Ferrari’s luxurious problem
Sebastian Vettel may have copped the attention and flak for refusing to obey team orders but at its heart this was a problem Ferrari created and failed to deal with well. Their attempt to micro-manage the start in the form of an agreement that Charles Leclerc would switch back to the lead if he gave Vettel a slipstream was unnecessarily complex. Nor did it allow for what happened when Vettel made a superb start and then showed great pace. Ferrari, however, were stuck with their plan and immediately tried to implement it. It was too rigid a reaction when they could have let it play out longer and swap them later in the race, as they ultimately did. With both championships gone, what is extraordinary is that they are still trying to run their men to a script rather than letting them race. Vettel will doubtless believe he was right to refuse to slow down and Leclerc that the German went back on an agreement – a recipe for disharmony but their team principal, Mattia Binotto, chose to look on the bright side. “I still believe it’s a luxury,” he said. “We have got two fantastic drivers, therefore that’s where I’m starting from.” Corriere dello Sport was perhaps closer to the truth with their headline: “Ferrari, this is war”
Mercedes make hay towards title
The Mercedes team principal, Toto Wolff, knows only too well how quickly such situations can become toxic. He has explained in the past how Lewis Hamilton’s relationship with Nico Rosberg deteriorated to such an extent it had a negative effect on the team. “It shows you that it isn’t trivial at all to manage two drivers that have the aspiration to win. As a team we have been through this and it’s certainly not easy,” he said in Sochi. What Mercedes displayed in contrast was another masterclass in maximising their position. Their strategy choice was bold on the medium tyres and Hamilton exploited it perfectly. They were lucky with the virtual safety car and Vettel’s MGU-K failure but had ensured they were there to take advantage. Wolff’s reaction was a lesson for Ferrari. “The result shows you must never give up, even if you go into the race with a package that is not the quickest,” he said. “If you do things right, all of those things, the drivers, the engineers and the management, then you can still win races.”
Albon on and on
Alexander Albon had not been enjoying the best of weekends for Red Bull. He was unhappy with the feel of his car through practice and then crashed in qualifying. He then made set-up changes that meant he had to start from the pit lane. When it mattered, however, he found his form superbly. From 20th he finished fifth having driven through the field. He was lucky with the timing of the safety car but what really stood out were the passes he pulled off to come back, making bold moves against Daniil Kvyat, Pierre Gasly, Kevin Magnussen and Carlos Saínz. The London-born Thai was in only his fourth race for Red Bull and he is already only 17 points behind Gasly, whom he replaced and has had 12 races with Red Bull to amass his score. Sixth in the championship is in Albon’s sights and this performance has surely all but sealed his seat for Red Bull next season.
New formats still unloved
F1’s sporting director, Ross Brawn, insisted the proposals for changing the qualifying format next season at two or three races had “unanimous support” from the teams. The drivers, however, seemed equally united in their scepticism for a host of potential changes coming with the 2021 regulations. The most controversial proposal is that of reverse grid qualifying, which Hamilton once again dismissed. “The fact they are trying the reverse grid feels like an excuse for not doing a good enough job,” he said. He and other drivers have stressed there would be no need for such an idea if the cars were better able to race and aired fundamental fears for 2021. “We are moving to worse tyres, heavier cars and being more sluggish. And when you speak to these guys who are making the rules they just don’t understand. Pretty much all of them haven’t raced or even been in a F1 car.” Their objections have been noted, said Brawn but F1 seems almost certain at least to try the reverse grid concept next season – an experiment worth making before committing to any wholesale changes.
Tight run-in for midfield engine room
For Hamilton and Mercedes concluding a sixth drivers’ and constructors’ championship double now seems inevitable. They will probably tie up the latter at the next round in Japan and Hamilton is on course to seal his sixth title in Mexico. He is ahead of Valtteri Bottas by 73 points and a lead of 78 after the Mexican Grand Prix will be enough. Ferrari’s improved form looks now to be enough to head off Red Bull for second but the midfield still has much to play for. McLaren in fourth have now broken 100 points – the first time the team has done so since 2014. They announced this weekend they would be switching to Mercedes engines in 2021, ditching the current supplier Renault whom they lead by 33 points. The French marque desperately wants fourth but will need a mighty effort to catch McLaren. However, only 17 points now separate Renault from Toro Rosso and Racing Point. Every one scored for all four will be vital – the midfield fight will be tooth and nail from here on in.