The Ferrari Owners’ Club
of Great Britain

GRAND PRIX: Sakhir: A Drama in the Desert

09-12-2020

Report by Tony Cotton

There’s a style of TV production where the same narrative is told from a number of different characters’ view, with each playing the hero for an episode. If Formula One wished to adopt that format for a drama about the sport, basing it on Sakhir would give plenty of material, with just the one drawback: nobody would believe the story as it has too many twists and turns. As the usual timeline report would get too complicated I have attempted to look at the stories of the  principal players over the weekend.

Grosjean

Winston told the story of Roman Grosjean’s extraordinary escape last week. Grosjean subsequently made a statement that touched many. He explained how he came to terms with facing death when he hit an obstacle while trying to extricate himself from the fire. But then he thought of his children and family and realised that like his hero Niki Lauda he had a chance of escape, so he tried again and found the gap, removing his boot by sheer force in the process. I found the joy in his voice as he told the story very moving, and like most I am glad that he will not be trying to make a comeback for the Abu Dhabi race. Whilst never a great fan of Grosjean’s driving, I must say he comes over as a truly likeable family man, and may he have a long, happy and safe retirement from F1 with the family he so clearly loves.

Ferrari

At least Formula 2 brought good news for Ferrari as Academy drivers Mick Schumacher and Callum Illott secured first and second in the F2 championship, with Robert Schwarzman fourth. Formula One, however, gave less cause for celebration.

The track itself was less problematic due to tyre wear. Inaki Ruedda said “The Outer Track, while being much shorter, allows the tyres more time to ‘breathe’ and so they suffer less from overheating. That means much lower degradation per kilometre than the previous weekend, which adds to less degradation from the shorter lap, and fewer less stops in the race.”

Both drivers reached Q2, but then tried to reach Q3 on mediums, which was optimistic. By the time they had changed to softs, only Charles managed it. He did a single run on his one new set of softs and timed it well to avoid traffic. It was a near perfect run, probably the qualifying run of the day, in a car not ideally suited to such a fast track, effectively last week’s without the infield. (Just out of interest, has there ever been a good infield section in either GP or club racing?). Fourth, and only a quarter of a second behind the eventual pole left Charles looking very satisfied, and too sensible to waste time trying again. Seb started 13th “with the advantage of being able to choose his tyres”.

Sadly, it came to nothing in the race. Dropping a place at the start, Charles went into the first corner next to, but behind, Verstappen. Unfortunately he went to go on the inside of Perez, a space soon to be occupied by the Mexican who braked a bit earlier than Charles expected. Contact ensued on the sandy track, Charles front corner was damaged and Checo went round to the pits for new tyres and a quick MOT. The melee caused Verstappen to take to the run off area, which unfortunately was as dusty as the track and gave no grip so he ended in the barriers, joined milliseconds later by Charles. The problems compounded after the race with a 3 place grid penalty for Abu Dhabi.

Seb made the most of the chaos to move up from 13th to ninth place, but he was soon overtaken by Norris, Albon and a recovering Perez, which dropped him out of the points zone. For the entire race, he fought around tenth to twelfth position eventually finishing in that place. And if this was a TV series the Ferrari episode would freeze as Seb looked at the podium and thought about Racing Point as his destination for 2021.

Racing Point (part 1)

Perez started 5th, behind Charles, but being on the good side of the track had an advantage, until the first corner incident. Fortunately for him there was no apparent damage and he rejoined in last place on fresh mediums which he flat spotted badly at the restart. Despite this he came doggedly through the field to third before his pit stop and past his team-mate by lap 57, behind a hitherto impregnable Mercedes duo who were in a different race, over 30 seconds ahead. Stroll had a mediocre qualification in 10th, but moved to 6th on lap 1, and was 3rd by lap 29. Pit stops and a Perez on top form demoted him to 5th by lap 62.

Meanwhile, on lap 60 Jack Aitken, at 25 an almost geriatric F2 driver subbing for juvenile George Russell, had a lucky spin which removed the front wing with no other damage. The plane was left in the middle of the track, so there was a virtual and then real safety car. We will return to the scene, because in my imagined Netflix series we now have a flashback to 6 days earlier….

Mercedes

Lewis Hamilton tested positive for Coronavirus on Monday. Mercedes chose not to use their nominated reserve Stoffel Vandoorne and instead called in George Russell. In FP1, he was faster than Bottas and was ahead on the FP2 timesheets. When it came to the Q3 crunch, he could “only”manage 26/1000th behind Valteri Bottas and 30/1000th ahead of Verstappen. Whether that side of the track gave him an advantage or disadvantage in track terms depends on who you listen to, but he still beat Bottas away at the start, so was free from the turn one carnage. Many had suggested that the start would be a problem for him; the impression he gave over the weekend is that he eliminates  problems with hard work if talent isn’t enough.

For 62 laps Russell led Bottas in first and second. Even when changing tyres they stayed well ahead of the field. With a lead of  30+ seconds over Perez in third, it looked to be set for a normal Mercedes-domination race, albeit with the young Englishman making a huge impact with his speed as good as Hamilton, his on track behaviour as good as Hamilton and his start better than Hamilton. A maiden win with a new team looked a certainty but then Mercedes, according to Toto Wollf  in an unbleeped post race interview, “fouled up”. Under the safety car for Aitken’s spin they tried to be very clever – needlessly so in the view of many – by stacking the cars at the stop. Due to a misheard radio message the wrong tyres were brought out and fitted to Russell’s car. Their radio has an automatic priority system, which decided that telling people which tyres were needed and where wasn’t a priority. One assumes that it’s due to the lack of time that there isn’t a read-back of instructions for confirmation.

When Bottas moved up to be changed there was some delay, which must have been when the error was noticed. As flames came from the hot brakes, the old hards went back on and that was the end of Bottas; as the other teams changed to softer and newer tyres he was just slow and faded away. He returned to the race in 4th and gradually slipped to 8th at the flag.

Russell meanwhile was on stolen rubber so that had to be remedied within 3 laps. The stop dropped him to 5th but by lap 78 a combination of adrenalin, fresh tyres and a superior car put him behind Perez for second, at which point the sensors showed that he had a slow puncture. The explanation is that the needed aggression put the tyres over the kerbs more than is good for them. The change put him to 14th, ahead only of Magnussen, Aitken and Fittipaldi. That he finished 9th behind Bottas in 8th says much for his overtaking skills, DRS or not, and his dogged determination. His scream when leaving the pitlane after being called back in scored points for personality as well.

Racing Point (Part 2)

We left Perez on lap 62, 3rd, ahead of Ocon and Stroll. As the self-destruction of the Mercedes organisational reputation took place, they all moved up 2 places, disturbed only when Russell came through to second. Would Perez have held first for 9 laps? He said “I think we had enough pace in hand to hold George off – our simulation showed that you needed to be significantly faster to get by. Luck or not, we had a tremendous race today and we won on merit.” After last week’s engine failure deprived him of a 3rd, the pit crew seemed from the TV to be holding their breath for the last 10 laps. Everybody was delighted for Checo, even our own Mattia Binotto sending his congratulations. The icing on the cake for RP was a third for Stroll. Whilst many (this scribbler included) have characterised Perez as “mercurial” and Stroll as “daddy’s boy”, RP’s drivers gave an exemplary performance, and the win was thoroughly deserved.

Others

Ocon made no noticeable mistakes and cried as he crossed the line for his first podium. On the whole, this was probably the most joyous podium I’ve seen for many years. Ocon finished 2 places ahead of team-mate Ricciardo and just ahead of Sainz who was 4th. Albon was 6th, unable to capitalise on a day when the supposed second best car should have been at least on the podium. The fact is, without Verstappen the RB is a midfield car. It was less than a second ahead of Kyvat’s Alpha Tauri (7th); case proven I think. With Mercs 8 and 9, Lando Norris was a somewhat crestfallen 10th.

Coda

The track was singularly unpromising. One friend suggested that if Sakhir was suitable, Mallory Park might now bid for a Grand Prix. Yet the racing was excellent; it was certainly the best race of this year, which has had some good ones, and (apart from the absence of Ferrari results) one of the best for a long time.

We once again had proof that F1 is a team sport. Mercedes, until the foul up, treated Russell in the same way they would have treated Hamilton, and the results came. When they messed up, they proved that that their team are fallible and human. My guess is that they will learn, and that particular mistake will never happen again. So do Mercedes need Hamilton at a rumoured £40M+ a year? Winston texted me to suggest Russell would do it for just above minimum wage and a supply of burgers. Bluntly, in just over 90 minutes, Russell showed that Hamilton is yesterday’s news.

Last year, in their first F1 races, Russell, Albon and Norris all impressed. It may have been that the pressures are different when parachuting in at the year end, but Aitken and Fittipaldi seemed to do little more than a solid job, which was a shame. No ‘star is born’ story at the back of the grid.

A question on everybody’s lips was “Does Perez deserve to be left without a drive?” and the answer is no. Should he replace Albon? For Perez sake, I hope so. It would probably also be the best option for Albon’s reputation as I think Perez would then confirm that the RedBull is okay as a mid-fielder, but it’s no Racing Point. Not a sentence I expected to type a year ago.

Closer to home, does Sainz look a good choice for Ferrari? Probably. Will Seb enjoy Racing Point? Probably. Will Racing Point enjoy Seb? Let me come back to you on that one.

And as Ferrari fans, please can this particular Netflix drama be replaced in the schedule with one that has happy endings for us? I wish I had an answer to that one.