The 2017 Hungarian Grand Prix was a pretty tense race. Once Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen made their solitary pit stops on lap 32 and 33 respectively, the pendulum of pace began to swing in favor of Mercedes-Benz.
Before the fateful change to the soft tyre, Sebastian Vettel’s race lead sat comfortably at seven seconds over the highest placed Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas in P3. But, by the time the leading pack, consisting of both Ferrari’s and Mercedes’, had made all of their stops on lap 33, just 4.929s separated the fastest car of each manufacturer.
Over the successive laps both Mercedes continued their charge toward the Ferrari’s on the soft tyre; funnily enough, the same compound they had unbelievably exploited just a fortnight ago during the British Grand Prix.
Their charge was also helped by damage to Vettel’s steering, which he admitted gave the car a “strange feeling.” Vettel would later reveal he apologized to Raikkonen for his pace, which he described as “slow and struggling.”
Either way, the lack of pace for Ferrari was a treat for Mercedes, who took that 5 second gap from after the stops and substantially closed it down, in fact, all the way to just 1.6 seconds off the second placed Raikkonen by lap 44!
Then, Bottas’ charge, as suddenly as it had started, stopped
But, 1.6 seconds was as close as Valtteri Bottas could get to compatriot Kimi Raikkonen throughout the second stint. This is why, at the beginning of lap 46, Mercedes asked the Finn to move over for team mate Hamilton, who had earlier told the team, “I’ve got a lot of pace, now let me use it.”
Let him use it they did; Bottas, in a gentleman manner and spirit, let Hamilton loose to try and catch and pass both Raikkonen and Vettel. It looked as if Hamilton would do it immediately because his first lap ahead of Bottas was his second fastest of the entire race and a whole 1.166s faster than his previous lap.
Hamilton’s blistering and unearthly pace promptly sparked a poignant conversation between Sky Sports F1 commentators Anthony Davidson and David Croft. Unsurprisingly, it was about whether Ferrari should use team orders to let Raikkonen loose, thus ensuring a Scuderia victory.
“If you’re Kimi Raikkonen, I want to hear from him at the moment,” Croft quipped.
“You’ve said to the team already, ‘you’ve put me in an impossible position, I’m gonna get challenged by a Mercedes, you should have let me past my team mate who’ – I don’t know if Kimi knows this or not – ‘has steering issues.”
Croft clearly inferred that Raikkonen should be let past Vettel because the latter was too slow with his steering issues. Davidson agreed, simply stating, “[Raikkonen’s] clearly the faster car.”
Ferrari, characteristically, refuse to advantage their No. 2
In more simple terms, at this stage of the race Vettel wasn’t quick enough and Hamilton’s pace was so sublime he would catch the pair and pass both of them. Ferrari’s option was to let Raikkonen past because he had more pace, as he admitted post-race.
“Today I knew I had all the tools to finish in a better position,” Raikkonen told media, “I was never able to use my full speed.”
As hindsight later proved, Hamilton was unable to pass either Ferrari, despite his sensational efforts. But, he was clearly quicker, and the numbers suggest this hypothesis too.
During his charge, Hamilton got DRS for the first time against second placed Kimi Raikkonen on lap 59. This was a whole 14 laps after Bottas let Hamilton ahead of him for the Ferrari assault. In that time, Hamilton averaged a lap time of 1:21.728.
By comparison, Sebastian Vettel, Hamilton’s ultimate target only averaged a lap time of 1:21.853 in the same period. Crucially, Vettel spent the majority of this period in clear air, whilst Hamilton’s lap times were heavily influenced by the constant ‘dirty air’ effect from Raikkonen’s car.
After the race concluded, Valtteri Bottas gave a pretty amazing insight into the atrocities the dirty air effect can cause at the Hungaroring. “[O]nce you get within 1.5 seconds to the car in front of you it becomes so difficult to close the gap,” he said.
Bottas then went on to say his pace was “not so much a problem,” instead saying track position was a “big benefit” for Ferrari during their decisive 1-2 finish.
And, that’s just the thing. When Hamilton looked as if he would successfully overcome both slowing Ferrari’s, he didn’t. However, it’s Bottas’ comments which clearly paint why the Briton’s pace advantage suddenly dropped away.
Taking the timings between Bottas letting Hamilton through on lap 46 and Hamilton finding himself within the 1.5 second threshold of Raikkonen on lap 47 – which is only two laps – it shows Hamilton did have far more superior pace than those around him.
Over these two laps, Hamilton averaged a lap time of 1:21.039, which is 0.689s quicker than his average time when it includes laps stuck behind Raikkonen.
Hamilton’s gap to Raikkonen went from 3.414s on lap 45, all the way down to just 1.361s by lap 48 – just four timed laps. That’s a difference of 2.053s and therefore an average of just over 5 tenths per lap before hitting the 1.5 second threshold outlined by Bottas post-race.
Why did this happen?
The new generation of Formula 1 cars in 2017 are the primary reason Hamilton was unable to get past Raikkonen. As mentioned many times above, the dirty air effect was the main cause – which has become far more prevalent in the 2017 Formula 1 season.
This is because the new 2017 regulations have majorly increased the downforce created by Formula 1 cars. For this season, the overall width of the floor was increased by 200mm, the barge boards of the cars were made significantly longer, the diffusor was made wider and taller by 50mm, and the rear ring was made lower and far wider.
All of these changes were made to achieve one thing: more downforce and thus faster cornering speeds with quicker lap times. The subsequent effect of this decision is a major increase in drag on the cars. Unfortunately, extra drag is what creates the dirty air effect and thus makes it significantly more difficult to follow a car and then overtake it in 2017.
The following video is a perfect example of how dirty air works, and why it has such an effect on the car behind.
Should it have happened?
Earlier in 2017, Lewis Hamilton emerged as a major skeptic of the decision to increase aerodynamic grip, as he felt the cars actually “need more mechanical grip.” He made these comments after the first pre-season test in Barcelona and urged fans not to “hold your breath” for better racing this season because of the changes.
Felipe Massa echoed those thoughts, commenting at the same time, “I’m sure it will be more difficult to overtake.”
Nigel Roebuck, who’s covered Formula 1 since 1971, was also quick to realize the issues of increased downforce too. In a piece for Motorsport Magazine in September of 2016, Roebuck questioned if “spectators will get much from a high-speed train, with minimal overtaking” – an eerie example of what did eventually happen for the top four in the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Sebastian Vettel also joined the critics following the season opening Grand Prix in Australia. “[I]n the corners it is more difficult to follow,” Vettel said, as he went on to estimate how dirty air was now affecting drivers who were “two and a half” seconds behind another car.
All of this makes it quite clear as to what happened in the 2017 Hungarian Grand Prix. The Hungaroring circuit is “notoriously difficult” for overtaking according to Pirelli; Toto Wolff echoed those thoughts admitting on Wednesday that the track has a “lack of overtaking opportunities.”
With overtaking already made harder by shorter braking distances and wider cars, 2017’s increased aerodynamics, which had a knock-on effect for dirty air, was the key factor which consequently thwarted Hamilton’s blistering inhuman charge toward the Reds on Sunday afternoon.
The only question that comes of this, for me: did Ferrari know this would inevitably happen?