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INSIDE F1

With the exception of Valtteri Bottas in Russia, the F1 season has thus far been characterised by wins for Vettel, then Hamilton, and then Vettel again, followed by Hamilton, Vettel, and Hamilton. A ding-dong battle? Yes. And it’s set to continue . . .

Way back in the 1960s, half a century ago, there were no cardinal sins except one: daring to be a Beatles fan and a Stones supporter.

You had to be one or the other. You had to choose.

That’s pretty much how we humans tend to function, in either/or fashion.

Take Monaco 2017, just the other day. Kimi Räikkönen pulled a genuinely fast one on us and voila: pole! Referencing this sweet French term ain’t in vain either, as the Kimster’s previous pole was, voila, in France. In 2008. That’s almost a decade ago.

The last Räikkönen GP victory is similarly buried in the deep recesses of memory; Australia it was. In 2013. Almost half a decade ago.

So, it is quite obvious that Kimi-Matias, better known as the Ice Man, had a score to settle in the Principality. Pole was nice. But you don’t get to score points, lift a trophy, or mount a podium.

Kimi therefore was – and still is – in dire need of a race win.

Now, I’m not saying that the Finn is hopeless around Monegasque streets, like Nelson Piquet used to be. By golly, Nigel Mansell was far more of a street slugger than Nelson and even Nige’ never managed to bag Monaco.

It’s nevertheless true that Kimi’s strong suit is fast natural tracks like Spa. At the end of 2008, when he was ousted from Ferrari to make way for Fernando Alonso and Santander sponsorship, the Scuderia’s engineers were adamant that Räikkönen had redefined the possibilities of what a racing car could do in long fast corners.

This from insiders who had been working with Schumacher for many years.

Kimi the Kid

So, the Kimster is – or perhaps was – a bit like Billy the Kid: around 5’8’’/5’9’’ in imperial, 1.75 m in metric, mid-60s in kg’s, sandy to light brown hair, clear blue eyes and with magic in the hands or, in Billy’s case, the left hand.

Now, in The Kid’s terms, Monaco is a bit of a right-handed track for Kimi. He can do it and do it well, as he did in 2005, both in qualifying and in the race, winning at a canter after pole by half a second over Alonso and by more than a second over McLaren team mate, Montoya.

Yet, Kimi-Matias Räikkönen would normally not be seen as a pre-race Principality favourite.

Pole in 2017, therefore, was a huge boost.

Yet, it was the race that really mattered to The Kid.

His start was good, the first stint commanding. On Lap 30 Kimi did a 1:17.105, then a 1:17.074, then a slower lap followed by a 1:17.034.

It was not as if his tyres were dropping off.

So, why was Kimi called in for fresh rubber at the end of Lap 34? To cover the undercut from Mercedes’ Bottas?

No. Valtteri was lagging by much more than the 20 seconds needed by Ferrari to pit and re-join in the lead.

Subterfuge in the name of Seb

To the stop then: not particularly slow, but (at 3.4 seconds) definitely not quick either, costing Kimi the better part of half a second vis-à-vis Vettel, who stopped five laps later and burned up a clear track in between.

And yes, Seb might have upped the pace after Kimi pitted, and that on old rubber, but behind Vettel Red Bull driver Ricciardo did similar times on equally worn tyres, indicating that the ultra-softs were far from depleted when Ferrari called Räikkönen in.

The Kid, to boot, comfortably set the race’s fastest middle sector on Lap 34, prior to peeling off into the pits; enough indication to any fool – let alone mentally agile strategy experts – that his tyres were far from shot.

To the contrary, they were picking up pace, just as Vettel and Ricciardo’s did.

On top of that, Räikkönen was spewed out on track directly behind Wehrlein’s slow Sauber and Vandoorne’s lawnmower McLaren; just on Lap 35, Kimi lost three seconds-plus to Vettel.

Game over – even though one can argue that the ultimate difference was made by Vettel’s speed on Laps 37, 38 and 39 (when the German pitted).

Here’s the crucial bit, though: you cannot argue the latter in isolation. Vettel delivered spectacularly on old tyres to snatch the lead, and with it victory – but he couldn’t have done it without a window having been engineered for him by Scuderia, who knew full well that Kimi would re-join behind slower cars.

The Kid didn’t take to the subterfuge kindly, his clear blue eyes shooting pin sharp icicles – call them Billy the Kid bullets – when Seb tried to shake hands afterwards.

The Hammer in Montreal

By contrast, Montreal conjured up far less intrigue, but much more on-track drama, as it usually does in Canada’s habitually chaotic grand prix.

And whereas Lewis Hamilton was the focus of Mercedes’s struggles in Monaco, not being able to get the car’s tyres in the narrow operating window allowed by his long-wheelbased Mercedes W08, the Hammer was again the focus of proceedings, delivering dynamite in qualifying and consummate skill on race day.

Now, on Friday the Mercs and Maranellian cars were a match for each other. But Free Practice 3 on Saturday morning seemed to confirm that the Silver Arrows had a fundamental problem with point and squirt tracks, like Sochi (in Russia), Monaco, and the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on the St. Lawrence River’s man-made Île Notre-Dame island.

Then came Saturday afternoon and one of the game’s all-time great qualifying laps. Hamilton crushed Vettel by more than three-tenths, but even more telling, his own team mate Bottas by more than seven-tenths.

This on a track where team mates are normally separated by mere fractions: Hamilton 0.062 seconds faster than Rosberg in 2016 quali, Bottas 0.079 faster than Massa.

Or 2015: Kvyat 0.035 seconds faster than Ricciardo.

Or 2014: Rosberg 0.079 seconds faster than Hamilton, Bottas 0.028 faster than Massa, Chilton 0.011 seconds faster than Bianci.

In 2012 Rosberg was 0.050 seconds faster than Schumacher, with Button’s McLaren squeezed in between.

That’s Canada quali.

It therefore took a performance of Sennaesque proportions for Hamilton to do what he did this year and the reward was no less Sennaesque: the Brit’s 65th F1 pole, equalling the great man’s tally; plus a helmet worn by Senna during his 1987 F1 campaign, gifted by the Brazilian’s family.

In appropriate style, Hamilton then romped away with the race, shifting the focus to Vettel who had to replace his front wing after having been clipped when the young Verstappen executed another bold and opportunistic pass, this time into Turn 1, straight after the start.

Wearing his heart on his sleeve, Seb then tore through the field to finish fourth; a great afternoon of damage limitation when the whole world had been waiting for a ding-dong battle between this year’s two main title protagonists – which, yep, yields a classic either/or choice.

You are either a Merc/Hamilton fan or a Ferrari/Vettel fanatic.

That’s just how F1 operates, finish and klaar.

 

 

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