July 02, 2018

F1 Update!: Austria 2018

The skies above the Osterreichring A1-Ring Red Bull Ring were clear for the first time all weekend when the Thundering Herd made its way to the grid.  While this made for a pretty view, it also meant that the surface of the track was experiencing something for the first time all weekend: heat.  The asphalt was nearly 120º F under the blazing sun, and the teams were glancing nervously at their tires.  Would the race be affected?  Would the softest compound tires turn into rubber-flavored ice cream?  Who would benefit?  THIS is your F1 Update! for the 2018 Grand Prix of Austria.

*LIGHTS OUT: While the start was frantic, by the end of the first lap it turned out to be a lot of sound and fury, but signifying nothing.  Polesitter Valterri Bottas, who earlier had said that you had to really screw up your start to lose places in the short run to the first turn, proceeded to screw up his start and lose places.  He was shuffled down to fourth, but when Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen and Red Bull's DH Verstappen squabbled amongst themselves for second, Bottas basically said "you guys have fun, I've got a race to win" and took the place for himself.  That he settled in behind his teammate Lewis Hamilton was... ominous, however.  It very much looked like a Mercedes 1-2 snoozefest was in the works.

*OR... NOT!:  We here at F1U! thought the heat would bother more than just tires today, wondering among ourselves if the cars would have problems too.  The Renault of Nico Hulkenberg potentially made us look like geniuses when he pulled over on Lap 10, smoke and flame blowing out the back of his car.  He took care to put it somewhere far off track so there was no safety car needed.  No, that little gift occurred just two laps after Hulkenberg toasted marshmallows, when Bottas' Mercedes rolled to a stop with no hydraulic system to speak of.  Alas, he was unable to be as considerate as the Renault driver and the recovery process required a Virtual Safety Car to be called for.  And therein lies a tale.

*THROW IT AWAY:  The heat of the day had already thrown the strategists into something of a tizzy.  Before race day, a one-stop race was almost certainly in the offing.  Now, however, the starting tires were liquefying on the hot asphalt and nobody was quite sure how long they'd last.  Surprisingly, the calling of the VSC did not solve the problem: Lap 12 of a 71 lap race was too early to be sure of making a one-stopper.  Which didn't make a whit of difference: VSC means "free pitstop", almost as free as an actual safety car.  Everybody piled into the pit lane, Ferrari and Red Bull so eager to get onto new rubber that they double-stacked their cars... the second one had to wait for the first to be worked on before it could make its stop.  Fresh tires all around!  Except... um... well, Mercedes didn't bring in Lewis Hamilton from the lead.  The reason was simple: they took too long to figure out if they needed to.  By the time they made the call, he was already past pit-in.  By the time he made it back around to pit-in, the VSC had ended.  Hamilton still had the lead, clear of the pack by 12 seconds, but he still needed to stop.

*IT TAKES SOUR GRAPES TO MAKE A FINE WHINE: Clearly remembering the debacle of Australia, where Mercedes threw away a Hamilton win due to a VSC-based mistake, the reigning champion was on the radio asking how in the world the pit wall could screw up again.  His complaining got so bad that the team's strategist, James Vowles, got on the radio and said "I threw away the win, but you can still do what you can."  The team pitted their man around Lap 25.  He came out in 4th, just ahead of Seb Vettel's Ferrari, with the hardest compound of rubber on the hubs.

*REALLY?  WHAT ELSE DO YOU WANT US TO DO?:  Of course, Hamilton hated the new tires.  He couldn't get any pace with them, they didn't feel right, they were blistering (this one was probably true: we haven't seen that many blisters since the last  time we went to the beach) they were too round, etc etc etc.  Eventually, they brought him in for a new set of supersofts, we suspect as much to get him to shut up as to give him speed.  This time he came back out in 5th place, behind the Red Bull of Smiley Riccardio.  Who promptly pulled over with a gearbox full of metal shavings and neutrals.

*MEANWHILE:  Smiley's teammate, DH Verstappen, was in the lead by a handful of seconds over Kimi Raikkonen.  The Ferrari driver was slowly closing the gap though, as was Vettel to his teammate.Hamilton was a more distant 20 seconds back, but setting fast laps consistently.  Verstappen, though, seemed to be the only driver out there to NOT be having some sort of problem with his tires.

*REWHINE: And then Hamilton pulled over with what proved to be a fuel pressure problem.  All around Austria, dogs lifted their heads and looked towards the Red Bull Ring as his complaints became inaudible to human ears.  One can only expect that there's going to be many vacancies at the Mercedes team at Silverstone.

*THE REST OF THE WAY:  Hamilton's retirement had the pleasant side-effect of promoting the Haas of Lettuce Grosjean into 4th place, the best finish in the team's history.  Even better, DP Magnussen, his Haas teammate, was right behind him in 5th.... an amazing result for a team that's had some bad luck this season thus far.  But the race belonged to DH Verstappen, who didn't put a foot wrong the whole afternoon.  The twin Ferraris stayed close, and if the Dutchman had erred they would have been past him in a flash, but it never happened.  Here at F1U!, we're not overly fond of the kid, but credit where credit is due... he won this race on merit, it wasn't handed to him at all.  On an afternoon when everybody had tire problems due to the heat, Verstappen didn't... and he brought Red Bull their first victory at their home track.

*NEXT UP: Stop #3 on the triple-header is Silverstone, this coming weekend.  See ya then! 

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