Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Mattpt55
Ambient 23.4° Track 31° Humidity 50.2% Wind 1.7 m/s
The pale blue firmament was just beginning to shift purple as the sun dipped slowly towards the horizon, swaddling the paddock in the glorious light of the magic hour as the teams set to the serious business of getting ready for the last race of the season. And business it was, especially for those engaged in the battle for P3-P5 in the Constructor’s which is where there was still money to be made.
Mercedes reported running lower power than normal as, at the tail end of the season, their MGU-K had developed a gremlin, as evidenced by the flaming disaster of Perez’ and Russell’s spectacularly smokey failures over the last 3 weeks. Not to be outdone, Red Bull had the engine covers off BOTH their cars on the grid, just checking according to the team but still, given they have pole position, not the most ideal of beginnings.
Sainz, too, had an issue on the way to the grid with his car getting a bit hot as he rocked it round on his reconnaissance lap. Renault chose to split their tyre strategy, with Ocon going on the standard Medium in P10 thanks to the demotion of Leclerc, whilst his teammate Ricciardo had strapped on a set of Hards to seriously mess with the midfielders ahead starting on the Softs. Also choosing the Hards were Vettel and Perez, with Leclerc on the Medium just for balance at the Scuderia and Stroll, natch, on the Softs due to his appearance in Q3.
55 laps in the dropping desert temperatures awaited, then, as the drivers set off to the line for one final go at glory. With the large driver transfers awaiting, there was more than the usual feels on the radio as the lights beckoned….
Lights Out!!!! Great Start by Bottas as he looked to get round Verstappen but no, Max held him off into the first turn and made it through the first complex unhindered. Ocon nabbed Gasly at the back and it was Hamilton, catching a bit of a wobble through the first turn, who was momentarily under pressure from the Soft-tyred Norris.
As they rocked round the first lap it was Albon inside a second on Norris and Gasly, all over the back of Ocon that looked to be the fightiest, Gasly on the Softs v Ocon on the Mediums. And it was Gasly getting the job done with his tyre advantage into Turn 7, retaking his spot and then defending down the following straight, as the wait for DRS continued.
At the back, Perez had moved up 2 spots, but it was Magnussen with the best of the starts, up 3 at the beginning and loitering now in P17. Another mover was Vettel, who had managed to get right ahead of Leclerc in what must have been Ferrari’s worst nightmare, as he no doubt would be doing whatever exactly he pleased since this was his last race with the team.
Albon continued to put the pressure on Norris and he reported on the radio that Norris was going to burn up his tyres and lap 7 Alex got the job done. But Norris fought back and retook the position and as they headed down the back straight, Albon, taking advantage of DRS rocked up the inside of the McLaren and was off to help his teammate still leading the race.
The following lap, Bottas was told to start closing the gap as Mercedes very much wanted him to linger inside the undercut range to harass the Red Bull strategists, whilst behind, Hamilton was falling off the pace a bit and Albon, 6 seconds back, was now matching him. Stroll bounced Kvyat and was up to P7, 2.5 seconds up the road to Sainz.
Gasly then committed a bit of fratricide, sticking it to Kvyat and taking P8 away from him as Alpha Tauri’s entry still featured a big fat TBA next to Gasly’s name. BANG!! Perez off, facing the wrong way and out came the Virtual Safety Car, as Checo hammered his steering wheel in frustration as the car just died on him as he was working his way through the field. Wretched news for Racing Point as Verstappen, Bottas, Albon, Norris, Sainz, Stroll, Gasly, Kvyat, Ocon and Raikkonen all chose to pit for the Hard. Ricciardo was held out thanks to already being on the Hards and moved up to P5 as the pitstop lottery commenced, Albon having exited the pits ahead of the Renault.
Hamilton was not convinced it was good strategy as with the appearance of the Safety Car the gaps disappeared and the only strategy advantage Mercedes possessed was now disappeared, ironically due to the failure of a brand new Mercedes PU… Oil on the track was reported explaining the Safety Car and the commentariat was now speculating a transmission failure being the cause of Perez stop.
AS they rolled round behind the Safety Car, a series of messages between Hamilton and Bono revealed he was not happy with the balance and the team did their best to reassure the World Champion as the Safety Car was in at the end of lap 13.
On the restart it was status quo ante and those staying out and messing up the order (or not, depending on one’s fandom) were Vettel and Leclerc in P7 and P8, and Giovinazzi in P12 a massive obstacle for Ocon whose race was going to be spoiled if the Alfa failed to keep pace with the other Alpha just ahead. Not much of a worry as the Frenchman got the job done quite rapidly easily by as ahead, Sainz, who found himself trapped behind the the two Ferraris, did the business on his future teammate, Leclerc, and claimed P8 as lap 16 swung into view.
The driver who was really on fire, though, was Kvyat, notching laptimes near those at the front as he rapidly bounced Giovinazzi and closed down Ocon. Sainz, who was now by the older tyred Vettel (optional comma or dash) and locked behind his teammate in P6, was announced as being under investigation for going too slowly on his way into the pits in order to enable an easy double stack for his team.
Stroll, meanwhile, had fetched up behind Leclerc, who was dying a slow painful death on his burnt Mediums, and into lap 20 the Racing Point rocked by to chase down Vettel. Norris was told that getting round Ricciardo, who had skipped the early pitstop to gain track position and also, well, because he started on the Hard whic was also the only tyre that might have gone to the end from lap 13, leaving Renault no real choice in the mater.
The following lap it was Gasly’s turn to pass Leclerc and it was Ocon, next up in the queue. Into lap 22 the job was done as the Ferrari continued to tumble down the order, a frankly baffling strategy choice from the Scuderia. This was finally apparent to the team and they pitted him before Kvyat had his shot and he was out dead last, on a set of Hards to now try and work his way through the field.
All this excitement in the midfield battle, which was where the money was, didn’t mean that the front was devoid of action. Bottas had fallen off the pace, almost 5 seconds back with Hamilton a further 3 seconds off his teammate. An even bigger entertainment was the fact that both Hamilton and Verstappen were doubting the ability of the tyres to get all the way to the end.
Stroll, still stuck behind Vettel, went wide and lost a basketful of time to the Ferrari, which chucked him directly into the sights of Gasly. Remarkably, the Sainz affair, which had the potential to be championship order deciding, was now announced as being investigated AFTER the race, as the stewards apparently wished to hear from the teams in person. Big move up the inside by Gasly saw the Alpha Tauri by Stroll as Racing Point’s strategy was decisively coming to pieces, the only potential saving grace now the fact that the race might well become a two stopper for those who pitted under the Virtual Safety Car.
Unlike Stroll, Gasly was not going to hang about and let Vettel be the stopper in the bottle, and after a lovely battle P8 went to the Monegasque, leaving Stroll behind Vettel yet again, with the additional entertainment that Ocon was now right on the edge of DRS on the Racing Point. But with Stroll struggling with traction it was going to be the Vettel train all the way to his pitstop, which, according to his radio on lap 36 was going to be soon as he felt his tyres were just about gone. Indeed, the end of lap 36 the Ferrari was in, and at last the midfield runners were released, but not until having lost 8 seconds to Gasly and finding himself nearly 22 seconds adrift of Sainz, which is where Racing Point really needed him.
All this was fantastic news for Ricciardo, whose pit window currently put him out just ahead of Gasly and with a significant tyre advantage once Renault decided to pull the pin. End of lap 39 and that’s exactly what they did, and he was out just ahead of Gasly with some fresh Mediums, 15 seconds up the road and a twinkle in his eye.
On the radio, Verstappen was told the temperatures in his tyres was starting to get a bit low and yet despite that, Bottas was able to make no progress as they wound their way through lapped traffic. Leclerc was told to lose two seconds in order to avoid a penalty for violating track limits once too often. Now getting a bit dramatic, as Max was again on the radio and this time talking about oscillations of his tyres, shades perhaps of the Silverstone tyre failure epidemic earlier in the season. In the midfield battle, Ricciardo had taken his time getting the tyres going and with 9 laps left in the race, he had 14 seconds to clear.
Lap 49 and Ricciardo was still making no progress as Verstappen had settled down, and offered to turn the engine down. His team politely declined and with 5 laps left, it looked as if McLaren had done the deal. Slightly farther behind, Ocon was showing that he might yet catch Stroll for some fun in the last laps. Still, the situation for the commentariat was dire, with the drivers all chunking tenths out of each other, and the talk devolved to track selection and other things as the last laps of the season ticked off the clock.
Lap 52 and Ocon was 1.2 seconds back of Stroll, but Stroll fought back the following lap and kept the gap consistent. Lap 54 and things got a bit spicy, with Ocon rocking into DRS halfway through the penultimate lap, but it was still going to be a tall ask to get round the Racing Point with its superior straightline speed. Albon, who had turned up the wick around lap 45, had closed up within 2 seconds on Hamilton as Verstappen hit the line for the final lap of the season. It was an agonizing lap for Racing Point, the Renault closing to within 0.2 seconds, as Verstappen captured win, and oh my, it was P9 for Ocon getting the job done and twisting the knife deep into Racing Point as Ricciardo snatched the fast lap point from Verstappen just to be helpful.
That sound you hear? The champagne corks in Milton Keynes as Verstappen took not merely the win, but the grand chelem, lights to flag victory with every lap led and Albon, finishing the race just 1.5 seconds off the back of Hamilton. A great, if not entirely dramatic, way to finish off the season for Red Bull, who started off the year behind the eight ball with their restructuring of the front suspension. For Mercedes, well, Bottas confirmed P2 in the drivers and given the MGU-K reliability issues, locking out the rest of the podium was likely their goal from the start. For the tinfoil (or marketing) minded, it’s not going to hurt to have a non-Merc winner at the end of the season and post race, Hamilton said as much, hoping that the updated regs would help bring the field together.
For McLaren, who have just announced a major deal to bring in new investment, finishing P5 and P6, Norris and Sainz respectively, confirms them as best of the rest over the season, 7 points clear of Racing Point and regardless of Perez’ retirement what remains entirely clear is that McLaren absolutely delivered on their plan unlike all of their rivals. The extra money for that step, plus the new investment and the deal for Mercedes’ Power Units going forward, confirms them as very serious players as the new regs for ’21 and ’22 come into focus. And for those wanting to point out that the potential penalty for Sainz had yet to be adjudicated, he could face a 30 second penalty without the result changing so…..
It would seem odd to suggest that Renault had a good race, but with Ricciardo coming P7 and snatching fast lap from Verstappen and Ocon, with a nice last lap pass for a bit of extra glory going P9, it was a pretty good way to end the season considering the car itself did not appear to be all that good on the Medium tyre, which both of them ran in the race. Not enough to pass the fallen Racing Point, but that was always going to be a stretch, but decidedly making the most of what they had.
For Alpha Tauri, it was a brilliant drive from Gasly, and from Kvyat another day of frustration, with him losing out to his teammate early on ultimately a pivotal moment in the race. From that moment on, Gasly went on to rock up a P8 at the end of the race, whilst Kvyat, who was tossed out behind Ocon on exit, losing the spot due to the double stack, it was to become an utterly frustrating race, as he was the tail ender in the Vettel train and found himself run out of laps to get round Stroll for the final championship point. As usual they punched above their weight and will be not so quietly delighted with their season’s results.
Not so for Racing Point, who, after raising expectations with their Mercedes Lite design scheme, spent a season plagued by driver absences, mechanical failures and demonstrated perhaps inadvertently exactly how hard it is to switch up the car design, exactly how long it takes the engineers to understand it well enough to began to get the optimum out of it. Granted, Perez’ failure in the race was beyond their ability to control, but by the sound of things on the post race radio, Stroll very much feels that the team owes him some work on managing the tyres better, an issue that has in particular plagued him across the season.
Raikkonen in P12 is a bit of a surprise, and Alfa Romeo have the Ferrari pitwall to thank for that one, the decision to leave Leclerc out (Vettel on the Hards had no real choice that early in the race) just an enormously baffling one as it was obviously the correct move in those circumstances. A small consolation for Seb then, running ahead of his teammate on merit and ruining the race in the midfield with some exquisite defending as his tyres ran to the end of their life, with only Gasly able to make a move stick before he swapped tyres. Aside from that a miserable end to a woeful season for the Scuderia, and no doubt the tifosi are anxiously anticipating the upgraded Power Units first appearance at winter testing….
It was a tough way for Kmag to end his F1 career, but with a small delight in gaining the most spots at the start in his very last race. There were engine problems for Fittipaldi and given the lack of development by the team finishing last in the final race is exactly what one would expect. But it would be Williams, who truly had the tragic season as despite their ostensible gains, they were unable to convert a single championship point for the first time since 1977…
With a “young” (thanks Alonso) drivers test yet to come and a bit of an off-season, there will be plenty of speculation to fill the winter hours, none more so than the giant TBA’s at both Red Bull and Alpha Tauri. Chuck in some changing regs and you have the prescription for endless hours of fun…
And remember to play nice in the comments!!