Through the final three races of the season, Nico Rosberg has been the most dominant force, claiming victory in each race, not to mention snatching pole position in the last six qualifying sessions. It’s just unfortunate that Rosberg has finally gained his groove at a time where he was officially eliminated from title contention. Despite his championship disappointment, he ends the season on a psychological high-note by completely beating his champion teammate Lewis Hamilton on three successive occasions. Rosberg’s victories are not entirely meaningless as he goes into the winter break—and 2016—with wind beneath his wings.
The race provided an entertaining, frenetic first two laps, which saw some position-swapping down the middle of the field. Carlos Sainz had a noticeably storming start as he blasted his way through the first sector by making up three positions after starting tenth. Sebastian Vettel, who started fifteenth, also drastically improved his track position by gaining three places of his own. On the first corner, Fernando Alonso made contact with Felipe Nasr and promptly hurtled into Pastor Maldonado, who left the race as the only retiree as the contact broke a rear suspension. Alonso was deemed to be at fault on his initial contact with Nasr and thus was handed a drive-through penalty.
During the first round of pit stops, Valtteri Bottas was released too soon from his Williams pit box and made contact with the rear of Jenson Button, who was just approaching his McLaren pit box. The contact sent debris flying into some paddock seats above the McLaren garage, mostly from the shattered corner of Bottas’s front wing and a part of Button’s rear wing. Bottas had to drive around a full lap with half a front wing before having it replaced and to make matters worse, was duly penalized with a five-second time penalty served before his following pit stop. The incident never allowed Bottas to fully recover, ultimately handing fourth place in the drivers’ championship to his countryman Kimi Raikkonen.
The two drivers who started out of their usual positions were the Ferrari of Vettel (fifteenth) and the Lotus of Romain Grosjean (eighteenth). Both started on the prime Soft tires, managed their pit strategies quite well, and put on the option Supersofts for their respective final stints. Vettel made his option tires last fifteen laps, snatching fourth place from Sergio Perez. Grosjean pulled off a number of overtakes on Sainz and Daniil Kvyat towards the end of the race with fresher, faster tires, getting into the points-scoring positions and finishing ninth after being just held off by Felipe Massa in the final lap.
Feel the force
Following up their impressive qualifying performance, the Force India team brought home another respectable result. Perez held fourth place for the majority of the race but when Vettel came knocking as he completed his recovery drive, the Force India was easily mismatched against the Ferrari. Perez finished a strong fifth and teammate Nico Hulkenberg seventh. It’s noteworthy that they beat both Williams cars on this race. They could have beaten both Red Bulls but Hulkenberg complained of understeer and thus couldn’t properly challenge Daniel Ricciardo for sixth.
No points for Toro Rosso
Even though the race result didn’t appear impressive for Sainz (eleventh) and Max Verstappen (sixteenth due to a net 25-second time penalty), the Toro Rossos drove remarkable races. Verstappen was penalized for leaving the track and gaining an advantage during a late-race skirmish with veteran Jenson Button. That only amounted to a five-second time penalty but additionally, he was handed a post-race twenty-second time penalty for ignoring blue flags. All penalties aside, Verstappen fought well against the Saubers of Nasr and Marcus Ericsson, also against Button and Kvyat. The teenager finished the season as the best rookie in terms of points scored.
On the other side of the garage, Sainz also turned in a strong outing including the blistering start that I mentioned earlier. It’s just unfortunate that there wasn’t much he could do as his car’s lack of straight-line speed was easily exploited as the race moved on. Regardless, the rookie’s gritty drive capped off a season that should be considered as equally impressive as his teammate’s.
Strategy confusion for Lewis
Mercedes staggered the final pit stop schedules for both their drivers, calling in Rosberg early but letting Hamilton stay out an extra ten laps on the prime tires. Hamilton even requested that he finish the race with the tires that he put on in his first pit stop. However, his race engineer said that making the prime tire last for that long would be impossible so he definitely needed to pit again. When Hamilton did, I was surprised that Mercedes gave him another set of prime tires, matching his teammate for the final stint, rather than the faster option tires.
It was only two laps previously that Vettel pitted for the option tires to attempt to go to the end with them. Mercedes could have worked with this information from their rival but at that point, nobody knew if Vettel’s supersoft tires would last for fifteen laps given that the drivers who ran options in their first stints only lasted roughly eight or nine laps on average. Hamilton was apparently given the decision on which tires he wanted for his final stint but Mercedes claimed that he “didn’t respond” so by default, was given the safer albeit slower prime tires. A challenge for the race lead against Rosberg never materialized as Hamilton couldn’t find the pace out of the soft tires to decrease the gap to his teammate. Thus, Rosberg cruised to his sixth win of the year, joined on the podium by Hamilton at second and Raikkonen at third. The points haul courtesy of a record twelfth one-two finish ensured that Mercedes became the highest-scoring team in a single season, finishing with a staggering total of 703 championship points.
Photo credit: Mercedes AMG Petronas Official Facebook page