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

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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.

More misery for Alonso as he fails to start Russian GP after engine issue (VIDEO)

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Fernando Alonso’s miserable start to the 2017 Formula 1 season continued on Sunday in Russia as he failed to start the race following an engine issue on the formation lap.

Alonso and McLaren entered the Sochi weekend without a point to their name due to a number of issues with the Honda power unit, which has been lacking both reliability and performance.

Alonso fought his way to P15 in qualifying, but did not fancy his chances of scoring points given the Honda power unit’s lack of straight line speed in Sochi.

However, Alonso did not even get the chance to start the race in Russia after reporting an issue on the formation lap with his power unit that ultimately forced him to park up at the side of the track.

The Spaniard trudged back to the pit lane on foot, the disappointment clear in his body language after his fourth straight point-less weekend came to an early end.

“Well, same as every weekend. Nothing new today,” Alonso said of the incident on NBCSN after the race.

“I am trying to anticipate the plane [to Indianapolis] but it’s not here apparently! Have to wait for it at the normal time. [I’ll] eat ice cream.”

Alonso’s last DNS came at the infamous 2005 United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which will be his next destination as he prepares to enjoy his first IndyCar test with Andretti Autosport on Wednesday ahead of his Indy 500 run later in the month.

Red Bull’s Verstappen, Ricciardo see season slipping away

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) For Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, the podium is starting to look a long way off.

Mercedes and Ferrari’s tussle for wins in Formula One has left Verstappen and Ricciardo in the cold, an uncomfortable sensation for drivers who each won a race last year and were podium regulars.

And the gap to the top two teams is getting bigger.

“For us, I think, at the moment the best we can do is fifth, so that’s like a victory for us,” Verstappen said Saturday.

In qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix, Ricciardo’s fifth place downplayed the gulf between Red Bull and the leaders. Ricciardo was 1.7 seconds off pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari, and more than 1.1 off Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes in fourth.

Verstappen, who lit up the sport a year ago with a win in Spain on his Red Bull debut, was almost two seconds off the pace in seventh.

“As a team, we know where we have to improve, and that’s both chassis and engine,” Verstappen said. “We have to deal with it and hopefully soon we can improve it on both sides.”

Vettel’s title with Red Bull in 2013 was the last time the team could fight for regular wins, but it did manage two victories and 15 podium finishes last year, often when the dominant Mercedes team slipped up.

This campaign, Red Bull’s hopes of adding more podiums to Verstappen’s third place in China earlier this month likely rest on an anticipated package of upgrades to the car. That’s due in time for the May 14 Spanish Grand Prix.

“It will probably dictate whether we’re going to be on the podium or not” in what remains of the first half of the season, Ricciardo said. “It’s our best hope, for sure.”

WATCH LIVE: Russian GP on NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 7am ET

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Ferrari continued its impressive start to the 2017 Formula 1 season on Saturday as Sebastian Vettel stormed to pole position for the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi.

F1 RUSSIAN GRAND PRIX LIVE STREAM

Vettel edged out teammate Kimi Raikkonen in the final stage of qualifying as Ferrari swept to its first front-row lock-out in almost nine years, leaving Mercedes to settle for the second row of the grid.

Ferrari has never won a grand prix in Russia, but Vettel has a golden opportunity to extend his championship lead and stamp his authority on the early part of this year’s championship today.

However, Mercedes will be plotting a response courtesy of Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton, the latter chasing a third win in Sochi on Sunday.

You can watch the Russian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

You can also try out a new ‘Mosaic View’ for the race that includes the race simulcast, in-car cameras, driver tracker and pit lane cam. CLICK HERE to watch the Mosaic View live stream.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call, with pit reporter Will Buxton on the ground in Sochi providing updates and interviews throughout the race.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.

What to watch for: Russian Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 7am ET)

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Following his second victory of the 2017 Formula 1 season in Bahrain two weeks ago, Sebastian Vettel continued his impressive march at the head of the field by taking Ferrari’s first pole in 18 months on Saturday in Russia.

Vettel edged out teammate Kimi Raikkonen in the final stages of qualifying to head up a Ferrari one-two, the first since the 2008 French Grand Prix.

Mercedes was left searching answers for its lack of pace as Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton were left to settle for the second row of the grid, with the team’s 18-race run of pole positions ending.

With Vettel on the brink of extending his championship lead and Ferrari’s threat to Mercedes’ dominance looking more and more real, the German marque is in need of a response on Sunday in Russia.

You can watch the Russian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Here is what to watch for in today’s race.

2017 Russian Grand Prix – What to watch for

Vettel has best chance yet to tighten grip on championship lead

It may still be very early days in the race for the 2017 F1 championship, but victories at the start of the year can prove crucial come the end – and for Sebastian Vettel, a third win in four races would surely signal the reality of Ferrari’s title bid.

Vettel has been in supreme form so far this season, rarely putting a foot wrong, and now has the chance to deliver a display reminiscent of his Red Bull heyday from the front of the field.

Ferrari’s race pace has been its real strength so far this year, giving Vettel a boost heading into Sunday in what has the potential to be quite a straightforward victory. If Kimi Raikkonen can play a good rear-gunner, then this should be Vettel’s for the taking.

Mercedes needs to dig deep

The odds are firmly stacked in Ferrari’s favor, with Mercedes requiring quite the turnaround to get in contention for victory.

While starting on the second row is certainly not the end of the world given the long straights at the Sochi Autodrom that offer plenty of scope for slipstreaming, Mercedes’ ultra-soft struggles so far this season makes it difficult to see how it can get the upper hand on Vettel at the front.

Valtteri Bottas may in fact be its best chance for victory in Sochi, with the Finn boasting a good track record in Russia and looking more comfortable with the Mercedes W08 car than esteemed teammate Lewis Hamilton throughout the weekend so far.

Should Hamilton find himself stuck behind Bottas again as he was in Bahrain, it will be interesting to see if Mercedes opts to invoke team orders and swap the cars around, even at this early stage in the championship.

The One With The Apartment

Quite a fun story came out of qualifying on Saturday in the form of an apartment bet harking back to the one in Friends.

Mercedes and Ferrari are so far clear that the race for the likes of Red Bull and Williams is for P5 at best, with Daniel Ricciardo, Felipe Massa and Max Verstappen seemingly in that fight this weekend.

It turns out all three live in the same apartment block in Monaco, prompting Ricciardo to suggest that whoever finishes ahead in Russia should be given the biggest one for a week as a prize.

In all seriousness though: do keep an eye on the battle for fifth this weekend. Apartment bet aside, it will be a good gauge of just how close Red Bull is to Williams and how far clear the leading two teams are.

One-stop strategy the way to go

Tire degradation levels in Russia are so low that a one-stop strategy is the only way to go on Sunday. In fact, the most logical option will be to complete the race on the two softest compounds – ultra-soft and super-soft – with the soft being kept on the shelf.

Should an early safety car come out in the event of another ‘torpedo’ incident as in 2016, then some may even opt to come in immediately and perhaps complete all but one lap on the super-soft tire.

While there is little scope to get imaginative with strategy in Russia, the push for track position amid the undercut or overcut could decide which way the race goes.

Can McLaren finally score points?

Probably not is the answer to this one. Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne were left frustrated once again after qualifying, and will start today’s race 15th and 20th respectively, the latter dropping back due to an engine-related grid penalty.

McLaren made good progress during the test following the Bahrain Grand Prix, but its hopes of points in Russia look slim. Alonso claimed on Saturday that the team is losing 2.5 to three seconds per lap on the straights alone, such is the deficit of the Honda power unit. The fuel-hungry nature of the Sochi Autodrom will also hurt McLaren, forcing the team to ease back even more.

Another tough day is in store for McLaren, it seems.

2017 Russian Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
2. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
3. Valtteri Bottas Mercedes
4. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
5. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
6. Felipe Massa Williams
7. Max Verstappen Red Bull
8. Nico Hulkenberg Renault
9. Sergio Perez Force India
10. Esteban Ocon Force India
11. Lance Stroll Williams
12. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
13. Kevin Magnussen Haas
14. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso*
15. Fernando Alonso McLaren
16. Jolyon Palmer Renault
17. Pascal Wehrlein Sauber
18. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
19. Romain Grosjean Haas
20. Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren**

Carlos Sainz Jr. takes a three-place grid penalty following an incident in the Bahrain Grand Prix.
** Stoffel Vandoorne takes a 15-place grid penalty after power unit changes earlier in the Russian Grand Prix weekend.

You can watch the Russian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.