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Verstappen vs Ricciardo – A healthy rivalry (so far…)

In the week leading up to the Spanish Grand Prix, something changed that breathed a whole new life into the 2016 F1 season. Kvyat was ruthlessly pulled out of the Red Bull team and demoted to Toro Rosso, while the 18 year-old prodigy, Max Verstappen, was promoted in his place.

Suddenly, we were provided with a battle that most of us thought we would not see until 2017 at the earliest. Would Ricciardo, the driver who humbled a 4 time world champion, also provide the same service to one of the most highly rated youth talents that we’ve seen in the history of F1? Or would Verstappen, continue the trend in the Red Bull driver program, of knocking the incumbent number one driver off their pedestal?

Personally I sided with Daniel Ricciardo. He was peerless in qualifying, he had the home advantage and nearly a decade more experience in single-seater racing. Even if Verstappen could eventually overcome Ricciardo, it wouldn’t be in 2016.

The Flying Dutchman’s maiden voyage

So imagine my surprise when Verstappen became the youngest ever race winner in his debut for a new F1 team. Admittedly, the opportunity for Ricciardo to win the race was squandered when his strategy was compromised by Ferrari’s undercut, but Verstappen showed confidence and maturity by preserving his tyres and holding off Kimi Raikkonnen until the end of the race. More importantly, his race pace looked very competitive and it appeared that Ricciardo could have been holding him up before the first round of pit stops.
I remember after Verstappen’s victory, seeing an interview with Ricciardo who had been abandoned by his team while they cheered at the podium ceremony. He was dejected and angry (or at least as angry as you will see him) about being put on the sub optimal strategy. He must have been questioning Red Bull’s commitment to him as a driver at this point, all too aware of how another Australian driver had fared in a similar situation.

Ricciardo’s comeback

Fortunately for Ricciardo, Monaco was only a week away, and he set the track alight in qualifying. Providing the first pole position ever for the Red Bull team in the V6 turbo era. Not only was his pole position spectacular, but also his Q2 performance, where he intelligently put in a fast lap on ultra soft tyres, but managed an even faster lap on the super softs. Giving him a tactical advantage on race day. In contrast, Verstappen went out in Q1 when he clipped the wall and went into the barrier.

There was no better way for Ricciardo to bounce back, and if it wasn’t for an uncharacteristic mistake from the Red Bull pit wall, he would have had pocketed Red Bull’s 2nd win in as many weekends. This mistake turned what should have been jubilation, into two extremely difficult weekends for Ricciardo to deal with.

Verstappen seals the deal

The following races in Montreal, Baku and Spielberg seemed to reveal a pattern. Ricciardo was outperforming Verstappen in qualification, but a combination of Verstappen’s race pace and Ricciardo’s poor starts meant that Verstappen had a better Sunday. Although he finished behind Ricciardo in Baku, he had also started a lot further back on the grid. The implication was that Verstappen was faster over a race distance.
At Silverstone, Ricciardo was out qualified by his team-mate for the first time in 2016. It seemed that now Verstappen could out qualify Ricciardo, then there may be no saving grace left for the Australian and Verstappen could gain defacto number one status by the end of the year. However, in hindsight, it appears Ricciardo was seeking to improve his race pace over a weekend and probably had a different approach to qualifying as a result.

Ricciardo regains form

In Hungary and Germany, Ricciardo managed to out qualify and out race Verstappen for the first time since Monaco. Although it must be said that Verstappen did co-operate in Hockenheim to allow Ricciardo past. Possibly this was down to the groundwork laid down in Silverstone, or perhaps it was a shift in Ricciardo’s form and mentality. Either way, the fight is back on for the 2nd half of this season.

Whoever wins, Red Bull does too

The biggest benefactor of this fight apart from the fans is Red Bull. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that Red Bull have out performed Ferrari since Max Verstappen joined their ranks. I believe that if Kvyat had raced in Spain, he would not have been following closely behind Ricciardo as Verstappen did. The fact that Ferrari had to deal with two competitive Red Bull’s meant that splitting the strategies couldn’t gain them track position over both cars. It is also important to remember the roar of delight Ricciardo let out on the radio after he out qualified Verstappen by four tenths on the Catalunya circuit. I don’t recall Ricciardo being so animated when fighting Kvyat and I believe it’s because Ricciardo wasn’t being challenged. Ricciardo needed to push and take the extra risk because Verstappen was forcing his hand.

Verstappen’s performances on race day also led to Ricciardo questioning his setup, something that probably wouldn’t have happened had he continued to routinely beat Kvyat for most race weekends. And I’m sure Verstappen’s side of the garage are looking at Ricciardo’s data to get the most out of qualifying. Although the Renault engine’s upgrade and Red Bull’s development is a big part of Red Bull’s recent resurgence; it has almost certainly been aided by the competition between these two stellar drivers as they push each other forward to the front of the grid.

Meanwhile, Ferrari’s pairing leaves Vettel relatively unchallenged and left with very little inspiration on setup changes that he could explore within the current package. I think this is hurting Ferrari, along with their other misfortunes; including the loss of one of their key personnel, James Allison.

Lastly, Red Bull have managed to extract a team order from the previously rebellious teenager, who infamously refused the same request when Toro Rosso had asked him to move aside for Carlos Sainz. Perhaps it’s a sign that Verstappen is happy to be within a top team and is confident that his credentials are already well established. Or perhaps Red Bull have more political clout than their Italian based counterparts. Either way, if Red Bull continue to persuade both Ricciardo and Verstappen to play the team game, then I will agree with Christian Horner when he said that these two could provide the best ever driver line up in F1. But I imagine that will all come crumbling down if that Red Bull car starts to compete for race wins and perhaps even a World Driver’s Championship next season. Bring it on.

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Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel – The honeymoon is over

In 2015, Sebastian Vettel had a glorious year with a team that appeared to have been reborn from the ashes of despair. He was on the podium 13 times out of 19 races, earned the only non Mercedes pole of the season and finished on the top step three times. Until his retirement in the Mexican Grand Prix, it even looked as if he could finish in the championship standings above Rosberg.

This year is in stark contrast. Whilst he still has a fairly respectable 5 podiums in 12 races, he’s failed to finish two races, he couldn’t even start one other, he’s had three grid penalties for changing his gearbox and the Ferrari team has slipped down the World Constructor’s Championship standings behind Red Bull. Lets not forget that Kimi Raikkonen, his team mate who he comprehensively beat last year, is outscoring him. The happy go lucky driver of 2015 who cried with joy when he earned his first victory in the prancing horse is, understandably, starting to frown.

2015 raised expectations too high

When Vettel left Red Bull to join Ferrari, he knew that Ferrari were in the midst of rebuilding themselves.With four championships under his belt at then only twenty-seven years old, Sebastian Vettel could afford the luxury of being patient and help build a team and return them back to winning ways a few years down the line. No doubt hoping to recreate what his hero and mentor, Michael Schumacher, accomplished during his years with the Maranello based outfit.

In the months before the season began, Ferrari had played down expectations, explaining that they were in a phase of rebuilding and they even apologised in advance to both Ferrari drivers for the car they would drive heading into the season. If Vettel and Ferrari knew that the car was going to improve by the extent that it did, they hid it well. They were bracing themselves for a difficult season.

But when Vettel tasted the champagne at the top step in Malaysia after soundly beating both Mercedes in a fair fight in just his second race, he sensed the potential for the team to do much more. Suddenly, the rebuilding job that initially looked set to take several seasons was now looking like it was almost complete after just a short winter. The Ferrari engine was near to a match to the Mercedes and there was a raft of new development pieces scheduled to arrive for their race in Barcelona. Even when Mercedes eventually took both titles, there was a lot of optimism around Ferrari’s 2016 title challenge.

If Ferrari had a more modest improvement in 2015, and improved incrementally to their current performance today, then finishing behind one or both of the Red Bulls would sting a little less. But after last year, Vettel had got used to leaving his old team in his wake.

Ferrari is standing still

If you’re not moving forwards, you’re going backwards, a truism that is often repeated in Formula 1. Whilst other teams appear to be closing their own gap to Mercedes, Ferrari’s gap remains stubbornly stable. Meanwhile the Ferrari boss, Sergio Marchionne,  is demanding wins and is reorganising the team. He has appointed Mattia Binotto, previously head of the engine department, to replace James Allison as Technical Director and hopes to change its structure to something similar to McLaren’s. It is hard to know if this was initiated by the departure of the gifted engineer due to the untimely and tragic loss of his wife, or if Ferrari themselves decided they needed to change things around yet again. Either way, Vettel’s plans to be winning championships again may have put on ice for a season or two.

Vettel is used to winning

Vettel’s success in F1 began so early and persisted for so long that his patience with Ferrari is being tested. So far, he is still very much the team player and still seems committed to the job in hand. But this was the man that revelled in racking up the fastest laps, pole positions and wins. In the last 12 months he saw Lewis Hamilton surpass his race win and pole position tally. This year he has watched Max Verstappen steal a number of his records including youngest race winner. No F1 driver likes to lose, but Sebastian Vettel isn’t used to not winning. He has only two seasons in F1 where he has failed to win a race, his debut season in 2007 and his last season with Red Bull, in 2014. In the latter instance, he changed teams the following year.

Grounds for divorce?

Even though the situation looks dire right now, Vettel won’t be leaving in the immediate future. His current contract doesn’t expire until after 2017 and there are still good reasons to be optimistic for next season. Ferrari’s engine is excellent whereas their chassis tends to be their weak point. And whilst the engine regulations remain the same, the rules on aerodynamics are set for a massive shake up. There’s still a reasonable chance that Ferrari will build a title contender. Even if Vettel did want to leave prematurely, where would he go? Red Bull and Mercedes are spoken for and McLaren already have too many drivers as they ponder where to put their new protégé, Stoffel Vandoorne.

Vettel would be wiser to see how the momentum shifts next season before planning any hasty departures. But if Ferrari fail to deliver next year, he may want to start looking elsewhere. I would keep one eye open on Renault who have recently increased investment. Their engine upgrade in Monaco shows promise and they may be making attempts to re-sign James Allison, with a view of winning races and challenging for the title in 2018/2019. Renault could also mutually benefit by having a man of Vettel’s experience and talents around to maximise any opportunity should it arise.

Stay for the kids

Even if Ferrari have a disastrous season next year, Vettel’s sentimental attachment to the Scuderia might be enough to keep him there long term. And with rumours of a new 3 year contract, perhaps it’s more important for him to win with Ferrari, rather than to win at all costs. Unlike Fernando Alonso, who is 35 and still in search for his elusive 3rd title, Vettel can afford to wait.

 

Mercedes – When will the fairy tale end?

In 2014, we saw the Mercedes release the W05 upon us. Its V6 turbo power unit smashed the competition and its chassis was a whirlwind of downforce. One of the greatest displays of superiority came in Bahrain 2014, after the safety car came into the pits. Normally the Mercedes cars ran their engine conservatively so as to preserve their longevity, but due to the stiff competition between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, combined with an unauthorised use of the maximum engine modes, the Silver Arrows catapulted themselves ahead of the field in just a few corners. They were 7 seconds ahead of the next nearest car after just two laps.

Today the Mercedes advantage is still large but is mostly held in their qualifying performance rather than their race pace. Gone are the days that a Mercedes powered car was faster on the straight than a Renault or Ferrari with DRS. But the Mercedes advantage in qualifying still exceeds the advantage that Sebastian Vettel had with Red Bull in 2013, largely regarded as their most dominant season.

Why can nobody reel in Mercedes?

The V6 turbo era is still relatively young as we reach the summer break of its third season. There are still no signs that we have hit a development ceiling. A large part of this is that the difference in performance between engines is much bigger than the V8 era. The time taken to bring an engine upgrade to the race track is much longer than any aerodynamic update. The token system, originally intended to limit costs, has also made engine suppliers think long and hard about which upgrades to bring to the engine. Not only does this limit the number of engine upgrades but also causes delays, as the teams carefully deliberate on whether or not they wish to commit to a certain development path. In addition, these engines are complicated and are using a lot of new technology that hasn’t matured yet.

This leaves the most likely challengers with a severe handicap. McLaren’s ambitious partnership with Honda has struggled to play catch up since starting a year late, whereas Renault has struggled since the start and is only now showing signs that they can get back on par with the upgrade initially introduced in Monaco. This deficit could perhaps be overcome by exploiting other weaknesses in the Mercedes package but it’s so well rounded, with their comprehensive strategy and first class technical staff, that this seems like a lost cause.

Ferrari’s false dawn

The exception to this is Ferrari. We should always take horsepower numbers quoted for each engine with a pinch of salt, but the consensus is that Ferrari’s power unit is close or even on par with Mercedes. This certainly seems to be the case as the gap from the pole sitter to the next Ferrari tends to shrink when the F1 circus arrives at a power hungry track such as Montreal. But after a season full of good feeling and optimism in 2015, they seem to be exhibiting old behaviours. Their sluggish in season development and internal politics are not helping Ferrari’s bid to steal the championship, or even a win from Mercedes. Now they have announced they will be focusing on the 2017 car, it seems any last shred of hope that Ferrari would threaten again this year has been consigned to the dustbin.

Hope on the horizon

But all is not lost, the 2017 sees a large overhaul in the aerodynamic regulation. Lower and wider rear wings with wider tyres in a bid to push the cars back to breaking track records.

Normally the FIA like to intervene and regulate the leading team’s advantage away. This has been difficult to do with Mercedes as there is no one device that explains their speed. That doesn’t mean the FIA haven’t tried, they banned FRIC, enforced more manual starting procedures and got stricter on tyre pressures. But Mercedes either were relatively unaffected by the changes, or were able to circumvent them reasonably quickly.

However, the more observant fans will have noticed that formula 1’s CEO and puppet master, Bernie Ecclestone, performed a deft sleight of hand by introducing a bizarre and massively unpopular qualifying system, only to revoke it two races later. When we turned around, we found that the engine token system had magically disappeared for 2017 and beyond. It is a mystery to me how he managed it given how fiercely Mercedes fought to keep the token system previously, although his continued threats to bring in an independent customer engine last year did not go unnoticed.

Victims of their own success

Perhaps it was the growing feeling of frustration that drivers, teams and fans were harboring towards Mercedes that caused them to relent. The problem with winning everything is that it turns people against you. As a result we have seen executive director of Mercedes, Toto Wolff, gush with generous praise for his rivals. The Mercedes rhetoric frequently insisted that Ferrari were a real threat and the competition was close. And when they could no longer sustain this charade, Toto Wolff went as far as to lament that Ferrari were not competing with them and most recently saying that Ferrari were even failing Mercedes’ expectations.

Will Mercedes falter in 2017?

The lack of token restrictions combined with new aerodynamic regulations creates a new roll of the dice for the teams. But we shouldn’t forget that many of the people who created the success of Mercedes in 2014 are still there today, with one large exception, Ross Brawn. Hopefully, Red Bull’s resurgence will continue into 2017, with the helping hand of one of the most valuable assets in the paddock, Adrian Newey. And whilst Ferrari look to be in bad shape, an early commitment to 2017 might give them the time and space they need to finally produce the title winning car they’ve promised us for so long.

But no big teams seems to be throwing themselves heart and soul at these new 2017 regulations in the same way Mercedes did for 2014. Renault’s plan is much longer term, McLaren Honda are still fighting for credibility in their current season and Red Bull must be tempted to steal another race win before the end of 2016. This may be because the regulations are forming slowly, with important decisions such as the halo device being left to the last minute.

There are a lot of unknowns when it comes to predicting just how teams are splitting resources between the current season and the next, but for those who think the end is near for Mercedes’ domination, I would caution that it is by no means guaranteed.

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