Posted on November 22, 2022.
Report by Tony Cotton.
In the winter of 1985/86 the darling of the British press was Derek Warwick, and he seemed to be heading for a drive at Lotus. The cruel, evil Ayrton Senna blocked him because he knew they were incapable of running two number one cars. This was before social media when an opinion generally needed a stamp to be expressed, and a lot of stamps were sold to British F1 fans. Senna was self obsessed, not a team player. Apparently it was appalling.
Moving on a few years, in Mark Webber’s book “Aussie Grit” he’s not wholly positive about Vettel, whose approach at RedBull was to maximise his own chances at all times. Remember “Multi 21”? And this is Vettel who this week said “I always try to treat people with respect and be nice. If that’s what people remember about me then that will make me happy.”
The fact is that for a racing driver to become world champion “ruthless” and “selfish” are helpful attributes. I prefer and greatly admire the very different “Essere Ferrari” philosophy, but it has yet to produce a world champion.
After Ocon and Alonso collided in the Sao Paulo sprint race, potentially allowing McLaren to overhaul them for 4th in the championship with huge financial consequences, Alpine team principal and chief anagram Otmar Szafnauer said “If they had any other job in the company, and they did something like that, they would be let go for gross misconduct.” Damon Hill – arguably a World Champion less egotistical than most – countered that it was part of a racing driver’s job to have a “me,me,me” attitude.
So why should anybody have been surprised at what happened when at the end of the Sao Paulo race, Verstappen was asked to hand 6th back to Checo? When I heard that on the radio, I laughed. Clearly impossible. He’s Verstappen. Hasn’t anybody been watching him for the last few years? Everybody seems to have got angry. Perez said “this shows who he really is”. The F1 social media commenters slammed Max for, well, being Max really. He in turn got angry for being asked and for being disrespected by, well, everybody. RedBull even got sanctimonious on their website, probably at Max’s insistence, and said that the social media comments were really nasty and if they didn’t stop they were going to cry until they were sick.
F1 was famously described by Ron Dennis in 1991 as “The Piranha Club”; it hasn’t changed. Selfishness is a currency in the F1 paddock, and any team principal who expects any different is possibly in the wrong business.
A greasy track and rain at the end of Q2 meant that there was some unpredictability in the order of the candidates for Q3, even if the rejects were generally in accordance with the form book, a good example being Schumacher, last in his Haas. Magnussen had finessed his car into Q3, but the expectations were such that the TV coverage didn’t bother with his lap. However, he put in a decent one before the rain came. Ferrari chose inters for Leclerc, and it didn’t work; not only was his lap painfully slow but he held up Perez. The wrong tyre choice has been cited as another Ferrari strategy error, but in the circumstances I would defend it as a brave call which could have, but didn’t, work out. As it happened, RedBull would make a similar clever call which destroyed their chances.
As the teams got ready for another quali run, Russell understeered off through the gravel at the deceptively tricky turn 3. He went through it safely then stylishly power-flicked the car round onto the escape road, overdid it, and beached it back in the gravel. A red flag followed by rain meant that the sprint race grid order was unusual – Magnussen, Verstappen, Russell, Norris, Sainz, Ocon, Alonso, Hamilton, Perez and Leclerc. Both Carlos and Charles said that they hoped to make up places in the Sprint race, but of course, 18 other drivers had the same ingenious idea.
Returning to the theme of graciousness in the paddock, it’s interesting to look at the websites of the three leading teams to see how they dealt with Magnussen’s pole. Laurent Mekies said “Congratulations…. It’s a day they will never forget”. Carlos also sent best wishes. Mercedes congratulated them. From Red Bull – silence.
Magnussen on pole is a bit like an Ensign getting fastest lap (41 years ago in Brazil since you ask….) – a freak event but still fascinating. Commentators wondered if he would hold the lead to turn 1, yet he did so for 2 laps until passed by Verstappen. Possibly the pass would have been earlier had the Dutchman not been on mediums. However, Magnussen was soon overwhelmed and dropped to an eventual 8th.
The Alpines had the coming together referred to earlier, Alonso heading for the pits for repairs while Ocon continued. Alonso would rise from dead last to 15th, and there was a distinct message as he passed the tail enders: “Team player or not, I can still make this old shed move.”
By this time, Carlos was in 3rd, behind Verstappen and Russell and ahead of Hamilton. Verstappen kept the lead until lap 15 when the mediums proved to be the wrong choice, Russell powering past. Having controlled qualifying by crashing out, he now controlled the sprint race.
Carlos then attacked the limping champion, and there was some hard-but-fair-racing contact, Verstappen losing a front endplate, Carlos gaining a place. His last laps of the sprint were spent defending from Hamilton, the Mercedes looking, for the first time this year, worryingly like potential winners. George, Carlos and Lewis were 1,2,3, but Carlos was demoted 5 places due to an engine change.
Charles, starting from 10th, benefited from Fernando Alonso’s problems and then passed Ocon, Magnussen and Norris, to finish sixth (5th after Carlos’s demotion). It begs the question how far up he would have been had qualifying not been such a lottery. Verstappen was 4th (3rd), Perez 5th (4th), Norris 7th(6th) with Vettel and Gasly behind the aforesaid Magnussen.
Before the race, it all seemed quite open. RedBull were quick, and it was suggested by pundits that running mediums in the sprint gave them a better tyre choice in the race. It didn’t. Ferrari had been very quick, but were handicapped by Sainz’s engine change and Leclerc’s unlucky 10th in the “draw” for the sprint grid. As for Mercedes, it looked as though, at the race before the season end, they finally had the car they wanted in Bahrain, 8 months ago.
Both Ferrari drivers started on the medium tyre, getting away well but overtaken by Lando Norris who was on softs. Poor Kevin Magnussen, having had the high of Saturday’s pole, experienced the low of being knocked off the circuit by an overexcited Ricciardo, seemingly intent on burning his boats in F1 by being remembered for dodgy manoeuvres. This led to a safety car, after which Charles set off to attack Norris, who clipped the F1-75, sending it into a spin. It initially looked as though Charles was out as he appeared to go into the wall but in fact he saved it and pitted for a new front wing and a set of tyres, rejoining last instead of the 5th place that he had been fighting for, or even 3rd, where Lando ended by lap 7.
On lap 17, Carlos was fourth behind George Russell and Sergio Perez. He was on medium tyres which should have lasted longer than the softs of those around him, but the team spotted unusually high temperatures on the right rear brakes and it turned out to be caused by the same problem that had already affected Charles in Belgium, namely a visor tear-off caught in the brake cooling duct. Sainz therefore had to pit early, wiping out all his efforts up to that point as he dropped to 11th.
With Charles still in 15th, there was a lot of work for both of them to do, when either should easily have been fighting for 3rd. Charles pitted for new tyres on lap 22, having languished at the back. He took on new softs and several overtaking moves and a few rivals’ tyre stops later he was 9th by lap 35. Another new set on lap 44 dropped him to 14th, but the same process of overtakes and rival pit stops had him in 7th by lap 51, behind Bottas.
The F1 Gods of Fate then dealt justice for the earlier incident when Norris had to pull off with a power failure, requiring the safety car again. As Alonso pitted to change tyres to “tick off” the required mix, Charles moved up, and passed Bottas and then Perez for 4th, behind Carlos. Sainz had passed Stroll and Schumacher, and then leapfrogged to 4th as everybody pitted; effectively an undercut enforced by the brake issue. He then passed Perez who was suffering from RedBull’s misguided tyre strategy. 3rd and 4th was their finishing position and it was the best result possible in the circumstances due to the collision and brake delays.
First was taken by George Russell who drove away from pole and looked difficult to beat. Hamilton looked to be following him in a strong second until attacked by Verstappen, coming down the inside at turn 2 where there wasn’t really an inside to come down. Although Verstappen was given a 5 second penalty, in reality it was close racing on an old school circuit, and all the better for that. However, Hamilton dropped 6 places, and spent the next 18 laps making them back up, after which he too cruised to the finish for second. He’s obviously back on form (ie the car is back on form) because he has returned to arguing with the pit about tyres.
After Alonso’s sprint debacle he obviously still felt he had something to prove. A perverse (Alpine called it “bold”) three stop tyre strategy proved effective, and he dragged the Alpine up to 5th, demoting Perez to 6th. It’s a matter of opinion whether Verstappen then passed Perez on merit or on orders, but he seemed to have the better chance to steal the place back from Fernando. As it turned out, he couldn’t, at which point the strategists at RedBull realised that Perez wasn’t going to become number 2 in the points and overtake Charles without a bit of help. The fiasco that ensued has already been discussed, Verstappen and Perez finishing 6th and 7th, and Ocon, Bottas and Stroll completing the top 10.