Conclusions from the 2014 Austrian GP
Hamilton must wait for his luck to turn, Williams play it safe but too safe, and Alonso earns more respect on and off the track...
By Pete Gill
Last Updated: 23/06/14 12:02pm
Hamilton can't wait for the luck to turn
Two weeks ago, Lewis Hamilton's points deficit to Nico Rosberg at the summit of the Drivers' Championship was significant but not quite substantial. Now in excess of a full race victory, it has become serious. Measured at 29 points, it has reached the point where Hamilton cannot afford to lose any further ground, or any more points to his team-mate and solitary title rival, before the summer break.
There are still three races to be run before the sport scatters for its summer holidays, but the nagging-turned-gnawing concern for Hamilton as he considers the challenge ahead must be his failure to transform his superior pace over Rosberg into a profitable haul of points in the last three races. Despite being faster than his team-mate in Monaco, Canada and Austria, Hamilton has nevertheless lost 32 points to Rosberg since Spain. If he is not winning in those circumstances, when will he?
In fairness, Rosberg has been fortunate not to suffer the mechanical failures which have twice resulted in Hamilton retiring this year. The German has finished every race in 2014 - and is yet to finish a race below second. But sport is a manifestly unfair pursuit, which is why the favourites do not always prevail. The notion, in football parlance, that these things even themselves up over a season is hogwash. Just because Rosberg hasn't retired from a race this year is no reason to believe that he will or that he is more likely to suffer the next mechanical failure the Mercedes team experience. In sport, these things very rarely even themselves up. If Hamilton is to clamber back to the top of the Drivers' Championship, it is likely to be a painstaking climb made in piecemeal fashion.
Yet there is one sporting truism which ought to offer Hamilton encouragement. Whereas he has been roughly - but rightly - punished for his mistakes in qualifying in Canada and Austria, Rosberg has so far remained immune. Rewarded rather than penalised for his errors on the Saturday in Monaco and the Sunday in Montreal, Rosberg was fortunate that his leery slide off the track in this weekend's race occurred at one of the few parts of the Red Bull Ring adorned with a run-off area rather than a gravel trap. Likewise, when he locked-up his tyres on the very final lap, Hamilton was fractionally too far back to take advantage, just as Valtteri Bottas had been twenty laps before.
For a driver hailed as a metronome, Rosberg makes a lot of mistakes. Too many. Sooner rather than later, he will be punished for at least one of them.
Of that sporting truism, we can be certain.
It's the pits for Hamilton
Lewis didn't only lose the Austrian GP on Saturday when he failed to register a timed lap in the pole position shoot-out. What he actually lost then was a comfortable victory. Judging by the speed advantage he possessed, which was definite but only fleetingly on show when not negated by traffic and the difficulty of passing identically-powered cars still in front of him after his Lap-One dash, he could and should have won this race by upwards of ten seconds had he started on pole.
But that's to imagine an alternative reality. In the real world, and the only place that actually matters, what cost him a narrow victory over Rosberg was the loss of 0.9 seconds to his team-mate in the first round of pit-stops. Bookend that statistic with the reminder that Hamilton was 0.4 seconds behind Rosberg prior to the German pitting on Lap 12 and Hamilton was then back within 0.6 seconds of Rosberg on Lap 15 despite the aggravation of traffic, and the consequences of that tardy stop are crystal clear.
Williams play it safe
Given their habit this year of failing to transform their pace into points, Williams' decision to play safe in Sunday's race was understandable. But by running long in the first stint, they denied themselves a shot at victory - a disappointment summed up by the sight of Felipe Massa pitting from the lead of the race at the first round of stops and running in fourth thereafter.
Had Massa immediately followed Nico Rosberg into the pits, instead of continuing on for two more laps, it's a racing certainty the Brazilian would have retained the lead - he had, after all, been over two and a half seconds ahead of Rosberg prior to the German becoming the first of the frontrunners to pit. By lap 16, he was down to fourth and over a second adrift despite Rosberg's progress being blocked by Sergio Perez's long-running Force India. Only a 2.1-second stop for Valtteri Bottas saved him from a similar demotion behind the two Mercedes'.
Yet look what happened next. Armed with the straight-line speed which saw him breeze back past Rosberg on the opening lap, Bottas had little difficulty rebuffing Hamilton during the middle stage of the race. It was only at the second round of stops, when Hamilton enjoyed two laps of clean air after his stop and Bottas continued out front on his slower worn-out tyres as Williams stuck with their safety-first approach, that the Finn was overtaken.
Mindful of tyre wear, their Achilles heel this year, and spooked by the unexpectedly hot weather on Sunday, Williams' cautious strategy had the virtue of all-but guaranteeing third and fourth positions. A race victory, no matter their tactics, was almost certainly out of reach. But had they played a less cautious hand around the first round of pit-stops then second place - rather than fourth - was still on the cards for Massa.
They played it safe, just a little too safe.
Alonso takes a respectful view
Not only is Fernando Alonso a great driver, he also has a great way with words. Asked on Sunday night if he took any satisfaction or solace from outdriving inadequate machinery, the Spaniard's response was typically trenchant.
"Not much," he replied. "It's been five years like this. There is always satisfaction that everyone believes you are always performing at your best. There's the respect from drivers, Team Principals and fans for the job that you do. But I prefer to have no respect and to win more trophies."
There is, alas, little prospect of the latter these days at Ferrari, although Alonso continues to win plenty of the former with his performances in the sluggish F14 T. Alonso's thumping defeat of Kimi Raikkonen, half a minute down the road on his team-mate this Sunday, is mitigated by the qualification that Raikkonen is almost a decade past his peak and driving a car anathema to his driving style (for a driver so laid back-off away from the circuit, Kimi is hyper sensitive inside the cockpit). But it's been a thumping nevertheless, the Spaniard's superiority over his team-mate so pronounced as to make their predicted rivalry appear a complete fabrication of hype.
And Alonso knows plenty about hype and the inflation of reputation a driver can achieve in cars which flatter their abilities. As he spoke on Sunday, it was impossible not to recall the remarks Alonso made about Sebastian Vettel last December.
"Time will tell us, but I think when he will have a car like the others, if he wins he will have a great recognition and he will be one of the legends of Formula 1," said Fernando. "When one day he has the car like the others and he is fourth, fifth or seventh then these four titles will be bad news for him because people will take these four days even in a worse manner than what they are doing now. So there are interesting times for Sebastian coming."
They were certainly that. If only there was any reason to believe that a different type of interesting times still await for Fernando at Ferrari, the team for whom this year always seems to be about next year.