Sunday, 12 October 2014

Thoughts on Sochi, On and Off Track

So there we have it, the first Grand Prix for 100 years in Russia has drawn to an inevitable close. Lewis Hamilton ambled off into the sunset to claim an easy victory which never looked in doubt, save for the first lap where Nico Rosberg briefly took the lead, and in the process claimed Mercedes’ first ever constructors championship (as a team).

Hats off to Nico Rosberg though. While he has divided opinion this season, you cannot fail to admire his drive this afternoon, lasting pretty much race distance on a single set of tyres. Admittedly the reason for doing this was largely down to his mistake on the first lap, and while his move against Lewis smacked of a man desperately trying to cling on in the world championship fight, he should be congratulated for recovering in the best way possible. While Rosberg’s finish further highlighted the dominance of the Mercedes team this season as he fought his way from the back of the field to claim second spot, and some might argue that you could put anyone in a Mercedes and they would put it on the podium, you only need to look at Ronny Deila’s reign at Celtic so far this season to know that in sport, from the outside what may look an odds on certainty is not always the case.

In a race which started with a bang and then burnt slowly afterwards, there was little on track action and it was definitely “one for the purists”. The safety car, widely predicted by many at the start of the race never came (given the circumstances perhaps thankfully), while a conservative choice of tyre from Pirelli meant that a single pit stop was all that was needed for most, leading to a largely uneventful afternoon for all concerned.

So what did we learn in Sochi this afternoon?

Mainly that on an even playing field and all things being equal, Mercedes are still a mile ahead of the rest. Not only in terms of the team, but also in terms of the engine with Mercedes powered cars easily claiming the top five spots.

Williams in my opinion have underperformed this season. With a good podium claimed by Valtteri Bottas, they confirmed that “on their day” they are the closest team in terms of pace to challenging Mercedes. Although they have stepped forward massively from the 2013 season, I can’t help but feel that they still have more potential than their car is showing, and should easily be sat in second spot in the constructors championship. This is to take nothing away from Daniel Ricciardo who has been on the most part nothing short of sensational this season in the Red Bull.

On the subject of Red Bull, it would seem that while Sebastian Vettel has benefited hugely from team orders over the last few years, when roles are reversed he is less than happy to play the team game. Whether Red Bull engineered a move to get Ricciardo past him in the pits, or whether it was just a stronger drive only the team will truly know, however post-race, I couldn’t help but feel Christian Horner’s statement that it was unlikely that Ricciardo could catch either Mercedes driver so team orders were not invoked, seemed a little weak. If Vettel was in Ricciardo’s position at that moment, and still in with a mathematical chance of winning the championship, I suspect that Ricciardo would have been told to move.

McLaren are finally finding their feet with Mercedes engines with a continued upturn in form, right at the time where their thoughts are turning to developing a car with new engine suppliers Honda. With strong performances from Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen, both of whom are fighting for their futures at the team, I hope it will not be a case of one step forward and two back for McLaren, with what will promise to be another difficult winter of testing and developing with a new engine supplier.  As I have stated in a previous post, I do think that in the long run, a return to Honda is best for the team though.

Kevin Magnussen capitalised on a good start to move up from 11th on the grid and was fortunate to benefit from a botched Ferrari pit stop for Fernando Alonso to claim fifth, and although a podium looked achievable for Jenson Button early on, fourth was a good result and realistically the best that he could have hoped for, unless one of the top three had suffered reliability problems.

Off the track, there is maybe a little more to be learned

Pirelli overestimated the levels of tyre wear, and the choice of soft and medium tyres was too conservative. Super softs are definitely required to liven up the race for next year.

The placement of  the DRS zones potentially needs looking at, although given the relatively spread out field, and the way the race unfolded it is hard to judge their position after just one race at the circuit.

The national anthem gathering at the start of the race looks to be a serious inconvenience for drivers and teams, and although it was understandable that this afternoon all teams wanted to show unified support for Jules Bianchi, I would like to see this new development dropped and allow teams and drivers alike to focus solely on the build up to the race, especially given the proximity to “lights out” of the anthem ceremony.

Fernando Alonso won’t be at a Mercedes powered team next season, which either means he’s backtracking and staying at Ferrari or more likely that he will be at McLaren. One interesting rumour that surfaced was a potential move to Lotus, his “stop gap” team it would potentially seem, although this was quickly quashed. It would actually make a lot of sense should he return to the Enstone based team and one he knows inside out. Especially when you consider their switch to Mercedes engines next season, with Alonso at the wheel they might just be thrown into the dark horse category for next year.

Lastly whatever spin Mercedes put on it, from the outside looking in the relationship between Hamilton and Rosberg does not look good. After the race and before the podium ceremony, the two could not have tried harder to ignore each other and even on the podium there seemed only a brief moment of recognition between them. While it would seem that Hamilton has the momentum and psychological edge over Nico Rosberg that will probably see him crowned world champion, I am sure that this is a story which will provide many more twists and turns before the season is done.

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