Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Mattpt55
Ambient 25° Track 29° Humidity 54% Wind 3.9 m/s
Once again, the winds were howling through the paddock, destroying expensive coiffes with gusts up to 30 mph and wreaking havoc on VIPs and race strategy alike. Turns 4 and 10 will see the most excitement from the wind unsettling cars and sending them wide with delightful abandon. One stop is Pirelli’s call for fastest strategy, followed closely by a two stopper and a close look at new tyres left certainly leave to door more open for Ferrari to employ the 2 stopper than Mercedes on this high degradation, rear limited circuit.
Of course, the real object of interest will be turn 1 and whether or not Leclerc and Vettel will simply make it through intact, and, of course, in what order. Red Bull, too, might play a spoiler role with alternate strategies as they have struggled with the Softs on which Verstappen will start the race. Mercedes was better on the Softs, with Bottas managing a higher average over 17 laps than Ferrari over 13 and it was Ferrari over Mercedes on the Mediums again suggestive that we might see different strategies as the realities of the race play out.
In the midfield, HAAS continue their reign on one lap pace, but according to the long run analysis they are quite vulnerable. With Grosjean dinged 3 spots for blocking Norris in quali, it’s going to be a difficult race for them to score double points as Kmag’s, ummmm, robust defending skills will be of less use on one of the easier tracks to pass that now also sports 3 DRS zones.
Looking fast on race pace as well are Kvyat of Toro Rosso and Hulkenberg at Renault, but they start from far back and if they get caught in traffic it will make for a long day. McLaren are actually the dark horse for best of the rest as they have decent race pace and good starting positions so happy days for their long suffering fans.
AS the race start neared, and the light began to fall, the stadium lighting began to pierce the gloaming with a fierce, hyperreal brilliance, a not bad analogy for the fierce rise of a new star in the F1 firmament on his first pole position and with it all to lose as the minutes counted down to the race start…..
Lights Out!!!! Great start from Vettel as Leclerc caught some wheelspin and it was Vettel into P1 out of the first turn. The bad news for Leclerc continued as Bottas took advantage of his poor start and was by after slipstreaming down the long straight to T4. Hamilton, too had a go but Leclerc had recovered his sanity by then and it was nothing doing and it was fierce fighting amongs the top 3. A feint from Leclerc caused Bottas to flinch and it was Leclerc by in a flash and then Hamilton squeezed by as well and as the dust settled from the mad start it was Vettel 2 seconds up on Leclerc, followed by Hamilton and Bottas. Further back it was Grosjean and Stroll coming together, sending them both to the back and a puncture for Grosjean to boot. Norris also didn’t escape unscathed, having a bit of rally practice which dropped him several places as well during the utter chaos of the start.
In the midfield then it was Sainz with the better start and ahead of Magnussen, but it was Raikkonen being pressured from Ricciardo and in turn putting the issue to Magnussen who was already starting to lead his own train.
Lap 4 and damage to Sainz, after a robust go at Verstappen his front wing looked to have failed. This sent him tumbling down the order and left Ricciardo well inside DRS on Kmag whilst at the front, Leclerc had been on a tear, and was under a second off Vettel with Hamilton nearly 3.5 seconds back and Bottas more than double that….
Lap 6 and into T1 it was Leclerc, on the outside and around Vettel into T1, then defending down to T4 quite ably and confirming his move back into the lead. Meanwhile Sainz was in and out for a new front wing, the failure a definitive result of contact with Verstappen when he tried to squeeze him on the apex. Kmag, meanwhile had been rolled up and spat down to P10, with Ricciardo leading the best of the rest, followed by Raikkonen, Hulkenberg and Perez as lap 9 hit the history books….
Lap 10 brought Raikkonen, Albon and Gasly in. Gasly was out again on the Soft tyre, but it was slow and he lost roughly an additional 3 seconds, not helping his aggressive strategy. Raikkonen onto the Medium and Albon back out on the Soft, mirroring Gasly’s strategy.
Kmag was next in, lap 11 and out with a set of Mediums, back into P15 but successfully defending against the undercut from Gasly. Lap 12 saw Verstappen in and out with a set of Mediums on while it was Kvyat, running long and fast, up to P7 thanks to the stops.
And just like that he was backwards, possible due to Giovinazzi contact as he tried to defend the overtake and once he got turned around, into the pits he went. Bottas meanwhile was in and out, and behind Verstappen whilst Hamilton had rocked up to just behind Vettel.
Lap 14 saw Hamilton into the pits, following Leclerc who led the way. Mediums for the Ferrari and Softs for the Mercedes as Bottas was having a serious go at Verstappen into T1. He didn’t quite get the move done but he kept at it and around the outside he finally went, off in chase of Vettel, who had pitted in the the following lap and lost out to Hamilton’s undercut, leaving Ricciardo at the front of the race for the moment.
That moment passed quickly as Leclerc and then Hamilton swept past him, the Mercedes driver again yo-yo-ing 3.5 seconds off the back of the Ferrari. Vettel was at 7 seconds and Bottas another 2 behind him on lap 17 as the front of the field struggled for equilibrium.
In the midfield, Kmag was in DRS of Gasly for P11 briefly, but it was the Red Bull on the charge trying to reclaim the damage from his slow stop as Kmag was confirmed on a one stop, trying to make it work against those 2 stopping ahead. Grosjean threw in the towel, likely due to damage from his punctured tyre and that left Sainz as the lanterne rouge, chasing Stroll at a second a lap on lap 20.
At the sharp end, Leclerc was beginning to turn the screw a little bit, knocking off 3 to 5 tenths a lap as Hamilton struggled to get the pace out of the Softs relative to the Mediums. This dropped him back into the clutches of Vettel who was just a second back on lap 21.
Hamilton radioed in that his rears were done, the high rate of degradation doing in his gamble to get by Leclerc with the softer tyre….. Verstappen P5 was in his pit window and the question for Mercedes strategy was how long could he stretch it before they brought him in for a tyre advantage to the end of the race.
That would leave Bottas on a potential 1 stopper keeping Ferrari honest at the front as he was 16 seconds back and VERY much looking like he was running a pace to make his Mediums last. Lap 23 and Vettel got the job done leaving Mercedes’ aggressive strategy a bit in disarray.
A mistake from Vettel opened the door back up, and despite his lack of grip and tyres going off, Hamilton was not losing a lot of time over the lap. The following lap, though, he began to edge it out and it was Ricciardo, with a long 25 lap first stint, in for his pit stop. Out P13 he went, just behind Kmag, who was now focused on staying in the pit window Hulkenberg while saving his tyres, with Ricciardo looking to close the 5 second gap as quickly as possible. Good news for Kmag, Albon was into the pits, opening up some free air for him to drive into. Slightly further up, Norris had finally reeled Raikkonen in, and was by for P7. Kimi kept the fight going for a bit, but Norris had the measure of him and was off in search of Hulkenberg, 3 seconds up the road.
Hamilton was dangling 2 seconds off Vettel, but behind him Bottas continued to bleed time and his ability to keep Ferrari from an easy 1 stop had almost evaporated. Lap 30 saw Ricciardo by Magnussen without much of a sweat and putting a big dent into HAAS one stop plan and pointing out that Pirelli did have the correct fastest strategy pegged.
But it was Leclerc at the front, who had even outdriven TV coverage 8 seconds up on Vettel and bringing a valedictory performance. In a deja vu all over again moment, after Verstappen lapped Stroll lap 32, Stroll came back and decided to unlap himself, this time without all the excellent crashing of Brazil.
Hamilton had a moment, but it was first Verstappen who came in on lap 33 to grab a new set of tyres. Out with a set of Mediums he went, and it was Hulkenberg also in, back out just in front of Magnussen as HAAS’ race day was officially in tatters.
Verstappen was out behind Raikkonen, and he wasted little time getting round and then it was Norris, next on his radar 2 seconds up the road. Lap 35 and Hamilton was in, out behind Bottas. The pass by the Red Bull also saw Raikkonen bailing for new tyres and he emerged into a fierce battle with Albon, which Kimi eventually won. This battle sent Albon back into the clutches of his teammate.
Vettel was in lap 36 and was out just in front of Hamilton, under a second between them and the battle was on to the end of the race. Leclerc was in the following lap and out, back into the lead, about 2 seconds up on Bottas. Fast lap for Hamilton, meanwhile, and surprise, outside of T4 he went with Vettel fighting back, squeezing him hard and saving his place for the moment.
They caught Bottas up and that gave Vettel the gift of DRS which momentarily saved the place. Again into T4 Hamilton went round the outside but it was Vettel, fully behind on exit, spinning on exit as Hamilton launched off into the distance. But the tragedy continued as he then lost his front wing on the way round to the pits, and it was P10 on exit with the Softs for the remainder of the race.
Lap 39 and Hulkenberg was on the back of Ricciardo and into T1 they went with Ricciardo understeering into Hulkenberg trying to defend and losing his front wing endplate for his troubles. Ricciardo tried to fight back down the straight but he wasn’t able to get close enough into T4 and that was that as Hulkenberg had a big tyre advantage as well as Ricciardo carrying damage from their contact.
During the wars, Bottas had been brought in for a set of Softs, clearing up their thinking on his strategy. The fresh tyres were enough to keep him moving a bit faster than Verstappen, which looked to be enough to get him home in 3rd.
Lap 47 and Leclerc was on the radio, complaining of problems with the PU and it was confirmed they had lost ERS from the team. Suddenly, with 10 laps left he was losing seconds a lap and it took Hamilton no time at all to take advantage. He sailed past with no fight whatsoever on lap 48, Leclerc’s MGU-H toast and the only question left was whether the buffer to Bottas was enought to keep him on the podium. The maths didn’t look good as he was losing 5 seconds a lap with 7 laps left. The race gods were being exceptionally cruel today to the young Monegasque, and he was told to get on with it and try to get to the end on the podium.
A brutal radio conversation followed, with Leclerc being told to follow the numbers on his dash, as he protested the near impossibility of what they asked. All the while, Bottas continued his inexorable pursuit.
In the midfield, Renault’s day went suddenly sideways, as Hulkenberg suddenly suffered as first Hulkenberg, and then Ricciardo turned up at the end of the straight as their cars just shut down. Hulkenberg with a PU issue and Ricciardo with what seemed to be an electrics failures. OUCH…… This promoted Norris to P6 as best of the rest and then the rather rare Safety Car was deployed as the 2 cars were recovered and it looked rather likely that they were going to finish that way.
No surprises then, as the checquers fell with Hamilton, Bottas and Leclerc on the podium, a bit of saving grace for Ferrari, followed by Verstappen and Vettel. Formula B was led home by Norris, followed by Raikkonen, Gasly, Albon and Perez. The red light on Ricciardo’s car was lit as the field rolled by last time, meaning that it was unsafe to touch without specialised gear.
Grim result for Ferrari, another inexplicable failure with the race win in their grasp and the questions will continue to reverberate through the Scuderia’s firmament until China. Right now all that is know is what failed, the why of it will be the focus. A bigger question will be Vettel’s lead driver status, not just slower on the day, but with another high profile spin in wheel to wheel combat with their main rival now to be considered in Maranello. Binotto was firm that a change in leadership was not yet at issue but after such a dominant performance it will be hard not to hear the whispers.
Happy days for Mercedes as 2 wins from the off put them in a good position in the championship and it’s Bottas still with the lead, as his single point for fast lap kept him in the lead headed into the 3rd race of the season. But it was also clear that had Ferrari not had reliability issue, there is no chance that Mercedes was on the top step of the podium, and their lack of straightline speed relative to Ferrari doesn’t augur well for China, with it’s massive backstraight.
In the midfield it was mixed for Mclaren, good news that Norris nailed a haul of points but lots of what might have been for Sainz. About Renault with a double failure the less said the better, and even at HAAS it was grim, with Grosjean taken out by contact with Stroll on the opening lap and the abject failure of their one stop strategy taking them very thoroughly out of the points.
Fortunately for one and all, redemption lies just around the corner in China as the circus keeps on rolling…