After a spectacular start to the British Grand Prix, Felipe Massa’s Williams jumped ahead of the two Mercedes cars on the front row of the grid. The Williams cars were faster in a straight line than the Mercedes pair, and they were holding their own. Here’s how they blew it through a series of questionable calls.
The start of the Formula One British Grand Prix was fantastic, with four cars battling for the lead. Massa’s Williams teammate Valtteri Bottas had a great start, too, jumping ahead of Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes for third position early on in the race.
Hamilton and Rosberg both had some wheel spin at the start, causing them both to lose positions to the Williams cars. Fortunately, that wasn’t nearly as bad as the melee further back in the grid, when the two Lotuses and the two McLarens collided with each other.
“It was like expensive ping pong between Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button,” said BBC commentator and retired driver David Coulthard.
The race was yellow-flagged for a bit, but Bottas made short work of passing Hamilton for second place on the restart. We had an unheard of Williams 1-2!
It was clear after a while, though, that Bottas had the faster car than his teammate. He was starting to catch up to Massa, and camping out right on Massa’s rear bumper.
This is where Williams’ great shot at upsetting Mercedes’ dominance started to crack. Could Bottas pass his teammate, or could he not? Conflicting radio messages made it sound like Bottas was to stay behind his slower teammate, despite Williams’ later insistences that there were no team orders and that Bottas was free to make a clean pass.
As the leader of the 1-2 pair, Massa wasn’t increasing the team’s gap on the Mercedes cars behind them at the rate that Bottas may have been able to had Bottas’ faster car been allowed out in front. The two Mercs were right on Bottas’ tail, driving hard to try and take their usual spot back in the front.
“We didn’t want [Bottas and Massa] to be fighting each other too hard,” explained Williams head of performance engineering Rob Smedley after the race. The team was clearly playing it safe. If both cars were out in front, the last thing they wanted was for Bottas to burn through his tires by pushing too hard to make the pass, or worse yet, to hit Massa.
Meanwhile, Bottas’ team radio made the situation as confusing as ever, with early messages telling him to resist the urge to pass, but others telling him to go for it, so long as it was clean.
“I’m going to overtake,” called in Bottas. “I can do it in the back straight.” His team radioed back, “It has to be a clean move and pull away when you are in front.”
Bottas was trying hard to force Massa into screwing up, hanging right on Massa’s tail. Massa showed his years of experience in keeping Bottas behind him, but didn’t move the pair any further from the Mercedes cars behind them.
At one point in the teammates’ battle, Massa even threw a helmet visor tear-off back towards his teammate on a straight, who was right on Massa’s rear. It likely had no malicious intent beyond “get me a clean tear-off,” but the BBC commentary team picked up on it to ooh and aah at the close racing.
This was a really cracking fight!
Williams chief technical officer Pat Symonds told BBC Sport said that this exciting bit of racing was the point.
“No we are not going to say let him through, we will allow them to race, it is the Williams way. It gets the heart beating but it is the way we choose to do it,” explained Symonds.
Symonds also explained that the conflicting calls not to pass Massa at the beginning were while the team sorted out their strategy.
“We told them not to race while we sorted out how we thought Mercedes reacted to the race position,” said Symonds to BBC Sport. “We’ll see what happens now. We have the pace at the moment, it is a difficult place to overtake, it will all happen around the pitstops.”
Unfortunately, that was not made clear to Bottas when Bottas had the best opportunities to pass. Once Bottas was finally clearly allowed to overtake, he complained to his team that it was too late.
Meanwhile, Mercedes tried to fake out Williams by mulling around in their pit box like they were about to bring a car in for tires, but it didn’t provoke a response. Isn’t this against the rules? Either way, it didn’t work.
“I think coming out in the pitlane is against the rules if it is not a genuine call,” Symonds told BBC Sport. “We didn’t fall for that one.”
Behind the leading four, both Ferraris stopped early, with Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen chasing an impressive fifth place position by Nico Hülkenberg in his Force India. Räikkönen jumped ahead of Hülkenberg after his pit stop to claim fifth place, forcing Hülkenberg into sixth.
Up at the front, Hamilton undercut Bottas when he pitted for tires to claim second place. Mercedes pulled off a quick 2.4 second stop, helping Hamilton jump ahead in the pits.
Massa and Rosberg stopped next, on the same lap. Massa had a longer 3.8 second stop, which didn’t help. Rosberg was released alongside Massa, but had to cede the lead to the Williams at the end of the pit lane.
Out on track, Hamilton passed both pitted cars to claim the lead.
Bottas finally stopped next, but failed to get a jump ahead of Hamilton. He threaded in behind Massa instead, almost losing the third place spot to Rosberg in the process. It’s chaos! It’s the wonderful chaos that’s been missing for most of the season.
When all the pitlane confusion is said and done, it was Hamilton out in front, Massa in second, Bottas in third and Rosberg in fourth.
Williams reiterated, “This is a straight fight to the end.” to both drivers on the team radio. It may not have been clear to Bottas, but there were no team orders. Race it out, and don’t let up on the Mercs.
Finally, rain started to creep into the area. The race started under bright, sunny conditions, but reports of drizzle in nearby Oxford start to surface as the race continued.
Hamilton was putting time on Massa, jumping a full four seconds ahead. Lewis asked his team if he needs to increase his gap, but his team tells him he must get to the end, plus there’s a “threat of rain in thirty minutes.”
At this point, everyone out in front was on the hard dry weather tire: a slick that has no grooves for any rain to go.
Bottas’s tires were falling off, making it harder for him to keep up with Massa. Rosberg was right on his tail, but an off-track retirement from Carlos Sainz forced a virtual safety car period that locked everyone in place for the time being. Sainz’s broken race car had to be taken away from the track surface.
Rain started to fall as the race went back to green. Bottas complained, “There are drops, I think we need to stop,” but is told to stay out by his team.
The trick with the rain was not to pit too early, but also to pit before the tires lost grip entirely. There was lots of debate on the race broadcast: did teams want to run intermediates or full wets for the coming rainstorm? The intermediates are just that: a mid-way tire for light rain, as opposed to the full wet tires with deeper grooves for heavier rain. Everyone needed to determine how bad the rain was before bringing any drivers in.
Silverstone’s long laps only compounded the issue of determining which tire to use. Intermediates could “burn up” on long laps if there wasn’t enough rain, according to the BBC commentary team.
Rain was falling heavier on some parts of track than it was on others. While Bottas struggled to keep heat in his tires, Rosberg ran wide at Woodcote.
Behind the four-way battle at the front, Räikkönen pitted for the intermediate tire relatively early compared to the rest of the field.
Bottas had a moment on track at Copse that allowed Rosberg to coast on through for third. Copse was also slippery for Hamilton out in front. Hamilton ran wide there, but managed to keep his lead. Rosberg then got around Massa while everyone was sliding around in the increasingly wet conditions.
Räikkönen was suffering on his intermediate tires. The surface wasn’t wet enough to keep them cool, and they were losing grip fast. Back in the field, Sauber driver Marcus Ericsson opted to swap his intermediates for dry tires, despite race control’s advisory that more rain was on the way. (That proved to be the wrong call.)
The Williams cars kept falling back as the track got wetter and wetter. Perhaps it had to do with the cars themselves. “That car just doesn’t work in the wet,” noted the BBC commentators on the race broadcast.
On lap 43, Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel both surprisingly came into the pits for intermediate tires. Hamilton complained of little grip as he pulled in for tires. Turns out, lap 43 was the sweet spot for tire changes.
Rosberg briefly took the lead, but the rain started to fall harder after Hamilton emerged from the pits. Rosberg came in next for intermediates, but his last lap on slicks was a slip ’n’ slide of pain and agony.
Massa and Bottas came in at the same time as Rosberg, forcing the Williams pit crew to stack their two cars to pull off both tire changes, one after the other. All three cars were one lap too late. Meanwhile, Vettel had gained enough positions for being on the right tires at the right time throughout the race to move past the two Williams cars as they were still in the pits, claiming third place in the process.
It was clear who was excellent in the wet, and who wasn’t. Even after switching to intermediates, Bottas had an off. Rosberg was suffering in the wet, too, while Vettel probably prays for rain if he’s a praying man.
Fortunately for Rosberg, the rain was the heaviest with six laps to go, and started to let up from there.
Bottas, meanwhile, was miserable. He felt as if he had a chance for the win at the beginning at the race, yet the confusing early calls on passing and choosing the wrong laps to pit meant that he was stuck in fifth with not enough grip.
“My tire is just not working at all,” radioed in a frustrated Bottas with one lap to go.
Blue skies finally emerged on the final lap, shining down on a Hamilton win in front of his home crowd. Hamilton became the first British winner from pole at the British Grand Prix since Damon Hill in 1994.
It was settled: Hamilton and Rosberg claimed a Mercedes 1-2, Vettel grabbed the third podium spot for Ferrari, and Massa and Bottas were out of luck, in fourth and fifth place.
Additionally, McLaren’s Fernando Alonso claimed a crucial tenth place finish in front of McLaren’s home crowd. Button may have had to retire, but McLaren still finished in the points. This gave Alonso his first points of the 2015 season.
Some of you may poo-poo the British Grand Prix’s result, saying that it’s the same old podium that’s become far too predictable this season. Poppycock. Even if we’re locked into a Hamilton-Rosberg-Vettel podium until the end of 2015, this season is about to get a lot more interesting if we have more races like this.
“It is a familiar look to the top three,” admitted David Coulthard. “It is disappointing for Williams, I am not sure they could do much more. It is the luck of the draw. Hamilton coming in for the change of tires was inspired in the end.”
The constructor’s championship is all but decided, with Mercedes leading Ferrari by 160 points. Hamilton and Rosberg are still neck and neck for the driver’s championship, with 194 points over Rosberg’s 177.
If you ignore season points, though, hopefully the emergence of Williams as a force to be reckoned with in the dry means that individual races will become far more exciting from here on out.
Mercedes had the opposite weekend of their Monaco snafu this time. They made the right call on tire swaps, allowing them to coast on through to the win. Williams, it seemed, did the opposite. They’re the ones now grappling with a frustrated driver who may perceive on-track calls as favoritism towards his teammate as well as the fall-out from poorly timed tire changes.
Will they be able to learn from it and do better at the next race, as Mercedes did this season? If for not other reason than to keep things interesting, I certainly hope so.
Photo credits: Getty Images
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