Why couldn’t Lotus catch Vettel? Look to the tires


Saturday’s qualifying showed it was clear certain teams had decided to play a tactical game this weekend, over going all out for the highest possible grid slot.

It’s not something the purists like to see, but a Formula One team will analyze every situation and do what they think is best for them, not what’s best for those watching.

With teams opting to either sit out the final qualifying session, or set a time on the slower, more durable race tire, it provided something of an anticlimactic Saturday afternoon, but set the scene for a fantastic strategic battle Sunday.

This weekend Pirelli not only brought a new rear tire construction as part of measures to ensure no repeat of the Silverstone fiasco, but brought two compounds which, at this track, gave a significant performance difference between the two. Typically, when this situation occurs between two tire types, we’re served up a Grand Prix with a mixture of different strategies and it’s rarely clear until the last few laps, how things might pan out. Today was no different.

Before the race began we all tried to calculate how the front six cars, starting on the soft compound, might fare against those starting farther back. The soft was only likely to last a handful of laps with cars full of fuel from the start, while the rest would potentially come into play in the last 10 laps when they too, fitted the considerably faster, soft-option tire.

Questions surfaces whether Mercedes had come up with fixes for their, now traditional, heavy race tire degradation. The answers came early. A poor start from Lewis Hamilton on pole position gave up track position to both Red Bulls, but more telling was his pace and early lap 6 pitstop to switch to the primes. Mercedes’ race with both cars was severely compromised by excessive thermal degradation of the rears, something today’s high track and ambient temperatures made much worse than earlier in the weekend.

The team desperately need track time to work on this area, but while everyone else we be learning at the upcoming Young Driver Test, Mercedes will miss out due to their penalty from the International Tribunal a few weeks back.

The predicted time difference between a two and three stop race was minimal here and the race finish proved it so.

Out front it looked like a three car battle, with both Lotus’ chasing down Sebastian Vettel on similar race plans. With Lotus unable to find enough pace to get past the Red Bull, they were forced to try something a little different to get past.

Romain Grosjean, running second, tried to undercut the leader and dived into the pits on lap 40 for new mediums, but couldn’t find enough on his out lap to jump Vettel, who responded a lap later. Kimi Raikkonen, now leading, but with one less stop, was faced with a tough call and a number of options to see the race out.

He could follow the other two and pit for mediums and race them to the flag, but the status quo would’ve likely resumed.

He could stay out and try and get to the end without another stop, hoping to hold off Vettel and co when they inevitably caught up by the last couple of laps, but the stint length would’ve been 36 laps on his medium tires. After Friday’s running this looked possible, but the higher temperatures today meant it was a long shot.

In the end, with Vettel and Grosjean held up slightly in traffic, Kimi opted to stay out. This gave him the option of gauging tire life a bit longer and deciding wether to try and get to the end, or attempt to open up a gap big enough to stop again and come out in front.

Clearing the traffic quickly meant the chasers just stopped Kimi from edging out the required gap and his choices were limited again. His big push had taken valuable life from his medium compound tires and the decision was taken to get to lap 50 and switch to softs.

The hope was that the faster soft tire would enable him to take the challenge to the Red Bull in the last couple of laps, despite the pitstop bringing him out at the back of the three car train.

Fernando Alonso, who’d remained largely anonymous during most of the race, did the same and came out behind Kimi.

Where the Lotus plan failed to a certain degree, was that the soft tires that went onto Kimi’s car were used ones from qualifying, they had no fresh ones left. This meant the expected gain in laptime wasn’t quite there in the first couple of laps and he didn’t close up quickly enough. Coupled with a delay in issuing team orders to let Kimi past Grosjean, it meant Vettel had just enough in the bag to hold on for his first win on home soil.

Teams all look to a variety of reasons why their races weren’t quite perfect in the end. Backmarkers, safety cars at the wrong time, temperatures or bad starts, but in the end perhaps using the extra set of soft tires in qualifying was the difference. Alonso, who did save soft tires on Saturday and pitted at the same time as Kimi, put in some blistering lap times at the end to bring himself right back into contention, challenging for third place.

You can follow Marc Priestley on Twitter @f1elvis.

Hamilton regrets setup changes after qualifying second in Abu Dhabi

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain steers his car during qualifying at the Yas Marina racetrack in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015. The Emirates Formula One Grand Prix will take place on Sunday.  (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
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Lewis Hamilton was left ruing changes to his setup ahead of qualifying for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after missing out on pole by three-tenths of a second.

For the sixth race in a row, Hamilton will start from P2 on the grid at the Yas Marina Circuit after losing out to Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in the final stage of qualifying.

Hamilton set the pace in both Q1 and Q2, but was unable to match Rosberg’s time in the final shoot-out for pole, leaving him to settle for second place once again.

“I’ve generally been struggling with the car a little bit all weekend,” Hamilton said after qualifying.

“We’ve been working really hard to make some changes and we had to take something off the car, but Nico was just really quick today and he did a really great job in Q3.”

“It generally gets a little bit better in the race. But it’s been for a while now, just struggling on the edge of the car.

“It was a lot more comfortable at the beginning of the year for me and coming into this weekend, I tried to make some changes.

“I disadvantaged myself with one of the things that I took off the car because it looked better. I tried to get around it but at the end of the day it wasn’t good enough.”

Hamilton may have clinched his third Formula 1 title over a month ago in Austin, but the Briton knows that victory in Abu Dhabi is key if he is to end Rosberg’s hot streak and cut some of the German’s momentum ahead of the 2016 season.

Rosberg: No revival, I’m just quicker than Hamilton right now

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Nico Rosberg’s impressive qualifying form continued on Saturday in Abu Dhabi as he secured his sixth consecutive pole position by edging out Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton at the end of Q3.

Rosberg produced a stunning final lap in qualifying to take pole by three-tenths of a second to extend his hot streak and leave Hamilton to settle for P2 once again.

Despite losing the championship over a month ago, Rosberg has been the man to beat in recent weeks, prompting many to tip him for a renewed fight for the Formula 1 drivers’ title in 2016.

Speaking after qualifying at the Yas Marina Circuit on Saturday, Rosberg said that he is simply quicker than Hamilton at the moment and that his recent form is not a revival.

“Before it was close in the other direction and now it is close in this direction,” Rosberg said.

“I am quicker at the moment and I am very pleased about that. I am enjoying the moment and happy to be on pole again. There is no revival and I haven’t invented anything. It is just progress and that is it.

“Before it was always very, very close and Lewis had that one tenth edge. at the moment it is me that has the one tenth edge, today a bit more, but it was very close lately in the last two races.”

Rosberg’s sixth consecutive pole position means that he will start 2016 just two shy of the Ayrton Senna’s record streak set across the 1988 and 1989 seasons with McLaren.

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.

Grosjean after Abu Dhabi qualifying gearbox failure: “S*** happens”

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Romain Grosjean of France and Lotus drives during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Romain Grosjean will start his final race for Lotus from 15th on the grid after a gearbox issue brought an early end to his qualifying session in Abu Dhabi on Saturday.

Grosjean makes his last Formula 1 start for Lotus this weekend ahead of his move to Haas F1 Team for 2016, and had hoped to add to his haul of 49 points so far this season.

However, the Frenchman will face an uphill struggle in Sunday’s race after a gearbox issue forced him to park his car at the side of the track during qualifying.

Grosjean had aborted his first run in Q2 after Lotus identified the issue on his car and told him to pit, but opted to send him back out with two minutes remaining.

It proved to be a vain attempt to get Grosjean through to Q3, though, as the problem reared its head once again and forced him to stop on the run down to turn eight at the Yas Marina Circuit.

After the session, Grosjean was disappointed that his final qualifying with Lotus had ended in such fashion, but remains hopeful of an improved performance in Sunday’s race.

In the second Lotus car, Pastor Maldonado outqualified Grosjean for just the second time in 2015 after finishing 13th in Q2.

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.

Rosberg takes sixth straight pole position in Abu Dhabi

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Nico Rosberg will start the final race of the 2015 Formula 1 season from pole position after setting the pace during Saturday’s qualifying session in Abu Dhabi.

Rosberg posted a fastest lap time of 1:40.237 under the lights in Q3 to secure pole by three-tenths of a second, edging out Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton in the dying moments of qualifying.

After trailing Rosberg in FP2 and FP3, Hamilton bounced back in the first two stages of qualifying by beating the German driver, but was unable to carry this form over into the final shoot-out for pole.

Hamilton managed to wrestle provisional pole back by going one-tenth of a second quicker than Rosberg with his final Q3 lap, only for his teammate to respond and take pole by three-tenths.

The result marked Rosberg’s sixth consecutive pole position and sets him up perfectly for Sunday’s race at the Yas Marina Circuit.

Kimi Raikkonen finished as the best-of-the-rest for Ferrari, edging out Force India’s Sergio Perez for third place on the grid with an impressive last lap. Perez will start from P4 on Sunday ahead of Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo.

Valtteri Bottas led Williams’ charge in sixth place ahead of teammate Felipe Massa in eighth, as they were split by Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg. Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz Jr. rounded out the top ten in Abu Dhabi.

Max Verstappen was unfortunate to miss out on a place in Q3 after being edged out by Sainz in the sister Toro Rosso by just four-hundredths of a second, leaving him 11th ahead of McLaren’s Jenson Button. Pastor Maldonado finished 13th for Lotus ahead of Felipe Nasr as both struggled for pace to get close to a Q3 berth.

Romain Grosjean will start his last race for Lotus from 15th on the grid after a gearbox problem cut his qualifying short. The team told Grosjean to abort his first flying lap because of the issue, and a vain effort to get him out late on ended with the Frenchman parking up at the side of the track.

The biggest shock in qualifying came in Sebastian Vettel’s exit after the German driver backed off on his final lap, mistakenly believing that he had already done enough to make it through to Q2. A quick last effort from Grosjean dumped the German out in Q1, leaving him 16th on the grid for the start of Sunday’s race.

Vettel was joined in the dropzone by McLaren’s Fernando Alonso after his final run in qualifying was ended by a puncture on his rear-left tire. The Spaniard finished 17th ahead of Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson, who also had an issue on his car, while Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi propped up the timesheets for Manor.

The result gives Rosberg a golden opportunity to round off a difficult 2015 season with a third straight win, and also means he will start 2016 with Ayrton Senna’s record of eight pole positions in a row within reach.

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