European GP - Sunday - Race Report

A step into the unknown

Nico Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel, European GP 2016

Nico Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel, European GP 2016 

 © Active Pictures


By Dan Knutson

Nobody quite knew what to expect from the inaugural European Grand Prix on the new street track in Baku, Azerbaijan. Practice had shown that the walls could bite, especially on some of the very narrow sections of the circuit. A one stop pit strategy seemed to be the best bet for the race, but would it still be with the several Safety Car periods predicted?

Nico Rosberg didn't worry about any of that. He started on the pole in his Mercedes and led every lap to win his 19th Formula 1 race.

"Everything went cleanly, from the beginning to the end," he said. "And even in the race, it was a special feeling out there in the car because it felt like I could do whatever I wanted the thing would just stick to the line, stick to the ground, there was no risk of making mistakes or anything. It felt really, really special."

Rosberg had converted his previous three poles this season to victories, and he made that four for four in Baku. He also scored the second grand slam of his F1 career with pole, fastest race lap, leading all the laps, and of course the victory in the race that was a step into the unknown.

Sebastian Vettel also had a clean race and finished second in his Ferrari.

"Already by the end of yesterday the car was coming alive," he said. "We were struggling a bit on Friday, but to see where we are now I think is a great recovery. Second place in a row, two times on the podium now in a row after Canada, which is great, scoring some good points."

Sergio Perez earned his second podium of the season by claiming third in his Force India.

"I knew that the podium was possible today but it was very hard, very hard work to get it," he said. "We really did an incredible first lap to get around the Williams and the Toro Rosso. I think that was one of the keys. The first laps were really difficult with the tire graining."

Rosberg's pole was his third of the season and the 25th of his career. His Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton clipped the wall and thus ended up starting tenth.

Perez did what he called the best lap of his career to end up second best in qualifying, but his Force India needed a new gearbox after a crash in FP3 and thus got a five place grid penalty and started seventh. That elevated Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) to the front row of the grid.

Ferrari teammates Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, Felipe Massa (Williams), Daniel Kvyat (Toro Rosso), Perez, Valtteri Bottas (Williams), Max Verstappen (Red Bull) and Hamilton rounded out the top 10 on the grid. All of them had Pirelli's super soft tires fitted to their cars.

The ambient temperature at the start of the 51-lap race was 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Centigrade) and the track temperature was 113 degrees Fahrenheit (45 degrees Centigrade.)

When the red lights went out, Rosberg took the lead ahead of Ricciardo, Vettel, Raikkonen, Massa and Perez.

By the third lap Rosberg already had opened up more than a three second lead over Ricciardo.

On lap 5 Vettel grabbed second from Ricciardo. The latter pitted at the end of lap 7 for a set of Pirelli's soft compound slicks.

Vettel was told to pit at the end of lap 8, but it was Raikkonen who came in for the soft tires.

The order on lap 10 was: Rosberg, who was 14 seconds ahead of Vettel, Perez, Bottas, Hamilton, Bottas, Hulkenberg and Ricciardo. One lap later Hamilton overtook Bottas, but Hamilton would soon be complaining about brake vibrations.

Hamilton pitted at the end of lap 15 and got a set of the soft Pirellis. Perez stopped one lap later for the same tires. That moved Bottas to third, Ricciardo to fourth and Raikkonen to fifth. But Raikkonen soon passed the Red Bull driver.

Vettel came in at the end of lap 20 as did Hulkenberg. Now Raikkonen was second but 40 seconds behind Rosberg. The latter made his stop for the softs one lap later but easily held onto the lead.

On lap 25 the order was Rosberg, Raikkonen, Vettel, Perez, Hamilton, Massa, Bottas, Hulkenberg, Sainz and Ricciardo. Several laps later Raikkonen allowed Vettel to pass him.

All was not well for Hamilton whose car was suffering problems with the Electronic Recovery System.

"This is ridiculous guys," he radioed. "I don't want to be looking at my freaking dash every five seconds, trying to work out what switch is in the wrong position."

The top six on lap 40 were: Rosberg, Vettel, Raikkonen, Perez, Hamilton and Bottas. Raikkonen would be given a five second penalty for crossing the painted line at pit entry. And at this stage he was less than two seconds ahead of Perez.

On the final lap Perez ducked by Raikkonen to grab the last podium place, penalty or no penalty.

"Obviously I ran over the pit entry line and got penalized for that," said Raikkonen who would finish fourth. "The rule is the rule but I gained zero from it. I just missed the line and that was it. Obviously after that I was trying to build a gap, I was able to do it but then there was some traffic and the end result is not great. It's far from a disaster but it doesn't bring anything to me, personally. But, you know, I think we had good speed but the penalty changed the end result an awful lot."

"In the end I could have for sure stayed in front of Perez," he added, "but there was no reason to fight and maybe take some risks. Obviously my race could have been a different story today, but considering all that happened, the end the result is not too bad."

Hamilton problems had disappeared because his Mercedes was now the fastest car on the track. He eventually finished fifth.

"I have no idea what happened out there today," he said. "I just had no power. I was in an engine mode which made it feel like I was driving without ERS for a long time. We have hundreds of different combinations of switch position on the wheel and, no matter how much you study, there's no way to remember them all.

"I was driving around looking at my screen trying to work out what was wrong but I couldn't see anything I'd done differently. It's such a complicated, technical formula we have now and I don't really see the benefit in preventing us from being able to fix these things out on track. It was just a real shame that I couldn't race. If I'd been able to resolve it, I might have at least been able to be a part of the show and fight with the guys ahead of me.

"With about ten laps to go it sorted itself out, but by that time there was nothing to be gained or lost as I was more than ten seconds behind the guy in front and the same ahead of the guy behind. I actually turned the engine down at the end to save it, knowing that I don't have so many left for the season."

The Red Bull guys were on the move as well. Verstappen took ninth away from Massa, and Ricciardo chased after Hulkenberg for seventh.

Bottas was secure in sixth place.

"We definitively hoped to have better pace today but we simply didn't," he said. "I'm glad we were able to make the one-stop strategy work, because it was definitively the best strategy to be on today, but unfortunately we weren't quick enough. Still, we gained some good points and the team did a good job."

In the last handful of laps, Ricciardo overtook Hulkenberg, and Perez attacked Raikkonen. Then Verstappen also got by Hulkenberg.

Ricciardo was unhappy with his seventh place race result.

"Starting second and at least staying there for a couple laps, we put ourselves in a good position to fight for the podium," he said. "But we didn't have the pace. I don't think we made any mistakes on track, or with strategy. I don't think that there was anything we could have done today; it was just that we suffered with rear tires. Already on lap four I was wheel spinning in fourth and fifth gear, so that was a sign that it was going to be a tough day."

Verstappen was content with finishing eighth.

"It was a tricky start, but a good end," he said. "On the super soft and the soft tires we had too much degradation in the rear and from there on, once we changed to the medium tires, I felt like I was flying in the end.

"My lap times were coming down very nicely - I managed to drive back to eighth and almost seventh. With the start position I had it was going to be difficult to catch the front guys, but I think in the end we did a good job. Of course you want to finish higher up but that was not possible today. I had the third-fastest lap today in the race so I can't complain."

Hulkenberg had started 12th and the Force India team tried out an extreme tire strategy.

"A tricky old race," he said after finishing ninth. "The start was actually quite good. I think I would have had one, two positions, but then I got hit in the back into Turn 1. I am not sure who it was. I avoided a spin but it made me lose a couple of positions. And I think I was back t 14th at the exit of Turn 1.

"From there onwards I had to go through traffic, and lost a lot of time there initially. I used a lot of tires for that, and that made it quite difficult. We had to take the risks, drop off the softs early and go to the super softs for 30, 31 laps. It was a big ask. We knew it was a bit of a risk, but I was happy to take it at the time."

Massa certainly was complaining about his tenth spot.

"It was a really terrible race for me, one to forget," the Williams driver said. "I struggled massively with the tires. I couldn't make them work. I was having a lot more degradation on the rears than I thought I would. One point is more than it could have been because I couldn't drive the car in the proper way and I couldn't save the tires either. We maybe need to change something in the car to make the tires work in a different way here in the future."

The entire 51 laps of the race into the unknown went by without a Safety Car and with no major dramas or accidents.

"I'm very surprised, given how difficult this track is but it also speaks for the quality of the drivers that we have in Formula 1," Perez said. "It's not that we were taking it easy out there. I think we were all pushing and every braking point you really feel it can go wrong at any point. There is no room for mistakes in any place. The very least that can happy to you if you make a mistake is you lose a couple of seconds. I think well done to everyone because nobody made a mistake."

Vettel quipped: "I think a lot of people lost a lot of money because they were betting on a Safety Car and we didn't have one! I think it also speaks for the quality of the drivers. So it was a clean race. I expected a couple of safety cars, but it didn't come out. But it's a great circuit, a great challenge and with the high-speed sections where it's really narrow it's a lot of fun."

And Rosberg had the most fun of all.

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