By Bob Constanduros
I’m not sure which lap it was, but after both Mercedes had made pit stops in the Russian Grand Prix, I duly announced that now we could see just what the difference was between the two drivers. They were now on new tyres, in clean air, ideal time for quick laps – and then I burst out laughing. Both drivers had set identical times, to the nearest thousandth of a second. So that was the difference between the two!
OK, probably not. But we are seeing what I regard as a fascinating battle between two very different drivers with different approaches to their environment and the job in hand. It came home to me more than ever on Sunday morning. Lewis Hamilton walked down the paddock, head down, earphones in, lady bag-carrier walking discreetly behind, the man himself not looking left or right. He looked under big pressure, not enjoying himself and yet I know that he does. Then Nico came in, headphones on but snatched off to talk to someone, looking like a free spirit, enjoying his racing.
It was the same after the race, not surprisingly perhaps. Nico happy with his win of course, but Lewis not happy with his second, in spite of it coming from tenth on the grid. He’d had more technical problems but then there had been concern about Nico as well. But it weighed more heavily on Lewis. Interestingly, he felt that he could have won but for those technical problems; maybe that’s where his problems lie.
We need these two drivers to have troublefree weekends. Nobody else is providing the challenge at the moment, not while Daniil Kvyat is on the loose. Lewis might have been taken out just as Sebastian Vettel was, but Ferrari don’t just have an attraction to the Russian’s Red Bull but also are prey to too many reliability problems at the moment. That’s a big disappointment because the engine seemed to have taken a step forward in Russia which is why the Spanish Grand Prix is going to be fascinating.
Red Bull’s problem is that Kvyat is no doubt under pressure. Max Verstappen is in his second year at Toro Rosso and needs to move up to Red Bull if he isn’t to be lost to another team. Therefore someone has to go at Red Bull. If Daniel Ricciardo doesn’t go to Ferrari – which he should – then Kvyat has to go and he’s desperately – if unsuccessfully – trying to show that he should stay. Christian Horner laid all the blame for Red Bull’s points drought on his shoulders which doesn’t bode well for the future.
Elsewhere, credit where it’s due to Kevin Magnussen and a really good drive through the field from 17th on the grid to seventh in the race and Renault’s first points. There’s a new impetus in the former Lotus team and although progress and therefore success doesn’t all have to come at once, this seventh place shows that it can be done.
I mentioned in the preview about the possible political manoeuvring in Russia and further light was shone on this by Beat Zehnder who is the loyal long serving team manager at Sauber. We were basically asking about the new 2017 rules which seem to be coming into force and which Bernie Ecclestone is backing. Indeed, it has been suggested that he ensured that they would be implemented by making sure there weren’t enough people present at a recent meeting to vote against them.
Roughly speaking, these rules comprise wider tyres and wider cars for them to look more spectacular and give great downforce and grip and provide more of a spectacle. But more downforce and grip means less braking distance and potentially less overtaking, said Zehnder. He also pointed out that such a change would involve a team – large or small – in an expenditure of hundreds of thousands of pounds. This comes from the need to re-equip the team with flight packing cases to the new dimensions of cars, and new tyre blankets for the wider tyres.
He is backed by Toto Wolff of Mercedes, who also doesn’t necessarily see these changes providing closer racing. Wolff is rapidly becoming the voice of reason, not simply for his own team but for the sport as a whole and is gaining respect in various quarters. Bernie Ecclestone doesn’t like to see someone potentially usurping his position and he isn’t enjoying the manufacturers’ increasingly powerful role, which is why some of these matters take on a greater disproportional importance.
The Russian Grand Prix, with its single stop strategy, was never expected to be a humdinger and it wasn’t. Pirelli, privately, realised that they might have taken the ultra-soft tyre to Sochi rather than the medium which was scarcely used, and therefore they might have forced a two stop strategy which might have made things more complex. As it was, we had some interesting battles but it was a little processional up front once Lewis had made his way through the field. Williams were delighted to be in touch, if relegated to fourth and fifth, and McLaren were pleased to get two cars in the points, but even sixth placed Alonso was so far behind fifth placed Massa to allow the Brazilian a quick pit stop which lost him only time, not position.
So next up will be Barcelona, the first European race and one where traditionally teams bring lots of updates. Will it change the running order? In the words of Kimi Raikkonen, that great philosopher, ‘wait and see…’