The start of the Austrian Grand Prix was always going to be a crucial point in the battle for victory between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton and, as Adam Cooper explains, the German has worked hard to make sure he got the upper hand.
In Austria, Nico Rosberg made it three wins in the last four races, but in stark contrast to his last victory in Monaco, this one was achieved from the front, as he left a frustrated Lewis Hamilton in his wake.
Once again the race may have looked straightforward for Mercedes from the outside, but it was anything but, as at least for the first half of the race both drivers were on the limit, as their respective entry and exits from their pitstops ably demonstrated.
On top of that there was some excitement in the closing laps as Rosberg worried about a vibration, but in the end that had no impact on the outcome.
The start was to prove crucial, and having lost his shot at pole with his last-minute trip into the gravel, Rosberg made amends. He pulled alongside Hamilton on the way up the hill, and when the Briton moved across to defend, the number six Mercedes was already there.
Rosberg held his line into Turn 1 and defended successfully on the run to Turn 2, where Hamilton locked up and slid a little wide. He stayed ahead into Turn 3, and then the safety car came out for the Alonso/Raikkonen crash, ending any chance Hamilton had of carrying the fight round the lap.
Clutch set-up helping Rosberg
So how did Rosberg get ahead given that we usually expect to see them pull away from the line in formation? Mercedes changed its clutch set-up for the Spanish GP, and since then, Rosberg has been much happier and Lewis correspondingly less so.
“We've been developing the clutch and everything,” Rosberg told Motorsport.com. “So that's all become a lot better now, more consistent. So I've had a lot of great starts lately in the last four races, today as well, and a lot of it is down to the clutch settings that my engineer Evan put in – reaction time, clutch settings, and then the last part is me feeding in the throttle in the right way.
“But the big one is the clutch settings, and that just worked out today. And of course it's so important to get into Turn One first between the two of us. That's the job done, nearly, you know. OK, it was an added extra bonus that I was quicker today, that was great to see...”
Hamilton was clearly frustrated afterwards.
"I had a problem with the wait revs. I took my foot off the gas and it was still on – like the throttle was still on – and then I dumped the clutch and just lots and lots of wheelspin. So, it's, y'know, not the best way to start the race – but something we will work on to improve on my side of the garage."
Team boss Toto Wolff's explanation was a little more enigmatic, and he appeared to suggest that Hamilton was not just a victim of technology: "I wouldn't want to go down too much into the detail, but with the way we calibrate the starts and the clutches you can experiment with details, which is always a joint effort of the team and the driver.
"There was a situation where they [Lewis and his engineers] decided to go in a way where it had a tiny bit longer revs than expected, and that caught him out by surprise, I guess. The performance of the start was exactly the same, but what actually happened, surprised him."
It's worth noting that Austria is one of those tracks where drivers cannot do multiple practice starts from the end of the pitlane, and instead they perform just one on the grid at the end of each practice session.
That meant everyone had limited experience compared to most venues, and the situation was made more complicated by the track being wet at the end of FP3, and that particular start was unrepresentative. However, Paddy Lowe said that wasn't an excuse.
"It was a little bit more challenging," the Mercedes technical boss told Motorsport.com. "But I wouldn't like to say that was a contributor at this stage. There was no disaster on the start, actually the starts were very similar.
"I think the key point was not the start, Nico just had the pace today. You saw that in both stints, he was able to pull out lap times that Lewis couldn't match, in general..."
Start just a part of it
Of course the start swung things in Rosberg's favour and away from Hamilton, but what really counted was the speed the German showed once the safety car went in at the end of lap six.
Initially it perhaps wasn't so obvious. Rosberg was 1.5s clear at the end of the first flying lap, and the gap went out to 2.3s by lap 10, before coming down again to as low as 1.7s on lap 16. It looked for a while as though Hamilton now had things under control, and was preparing to launch his attack. In fact at that stage he was happier with his tyres than Rosberg.
"There was a little bit of a difference on tyre pressures," said Lowe. "Which would explain that, I think. Nico had slightly low pressures, and that hurt him after the restart. But it picked up a bit later."
Indeed, from lap 17 the gap began to grow again, to 4.2s – a significant amount by the usual standards of this pair. It began to shrink again just before Rosberg came in for his only stop at the end of lap 33.
He really pushed things to the limit at the pit entry, locking up in spectacular style, but he slowed down enough before the white line. It was close, however, and if he'd got it a little bit wrong he could have earned himself a speeding penalty.
"It was a bit on the edge there," he said. "But it was properly nailed. I was arriving, I closed one eye, I was whoo-ah, the line is coming! But it worked out great. I could see my speed on the line, and I knew that it was perfect. It looks a bit hairy though, I agree..."
Hamilton stayed out for two more laps before he came in on lap 35. He spent an extra 0.4s at rest, 3.1s compared with 2.7s for Rosberg, although his overall pitlane time was only 0.1s slower.
He was really on the limit going out, and he paid the price when he ran just a little bit wide – but a little bit is enough if you cross the white line at the exit. He claimed afterwards that he didn't know he'd done it, but his transgression was all too obvious on the on-board camera.
The team had no complaints – it was just one of those things that showed how hard both men are pushing at the moment.
"For me it highlights how fantastic Lewis and Nico are in general at not making mistakes, to be honest," Lowe insisted. "The error rate from those two in the last season and a half has been unbelievably low. Well, zero, pretty much."
"What can you see is that he's pushing really hard on the in-lap, like Nico with the locking wheels," said Wolff. "If you know that this is probably your only chance in passing your team mate, you need to take some risks, and equally not only on going into the pits but also on the exit of the pits.
"I think I saw a little bit of a snap on the right-hander, and he was on the throttle early just to have the best possible go on Nico, and he just crossed the line with that snap. I think when you push yourself so much in order to win the race, these things can happen.
"I don't think they are feeling the pressure of the overall championship yet, but they are definitely pushing very hard in order to beat each other. You rarely see someone coming with smoking and locked wheels into the pits, because you could well miss the line and get a penalty, and equally on the exit, so I think it's just the result of a very fierce battle between the two of them."
Unfortunately for the public the penalty ruined any chance of a proper race to the flag between the pair.
"I think at that point Lewis knew he was not on for the win," said Lowe. "It made our job on the pit wall a lot easier, because were back to competing with the other teams, and not between the two..."
Lewis himself admitted in the podium interview that it was all over.
"I think in the second stint it was really just about making the distance, and that's what I was trying to do."
Rosberg wasn't about to slow down, although he knew he the pressure was off: "I just kept going, but made it a little bit easier again. Even if he was coming at me, I knew it wasn't a problem."
Hamilton was around 5.4s behind Rosberg when the penalty notification came through around lap 39. The gap got as high as 7.0s on lap 46, and then it stabilised in the 6s range. H
amilton could cruise home because Felipe Massa and Sebastian Vettel weren't too far behind if the penalty was taken into consideration, and he had to leave a margin if possible.
"The main concern was around the 5s penalty for Lewis," Lowe confirmed. "And protecting the gap for that. The biggest concern of all was the risk of a safety car, because that would have thrown up all sorts of scenarios that would have been quite difficult with Lewis's penalty in position..."
It wasn't an easy run to the flag for Rosberg either. The Mercedes team radio revealed some urgent calls to the pits regarding a tyre vibration from the front of the car, one that wasn't the result of a specific locking-up moment.
"The front tyre wear was very extreme," said Rosberg. "And so probably just bits of rubber started flying off or whatever, and it started vibrating. It then stabilised and it was OK, it's just an uncomfortable feeling."
"His tyres started graining," Lowe explained. "And the graining was clearly a little bit asymmetric. It was something that we've seen before with graining, that it can come in a little bit 'out of round.' He was feeling some vibration.
"The worry was much more on his side than ours, so it was more a matter of reassuring him. It was well within limits, and we were monitoring it."
Rosberg had expressed some reservations about brakes before the race, but Lowe says they were not an issue: "We had to manage them a bit, it's something you keep an eye on at this circuit, but it wasn't a limiting factor today."
In the end Rosberg crossed the line 3.8s clear of his tea mate, which instantly became 8.8s once the penalty was added. Massa remained another 8.7s down the road, certainly close enough to keep Hamilton and Mercedes on their collective toes.
"It was one of the easier wins," said Rosberg. "There was no pressure, except a little bit at the pit stop, but I was stopping first, so I was pretty comfortable about that.
"That was great to see, because racecraft was the area where I needed to push on a little but from last year, and this year it's really coming good, so I'm happy about that."
Wolff conceded that Rosberg was simply the fastest man on the day.
"He was quicker on the first stint, and he was able to pull away after the pit stop as well. When you look at qualifying, throughout the sessions he seemed to have the edge, and there was just one lap where Lewis got in front of him, where he struggled with understeer.
"And that was the lap which was the final lap for grid position, because both of them made a mistake on the last one. In my opinion he was very good throughout the weekend, and you could see that very obviously in the race today."