After Bianchi’s incident, there was a sombre mood around the paddock. But the track seemed to be a good challenge for the drivers, likened to a combination of Valencia and Mokpo, and with long curved straights (a bit of an oxymoron) that are off-camber and really test car and driver. However, all it really tested for us viewers was our patience, as the race turned out to be a lot less exciting than we hoped it would be.
In Q1, every car but Button went on the softs, but Button managed to secure a good time as everyone weaved their way through the technical track. As a power track, Red Bull suffered, and everyone but Williams was a huge gap behind the Mercedes. However, Massa was having an engine issue, and lacking power, he was hovering in the dropout zone. But he couldn’t come in because trying to fix the car would have taken too much time, so he had to drive around the problem.
It was not enough though, as he was eventually out in Q1. Ericsson though, was surprisingly ahead of the backmarkers, and it’s quite the turnaround for him. Apparently he’s been having brake-by-wire issues, and now that he’s over the problems, the balance of the car is better and that’s why he’s ahead of even Kobayashi, not someone who’s slow by any means.
In Q2, it was fresh tires for everyone. It took time to get temperatures into the tires, so everyone was doing about 3 laps per tire, and that worked out nicely as a fresh set of tires for each session. Hamilton had a bad lap early on, but recovered to top Q2 as Rosberg took a place beside him. Bottas was comfortably 3rd, and the two McLarens regained their early weekend form to be right behind him. Kvyat was driving out of his skin as he got ahead of Ricciardo, the Ferraris and Jean-Eric Vergne; he even managed to sneak ahead of Button for P5 at the end of the session.
The surprise dropout was Vettel, who could only qualify 11th behind even the Toro Rossos. Both Force Indias, desperate for points in their fight with McLaren in the constructor’s, could only manage 12th and 13th.
Then in Q3, Hamilton had some issue with his first lap again as even Button, Alonso and Bottas got ahead of him, with Rosberg on provisional pole. But Hamilton hit back, and took provisional pole as the track seemed to slow down a little for everyone. Only the two Mercedes and Bottas was finding more pace, and Bottas was flying on their final runs, hitting purples for the first two sectors.
Then it all went wrong as he might have taken too much out of his tires in the earlier part of the lap, locking up slightly in the penultimate corner and sliding wide for the final corner, losing out on a front row slot. The Williams really ran the Mercedes close though, and the race will be very interesting indeed.
Button secured P4, marking McLaren’s mini-revival with a good position (even if the recovery is way too late in the season to do much). Kvyat put in a blinder for his home GP, making P5 in a Toro Rosso ahead of even the parent team Red Bull. Magnussen was just ahead of Ricciardo, but would take a 5-place grid penalty for his gearbox change. The Ferraris were behind, unable to fight with anyone really, and Vergne was probably emotionally affected by his close friend Bianchi’s situation, and not fuelled by the desire to do well at his home GP like his teammate was; he rounded up the top 10.
I missed the start, which was supposedly kind of exciting as by the time I came back, Hamilton was in the lead, but Rosberg was down in 18th. However, he had actually made up places from P21 by then; braking way too late into Turn 2 meant he flat-spotted his tires and had to give his place back to Hamilton when he cut the corner. Also, as Massa came into the pits, Rosberg was held back from leaving his box, which meant him losing 3s.
This meant there was no massive race between the two Mercedes, as Hamilton slowly built a lead in front while Rosberg drove a stunning recovery race to finish 2nd. Remarkably, thanks to the new asphalt that led to low tire degradation, Rosberg managed to last 52 laps on one set of mediums (which went and then came back to him). That was what got him 2nd, and of course there was that huge pace margin Mercedes had.
Bottas was initially 2nd thanks to Rosberg’s mistake, but couldn’t stop Rosberg from overtaking him, couldn’t catch him at the end because the tires were not degrading, and had to settle for a good 3rd place. Button drove a stellar race for McLaren, proving that experience can count, as he made it P4, managing to fend off Alonso at the beginning and just driving a lonely race as most people did.
Magnussen had a good race too, jumping Alonso for 5th when Alonso encountered problems at his pitstop. That gave McLaren their best finish since Australia at the start of the season, and bumped them a huge 20 points ahead of a struggling Force India, which is a pity for them.
Alonso had his pitstop problem, which was a failing front jack. It was unable to lift the car properly, which meant they took more time to fit the wheels on, and then the spare jack man tried to get into the fray just as Alonso was leaving the pitbox, which lost him even more time. But that would only have given Alonso 5th place, something I doubt he really cares for now. Apparently, he did say he’s not driving a Mercedes-powered engine next season, which means that the rumours of him rebuilding Lotus is out. Could he be going to McLaren-Honda as originally mooted? Or is he possibly staying at Ferrari? The fog refuses to clear on Alonso’s future.
Behind him was Ricciardo, unable to pass for a majority of the race thanks to their power deficit on the straights. Ricciardo managed to jump Vettel in the pits when he pitted early, having had blistering on his tires. But given the lack of degradation, pitting later didn’t mean being able to attack cars with no grip at the end, and Vettel had to settle for 8th.
9th was Raikkonen, who was involved in a scrap with the Toro Rossos, then Perez for a bit. Otherwise, it was pretty anonymous from Kimi again, who’s never really gone to grips with that Ferrari. Perez picked up a lone point in 10th, despite his fuel being critical for much of the race trying to overtake people and then having to fend off a quick Massa, who had to settle for 11th. Hulkenberg was right behind in 12th, having done his job of holding up Massa for a while to help Perez and the team get that 1 point.
The Toro Rossos, so good in qualifying, were nowhere in the race, with Vergne 13th and Kvyat 14th. It was a race to forget for the young Russian driver at his home GP after his stellar qualifying job, and being passed numerous times by other cars must have stung. Gutierrez drove a decent race to get 15th, at one point in 9th because he did a whole 39 laps on the soft tires. Sutil was 16th, having also spun while fighting with Grosjean for places.
Grosjean was a miserable 17th for Lotus, capping what was another terrible race for the Enstone team. He was given a 5s penalty for that incident with Sutil, and was hit with 2 penalty points on his license as well. Maldonado came in 18th, and Ericsson was the only finisher of the backmarkers. Kobayashi had to retire despite feeling no issues with the car, while the team claimed that they saw something in the telemetry that would lead to a failure. Whether it could be an attempt to save parts and save costs, we’ll see.
Chilton also had an issue early on in the race, and it was just a bad day at the office for Marussia, running only 1 driver as a tribute to Bianchi.
Fuel-saving was an issue for all the drivers, and apparently the race for GP2 had to be cut short 2 laps because they didn’t have big enough fuel tanks to last the race. But along with the lack of tire degradation, it meant that the race was one of the most boring since the Bridgestone era. Last year everyone complained that the tires didn’t last; this particular race was the opposite. But it was a conservative choice exacerbated by the smoothness of the fresh asphalt, and can be changed.
So Hamilton takes a 17-point lead into the final 3 races, but with double points in Abu Dhabi, Rosberg has every chance of snatching the World Championship. But there’s a feeling that without all the technical gremlins that have blighted both cars to varying degrees over the course of the season, Hamilton would have the edge on pure pace like he has had in the past four races, five if you count Spa. With Austin a track that Hamilton seems to thrive at, it could well be a 24-point lead in a month’s time.
As for the Constructors’ Championship, what a stellar job Mercedes has done. They’ve been building up to this year’s regulations for very long now, banking everything on this season. And they’ve made an engine and ERS unit that’s the best in the paddock, a chassis that can give Red Bull and Adrian Newey a run for their money, and just dominated, maybe even more than Red Bull has done over the last 4 years. You sense that if the engine freeze is maintained, they could well stay on top for a few more years yet.
So congratulations to Hamilton and Mercedes for that win (and receiving that trophy from Putin must have been interesting!), and of course, thoughts are with Bianchi.