Could the tire changes give Mercedes their opportunity?

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The waters appeared to have settled in the Pirelli saga that reared its ugly head at the British Grand Prix, following five tire failures that sparked the Italian supplier to make adaptations to its compounds for this weekend’s race at the Nurburgring. Further to that, the 2012 tire construction will be re-introduced at the Hungaroring later this month, meaning that many of the teams will be starting from square one once again.

The media has been pestering the drivers all weekend about the changes that will ensue, and Nico Rosberg has been particularly optimistic, using the word “opportunity” on more than one occasion:

“For sure, it’s very likely that it’s [the changes] going to have an impact, on performances, differences, qualifying, race, so it will be interesting,” Rosberg said in Thursday’s press conference.

“It’s possible that it’s going to mix things up a little bit but it’s also an opportunity, yeah, for us as a team to try and understand it better and earlier than other people and try and make the most of it.”

Had Mercedes nailed their tire management at the beginning of the season, it is likely that another German would sit atop of the standings as the Silver Arrows have been in a different league so far this year in qualifying. In Bahrain and Spain, Rosberg was hurt by the extreme tire wear on the W04, seeing him pick up just 10 points from the two pole positions. Monaco was a different story thanks to the nature of the circuit, meaning that Silverstone was the first sign that Mercedes may have remedied their tire woes, even if Rosberg did see Sebastian Vettel retire from the lead. On the face of things, Red Bull still have the upper hand in the races. This is a fact that Rosberg recognized, openly accepting after the race that he would have caught Vettel.

It is therefore easy to see why Mercedes are not too concerned by the changes. In the drivers’ championship, Hamilton trails Vettel by 43 points with Rosberg a further seven points back, meaning that neither driver cannot realistically be considered as being ‘in the hunt’ for title on math alone. Instead, the correlations can be drawn with last season. Vettel trailed Alonso by 40 points last season and he was able to claw it back rather comfortably as he had the quickest car on the grid, which is a greater advantage than most championship leads.

Rosberg is right to see this as an opportunity to close the gap, banking on Red Bull losing their pace advantage due to the new compounds. Looking into the times from practice, it is hard to see just who is out in front on the long-runs. Rosberg did a long stint of 16 laps in FP2, averaging a time of around 1:37.5 on the medium compound and posting a best time of 1:36.400. Vettel’s average was quicker (1:36.4), but his stint was shorter (12 laps). One may imagine that the four laps of life won’t make up a 1.1 second gap, but the battle is finely poised.

As for Vettel’s thoughts on the changes?

“I think Pirelli has absolutely no interest in trying to shuffle things around.”

All of a sudden, the scene may be set for a dogfight between Red Bull and Mercedes in both championships.

Neuville wins Rally Australia; Ogier takes FIA WRC title

Sebastien Ogier. Photo: Getty Images
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COFFS HARBOUR, Australia (AP) Belgium’s Thierry Neuville won Rally Australia by 22.5 seconds on Sunday as torrential rain added drama to the last day of the last race of the World Rally Championship season.

Neuville entered the final day with an almost 20 second advantage after inheriting the rally lead Saturday when his Hyundai teammate, defending champion Andreas Mikkelsen crashed and was forced to retire for the day.

His lead was halved by Jari-Matti Latvala early Sunday as monsoon-like rain made conditions treacherous on muddy forest stages on the New South Wales coast. The rain stopped on the short Wedding Bells stage where Neuville was almost 5 seconds quicker than his rivals, stretching his lead to 14.7 seconds entering the last stage.

COFFS HARBOUR, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 17: Thierry Neuville of Belgium and Nicolas Gilsoul of Belgium compete in their Hyundai Motorsport WRT Hyundai i20 coupe WRC during Day One of the WRC Australia on November 17, 2017 in COFFS HARBOUR, Australia. (Photo by Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images)

That stage was full of incident. The driver’s door on Neuville’s Hyundai i20 coupe swung open in the middle of the stage and Neuville had to slam it closed as he approached a corner.

Latvala’s Toyota then crashed seconds from the end of the stage, allowing Estonia’s Ott Tanak, in a Ford, to take second place overall and New Zealalnd’s Haydon Paddon, in a Hyundai, to sneak into third.

Sebastian Ogier was fourth after winning the final, power stage but the Frenchman had already clinched his fifth world title before Rally Australia began. Neuville’s win was his fourth of the season, two more than Ogier, and was enough to give him second place in world drivers’ standings for the third time in five years.

Ogier owed his drivers’ title to his consistency: he retired only once and finished no worse than fifth all season.

Neuville admitted the last day was touch and go as the rain made some stages perilous, forcing the cancellation of the second to last stage.

“That was a hell of a ride,” Neuville said. “Really, really tricky conditions.

“I kept the car on the road but it was close sometimes. I knew I could make a difference but I had to be clever. You lose grip, you lose control and the car doesn’t respond to your input.”