Tiny margins, big gains
Welcome to the second of my post GP ramblings for Missed Apex, this time we’ll examine how a butterfly flapping its wings on the grid can have ramifications during the race, as we look at how the Bahrain GP unfolded.
Bottas under and over pressure
Bottas’ arrival at Mercedes has put a huge amount of pressure on the Finn, pressure he seems thus far to be relishing. But, in view of the last two race results, especially the embarrassing incident under the safety car in China, the pressure was really beginning to mount. Certainly over one lap he seems to be a match for Hamilton, with only a Rizla paper needed to separate them over the line in the last two races. However, a question mark still weighs heavy in the air over his race pace when compared to the Brit, something he’ll need to remedy in the coming races if he is to retain his seat going into 2018.
It’s at this point we must draw comparisons with Nico Rosberg, the current and absent World Champion, in a segment me and a friend like to call ‘What would Nico do?’. As essentially that’s the question being asked at Mercedes, as Nico was the ying to Lewis’ yang, the peanut to his jelly, bacon to his eggs, you get the point, right?.. Basically, the two may have been at odds with one another as they battled for the title but from a team perspective they were a solid pairing that almost certainly meant picking up every point possible in the hunt for the constructors title, whereas Bottas has seemed a little more shaky.
Fast forward to Bahrain and we now know why Bottas was off the pace in the opening stint of the race, a malfunctioning generator was the cause, leaving the Finn’s tyres over inflated and needing to manage the performance deficit to those behind. The actual inflation figures haven’t been released but we do know that Pirelli lowered the rear tyre pressures from 20.5psi to 19.5psi for the race, allowing the teams a little more scope in terms of performance. “1psi?” I hear you say, yup there’s one of those tiny margins, you wouldn’t believe the level of performance such a small change can have given the interaction that the tyre has over the chassis, be it from a mechanical point of view - suspension kinematics, braking effect and/or from a aerodynamic point of view with the deformation of the tyre impacting on how the air moves around the car.
Armed with this knowledge we can safely assume that Valtteri’s first stint was less than comfortable, in fact I believe he described it like driving on glass, such is the level of performance and grip lost as the tyre pressure continued to climb. For years I’ve been an advocate of letting Pirelli have more control over the way teams operate their tyres, if 2013 taught us anything* it’s that the teams will do things they’re not really entitled to do and then lay the blame at someone else's door. However, the level of control they now have may be too much and frankly the tyre pressures are too high for a race car in my opinion. I can understand wanting to rein in the team's autonomy and protect their product but those kind of pressures are closing in on the levels you expect from a road car, in fact I’ve run lower than 10 psi in my track car on semi-slick tyres at track days in the past in order to get the best from them in a short session. And that’s what it comes down to - a trade off - allow them a bit more mechanical performance and lose the ability to run long, but this is a debate for another day and a tangent that must come to an end.
Bottas was forced to defend heavily from Vettel as his pace simply wasn’t conducive to the pack leader at that stage of the race and required frequent use of the overtake button to keep the German at bay. Of course, this only compounded his issues later in the race as you have to pay the piper for that additional fuel being burned, leading to some lift and coast during the following stints - there’s those butterflies wings flapping again…
Vettel really had no option other than to create a contra strategy and go for the undercut, as whilst both the Mercedes and Ferrari are clearly a match for one another even handicapped Bottas had what was needed to keep him at bay. I discussed this in our whatsapp group before the race began that pace would dictate how many stops would be made, and whilst some had suggested a one stop race for me it was always going to be a two-stopper. The battle being so close between the front runners (less than 3 seconds separated the top five early on) there was always going to be someone who rolled the dice and Ferrari did so very well, as they created a gap and fed the German back into relatively free air. Verstappen was unlucky too as had he not had the brake failure exiting the pits he may have featured more heavily in the podium battle with Bottas.
The safety car was another pivotal moment as it meant that both Mercedes drivers were forced to stop and stack in the pitlane to receive service from the pitcrew. Of course we know that Hamilton’s canny move to slow down Ricciardo didn’t pay off - both in the sense of the 5 second penalty he received and the fact he was mugged during that stop due to an issue with the wheel gun for both Mercedes drivers, as the front left slowed down both stops to over 6 seconds. This could be deemed as one of the determining factors in Hamilton’s finishing position as he had to pass Ricciardo on the restart, although he did make light work of it.
Shades of 2014
The Vettel / Bottas battle post safety car was reminiscent of the battle between Hamilton and Rosberg in 2014, although it must be said that battle did continue much further through that sequence of corners. Bottas’ challenge was arguably curtailed due to the early run off into turn four where he seemed to suffer from the debris moreso on these tyres than when the Mercedes drivers went head-to-head.
Post safety car we had another division of strategy that played out all the way up until the next stop too, as Vettel stretched away in clean air and on softer boots, opting for a brand new set of the super softs in his second stint. Bottas was furnished with the same but couldn’t maintain the gap, dropping into his team mates clutches who was shod with the slightly slower but also new soft tyres.
The surprise then, even for Hamilton as his radio transmissions proved, was that the team opted to fit a used set of softs onto car number 44 for the last stint, rather than the set of new super softs he’d managed to save. As he exited the pits he was 20 seconds adrift of Vettel, with Bottas also in the way but he still put the HAMmer down, closing the gap to just 6.6 seconds as the race concluded and bringing the last stop which totalled 8.9 seconds including the stationary penalty into sharp focus.
Close, but no cigar
Small mistakes and lack of faith in the super soft tyres at the last stop aside, catching Vettel was likely a bridge too far, especially given catching and overtaking are two very different things this year. Mercedes were backpedaling throughout the race, caught out by the pace of the Ferrari and strategic decisions that unravelled as Bottas’ race was destroyed by the first fluttering of the butterflies wings. What it does go to prove is that things are going to be immensely close this season, one that’ll be won on strategy calls and perhaps even a battle of the fittest, as lest we forget that the drivers only have four powerunits at their disposal this year, with the Ferrari pair having already dipped into several of their 2nd units already in Bahrain (ICE, TC, MGUH for Raikkonen and TC, MGUH, ES, CE for Vettel), which could see penalties becoming a significant factor in the outcome of the championships.
* A brief history lesson, one that wasn’t really told by the mainstream media at the time is that the reason why those tyres failed at Silverstone in 2013 was actually down to the teams, who’d took it upon themselves to place a handed tyre from the designated side of the car and place it on the other. The reason they were doing that was purely from a performance perspective as running them on the opposing side of the car made life easier in terms of degradation and performance. However, in doing so they were causing fatigue to the tyre that hadn’t been tested by Pirelli at their factory - all in all a failure by the sport to reign in the teams.
If you don't already you can catch up with most of my ramblings via my Twitter feed - www.twitter.com/SomersF1 where you'll also find links to my work elsewhere on the internet.