Mercedes may have found success at Sochi with one Silver Arrows driver winning, but Lewis Hamilton’s fourth-place finish is a head scratcher, which left fans and commentators wondering what had happened.
Even his qualifying sessions were marred by a lack of pace, with Hamilton’s time half a second off team-mate Valtteri Bottas who was running a similar set-up, with practice telling a similar story.
Early on into the race he asked his team “why is my car overheating, guys?” and his first-lap attempt to overtake Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen – a simple procedure given Raikkonen’s poor start – was laboured.
We have seen already that the Mercedes finds it more difficult to run in the wake of another car than the Ferrari which has more benign aerodynamics. And there seems to be something in the nature of the way the cars are set up that also plays into Ferrari’s hands when the softest Pirelli tyres are used.
The overheating issue forced Hamilton to run in clean air, maximising cooling airflow into the radiators, so running in a car’s wake was all but impossible and Hamilton held back.
“From probably, I don’t know what lap, five or whatever it was, I had to slow down and stay in fourth. Lots of turning down of the settings and unit. One of the cylinders was cutting [out] because of the temperature issue, so it was going to be fourth from very early on,” he said.
This may not have affected team-mate Bottas because he ran in cleaner air throughout the race, but puzzlingly, when Bottas hit traffic he didn’t complain of engine overheating and the freak issue was reserved only for Hamilton.
His swift manner of dealing with lapping backmarkers may have helped, but Hamilton’s problem ran deeper than just the engine.
Narrow set up window
Tyres don’t bite into the slick Sochi road as effectively as on other circuits, due to the slippery nature of the surface, so they need to be brought into their operating windows effectively and this weekend was another indication that the Ferrari has more bandwidth on the set up to suit the softer tyres than the Mercedes. Qualifying was further illustration of this; Ferrari went for it after one out lap, Mercedes had a more complex regime involving two laps to prepare the tyres.
In the race, if these 2017 tyres are not operating in their ideal window, due to set up, then there will be a pace deficit of three or four tenths, which is what appears to have happened to Hamilton.
The upside for tyre management is that they just don’t wear as much – Mercedes’ champion Nico Rosberg managed to complete all but one lap on one set of tyres in 2014. On top of that tyre degradation on both the ultra soft and supersoft was just 0.03s per lap at the weekend, so there’s nothing to be done on strategy, which is one of the reasons Russia provided such a processional Grand Prix.
With temperatures on track higher than expected on Sunday, cooling became an issue for cars and tyres in some cases. Blisters formed on the left front tyre, which was the most stressed by the long left hand curve in Sector 1
After Ferrari qualified with a front-row lockout for the first time since 2008, Hamilton said “”I just wasn’t quick enough today. It was all in the last sector, I was losing half a second there. I’ve been struggling there all weekend with the balance and it’s been tough to utilise the tyres.”
It wasn’t just him, with Bottas echoing the fact that Ferrari managed keep the tyres in the narrow window of operating temperature. Raikkonen only had to do one out-lap before setting a qualifying time while the Mercedes drivers took two, along with most others on the grid.
Bottas managed to get the tyres in the sweet spot and was exceptionally fast in the opening stint on the UltraSofts.
Hamilton’s fastest lap of 1:38.398 came on lap 18 using ultra-softs, but it was a second slower than Bottas’.
Team boss Toto Wolff took some blame, having said at the end of the race, “[Bottas] struggled with a car that was not perfect towards the end but he kept it together. And Lewis, if you don’t put the tyre in the right window you’re struggling and we were unable to give him a car that was good enough today.”
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