June 25, 2017
F1 Update!: Azerbaijan 2017 A sunny, warm, slightly breezy day greeted the F1 circus as it sat on the starting grid in downtown Baku. Last year's race was remarkable for its lack of anything remarkable... indeed, it was pretty much the worst race of the 2016 season... but that seemed to be because nobody had the slightest idea how to race Baku then. Now that the teams had a year's worth of data, everybody expected something a little more exciting. The best part was that the two title contenders, Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari's Seb Vettel, were again up towards the front of the grid and looked set for a day-long fight. So was 2017 better than 2016? THIS is your F1 Update! for the 2017 Grand Prix of Azerbaijan!
*LIGHTS OUT... HOLD ON!: Upon the extinguishment of the pentuple cardinal illuminations, thus signifying the commencement of proceedings, the assembled vehicles began their charge towards the first turn. A very short charge, as the run to Turn 1 is very literally the shortest on the F1 calendar. As they approached the corner, Hamilton led his teammate Valterri Bottas, who was followed closely by fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari, and Vettel was behind him. By the time Vettel completed the second turn, he was in second. Bottas and Raikkonen had had a coming together, one that saw the Mercedes have to limp around the entire 3.7 mile long track with a ruined tire and the other Finn drop to fifth after surviving an almighty thumping, being bounced from Merc to wall. By the time Bottas made it back to the pits, he was already a lap down and out of contention for the day. Meanwhile, Toro Rosso's Kid Kvyat went off at the outside of Turn 1 and rejoined... right where his teammate Carlos Sainz was located. Sainz chose the better part of valor and jerked his car hard to the left, putting it into a self-inflicted spin. Meanwhile, somewhere along the way Embryo Verstappen had called the pit wall, saying that he had some damage. And thus ended a rather frantic first lap.
*THAT DIDN'T TAKE LONG AT ALL: On Lap 6, Smiley Ricciardo brought his Red Bull in for a tire change... and, as it turned out, a brake problem. He had somehow managed to suck up some debris into a cooling duct, sending brake temps rocketing into the stratosphere. He would rejoin the race in 17th position, out of contention for the day. And then we saw the image of Kid Kvyat pulling to the side of the circuit, the electronics on his Toro Rosso having completely packed up and gone on holiday. At Monaco, this wouldn't have been much of a much at all... just hook it up to a crane and lift it out of the way. The topography of the Baku circuit, however, doesn't allow for cranes to be presited around the circuit... or indeed, located anywhere near the track. A Safety Car had to be called so the track workers could recover the broken vehicle. And this is where the trouble began...
*BUCKLE UP, TROUBLE'S A-BREWIN'!: This Safety Car period lasted for six laps, an eternity in F1 terms, particularly when you take into account the 3.7 mile length of the circuit. After about one lap, leader Lewis Hamilton began to complain about the driver of the Safety Car going too slowly. This was causing the tires and brakes to lose their heat and thus function poorly... and as we know from past races, the Pirelli tires are notoriously hard to bring up to race temperatures. Meanwhile, the Mercedes pit wall reminded Hamilton that he had to stay a certain distance behind Berndt Maylander at all times, as he had been coming rather close to the rear of the car while trying to heat up the tires and get extra cooling air into his radiators. And then it happened... the moment that defined the race, and perhaps the entire 2017 season.
*SAFETY CARS CAUSE SAFETY CARS: Eventually, the Safety Car returned to its nest on pit lane and the race restarted. For aa single lap everything seemed okay... until one realized that there was still a crapload of debris located on the circuit from various incidents... and most of it located right where a car would collect it. A second Safety Car was called for so the track workers could get debris off the circuit. To be fair, there was a lot of junk out there... you probably could have glued it together and come up with a Sauber, which is, I think, how the team made their cars this year... and a SC was warranted. And then it happened... the moment that defined the race, and perhaps the entire 2017 season.
*RUBBIN' AIN'T RACIN', NOT IN F1 IT AIN'T: Seb Vettel ran into the back of Hamilton as they came out of a turn. While telemetry has shown that Hamilton had not slowed down any more than he had been, Vettel began screaming on the radio that the Mercedes driver had brake-checked him. The Ferrari suffered some damage to its front wing, the Merc some damage to its rear diffuser. Appropriately enough, the "red mist" came over Vettel and he surged alongside Hamilton to express his displeasure with some heated gesticulations involving both hands, perhaps an elbow, and some harsh words. He then banged wheels with the Merc before settling back into his following position, leading everybody watching to wonder if they really had just seen what had happened. Shortly thereafter, the SC made its way back to the pit lane so Maylander could go back to sleep and the race resumed.
*RED FLAG: Then the two Force India drivers, never great pals to begin with, had a coming together in Turn 2. False Esteban! attempted a... let's call it "aggressive"... pass, which worked in that he moved ahead of his teammate Sergio Perez. In doing so, however, he suffered a cut rear tire and Perez lost a front wing and some other damage from being shoved into the wall. At the time this occurred, the two pink cars were in fourth and fifth and Perez in particular was making a great showing. He had been hanging with the two leaders and occasionally threatening Vettel's hold on second. Just keep that in mind as you read the rest of this F1U!. Then Kimi Raikkonen ran over something that simply killed his right-rear tire. As he made his way back to the pits, the carcass began flailing away at the rear of his car, eventually destroying the right endplate of his rear wing altogether. At this point, race control threw up its hands, said "screw it", and threw the red flag, stopping the race entirely.
*GOINGS ON: The red flag period lasted for some 25 minutes. During this time, both Ferrari and Force India brought their damaged cars into the pit boxes to do repairs, while the rest of the cars formed up in the pit lane itself. Hamilton got out of his car to examine the damage he had suffered when Vettel bonked him in the rear, Vettel got a new nose, everybody else got whatever minor damage they could get fixed fixed, and unsurprisingly it was announced that the Stewards were looking into the Hamilton/Vettel incident. Once the red flag period was over, the cars took to the circuit once again. Hamilton was in first, followed by Vettel, then the two Williams' of Felipe Not Retired Massa and Pleasant Stroll, then in something of a surprise, Smiley Ricciardo, apparently back from the dead. The two safety car periods had been something of a blessing for him, as he just stayed out on track... he had already stopped for tires back on Lap 6 when he had his brake cooling problem.... and thus got free place after free place as other drivers pitted under the safety car. Further down, Valterri Bottas was in 13th place and on the lead lap again, thanks to some arcane rules involving the Safety Car.
*RESTART, RELAX... REALLY?: Once the race restarted, Ricciardo jumped both Williams drivers into Turn 1 in a truly impressive display of late braking and car control, taking third place. A couple of laps later, Massa retired with a damper broken in an unrelated incident, promoting Pleasant Stroll to fourth. Up in first place, though, things were not going well. It became clear that Hamilton was having problems with the cockpit headrest. As he raced along the long long straight that finishes a lap at Baku, the foam U-shaped headrest that lines the side and back of the cockpit began to lift up. Hamilton could push it back down, sort of , but it would immediately begin to rise again as he accelerated. The team was forced to call him into the pits to get that fixed before Race Director Charlie Whiting black-flagged him. It appears that when Hamilton returned to his car after the red flag period, the team neglected to fasten the headrest. In doing so, they probably cost themselves a win. The stop took a little over 10 seconds, and he rejoined the race in ninth.
*OH, YOU KNOW: A few laps later, the Stewards decision about the Vettel/Hamilton incident was announced: the Ferrari driver would be given a 10-second stop/go penalty for unsafe driving, to be served immediately. On the radio, Vettel was incredulous: "when did I do dangerous driving???" Around the world, millions upon millions of viewers scoffed and rolled their eyes as one. Still, Vettel complied, giving up the lead. He returned to the race in seventh, one position ahead of Lewis Hamilton, who immediately called race control to complain that "a 10-second penalty isn't enough for what (Vettel) did."
*TO THE END: Thus on Lap 40 we had a top three of Smiley Ricciardo in the lead (having been in 17th place earlier in the race), followed five seconds later by Pleasant Stroll (who is 18 years, 8 months old... we here at F1U! have shoes and jackets older than Stroll), then came Bottas (who was at one time a lap down) 12 seconds behind Stroll for third. This is the way the race went until the final lap, though Bottas was slowly reeling in the Williams. It seemed unlikely, however, that the Finn could make the leap to second.
*LAST LAP: For much of the final lap, that prediction was pretty clearly correct. Bottas was still managing to make a little bit of headway here and there, but nowhere near enough. Entering the final stretch, Bottas was about one second adrift of Stroll and his Mercedes-powered Williams... and this is when Bottas flipped a switch that engaged "qualifying mode" in his power unit. You can't go a whole race in qualifying mode, the p.u. would die a horrible death within a dozen laps. However, with a little over a mile to go? No problem. Bottas began to close the gap to Stroll, but he'd still have to pass the teenager... and then came the DRS detection zone. Bottas was within one second of Stroll... who was eight seconds behind Ricciardo. Oops. A few hundred feet later, the DRS slot opened in Bottas' rear wing and the gap to the Williams dropped appallingly fast... and then the Mercedes was past, taking second place by about a car length. And thus ended quite the remarkable race.
*OH, BTW...: The Force Indias were faster than the Red Bull and the Williams today. When Perez and False Esteban! had their coming together, both were ahead of Smiley Ricciardo. We're not sayin', but we're just sayin'.
*APRES-RACE: In post-race interviews, Hamilton refused to spare anybody's feelings, calling Vettel a "disgrace. He also said that if the German had a problem with him, the two should "settle it like men, face-to-face." For his part, Vettel refused to acknowledge that he did anything wrong, blaming the incident entirely on Hamilton's "brake-checking". Mark our words: this is not the end of the situation, not by a long shot.
The next race is in two weeks, at the RedBull-Ring in Austria. See ya there!!!
June 11, 2017
F1 Update!: Canada 2017 A warm, sunny, and very very windy day greeted the Thundering Herd as they rolled onto the grid at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Indeed, it was so windy that a few laps into the race drivers were reporting that they couldn't get to 8th gear coming down the back straight where they had a 30mph breeze in their faces. While dramatic, it didn't seem to have any obvious effect otherwise. Lewis Hamilton, second in the driver's championship, was on pole but his rival Seb Vettel was next to him, but ahead in the points. Their teammates were directly behind them, and then the rest of the field, but one got the feeling that this race was going to be 70 laps of racing between those two for the win, and everybody else was fighting for third. THIS is your F1Update! for the 2017 Grand Prix of Canada!
*LIGHTS OUT: What we actually got was a race that lasted exactly one corner. The leaders all made good starts, but Red Bull's Embryo Verstappen made an excellent one from sixth... in drag racing terms, he had the hole shot... and immediately was fighting with Vettel and Bottas for second. Bottas went inside, Vettel followed the line in the center of the circuit... and then Verstappen went around the outside and cut across the Ferrari's nose. The result of this was Embryo in second, Vettel in fourth, and a completely ruined front-right nosewing on the red car. This did not have any obvious immediate effect however, as the race went under a safety car a couple of turns later. Carlos Sainz Jr made an unwise move that took him across the nose of Lettuce Grosjean's Haas and tipped himself into a lurid spin on the thin strip of grass short of Turn 3. Unfortunately, grass is terrible for braking and it seemed like his Toro Rosso hadn't slowed at all when it shot through Turn 3 backwards, collecting Felipe Not Retired Massa as he did. This incident brought out the safety car.
*...THE HELL?: The race stayed under the guidance of Berndt Maylander for three laps. Those laps would have been a perfect opportunity to bring Vettel in for a replacement nose, for Verstappen had well and truly borked the original. The endplate on the right side was essentially missing, and the 37 (estimated) vertical elements were all askew and adrift, practically flapping in the breeze. This is not a good arrangement for downforce. When the race restarted, the front wing began to shed pieces and Vettel lost an immense amount of time to the leaders in just a lap or two. Ferrari finally brought him in on Lap 6, five laps later than they should have. When he rejoined the race, he was 18th out of the 18 running cars and Mercedes where writing a check to Verstappen for handing them the race giftwrapped on a silver platter. A handful of laps later, the Red Bull driver's day came to an end when his engine just... stopped working. It was later revealed that his battery had failed, but for whatever reason it was, Lewis Hamilton's only realistic challenger (no matter how unlikely) had just been removed from the field.
*IN THE MIDDLE: As the race progressed, it became more and more obvious that Hamilton was going to win barring car failure. The only question was by how much? His teammate, Valterri Bottas pitted for tires on Lap 22, passing second place over to the Force India of False Esteban!, then some 18 seconds behind the leader. The reigning World Champion finally pitted on Lap 32, rejoining the race still in the lead as False Esteban! followed him into the pits for his own tire change. The Force India had lost 10 seconds in those 10 laps. Meanwhile Seb Vettel had made it all the way up to seventh place, though mostly because he was off the pit rotation having stopped early. Things settled down for the next 20 laps or so.
*TOWARDS THE END: Around about Lap 52 or so, Hamilton led his teammate by about 12 seconds, and he was 14 seconds ahead of Red Bull's Smiley Ricciardo and the two Force Indias of Sergio Perez and False Esteban!. There was about a second covering third, fourth and fifth, and the two pink cars looked to be hungry for a podium. Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen was 10 seconds behind them, with Vettel a few seconds back of his teammate and charging hard. It came as no surprise when Raikkonen came down with a sudden "brake problem" that allowed Sebby to go past and begin hunting down the fight for third.
*THE FIGHT FOR THIRD: Smiley Ricciardo has never been particularly known for driving a wide car, so if the Force Indias could close up they had a great chance to pass him for a podium position. False Esteban! was on substantially fresher tires than his teammate, and logically had a better chance to accomplish the task. However, for lap after lap Sergio Perez stayed in front of his teammate, unable to pass the Red Bull. The Legendary Announce Team began to criticize the team for not invoking team orders to get False Esteban! into position... but they had. The team told Sergio Perez to let his teammate by and if False Esteban! couldn't make the pass, Perez would be allowed to take the position back... and Perez said no. The battle was coming up on traffic, and he surely would be able to take the Red Bull then. Various attempts by both Force Indias to make passes let Vettel catch up and we had four cars fighting for third place. Eventually, False Esteban! tried a desperate lunge past his teammate and wound up adrift and floundering. Not only did he let Perez take the position back, he let Vettel go by him too. It took only another lap or so for Vettel to dispose of Perez and take fourth. Considering that he was dead last early, this was an astounding performance for Vettel.
*ALONSO AGONY: It's no news that McLaren is having a horrible year. With a Honda power unit that's so down on horsepower that their two cars were literally 10mph slower down the back straight than the leaders, it's been dismal... or it would be, if their engines didn't keep failing on them. Today, though, things looked different. Indy Alonso, fresh off his Honda engine failure at the Indianapolis 500 two weeks ago, was in 10th place with five laps to go. Now, 10th is hardly anything to write home about, but this would be the team's first point of the season. There's no question that Alonso is working miracles with this car to get it even that high in the standings. Which made it doubly painful when, on Lap 69 of 70, we saw his McLaren roll to a stop with a radio call of "no engine, the engine turned off." Agonizingly, the power unit had failed Alonso again. In a moment that could symbolize the new attitude F1 has towards its fans, Alonso left his car and went up into the grandstands to hang out and give his gloves away.
*FINALLY: Even though Vettel had cleared the two Force Indias for fourth place, there was no time left for him to challenge Smiley for third. He finished just under a second behind the Australian driver in a marvelous example of damage limitation. Lewis Hamilton led his teammate home by nearly 20 seconds, and he was 19 seconds ahead of Smiley. An easy race for the Mercedes guys, and one that might terrify Ferrari just a little bit.
In two weeks, we meet again in Baku for the second Grand Prix of Azerbaijan. We'll see you there!
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