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.

Hulkenberg signing buys Renault time to decide on second seat

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22: Kevin Magnussen of Denmark driving the (20) Renault Sport Formula One Team Renault RS16 Renault RE16 turbo on track during final practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Renault Formula 1 chief Frederic Vasseur is in no rush to complete the team’s driver line-up for 2017, saying that the recent arrival of Nico Hulkenberg has given him more time to make a decision on the German’s teammate.

Hulkenberg was lured away from Force India for the 2017 season, announcing last week that he had signed to join Renault and aid its revival after its return to F1 as a constructor this year.

Renault is thought to have been chasing a number of drivers under contract elsewhere for 2017, including Williams’ Valtteri Bottas and Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz Jr.

However, Renault is still exploring a number of options for its second seat, with Vasseur seeing no reason to rush any decision.

“We are in talks with many drivers,” Vasseur told the official F1 website.

“For sure, that we have secured the situation with Nico buys us time. Now we can postpone the decision for the second cockpit.

“Yes, we do have some young drivers and rookies in the loop, so it is important to see how they are improving.”

Bottas was strongly linked with a move away from Williams for 2017, but reports over the United States Grand Prix weekend suggest that he will now stay on with the British team.

“I also have a good relationship with Valtteri. He drove for me for three or four years in the past,” Vassuer said.

“We won the GP3 championship together. But Valtteri is under contract with Williams.

“That is not the same story as [Hulkenberg] with Force India.”

Magnussen recently admitted that he was getting impatient about his future with Renault, as well as adding that he was “millimeters” away from signing a new contract with the French team.

“His situation has not changed. Millimeters. But if you have the pen millimeters off the paper, what then?”

Famous faces descend on Austin for USGP weekend

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks with actors Christoph Waltz and Rosa Salazar in the garage  during final practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 has a habit of attracting the rich and famous out to play for the weekend, and the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas has been no exception to the rule.

A number of celebrities have descended on the Circuit of The Americas this weekend to catch some on-track action.

Some of the names have appeared in the F1 paddock before, but others are first-timers at COTA, keen to get a glimpse of one of the most exciting sports in the world.

Here’s a quick social run-down of the famous faces that have been spotted this weekend.

Tennis star Venus Williams was a guest of Mercedes on Saturday, and even took time to congratulate Lewis Hamilton following his charge to pole position.

Noted actor and villain in the latest James Bond film, Spectre, Christoph Waltz made an appearance in the Mercedes garage, receiving a tour from Hamilton himself.

American actress Rosa Salazar joined Waltz in the Mercedes garage.

NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon took some time out of his busy schedule to pay a visit to COTA, spotted here chatting to Nico Rosberg before the race.

F1 aficionado and TV chef Gordon Ramsay chatted with McLaren chief Ron Dennis ahead of the race – given McLaren’s excellent catering, it was probably not about the food…

McLaren’s other guest is literally out of this world: British astronaut Tim Peake.

Skateboarding star Ryan Scheckler has been with Red Bull all weekend, seen here swapping gear with Daniel Ricciardo.

Skier Lindsey Vonn received a birthday surprise from the Red Bull drivers.

Gerard Butler is another big F1 fan, seen here chatting with Red Bull team boss Christian Horner.

2016 Olympic triathlon champion Gwen Jorgensen also came along (not many free seats in the Red Bull garage!).

Verstappen unlikely to change style despite F1 defense rule clarification

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing in the garage during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Max Verstappen doubts he will change his on-track racing style despite the FIA’s clarification of permitted defensive moves in Formula 1 ahead of Sunday’s United States Grand Prix.

Verstappen came under fire from his rivals in Hungary and Belgium earlier this year after appearing to move under braking, and was subject to a brief protest from Mercedes in Japan for the same reason.

Verstappen’s on-track moves were brought up in Friday’s drivers’ briefing at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, prompting FIA race director Charlie Whiting to clarify the rules regarding defensive moves.

Whiting confirmed that any move under braking that forces the car behind to take evasive action will be investigated by the stewards, appearing to clamp down on Verstappen’s moves.

However, the Dutchman told reporters on Saturday evening that he doubted it would have any effect on his approach or style on-track.

“I don’t think so. I think it’s good to make it more clear what’s allowed and what’s not,” Verstappen said, as quoted by Reuters.

“So far it said in the rules that you could go to the inside under braking. Now it’s not. So we’ll see how that’s going to affect the racing.”

Verstappen will start fourth on the grid in Sunday’s United States Grand Prix, live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET.

Hamilton: ‘Incredible’ to be closing in on Senna’s pole tally

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP waves to the crowd after qualifying in pole position during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton finds it “incredible” to be closing in on Formula 1 legend Ayrton Senna’s tally of pole positions after adding to his haul in Austin, Texas on Saturday.

Hamilton scored the 58th pole of his F1 career in qualifying for the United States Grand Prix after edging out Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in Q3, recording the fastest ever lap around the Circuit of The Americas.

Hamilton trails only Michael Schumacher (68) and Senna (65) in the list for all-time poles in F1, the latter being an inspiration to the Briton throughout his junior racing days.

“Seven is still a long way to go but to think that I’m within shooting distance is incredible,” Hamilton said after qualifying at COTA.

“But it also just goes to show just how amazing a driver he was. To get as many poles as that in the amount of time that he had, it’s taken me a lot longer to get where I am so it was clearly phenomenal.”

At just 31 years old, Hamilton stands a good chance of becoming F1’s all-time pole position leader, particularly if Mercedes can continue its current domination of the sport over into the 2017 season.

In the running for the FIA Pole Trophy in 2016, Hamilton pulled clear of Rosberg in Austin, the pair previously tied for eight poles heading into the weekend. Daniel Ricciardo is the only other driver to have started a race from pole this year, leading the field away in Monaco.

Hamilton is bidding for his fourth victory at COTA in Sunday’s United States Grand Prix, live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET.