No Controversy: 2017 Monaco GP Race Review

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Sebastian Vettel earned the win at the Monaco Grand Prix because of superior pace, pure and simple. Sky F1 commentators can speculate about intra-team politics all they want because quite frankly, Lewis Hamilton was irrelevant in this race, and they had to talk about something. Is Ferrari favoring Vettel over Kimi Raikkonen? Was this race confirmation of a driver hierarchy within the Scuderia? Crofty sure found a thousand ways to raise those questions for a better part of the race broadcast. So let’s cut through all the conjectures with Occam’s razor and stick to things that actually happened in the race.

But first, let’s set the background. The Mercedes’ handling looked twitchy all Saturday, during Qualifying. In Q2, Bottas had to wrestle his way into the top ten while Hamilton struggled to put together the usual smooth, fast, Lewis Hamilton brand lap. To make things worse, he was on his final flying lap before Q2 ended when the McLaren of Stoffel Vandoorne hit the wall, drawing yellow flags in the final sector. Lewis had to abandon his lap and ended up in 14th.

The top ten shootout was intense. Ferrari locked out the front row of the grid, with Raikkonen claiming his first pole in nine years. Vettel missed out on pole by just 0.043 seconds, while third-placer Valtteri Bottas missed it by just 0.045 seconds. Man alive, this is why Monaco is a great track for Qualifying, but not so much for racing.

At the start of the race, the top three stayed as is, while the two Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo followed closely behind. This order maintained itself for almost half of the race: Raikkonen, Vettel, Bottas, Verstappen, Ricciardo.

And then we get to the fun part. Here are the critical events of the race, occurring in short succession:

(A) Verstappen, running fourth, gets called to pit. A lap later, Bottas gets called in to cover off Verstappen’s attempt to “undercut” him. Bottas re-emerges still ahead of Verstappen. Red Bull’s undercut didn’t work.

(B) Shortly after that, race leader Raikkonen was called in for his pit stop, theoretically to cover off Bottas and Verstappen. Seems like a fair, safe, and sensible decision for Ferrari. This however, is the turning point of the race. Raikkonen encountered traffic on his proceeding laps. People who were rooting for Kimi to win are debating if this was the right call.

(C) When Raikkonen pitted, Vettel and Ricciardo inherited the top two spots. The two of them deferred their pit stops by roughly a handful more laps and just took off with blistering pace. It also helped that they encountered little traffic from backmarkers. For added luck, the Sauber of Marcus Ericsson pitted just as Vettel was about to catch up to him. Here is a tweet showing Raikkonen’s and Vettel’s respective lap times during these crucial moments of the race. Notice how significantly faster Vettel was. Pretty simple. This was the point that Pat Symonds was stating, which pretty much made him the calm voice of reason among the Sky F1 crew last Sunday (actually, every time he’s there).

(D) Ricciardo pits and emerges comfortably ahead of Bottas and Verstappen. This is a successful “overcut”, since Ricciardo was able to leapfrog those who pitted earlier than him. Flash forward to later in the race during the restart from a Safety Car period, Ricciardo grazed the wall on the exit of Turn 1 but suffered no damage and kept Bottas behind him in check. The Aussie kept third place until the end.

(E) Vettel pits and re-emerges ahead of Raikkonen, retaining the overall race lead. The overcut worked because Vettel turned in those fast lap times right after his teammate pitted. Vettel would continue on in the lead until the checkered flag, while Raikkonen’s pace faded. The Iceman settled for second.

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Kimi would prefer to drink that bubbly immediately as Seb celebrates Ferrari’s first Monaco GP win since 2001. Credit: Claude Paris / AP

It’s never fun to be a victim of an overcut strategy. Raikkonen and Verstappen were highly disappointed with the outcomes of their respective races. During the podium ceremony, Kimi’s dejection showed through his ever icy poker face. Some people say (speculate) that he’s angry at his team for giving him a pit strategy that ultimately didn’t work, but it can also be said that he was quite simply disappointed at himself. Right? Kimi took pole, made a good start, was in line for the win after leading almost half the race but his teammate was plain faster. He was already losing pace a few laps before his pit stop, while Seb was visibly catching up.

As much as I like Kimi, I think he lost this race by himself. Conversely,  Vettel earned this victory by himself. I think there’s nothing controversial about this result. If people want to talk about “team orders”, we can talk about Mercedes in Bahrain just last April. At least that one was blatant but to be fair, it was also reasonably necessary.

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Seb takes the flag. Credit: Sutton Images

Are Ferrari prioritizing Seb over Kimi? Based on Championship standings at the moment, it’s reasonable of them to do so (with all due respect, Kimi).

Did Ferrari sabotage Kimi’s race? No, I highly doubt it. Kimi lost cleanly. Seb won cleanly.

Let’s stop overthinking and move on to Canada, a fortnight’s time. I heard the infamous Wall of Champions is getting re-angled for safety.

Bottas Snags Maiden Victory: 2017 Russian GP Race Review

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A couple hundred meters into the start of the race, Valtteri Bottas took the lead from polesitter Sebastian Vettel. Photo credit: Clive Mason, Getty Images

Arguably the next star F1 driver coming out of Finland, Valtteri Bottas has finally achieved his first race victory after 81 career races. As the replacement to the retired reigning World Champion Nico Rosberg at Mercedes, the Finn has quickly proven his worth at the head of the field. In a race that did not feature lots of overtaking, the battle for the win was tense nonetheless, which involved Bottas trying to preserve his lead against the Ferrari of polesitter Sebastian Vettel, who was on fresher tires. But if there’s one quality that makes Bottas a future star of the sport, it’s his ability to be calm under pressure, and that was exactly what was put to the test on his way to his maiden win. Continue reading “Bottas Snags Maiden Victory: 2017 Russian GP Race Review”

Class B: Midfield Report, 2017 Chinese GP

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Carlos Sainz finished seventh despite this early moment. Photo from: F1

Because F1 today is not just about the frontrunners Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull, this new-for-2017 section will be dedicated to the teams that make up the rest of the field. I’ll be calling this section “Class B”, where Force India, Williams, Toro Rosso, McLaren, Haas, and Sauber shine.

  • Carlos Sainz gambled by starting the race on slick tires. It was a reasonable decision considering that the track was just damp, at most, if not drying. When the lights went out, Sainz started poorly, struggling to accelerate as he immediately dropped to the back and even went off at the first corner.  There was even an odd sequence where he spun at Turn 3 and nudged the barrier on his attempt to rejoin the race. Sainz’s opening few laps seemed to be the beginning of a disastrous race but he stuck with his slick tires, and would consolidate sixth place for most of the race until eventually being overtaken by the recovering Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas. Remember that “Class B” is everyone else other than the top six drivers, so with a sterling drive and a seventh place finish, Carlos Sainz can proudly proclaim to be “the best of the rest” in the Chinese Grand Prix. “The rest” at the jump:

Continue reading “Class B: Midfield Report, 2017 Chinese GP”

Hamilton Answers Back: 2017 Chinese GP Race Review

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Lewis Hamilton crosses the line to cap his first victory this season, and the fifth of his career in the Shanghai International Circuit.

Tit for tat. Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton emerge victorious in Shanghai to quickly answer back Ferrari’s win in the previous round at Australia. Hamilton led the entire race while Sebastian Vettel battled back to second place after an early pit stop flurry dropped him to as low as sixth. The two drivers are now tied atop the nascent championship standings with 43 points apiece, further suggesting an edgy inter-team rivalry all season long.

Saturday’s Qualifying session produced the same order as in Australia: Hamilton, Vettel, Valtteri Bottas, and Kimi Raikkonen occupied the top four in that order. It was also the same story with Hamilton delivering another flawless lap to take pole, while Vettel again matched Bottas’ time (the Ferrari beat the Merc by just one one-thousandth of a second) and Raikkonen behind by a few more tenths. This time though, the gap between Hamilton and his two closest challengers has been trimmed.

The race on Sunday started on a cold and damp track due to earlier rain. All drivers started on Intermediate tires except for Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz and Renault’s Jolyon Palmer, both of whom started on dry Supersoft tires. Meanwhile, Vettel very noticeably lined up off-center at the starting grid but gained no advantage anyway and was left unpunished for it.

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“Off-to-the-side but not offside”: As seen here, Vettel seemed out of position just before the start but did not exceed his grid slot. The stewards reviewed this and no further action was warranted. Has a rules loophole been discovered, though?

Hamilton enjoyed a clean start while Vettel defended against Bottas around the first turn. Later during the lap, Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll tangled, causing the latter to retire with rear suspension damage. An ensuing Virtual Safety Car period briefly neutralized the race while Vettel decided to pit and switch to slick tires, a decision that ultimately, arguably, compromised the Ferrari driver’s chances of winning. Just after the race restart, the Sauber of Antonio Giovinazzi crashed on the front straight at Lap 4, causing a Safety Car deployment. The entire field was instructed to bypass the main straight, which was strewn with the Sauber debris, and instead follow the safety car through pit lane. The leaders took this as a chance to pit without losing positions, hence Vettel lost out with his earlier pit stop and thus had to work his way back up from sixth.

One by one, he picked off those ahead of him, including his teammate and the two Red Bulls, who had the “racy” strategy of running the Supersoft tires (as opposed to the Ferraris’ and the Mercs’ Soft tire choices). In his fight for positions, Vettel made a spectacular maneuver against Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, an outside pass around Turn 6, which involved some good-natured wheel-banging between the former teammates. Here is Ricciardo posting about it on his Instagram, writing, “You can always expect some of this when us two cross tarmac. Truth, I do enjoy this very much.”

You can always expect some of this when us two cross tarmac. Truth, I do enjoy this very much.

A post shared by Daniel Ricciardo (@danielricciardo) on

It can be argued that Ferrari made another mistake with Vettel’s pit strategy but this one is more appropriately attributed to bad luck mainly because of the Safety Car deployment not working in their favor. Vettel got back to second place by the race’s midway point but that proved to be his afternoon’s ceiling. Hamilton’s lead at the front was not a blowout but he managed the gap to Vettel until the end. The Mercedes driver now has five victories at the Shanghai circuit, further adding to his impressive tally of Chinese Grand Prix wins.

The season quickly moves on to the desert in Bahrain this upcoming weekend as Vettel and Hamilton continue their duel for supremacy. It’s only been two races so far but these two rivals are appearing to be very evenly-matched.


Elsewhere…

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Photo from: Red Bull

Red Bull finally showed up this weekend. Both Max Verstappen and Ricciardo opted for the faster Supersoft tires throughout the race, hence being able to exploit the cold track conditions (which meant low tire degradation) to finish third and fourth respectively. Again, Verstappen has proven that he is phenomenal on wet track conditions, calmly gaining a bunch of positions at the opening lap after starting a lowly seventeenth on the grid. The young Dutch driver was aggressive against his teammate to move up to second during the early stages but later yielded to a charging Vettel near the end of his first stint as his tires started to wear down. The two Red Bulls produced a tense battle for the final podium spot towards the end of the race but Verstappen kept Ricciardo at bay.

Red Bull’s favorable results were pretty much thanks to disappointing races from Raikkonen and Bottas, who finished fifth and sixth respectively. In the case of Raikkonen, Ferrari really did make a mistake with his strategy by leaving him out too long on his Soft tires before calling him in to put Supersofts on for the final stint, otherwise he would have been able to battle with the Red Bulls for third place. In hindsight, it was a pointless strategy, as Ferrari should have seen how the Supersofts were lasting just as much as the Softs—case in point, Red Bull. Ultimately, Raikkonen came out too far behind the Red Bulls after his final pit stop. In terms of his driving, he was a bit underwhelming. When the two Ferraris were stuck behind the two Red Bulls early on, Kimi couldn’t (or wouldn’t) attack Ricciardo with the same aggression as say, Vettel or Verstappen did. Certainly, the Ferrari was still the faster car compared to the Red Bull and yet he couldn’t make a pass happen. It didn’t help that he was legitimately struggling with his car’s handling.

On the other hand, Bottas made a costly mistake when he spun his car while weaving to warm his tires just before the end of the Safety Car period. He dropped down a bunch of places, having to work up to a sixth-place finish. After a promising Qualifying result, it was a pitiful way to throw away a potential podium finish for the new Mercedes driver.

Class B: Midfield Report, 2017 Australian GP

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Antonio Giovinazzi (Sauber, No. 36) in action against Lance Stroll (Williams, No. 18). Both were competing in their F1 debuts. Photo from: F1Fanatic

Because F1 today is not just about the frontrunners Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull, this new-for-2017 section will be dedicated to the teams that make up the rest of the field. I’ll be calling this section “Class B”, where Force India, Williams, Toro Rosso, McLaren, Haas, and Sauber shine.

  • [Class A-minus] Red Bull wasn’t exactly a threat to the Mercs and the Ferraris this past weekend. Sure, Verstappen finished a solid fifth and there wasn’t much he could do about that. On the other side of the garage, Daniel Ricciardo didn’t have a dream weekend in his home race and it all started when he crashed out of Qualifying. A penalty from a necessary gearbox change relegated him to a fifteenth place start but he wouldn’t even make it to the grid as he’d encounter problems half an hour before the race. He was forced to start his race from the Red Bull garage, two laps down. About halfway through, his car eventually broke down on track, and that was the end of the day for the affable Aussie. He’ll definitely bounce back in Shanghai two weeks from now.
  • Felipe Massa had a rather lonely race but the supposed-to-be-retired driver had sharp form even since pre-season testing. He finished sixth for Williams, neither being a threat for fifth nor being threatened from seventh.
  • In stark contrast, Massa’s young teammate, 18-year-old rookie Lance Stroll, had a weekend as shaky as his steering technique. On Saturday, he hit the wall in FP3 and qualified 19th, which was over two seconds slower than Massa. Come Sunday, he tried to work his way up the field but couldn’t get past the formidable defense of Antonio Giovinazzi (more on him later). Late into the race, a brake failure forced the billionaire’s son into retirement.
  • Sergio Perez of Force India contributed at least two on-track overtakes to this race’s measly tally of five. Both his passes were on Toro Rossos, which is fitting considering he spent most of his race fighting off the two Toro Rossos of Carlos Sainz and Daniil Kvyat. Perez, Sainz, and Kvyat finished in that order for seventh, eighth, and ninth places.
  • The other Force India driver Esteban Ocon contributed a highlight reel overtake that involved him, Fernando Alonso, and Nico Hulkenberg going three-wide on the main straight late in the race. Ocon passed Alonso, giving him tenth place and his first F1 championship point. Hulkenberg also managed to get past Alonso on that same moment, consolidating an eleventh-place finish for his first race with his new team, Renault. Alonso meanwhile, suffered a problem shortly after being overtaken, and retreated to the garage with a stricken McLaren.
  • Antonio Giovinazzi, last year’s runner-up in GP2 and current Ferrari test driver, was called up to the Sauber team on Saturday following Pascal Wehrlein’s withdrawal due to lack of fitness. Wehrlein sustained a neck injury last January in the Race of Champions event, hence missing training time and the first four days of pre-season testing. Okay, back to Giovinazzi. This kid has lots of promise and he definitely deserves a full-time seat in F1—if not this year, then 2018. He narrowly missed on out-qualifying teammate Marcus Ericsson but in the race, he didn’t put a foot wrong and brought home a 12th place finish. Also worth re-emphasizing that he did indeed hold off Lance Stroll in the theoretically faster Williams during the first half of the race. I’m glad that Giovinazzi not only was given an unexpected chance to race but also that he impressed the paddock with a solid F1 debut. Great effort.
  • Stoffel Vandoorne drove a hobbled McLaren to a thirteenth-place finish, last among all finishers. Like Giovinazzi, I also highly rate Vandoorne to be an intriguing young talent but that McLaren is just horrible, sadly.
  • Romain Grosjean qualified his Haas up to a lofty sixth place but retired after 13 laps in the race, pulling into the pits with smoke coming out of his car. It’s an unfortunate result but the Frenchman didn’t appear to be entirely disappointed because he thinks that his car’s got some serious pace. He’s already looking forward to the next race.
  • Kevin Magnussen and Marcus Ericsson tangled at Turn 3 in the opening lap. Both drivers eventually retired later on, not necessarily related to the incident, as far as I know.
  • The most wretched weekend belonged to Renault’s Jolyon Palmer. He crashed during FP2, culminating an unproductive Friday. This lack of running caused him to qualify dead last on the grid. Brake problems early in the race caused his retirement after 15 laps.
  • Earlier, I noted Stroll’s two-second Qualifying gap from teammate Massa. Aside from the Williams pairing, huge gaps between teammates were also found at Renault and Haas. Based on Q1 lap times, Hulkenberg outpaced Palmer by more than three seconds, while Grosjean bettered Magnussen by about 1.4 seconds. Breakdown according to Qualifying results:
    • Massa (7th) – (19th) Stroll
    • Hulkenberg (11th) – (20th) Palmer
    • Grosjean (6th) – (17th) Magnussen