There is not much wrong with modern Formula 1 TV coverage when it comes to distilling the experience of the race weekend. The move to crystal clear ultra-high definition, the innovation of new camera mountings and camera angles and the remarkable access afforded to the broadcasters delivers a fine impression of the dynamic abilities of an F1 car. However, there is no substitute for seeing the cars and the drivers in the raw. The ability to watch a car with fixed references, from the same angle, through the same corner, lap after lap provides a unique perspective on invisible details such as chassis balance and driving style; details often imperceptible from the TV.
The Checkered Flag went trackside during the British and German Grands Prix and took up position at key vantage points at Club Corner, the Luffield complex and the Motodrom. These are some of my findings:
A ‘pointy’ Mercedes with a supreme front axle
Throughout the weekend at the British Grand Prix, it was all too obvious that the Mercedes had significantly more front-end grip than any other car. Both drivers were able to consistently roll the car through the apex of Brooklands whilst carrying immense speed and avoiding any understeer. The prodigious grip of the Mercedes’ front axle worked its magic in almost all conditions, be it in the clumsy slow speed direction change of an overcast Club Corner, or the high-speed flick on the entry of a roasting Motodrom. Lewis Hamilton’s ability to duck underneath a comparably ponderous Haas on the exit of Brooklands during his race simulation was a fairly graphic illustration of the difference between a fast car and a Mercedes.
On the flip side, the Mercedes could sometimes be prone to bouts of rear instability. In FP1 in Germany a sudden snap for Valtteri Bottas in the SudKurve sent the gravel flying, but still put the Finn to the top of the times. It was not only chassis balance that was resulting in oversteer, with Hamilton violently lighting up the rears on the exit of Turn 8 on his pole lap. And yet, whilst a pair of spins in the high-speed NordKurve effectively ruined the race for Mercedes, both Hamilton and Bottas were both able to generate fine lap times throughout practice and qualifying despite their oversteering antics. This has been a recurrent theme this year, with the Mercedes able to reach a higher peak of performance despite a car that is visibly lacking the Ferrari’s front-rear balance.
However, there is certainly no doubting who is mastering the ‘pointy’ chassis characteristics of the Mercedes. Whilst Bottas was clearly driving with relish on the high-speed layout of Silverstone – perhaps even shading his team-mate for outright speed and commitment – Hamilton’s intuitive mid-corner dexterity puts him at a clear advantage when the Mercedes wants to misbehave. In the blistering heat of Hockenheim, Hamilton was just so much more adept at containing the rear through the technical double right at the end of the lap.
The most benign car on the grid?
The Ferrari is spectacularly unremarkable each and every time it sweeps past. It has by far and away the best chassis balance and appears to have the best mechanical base. The Ferrari was the only car able to consistently abate the understeer in the final corners in the Motodrom by actively leaning the car up against the curb. Even when Charles Leclerc slightly overcooked his entry to the penultimate corner in FP3, the suspension was able to fully absorb the rebound from the curb enabling Leclerc to complete the lap without losing much time.
Overall the Ferrari is clearly the most docile, driveable car on the grid. And yet, increasingly, you sense this is a symptom of the Ferrari’s core deficiencies. In reality, the car looks benign because the chassis is simply unable to carry the corner speed. Whilst it is difficult to see the disparity in apex speed with the naked eye, the hint of medium speed understeer and the mildly lethargic body language in the slow-speed direction change of Club belies a lack of downforce relative to the Mercedes and Red Bull.
Interestingly, the Ferrari produced some of its best single-lap pace in Hockenheim with Leclerc visibly on the edge of the rear tyre slip angle. In the rare event that the Ferrari does step out of line, it is almost exclusively in Leclerc’s hands, with the Monegasque seemingly content to use his naturally aggressive style to energise the car. Sebastian Vettel is struggling to trim brake and throttle application zones, amid whispers that the German is suffering from entry instability. Entry oversteer has been a historic nadir of Vettel’s driving style, with troubles following the ban on the off-throttle exhaust blown diffuser in the opening races of 2012 and a poor season in 2014 following the move to the less grippy hybrid cars.
Verstappen’s mastery of a ‘snappy’ Red Bull
The Red Bull has some very distinctive chassis balance mannerisms. There is a moment in medium speed corners where the front begins to understeer before gripping up very suddenly. This often results in a snap of oversteer at the mid-corner phase, often before the throttle is applied. This was most graphically showcased as Pierre Gasly creamed his car down the barriers following a violent snap in the final corner in Hockenheim in FP2. Yes, Gasly did overcorrect the slide, but these kinds of staccato balance changes do appear to be a feature of the Red Bull chassis.
A tricky car to drive perhaps gives some scope for a more sympathetic view of Gasly’s rather appalling season, however, a driver of frontrunner calibre really ought to have gotten a handle on it by now. Certainly, in Max Verstappen’s hands, these snaps are of little concern. The Dutchman’s remarkable ability to control quite substantial slides with the slightest input from his fingertips allows him to exploit the cornering capabilities of a car that is probably closest to the Mercedes in terms of raw downforce. Verstappen’s sweeping lines and minimal inputs are brilliantly compensating for a car that clearly has its weaknesses.
Renault’s knife-edge balance window
You really didn’t need to be the most hawk-eyed fan in the SudKurve grandstand to spot the fact that the Renault is markedly the most difficult car to drive. Into the same medium speed penultimate corner, the Renault could be seen understeering and oversteering on consecutive laps of a long run. The car’s fantastically narrow balance window was especially grating against Nico Hulkenberg’s aggressive style, with the German repeatedly spilling over the exit curb in practice onto the drag strip/ice rink that would ultimately end his race. Daniel Ricciardo’s more measured technique was certainly proving more effective in the Motodrom, with his considerable talent for carrying forward momentum with a sliding rear paying great dividends at the wheel of such a visibly tricky car.
A competitive, diverse midfield
The panoramic view of the Motodrom offered by the SudKurve grandstand highlighted one thing very graphically: each of the ten teams produce a lap time in very different ways. This is especially true of the midfield teams, with each car tackling the eclectic mix of corners at the end of the lap with very different results. The McLaren had fantastic agility throughout the complex with a chassis that – whilst prone to oversteer – was able to carry more corner speed than any of its rivals. The Toro Rosso was not able to carry the same speed as the McLaren into the high-speed Turn 11 (something that was also apparent on the entry of Brooklands) but appeared to have superior traction on the exit of the SachsKurve.
By contrast, the dramatic sight of Romain Grosjean on the lock-stops of Sachs during FP1 was indicative of a Haas that is clearly lacking in mechanical grip. There are fleeting moments when the Haas really catches the eye, and there is no doubting the chassis has immense potential as indicated by Grosjean’s sixth on the grid in Germany with the Melbourne-spec aero package. However the Haas’ downforce simply cannot overcome its mechanical shortcomings, and all too often it appears wooden, even lazy on track. The Alfa Romeo probably has the opposite problem. The car has balance, decent traction and is clearly benefiting from Kimi Raikkonen’s experience and precision in the cockpit. However, the car appears to be lacking in a bit of downforce relative to the other midfielders and struggled to roll speed through the final turns of the Motodrom in the ideal seamless arc.
The competitive nature of the midfield gives drivers a real opportunity to make a difference out on track. Carlos Sainz Jr and Daniil Kvyat were particularly impressive in the Motodrom, both driving with great confidence and tempered aggression, eager to chase the throttle and push the extremities of the racetrack. Although Lando Norris struggled for speed in Hockenheim, both he and Alexander Albon had previously outpaced their team-mates at Silverstone, belying their inexperience to show superb speed and commitment on the demanding high-speed layout. For a rookie, Norris is quite remarkably precise in the cockpit; metronomically apexing the car at the same point, on the same trajectory, lap after lap.
Some upgrades work better than others
The substantial upgrade package that Racing Point brought to the German Grand Prix certainly appeared to succeed in settling down a car that had been prone to rear instability. Whilst an oversteering RP19 was a common sight throughout the weekend at the British Grand Prix, the new bodywork and reduced weight for Hockenheim clearly resulted in a more manageable balance without losing the car’s innately decent slow-speed traction. That said, Lance Stroll still managed to completely overwhelm the rear tyres in Q2 with a fantastically over-aggressive, throttle happy final lap.
However, in contrast with Racing Point’s outwardly successful package, the Williams was simply too slow for any meaningful upturn in performance to be noticeable trackside. 38°C heat and the fact that the upgraded pieces persistently fell off the car didn’t help matters. On its own, the Williams traverses the circuit at a respectable if unremarkable pace. It is still an F1 car after all. However, in traffic, the Williams’ pace deficit is rather too painfully obvious. Hamilton succeeded in overtaking Robert Kubica around the outside of Luffield despite the Pole making absolutely no effort to compromise his FP2 race simulation. In Germany, a timing app wasn’t necessary to deduce the Williams’ backmarker status, so it is quite remarkable – and a mark of the quality of the reigning F2 champion – that George Russell managed to qualify as high as 16th just one week later.