Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor CFD1801J
Ambient 25.2° Track 29.9° Humidity 62.7% Wind 0.5 m/s
As the last rays of sunshine began to lengthen shadows in the paddock, the teams furiously bent to their tasks, keen to ensure the last outing of the season gave their drivers the best chance for whatever goals they had left, on last toss of the dice to pull off a result to sustain them through the off-season, whatever travails had thus far befallen them… For some, Raikkonen and Giovinazzi, it was a permanent good-bye, the last gasp of a high octane ride and for others, well, everything from a championship to a personal best result loomed in the offing.
HAAS continued to be plagued by bad news, in this case the fact that Mazepin had tested positive for COVID and therefore would not take the start of the race. After some negotiations with Jack Aitken, who had run a practice session and was therefore technically able to fill in, fell through, the beleaguered constructor would start the final race with a single car.
With Lando Norris’ stunning P3 in yesterday’s qualifying, he was starting the race provisional P5 in the WDC, with Leclerc, formerly in that spot, starting P7. Adding just the tiniest bit of spice, his teammate, Sainz, starting P5 was 9 points back and also technically in the mix, meaning that for one last race both McLaren and Ferrari had something worth fighting over…
But those are small potatoes compared to the stakes at the front, with both drivers tied on points. The start, often an agent of supreme chaos, is unlikely to cause any major upset between the top two, especially with Norris stating his preferred intent to not get in between the top two if possible. But it is the tyre strategy that will be the focus, as Verstappen starts on the Softs, with a pit window that opens lap 13 and Hamilton on the Mediums with a pit window that opens on lap 19, at least according to the official guess from Pirelli. Also, they are predicting a one stop for the race, which accords with most of the thinking thus far. From qualifying, it would seem that Red Bull have chosen track position and Mercedes have chosen race pace, worth remembering that Red Bull’s Soft tyre runs in FP2 were done with a different, higher downforce, rear wing. So the start should favour Red Bull, but the tyres should favour Mercedes from lap 8 or so on, similar to the situation in Saudi Arabia when Hamilton pushed Verstappen on pace in what could charitably be called the last stint, Hards versus Mediums.
Of course that overlooks antics from the carbon fiber zone, and the fact that the backmarkers, being well aware of the titanic struggle potentially occurring behind them, would be more likely than usual to behave in unpredictable ways in their efforts not to interfere…and then we get to the engineers, pit crew and everyone else not talked about that will have been feeling the same stress over their jobs that the drivers have been, where the merest dropped decimal might ultimately prove crucial…..
The last of the jokers were revealed with Alonso and Gasly choosing the Hard tyres and with that the die was cast as for the last time this season the cars rolled off the grid on their formation lap…
Lights Out!!!! Great Start by Hamilton and he easily took the lead into Turn 1 oh my!!!! Perez was up to third as Norris ran wide and lost out to Sainz as well. Down to the chicane they raced and then Verstappen sent it and Hamilton had to cut the corner to avoid contact, and maintained the position as he returned to the track. Verstappen was immediately on the radio saying the place had to be returned but as lap 2 got underway there was no immediate sign of that happening.
And oh shiznit immediately the stewards ruled no investigation at Turn 7 necessary, as they said that Verstappen forced Hamilton off, and that Hamilton gave back all the advantage after he came back on track by lifting off and re-establishing the gap previous to the corner…
Well, THAT is gonna be a bit of a discussion. Further back it was Bottas, shuffled back to P8 the biggest of the top ten losers and indeed both the commentariat and the twittersphere were ablaze with argument…Meanwhile, the actual race progressed and the next marker for the race at the front was the undercut, which Max was hanging well within, as the opening of his pit window approached.
By lap 10 the gap between Hamilton and Verstappen was out to 2.9 seconds, which was an effective nullification of the undercut and now the tyre differential was really starting to show. Further back, the rest seemed quite happy to let their tyres do the talking as there seemed to be no singular effort to do anything other than manage their pace.
By lap 13 the gap had gone out at the front to 6 seconds and the loss of the decision by the stewards seemed to have thrown them for a loop, as they failed to take advantage of pitting first until it was too late.
Lap 14 and Verstappen was in and out, and in the process of exiting he well forced Leclerc off the track and he quickly cleared Norris as well. That left him in clear air and Hamilton was in the following lap to cover off Red Bull. Strategically, that left Perez 11 seconds up the and acting as a potential blocker. But Perez, too, was on the Softs which were well past their prime, so his ability to do very much blocking would be the question once the Mercedes of Hamilton found his gearbox.
From a strategy point of view, the direct undercut did not work at all for Verstappen, more so because he was stuck behind Carlos Sainz, who was rather fairly at this point battling him on track for position. By lap 17, two laps into their battle, Hamilton, ahead in clear air was rocking up nearly 2 seconds a lap over his rival…
Lap 18 and Norris was in along with Giovinazzi, as Red Bull’s choice to go with very low downforce package was beginning to bite them. End of lap 18 and at last Verstappen worked his way by, 9 seconds back of Hamilton. Ricciardo followed Norris in, an undercut on Ocon ahead.
Following lap and Sainz was in as Hamilton at last found Perez’ rear wing and the last of the strategy cards was about to be played by Red Bull…and rather brilliantly as it turned out as he managed to stretch it out until the hairpin on lap 21, allowing Verstappen to make up nearly all of the gap…
Perez was in the end of that lap and at the front, Hamilton set about re-establishing his undercut proof lead. Behind, it was Tsunoda rocking around in P3, with Bottas, yet to pit now the strategy card for Mercedes as he was lingering about in Verstappen’s pit window. During that excitement a number of midfielders made their stop and with Tsunoda in on lap 25, with the sole exception of Alonso and Gasly who started on the Hard tyre and had progressed due to pitstop loss, all the top ten were through the pits and it was pretty much status quo ante, with only Bottas the last holdout, still annoyingly inside Red Bulls pit window… oops and there you go, yellows lap 26 with Raikkonen out at turn 6…
A long wait but during it, Hamilton had managed to extend his lead to 3.5 seconds and with Raikkonen able to get the car rolling again, the threat of a Safety Car receded into the distance. Raikkonen was in at the end of the lap a complete loss of brakes being the issue and his season, and career, looked to be done….
And off came the gloves and it was official, done for good was the Finn… In the team battle, Bottas was gradually losing out to Perez, who was chasing him down for P3, and with 27 lap old Mediums the gap was down to just under 2 seconds on lap 30… This left the possibility of Bottas rocking back into contention late and making life difficult for Red Bull in the event they would need to stop Verstappen again for fresh tyres. But as long as they Safety Car stayed quiescent, and the gap was bigger than 3 seconds, as it currently was, the advantage stayed with Mercedes.
Lap 31 and Bottas was in, and out he went just ahead of Tsunoda. The three way battle for P5 in the WDC had resolved itself into P6-P8, Sainz, Norris and Leclerc in order, which meant that on track at least, Leclerc had done enough to retake the position. On the radio, asked about a pit under the Safety Car, Hamilton was happy to let the engineers do the picking, saying both tyres felt good to him. Bottas, enjoying some fresher tyres, at last reeled in Leclerc on lap 34 and was into DRS, and sure enough into Turn 6 on lap 35, Bottas was at last by, and on his way up the field.
Oh no, and another stopped Alfa, this time Giovinazzi between Turn 9 and 10, and out came the Virtual Safety Car. The two leaders were by the pits without a chance to take advantage, but Leclerc took advantage…Mercedes told Hamilton to stay out and indeed, in came Verstappen, off with a fresh set of Hards. Perez followed in, both lap 37 for those counting at home. Alonso and Gasly also winners with the VSC lottery…
Lap 38 and now it was all changed, Verstappen with new Hards and 17 seconds…thankfully Mercedes did the maths for us and told Hamilton Max needed 0.8 seconds a lap and the game was on…. Alonso on the Medium and Tsunoda had a bit of a moment, but the stewards ruled no further investigation and off they went…
Gasly nicked Alonso for P8, and the Alpha Tauris had now backed up the rest of the midfield. At the front, Hamilton was losing less time then Red Bull needed..but it was now desperate times at Ferrari, as Leclerc, having pitted under the VSC, was languishing in P12 behind Ricciardo, whilst Norris ahead was lolling about in P5, though he was soon going to give that up to Bottas…
13 lap to go and 13 seconds between Verstappen and Hamilton and it was now the backmarkers turn to feature as he was approaching the Leclerc, Ricciardo, Ocon and Alonso train…Alonso seeming to be the problem as his Mediums were simply not working the way one might hope…Round Turn 5 on lap 46 Hamilton finally had the back of the train in his sights and sure enough Sector 3 for the Mercedes was significantly slower, though overall the Red Bull was simply not getting the job done…
End of Lap 48 and Hamilton was through the train with the gap having been whittled down to 11 seconds, with Verstappen yet to deal with the same traffic. Norris was in lap 50 with a slow puncture, disaster for McLaren and the battle for P5 was back on. Hamilton was warned to be careful of the kerbs as a result and it was a real entertainment to hear his engineer try to deliver this as good news…Turn 15 and 16 were identified and the F1 app had absolutely given up, frozen on lap 47, though to its credit the audio still worked.
Lap 52 and the gap was still hovering at 12 seconds as Verstappen was taking his turn playing in the midfield train and then it all changed on lap 53 with Latifi into the wall and an almost certain Safety Car… first chance and Hamilton skipped his chance for new tyres, lacking the gap to get in and out ahead of Max, and Verstappen again took advantage and both Red Bulls were now directly behind him, on Soft tyres. On the radio, Hamilton was told the bad news, along with the projection that not only did the field have to bunch, but that lapped runners had to be sent round…Safety Car was crawling, in an effort to get at least one more lap of green flag racing, which is not what Mercedes’ wanted. Perez then had to retire the car and what the oh my, lapped cars were not being allowed to overtake, which left 5 cars between Verstappen and Hamilton on the restart…..
On the radio, Red Bull were arguing vociferously about that decision and as lap 57 was halfway done it was suddenly changed, and lapped cars were sent around and the race was going to restart with Verstappen on Hamilton’s gearbox and they were off….
and into Turn 5 Verstappen took the lead….turn 9 and Lewis had a go but it wasn’t on with 30ish lap old HArd tyres and with 6 corners to go it was all over….Verstappen took the win and the championship, to the agonising howls of Toto Wolff and Mercedes…
Brilliant result for Red Bull and frankly, looking at the whole season, it was a miracle that Mercedes were in it at all. And with all that it was sheer luck that the cards fell they way they did but with that luck, they walk off with the World Driver’s Championship, to the sound of popping champagne corks…
As for Mercedes, well, they start with the Contructors’ championship and the form to have taken the Driver’s as well, as it was clear Red Bull were struggling with race pace relative to the Mercedes. That said, the racing gods were exceptionally cruel from Mercedes point of view, and in the end it came down to a lottery and Red Bull bought the winning ticket, all subsequent online speculations to come…and frustrating, a bit as well as in the end it didn’t come down to race long strategies and choices playing out, but an almost inevitable pass given the tyre offset that Mercedes had no real chance to anticipate… Still, it will make a rather good storyline for next season and no one ever said motorsports was fair….
But there were bigger surprises hiding on the third step of the podium, specifically Carlos Sainz, who in the VSC/Safety Car shuffle was another big lottery winner, to the specific effect of taking P5 away from his teammate, who finished P10 and was a rather big loser in the churn. So happy days at Ferrari, as they keep hold of P5 in the WDC, but a bit of an interesting dynamic beginning to take shape in the team for next season.
Big celebrations for Alpha Tauri as well, as they got both their drivers in under the Safety Car and managed to finish ahead of Bottas with their fresh Softs, taking P4 and P5, with Tsunoda finishing ahead of Gasly and gathering his best result of the year. It wasn’t enough to overtake Alpine in the Constructor’s, but it was a huge morale boost sailing off into the off-season.
And but for a bit of slow leak bad luck, it would have been Norris winning that battle for P5, and a good result for McLaren again goes slightly missing, but with clear indications it would have been theirs under slightly different circumstances. That, plus some clear issues to sort out with Ricciardo in the off-season regarding getting him all the way comfortable in the car mean not quite the end they wanted, but given the juggernaut of Ferrari against which they were competing, one they can absolutely live with.
Alpine picked up a P8 and P9, which was more than enough for them to lock up P5 in the Constructor’s and on the evidence, perhaps may well have a team that will be competitive next season. A good result with a three year old chassis and two year old power unit, but perhaps the best news is the ability of Ocon and Alonso to get along, something that has not always been an evident part of the Spaniard’s career….
As for the rest, well, with a massive regulation swing there are always winners and losers, and in general, they tend to spread the field, so it is unlikely that we will see the incredibly close fights in the midfield that have graced the now closed season… or mostly closed as some last minute protests have now made their way to the stewards office and it might not yet be as settled as it seems.
And remember to play nice in the comments!!