F1 Austrian Grand Prix: That’s The Pits

f1-2014-austria-rosberg-victoryThere’s one way that every race fan wants a race to be decided: On the race track. However, you could make a reasonable argument that yesterday’s Austrian Grand Prix was decided in pit lane. The cars with the best strategy and best pit stops made it to the front. He might not have had the fastest car but Nico Rosberg had the fastest race en route to his third win of the season.

It was an unexpected front row to start the race. It was Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas who locked out the front row for Williams for the first time since 2003. That was the 2003 German Grand Prix in August with Juan Pablo Montoya leading Ralf Schumacher which makes you realize how long ago that was.

Williams was also able to retain those top two spots through the first stint. Nico Rosberg jumped from third to second off the start but Bottas charged into second by Turn 2. Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton, who started in 9th, had climbed up to 4th by the second lap.

While it looked like this could be Williams’ day and the second straight Mercedes loss, it was pit stops and pit strategy that dictated the order of this race. Rosberg was the first to pit with Hamilton following the next lap. The two Williams drivers didn’t follow for several laps and the undercut left the two white cars well in the dust behind Mercedes.

At the start of the race, it looked like Hamilton might have had the fastest car on-track. However, there was one fatal flaw in his plan that he didn’t count on. He didn’t count on spending over two seconds more stationary on pit road than his teammate. Every second lost in the pits is worth three on track. When the race was over and Hamilton backed off to coast home, he was behind his teammate by 1.9 seconds. Whether you measure the gap by actual time lost in the stops or amplified by three, Hamilton’s opportunity to win was not lost at his hands but that of his pit crew.

f1-2014-austria-podiumThe win grew Rosberg’s championship lead to 29 points which is his largest gap of the season. He’s also out pointed Hamilton for each of the last three races. Hamilton bounced back from his last DNF with a win but only managed a 2nd here. Valtteri Bottas was clearly the faster of the Williams and produced his first career podium as a result.

Felipe Massa finished in 4th. Fernando Alonso thought he had a great race but he started 4th and held onto 5th after Hamilton passed him from 9th. Sergio Perez attempted to gain track position by making fewer pit stops than everyone else. It got him up to 6th at the finish. Kevin Magnussen finished 7th for his third straight points finish. Daniel Ricciardo followed up his win with an 8th. Nico Hulkenberg crossed the line in 9th. And Kimi Raikkonen rounded out the points in 10th.

As we approach the half-way point of the calendar year, talks about minor rule changes for the upcoming season are heating up (or hotting up, as our British friends would say).

The most controversial rules change involves the safety car procedures. A proposal approved by all the teams will see the restart from the safety car period will see rolling restarts replaced by a standing start on the starting grid.

The proposal, which still has to be approved by the World Motor Sport Council, is designed to improve the show. Teams believe that allowing the race leader to control the pace gives them an advantage that eliminates any possibility of passing on restarts. In America, IndyCar and NASCAR both use designated acceleration zones in which leaders can resume running at green flag speeds to keep passing opportunities up.

There are a number of issues that come with this proposal besides the fact that fan reaction online is that of confusion and annoyance. The cars don’t have clutches that are designed to handle multiple hard starts during a race so clutch development will have to be undertaken. The cars likely won’t react well to having to sit on the grid multiple times per race. And there are the general safety issues as a result of standing starts which are less safe than rolling starts. Oddly, the restart zones in American racing actually make standing starts safer than rolling starts so there’s that.

The worst part of the rule is that Marussia boss Graeme Lowdon says that the standing restarts aren’t mandatory but at the discretion of the race director. I assume that’s a provision included so multiple safety car restarts leave a pile of broken cars on the grid. However, the possibility of an element of randomness shouldn’t sit well with anyone as it could affect the outcome of a race.

Watching this race was a chore. Our lovely Canadian broadcaster, TSN, decided to show commercials every ten minutes. I thought the every fifteen minutes was bad but the indiscriminate cutting away mid-battle, mid-pit sequence and mid-analysis was almost bad enough for me to give up want turn off the TV.

Starting at 10 minutes after the race start, a two to three-minute ad break was shown. It happened every ten minutes (plus a few seconds at times because breaks were on the 5s by the end of the race) and you could almost set your watch by them. Over the first sixty-ish minutes of the race, there were 6 ad breaks that covered about 15 minutes of racing action. That’s 25% of the first two-thirds of race that was shown in a tiny split-screen window that is so small that you can almost make out the colours of the cars and nothing else. Fortunately, the final 25 minutes of the race were commercial free… Probably because they ran out of ads to run.

I keep harping about TSN but you should never accept mediocrity as an improvement on being awful. Ever since they cut costs in 2009 “because of the recession,” the quality of TSN’s coverage has gone from bad to “why do you even bother? I’d be better off watching a 240p Sky Sports stream.” And now that Sportsnet has stopped caring about IndyCar, I have no faith in them either. Can we get NBCSN in Canada to show F1 and IndyCar?

The next round of the 2014 Formula One World Championship will be in two weeks’ time. For most of the teams, it’s a lovely weekend in their own beds. For the drivers, it isn’t because they’re not in Monaco or Switzerland. It’s the annual home race for most of the teams and mechanics as F1 goes to Silverstone for the British Grand Prix.

So which Mercedes car is going to win? I’d like to say Williams would have an outside chance but they had a golden opportunity in Austria but squandered it with poor decisions on the pit wall and poor work on pit road. The same thing ruined Lewis’s chances too.

But the British Grand Prix will come down to a battle between Rosberg and Hamilton. Bad luck has all gone Lewis’s way so one would have to assume that no luck would favour Hamilton over the Mercedes team having any luck at all. Both drivers are strong at Silverstone so it’ll be interesting to see who has the upper hand. For the sake of the championship, I’m hoping it’ll be Lewis but pit stops will probably prevent that from happening.


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