F1 returned to the fabled Brazilian tarmac at Interlagos last weekend for the penultimate race of the season. With both the constructors and drivers championships long since wrapped up by Mercedes over three weeks ago, there was nothing to fight for except for the few drivers who could still move up the championship standings.
The circuit at Interlagos is an old one where facilities have recently been improved but are still relatively basic compared to other new, gleaming circuits such Abu Dhabi, Mexico and USA. The track itself is one of the shortest of the year and the layout remains largely unchanged since its inaugural race in the 1970’s except for the revamp of 1990 which saw a large chunk of the infield section removed.
More recent changes made a difference in the practice sessions leading up to qualifying. The curb on the inside of turns 2 and 8 were raised significantly from last year, whilst other kerbs were raised slightly also. This meant that drivers had to navigate them more slowly than in previous years. The re-surfacing of the entire circuit a year ago improved the bumpiness of the circuit but was slippery in 2014. In 2015 the surface was better but still slippery. World champions Sebastien Vettel and Lewis Hamilton were among those that went skidding off the circuit during practice.
Qualifying was an interesting spectacle for a variety of reasons. Heavy rain the night before had washed away the rubber set down on Fridays practice sessions so the drivers were presented with a green track.
Mercedes qualified with another one two, with Rosberg outpacing Hamilton only slightly after the newly crowned 3 time world champion locked a wheel in the second sector. Ferrari lined up together next with Vettel and Raikkonen 3rd and 4th respectively.
Hulkenberg remained strong at this circuit as he always has been with a stunning 5th position for Force India whilst Perez unfortunately missed out on top 10 slot.
Mixed fortunes for Red Bull meant that Kvyat qualified 6th and miles ahead of Ricciardo who, after upgrading his Renault engine to the new, so say, faster model (which has been in development since the middle of the season) and taking the impending 10 place grid penalty for the change, was slower than Kvyat.
Mclaren’s dismal season continued. Alonso retired with an engine failure just a few laps into Friday practice and sadly history repeated itself the next day in Q1. Alonso chose to sit in the sun and reflect for half an hour rather than to return to the pits. Jenson Button struggled with pace yet again and failed to make it into Q2. His teams statement from back in March that they would be challenging for wins by Abu Dhabi couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Lotus were also terrible by their standards. “Local-ish” Venezuelan, Pastor Maldonado was off the pace all weekend and failed to make the cut into Q2. Only 0.04 seconds ahead of Button (with the awfully slow Honda) puts into perspective Maldonado’s own, slow pace, particularly as team mate Romain Grosjean qualified further up the grid in 14th and was as high as 11th at one point.
For all its hype the race itself wasn’t the most exciting. Rosberg led the field into the first corner and although Hamilton attempted a quick overtake on the outside of turn 1, he was compromised into the second corner by having to slow more than Rosberg in order to make it cleanly. Rosberg then led for the entirety of the race, except for his pitstops where Hamilton overtook the lead until he also had to stop.
Such is the pace advantage that Mercedes still have over everybody else, it was very disappointing on their part that they didn’t “allow” Rosberg and Hamilton to race. Not taking anything away from Rosberg’s determined and in fact, commanding victory over Hamilton but Mercedes’ strategy has been brought into question after both the Mexican and Brazilian races.
In Mexico a fortnight ago, the two Mercedes’ were leagues ahead of the field and Rosberg was brought in (from the lead) to pit for more tyres. On the following lap, Hamilton was also called in but he questioned why after his tyres were working well for him. Fair enough. Mercedes then called it a “safety issue and he begrudgingly pitted after leaving his pit crew waiting out for a lap for him. Hamilton’s argument was that the tyres he was on were ok so why shouldn’t he try to race Rosberg?
In Brazil a similar situation occurred. Hamilton had been lurking between 0.5 sec – 1.5 sec behind Rosberg for much of the race and by lap 25 he was right on top of him. A frustrated Hamilton complained over team radio that “you just can’t overtake here” and a little while later, knowing that he may be able to gain the upper hand on Rosberg he asked the team to adapt his strategy, but they denied him and therefore denied us the opportunity to see more of a race.
I am disappointed with Mercedes because of this. After the drivers and constructors championships were won 3 races ago, they stated, live on air that their drivers were open to race. That clearly wasn’t the case and this was proven in a post race interview at Brazil with Toto Wolff (Mercedes team principal) when he stated that “Both drivers are now clear to race in Abu Dhabi”.
It’s been said that Mercedes have put greater emphasis on Rosberg since Hamilton won the title; that’s certainly Hamilton’s viewpoint but whether they have or not he has certainly upped his game. 5 poles now in the last 5 races and two wins shows that he is no doormat. If Mercedes HAVE backed Rosberg a litle more recently then it isn’t without good reason.
Rosberg has had a dismal season. For the first 14 or so races of the championship, he was completely outclassed by Hamilton. This left him vulnerable to falling into third place in the drivers standings (whcih he did for a time after the USA Grand Prix) behind Sebastian Vettel. This would have annoyed the sponsors of Mercedes; not having their two dominant drivers in the most dominant car finishing one two in the final standings and it would have also made Rosberg look unworthy of his seat with the team. Imagine not finishing at the very least, second in the drivers standings when you have the fastest car by half a second per lap at your disposal?
Hamiltons dip in form since winning the title has raised a few eyebrows but it seems that this was inevitable in many ways. Hamilton’s previous two titles were won at the last race of the season on both ocassions. Back then, he was able to revel in his victories, celebrate and take the time to rest and recuperate from the turbulent roller coaster that a full on title battle provides. This season it’s been very different for him. He hasn’t had the time to celebrate or recuperate and perhaps he is aware of the expectation that he is supposed to win the remaining races (since winning the title) because he is once again world champion.
Hamilton hasn’t got anything left to fight for but before the Brazilian Grand Prix, Rosberg had everything to fight for and sealed the second place in the drivers standings over Vettel in crushing fashion. Perhaps Hamilton’s disastrous week prior to the race where he pranged his £1.5 million sports car in Monaco and then fell ill with a fever is proof that he is burnt out. It’s no coincidence that in the opening 16 races of the championship he was relentless in his systematic destruction of Rosberg’s championship hopes and was ruthless in clinching his third title in the USA. He has nothing more to give.
Hamilton knows that he can beat Rosberg when it counts. He’s proven that over the course of 3 seasons as team mates and this resurgence from Rosberg could mean two things. (Hopefully) Rosberg is building momentum for next season and will offer a closer rivalry with Hamilton in 2016 but maybe, this string of success for Rosberg may only lure him into a false sense of security that could be disappointing for him come March when the 2016 title battle resumes and if Hamilton once again hits him like a freight train from the moment the lights go out.
The gulf in class between the two Ferrari drivers was obvious for everyone to see in Brazil. Vettel was comfortably faster and achieved his 13th podium of the season, finishing third. Raikkonen was yet again a bit part in the race. He didn’t do anything that was really impressive and was fairly passive throughout. He finished 4th but some 30 seconds behind Vettel. The situation for both sides of the Ferrari garage seems to be very different at the moment. Vettel’s side of the garage are very positive, looking forward to 2016, believe they will be able to challenge Mercedes for victories and are much more optimistic.
Raikkonens side of the camp is very different. Post race interviews with Raikkonen show a shadow of the former “iceman” where he is fairly impartial and only seems to be there because it’s a job….and better than working behind a desk 9-5 (not that a multi-millionaire former world champion needs to!) His side of the garage is more subdued and there is already talk of his replacement being prepared for 2017 when it’s anticipated that he will retire from the sport.
This does make you wonder why Raikkonen has been signed for 2016. Wouldn’t it be better for them to start 2016 with a new driver, particularly as they are anticipating a much improved season? Well the reasons are complex and we can only guess why they won’t sign anyone else. At the fore, all of their targets for Raikkonens’ replacment are tied into contracts with other teams and it’s well known that Ferrari like the traditional team setup of having a number 1 and number 2 driver. Vettel as the clear number 1 (as he was at Red Bull) would more than likely have a say in who should get the number 2 role. He most likely encouraged Ferrari to retain Raikkonen as he can beat him and they get on. It will be interesting to see who they choose.
The midfield threw up some interesting battles today. Grosjean was mightily impressive in dragging his Lotus from 14th on the grid up to 9th whilst young superstar Max Verstappen had an interesting day in his fight for 10th position. Verstappen is undoubtedly a superstar of the future but is the medias fixation on this young talent becoming a little too much to bear? After the race he was credited with “making overtakes that had never been done before” at certain points of the track. As a lifelong fan of the sport this is incorrect as others before him have done these also. Needless to say, the overtakes were brave and for somebody of his young age to achieve these in their debut season, accurately, with precision and safely is very impressive.
The race was a subtle affair for Brazilian Felipe Massa who finished 8th. He was outclassed by team mate Bottas who finished 5th but Massa seemed to suffer more with his tyres and failed to get the best out of his Williams. He was later disqualified due to incorrect tyre pressures. The other Brazilian, rookie, Felipe Nasr had a much better race. Despite only finishing 14th, but crucially ahead of team mate Ericsson (17th), Nasr had a fine race and no doubt buoyed on by the local crowd. He engaged in dogfights with the likes of Jenson Button, Romain Grosjean and Sergio Perez to name a few and it was fantastic to see him driving his Sauber competitively against mixed opposition.
Sauber have had a quiet season but once again this is down to budget. They started strongly in Melbourne at the season opener but have not had the money to upgrade throughout the season as others have. This made Nasr’s duels with the aforementioned oposition all the more impressive.
Mclaren once again reached their potential. Thankfully, both cars managed to finish but after a good start from both drivers, 15th and 16th was the best they could hope for. Button once again beat his team mate, Alonso and will take gratification from that. After qualifying on Saturday, Button said that the “car felt great to drive” until the deployment issue on the straights reared its ugly head. It makes you wonder how fast the Mclaren’s would actually be if the straights were removed from the circuit! The season can’t end soon enough for the team.
Will Stevens spent much of the race chasing American, Alex Rossi but still managed to finish ahead of him. Once again the Manor Marussia’s showed fantastic reliability but finishing the race 4 laps behind the leaders puts into perspective their dyer lack of pace. Despite this, we simply cannot forget that this time last year, Manor Marusia’s cars were impounded back at their UK depot and the team were on the brink of collapse. It is testimony at least to the memory of the late Jules Bianchi that remarkably they have managed to survive the entire season and better still have managed to secure their future with a Mercedes engine for next year. I really, really hope that this will help them to at least start next season being able to “fight” with other teams at the back of the grid rather than just themselves. They absolutely deserve it.
Rosberg left Brazil with 2nd place in the standings in the bag. At the next race in Abu Dhabi we can only hope that with little else for anybody to fight for, we will have a full on “every man for himself” race and finish this epic season with a bang in the twilight of the Arabian evening.
Red Bull have confirmed that they will definitely race next year, along with Toro Rosso. Team principal Christian Horner and Dr Helmut Marko were seen talking at length with Renault boss Cyril Atiboul so one can only guess that they have resolved their relationship with Renault and will continue to use their engines next year. Although they have failed to confirm it, it seems it is the only viable option after Red Bull were denied 2016 engines from Mercedes, Ferrari and Honda. The rumour is that they will use unmarked Renault engines.
Engines continues to be at the centre of debate in the future of F1 as the FIA, President Jean Todt and ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone seek to regain control of the sport and offer more competitiveness for other teams whilst lowering overall cost. The proposal is that for 2017, 2018 and 2019 an option of a different engine will be made available for teams to use should they want to. As well as sticking with the current hybrid 1.6l V6 turbo engines, there will be a 2.2l straight turbo engine offering on the table. This will be very interesting because it may also open up better opportunities for development over the course of a season and may lead to a more competitive formula.
Will the new engines be a viable option for teams who have already invested millions into the current engines? We’ll have to wait and see. Many in the f1 fraternity believe that these proposed engines won’t come and that the F1 engine power houses (Mercedes, Ferrari) will be happier lowering costs of the current hybrid units instead.
Senior Manor Marussia management have decided to leave the team after the final race of the season. John Booth and Graeme Lowden aren’t clear about why they’ve made the decision and are keen to keep it in house. It is a shame though, particularly after these two worked tirelessly over the last winter to secure the future of the F1 minnows. They should also be commended for keeping the team going over what has been an extremely tough season. Of course their financial difficulties fall way into irrelevance after the sad passing of former driver Jules Binachi but they should be credited with securing the future of this small team by landing the Mercedes power unit for 2016. A job well done.