RACING

Mark Hughes: The Ferrari sacrifice that made his car so powerful

ADVERTISEMENT

After finishing second to Max Verstappen in Saturday’s sprint race, Charles Leclerc looked confident, almost certain, that he would have the pace to beat Red Bull in the Austrian Grand Prix. It was not an assessment that someone else was doing.

After securing his first dry pole position of the season, Verstappen dominated the sprint, seemingly with performance to spare. His blistering pace at the start of Saturday’s event convinced Leclerc that Red Bull would struggle to melt their tires even before the end of this short run – but that didn’t seem to be the case. However, on Sunday, on the same tire with medium compound, it was the case.

ADVERTISEMENT

Verstappen took the lead in the main race, slipping comfortably out of reach of Leclerc’s DRS before it was even activated – and the general expectation was that this would be the basis for a routine one-man win. stop. It wasn’t a one-stop and it wasn’t a win.

Instead, Leclerc was back in the DRS zone on lap three and Verstappen just couldn’t get comfortable. Not before one round, OK the next. Just no consistency. The Ferraris, on the other hand, felt very good, Carlos Sainz keeping the Verstappen/Leclerc company just out of the turbulence and waiting to see what would happen.

The trio quickly put distance on the others, especially as this group was led by the Mercedes of George Russell, who had suffered end plate damage after contact with Sergio Perez at turn 4 in the first lap (which put Perez in the gravel, from which he emerged with a large chunk of floorboard missing and later removed).

So there were no complications to interfere with the Red Bull/Ferrari comparison. It was a straight, unencumbered and sustained performance on a dry track, the kind of competition that you would generally expect to favor Red Bull as the Ferrari eats harder into its front tyres.

But it’s a more limited track at the back – and on this day, with the track a few degrees cooler than Saturday, with the early morning rain having washed away the surface, the middle just wasn’t as happy on the Red Bull it was the day before. So Leclerc hovered, moved into Verstappen’s mirrors as he started complaining about his struggles and the team started thinking about confronting him as soon as possible for a two-stop. In a race that was previously supposed to be a one-stop. And a nailed victory over Verstappen. It was neither.

Regardless of the change in the track surface, it could also be that Verstappen simply wasn’t in enough of a hurry on Saturday to reveal the issue. Admittedly, Sainz had been perplexed as to why Leclerc had saved the tires from the start of the sprint when before the race it had been agreed that there would be no problem with degradation and the plan had was to attack.

Leclerc had judged things differently when he saw Verstappen’s first-lap sprint pace, and thought the only way to win it might be to hold on in the opening laps. He felt he had an advantage at the end, but it wasn’t enough to put Verstappen under serious pressure. Perhaps if he had stuck to the original plan, he might have revealed that Red Bull had a rear tire problem even on Saturday.

“Their tire puncture was more obvious today,” Leclerc said on Sunday, “but that was there too yesterday, I felt it. Yeah, maybe in hindsight, if I had put pressure on Max from the start of the sprint, that would have been clearer.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Austrian Grand Prix Race Day Spielberg, Austria

Using the more efficient and slightly lower rear wing introduced on Leclerc’s car in Canada, the Ferrari was just as fast as the Red Bull on most straights, only losing out a bit at the end of the straight. stalls due to an earlier clipping of the PSU.

So the whole dynamic of the Red Bull/Ferrari race day battle that we’ve grown accustomed to this season had changed. We had seen a hint of this in Barcelona where the limitation oscillated between front and back. It can also be noted that on the back-limited tracks of Bahrain and Monaco the Ferrari was faster. It was a limited rear track but this time with no straight line speed difference between the cars.

By lap eight, Leclerc was positively swarming over the Red Bull, side-by-side with him until turn 3, threatening on the inside of 4. Two laps later they were close to touching down there. But it was still too early for Verstappen to intervene; he needed to establish a gap to fall first. “I can’t take this long,” he warned. A lap later and Leclerc had passed, without resistance, in turn 4.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Austrian Grand Prix Race Day Spielberg, Austria

A lap after that – with Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren swerving away from where Verstappen would rejoin – Red Bull tricked Max into replacing his old mediums with new tough ones. It was the end of lap 13 and with 58 laps to go, that put him unambiguously on a two-man stop.

Ferrari chose not to respond to this. He didn’t need, at this point, to go a two-stop and was now filled with confidence that he was better on the tires to be able to dictate his own strategic destiny. That straight-line speed tie surely added to his confidence. Had Ferrari’s use of this wing traded qualifying pace for improved racing ability? Is it for this reason that Verstappen was able to clinch his first dry pole of the season? The smallest of changes between the two cars can dramatically alter the image.

As Ferrari ran 1-2, Verstappen on his new tires moved up to third place – passing Mick Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton along the way – and had the two red cars less than a pit stop gap ahead of him. . But even in the 12-lap window between his first stop and Leclerc’s, his newfound tire advantage over the Ferraris was shrinking the further stint he got, as rear tire deflation again became an issue. . At this rate, the Ferraris would come out behind after their first stops, but with no further stops needed and Verstappen still having to stop.

But it didn’t quite work out that way. The degree of tire was so much higher than expected that the two stops started to appear as the fastest strategy for everyone, not just Verstappen. Ferrari had already decided to switch to this even as Leclerc and Sainz were brought in for their new toughs on turns 25 and 26 respectively. The giveaway was how Leclerc didn’t just sit seconds behind Verstappen and wait for him to force his way through, but immediately launched an attack on him, passing Red Bull for the second time on lap 33 . Leclerc had joined 5.5 seconds behind and it took him just seven laps to catch up and pass.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Austrian Grand Prix Race Day Spielberg, Austria

If Ferrari had stayed on the one-stop, chances are Verstappen’s double save would have beaten his cars. He made the right choice to change. Ferrari’s better degree of tire allowed for much better spacing of these two stops and as they lacked synchronization Verstappen would reclaim the lead once more as Ferrari made their second pit stops 12 laps after his – then for the third time, Leclerc on his cooler tyres, was able to just catch up and pass the Red Bull without too many problems.

Sainz was close to doing the same on lap 58 when his power unit gave out much the same way Leclerc had in Baku. With the rear quickly engulfed in flames, it briefly looked like a safety car would be needed. In the end only a VSC was given as the fire was brought under control quickly and the car drove away.

Leclerc and Verstappen both pitted under the VSC for new mediums and when the race resumed Verstappen was briefly quicker than Leclerc and took the Ferrari’s four-second lead, thus setting the fastest lap. fast from the race.

Even more worrying for Ferrari, Leclerc reported a problem with the accelerator. He briefly cleared and then came back – he wasn’t releasing cleanly as he lifted his foot for the braking zones. This in turn delayed downshifts and Leclerc had to adapt his driving accordingly. It must have been quite difficult to do while keeping your fingers and toes crossed. He held on and Leclerc returned to the top step of the podium for the first time since the Australian GP in April.

More than half a minute behind Leclerc and Verstappen, Hamilton emerged to take another podium with the Mercedes car rebuilt around the spare tub after its crash in Q3 on Friday. The poor grid position resulting from the crash put him on the inevitable DRS train in the early laps and he resumed his sprint race dice with Schumacher, battling for seventh place.

Getting crossed on the turn 1 exit curb on lap four lost Hamilton a place at the Haas and would take him another 10 laps to find his way back before immediately taking on Kevin Magnussen.

Running long in order to get some clean air, he came out of a slow first pit stop just behind fourth-placed Alpine of Esteban Ocon and passed her on the next lap. Sainz’s retirement turned him into a podium.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Austrian Grand Prix Race Day Spielberg, Austria

Teammate Russell’s damage from a hit with Perez cost him much of the lap time, with the team bringing him in early and converting to two saves, but not really taking advantage of it, because everyone has migrated to the same strategy. He was fourth ahead of Ocon, Schumacher, Lando Norris, Magnussen, Daniel Ricciardo and Fernando Alonso, the latter of whom started at the back and was delayed by a double save under the VSC to witness a vibration. He recovered to take the point for 10th place from the Alfa Romeo of Valtteri Bottas on the final lap.

“I really needed it,” smiled relieved Leclerc, who has had four wins taken away this year through no fault of his own.

“Of course every time I come to a new race for the past five races I have a smile on my face and I have remained optimistic, but obviously it is tough race after tough race and I had the felt like everything was against me.”

ADVERTISEMENT