F1 testing: Raikkonen leads Alonso on final day

Kimi Räikkönen kept Ferrari on top for the final day of 2018 testing, leading by half a second from McLaren’s Fernando Alonso.

The Finn set his best time during the morning session, using hypersofts to post a 1:17.221s—just 0.039s slower than Sebastian Vettel’s record-breaking lap from Thursday.

Although Räikkönen’s focus turned to long runs in the afternoon as he notched up a total of 153 laps, his time was strong enough to remain fastest even as a flurry of hot laps came late in the session.

Steven Tee/LAT Images/McLaren Media

Fernando Alonso made the most ground on the leaderboard during that period, setting a pair of hypersoft-shod 1:17s that brought him within 0.563s of the Ferrari in the final 15 minutes.

The Spaniard did briefly top the leaderboard following that run with a 1:16.720s, but this time came by cutting the final chicane and as such was deleted.

As well as rising to second-quickest, Alonso’s afternoon was also spent recovering from yet another interrupted morning. After teammate Vandoorne logged 151 laps on Thursday, Alonso’s final session with the MCL33 was halted after just seven laps this morning, when a turbo problem prompted a five-hour engine change.

However, once that was completed Alonso had no further issues on track and ended the day with a respectable 93 laps.

Renault Sport F1 Team

Alonso’s P2 was the first in a trio of Renault-powered cars to slot in behind Räikkönen, as the French marque continued to show signs of improvements in its power unit performance.

Carlos Sainz’s works Renault was three tenths down on the McLaren in third. Like Alonso, he too was making up for lost track time in the final hours, following a gearbox problem that halted his RS18 after just four installation laps in the morning.

Fourth was Daniel Ricciardo, who set a supersoft lap of 1:18.327s—only three tenths off the hypersoft lap that put the Australian on top of Tuesday’s session.

LAT Images/Haas F1 Media

Romain Grosjean was fifth, putting in another strong showing of speed for Haas with a 1:18.412s. The Frenchman also posted the most laps of the day at 191.

Valtteri Bottas—who set his best time on the medium tyre—was the highest-placed Mercedes in sixth. Once again, the Silver Arrows split its day between Bottas and Lewis Hamilton, with the duo putting in a combined 201 laps on Friday to bring Mercedes’ testing total up to 1,040.

That’s 56 fewer than the team achieved during 2017 testing, but still leaves Mercedes comfortably top of this year’s mileage charts, setting 111 laps more than next-best Ferrari.

Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

Slotting into third on the teams’ lap count was Toro Rosso-Honda, their total of 822 laps including the 156 logged by Brendon Hartley on Friday. The New Zealander was seventh-fastest in the end, one tenth down on Bottas and less than 0.020s quicker than Esteban Ocon’s Force India in eighth.

Charles Leclerc was ninth, and the first driver outside of the 1:18s. The reigning F2 champion’s final day was hampered when he span into the gravel trap in the morning—the delay limited Leclerc to 75 laps, the third-lowest total of the day.

Lewis Hamilton made a rare appearance towards the bottom of the leaderboard, as his 1:19.464s (good enough for fourth in the morning) tumbled down the order while his teammate drove the afternoon session.

The defending champion eventually settled in eleventh place, splitting the two Williams’ of Sergey Sirotkin and Lance Stroll. During his morning in the FW41, Sirotkin recorded a century of laps to help Williams to fourth in overall testing mileage.

However, his teammate added only 27 laps of his own in the afternoon running, and with a best time of 1:19.954s Stroll made it the sixth time in eight days of testing that a Williams has been slowest.

Andrew Hone/Williams

F1 testing: Ricciardo breaks lap record; Renault nears 200 laps

Daniel Ricciardo lowered the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya’s unofficial lap record during Wednesday’s testing session, setting a time of 1:18.047s on the new hypersoft tyre.

The Australian’s lap was more than three tenths faster than the previous record set by Felipe Massa during testing in 2008, and nearly six tenths below last year’s fastest testing time, set by Kimi Räikkönen.

Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas were close behind the Red Bull. Their best flying laps, both set on the ultrasoft tyre, were four and five tenths adrift of Ricciardo respectively, but still comfortably within the 1:18s.

These times came as teams focused on performance runs during the morning session, the result being that many of Wednesday’s laps were among the quickest of 2018 testing so far.

Steve Etherington/Mercedes AMG F1

Fourth fastest was Sebastian Vettel. The German was given an unexpected extra session on Wednesday morning as teammate Kimi Räikkönen was unwell, but opted to concentrate on long runs rather than challenge Red Bull and Mercedes on the hypersoft—however, he did manage to lap within a second of third-placed Bottas despite running on the soft compound tyre at the time.

Three tenths behind Vettel came Brendon Hartley and Fernando Alonso, both setting closely-matched 1:19.8s on the ultrasofts. Alonso had looked set to enjoy McLaren’s first trouble-free day of testing so far when he ran among the pacesetters during the morning and notched up 47 laps early on.

However, an oil leak before midday resulted in an engine change that cost Alonso over six hours of track time—the Spaniard was only able to fit in another 15 minutes of running at the end of the day, bringing his Wednesday lap count up to 57.

Steven Tee/LAT Images/Pirelli Media

Carlos Sainz was seventh fastest, being the first driver above 1:20s and the only one of the day to set his time on the medium tyre.

Although Sainz’s best lap was ultimately two seconds off Ricciardo’s benchmark, he did contribute to Renault leading the way in terms of mileage on Wednesday. The Spaniard logged 88 rounds of the Barcelona track during his morning in the RS18, before teammate Nico Hülkenberg added a further 102 after lunch.

Their combined 190 laps puts Renault second so far in the number of testing laps completed per team, with 602 to Mercedes’s 658.

Renault Sport F1 Team

Romain Grosjean was eighth-fastest on a 1:20.237s. Haas ended the session with the second-lowest lap total when an oil leak on Grosjean’s car limited him to 78 laps across the day.

Räikkönen, who recovered to run in the afternoon, and Hülkenberg, were the lowest-placed manufacturer drivers in ninth and eleventh respectively, split by the Williams of Lance Stroll.

Force India, Sauber and Williams occupied the bottom spaces on the leaderboard with Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc and Sergey Sirotkin.

But although the three midfield teams were an average of three seconds off Red Bull’s pace, they were all much higher on the day’s lap charts. Leclerc’s 160 and Ocon’s 130 were beaten only by Ricciardo in terms of laps done by an individual driver, while Stroll and Sirotkin recorded 143 for Williams between them.

Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team

F1 testing: McLaren troubles continue into second week

McLaren suffered another day of limited mileage on Tuesday as F1 testing resumed in Barcelona, finishing the day bottom of the lap charts and with the second-slowest time.

After minor mechanical faults cost the team valuable track time last week, McLaren was left again on the back foot when Stoffel Vandoorne’s MCL33 broke down twice in the morning with a pair of battery failures shutting down his Renault engine.

And although McLaren seemed to resolve those issues in time for the afternoon, Vandoorne was not out for long before this session was also cut short—this time, owing to a hydraulics problem.

In total, Vandoorne completed just 38 laps across the whole of Tuesday, and finished last-but-one on the timesheets with a best of 1:21.946s.

Ferrari Media

While McLaren struggled, their rivals took advantage of the prime conditions in Barcelona to embark on the long run programmes traditionally seen in the second week.

Sebastian Vettel recorded the most individual mileage of the day with 171 laps, as well as ending the day fastest by two tenths from Valtteri Bottas.

However, Mercedes ran the furthest of any team on Tuesday, surpassing Ferrari by six laps by combining Bottas’s 86 laps in the morning with Lewis Hamilton’s afternoon total of 91.

Max Verstappen—who split Bottas and Hamilton to be third fastest—lost running in the final hour of the afternoon when his Red Bull stopped on track, but nevertheless logged 130 laps to be Vettel’s closest challenger.

Sauber, Renault and Williams also broached the 100-lap mark (the latter two teams splitting running between both of their drivers), while Haas and Force India came close with 96 and 93 laps respectively.

Sahara Force India F1 Team

In an unexpected turn, Toro Rosso and Honda endured the first difficult day of their new partnership on Tuesday. After accomplishing a respectable 53 laps in the morning session with Pierre Gasly at the wheel, an unknown issue kept the STR13 confined to the garage for most of the afternoon, with Gasly adding only a single lap to his total after lunch.

But despite those troubles, Gasly still managed to end the day fifth fastest and best of the rest with a 1:20.973s, putting the Frenchman less than six tenths off Vettel’s benchmark.

Kevin Magnussen was sixth and the last of Tuesday’s drivers to be within a second of the pace. He finished ahead of Renault’s Nico Hülkenberg and Carlos Sainz, who were separated by just 0.023s despite setting their laps on different tyre compounds.

Sergey Sirotkin enjoyed more profitable running than his first week of F1 testing, and was the highest-placed Williams in ninth. Two tenths separated the Russian from Sergio Pérez in tenth and Marcus Ericsson—who notched up 120 laps for Sauber—in eleventh.

Lance Stroll was Tuesday’s slowest runner behind McLaren’s Vandoorne, even though his 1:22.937s was set on the hypersoft tyre. However, with the Canadian making it to 86 laps despite sharing his day with Sirotkin, it’s likely Stroll’s programme was focused more on distance than outright pace.

Andy Hone/Williams F1

Hamilton fastest on busy end to first F1 test

Lewis Hamilton set 2018’s fastest testing time yet on Thursday, as the first week in Barcelona ended with its busiest day so far.

In total, 15 of this year’s 20 race drivers enjoyed track time at the Circuit de Catalunya on Thursday, with most teams opting to run both their drivers to make up for time lost during the week’s weather disruptions.

Only Ferrari, Haas, Force India, Red Bull and Toro Rosso chose not to split their day’s running.

Renault Sport F1 Team

The final day of testing began with yet another damp track, but higher temperatures compared with previous days meant meaningful running was not an impossibility.

When the track dried enough for slicks around midday, Valtteri Bottas and Nico Hülkenberg took the opportunity to trade times at the top of the leaderboard, until McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne beat them both with a 1:19.854s on the pink hypersoft tyre.

Vandoorne’s time—one of only four to dip below 1:20s this week—was good enough to hold onto the top spot for most of the afternoon, until Hamilton went half a second quicker on mediums with an hour to go.

Steven Tee/LAT Images/McLaren Media

As well as finishing second-fastest on the strength of his hypersoft time, Vandoorne was also among Thursday’s busiest drivers, with 110 laps to his name.

Only two drivers recorded more mileage than the Belgian. Sebastian Vettel, who was third-fastest behind Vandoorne, made it to 120 laps, while Pierre Gasly signed off a solid week for Toro Rosso and Honda with 147 laps.

Kevin Magnussen also had a profitable day, despite not joining Gasly, Vettel and Vandoorne in triple figures. After finishing bottom of both the time and lap charts with his first taste of the Haas VF-18 on Tuesday, the Dane bounced back on Thursday by logging 96 laps and the fourth-fastest time.

Glenn Dunbar/LAT Images/Haas F1 Media

Fernando Alonso, taking over from Vandoorne for the final few hours of Thursday, added another 51 laps to his week’s total and snatched fifth by just 0.010s from compatriot Carlos Sainz. Lance Stroll was a few tenths slower in seventh.

Sergio Pérez, driving Force India’s VJM11 for the first time, had a slow start to the session but eventually logged 65 laps and was classified eighth.

He was ahead of Max Verstappen, who by contrast had another trying day behind the wheel of the RB14. Having chosen to sit out the wet morning running, the Dutchman lost further track time with a fuel leak and a spin into the gravel later on—as a result, Verstappen recorded the lowest number of laps of the day (35) and ended the day nearly three seconds off Hamilton’s pace.

Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

Thursday’s longest runner Gasly was tenth-fastest ahead of early pacesetters Hülkenberg and Bottas. The two Saubers were the last of the representative runners, with Charles Leclerc heading Marcus Ericsson by a second thanks to the afternoon’s faster track, although with 59 laps to Ericsson’s 79.

Lastly, Williams’ rookie Sergey Sirotkin spent another day at the bottom of the timesheets. The Russian handed over his FW41 to teammate Stroll in the afternoon and as such didn’t set a time on slicks, explaining his 12.646s gap to Hamilton at the front.

F1 testing resumes at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya next week, running from Tuesday 6th until Friday 9th.

Glenn Dunbar/LAT Images/Pirelli Media

Vettel lowers benchmark on second day of testing

Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel finished top of the timesheets on day two in Barcelona, setting the fastest lap of the test so far in a day of weather-limited running.

The German’s best effort, a 1:19.673s set on soft tyres, was half a second faster than Daniel Ricciardo’s Monday benchmark, and made Vettel one of only two drivers to lap within the 1:19s on day two.

The other was Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas. Having posted a best of 1:20.325s in the morning, the Finn was the early pacesetter until Vettel’s soft run knocked him from the top spot—but despite improving in the afternoon to join Vettel below the 1:20s barrier, Bottas remained 0.303s adrift by the close of day.

Wolfgang Wilhelm/Mercedes AMG F1

Outside of the top two, no other driver today posted lap times below Monday’s fastest, as near-freezing temperatures once again held back representative running.

Stoffel Vandoorne was the third-fastest runner of the day, 0.652s off Vettel’s pace with a best lap of 1:20.325s. The Belgian’s time was the first of the test logged on Pirelli’s new pink-walled hypersoft tyre.

Max Verstappen failed to post a time in the morning after being sidelined by a fuel leak, but improved in the afternoon to finish fourth, just 0.001s behind Vandoorne on the medium tyre.

Next up, Carlos Sainz, Pierre Gasly and Williams third driver Robert Kubica all lapped within a few tenths of each other in the 1:21s. Kubica’s teammate Sergey Sirotkin and Force India’s Esteban Ocon were a little behind again, closely matched in the 1:21.8s.

Monegasque rookie Charles Leclerc had a difficult first day driving the Sauber C37 with a spin in the afternoon and finishing more than three seconds off the pace, but was spared ending the day at the bottom of the timesheet at the expense of Haas’ Kevin Magnussen.

Jerry Andre/LAT Images/Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team

The cold weather also meant that no driver managed to surpass Ricciardo’s first day total of 105 laps, although Vettel and Bottas came closest with 98 and 94 laps respectively.

Gasly held the next-highest total, putting in 82 laps in his STR13 to prove that Toro Rosso-Honda’s mileage yesterday was no fluke, while Leclerc made up for his early error with 81 laps to his name in the end.

At the other end of the lap charts, McLaren suffered another low-mileage day with an exhaust issue keeping Vandoorne in the garage from midday onwards, unable to add to his tally of 37 laps.

However, that was at least one more than Haas achieved across the day. With his programme interrupted by two off-track moments—one of which nearly ended in the barriers—Magnussen was prevented from making up for lost time when reports of snow at the end of the day brought running more or less to an end, and the Dane finished the day bottom of both the timesheet and the lap count.

Steven Tee/LAT Images/Haas F1 Team

Ricciardo tops first 2018 test; Honda nears 100 laps

Daniel Ricciardo set the pace and topped the lap charts on the opening day of Barcelona testing, while Honda showed a remarkable improvement in reliability to log 93 laps with Toro Rosso.

Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

This time last year, Honda ended the first day of testing firmly at the bottom of the lap charts, with then-partners McLaren achieving only 29 amid a spate of engine-related issues.

But after a concentrated effort to improve reliability with its 2018-spec power unit, Honda more than tripled that amount on Monday, with Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley only missing out on a century of laps when rain interrupted running late in the afternoon.

Renault Sport F1 Team

Renault also look to have made strides with their reliability compared with last winter. The factory outfit achieved a total of 99 laps over the day, splitting running between Nico Hülkenberg (73 laps) in the morning and Carlos Sainz (26 laps) in the afternoon.

The French marque’s combined total stood for a while as the most of any team, until Ricciardo edged his Renault-powered RB14 into triple figures with a few late runs in the wet before the chequered flag.

McLaren ended the day some way off its fellow Renault customers with only 51 laps recorded, although this was due to a wheel tether issue which kept Fernando Alonso in the garage for much of the morning session.

Zak Mauger/LAT Images/Pirelli Media

As expected, the lap times from day one gave little away about the pecking order for 2018, as the general consensus among teams was for reliable rather than representative running.

In addition, dropping track temperatures and a rain shower late in the afternoon session meant there were few real improvements in pace after lunch.

Ricciardo’s benchmark 1:20.179s—over 1.5s slower than last year’s fastest overall testing time—established him as the quickest driver of the morning over Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas by just under two tenths.

The Australian’s lap came as part of a last-minute flurry before lunch, in which Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen went fastest from Hülkenberg, before Bottas and then Ricciardo jumped them both in turn.

Wolfgang Wilhelm/Mercedes AMG F1

Alonso finished the day fifth-fastest and was the only driver to improve their position in the afternoon, rising from ninth on the timesheets as he made up for his morning delay.

His compatriot Sainz ranked sixth ahead of defending champion Lewis Hamilton, who took over from Mercedes teammate Bottas after lunch. These two also ended Monday at the bottom of the lap count along with Williams’ Sergey Sirotkin—who was likewise sharing driver duties—as the worsening conditions prevented any of the afternoon drivers from completing more than 30 laps each.

Hartley and Toro Rosso finished eight-fastest in the end after running as high as fifth before lunch. Behind him came Lance Stroll, Romain Grosjean and Marcus Ericsson.

Force India development driver Nikita Mazepin sat out the whole of the afternoon session and remained twelfth, while Sirotkin’s weather-curtailed running meant the Russian rookie did not set a representative time.

Sam Bloxham/LAT Images/Pirelli Media

Grand Prix of Mexico Race Reaction

image courtesy of Pirelli Motorsports.

After an exciting qualifying yesterday in which Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen outqualified current Drivers Championship leader Lewis Hamilton, anticipation was the order of the day. Mathematically, as long as Sebastian Vettel finished third or lower Lewis Hamilton would win the title today. Even if Vettel had been on one of the top two steps of the podium, Hamilton only had to finish in the top 5 to secure his fourth trophy.
Despite his strong lead Hamilton was clearly on edge as the drivers got settled into their cars, complaining to his crew that his seat was too hot. One suspects he would’ve been happier in a different hot seat, namely that of pole position.

Penalties also reared their head today, with Ricciardo the latest to receive a penalty due to an engine change. The idea of using penalties to coerce reliability has clearly gone off the rails with the teams opting for strategic penalties instead, and otherwise just taking them as they come.

It would be hard to get a more exciting start, and if the Drivers Championship hadn’t been nearly done for Hamilton it would’ve been even more exciting. Hamilton made a tactical error by an opportunistic attempt to get around Vettel after the Ferrari driver’s contact with Verstappen. Had he hung back a bit he’d have likely been able to challenge for a podium spot, but instead wound up at the back of the field with Vettel. Vettel had to come in for a new wing, and Hamilton suffered a major puncture to his left rear tyre.

Both drivers came in for soft tyres, which had the potential to carry them both to the end of the race. While Seb seemed anxious to get back to business and climb the field, Lewis seemed diffident at best.

Despite his maturing over the past few seasons, Hamilton’s own worst enemy continues to be Lewis Hamilton. Despite rampant speculation of damage that wasn’t obvious on camera, Hamilton’s car appeared in good order (and the pit wall confirmed that his floor was good), yet he struggled mightily to regain his race pace. It took some time before he was able to begin overtaking the usual suspects among the backmarkers, and he was even eventually lapped by Verstappen before getting his act together. You certainly don’t see that every day. Once Hamilton began to get his head back in the game he was able to begin climbing the pack himself, and was able to salvage a few points by finishing in 9th.

It seemed that Hamilton had activated the Conspiracy Switch, asking his engineer Peter ‘Bono’ Bonnington , “Did he hit me deliberately?” Social media was subsequently off to the races with that one, bit clearly Vettel had much more to lose in this situation than did Hamilton. Hamilton’s worries were clearly still getting the better of him, when asking later on what tyres the cars in front of him were using. Hamilton finally seemed to relax a bit later on when it was clear that Vettel wouldn’t be able to close the gap to the frontrunners.

Fernando Alonso showed that he’s still a fighter, giving Hamilton a good deal of trouble overtaking on lap 66. Hamilton opted for a more cautious approach this time, and while he was able to eventually make the overtake stick Alonso put up a fantastic defense.

Vettel himself had a few fraught moments, particularly following a mid-race tussle with ex-Ferrari driver Felipe Massa. It was quite something to hear his engineers talking him down, reminding him to remain calm. He certainly was able to get back down to business afterwards, though, and finished a very respectable 4th. He was certainly aided by a mid-race Virtual Safety Car brought about by Nico Hulkenberg’s exciting retirement, and took advantage of an opportunity to pit for ultrasofts. Sadly, despite delivering a much better race performance (including setting several fastest laps) and Hamilton finishing well out of the top 5, Vettel wasn’t able to finish high enough to keep his title hopes alive.

Lost in all this was Max Verstappen’s masterful drive to finish 1st after setting the fastest lap of the race himself. Despite some early concerns over blistering on the left front, he drove an uneventful race staying substantially clear of second-place Valtteri Bottas. At one point his engineers had to chide him for not slowing down a bit, to which Max replied with a laughing apology. Watch this kid, he’s going places. Here’s hoping that Red Bull and Renault can deliver him a contending chassis and engine next year!

Renault’s sudden lack of reliability, though overshadowed by the opening lap drama and the title contenders’ battle back up the order, was a dubious star of the show. Daniel Ricciardo’s penalty for his power unit change wound up being meaningless as he retired on lap 7 with an engine failure. Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley was forced to retire as well, his engine going out in a puff of smoke reminiscent of his woes in qualifying. Carlos Sainz of the Renault factory team also retired his car late in the race.

Of the Renault retirements, the most spectacular was Nico Hulkenberg’s. Reporting a loss of power and boost, Hulkenberg was instructed to immediately stop the car: “The car is not safe, the car is not safe, you need to get out by climbing onto the front of the car and jumping off.” The battery systems store a considerable amount of energy, and one shudders to think what might’ve happened had Hulkenberg grounded himself while in contact with the car. Doubtless some will use this as another reason to move away from hybrid powertrains in the future.

Apart from Verstappen, Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly was the final Renault-powered car left standing at the end of the race. While certainly better than Honda’s performance over the last several seasons, one can’t help but wonder if Renault is going to prove the best choice for McLaren in coming seasons – but then it’s not like McLaren had a lot of options.

It’s worth noting that both McLarens saw the chequered flag this time around. Alonso even took home a point.

Local favorite Sergio Perez certainly gave the home crowd some moments to cheer about, but a 7th place finish was doubtless a bit disappointing. Happily, with his Force India teammate Esteban Ocon finishing up in 5th the team has locked up 4th in the Constructors Championship and the boys will be free to race in the final two sessions. Bring us a good show, boys!

Happy birthday to Lance Stroll, 6th place and the points to go with it should make for a nice present.

As the sun sets on an eventful Grand Prix of Mexico, congratulations to Max Verstappen on his dominant victory! Congratulations as well to Lewis Hamilton for his 4th Drivers Championship.

Grand Prix of Mexico Qualifying Reaction

Image courtesy of Pirelli Motorsports

The twin themes for Qualifying are excitement and disappointment. On the excitement front, watching the shootout for P1 was thrilling. While it’s certainly au courant to knock the current generation of power units, as the 2017 package hits high levels of development it’s fantastic to see the track records falling. Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez in its current incarnation may not have much of a history to compare against, but it’s nonetheless exciting to see records fall.

On the disappointment front, the luckless Pierre Gasly of Scuderia Toro Rosso will be starting from the back after missing Qualifying due to a power unit change, and Brendon Hartley’s promising start to qualifying was also cut short due to an engine failure of his own. Haas failed to perform to expectations, and even typical high performers Kimi Raikkonen and Daniel Ricciardo qualified below their proven potential. One can perhaps understand Ricciardo’s slower pace in comparison to his teammate as Verstappen has a more advanced power unit, but it’s still unusual to see him so far behind. McLaren continues to show how what could have been, and Williams continues in their inconsistent form.

Renault and Force India occupied the middle ground between the extremes. Their drivers all delivered competent performances, qualifying in the lower half of the top 10, but apart from the crowd’s obvious love for Sergio ‘Checo’ Perez the highs and lows experienced by the other teams overshadowed their solid performance.

Q1:
It was no surprise to see Ferrari open with a strong performance on supersoft tyres, though while Sebastian Vettel finished the session in 4th his teammate Kimi Raikkonen fell to 7th, behind McLaren’s Fernando Alonso and Force India’s Sergio Perez.

While Mercedes was able to beat Ferrari, they did it on ultrasofts. While Mercedes’ pace is generally undeniable, their need for the softer compounds this round shows that they’re not as safe as they might be.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen topped the Ferrari times – also on supersofts. Hamilton’s engine gremlins continued, with Hamilton reporting another engine cut during the latter half of the session. Regardless, his early time of 1:17.518 ensured he’d safely advance to Q2. His teammate Daniel Ricciardo completed the session in 10th.

Force India’s Sergio Perez, the local favorite, put delivered a solid performance for his supporters the grandstands and occupied 6th.

McLaren’s Fernando Alonso continued to demonstrate the sadly-unrealized potential of the car by climbing to 5th in the first half of Q1 following a forgettable series of practice sessions. The waning moments of Q1 showed Honda’s return to form as Alonso reported no power and no turbo. Despite this, he still managed to deliver excellent sector times as the flag fell.

The flying laps after the chequered flag saw the usual last-minute excitement among the backmarkers. Alonso’s teammate Stoffel Vandoorne climbed to 13th. Toro Rosso’s resident Kiwi, the impressive Brendon Hartley, advanced, finishing the session in 14th. Williams’ Lance Stroll rounded out the Q2 field in 15th. Sadly, Haas and Sauber both failed to put together enough performance to advance to Q2. Given the disparity between Sauber and Haas’ power units, Haas’ finishing behind Sauber is troubling.

Advancing to Q2: HAM BOT VER ALO PER RAI RIC HUL OCO SAI MAS VAN HAR STR

Excluded: ERI WEH MAG GRO GAS

Q2:
Records continued to have a very short lifespan due to the battle at the top of the timing chart, and ultrasofts are the order of the session among the frontrunners. Bottas rocketed to the top of the leaderboard with an opening time of 1:17.161 on ultrasofts, but was topped by Vettel with 1:17.058 (incidentally setting a new track record). Hamilton, disregarding any worries over his engine, put in a blistering new record time of 1:17.035 in turn.

Hartley’s Toro Rosso let him down in the early stage of the session with a sadly-familiar puff of smoke echoing Gasly’s FP3 misfortune. His radio message to the pit wall, “No power, no power,” signaled the end of a promising day and bringing out a yellow.

The yellow flags caused Max Verstappen to back off a promising lap, but he recovered to set his own new record of 1:16.524. Vettel fought back and topped Hamilton, but wasn’t able to unseat Verstappen.

Force India and Renault certainly took part in Q2, but apart from the crowd’s cheering for Checo there wasn’t much notable in their performance – but an unexciting advancement to Q3 is just as much an advancement to Q3 as an exciting one, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Williams continued to suffer from their ongoing inability to quite bring everything together, and elected to only run late in the session. The lower air pressure at altitude contributed to their woes thanks to the associated lack of downforce, and they weren’t able to rise out of the drop zone.

While Vandoorne and Alonso did each put in an early lap, McLaren elected to not attempt to set times for Q2 to preserve tyres, and likely power units, for the race. After Alonso’s excellent Q1 performance it’s disappointing to see McLaren still making these decisions.

Advancing to Q3: VER VET HAM BOT RAI RIC SAI HUL OCO PER

Excluded: MAS STR HAR VAN ALO

Q3:
The crowd loves Checo, and their excitement seeing him in Q3 comes through.

The battle for pole didn’t disappoint, and once again the boots of choice were ultrasofts. Bottas got a good start, but was forced to abort his early flying lap when he came up on a slower-moving Verstappen in the Foro Sol section. While Verstappen did move off to the left, Bottas wound up braking hard and locking up briefly before diving for the pits where he was to remain until the closing minutes of the session. The stewards announced an investigation into Verstappen for impeding Bottas, but in a move that will doubtless ease any sense of anti-Verstappen bias determined that no action was warranted.

Hamilton put in a valiant effort and sat briefly in P1 himself with a repsectable-but-not-unbeatable time of 1:16.934. The churn in P2 was entertaining, with Hulkenberg, Raikkonen, Sainz, and Ocon occupying the position in turn until Sebastian Vettel coaxed his SF70H, Gina, into delivering a lap of 1:16.833, pushing everyone ahead of Verstappen down a spot.

Verstappen responded with a fastest first and second sector, going on to set an excellent time of 1:16.574. For a moment it seemed that a record other than track time, namely youngest pole winner, might be broken, but this sadly wasn’t to be.

After the mid-session lull, Bottas completed his flying lap with a 4th-place 1:16.958 shortly before the chequered flag fell. Hamilton was unable to improve his time.

After the flag fell, Vettel completed his own flying lap to set a new record with a time of 1:16.488, securing his 50th pole position. Verstappen was unable to improve his own time, taking second. Bottas’s own final lap wasn’t enough to improve his position.

As with Q2, the battle at the front overshadowed otherwise competent drives from Renault and Force India. And as with advancing to Q3, an unexciting top-10 starting position is just as much a top-10 as an exciting one. Ocon certainly had the best performance of the midfield, qualifying a surprising 6th ahead of Ricciardo.

As the dust settled on an exciting qualifying session, the grid prior to penalties was VET VER HAM BOT RAI ECO RIC HUL SAI PER MAS STR HAR ALO VAN ERI WEH MAG GRO GAS.

With Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen on the front row, one can only imagine the conversations in the Ferrari and Red Bull camps, hoping to avoid a repeat of the carnage at the start of the Singapore Grand Prix. Even though it’s quite possible that we’ll see the Drivers Championship locked up for Lewis Hamilton during the race session, it’s still exciting to see Red Bull and Ferrari bringing the fight to Mercedes at this late stage of the season. Hamilton’s engine gremlins certainly add an element of uncertainty, and Renault-powered teams will doubtless be keeping a wary eye on their engines following Toro Rosso’s troubles.

United States Grand Prix Yee-haw-cap

Circuit of the Americas, Austin, Texas, United States of America.
Sunday 22 October 2017.
World Copyright: Andy Hone/LAT Images
ref: Digital Image _ONY2503

The weather just south of Austin, Texas was fine for the start of the United States Grand Prix, with the early morning rains moving on with plenty of time. That heavy rain, though, cleaned the track up considerably with all the rubber deposited over practice and qualifying washed away. This newly-green surface added an element of uncertainty to the pre-race proceedings. The very-American opening ceremony proved to be polarizing. For every fan that enjoyed Michael Buffer’s boxing-style driver introductions (beneficial to an American audience, many of whom aren’t as familiar with Formula One), there was one who found it ‘cringey AF.’ Whatever your reaction, you can’t deny that Liberty Media delivered on the promise of spectacle for this race’s opening ceremonies.

The word of the day for the United States Grand Prix was ‘poised’. After a record-setting weekend, Lewis Hamilton and his teammate Valtteri Bottas faced the day poised to secure the fourth consecutive Constructors Championship for Mercedes AMG Petronas. Sebastian Vettel was poised to breathe a bit of life into the Drivers Championship if he drove well, and if he didn’t (or if he suffered some other issue) Hamilton was poised to seal his fourth Drivers Championship. Carlos Sainz was poised to make a good impression in his debut with Renault. Brendon Hartley was poised to make a good showing in his first single-seater race in years. The paddock was full of expectations. Who would see their goals realized? Who would leave disappointed?

When the lights went out, Lewis Hamilton made a solid start but Sebastian Vettel did him one better, leaping off the line to take the lead at the outset. The remainder of the field enjoyed a fairly clean start.

The opening lap saw a great deal of shakeups in the field. Force India’s Esteban Ocon briefly got the jump on Kimi Raikkonen for 5th, but it was not to last. Fernando Alsonso’s McLaren overtook Carlos Sainz’s Renault for 7th, in what I’m sure McLaren hopes to be a harbinger of next season. Williams’ Felipe Massa overtook the other Force India of Sergio Perez for 9th. At the bottom of the field, Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg took 17th from Haas’ Kevin Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne of McLaren took 19th from Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley. There was a contact between Weherlein and Magnussen, which was later determined to not merit any further action by the stewards.

And Max Verstappen began his inexorable climb in his Red Bull. In the first lap alone, he overtook both Saubers and Williams’ Lance Stroll, bringing him up from 16th to 13th. In the second lap, he claimed Haas’ Romain Grosjean and Toro Rosso’s Dany Kvyat. Lap 3 saw him pass Perez, and Massa in lap 4, rising to 9th by lap 5.

Toward the front of the field, Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo brought the fight to Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas several times in the early laps, but wasn’t able to make any of the attempts stick. Raikkonen lurked quietly behind Ricciardo, searching for an opening. Hamilton and Vettel traded fastest laps early on, with Hamilton declaring that the, “[p]ace feels pretty good,” as he settled into the groove. Hulkenberg’s race came to an untimely end in lap 4 thanks to an engine failure, to the disappointment of both his fans and his team.

Lap 6 saw Hamilton finally able to make a move on Vettel to retake the lead. Despite a valiant defense, Vettel was unable to deny Hamilton, and the #44 Silver Arrow found its legs. Weherlein’s race came to an end at this point with a retirement due to damage.

Lap 10 brought Max Verstappen into 6th place, overtaking Ocon in at turn 12. The teams began eyeing pit stops, with Stroll going in for softs on lap 11 and Ricciardo requesting that he be brought in as soon as there’d be good track position. Vettel reported blistering on the left front during lap 12, and Raikkonen made an attempt on Ricciardo.

Pit stops began in earnest in lap 13, with Ricciardo and Perez both taking new tyres. Perez, pitting from 11th and rejoining in 15th, opted for a set of softs, while Ricciardo pitted from 4th left the pits on a set of supersofts to rejoin in 9th. Ricciardo’s stop allowed Raikkonen to rise to 4th and Verstappen to 5th. With his fresh tyres, Ricciardo handily overtook Sainz to advance to 8th. Ocon and Alonso both stopped for fresh rubber in lap 15, with Ocon rejoining in 12th and Alonso in 14th on soft tyres.

After setting the fastest lap thus far, misfortune struck Ricciardo. His Tag Heuer-branded Renault power unit gave up the ghost, leading him to coast to a halt on the grass past turn 15 and bringing out a double yellow for sector 3 as his car was recovered. Both Renault and Red Bull were doubtless feeling a bit of nervousness for their remaining drivers, though (spoiler alert!) there were no further Renault-powered retirements.

By this time, a significant gap had emerged between the Mercedes, Ferraris, and lone Red Bull at the front of the pack.

Lap 17 saw Vettel dive for the pits from second, emerging on his new set of soft tyres in 5th behind the hard-charging Verstappen. When faced with Vettel’s pit stop, Hamilton confidently declared, “Tyres are good, I can extend.” His confidence in his well-worn ultrasofts seemed to be well-placed, as the onboard camera shots showed no indication of striping or blistering. Nonetheless, worn ultrasofts, no matter how well-managed, would be tricky to match against Vettel’s fresh set of softs. Vettel confirmed his tyres’ puissance by setting the fastest second and third sectors, and then going on to set the fastest lap shortly thereafter.

Mercedes brought Bottas in for soft tyres in lap 18, causing him to take his turn in 5th when he rejoined the track and allowing Raikkonen, Verstappen, and Vettel to each climb one place. The battle in the midfield continued apace, with Sainz and Massa jockeying for position with McLaren and Force India. Sainz’ stop in lap 19 for – you guessed it, softs – left Massa in 6th, trailed by Ocon, Alonso, Perez, and Vandoorne. Alonso issued a call to his team for strategy information, sarcastically telling them, “It’d be nice to know what I’m doing.” Rejoining in 11th, Sainz would face an uphill battle for position for the remainder of the race.

Hamilton finally entered the pits in lap 20, also taking a set of soft tyres. His crew turned in an excellent stop, though this led to a fraught moment for Mercedes, as Vettel was closing fast while Hamilton climbed out of the pits and up to turn 1. While his tyres were a few laps newer than Vettel’s, they were cold while the Ferrari’s rubber was already up to temperature. Hamilton did manage to rejoin in 3rd, just in front of Vettel, and was able to defend his position. Vettel wobbled and ran a bit wide in turn 1, and Hamilton set about rebuilding his lead and catching Max Verstappen.

With Raikkonen entering the pits for softs in lap 21 (and duly taking his turn in 5th upon exit), Verstappen’s strategy became a hot topic. Verstappen began the race on a used set of supersofts, and despite his masterful performance thus far they clearly wouldn’t last forever. This was brought into focus in lap 23 when Hamilton was able to successfully attack Verstappen and reclaim the lead. The question of a Verstappen-Vettel battle began to loom when Red Bull finally called their wunderkind into the pits in lap 25 for a set of… softs. Verstappen dutifully rejoined in 5th.

In the midfield, Marcus Ericsson went into the pits in lap 21, emerging with softs of his own but falling from 13th to 18th in the process. In lap 25 tragedy – by now firmly farce – then struck struck Fernando Alonso. Again. With a call from the pit advising him to back off, he returned to the garage and ended his race with yet another Honda-powered retirement. Our hats are off to Alonso for being able to maintain any sense of equanimity after the absolute disaster that is the modern McLaren-Honda partnership, though doubtless seeing the Renault-shaped light at the end of the tunnel helps. We also wish Toro Rosso the best of luck for 2019. Unless Honda is able to resolve these serious issues, they’ll need it.

The following lap, Alonso’s more fortunate teammate pitted for a set of ultrasofts, rejoining in 15th. Sainz began to methodically reel Force India in up in the middle of the pack, while Perez and Ocon continued to vie for position themselves. Happily, both Force India drivers kept it clean, avoiding the on-track contact that cost the team so dearly earlier in the season.

At the front of the pack, Verstappen went on to set the fastest lap of the race. Vandoorne meanwhile passed Hartley on lap 28 and Stroll in lap 29 to rise back to 13th. Massa made his first stop of the race in lap 30, trading his supersofts for a set of new ultrasofts. This late stop did cost him, as he rejoined in 12th. Meanwhile, Hartley continued his quiet-but-proficient drive, breathing down Stroll’s neck.

Continuing the long, slow burning battle between the Force India drivers and Sainz, Perez’s calls to the pit wall requesting that Ocon let him by were denied. Ocon’s fine, he was told, YOU need to manage better, and management’s what we need right now. Sainz’ patience finally paid off, and he overtook Perez at turn 19 to advance to 7th. This in turn left Perez in Kvyat’s sights. In the midst of all this, Massa began to regain positions, overtaking Magnussen in lap 32 and later claiming the other Haas in lap 39.

Lap 38 saw a surprise pit stop from Max Verstappen for a set of supersofts. While exiting the pit, his crew radioed, “You know what we’re up to. We need a big lap.” Vettel followed Max in on lap 39 for a set of supersofts of his own. Pitting from second, he rejoined in 4th. This was a risky move. Would Verstappen’s new supersofts outperform Vettel’s used set? Would Vettel be able to close the gap to Raikkonen and Bottas? Ferrari would doubtless issue team orders, instructing Raikkonen to let Vettel pass, but Bottas certainly wouldn’t be so obliging. Verstappen then set the fastest lap thus far.

By lap 42, Raikkonen was able to mount a successful challenge on Bottas for second. By lap 44, commentators were discussing the scenario of Vettel passing Bottas, and Raikkonen being issued the expected orders to let Vettel pass.

In an example of the interesting things that can happen when the front runners lap the backmarkers, on lap 46 Marcus Ericsson attempted to follow Vettel past Kevin Magnussen at turn 12 under the blue flags. Magnussen wasn’t having it and tried to close the door. The drivers bumped, with Magnussen coming out worse for the wear after a spin, plummeting to 16th. Though Ericsson did briefly claim 13th, the stewards handed him a 5-second time penalty for his trouble and Stroll quickly overtook him for the position.

Meanwhile, Carlos Sainz continued his long search for advantage over Esteban Ocon, but Ocon’s defense continued to be impregnable. This so impressed the world feed directors that they continued to broadcast the feed from Sainz’s car as Vettel set the fastest lap of the race and approached DRS range on Bottas.

By turn 1 of lap 51, Vettel was in position to attack Bottas. Bottas, apparently relying on traffic to provide cover, miscalculated the his position relative to Vettel and the lapped Vandoorne and failed to mount an effective defense against Vettel’s attack on the outside. This cost Bottas 3rd, and opened him up to attack from Verstappen. Bottas was able to more effectively use traffic, in the form of Romain Grosjean’s Haas, to hold Verstappen off for a bit.

In lap 52, the expected radio call from Ferrari’s pit wall to Kimi Raikkonen arrived. “Seb is now the car behind, Seb is now the car behind. OK, if Seb comes alongside, let him by.” The Finn dutifully ceded 2nd place to his teammate. A short distance behind, Bottas had run out of time against Vertstappen. Verstappen attacked on the inside, forcing Bottas wide. Bottas wasn’t able to make his counterattack stick, and with nothing to lose he made a gamble of his own by pitting for a set of ultrasoft tyres. Sadly, it amounted to nothing and Mercedes’ in-house Finn was left to finish in 5th.

Overshadowed by the action at the front, Massa quietly overtook Kvyat for 9th place, and a couple of points for Williams.

Having dispensed with Bottas, Verstappen then set his sights on Raikkonen. With only 2 laps left and a little more than a second between them, Verstappen would have only one chance to attack Raikkonen. Pushing hard, it appeared that Verstappen would fall just short of Raikkonen.

As Lewis Hamilton crossed the line to secure the fourth consecutive Constructors Championship title for Mercedes AMG Petronas, Verstappen mounted an audacious attack on Raikkonen at turn 17 as the chequered flag fell, and claimed third place for his efforts.

In what will doubtless be a long-discussed penalty, the stewards determined that Verstappen had exceeded the track limits to gain advantage, and gave him a five second time penalty. This led to an awkward moment after the race, as Verstappen was already in the cool-down room.

The final finishing order, after time penalties, was:
HAM
VET
RAI
VER
BOT
OCO
SAI
PER
MAS
KVY
STR
VAN
HAR
GRO
ERI
MAG

DNFs:
ALO
RIC
WEH
HUL

Congratulations to Lewis Hamilton for a well-fought victory in Austin! Congratulations to Mercedes AMG Petronas for the fourth consecutive Constructors Championship! Congratulations to Sebastian Vettel for setting the fastest lap of the race, with 1:37.766 and keeping the Drivers Championship alive, at least mathematically! Congratulations Max Verstappen for getting us up out of our seats and shouting in the dwindling seconds of the race!

We can’t wait to see what Mexico brings us on Sunday.

Fernando Alonso – A little column about the all time greatest

While the last race weekend on the Hungarian GP showed us again, why Fernando Alonso is still one of the best drivers on the grid, the Spaniard turned 36. A good reason for me  to look at the driver and show what makes him so special.

I won’t lie: Fernando Alonso is my favourite F1 driver, and maybe some of the things that I’m about to say are not from a neutral point of view.

But the fact that he is my favourite driver was not always true. I didn’t cheer for him in his championship years, because i didn’t watch F1 (unfortunately) back in those days. So i will start with the time when I started watching F1, and this was at the middle of 2009.

Ferrari Media

As a Ferrari fan back in the days of 2009 and 2010, a dream came true when the Spaniard joined the Prancing Horse.

I remember many people who didn’t like him back in this time. Even many Ferrari fans were very critical about the decision, to take Kimi Räikkönen out and let Alonso drive there.

But Fernando showed the Tifosi and the world very soon why Ferrari was right to catch him. With the first win on his first race for the Italian team he was was the new star. But I think, with his win in Monza, Italy, in front of all the Tifosi, every Ferrari fan back then starting to cheering for him. He was the new star after Michael Schumacher and until today one of the most popular Ferrari drivers of all time.

I don’t want to rewrite the whole Ferrari story, because we all know how it’s gone back in then.

Ferrari Media

But i want to write something about 2012. For me the 2012 season was a very special one. I don’t know why, but what Alonso did then was magical. Let’s be real: the F2012 was a very poor car at the start of the season. But like today Fernando did  everything possible to keep the title hopes for him and Ferrari alive.

With the win from nowhere in the rain in Sepang he showed again his brilliant driving skills in difficult conditions. And after Ferrari starting to understand the car and improved it with an massive update at the in-season tests in Mugello before the Spanish GP, Alonso was always there.

Especially his magic win at the European Grand Prix in Valencia, in front of his home crowd, was just mind blowing. Sure, the win wouldn’t would have been a win without the failures of Vettel’s Red Bull or Grosjean’s Lotus. But whoever saw the race live will know that Alonso’s moves starting from eleventh were brilliant. Overtaking several cars at the start, he moved his way through the field. The win at the end was just amazing and—for me—with Kimi Räikkönen and Michael Schumacher on the podium, it was the best race ever.

Ferrari Media

Unfortunately in Hungary, exactly five years ago, Ferrari started to drop back in pace. At this time Alonso lead the Drivers’ Championship by forty points from Mark Webber. The second half of the season after the summer break was a nightmare for every Ferrari fan and fans of the Spanish driver. Two pointless races in Belgium and Japan and a dominant Red Bull/Vettel combination made it possible to turn Alonso’s points lead into nothing.

We all know the dramatic season final in Sao Paulo 2012: Vettel’s crash on the start, the hope for all the Tifosi and then the disappointment of losing another title within two years.

We also all know how Alonso and Ferrari fell apart in 2014. And we all know how much worse his partnership with McLaren and Honda went.

McLaren Media

But nevertheless, Alonso always showed his skills and his talent, the same as since his first year in F1 with Minardi. The difference between Fernando and the other top drivers on the grid, is the simple fact that he has never had a really poor year coming from him.

He has always been competitive. With the V10 engines, with the V8 engines and now with the V6 engines; with Michelin, with Bridgestone and with Pirelli tyres. With a bad car or a good car; in an F1 car or on an IndyCar. On a dry or on a wet track. He always shows his skills, and no matter what happens he is always there.

Andrew Hone/McLaren

And I think his last three years with McLaren-Honda showed much more of the “human” Alonso.  It reminds me how Michael Schumacher was getting much more popular in his Mercedes years, because he made the best of his situation back in the disappointing years.

And in the same way, Alonso has showed his patience in the last three years. I don’t know many people who don’t want to see him back on the top. When he came to the autograph session on my first live Grand Prix in Austria few weeks ago, the people went crazy—more than for any other driver.

For me it was a special moment to see my childhood idol next in front of me and it is still a little bit unreal. But that’s another story.

I’m more than certain that we will see Fernando Alonso at the top again someday. And I’m also sure that he will stay in Formula 1, fighting like a Samurai who will never surrender. As he said few months ago: he will not turn away from the F1 stage, without being competitive again.

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