F1 2016: Midway

12 races down, 9 to go, and a break between now and the end of August, when we rejoin F1 in Belgium. What’s the story of the season so far?

Rosberg Dominant Early On

The first four races of the season could be easily summed up as Nico Rosberg’s Magic Roundabout (ok, that’s a bit of a simplification, but you get the idea). He would win quite comfortably in these rounds, whilst Lewis Hamilton would make mistakes at the start of the first two races, and suffer technical issues in the next two. It added up to a 43-point lead for Rosberg as they headed to round 5 in Spain.

Ferrari had threatened to be a little closer to Mercedes at the start of the season, and actually looked on for a win in Australia, until strategic errors cost them dearly. From that point on, Ferrari have actually looked like they’ve gone backwards. Red Bull meanwhile, have improved steadily, making a nuisance of themselves to Ferrari and even Mercedes. In fact, Red Bull are the only team other than Mercedes to win a race this season.

Smashing Spain

The narrative between the Mercedes pair has been one of a publicly subdued yet privately intense rivalry since 2014. They’ve had flashpoints (Belgium 2014, and several strong-arm moments, such as Japan and USA 2015), but Spain 2016 was their ‘Senna/Prost’ moment. Hamilton had qualified on pole and needed to start winning in order to reverse Rosberg’s juggernaut, but as the two went into the first corner Rosberg managed to slipstream by Hamilton. Coming through the next few corners, Rosberg was surprisingly slow – he had his engine in the wrong mode and as he was looking at his steering wheel to correct that, space opened up to his right for a possible move. It was always going to be a long shot, and in my view Hamilton was too impatient, but he lunged for the gap, which Rosberg – reacting late – closed abruptly. Hamilton was forced onto the grass and lost control of the car, skidding and smacking straight into Rosberg. The pair of them were eliminated there and then, paving the way for someone else to win – and there’s a story here too.

Verstappen Rises, Kvyat Falls

At the start of the season Daniel Ricciardo and Danill Kvyat were representing Red Bull. After some high-profile collisions involving former Red Bull golden boy Sebastian Vettel, Kvyat’s days with Red Bull came to a swift end. After being replaced by Verstappen (the two swapped places, with Kvyat going back to Toro Rosso) in time for Spain, there are signs that Kvyat’s not recovered from the blow.

Verstappen meanwhile, would become the youngest ever F1 winner in Spain, holding off the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen for several laps at the end. His win owed something to a strategy call for Ricciardo that backfired, but nevertheless, it was a mighty effort, and signified to many that Verstappen is a world champion in the making.

Red Bull Resurgence

Improvements to the rebadged Renault engine in the Red Bulls saw Ricciardo take pole position in Monaco, and from the start he swiftly pulled away from Rosberg, who demonstrated a distinct lack of confidence in the wet. The Monaco GP was an indication of who could handle the conditions on a slippery, narrow street track – Ricciardo could, Hamilton could, whilst Rosberg would end up finishing 7th, and Verstappen would crash out of Monaco for the second year in a row. Monaco was also an indication for how not to conduct a pitstop – Red Bull weren’t ready for Ricciardo and the time lost cost him a certain win. Needless to say, he was not happy.

Hamilton’s first win of 2016 clearly meant a lot to him, and taking it at Monaco – a track Hamilton wants to do well at – would have been a huge confidence boost. At the next race in Canada, Hamilton got punchy with Rosberg at the start and held his line, leaving Rosberg to go wide (quite why Rosberg didn’t back out is unclear). Their lines through the corner were forced in part by a lightening start from Sebastian Vettel, who would lead for the first few laps until a virtual safety car (due to the retirement of McLaren’s Jensen Button) saw Ferrari bring their drivers into the pits. Unfortunately for them, the virtual safety car ended as Vettel pitted, thus committing to a strategy that would prove unlikely to see him win. He might have chased Hamilton down late on, but more than one mistake through the final chicane ruined any chance of that.

It would be a bad day a the office for Rosberg, who would also spin at the final chicane whilst chasing down Verstappen in the battle for 4th. His 43 point lead had been reduced to just 14 points in the space of two races. He needed to respond.

New Ports of Call

Formula 1 had a new venue in 2016 – Baku, in Azerbaijan. Officially classed as the European Grand Prix (even though Azerbaijan is somewhat removed from Europe), this race would take place on a street circuit that ran between the modern and classic parts of the city. In qualifying it looked like Hamilton would take pole, but he made yet another mistake in 2016, crashing in Q3 and ruining his race before it had even begun. Rosberg claimed pole and would breeze to an easy victory, with Vettel some way off in 2nd. Hamilton’s 5th place meant the gap rose to 24 points once again.

Amidst the title race, there were other things going on. Sergio Perez took his second podium in three races in Baku, having also taken 3rd at Monaco. Force India were starting to reel in a struggling Williams team in the battle for 4th in the constructor’s championship, whilst Ferrari were hoping to stay ahead of Red Bull in the chase to be best of the rest. Their results in Baku were encouraging, but from there, it would be a slow decline.

Another Smash

The Austrian Grand Prix would mark a few things. It would be the first of three podiums in four races for Verstappen. It would be the first of four consecutive races in which Williams’ Felipe Massa wouldn’t score a point. It would see a 6th place finish for McLaren’s Button, and yet another solid points finish for Romain Grosjean in the new Haas team (who had also scored points in three of  the first four races, a remarkable achievement for the newcomers). Manor would also score their first point of 2016, and their first point since rebranding as Manor (having formerly been Marussia). Pascal Wehrlein has been quietly doing a good job for Manor, consistently outperforming his teammate Rio Haryanto. In fact, in every race they’ve both finished, Wehrlein has finished in front of Haryanto.

But we digress slightly. Austria would be a turning point in the title battle between the two Mercedes drivers. Rosberg crashed in P3, leading to a gearbox change and therefore a five-place grid penalty. Hamilton put his car on pole, alongside the Force India of Nico Hulkenberg, who had done very well to get his car that high on the grid. With Vettel also taking a penalty for a gearbox change, Button in the McLaren was promoted to 3rd on the grid, McLaren’s best starting position for some time.

Hamilton led from the start but after a slow first stop, lost position to a charging Rosberg. Ferrari’s afternoon turned sour when Vettel, leading on lap 27, was forced to retire after a tyre blowout on the start-finish straight. This brought out a safety car, and when the race re-started, Rosberg pulled away.

As the next set of stops unfolded, Verstappen, who had started 9th, found himself leading the race, but on old tyres. Rosberg and Hamilton were both able to dispatch him quite easily, and continued their private battle for the lead.

It was a battle that would see a dramatic end on the last lap. Rosberg had made a slight error coming out of turn 1 that allowed Hamilton to close right in as they approached turn 2. Hamilton used the slipstream to zip up on the outside of the corner, and Rosberg… drove into the side of Hamilton. The Englishman was forced wide, but Rosberg’s front-wing was crippled, disintegrating as he tried to carry on. Hamilton’s car was unscathed and he was able to take his third win of the season, whilst Rosberg would fall to 4th. His championship lead was cut to 11 points.

Hamilton turns the Screw

Mercedes were furious, warning both drivers that another collision would carry severe penalties, including possible suspensions. In the wake of the latest incident, it would be Hamilton who would seize the initiative, though not without a slice of fortune.

He would take a straight-forward win at his home Grand Prix of Britain, putting together a tremendous lap once the safety car (which, as in Monaco, had disappointingly led the drivers away at the start) pulled in, and from there would barely look back. Rosberg meanwhile, would fall afoul of a rule on radio messages and cop a 5-second time penalty, that put him from 2nd to 3rd, and allowed Hamilton to cut the gap to just 1 point.

The radio message penalty was harsh, and the rules have since been relaxed, but titles can hinge on such moments, and Rosberg may be quietly fuming if, at the end of the season, the margins are small enough for the title to be settled by such events.

Hamilton would win again in Hungary, jumping Rosberg at the start of the race. For the first time in 2016, he would lead the championship, and things would only get worse for Rosberg, at his home event of Germany.

For the second race in a row Rosberg qualified on pole, and it seemed pretty clear he was not going to roll over and let Hamilton run away with the title. However, for the second race in a row Hamilton got the better start, and this time the two Red Bulls also got by Rosberg. Hamilton would control the race comfortably, whilst Rosberg would struggle with the Red Bulls, and would take yet another penalty for pushing Verstappen off the track. Once again the penalty seemed quite hard on Rosberg, and it was compounded by his team holding for 8 seconds rather than 5 at his pit stop. He would end up 19 points behind Hamilton as the summer break began.

Ferrari Fail

At the beginning of the season the suggestion was that Ferrari had found some extra engine power and might just make more of a problem of themselves for Mercedes. They had opportunities to win races (Australia, Canada), but strategic blunders have been compounded by a general sense that the car is not where it should be. This, coupled with some reliability issues, and a well-designed Red Bull with an improve engine of its own, has seen Ferrari slip to 3rd in the constructor’s standings.

Williams are another team who have struggled so far this year. Two consecutive 3rd place standings in the constructor’s championship looked like a platform to build on, but they haven’t managed to move forward, and instead there is a very real chance that Force India will catch them for 4th spot.

As we look ahead to the next act in the championship drama, we will see how this will all play out. Hamilton will have to take a grid penalty at one of the next two races for an engine change – this will almost inevitably hand Rosberg w win, so much will depend on whether Hamilton can battle his way back up the grid for good points. Ferrari will be keen to arrest their slump and give Red Bull something to worry about. Verstappen will hope to continue showing why he is touted as a future world champion, and further back, McLaren will hope their steady improvement this year continues. There is much to look forward to.

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