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Why Leclerc's last-lap Verstappen challenge was always fantasy – Motor Sport

Verstappen had the advantage all weekend
DPPI
Red Bull’s race day advantage over Ferrari wasn’t as great as in Spa, but was enough for Max Verstappen to win yet again, despite his penalised P7 on the grid.
It wasn’t that the new power unit was needed this weekend but was just to give a bigger safety margin for the remainder of the season, done on the advice of Honda, and at a track where overtaking is easier than at most of those coming up. Several others made the same tactical choice and so the grid bore little relation to the competitive order.
That too helped Verstappen, as it meant the five cars separating him from Charles Leclerc’s pole-sitting Ferrari were between 1.3- 2sec slower than his Red Bull. So he was up to second, just a couple of seconds behind the Ferrari by lap five, George Russell offering little resistance, the Mercedes not the competitive force it had been on race day in Zandvoort.
Leclerc took pole, but simply had no answer once behind the wheel of the F1-75 in the race
Ferrari
Leclerc had been unable to use those five laps to pull out a bigger lead because the Ferrari’s front-left was its key limitation around here. In Monza low-downforce trim it was prone to graining and high wear. The Red Bull is inherently better on the tyres anyway but here that advantage was amplified by the team’s choice of a wing big by Monza standards, a luxury afforded it by the RB18’s great aero efficiency. It would probably have been a couple of tenths quicker over a qualifying lap with a skinnier wing, but knowing they were taking the PU grid penalty and would therefore not be starting from pole, it was logical to load it up with some tyre-protecting wing for race day. So Leclerc had qualified a tenth-and-a-half faster, giving the tifosi hope.
That hope was misplaced. Ferrari suspected as much, Leclerc knew it as he saw the blue and yellow in his mirrors so soon into the race on this unseasonably hot day. He was way more tyre-limited than the Red Bull, just as the Friday long runs had suggested, when Max had averaged 0.3sec quicker than Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari despite a run twice as long. Here he was in Leclerc’s mirrors confirming that, on the same soft-compound tyres as the Ferrari. Verstappen didn’t immediately launch an attack; there was some battery management to be done as the constant deployment in making his way through had drained it. It needed to be built up again. That done, he began edging closer, stronger under braking, faster through the Lesmos and Ascari. He looked set soon to be within DRS range and from there it would surely be a formality, as Leclerc’s greater tyre deg would leave him defenceless.
DRS train formed behind Ricciardo, who later broke down
McLaren
But then Leclerc got a break. Sebastian Vettel’s Aston Martin had stopped out on track with a PU failure and the race came under the virtual safety car. This was lap 12, far enough in for Ferrari to take the potential 10s saving of making a pit stop compared to when the pack is at racing speed. Red Bull was out in the pits too, Verstappen told to do the opposite of whatever Leclerc did. So he stayed out as Leclerc peeled in. Charles didn’t get the full benefit, as the VSC ended while he was still there, having his softs changed for a set of mediums. He rejoined 17sec behind the Red Bull.
With a clear track ahead of him, Verstappen was in a familiar groove and he would run for another 13 laps. Leclerc’s mediums had allowed him to prevent Verstappen getting a full pit stop’s-worth of gap over him during those 13 laps and Max would rejoin from what was expected to be his only stop 10sec behind. But with medium tyres 13 laps newer than those of Leclerc, and better tyre deg, it was inevitable that the hunter was going to catch and pass the hunted. But still the tifosi hoped.
It took Verstappen only seven laps to get himself into Leclerc’s DRS zone. So before the humiliation of being passed, Ferrari with nothing to lose, brought Leclerc in for a second stop. On his soft tyres, eight laps newer than Verstappen’s mediums, he was indeed faster than the Red Bull as he rejoined 20sec behind. But only barely. He would be taking an honourable run to second.
Russell’s race was a lonely one some way back from this, a long way clear of a pack initially bunched up behind Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren which had been promoted to the second row thanks to all the engine penalties of the others. Team-mate Lando Norris had been similarly promoted but some software glitch had bogged him down at the start. The Ricciardo-Gasly-Norris-Alonso DRS train soon had a new member: the Williams of F1 debutant Nyck de Vries who was doing a wonderful stand-in for Alex Albon, struck with appendicitis. Alonso would retire from this group after the Alpine sprung a coolant leak, so gifting the Williams another place as De Vries fended off Zhou Guanyu’s Alfa. He’d retain his pace to the end.
De Vries put up impressive fight in Williams
DPPI
That bunching behind Ricciardo made it easier for Sainz in the much faster Ferrari to recover from his penalised 18th place starting slot, running a long first stint on a set of mediums. Lewis Hamilton, starting last (after having outqualified team mate Russell for the sixth time in the last seven races), didn’t have the Ferrari’s pace but would eventually make his way through past the midfield pack once it had dispersed with the various pit stops. Sainz would be closing down on Russell’s third place in the race’s late stages.
The other fast car out of position, Sergio Perez’s 13th-starting Red Bull, locked up defending from Sainz and flat-spotted horribly. That and debris in his brake duct meant a pit stop as early as lap seven and an attempt at running from there to the end on a set of hards. He too would eventually clear the midfield.
After making his stop (late enough that he could get onto softs), Hamilton was catching the old-tyred Red Bull at around 1.5sec per lap from not far behind. So Red Bull brought Perez in for a second stop before it was too late. Now also on softs, the tables were turned and he was catching the Mercedes and set to be with it by the end.
But the building Russell-Sainz and Hamilton-Perez contests were neutralised five laps from the end by a safety car. Ricciardo – who had tumbled down the order once other cars in the train got clear air around the pit stops – had pulled off to the side between the two Lesmos with a PU failure. The complication was that the car was stuck in gear and could not therefore simply be rolled to a safe place. The marshals struggled with this as the safety car led the pack around. It had not picked up the leader, but Russell (who had been able to pit immediately for new tyres, with the others well past the pit entry) but that wasn’t a mistake. The Mercedes just happened to be exiting the pits as the safety car was scrambled just in front of him.
The two leaders (who stopped for new softs on the subsequent lap) were at the back of the pack. By the time it was decided that a truck was needed to remove the car, there were simply not enough laps left to have the pack rearranged with the leaders at the front of it and to do the single lap behind the safety car in the correct order.
Even if field had been released for last-lap steeple chase, the odds were heavily stacked in Verstappen’s favour
DPPI
Russell and the others were not waved through sooner because the priority was to compress the field as quickly as possible to give the workers more of an interval between the cars, rather than being randomly-spaced. With a truck on track, they did not want cars overtaking.
So like that, the race ended with a whimper – and to the boos of the tifosi which had been looking forwards to Leclerc attacking Verstappen on the restart and taking a glorious last lap victory. It probably wouldn’t have happened that way of course. Verstappen would have controlled the restart and his soft tyres were brand new, those of Leclerc three laps old. Just another of the cascading benefits of his underlying advantage all weekend.
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