Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Mattpt55
Ambient 20° Track 41° Humidity 38% Wind 1.25 m/s
Clear skies with the occasional lazy cloud sailing by rained brilliant sunshine down on the hectic activity in the paddock as the moment of truth ticked ever closer. It was a penalty-palooza post qualifying, Gasly, already starting from the pitlane for missing the weighbridge, also managed to violate the fuel flow restriction with a wonky sensor. Giovinazzi was dinged a 10 spot for his 3rd CE of the season, whilst teammate Raikkonen was disqualified for having a front wing that failed the flex text, also starting from the pitlane. That moves Leclerc up to P8 on the Medium tyre and potentially, given his pace in practice, a very interesting strategy indeed relative to the rest of the sharp end on the Softs….
Formula B also looks dead interesting with Perez in P5, trailed by Kvyat and Norris. The almost inevitable Safety Car will play an important role here, early or late will benefit the long runners but if it’s between laps 10-20 it could tip the balance the other way, as all the teams will look to make it a one stop given the fairly non-abrasive surface. But as always, difficulties with tyre temperatures might drive certain teams into a 2 stop…..
Lights Out!!!! Great Start by Hamilton and he was beside Bottas through the first turn. Wheel to wheel they went down into T2 but Bottas kept his nerve round the outside and his position compromised Hamilton’s exit. Some wheelspin from Lewis as they rocketed towards T3, and it was done, Bottas taking the lead into the rest of the lap after a wonderfully respectful battle. Perez managed to dodge by Verstappen while the Medium tyre cost Leclerc 2 places in the first 3 corners. Down to the end of the first lap and it was a 2 second gap at the front and surprisingly little carnage under lap 1.
Meanwhile, Verstappen was struggling mightily with cold front tyres, barely able to fend off a charging Norris, especially as McLaren were tops in the speed traps…. Further back it was Stroll on the charge, up to P9 and Sainz next up in his sights.
Leclerc’s tyre temperatures were finally up to snuff and he, too was on the prowl, by Norris and lining up Perez. Behind, Sainz was by Kvyat and into the pits went the Toro Rosso driver, out on a set of Mediums. Verstappen rocked by Perez on lap 6, into T1 after dodging up the inside on the straight. AT the sharp end, 3 second interval between the Mercedes, while Vettel was losing time rapidly, 6 seconds off the back of Hamilton, Softs not working at ALL for the red team. Start investigation for Kubica, because why not make it as miserable as possible. Lap 7 saw Raikkonen in and out on the Medium tyre while Leclerc had hammered his way up to P5.
Lap 9 saw Kmag and Giovinazzi in as it was looking fierce for the last points positions in Formula B and Raikkonen’s stop was covered off. Mediums were the choice of the day and the following lap Hulkenberg was in. Norris continued the trend and it was easy to see why, as on lap 11 Leclerc had a full second a lap advantage over the Mercedes….
Ricciardo and Stroll were in and the race was definitely leaning towards Leclerc as now it looked increasingly like the frontrunners were hoping for a Safety Car to give them a pit stop advantage. Lap 12 and Vettel was in as Leclerc had caught him up. Verstappen was told to do the opposite, but that was not going to be a winning strategy given the brutal drop off in performance in the Soft tyre….
Lap 13 saw Bottas in for a set of Mediums as Leclerc was just 3 seconds off Hamilton, in the lead now that Bottas had boxed. Lewis was in the following lap as Vettel was now on the chase. Verstappen was in lap 15 and out in P6, behind Gasly as Bottas was a full 13 seconds behind Leclerc and lapping no faster. Vettel was just inside his pit window at the end of lap 16 and it was Hamilton, rocking in a fast lap.
Lap 17 and Sainz had finally rolled up Grosjean, who had started on the Medium tyre, taking P9. At the front, Leclerc was now beginning to lose time to the fresher tyred chasers. 2 laps later and then it was Kvyat, by Grosjean and into P10. As the Safety Car still hovered in the background the balance was beginning to tilt to the long runners should it appear.
By lap 21 the issue for Leclerc was Verstappen, now making the push to get inside his pit window. By lap 23 it was all but done and the only question was how much time he would yield before coming in….
Two laps later and it was getting very interesting as Vettel was into the 1:45s along with Verstappen as Grosjean missed T8 and went straight on… Clearly the Ferrari much more on pace with the Mercedes on the Mediums but the times were beginning to balloon as Leclerc knocked off a personal best, but still slower than those running behind him.
Lap 28 and given the poor performance of the Softs it was still going to be another 5 to 10 laps or so before Leclerc could bail on them, but it was Bottas who had quietly rocked up to Leclerc, 1.5 seconds back and getting the official hurry up from the team, as the rest of the sharp end was beginning to collapse the gaps…
Leclerc got the message as well, and was not going to make it easy, cutting his losses to roughly 0.5 seconds on lap 30. This had the additional effect of allowing Vettel to catch onto the back of the Mercedes train without extracting too much performance from his tyres, which on the current strategy needed to be able to run to the end…..
The following lap and it was DRS for Valterri and by he went into T1 on the start of lap 32, not a real surprise, but that also brought Hamilton into DRS on Leclerc as well. Double yellow flags in Sector 1 allowed Leclerc a bit of breathing room as Kvyat and Ricciardo had come together, also a big advantage for Bottas as he pulled out a 2 second advantage as Hamilton remained behind Leclerc. On replay, it was Ricciardo backing into Kvyat in the T3 runoff as the proximate cause, after he had missed the turn entirely with a big dive bomb into T3 with his dodgy brakes and forced them both into the runoff as his Renault didn’t even pretend to be able to turn in…..
Lap 33 and Hamilton was by the Ferrari, and then Vettel immediately on his heels as Leclerc was begging for a pit stop but the Softs lacked the performance to make it work from that distance according to Ferrari. Lap 35 and he was in. Ricciardo was in and off went his car as he retired from the race… Also on display was perhaps a lack of strategic flexibility as the Softs looked likely not to last the distance but the time loss endured meant a 2 stop was not going to put pressure on anyone but Leclerc….
Job one was Gasly, and he was by on his outlap and a 28 second gap to Verstappen. Kvyat, the victim of Ricciardo’s reverse, was also into the pitlane and retired as well, the damage too great to overcome. General bafflement at the Ferrari pitstop strategy continued, but it was clear that the general baked in tendency to a one stop and fear of the Softs doomed Leclerc as the team spent a long time hoping instead of thinking, perhaps an issue for Binotto to address in the not too distant future.
And then, painful reality, Virtual Safety Car lap 40 as Gasly suffered a power loss and rolled to a stop down an escape road. Leclerc was done and you could hear the sound of Ferrari strategists banging their heads against a wall. Grosjean was in as well, to retire as it turns out, HAAS having another less than stellar time on raceday, problems with the front right corner the issue….
AS the VSC was lifted, taking 2 laps to move Gasly’s safely parked car, Hamilton wasn’t happy at all as he managed to lose 2 seconds under the VSC delta, putting him 3 seconds back of Bottas, not the first time that the delta system under the VSC had cost the Mercedes’ man time…
8 laps to go then, and Vettel turned it up a bit, into the 1:44s and the answer was not long in coming from the Mercs, matching the pace shown by the Ferrari and then a bit. Lewis had managed to inch inside the 2 second barrier with 5 laps to go….
Two laps later and the gap between them had basically not budged, 1.7 seconds and Bottas looking firmly in control. And then Leclerc took a second, essentially free pitstop, to have a go at fast lap one presumed….
Lap 49 and Lewis decided to make it interesting, suddenly rocking up to 1 second off Bottas with and two laps to get the job done. Inside DRS on lap 50 and oh my, the pitwall at Mercedes instantly not having a stress free afternoon after hey were just contemplating their post race cocktails… But Bottas inexorably inched the gap out through Sector 2, putting Lewis too far back to get a run on him… Then a bit wide over the kerbs and Hamilton’s challenge was done and it was Bottas, rocking it home as Mercedes continued to dominate the results with an inexorable 1-2, 4 in a row, as Ferrari continues to chase its missing potential, both strategic and on pace, though Leclerc at least managed to snatch fast lap from the hands of Mercedes at the last minute… Best of the rest to Perez as yet another contender for the midfield raises it’s head, with Stroll also coming through for a P9 finish. On consistency though, McLaren has gotten the job done and given the competitiveness the P7-P8 finish gave them a huge boost in the standings and excellent points for Sainz, who had been waiting to get on the board. Honourable mention to Ricciardo, at least trying to make things interesting by backing into Kvyat and bringing out a VSC as neither Renault nor HAAS seems to have gotten things entirely right this season… Barcelona next and the remainder of the big Ferrari update loom but even if successful, will it be too little too late for the Scuderia…..
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