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F1: Of halos and villains.

Publication: 
Bryan Edwards
chiefofficersnet

It is becoming increasingly clear that my earlier argument that, if F1 is serious about providing the closest racing and the best spectacle, it really should abandon the massive shift in car design that is, now, only eight (or less) races away. The new qualifying format creates ample opportunity for the grid to be turned on its head and that helps but, as the race in Zandvoort showed, the fact that the lower budget teams have now had the chance to catch up with the big spenders has brought most of the pack into contention, as McLaren's historic first and second demonstrated in Monza.

The over-riding point that any analysis of the 2021 Italian Grand Prix demonstrates is the boys will be boys - and that while good luck rarely plays a role in motor-racing, bad luck often does.

The bad behaviour of drivers in Free Practice One showed that F1, at a track with long straights that terminate in tight corners, is a haven for slip-streamers. It has been said that a combination of the Drag Reduction System and a slipstream along two of the long straights can be worth up to seven tenths of a second per lap. Seven tenths is an incomprehensible length of time in an industry where millions are spent looking for a hundredth, or less. Team mates "tow" each other around, providing a slingshot to improve their grid position. And if the leading car of a pair can pick up the vacuum effect of a car in front, the times can be impossible to achieve by aerodynamics and power alone.

Last year, drivers learned that they could drive very slowly in the final sector before launching down the main straight. This is dangerous because some drivers are already on a fast lap and for them to come across a gaggle of cars pottering about on the blind side of a corner, the risk of a collision is high; and of course it spoils the lap of the driver who is coming up fast. So the rules were changed: drivers had to maintain a speed of not less than 120% of a time set by the FIA and enforced by the stewards. So the drivers simply blatted around three quarters of the lap and then went very slowly, like a Moto3 event used to see, as no one wanted to be first or, even, second in the train.

The misbehaving set the tone for the main race which everyone feared would be a re-run of the Silverstone incident between Verstappen and Hamilton as they reached the first corner together. It wasn't although it wasn't long before the two were barging their way through chicanes, side by side, in what in saloon car racing is known as "rubbing door handles."

Like teachers watching the two biggest boys in the playground facing off, the stewards let them get on with it so long as they didn't threaten anyone else's race. And they didn't. Ricciardo had had a fantastic start and had outdragged Verstappen into Primo Variente, the first hint that Monza has corners. Officially it's not a chicane but really it is and, as chaos ensued further down the field, the first four - Ricciardo and Verstappen followed by Norris and Hamilton - sailed imperiously away. And that started the dominoes falling.

Mercedes had decided on a tactical tyre choice that went in the opposite direction from everyone else: both cars, which included Bottas who, due to engine component changes was starting last, were on hard tyres. This was not a bad choice: Monza is, essentially, an oval with a bit of a wiggle in the middle. If you think of a boot, from the side, that's what the track is like. There is so much straight that setting the car up for corners is to handicap it. Drivers have to arrive at corners and hang-on for dear life as the cars, with minimal downforce, are told to stop on a sixpence and turn on a dime. That's why the hard tyres were high risk. But they would last longer, perform better with heavy fuel loads and being hard down the straights is no handicap at all. The soft and medium tyres that the others had would degrade faster, the field would spread out and when it came time for Hamilton to pit, he'd be putting the faster tyres on with a lighter fuel load and the chance to drop into a gap in the field would by then have presented itself.

Except that the chaos at the first corner led to a safety car and that extended the life of the soft tyres while making no material difference to the hard tyres. So Hamilton would be changing tyres at a time that was not that dissimilar to the others.

Then for both Hamilton and Verstappen, the unthinkable happened: they both had poor pitstops. Very quick stops by both McLarens put them into a very strong position. Hamilton and Verstappen were in the mid-field pack. It was worse: the extra time in the pits resulted in Hamilton coming out alongside Verstappen. Verstappen, on hot tyres, took the outside line around the first of part of the first chicane that no one says is a chicane. Hamilton was on the inside in a re-run of some of the argy-bargy from earlier. This time, Verstappen hit a sausage kerb which lifted his car slightly. Then he bounced into Hamilton's rear wheel which launched the Red Bull into the air.

Then it got scary. The front of the Red Bull flew over the front wing of the Mercedes but the rear rotated. The right rear flew across the airbox, wiping it off the car. Then the Red Bull's front wing dug into the gravel and started to rotate the car in the opposite direction, across the top of Hamilton's head and onto the halo.

It was over in a fraction of a second. When Hamilton examined his helmet, the cameras showed there was a small scrape but no tyre marks. How? No one will ever know other than that the rear tyre was too fat to fall into the space in the halo. We all knew that we had seen what could have turned into the worst thing we could imagine: another multiple World Champion dead at Monza as a result of head injuries.

Instead, admitting to being shaken up, Hamilton walked back, a little unsteadily, to the pits. Verstappen stomped off without even looking at Hamilton - at first walking into the middle of the track even though there was no red flag.

There was, in truth, no need for a red flag. The two cars were in a quite a tidy pile by the said of the road. As is usual, both the drivers and the teams made public protestations to influence the stewards. Eventually, Verstappen was adjudged more to blame and will suffer a three place grid slot penalty at the next race.

I don't think he deserved that penalty: again, it seems that the punishment has been awarded for the consequences, or potential consequences, rather than for the driving offence. Could he have backed out of it? Yes, but so could Hamilton. Could he have gone over the kerbs and cut the corner? Maybe, but at considerable risk of damage to the floor which, as he suffered when Bottas over-ran recently, he's had before.

The really important thing is this: again, the halo, hideous as it is, has saved another racing driver's life.

In other news, before the race, Bottas had told reporters that he intended to finish on the podium. He did, albeit after an epic chase through the field to fourth when he somehow seemed to lose pace once he had come up behind Perez. But Mercedes' strategists had it right; if he could pass Perez easily, then he would have, on his form until that point, have been challenging the McLarens. Perez, on the other hand, was a very effective roadblock - and a roadblock with a five second penalty for being naughty earlier. So long as Bottas was within five seconds of Perez, he'd finish third without stressing the car more than he had already done.

The McLarens ran in line astern for lap after lap. At one point, Perez started to close in and Norris asked if Ricciardo could go a bit quicker. He politely asked at one point "is it better for us if we hold station?" The team said yes. On one level, it was lovely to see Ricciardo with a win and, from the team's point of view, it didn't matter who came first. But it made a significant difference - seven points - to Norris' battle for third in the Championship. He's too close to comfort with Bottas. Given that Ricciardo had demonstrated his point from the first corner, for the first time since he joined the team, a swap with Norris to help his team-mate in the standings would have been the fair thing to do.

Yet, Mclaren weren't done: on the last lap, they both turned it up and took the fastest and second fastest time of the day, Norris one tenth slower as he cruised to the line.

After Russel's recent podium for Williams (which, on such a low-downforce track did poorly) one thing stands out. The British teams that have been in the doldrums for so long are capable of doing well.

McLaren got its results on merit, just as Russell did in the rain.

That is almost as good to see as the fact that no serious harm came to either driver in such a dangerous crash.

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