Spanish F1 Grand Prix - Race

How Mercedes’ tire strategy derailed them in Barcelona

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All the talk after the Spanish GP was, once again, dominated by tires. The grumbles in certain areas of the paddock are becoming louder and louder as race strategies were again decided by a team’s ability to make a set of Pirellis last long enough to complete a sensible stint.

Certain teams are better at this than others and, at the end of the day, it could be said that it’s a result of them doing a better job than the ones who struggle. A Formula One team’s job, after all, is to design a car to meet the challenges of the sport in its current form. It has to be said that the loudest complainers are noticeably the ones not finding things easy right now.

With that in mind I’ll take a quick look at two differing ends of that spectrum from Sunday’s race.

Race strategies are complicated things to plan; many factors that go in to making the decision and even once the decision’s made, it has to be flexible to cope with the unpredictable parameters.

Mercedes have a car, evident from the last three races, capable of being faster than anyone else over a single lap in qualifying and indeed that’s exactly what they were on Saturday.

Planning a race strategy from pole position’s a different prospect to planning one from further down the field and should clearly be a huge advantage at a circuit where overtaking is difficult. Assuming a good start, the driver in front should be able to dictate the race to a certain extent and pole sitter Nico Rosberg, starting along with all of the other front runners on the medium compound tire, did indeed get away in front.

His biggest problem, and one that came as no surprise to all involved, is the fact that the Mercedes F1W04 destroys tires considerably quicker than everyone else. On Saturday evening when the drivers and their engineers at the team, and indeed all of the teams, sat down to figure out their best strategic options, they knew this and had to factor it into their race plans.

The white walled medium compound tire, faster of the two but less durable, was the one to qualify on, but on a Mercedes it was never going to last very long in race conditions. At the start every car’s carrying close to 150kgs of fuel and that significant extra weight, combined with a track not yet at it’s most grippy and the need to fight other cars at close quarters, has a dramatic impact on tire life and therefore race strategy.

Hamilton: Mercedes has “a lot of work to do”

Their plan was, in all honesty, a damage limitation one, staying on the medium tire for as long as they could manage while holding off the field at the front and then using the harder compound for the remainder of the GP. Initial calculations had a three-stop strategy completing the race distance about 6 or 7 seconds faster than a four-stop one and so was optimal, but it would all depend on drivers looking after the rubber to make that work. Rosberg opted for the 3 stopper of medium/hard/hard/hard, but with the only way to make the hard compound last was for him to drive at a pace so slow he became a sitting duck. He predictably fell back through the field. Perhaps a four-stop race might have helped him a little, but in truth he was never going to catch the car in front and did just about survive the challenge of Paul Di Resta behind, so the outcome would probably have remained unchanged.

The eventual race winner, Fernando Alonso, who began the race fifth, would have had to look at things slightly differently on Saturday evening to Nico Rosberg. Also having to begin the race on medium compound tires, his optimal strategy relied on a great start, something Ferrari are generally able to rely on at the moment and duly delivered.

I thought their initial plan was to three stop, probably medium/hard/hard/hard or medium/hard/hard/medium, as the the car in the last stint of the race would cope a little easier on a set of medium tires and theoretically be faster.

In the end the Ferrari, with a handful of updates for this event, was able to push at a good pace and still keep the tires in good condition for most of the GP, in direct contrast to the Mercedes. This, combined with his stunning first lap, enabled to team to switch to a more comfortable four-stop race, allowing Alonso to push hard in each stint on a medium/hard/hard/medium/hard plan and stay ahead of the struggling pack. Again the two early spells on hards allowed the fuel load to burn off and the track to rubber in, before using mediums to set some blistering laptimes and secure his position out in front. By the time the final stop came around, the only set the team had left were already used from earlier in the weekend and so, with his position fairly stable, a set of hards saw him comfortably to the end. The stop actually came two laps earlier than planned because of a suspected, and now confirmed, slow puncture, but the hard work early on ensured it didn’t cost him track position. It was a superb drive by Alonso and ensured the team had options to play with when it came to deciding how to see out the race. They weren’t forced into anything or have to react to anyone else and so could use the four stop strategy to good advantage, pushing all the way.

To win from fifth position is unprecedented at this circuit and, while perhaps a sign of the Pirelli era, it’s actually more a sign of how badly the problems are at Mercedes. Their two cars, in P1 and P2 on the grid, finished in sixth and 12th, freeing up easy places for those further back and Alonso and Ferrari made great use of their start, racecraft and ultimately their race strategy, to take a dominant, flat out victory.

Marc Priestley can be found on Twitter @f1elvis.

Rosberg takes Belgian GP pole, Verstappen scores first front-row start

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27:  Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo  on track during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg will start the Belgian Grand Prix from pole position after dominating qualifying at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on Saturday afternoon.

With Mercedes teammate and Formula 1 drivers’ championship leader Lewis Hamilton dropping out in Q1 as a tactical move due to his grid penalty, Rosberg was left largely unchallenged in the battle for pole.

Red Bull and Ferrari showed glimmers of pace in practice, but when it came to qualifying, Rosberg was able to turn up the wick and continue Mercedes’ pole streak dating back to the Monaco Grand Prix.

Despite failing to improve with his final flying lap in Q3, a fastest time of 1:46.744 saw Rosberg take pole by 0.149 seconds ahead of Verstappen in P2.

Verstappen was the only driver to really push Rosberg, and although he was also unable to improve on his final effort, second place marked his best F1 qualifying result to date. He also becomes the youngest ever driver to start on the front row of the grid in F1.

Four-time Belgian Grand Prix winner Kimi Raikkonen qualified third for Ferrari, edging out Sebastian Vettel in P4. Daniel Ricciardo was fifth in the second Red Bull, finishing over three-tenths off Verstappen’s pace.

Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg qualified sixth and seventh for Force India ahead of Valtteri Bottas in P8, while Jenson Button and Felipe Massa rounded out the top 10, finishing over a second off Rosberg’s pole time.

Haas enjoyed a somewhat routine qualifying as Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez both reached Q2 for the eighth race in a row. Grosjean qualified 11th with Gutierrez two places behind in 13th. Gutierrez will drop five places on the grid for blocking a driver in practice.

Kevin Magnussen led Renault’s charge in P12, while teammate Jolyon Palmer enjoyed his best qualifying of the year to finish 14th ahead of Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz Jr.

Manor also produced a strong display in qualifying as Pascal Wehrlein reached Q2, finishing ninth in the opening session. The German ultimately finished 16th, with teammate Esteban Ocon finishing P18 in his first F1 qualifying outing.

The impact of Sauber’s car updates for Belgium were evident in Q1 as Felipe Nasr finished within one-tenth of a place in Q2. The Brazilian was left to settle for P17 on the grid, with teammate Marcus Ericsson in 20th. Daniil Kvyat’s ongoing struggles continued as he qualified 19th for Toro Rosso, finishing behind Ocon by 0.008 seconds.

With a 55-place grid penalty looming for a series of power unit changes, Mercedes opted to limit Lewis Hamilton’s qualifying program as much as possible. The Briton posted a time quick enough to qualify for the race, good enough for 21st place.

“This is the best strategic approach in order to maximize his opportunities from the back of the field tomorrow, in terms of new tire sets,” Mercedes confirmed.

Hamilton finished ahead only of Fernando Alonso, who was unable to post a time after coming to a stop at the top of Eau Rouge. The McLaren driver also has a sizeable grid penalty to take into Sunday’s race.

The Belgian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN from 7am ET on Sunday.

Simon Pagenaud: IndyCar’s one-day return to Texas is ‘weird’

Simon Pagenaud
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FORT WORTH – Yes, it’s absurd.

Simon Pagenaud is still answering questions about the Firestone 600.

That’s what happens when you start a race on June 12 (and meant to start June 11) and never finished it.

Throw in a few torrential downpours, a lack of communication between Texas Motor Speedway and IndyCar, and you have the series returning to Fort Worth, Texas, today. That’s 77 days later that the green flag will drop to finish the last 177 laps of the race.

Pagenaud, who will restart 15th, can’t do anything but laugh at the situation.

“It’s weird, the whole team is only showing up tomorrow and we’re going to have 10 minutes of practice and then race,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports in a phone interview. “It’s going to be a short weekend. Obviously, it’s going to be a pretty short race. It’s going to be a sprint.”

MORE: McFadin column: At least IndyCar is coming back for this Firestone 600

The series completed 71 laps in June before the rain sent teams scrambling for cover in the garage and then away from TMS. They went on to compete in five races before today, with Pagenaud keeping hold of his points leads. That’s after his Team Penske teammate Will Power won three of those races and Pagenaud wrecked at Pocono.

And yes, the remaining 20 cars in the field will be given just 20 minutes to practice Saturday evening – 10 minutes for the front half of the field, 10 minutes for the back half.

After a 77 day red flag, you have to get down to business.

“I don’t know if that’s an advantage or a disadvantage,” Pagenaud said. “We don’t have any time to change anything. They impound the cars pretty quickly after practice, so you don’t get to do anything on the cars. It’s really a driving exercise and nothing else.”

And they’ll be racing at night, with a scheduled green flag just after 8:15 p.m. ET. In June, teams practiced in the mid to late afternoon with the intent to race under the lights.

Then it rained. The green flag dropped well after 2 p.m. CT the next day. Now IndyCar will race in the conditions they originally intended – more or less.

“Because we didn’t practice to race at night, the behavior of the car is going to be different, but we have enough data from years past to know which way it’s going to go and how to balance the car. It’s definitely going to be a bit of a guess,” Pagenaud said. “The best engineer-driver combination should win the race. ”

Through 13 and half races this season, the best combination has been on Pagenaud’s No. 22 car. The Frenchman has four wins and seven poles. Entering 2016, he had only two poles in his previous five seasons.

At Texas, Pagenaud has only one top five (fourth, 2014).

Tonight, Pagenaud (should) get to finish his fifth Texas race and the points leader thinks the two month wait to finish the Firestone 600 will be worth it.

“We might have more edgy cars than during the day,” Pagenaud said. “It’s just something we’ve seen throughout the years. The track just changes when the sun goes down. I think it’s better for the fans. It’s a better show.”

After a record-setting intermission, the show must go on.

Perez: Sponsors yet to make decision on F1 future

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27:  Sergio Perez of Mexico and Force India walks in the Paddock before final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Sergio Perez has confirmed that his sponsors are yet to make a decision about his Formula 1 future as speculation about a move away from Force India persists.

Force India team owner Vijay Mallya said over the British Grand Prix weekend that both Perez and teammate Nico Hulkenberg were under contract for 2017.

However, Perez revealed that although this was correct, his Mexican sponsors were yet to decide whether or not to continue with Force India, the understanding being that his contract has an escape clause.

Perez previously said his sponsors would make a decision on his future over the summer break, but explained in Spa on Thursday that nothing has been firmed up.

“They’ve decided nothing yet. I hope in the next couple of months, we can announce where I’m heading or what I’m doing with my future,” Perez told NBCSN.

“I’m not stressed about it. I know whatever happens, that will be the best for my future. I will give my best. Right now I want to focus on Spa, enjoy the present and try to close up the gap to Williams and beat Williams.”

Perez stressed that he is happy at Force India despite being linked with moves to Renault and Williams.

“I’ve always said that I’m very happy here in the team. I’ve had a tremendous three years here, a lot of enjoyment,” Perez said.

“I think it’s a very key part of the decision that wherever you are that you enjoy what you’re doing, you have fun and you like the people, and here I enjoy it a lot.

“We’ll see what happens obviously. The decision is not fully on my side but we’ll see.”

Raikkonen quickest, Mercedes struggles in final Belgian GP practice

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27: Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Four-time Belgian Grand Prix winner Kimi Raikkonen offered a glimpse of his affinty for the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps by leading the final Formula 1 practice session on Saturday morning ahead of qualifying.

After seeing Nico Rosberg and Max Verstappen share the practice spoils on Friday, Raikkonen hit back with a fastest lap of 1:47.974 to finish two-tenths of a second clear of Daniel Ricciardo.

Red Bull driver Ricciardo led for much of the session after completing his super-soft run early on, but still finishing ahead of Sebastian Vettel in the second Ferrari.

Valtteri Bottas finished the session fourth for Williams ahead of Lewis Hamilton, who could only go P5 with a late lap in FP3 after a mistake at the final chicane. Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg could only finish P7 as Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg split the pair. Felipe Massa was eighth for Williams ahead of Sergio Perez and Romain Grosjean.

Verstappen completed just two laps for Red Bull before being forced to sit out the remainder of the session due to a gearbox sensor issue. Marcus Ericsson could only manage five laps before a problem on his Sauber curtailed his running.

FP3 also saw a couple of near-misses between drivers on-track. Pascal Wehrlein was left fuming after being blocked by Esteban Gutierrez on the Kemmel Straight, while Vettel was less than impressed after a close run with Kevin Magnussen, saying over the radio: “It’s free practice, who gives a s**t?”

Qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix is live on the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.