo taken by Morio) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It was pretty much impossible to gauge Ricciardo’s speed in 2011 when he competed in 11 races for the struggling HRT team. He certainly didn’t set the world alight driving for the Spanish team, but I would imagine that even some of the world champions on the grid would struggle driving for HRT, so I’m going to discount those 11 race results from any further consideration, other than to say that they probably gave Ricciardo some valuable experience of driving Formula 1 machinery in anger, both in qualifying and race conditions.

With his 2011 HRT experience behind him, Ricciardo started the 2012 season with a solid result for STR, taking ninth place at his home grand prix in Australia, having also made it through to the qualifying top 10 shoot out. Since the opening round of the season, though, results have been more disappointing for Ricciardo with no further points scoring finishes and a best result of just 11th place from the next 10 rounds of the season. That 11th place, though, came at the European grand prix at Valencia, where the Hamilton/Maldonado incident in the closing laps gained him two places.

There have been other signs of promise for Ricciardo in 2012, though. His qualifying performance in Bahrain was nothing short of exceptional, with another appearance in Q3 and a sixth place starting position, just half a second off Sebastian Vettel pole position time in the senior Red Bull team. That promising position was, however, wasted in the first lap of the race during which he dropped 10 places to 16th position, going on to finish the race just one place further forward, in 15th place. Ricciardo explained after the race that he “spun the wheels off the line and then…braked a little too early for the first corner, and probably chose the wrong side of the track. Then…picked up some damage to the nose” going on to call the situation “frustrating, disappointing. A complete shithouse really”. It’s hard to know what might have been possible for Ricciardo in Bahrain had he had a better opening lap.

Jean-Eric Vergne’s pre-2012 Formula 1 experience was more limited than Ricciardo’s and it’s just as hard to draw any conclusions from it as Ricciardo’s experience with HRT. At least Ricciardo had the advantage of racing during his time with HRT. Vergne had to be content with Friday free practice running for Torro Rosso in three of the final four races of the 2011 season; Korea, Abu Dhabi and Brazil. It is, of course, impossible for outsiders to draw any conclusions from the times set during free practice, but Vergne clearly did enough to be given the chance to drive the title-winning Red Bull RB7 at the young driver test in Abu Dhabi at the end of the season. The Frenchman was fastest in all three days of that test, but again it’s impossible to draw too many conclusions from that; he was in the fastest car, after all. Still, he clearly did enough in his limited Friday free practice running, and the end of season test, to warrant being called up into a race seat with STR for 2012.

Jean-Eric Vergne, 2012 Malaysian GP
By Morio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Like his team-mate, Vergne made a good start to the season, following up his 11th place finish in Melbourne with his best result of the season so far in Malaysia where he scored four world championship points after finishing in eighth position. This was particularly impressive given his 18th place starting position. A bit like his team-mate, though, Vergne seems to have peaked early with his eighth place in Sepang being his only points scoring finish in the opening 11 rounds of the championship, his best results since then being consecutive 12thplace finishes in rounds five and six; Spain and Monaco.

Unlike Ricciardo, Vergne does not have the benefit of being able to fall back on any particularly impressive qualifying performances. Indeed, the Frenchman has failed to make it into the final part of qualifying in any of the 11 races so far this season. His best qualifying performance came at the season opening Australian grand prix where he started 11th. Since then, though, the best that he has been able to manage is a 14th place start in Barcelona.

So how do the two STR team-mates compare? Vergne has had the better race result and consequently sits 17th in the world drivers’ championship, one place ahead of Ricciardo. Indeed, Vergne’s race performances have generally been better than those of his team-mate. So far this season, Vergne has moved forward from his starting position eight times, compared to just five for Ricciardo. However, this does not tell the full story. Both drivers have exactly the same average finishing position; 13th. Part of the reason for Vergne’s race results appearing slightly better than his team-mate’s is because his qualifying performances have been so poor. Ricciardo has qualified ahead of his team-mate in all but two of the opening 11 rounds of the season having an average grid slot of 14th, compared to 17th for Vergne.

Although neither of the two young STR drivers has set the F1 world alight so far this season their predecessors, Alguersuari and Buemi, were given three seasons driving for STR before they were deemed not to be good enough. It is far too early, therefore, to decide whether Vergne and/or Ricciardo might up to scratch after just 11 race with the team. What’s more, there’s no prospect of a vacancy at the senior Red Bull Racing team until at least 2014, meaning that both drivers are likely to be given more time to prove their worth.

However, with Mark Webber out of contact at the end of 2013 and Sebastian Vettel’s position with Red Bull for 2014 subject to what Helmut Marko called “a performance-related clause in his contract”, there is a clear possibility of vacancies at the senior team at that point, especially if rumours of Vettel signing a pre-contract agreement with Ferrari for 2014 are to be believed.

Of course, there’s nothing to suggest that Vettel’s “performance-related clause” will be activated, and if Mark Webber can maintain the same level of performance that he’s demonstrated so far this season, there’s no reason why he couldn’t secure another contract extension with RBR.  Notwithstanding that, though, I think that the next season and a half will be make or break for Vergne and Ricciardo. I just can’t see them being given the same three seasons to prove themselves at STR as their predecessors.

Sebastien Buemi, Italian GP
By Luca Barni (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

They will be all too aware, also, that Buemi remains on the scene as STR reserve driver and Red Bull Racing test driver. The Swiss is very capable of stepping in if it becomes clear that either Vergne or Ricciardo are not up to scratch. Both drivers will need to make a concerted push in the second half of the season and try to demonstrate their worth, but I can’t help but feel that it’s STR that really needs to step up their competitiveness to give their two young drivers a chance to show what they can really do.

The Torro Rosso STR7 certainly seems to be a step backwards in comparison to its predecessor the STR6, which had scored 22 world championship points at this stage of last season (and 41 points by the end of that season). The STR7 has, in comparison, scored just six points so far this season.  Its lack of performance has been acknowledged by Toro Rosso team principal, Franz Tost, who was quoted on Formula1.com as saying “We cannot hide the fact that our performance level is currently not good enough to fight at the front of the midfield. Everyone in the team will be working hard to find some improvements to try and turn our season around in the remaining nine rounds of this very close championship”.

It certainly looks like STR are taking steps to do just that, with technical director Giorgio Ascanelli looking certain to leave the team after it emerged over the course of the German grand prix weekend that he was “on holiday”, following rumours of disagreements about the technical development of the car. It has been suggested that Ascanelli will make a return to Ferrari, where he began his career as Gerhard Berger’s engineer in the 1980s, with his place at STR possibly filled by James Key, until recently the technical director at Sauber.

Key’s possible arrival at STR might come too late to salvage the 2012 season for the team and its two rookie drivers, but if the 2012 Sauber C31 is any indication, the 2013 Torro Rosso may well be good enough to enable Vergne and Ricciardo to show what they can really do in competitive F1 machinery.

2013 may well be a very interesting season at the team, if that proves to be the case. I suspect that’s when we’ll discover whether either Vergne or Ricciardo are well enough equipped to fulfil the future “grand prix winners” criteria that seems to be a requirement for a step up into the senior Red Bull Racing team.