TRACK LIMITS CONTROVERSY AND MORE – ANALYSIS OF THE BAHRAIN GP
We were expecting a good Grand Prix before the weekend had even begun, and boy were we treated! Lewis Hamilton took victory after a dramatic strategic battle between himself and Max Verstappen, which ultimately came down to the last few laps. There were plenty of other stories though, the most significant of which we’ll take a look at in this article.
Written by Oskar Yigen, Edited by Sam Stewart
Mazepin’s horrific debut
We’ll start our detailed review of the weekend off with Nikita Mazepin’s shambles. The Russian driver has already received more hatred on social media than most drivers in their entire career before his first race. Even though the expectations for him from most people were perhaps unfairly low, Mazepin failed to live up to them, qualifying last and spinning twice during Q1 in quite similar fashion. Let’s take a look:
Mazepin’s first spin took place on entry to turn 13, a tricky downhill, off-camber left-hander – a notoriously tricky, but crucial corner, which has caught drivers out before, an example being Lewis Hamilton testing this year. As the corner is downhill and off-camber, the rear-end tends to be very nervous, requiring the driver to be ultra-precise and steady throughout the corner – any unsettlement of the car can result in a spin. Furthermore, since the outside kerb on entry to turn 13 is a so-called ‘’sawtooth kerb’’ – or in other terms, very rough – even touching it ever so slightly can cause an unsettlement. Exactly that happened to Mazepin. After drifting a bit wide on the exit of turn 12, he failed to recognize his faulty car-positioning, which inevitably sent him into a spin, something only compounded by the strong winds of the Sakhir desert.
Mazepin turning into turn 13 from the outside kerb, and losing control of his car mid-corner as a consequence
The Haas drivers’ second spin took place at turn 1, starting his final hotlap. And just like the previous incident, troubles seem to begin when he creeps onto the outside kerb on entry, and then tries to turn the steering wheel. The rear axle immediately locks, turning the car 180 degrees. However, excessive use of the kerb is only part of the explanation, as other drivers made use of that particular kerb throughout the session without losing control. Mazepin himself revealed in his post-qualifying interview that he had brake-by-wire problems, which likely contributed to the problem. That combined with a Haas car which is probably the slowest of the field (by some margin, it seems) and you’ve got a recipe for disaster, some would say. For now though, let’s just call it a recipe for spinning.
Once again, Mazepin turns into a corner from a kerb which isn’t normally made use of, and subsequently loses control of his car
Mazepin wasn’t finished with pirouetting. Come the start of the race, and the Russian found himself in the barriers at the exit of turn 3. And once again, it’s very clear from his onboard that he is simply too aggressive on the throttle pedal whilst riding a rough kerb, this time on the outside of turn 2/inside of turn 3. Likely, the reason he did it was to make up for a very poor exit from turn 2 (which was a result of being forced wide in turn 1 and subsequently having an oversteer moment). But no matter what, it’s far from impressive to make more or less the same mistake three times during just one Grand Prix weekend.
Mazepin having to correct a chunk of oversteer in turn 1, riding the kerb aggressively at the exit of turn 2, and finally losing control of his car in turn 3
Mick Schumacher, son of 7-time world champion Michael Schumacher and Mazepin’s teammate at Haas spun as well, suggesting that the Haas car itself has some serious issues. Schumacher’s spin took place on the exit of turn 4, but unlike his teammate, the German wasn’t riding any rough kerbs. However, he did have a lot of steering lock on (as turn 4 has quite a long exit) whilst only being in third gear. As a consequence of not shifting to fourth gear early enough, Schumacher suddenly had a lot of revs – combine that with cold tires following a safety car restart plus an unstable Haas car, and round he went.
Schumacher being too harsh on the throttle whilst only being in third gear, resulting in a spin
The fight for pole
We also saw an enthralling battle for pole position between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. In the end, the Dutchman came out on top with a margin of 4 tenths of a second. And while his three purple sectors seems to be a sign of dominance, the reality is not quite so simple. Because whilst Verstappen did go fastest in all sectors, it was only by a combined margin of 81 thousandths of a second through sectors 1 and 3, meaning he gained the rest of his – to be exact – 0,338 second margin through the second sector, particularly at turn 10.
As some of you might have noticed if you’ve watched the comparison of the two drivers’ laps on F1’s official YouTube channel, Hamilton had to make a correction at the apex of the tight, downhill left-hander, which comprised his exit onto the following straight. To me, it looks as though Hamilton turns in too early compared to Verstappen.
As you can see in the first two pictures, Hamilton turns in a little earlier than Verstappen (look at the outside kerb for reference) – a consequence of the Briton doing the same thing in the previous turn 9. Therefore, in order to not hit the inside kerb too hard, the 7-time world champion has to open up his steering wheel (as seen on the last two pictures). At the same time, it seems from the video (which we unfortunately can’t use) that his car starts to oversteer a tiny bit, requiring the correction to be even bigger, whereas Verstappen keeps a consistent steering angle throughout the corner. The combination of Hamilton’s mistake and the cars’ imbalance results in a bad exit onto the following straight and a big time loss.
Gasly loses front wing
After qualifying fifth and starting on medium tyres, Pierre Gasly seemed to be on for a very good result. That quickly changed though, as he lost his front wing following contact with Daniel Ricciardo at the safety car restart on lap 4. But actually, there isn’t really much to analyse on this one; Gasly simply runs into the back of Ricciardo on entry to turn 6. From Ricciardo’s onboard, it’s very clear that he doesn’t brake check Gasly behind, but that the young Frenchman simply hits the brakes way too late and therefore has no time to change direction. McLaren later revealed that the contact damaged Ricciardo’s floor, costing him pace throughout the race.
Gasly hitting the back of Ricciardo, who takes the regular racing line
Sainz’ mega move
On lap 21, we witnessed what will surely go down as one of the on-track battles of the season, between the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz, the Alpine of Fernando Alonso and the Aston Martin of Sebastian Vettel. Alonso was chasing down Vettel, who was yet to make a pitstop (Alonso and Sainz had both pitted once), with Sainz charging down the two of them from behind. Coming into turn 1, Alonso dived down the inside of Vettel, but since the Spaniard locked up his front-right tyre both himself and Vettel went deep into the corner. Sainz seemed to be anticipating this, taking a tight line through turn 1 and as a result getting a perfect run through turn 2 and 3, sweeping around the outside of Vettel and overtaking Alonso at the end of the following straight. Going into turn 4, Alonso then locked up his front-right once again, allowing Vettel space to dive down his inside.
Alonso locking up and going deep into turn 1
Sainz taking a tight line through turn 2, allowing him to overtake Vettel around the outside of turn 2
Sainz making use of his better exit to overtake Alonso, and Alonso locking up and letting Vettel past
Vettel rams Ocon
If Sebastian Vettel had thought up an ideal scenario for his debut with Aston Martin, I’m sure it didn’t quite go after his head. After qualifying eighteenth and receiving a grid penalty which meant he started last, the 4-time world champion clashed with Esteban Ocon on lap 44. But whilst Vettel himself complained over the team radio that Ocon changed lines in the braking zone, it is very clear from the two pictures that it is in fact Vettel who changes his line, not Ocon.
Vettel changing his line and running into the back of Ocon
If we go onboard with Ocon, it is once again very clear that the Alpine driver keeps his car on the normal racing line until he has to turn in order to make the corner ahead. The stewards very much agreed, awarding Vettel a 10-second time penalty.
Ocon stays left during the entirety of the braking zone before turn 1
Like we’ve seen so often before, the Bahrain GP almost never fails to deliver an exciting strategic battle, and it didn’t disappoint in 2021 either. There are a few key factors as to why tyre degradation around the Sakhir circuit is as high as it is; firstly, the track surface. The asphalt used is amongst the roughest of the calendar, made from a special aggregate which is shipped all the way from England. Secondly, the circuit is very ‘’rear-limited’’ meaning it contains a lot of heavy traction zones (those being turn 1, turn 2, turn 4, turn 8, turn 10, and turn 14), which obviously degrades the rear tyres massively. Lastly, the change in floor regulations for this season has mainly reduced rear downforce, thereby increasing the load on the rear tyres as they try to keep up with the unchanged – and therefore, just as strong as before – front-ends of the cars.
Now, let’s take a deeper look at the various strategies, starting with the duel at the front.
When the race had settled down a bit after lap 1 and the following safety car restart on lap 4, Lewis Hamilton found himself in second place around 2 seconds behind leader Max Verstappen. With the undercut being very powerful around the Bahrain International Circuit (due to the high tyre amounts of tyre wear), Mercedes pulled the trigger on lap 14 and called Lewis Hamilton into the pits, changing from medium tyres to hards. Red Bull quickly realised that they weren’t likely to keep Hamilton behind if they pitted Verstappen one lap later, so instead they pitted on lap 18 for mediums, in order to set up an alternative strategy. Verstappen came out 7 seconds behind Hamilton, but when Hamilton pitted again on lap 29 for yet another set of hards (having only managed to make his first set last 15 laps) that gap had been reduced to 1,7 seconds.
Red Bull elected to keep the young Dutchman out until 40, when he pitted for a fresh set of hards, coming out around 9 seconds behind Hamilton who had already done 11 laps on his tyres and was going to the end. And so, the battle was on; Hamilton trying desperately to keep the charging Verstappen behind. In the end, Hamilton came out on top after some track limits controversy, which we’ll come back to later. For now though, let’s stick to the strategy. Many people seem to believe that Red Bull dropped the ball and threw away the win, and I tend to agree. Two things about their strategic decisions seem odd. Firstly, that they gave up track position and decided to go for what would regularly be considered the alternative strategy, especially seeing as in the current era following another car and overtaking is very difficult, even with the new 2021 regulations. Secondly, Verstappen’s longest stint – his middle stint – which lasted 22 laps, was done with the medium tyres fitted, as opposed to the more durable, but slower hards. By putting Verstappen on mediums for that stint, Red Bull locked him into using hard tyres for the final stint, in which Verstappen needed maximum pace in order to hunt down and overtake Hamilton. Not to mention that tyres last longer at the end of races as fuel loads and thereby weight comes down. All in all, Red Bull will have to look in the mirror and admit that they likely shot themselves in the foot.
There are however some positives for Red Bull to take away from the Bahrain GP. First of all, as Max Verstappen said post-race, the fact that they are massively disappointed with second place, something which would’ve been considered an achievement last year, shows that the car and ambitions are in place to challenge Mercedes. Second of all, Verstappen almost won the race despite Red Bull making two – what is in my opinion – strategic errors, which shows that their car is probably easier on tyres than the Mercedes, which in the Pirelli era of F1 is a large advantage.
Looking from Mercedes’ perspective, they executed the race pretty well, although definitely not perfectly. Obviously, their strategy of pitting Hamilton early on both his first and second stops required the brilliance of the reigning world champion’s tyre management, but actually that wouldn’t necessarily had been the case, had Mercedes not pitted Bottas on lap 30 and instead leaved the Finn out to chase down Verstappen (and in doing so costing the Red Bull driver valuable seconds, which would’ve protected Hamilton somewhat in the final stint), the leader at that point. Bottas rued the decision of pitting him early after the race, saying that ‘’we were more passive than aggressive today’’. That Mercedes then botched the pitstop and cost Bottas a heap of time didn’t actually make much of a difference in the end – Bottas finished a distant third after making an extra pitstop for fresh medium tyres, and setting the fastest lap of the race. According to Mercedes, Bottas’ race pace was brilliant, and they duly apologised to him for their faulty strategy over the team radio after the checkered flag. All in all though, Mercedes can be satisfied with their race execution, taking the victory in a weekend where they didn’t possess the quickest car. Nevertheless, they’ll have to be wary that they can’t rely on Red Bull making tiny mistakes for the rest of the season.
Moving on to the midfield, which also contained some good battles; Lando Norris, Daniel Ricciardo, Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz, battling it out for the positions between fourth and ninth, with the rapid Red Bull of Sergio Perez taking fifth place. Norris came out on top after an epic first few laps, where the young Briton managed to improve from his initial starting position in seventh to fourth, where as mentioned he would end up finishing. After a horrible first stint in which his pace was horrendous, Leclerc got himself together and crossed the line in sixth position, ahead of Ricciardo and Sainz who made their debuts with McLaren and Ferrari respectively. And whilst there in this race wasn’t much of a strategic battle between the four drives, it looks as though we’re in for an exciting battle between Ferrari and McLaren for third in the constructors’ championship, and their drivers for best of the rest in the drivers’ championship.
One team that appears able to get involved in that fight is AlphaTauri. Even though the Italian team will ultimately be disappointed with the opening race of the season, merely scoring two points, the pace of their car can do nothing but bring a smile to their face. As we saw earlier, Pierre Gasly ruined his own race by driving into the back of Daniel Ricciardo, but that was after qualifying fifth and managing to get into Q2 with and therefore starting on medium tyres. The Faenza-based team also seems to have gotten their hands on a hell of a driver in Yuki Tsunoda, who albeit after qualifying a dissatisfying thirteenth and having a bad start got himself into P9 at the checkered flag, doing some Danny Ric-esque divebombs along the way, including one on none less than Fernando Alonso. Although he was a bit disappointed after the race, Yuki Tsunoda looks to be the real deal and definitely an asset for AlphaTauri.
Hamilton vs Verstappen
We’re saving the best for last, we know – and this is probably the duel which most of you are interested in reading about – so let’s get into it.
We’ve already talked about the strategy which set up their final few laps tussle, so now we’ll put our focus towards two things: the controversies regarding track limits, and the actual wheel-to-wheel action itself – starting with the latter, and knowing that going wide at turn 4 in order to gain any sort of advantage was illegal at that point.
The first crucial moment in the battle takes place on lap 52, when Lewis Hamilton locks up going into the tricky turn 10, goes wide, and lets Verstappen inside his DRS window. Verstappen follows Hamilton closely through the final sector, trying to set up a pass down the start/finish straight on the following lap. He doesn’t quite manage it, but he gets close enough to force Hamilton to take a compromised line into turn 1. Verstappen then goes for the classic Bahrain turn 1/2/3 switchback manoeuvre, poised to overtake Hamilton as soon as possible. As they make their way up towards turn 4, Hamilton sticks to the outside line right until the last moment where he – without being unfair in any way – cuts to defend the inside line. Leaving it that late means Verstappen has no chance of diving further inside than Hamilton, thus forcing the Red Bull driver to try and go the long way around.
Hamilton waiting to commit to the inside line until Verstappen is so close that he has
no choice but to go around the outside
As they enter the braking zone, Verstappen is a little less than half a car-length in front of Hamilton, but the extra grip of his fresher tyres carries him around Hamilton and into the lead. And for a short moment, it looked as though the move was done. But Verstappen goes deep and wide into the corner, and is subsequently forced to give the position back to Hamilton. If we go onboard with Verstappen again, it’s very clear why he went so wide; coming out of turn 4, he has a big moment of oversteer, requiring lots of opposite steering lock to be corrected. This opposite lock throws him out wide, as is very easily observable by the picture to the right.
Verstappen having a big oversteer moment and going wide
Lots of fans on social media have pointed out that it looked as though Hamilton pushes Verstappen wide, which in that case would be Hamilton’s and not Verstappen’s fault. However, it’s very clear from this picture that as Verstappen leaves the track, there is still space to keep at least two wheels on track.
Verstappen leaving the track even though there is enough space to keep at least two wheels on it
As I said, Verstappen is forced to let Hamilton past, which he does on the straight between turn 10 and 11. Two things about this are critical: firstly, following that straight, the drivers enter a very downforce-reliant complex of corners, which makes it hard to follow the car in front, and secondly, Verstappen moves off the racing line to let Hamilton through, as opposed to just slowing down on the racing line and forcing Hamilton to go off-line. Doing this makes Verstappen’s tyres dirty, resulting in a big slide through turn 13 which allowed Hamilton to extend the gap enough to keep out of trouble until the end of the race.
Verstappen’s slide in turn 13, which ultimately cost him victory
Now, let’s turn to the on-going debate about the stewards’ handling of track limits during the race. And I’ll start by making one thing very clear: everything that happened throughout the race – including in Hamilton and Verstappen’s battle – which had anything to do with track limits was completely in compliance with the rules that were in place at the time that the given events took place. In other words: Lewis Hamilton going wide 29 times at the exit of turn 4 was legal, as several drivers confirmed post race. Specifically, drivers going wide at turn 4 would be monitored in qualifying, but not in the race. Apparently, Hamilton and Mercedes had read and understood this muddy rule better than Red Bull, who only realised about halfway into the race that Hamilton was gaining an estimated one tenth per lap on Verstappen by making use of all the track available at turn 4. But as Red Bull informed Verstappen, and he had started going wide as well, Race Control suddenly stepped in after a few laps and awarded Hamilton a black-and-white flag and told the teams that abusing track limits at turn 4 now wasn’t allowed anymore. From then on, both drivers stopped doing it, until Verstappen of course overtook Hamilton.
Many people – after seeing Verstappen let Hamilton back past – have made the logical observation that: ‘’if you are allowed to go wide on a regular lap, shouldn’t you also be allowed to overtake going wide?’’. And whilst I actually agree with this viewpoint, there are a few arguments against it; firstly, ‘’gaining a lasting advantage’’ by going off-track was never allowed. Now, the definition of ‘’a lasting advantage’’ is subjective to opinion, but we have to assume by the goings-on of this race that the FIA defines it as overtaking. Second of all, we have to remember that when Verstappen overtook Hamilton, going wide wasn’t allowed in any circumstance anymore, thus dropping the argument ‘’if you’re allowed to do it on your own, you should also be allowed to overtake doing it’’.
However, I have a few problems with the FIA and Race Control’s approach that I’d like to point out. The most prevalent one, which I’d go as far as to call scandalous and amateurish, is that rules were changed mid-race. Something which was legal on lap 1, wasn’t on lap 56. The more you think about, the more you realise how bad that is. Notwithstanding the fact that it can change the outcome of a race, it demonstrates a complete lack of direction and intent from whoever is in charge, in this case Michael Masi, the F1 Race Director. So my point is very simple: choose some rules, and stick with them. Don’t change them between sessions, and definitely not in the middle of one. And lastly, whilst no blame goes towards Mercedes or Lewis Hamilton, who did an absolutely fantastic job it must be said, I am of the opinion that something should either be or not be allowed. Either you are allowed to go wide, or you aren’t. That approach is much simpler than ‘’you are allowed to go wide but not in order to overtake someone’’, which is confusing even for the people who follow the sport closest.
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