2021 US GP: A premature Mexican standoff, with a predictable winner

Max Verstappen took a closely fought win at Austin, but his Red Bull was good enough for him to get the 25 points, with the strategy being the tip of the iceberg.

The US Grand Prix proved to be less of a write-off for Red Bull and Verstappen than they thought. Coming in to this week’s race, team principal Christian Horner, team advisor Helmut Marko, and even Verstappen himself didn’t believe that their car had any chance beating the Mercedes at COTA – and for good reason.

Before last Sunday’s race, Mercedes had only lost twice at that track: in 2013, to Sebastian Vettel, and in 2018, to Kimi Raikkonen. Lewis Hamilton had won four times, with Valtteri Bottas getting the win in 2019.

Kimi Raikkonen took what is likely his last ever win in Formula One at the US Grand Prix in 2018 – Courtesy of Scuderia Ferrari Press

All the odds were in favor of a Mercedes win once again, but it did not pan out that way.

The reason for this ‘upset’ – if you can call anything an upset during this up and down season – lies primarily in the temperature of the track.

Red Bull are known to be able to hold their tires in a better shape even in hot conditions. Austin proved to be one of those occasions where the sun blasted on the track for the whole three days of the event, and especially on Sunday, when the forecasted rain never came by – not even a cloud!

As a result, Verstappen was in an advantageous position, since he was able to maximise the potential of his tires, without worrying to much about their longevity. He, of course, managed his pace in order to preserve the tires’ life, but he didn’t hold back when he didn’t have to.

Verstappen drove a superbly consistent race to hold off Hamilton for the victory on Sunday – Courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool

On the other hand, Lewis Hamilton and the Mercedes had to play it safely for the better part of the race. They knew that they had to get Verstappen at the start, and they succeeded, since that was the only way that they could win the race given the circumstances. But they saw that Verstappen had the pace to keep up with Hamilton, staying below the one second-mark during the first 10 laps of the race, and that he pitted earlier than predicted. They then understood the necessity of going longer on their stints to try to combat the Austrians’ undercut attempts.

“I had a great start. The goal was to get in the lead and I finally got a good start – I’ve not had as good a start as that for a long time so I was really happy with it,” said Hamilton.

“Then it was just about staying clean and coming out ahead and holding onto it. It felt good at the time, to get into the lead, I thought ‘okay, this is step one’ but, as I said, they were just too quick.”

Hamilton took the lead on the first lap, before being pegged back by the rapid Verstappen – Courtesy of Mercedes F1 Media

Indeed they were.

It was the confidence of Verstappen to keep a competitive pace with a semi-worn set of tires, especially on his last stint with the hard compound, that won him the race.

Based on the teams’ calculations, a car that wanted to overtake another car in front of it had to be at least 1.2 seconds faster than it. Hamilton was at the very best 0.6 seconds faster than Verstappen in the latter stages of the race, and when he got close to DRS range, he lost some of the downforce due to the Dutchman’s wave of dirty air, and the tires not gripping for Hamilton as much as they did before.

Red Bull played it out beautifully, but they did have the odds with them – even though they didn’t think they did until Saturday afternoon.

Let’s talk about Carlos Sainz’s season

Carlos Sainz has been the best, most consistent Ferrari driver and he does not get the credit he deserves.

When they say that a driver is underrated, I tend to believe that he is not – simply because we talk about him, we mention his achievements and, by definition, he is not underrated.

Carlos Sainz claimed his first Ferrari podium in Monaco – Courtesy of Scuderia Ferrari press Office

In Carlos Sainz’s case, things are different.

He is truly underrated, and without a doubt the most consistent driver in the midfield during this season.

Firstly, it must be noted that this is not the first year in which Sainz is consistent or his performance is going under the radar. His tenure in McLaren was full of races where he did everything correctly and got to the points or even the podium. He was a focal point of McLaren’s ascent to the top of the midfield, with their 3rd position in the contructors’ standings last year being the ultimate proof of Sainz’s contribution to the team.

And all this starts with his brave decision to leave the Red Bull ‘family’ and go to Renault at first, and then to McLaren. He chose to leave the Austrians, because he felt he could achieve more outside their Verstappen-focused system.

This was a decision that paid off. He found himself as a person and a driver in McLaren, and he’s more mature than ever coming to Ferrari.

Driving for the Maranello squad is -without saying- the most challenging experience for any driver – even the very best of them have crumbled under the pressure this position puts to you.

The Ferrari pair of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz brought the cars home in fifth and seventh respectively – Courtesy of Scuderia Ferrari Media

It must be said though, that every modern driver’s first year at Ferrari is a good one, generally speaking. Kimi Raikkonen won his one and only title in 2007, Fernando Alonso was the favourite for the championship in 2010, Sebastian Vettel returned to his winning ways in 2015 and Charles Leclerc took 2 wins and 7 pole positions in 2019.

It’s the second year, and what comes after it, that gets into the nerves of most drivers in that team.

Nevertheless, even with that ‘caveat’ (if you can call it like that), Sainz is impressive in terms of his speed and consistency.

This is a rundown of the Spaniard’s results this year, both in qualifying and in the race. Bear in mind that he has received a penalty only once in terms of qualifying position, in last week’s Turkish GP:

Race Q position R position
Bahrain 8 8
Emilia-Romagna 11 5
Portugal 5 11
Spain 6 7
Monaco 4 2
Azerbaijan 5 8
France 5 11
Styria 12 6
Austria 10 5
Britain 10 6
Hungary 15 3
Belgium 11 10
Netherlands 6 7
Italy 6 6
Russia 2 3
Turkey 19 8

You will notice that his qualifying performance is not his strongest point. That’s not a bad thing at all, because he is extremely good in race pace.

He has that kind of race craft that allows him to gain places in the race, even when the car is not the most competitive in the midfield.

What I find the most impressive result of them all (up until this point) is the one in Istanbul. He started P19 due to the new engine Ferrari fitted to his car, and he absolutely drove the wheels out of it. In a damp track, with intermediates and no DRS use, he seemed to be able to pass drivers left and right.

Sainz has shown some early positive signs of promise do far for Ferrari – Courtesy of Scuderia Ferrari Media

On top of that, Sainz has managed to out qualify Charles Leclerc 3 times and finish ahead of him in the race on 5 occasions – and this comes from a driver who came to the team to serve an unofficial no. 2 role.

This goes to show that he entered this year’s campaign with a lot of confidence, which derives from his meticulous preparation before the season, his deep understanding of a car he didn’t help develop and set up, and his tendency to maximise what the car’s limit is, even in difficult situations.

An example of this latter argument is his ability to preserve his tires and do the opposite strategy from other drivers in the midfield. This is a trait that is handy when your team is in a tight battle with McLaren, and you have to get every point you can to help them win.

Carlos Sainz’s podium was not enough to close the gap to McLaren, but it was an impressive performance nonetheless – Courtesy of Scuderia Ferrari Media

Carlos Sainz is an asset for Ferrari at this point, and this makes their partnership ahead of the big regulation changes of 2022 even more interesting.

Main image courtesy of Ferrari Media


2021 Dutch GP: The undercut that could have worked and Gasly’s underappreciated race

Zandvoort is back, and with a bang, we must say.

Sure, it was not the race that we were waiting for, since it lacked the chaos, Safety Car outings and red flags that were anticipated, but it provided a good story up front, with Max Verstappen and the two Mercedes scrapping in a strategic battle, and a mesmerising, yet utterly unsung, performance from Pierre Gasly.

Although the win never seemed out of hand for Max Verstappen, Mercedes’ pitwall did what it could to turn their fortunes around, and get advantage of their 2-to-1 battle for the lead. With Sergio Perez down in the last places of the grid after a pitlane start, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas could cooperate and win the race (for the Briton, of course), by strategy.

A congested Q1 last Saturday saw Sergio Perez start 16th for the Dutch Grand Prix – Courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool

The Dutch circuit proved as difficult to overtake on as teams and drivers predicted, so everything had to be done through the undercut: both times, Mercedes pulled Hamilton for a pit stop, in order to get ahead of Verstappen, when he would stop for a fresh set of tires. However, both times this plan failed, for two different reasons.

On lap 20, Peter Bonnington gave Hamilton the ‘box’ message, Hamilton obliged, and the plan was for Verstappen to actually get stuck behind Bottas, whom Mercedes did not call for a pit stop immediately. Red Bull responded to Hamilton’s stop one lap later, and after 10 laps, the Dutchman got behind Bottas. Mercedes hoped that he would lose time to the Finn, allowing Hamilton to get closer and take advantage of the situation, to pass for the lead.

Max had other plans, though, and passed Bottas easily into Turn 1 on the first time of asking. The Mercedes driver did not defend, nor tried to block his (and, mainly, his teammate’s) opponent, making life so much easier for Verstappen and Red Bull.

Mercedes attempted to use Hamilton and Bottas to scupper Max Verstappen on Sunday – Courtesy of Mercedes F1 Media

Christian Horner, Red Bull’s team principal, highlighted the importance of this overtake in his post-race remarks:

“The crucial part of the race for Max – because the two-stop was the faster race – was to make sure that we re-passed Valtteri immediately. And he did that. That then opened up opportunities to make the second half of the race much more manageable, whereas if he’d have spent a lot of laps behind Valtteri, that could’ve opened us up to an undercut.”

On the second time Mercedes tried to do the undercut, they did not have Bottas as a bulwark, and they made a crucial mistake: they got Hamilton out on track behind a queue of drivers who -mind you- were not out of place. So, he lost precious time behind them; Red Bull called up Verstappen and got him with a fresh set of hard tires, and off he went, leading the race.

I would go as far as to say that Mercedes did the wrong thing not to put Hamilton on the hard compound for his last stint. The 32 laps remaining from his last pit stop up to the end of the race were a few more than what the mediums could do in a competitive pace.

What that shows is, Mercedes knew this race was not theirs to win, even with the numbers game on their side. Verstappen and Red Bull had a great car and a lot of support to win the first Dutch GP after 36 years. And it must go without saying that RB targeted that particular race, which in return produces consistently great performances by them.

That does not mean that a Hamilton win, his 100th, was totally out of cards. They had two opportunities to make that happen, but the gaps were marginal and the chances not on their side.

As far as Pierre Gasly is concerned, it is a great shame that this driver had one more uneventful, yet amazing race near the front pack.

When Gasly and AlphaTauri click just right at a track, they seem an unbeatable combination in the midfield pack.

He matched his best qualifying performance, starting the race from P4, and from the ‘go’ he built a substantial gap between him and his opponents, mainly Leclerc and Alonso.

With the latter he had a brief battle, too, passing him around the outside at the Tarzanbocht, bravely and decisively. It may not have been a difficult overtake, and he was on fresher tires, but he pulled it off.

And that is the gist of Gasly’s performances this year: he does the job quietly and effectively. AT is not the best team in the midfield, it rarely tops it and surely it gives its battles with one driver, since Yuki Tsunoda has been in a prolonged slump in his performance.

Zandvoort proved once again that Gasly is at his peak form, one year on from his first win at Monza. He has found himself once again, completely overcoming the nightmare that his half-a-season tenure at Red Bull was, and -maybe- getting ready for a return at Milton Keynes in 2023…

Main image courtesy of Pirelli Media

2021 Belgian GP: F1 is and will always be about business

image courtesy Lars Baron, Getty images / Red Bull content pool

What happened at Spa last Sunday was a farce. There is no need to mince our words.

Criticism, especially when it’s constructive and well-minded, is needed in times like these, when Formula 1 and the FIA have handled an admitedly difficult situation poorly.

The 3-hour stand-off to wait for the rain to ease off (never-mind stop at that point) was a remarkably bad decision, not only on hindsight, but also as we went through it.

Weather radars repeatedly showed that the rain was going to keep on falling for a long time. Michael Masi, the race director since Charlie Whiting’s untimely death back in March 2019, waited for an opening on the weather, which was about to come around 17:40 local time. That’s the reason they stopped the clock after 2 hours of no running (well, we had 2 laps, let’s not be too unreasonable!), only to have an hour in our hands to resume the race, even for such a short period of time.

Of course, the rain never really stopped, it didn’t even ease off. No such scenario was on the horizon in the first place.

F1, and the FIA as a result, took a decision solely based on two factors: the need to do a race for the spectators at home, and the need to put on a show for those at attendance at the track.

It was with great pleasure when I read that the race organisers, as well as F1 and the FIA will discuss on refunding the 70,000 spectators at Spa one way or another. They deserve their money back, since for some of them the memory of their first ever F1 race from the sidelines was an utter disappointment.

And let us be clear. Safety is paramount, and with such a poor visibility due to the standing water on the surface of the track, and the continuous rain falling on it, made the possibility of having a race (or, at least, a normal race) practically non existent.

That realisation that we, as fans, made quite early on, Masi and his team did too. But, they pushed on for a hopeless case.

And TV scheduling, the money that sponsors and promoters, broadcasters and shareholders made those responsible of the race being cancelled or not really anxious of the possibility of actually pulling the plug and calling it a day.

It is days like these that we all collectively realise that Formula 1 is and has always been a business – a well-run, pretty exciting, show-stopping business, mind you, but a business nonetheless.

And as a business, it has to cater for those that open and close the money faucet, those who keep the wheels rolling. Unfortunately for everyone else, this means exploiting loopholes in the already flawed rules and regulations, trying to find a way to continue and actually ‘finish’ the race.

When race direction saw that the potential of a somewhat normal conclusion to this already chaotic day was minuscule, it tried to push forward and actually award points – it saw this as a ‘natural’ way to put an end to all this. They put on the 60 minutes countdown to the end of the race, as if it was ever going to last more than 2 laps behind the Safety Car, in order to have an official classification.

Drivers were really perplexed by that decision, with some of them calling for a swift change around the rules on this issue, showing their dismay with the way it was all handled. It was a farce.

No one wants to see a high speed, no visibility passing through Eau Rouge and Raidillon, or a high speed crash like those we witnessed on Friday and Saturday.

But no one wants to wait four hours for nothing. And for a sport that takes proud in its technological prowess and its innovative ways, that was at the very least below par.

Formula 1 drivers moving to IndyCar elevate the whole series

image courtesy of IndyCar/ Matt Fravor

Alexander Rossi, Marcus Ericsson, Fernando Alonso, Romain Grosjean, and most recently Kevin Magnussen (and potentially Alex Albon).

Marcus Ericsson Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix by Chris Jones

All these drivers have at least one thing in common: they used to be Formula 1 drivers who moved to the IndyCar series in the past few years.

It is by no means the first time that we see this pattern: drivers from Formula 1 have consistenly looked outside Europe for their future endeavors, and IndyCAR (or CART for a brief period of time) was an attractive option. Nigel Mansell and Emerson Fittipaldi did the same, and they became CART champions and, in the case of Emmo, an Indy 500 champion.

However, in recent years, a lot of proper talent has been left with no F1 seat –  these drivers have to find an alternative, a way to move forward with their careers.

Excluding Alexander Rossi, who is an American and had always the opportunity to jump ship, should he need to, every other F1 driver who raced or is currently competing in IndyCar, is not from the US, nor has any firm connections with the other side of the pond.

This is especially telling of the appeal IndyCar has these days to a lot of drivers, like Ericsson or Grosjean, who came from F1 and are podium finishers and winners of their own in the series.

McLaren’s commitment is also a significant step into making IndyCar a prime opportunity for drivers, young or not, to get their names heard and their abilities shown to a broad audience. Colton Herta, for example, has become a household name in Europe, even though he is an American, driving in an American racing series, for an American team, just because so many European drivers have moved there and brought attention to the sport.

Fernando Alonso’s Indy 500 participations, although not successful, inspired other drivers try this route, see where it leads them.

Even before Romain Grosjean was out of F1, he was contacted by Coyne Racing to drive for them in 2021. A Swiss-born Frenchman did the unthinkable – or so it was a couple of years ago – and went on to become an IndyCar driver, and a podium finisher with solid chances to win his first race in the series this year. He is so impressed and enthousiastic about the championship, he even considers racing in ovals in 2022, despite denying such a proposition after his horrific accident at Sakhir last November.

Couple that with the TV deals to broadcast IndyCar in Europe (namely the Sky Sports one in the UK and the DAZN one in other countries in the continent), and you have a solely-American championship going international, at least in its appeal and recognition.

And believe me when I say it is important for IndyCar and the whole organisation that Roger Penske presides over, to find global recognition. That is, because even though the recent Music City GP was watched by 1.212 million viewers on NBCSN, the NASCAR races have consistently more viewers, topping to 2-2,6 million viewers on average. But, NASCAR has next to zero international audience – IndyCar must take advantage of that.

It is a paradox. IndyCar prouds itself to be an all-American single-seater series, yet it has a broad international (mostly European) audience, with an ever growing European grid. NASCAR will hold the US market, maybe until F1 takes over in the next years (if we take into account its current trajectory).

And let’s not forget that former F1 drivers joining IndyCar make the series more competitive, less predictable. Big names, such as Will Power, Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden have taken over the championship for the past few years, and they are all great drivers, don’t get me wrong on that one. However, they do not possess the kind of talent that Grosjean or Magnussen (who’s considering a move there), or even Lundgaard (who did an one-off appearance last Sunday at IMS, despite him having a food poisoning the night before) have. They are staples of the grid, they are champions, record-holders, winners. But, they are not the ones that will move Indy forward, let’s be honest.

IndyCar is in a prime position to get to the next level, attract new names, maybe new manufacturers, become global, get the respect it deserves, win over even the most skeptic motorsport fan out there – just because the current F1 grid is so saturated, it can’t afford to give every talent a racing seat.

Drivers know that, IndyCar knows that, Penske does too.

Sebastian Vettel’s justified DSQ doesn’t mean it’s not a harsh penalty

Main image courtesy of Aston Martin F1 Media

It is a story of despair, one of highs and lows. In just 2 hours, Sebastian Vettel and the Aston Martin F1 Team found themselves with a podium at hand in Hungary, and then left with nothing.

It is without a doubt a great shame – a great drive after a dismal start for a lot of drivers, meant that Vettel could climb up the podium places, and then fight for the win with Esteban Ocon, losing out in the final laps.

However, it should be mentioned that the offence he and his team had done was punished not severely, but according to the rules.

Being unable to provide 1 litre of fuel after the qualifying session and the race is almost always a violation of the rules worthy of a Disqualification from the results. This litre must be retrievable by the FIA and the technical officers in order for them to take a sample and test it on the laboratory for potential illegality regarding the fuel.

And it’s one of those rules that are not to be interpreted by the stewards. The punishment is set, and the stewards are there to award it.

This fact sits especially hard with the Silverstone team, which is in a close fight in the constructors’ standing with AlphaTauri and Alpine, and with Vettel’s 2nd place points (which he may not get after all) they could close the gap from their rivals.

Since the team lost its right of appeal after yesterday’s hearing, the FIA and the stewards justified their decision, with the following exempt from their statement being particularly telling:

“For the assessment of whether or not the one-litre requirement was broken, it does not make a difference why there was less than one litre.

“There may be a couple of explanations why at the end of a race the remaining amount is insufficient. In any case, it remains the sole responsibility of the Competitor to ensure that the car is in conformity with the regulations all times (Art. 3.2 FIA International Sporting Code) and it shall be no defence to claim that no performance advantage was obtained (Art 1.3.3 FIA International Sporting Code).”

All of the above suggests that the FIA does not take into account the reason that the team did not have the 1 litre in its car’s tank (this time, it was a fuel pump malfunction, a rare but possible failure).

Which, as a fact, makes the DSQ punishment even harsher. This is not to say that not having the required fuel in the car after the end of the race is not a reason not to be punished for, but it’s another thing to hand out the same penalties for every type of illegality.

It was clearly not intended by the team to not have the required quantity of fuel to present to the technical officers, and still they got disqualified. And from that failure, they lost a miraculous podium finish.

FIA knows this system of hard, not flexible penalties in some aspects of the technical rulebook has to be somewhat amended in the next years.

From the dawn of F1, all rules are there to deter the teams from making dangerous decisions, and that is the reason that sometimes they are so severe in their impact. That means that sometimes, they are unfair as well.

Not all offences are equally severe, and not all of them are the same. It is one thing to not have 1L of fuel because you decided to burn it all to gain some advantage, and another to have a fuel pump failure and lose some fuel that you did not want to.

Although, it should be mentioned that the stewards are consistent in those types of punishments. Their life gets easier in that regard, because they go by the book, quite literally.

And they should not get more severe in their decisions in other occurrences just to make up for the harsh punishments in other incidents.

Dr. Helmut Marko compared Vettel’s DSQ with Hamilton’s 10 second penalty in the Silverstone accident:

“It is clear why Vettel almost ran out of petrol, because a normal race had been calculated and then he simply used more in the fight with Ocon – no driver saves petrol in this situation. Where is the relation there compared to Hamilton’s offence?

“Then there is Hamilton’s statement about Fernando Alonso’s dangerous driving. [Alonso] drove sensationally, defended optimally, and then this statement from someone who shoots out a competitor a race before.”

This seems an unfair comparison. Race control has ”wiggle-room” in those type of incidents, with Hamilton & Verstappen or the Hamilton & Alonso battle – that’s why they are completely inconsistent.

But, we should first change the severity for some type of offences, if those offences have been a result of a malfunction, or an accident.

Let’s be more flexible. Especially in the budget cap era, no penalty should be given without taking into account all the factors.

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