Nico Rosberg’s victory was a cold shower for many, despite the fact that Mercedes needed to work harder than at any other race this year. Some fans stated that Williams should have been the winners, but the team rushed into a far too rigid strategy. What were the factors behind Nico’s success? Did Frank’s team really stand a chance of actually winning?
The temperatures went above the expected forecast, whilst the circuit layout, with its short straights that impeded an optimal cooling made everything really marginal. The fight for supremacy became a grinding battle where small details paid great dividends.
Higher temperatures didn’t favour the supreme W05 package, that was bringing the supersoft tyres too slow in the optimal thermal working range. On top of that, Hamilton took the wrong decision, compromising his first flyer by braking way too late and going wide by 8 meters, when he only had to manage the advantage of three tenths that he had gained in the first two sectors. Lewis out-braking himself is not a common sight this year. On the other side, Rosberg wasn’t clinical, showing signs of hesitation, maybe deciding to minimise the risks of ruining his Q3 runs. Given all that, a tiny window of opportunity opened for Williams, on a track that suited their cars way better than any other one from the calendar. The unusual feature of generating heat into the tyres very fast and the reduced penalty in Austria for a severe lack of downforce were the main ingredients for the most acclaimed pole-position of the season. Digging even deeper, we see that the British engineers had chosen really short ratios for the lower gears (for better traction out of slow corners) and longer ratios for 6th to 8th gears, thus having the best top speed of the field. Massa’s spectacular driving style was only the top of the iceberg. But who would have guessed that all these will play against the FW36 on race day?
It was once again a question of brakes. And ERS, of course. Rob Smedley said for Autosport: “In Austria, almost everything depends on the amount of time when the ERS system works at full capacity.” On a 70-72 seconds lap, there is a major issue when ERS is used for more than 30% of the lap (the rumours in the paddock estimated about 25 seconds of actual usage). The short straights do not allow optimal cooling of the electronic components and the brakes, thus nesting a conservative approach. Mercedes went even further in being conservative, due to the issues encountered in Canada. The only aggressive approach from Mercedes was reducing the diameter of the rear brake disks by 10mm and their width by 3mm, moving to 4-piston calipers. Williams went the same way, reducing the amount of pistons from six to four. In theory, a 2014 racecar can even operate with no rear brake discs, but only if the hybrid system works perfectly. The opposite example comes from Ferrari, who chose the traditional way and had no troubles until now.
Due to the particular gear ratios, Massa had no issues in defending his position at the start of the race. Bottas was a bit slow off the line, but regrouped behind his teammate. Hamilton had a stellar getaway that brought him on Rosberg’s tail and everyone expected the battle between the Mercedes pair. The two drivers did not deliver the eagerly anticipated duel: they were driving bented arrows. The leading four-car train broke away from the pack, even though they were not pushing to the limit. After the Canadian experience, the engineers went for a more front-oriented brake balance (following Rosberg’s lesson) that made it difficult for the ersK to collect the maximum amount of energy, also stressing even harder the front brakes. Due to their different driving styles and the fact that Hamilton was able to cope with a higher instability of the rear-end compared to Nico, the British driver was running once again with more rearwards balance than his teammate, but not as extreme as the Montreal distribution. Adding the lower downforce setup, #44 Mercedes had a higher top speed, whilst #6 had an advantage in the twisty section (especially in turns 5 and 6).
“Mercedes was the faster car today” continued Smedley, quantifying the advantage of the Silver Arrows at about three tenths per lap. The Brackley squad had one more ace in their sleeve, besides their race pace: nursing tyres. The chronic lack of downforce showed by the Williams cars, combined with the aggressive gearbox ratios choice and the track temperature, created the climate for high tyre degradation that was impossible to overcome. Smedley didn’t know that their German rivals had chosen to go on a more conservative path than ever. This is why the voices arose, saying that the Williams strategy had lacked some courage, taking both Bottas and Massa out of the battle for the win. But was it really that way?
First, let’s hear what Toto Wolff had to say about it: “We made this (cautious approach n.r.) today, in order to be sure that we stay in the designated operating window. We played safe, because the lap is short here, because the brakes were hot, because it was hot today and because we suffered a traumatic Montreal race”. The backside? “When you choose to go for the conservative way, more drivers will hunt you down and be a lot closer to you than usual.” By “more drivers” Wolff meant Massa and Bottas.
The first key moment: Rosberg pits at the end of lap 11, fitting a new set of soft tyres. Total pit time: 21”474. Out-lap: 1’30”933. Almost „schumacheresque”. Williams choses not to risk bringing in Massa or Bottas next time around, taking into consideration the psychological factor as well: the Austrian GP was the best opportunity for Sir Frank’s team to step onto the podium since Spain 2012. The Mercedes masterminds knew that their rivals will not take excessive risks, by going on the average and safer path. Williams did just that, as they started the race with third place on their minds: a pragmatic, yet not that bright approach.
The reason behind the Williams choice was the high rear tyre degradation. By pitting in response, they probably would have needed a supplementary stop at the end of the race. As Rob Smedley states: “We couldn’t have made the Mercedes strategy work. If we had pitted on lap 11 in reaction to Rosberg, we would have destroyed our tyres in the end, making a fool out of ourselves when other cars would have easily went past us.”
Two laps later than Rosberg, it’s time for Hamilton to pit, losing nine tenths in the process, just by misjudging the exact place to stop the car. Out-lap: 1’31”850 and Nico stays ahead of him. Massa pits for new tyres on lap 14, but makes a slight mistake while rejoining the track, being easily overtaken by Hamilton. His Finnish teammate, will change tyres one lap later (setting a new record for Williams with just 2,1s stationary), is being warned about the place where Felipe had lost a position. Valtteri brakes late in the same turn, and a shorter second gear helps his exit. Williams lost the lead, but still had the upper hand on Lewis, an indirect advantage for Rosberg.
At this particular moment, Perez was leading the race, albeit on the alternative one-stopping strategy that took the Mexican out of contention for the win.
Once Perez was out of the picture with fading tyres by lap 26, everyone expected Rosberg to rapidly build a gap to Bottas, but things were not going in that directions. On top of having to nurse his brakes, the championship leader had one more trouble, his old issue with fuel consumption. He chooses to keep on running in conservation mode until the fuel usage comes back to normal, waiting for the tyre degradation to hinder Williams once again. His aggressive brake setup almost caught him on lap 30, when he misses the breakingpoint for turn one, but his sleek reaction saved him.
The second round of pitstops will be key to the final result, as Hamilton comes in first on lap 39 to undercut Bottas, much to everyone’s surprise. The stop is far from great, but a respectable out lap of 1’30”875 and a first flyer of 1’12”217 (fastest lap of the race at that point) ensure a favourable position for the Brit. Massa, renowned for the extra pressure on the rears, was already out of the tussle by running slower than the leading trio. That left only Mika Hakkinen’s successor in the mix. Again, small details made for great gains, as Williams elected to keep the Finn out for two more laps, with traffic ahead (Bianchi’s Marussia) causing the loss of 1,5 seconds. A slow pitstop of 3,4s sealed the second place for Hamilton. Rosberg, on the other hand, pitted on lap 40 and had a better out lap than everyone else, thus keeping the lead of the race. Should they have called Valtteri in immediately after Hamilton? That would have extended his final stint to 31 laps, with a lighter car. His previous stint on soft was 26 laps long, with no signs of the severe wear present on the sister car. Again, it was marginal, but the amount of time lost behind Bianchi was equally important. It may have ensured a more lively battle. Pitting ahead of Rosberg? It would have been too risky and futile. “We came here thinking about the 27 points up for grabs (for 3rd and 4th) and we want to get them”, explained Smedley. And with Massa enduring the high tyre wear, a 34-35 laps stint for Bottas would have been way too much for the team’s potential.
The strategy for Bottas could have been more aggressive, for sure, especially in the first stint. Second place was a real possibility for the Finn, but victory was out of reach, given also Rosberg’s reserves after his last stop, as the German cruised with just 30% of his ersK resources.
Focussing on the classic duel of the season, the first image of the public is a romantic, simple, yet not particularly wrong point of view: Hamilton is the faster driver, having also a fair share of bad luck, Nico being slower but luckier. One cannot argue that Hamilton had an advantage in terms of pure speed at most tracks this year, but that’s not enough to win a title. Nico proved to be a really tough nut to crack, better prepared on mental terms, with his hands-on and methodical approach, his consistency and superior racecraft. Some sort of Niki Lauda without the finesse. The Austrian battle was decided by some essential factors.
The mistake that Lewis made in qualifying took away a pole-position that he could have easily grabbed and turned into a race win, given the conservative running of the Mercedes pair. Nico went for more caution and got the better result. The setups were different again, with more horsepower on the straights for Lewis due to the rearwards brake balance and Nico going for the Canadian way, adding just a little bit of downforce that helped in the second sector. After his second stop, Hamilton was informed that his old tyres were in better shape than the ones taken off his teammate’s car, thus giving him a chance to attack at the end of the race. 30 laps of cat-and-mouse went on, a battle of nerves, waiting for the other one’s mistake, as they were both instructed not to use the full resources of the Power Unit. With 5 laps to go and just a second between them, both Nico and Lewis asked if they can use the overtake button. Green light from the pits, and with three laps to go the British driver is allowed to use some extra power by going to mode six. Since there are 12 modes, the full boost was still not available. Rosberg wins in Austria, despite a small mistake in the final lap, marking a possible sweet vengeance for his dad’s failure 32 years ago.
In the end, the winner was the one making fewer mistakes, as Hamilton’s qualifying blunder was crucially doubled by wrongfully stopping the car at the first pitstop, subsequently affecting the second stop as well. Rosberg also had his share of small offs – fewer and not decisive. Formula 1 is about maximising your opportunities and using your qualities the best you can, and Nico showed that for now, he is playing this game better than Lewis.
The rest of the pack
The most important performances in Austria were displayed by Fernando Alonso and Sergio Perez. Somehow, with his strange driving style and a bizarre ability of handling whatever he’s got, Alonso exceeded once again the limits of a nervy car that lacked top speed due to a different gearbox setting, having mediocre traction and a brutal power delivery. 5th place was the best possible result for any driver on the current grid, especially if we look at another pale showing of his high-calibre teammate Raikkonen, hampered again by issues with generating heat in the front tyres and brake-by-wire optimal usage.
As for Perez, he went for a different strategy, as expected, being on top of Hulkenberg in every race where tyre wear is crucial. Force India was lacking “ultimate pace”, but constant running on softs with a full tank and a non-dramatic move, this time on Magnussen, is a remarkable result for a driver that started as low as 15th place on the grid. We can only hope for such performances again from Sergio, as his highly-rated teammate ended more than 15 seconds behind him, with wasted tyres.
Even though Red Bull were not a force to be reckoned here, we can’t ignore that the Austrian track is the least-suited to their car, as higher downforce is a major nuisance in the first two sectors. Vettel, reaching an all-time low in terms of bad luck, showed good pace after the hybrid reset, posting better times than Ricciardo, but ultimately the Australian was the only one bringing the car to the chequered flag.
Ahead of him, Magnussen completely overshadowed Button with Jenson’s favorite weapons, in the Dane’s best outing since Australia.
Silverstone is next, where the power balance in the fight to catch Mercedes will once again be altered. I tend to believe that Austria was the best chance for Williams to change things around, until the caravan heads to Monza.