Analysis: How Hamilton was put in the shade by Rosberg's "perfect" race
The European Grand Prix produced very different fortunes for Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, as one starred and the other struggled with mistakes and issues. Adam Cooper analyses the Baku weekend.
The European Grand Prix didn't exactly unfold as anticipated following an incident-packed two days of practice and qualifying, plus a pair of GP2 races that left onlookers shaking their heads in disbelief at the level of carnage.
Nobody expected to see the main event to run without a single safety car or virtual safety car intervention, and with yellows seen only briefly when the odd car stopped on track with a mechanical problem.
With nothing to turn strategy on its head, and no restarts to give those behind a chance to jump the leader, the race turned into a demonstration run for Nico Rosberg.
"Just to get two cars home was not something we expected to be that easy this afternoon, having watched the GP2 race," Paddy Lowe told Motorsport.com.
"I have a theory on that – the drivers watched GP2 and saw so many shunts they thought, 'As long as I finish, I can get loads of points!' So nobody took any risks."
It was a perfect race for Rosberg, apart from a brief engine glitch, an issue that was to affect his team mate rather more and develop into one of the big stories of the race.
As Lowe suggests, heading into Sunday afternoon, things were far from clear-cut for Rosberg, as nobody quite knew what the race would bring.
His title rival Lewis Hamilton was down in 10th, but after his start in Canada the presence of Sebastian Vettel in third, on the clean side of the track, was a major concern. However, the poleman got away well.
With a clear track ahead, Rosberg simply drove away, extending his lead over Daniel Ricciardo by a second a lap initially, and a bit more when the Aussie got into early tyre trouble and had to pit on lap six.
That left Vettel in clean air, but the German could do nothing to stop the gap extending. Nico simply waited for everyone else to pit, and he was over 20 seconds clear when he came in for soft tyres on lap 21.
The second part of the race was a little different. We didn't see that metronomic extension of Rosberg's lead, initially over Kimi Raikkonen and later – after the Ferraris swapped positions – Vettel once more.
Indeed Rosberg's advantage shrank, with traffic sometimes playing a role. On a rather scrappy lap 31 he lost as much as 3.1s of his lead, but then he banged in a fastest lap. At the flag his margin was a comfortable 16 seconds.
Rosberg made it look easy, but this was a superbly judged drive by the points leader, and one that he needed after the frustrations of the last three races.
Of course, things might have been different had Hamilton not endured a disastrous qualifying and started from the front row rather than 10th, and been in a position to take the fight to his teammate.
Having said that, Hamilton would still have faced the same struggle for outright performance, which was not entirely due to the engine issue that afflicted him.
Hamilton was in blinding form on Friday, immediately setting quick times despite having expressed some doubts about the venue after his brief run in the Brackley simulator. He went up the odd escape road, but then so did everybody else, and it was all part of the learning process.
However, come Saturday he was not comfortable, especially with the feel under braking, and complained that changes that the team had made (to both cars) had not worked in his favour.
And that's why we saw him all over the place in qualifying, although the accident that finally stopped him was a simple misjudgement as he clipped the inside wall at Turn 11.
"I didn't change anything," he said after the race. "It was something the team had to change to both cars. I can't say what it was. It was just worse on brakes, so couldn't push on the brakes. I just went straight on most of the time."
Of course, due to parc ferme rules, he was committed to the same set-up for the race, so he went into Sunday knowing that he had a car he was not comfortable with.
No easy charge for Hamilton
Given the obvious pace advantage of the Mercedes, we expected to see a typical Hamilton charge, especially as this was a track where overtaking was pretty straightforward.
He didn't gain any ground on the first lap, but on the third he passed a struggling Daniil Kvyat, and then worked his way past Max Verstappen, who was in early tyre trouble. He gained more positions when others made early stops, and then pitted himself on lap 15.
By the time the stops had cycled through, when Daniel Ricciardo came in for a second time on lap 23, Hamilton was in fifth place.
There were still some 28 laps to go, and even allowing for the pace of those ahead, he appeared to have enough time to make up at least some ground. And yet that would be as far as he got.
It was just a handful of laps after he made it to fifth that we heard the first of a series of increasingly fraught radio messages from Lewis as he complained of a loss of power, struggled to resolve it, and became frustrated by the restrictions on what he could be told. So what was it all about?
"Nico had the same configuration issue as Lewis," said Lowe. "So there was a problem with both cars today with the configuration of the energy management.
"With the hybrid system, you have to manage the energy in and out of the battery. This is an automated process to take away the workload from the driver.
"You've got a certain amount of energy you can deploy each lap, and a certain amount that you can recover under braking.
"And so you don't want to spend energy that you can't maintain on regular race laps, so the hybrid system will stop deploying towards to the end of straights in an optimal manner – it derates – according to the energy it can recover in all the braking zones.
"As I said, that's an automated process. In a particular mode in which we run, that automation was disrupted, let's say, and not working properly.
"It was causing the car to derate earlier than it should have done, because it falsely thought that it had less energy than it really did. So it would derate earlier on the straight than it needed to. This was only the case in a certain engine mode.
"So they both had that problem from whenever they put the car into that mode, which was a bit later on in Nico's case. The lack of deployment was costing about two tenths a lap."
What caught Mercedes out was when they ran the car in that particular race mode on Friday, the problem did not rear its head.
The complication, of course, was that under the current restrictions the team could not tell the drivers exactly what to change on their steering wheels, so it became a guessing game.
"One of the problems we have is we can't tell the driver, 'Please get out of mode X and go into mode Y and then it will all be fine.'
"We were allowed by the FIA, because we asked permission, to tell the driver that the problem was related to his current mode, i.e., 'Your problem is because you are in X.' In other words - 'you have to go to pretty much any other mode'.
"So then you're trying to solve a crossword puzzle while driving an F1 car through very narrow streets or at 220mph. Fortunately for Nico, he solved that crossword puzzle in half a lap.
"Unfortunately for Lewis, it took him about 15 laps to solve that crossword puzzle..."
Rosberg was helped by the fact that, when he suffered a loss of power, he had only recently switched to the suspect mode – and he worked out for himself that it might be the problem.
In contrast, Hamilton had not just switched to the suspect mode, and had been in it for a while. Thus it was that much harder for him to work it out.
It took Hamilton until lap 41 to finally sort his problem out, and we know that because, on lap 42, from nowhere, he produced the fastest lap of the race, something that his engineer was quick to point out.
Intriguingly, he suggested that he'd already tried that fix: "I didn't know what the problem was. I didn't know if I had done anything to make the engine not work.
"The team started with something switched on, so I had it from the beginning. I disabled something and it didn't change anything, I put it back on, it didn't change anything. In the end, I switched it off again, and the engine power came back 10 laps after that, maybe nine laps to go."
Too little, too late
The problem was it was too little, too late. Mindful of the fact that a power unit change penalty is looming late in the year, Lewis cruised home.
"I just turned my power down after that because I had 13 seconds ahead and 14 seconds behind, and also I have less engines than Nico, so I just turned the engine down to save it for the last seven laps."
Inevitably, the issue became the major subject of conversation after the race. "Unfortunately there weren't enough shunts," joked Lowe. "So everybody is just talking about our engine mode!"
However, there was more to Hamilton's performance than that. It didn't chime in until around lap 26, affected him for 15 of the 51 laps, and Lowe says it actually only cost him 0.2 per lap – which works out at just three seconds.
Of course, he would have lost a bit of his rhythm simply through being distracted by the radio chatter and by the need to fiddle with the wheel. But Hamilton was adamant that it was more of a handicap than the pit wall thought.
"I did a quick lap at the end once the power came back," he noted. "The team said it was not that big an issue, but then I went over a second faster, so it obviously was.
"I am pretty sure it was there from the beginning so I was struggling. It felt like I had a lack of pace. But I noticed at the beginning of the straights that I was losing ground, therefore I was struggling to overtake people."
It's true that he set a fastest lap when he did solve his problem, but that his car was not as quick as Rosberg's on Sunday was a simple fact.
"When he sorted it out he did a quick lap, but the next lap he was back to where he was," says Lowe. "For me the reason Lewis was not on the podium is not because of that.
"That may have been a contributor, but something we've got to go away and analyse is why we didn't show the race pace today on Lewis's car that we'd seen on Friday, and which Nico was able to demonstrate.
"It was a problem, but it wasn't the only problem of the afternoon. My actual main worry during the race was to understand why we didn't have the pace on that car to get back up the field.
"The car wasn't quick enough at the end of the day. He got from 10th to fifth, but that was all the pace we had today."
So was it to do with the changes that made his life difficult for qualifying?
"He had issues after P3. We did some re-tuning for qualifying. One of the things about P3 is it's so different from P2 being much hotter, so a lot of those problems may have been related to that."
In the end, the mode saga was just one of those frustrating glitches, and by no means a disaster. While it spoiled Hamilton's day, it should not distract us from what was another dauntingly impressive performance by Mercedes.
"I'm very happy to get two cars home," said Lowe. "And we extended our championship lead to Ferrari by five points, so there's a lot to be happy about. Nico did an absolutely perfect job all weekend."
The gap in Baku may have looked bigger than in Canada, but a perfect job is what Rosberg and Hamilton need to do these days.
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