Practice Sessions, FP1/FP2/FP3:
It was tough on the drivers to race this weekend after what happened in Japan. One could make out from their gestures and answers, as to what they really felt. But with everyone being professional sports personnel, everyone got on with their act. Naturally, all the drivers and teams accumulated a lot of laps under their belt, learning the trickiness of the track. Although, Mercedes were at the top, the lap times behind them, were close. The other six teams were bunched up rather tight, giving no room whatsoever. The track was improving with every lap and so, it was difficult to understand when was the perfect time to get a lap in, especially for qualifying. It was a nice gesture from Marussia to field just one car; they were ready with the other car but as a mark of respect to Bianchi, the team decided not to run the second car and race with just Chilton’s car this weekend.
As was the case with everyone, it was difficult to assess, where Sahara Force India stood after practice. Certainly Bottas, Button, Magnussen and Kvyat looked good, chasing Mercedes. But on the long run pace, both Perez and Hulkenberg matched closely with McLaren, Red Bull, Ferrari and Williams. As with everyone else, both kept improving with every lap. The qualifying pace was still a worry for the team and it was expected that they will be around the top 10, maybe into it or just outside. It was evident that, the team had compromised on qualifying pace, to utilize the extra pace during the race.
It was straightaway interesting in Q1 when, teams were divided on strategies. Many of them went straight to the soft tyres while some of them took the traditional approach of medium and then the soft. The track, by the end of qualifying, was slowing down, as reported by some of the teams on the radio. Hamilton qualified on pole, with Rosberg alongside him; for a while, Bottas looked to unsettle Mercedes from the top slot but he couldn’t get a good sector 3 and eventually went wide to end at P3. His teammate, Massa though only managed P18 after facing car problems while Vettel was only P11 (started P10), just the fact that Red Bull lacked the pace. Meanwhile, Kvyat qualified a superb P5 in his home race and down in the field Ericsson, finished P17 (started P16) ahead of Massa, Maldonado, Kobayashi and Chilton.
The qualifying session was going to be the hardest part of the weekend for SFI, one lap pace is not the team’s forte. It was always about making the most and being there to pounce on any opportunity available to qualify well. Both the drivers made it through to Q2, but neither of them made it to Q3. Although Hulkenberg qualified P12, ahead of Perez but started from P17 after his gearbox change; Perez started P12 then. The race strategy was once again in play for the SFI duo, it was certain that most of the teams will go for one stop race. With Button qualifying well inside the top 10, the aim for both the drivers was to get into points and score as much as possible to maintain P5 in the championship.
It was a touching respect and support for Jules Bianchi from the fellow drivers, the FIA, just before the start of the race. When it is hard for the fans to come to terms with what happened; it is tougher for the drivers and team officials to concentrate. A tremendous sense of professionalism was shown by everyone. From then on, in the race, it was a procession unfortunately. Hamilton took the lead, after Rosberg’s lock-up resulting in an unscheduled pit stop. As a result, Rosberg went to the back of the pack and thus began his fight for points and a podium finish. Behind them, Magnussen was the biggest gainer, as the Red Bull duo fought with the Toro Rosso duo for grid positions. Both the SFI drivers gained places, Perez was up to P11 while Hulkenberg was up to P13, after starting at P17.
It was a straightforward race during the mid-stages of the Grand Prix; Hamilton led the way as Rosberg slowly crept into the points and inched closer to the podium. He was to do something which was doable, but not done by anyone; he was to run 52 laps on one set of tyres alone. With minimal tyre degradation, the lone pit stop became an important window to overtake. Both Magnussen and Ricciardo took advantage of the pit stop and moved ahead of Alonso and Vettel respectively. It was surprising to see both Kvyat and Vergne, having started well within the top 10 struggling for pace and losing out on points. At the back, the lone running Chilton retired due to issues on the car.
For SFI, it was the case of, firstly fighting to get into the points and then defending their positions. Perez was always near to the point scoring position and was always in the fight with Massa, keeping the Williams driver behind. While in doing so, he jumped ahead of Kvyat and Vergne. So did his teammate, Hulkenberg who was further behind the Perez and Massa battle. After a very late pit stop from Gutierrez, Perez was in points. But soon, the Mexican was reminded about the critical fuel consumption and so for the remainder of the race, his job was to defend from Massa, rather than attack Raikkonen up ahead. Meanwhile, Hulkenberg behind was catching and probably was creating a cover, should Massa sneak through Perez, he would fight Massa for points then.
It was the easiest victory for Hamilton in the end, to say, it was a cruise to victory for the Briton extending the gap to 17 points. Rosberg admirably fought his way back into points and podium, completing 52 laps on one set of tyres alone. This result sealed Mercedes’ Constructors’ Championship, their first since taking over from Brawn GP. Bottas completed the podium and with this result, he leapfrogged Vettel and Alonso in the Drivers’ Championship. A good haul of points for McLaren duo meant, they comfortably moved ahead of SFI in the CC. Perez finished P10 after keeping Massa at bay while Hulkenberg finished P12, under one second, off the Brazilian driver.
The one big title remains and it will surely go down to Abu Dhabi, the upper hand is with Hamilton at this moment. It was a small victory for Bottas moving ahead of two world champions and Williams continue to extend the gap to Ferrari. With McLaren creating a 20 points lead over SFI, it may seem “game over” for SFI but with three (effectively four) races to go, it is all to play for still. The upcoming tracks are the tracks where SFI have done well in the past and one major advantage for the team is that, they are the team having used the least of the components yet. This will help to a certain extent as the team won’t receive any extra component related penalty.
Two weeks break before Austin GP, a much-required break for everyone considering what all happened in Japan. We still keep Jules Bianchi in our thoughts. #ForzaJules