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The Dust Settles – Silverstone

The Dust Settles – Silverstone

Summer showers, over 120,000 spectators and a double points finish for MERCEDES GP PETRONAS: there was plenty to get excited about in Silverstone last weekend…

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” wrote Shakespeare wistfully several centuries ago. “Not if it’s at Silverstone,” you’d probably answer, after a weekend of unseasonably low temperatures and unpredictable showers squalling across the old airfield in Northamptonshire.

More than once, we looked into the skies last weekend to see bright sunshine all around the circuit – and a menacing black cloud hovering right over us. It may not have been fun for the hundreds of thousands who flocked to the circuit, but it certainly provided the ingredients for some great racing…

Silverstone was an important home race for MERCEDES GP PETRONAS – just like for seven other teams up and down the pit lane. But it wasn’t just about having friends, family and colleagues in the stands, because last weekend saw the team bring a major update to the track: a brand-new exhaust system, which included revised bodywork and floor.

Whenever you have new developments, the only thing you ask for is plenty of dry track time to evaluate baseline performance and make set-up comparisons. In Silverstone, we got none of that; indeed, the package went into qualifying and the race with just one hour’s dry running, after Michael suffered an hydraulic problem that left him in the garage for much of third practice.

With Nico completing both high and low fuel running in that Saturday morning session, we went into the business end of the weekend with more questions than answers. And to come out with two points finishes is, while nothing to shout too loud about, certainly a promising sign that our development is on the right path – and that the hard work in the factories to produce upgrades that work first time out is paying off.

It may have taken until mid-season to adopt the new system but, as Ross made clear before the race, the priority was first to understand the car, and second to introduce solutions – not just copy blindly. That has now been done, and the first signs are promising, but a word of caution: Silverstone is a tougher circuit for the front tyres than the rear. We still need to see how the car performs in hot conditions on a ‘rear-limited’ track before we can say for sure that we are moving in the right direction.

It may be a little early to call Silverstone a turning point for our season – only time will tell us that – but the first signs were certainly not without promise…

NICO

Changing conditions always an offer opportunity to spring a surprise – but there’s no guarantee whether it will be nice or nasty. In Montreal, the team managed to take full advantage of the conditions to run strongly at the head of the field; in Silverstone, the unpredictable conditions probably cost us positions in qualifying.

Nico ended the session in ninth place, having completed third practice in P8. But he was left with the feeling that there was more to come from the new package. He had finished Q2 in fifth position, with a lap just 22 thousandths off Jenson Button in fourth, and felt that similar was achievable in Q3.

However, after completing his first lap on a lightly used set of options – and improving his time relative to Q2 – he was on an even better one when light rain at turn 15 (Stowe, in other words) ruined his chances.

On that lap, he was 0.348s up on his best – and cars that qualified in front of him, such as Maldonado and Di Resta, had no new tyres left with which to run again. But the rain forced him to pit. He started he race ninth, having qualified just 0.311s behind Button in fifth. The performance was there, but we just didn’t catch the track quite right.

As for the race, Nico effectively started from 12th, having got shuffled down the pack on lap one – just the second time this season he has lost position on the first lap. After that, he got his head down and picked off the cars ahead of him one by one. It was a solid, mistake-free drive – and, just as importantly, the new developments allowed him to run a two-stop strategy.

To make it work, Nico had to make the option tyres last 22 laps, from lap 30 to the flag. He modulated his pace at the start of the stint, driving just as quickly as he needed to, and it paid off; Perez harried him for much of the stint, but by the flag was some five seconds back. Nico’s tyres had done over 115 racing kilometres and outlasted even the usually kind-on-tyres Sauber.

Just as important was the team’s role in Nico’s result: he spent 49.121s in the pits, compared to Perez’s 51.005s. Every second counted in the battle for track position around the stops, and once again the guys’ hard work paid off.

MICHAEL

Hands up if you remember Turkey? Well, the recipe for Michael’s race in Silverstone was very similar: a great start, great speed through the stints, but an unfortunate collision – plus additional pit stop – that masked a cracking drive.

Michael is fast developing a reputation as a first-lap demon: he gained four positions on the first lap last Sunday, the fourth time this year he has made up three or more positions by the end of lap one. That set him up for a solid first stint as the drivers proceeded cautiously on the inters on a wet/dry circuit, looking after the tyres and taking opportunities as they came.

Running close behind Kobayashi, Michael first got close enough to use DRS on lap nine. Braking for turn 6 (Brooklands), he misjudged it, lost the rear end and slid into the Sauber, crunching his front wing in the process. He lost around 12 seconds running back to the pits without his front wing, more time as the nose was changed – but became the first man to run dry tyres, as he headed back out in P18 on lap 10.

The choice proved its worth: by the time he came back to the pits on lap 16, to serve a 10 second stop-go for the collision, Michael was up to eighth place; he even set the fastest lap of the race up to that point on lap 13.

After the race, the penalty was the object of some frustration, but the reason for the stop-go, rather than the more usual drive-through, was simple: the new pit-lane at Silverstone is shorter than the circuit (in-laps were around four seconds quicker than racing laps), so a simple drive-through was not deemed ‘enough’ of a penalty.

Michael re-emerged in P17, and there were echoes of Valencia where an extra stop saw him emerge in P20 – and finish only three positions higher. However, an indication of the step forward the team has made came with Michael’s subsequent charge: his average lap times between laps 17 and 31 were comparable to the leaders, and he hauled himself steadily up the field.

Ultimately, Heidfeld’s Renault gained track position at the second and final stop, and was able to hold Michael off until the flag. But two points were still sufficient to haul the team ahead of Lotus Renault GP in the constructors’ standings. Indeed, we have now outscored our closest rivals in the championship in six of the last seven races – a trend we will aim to continue as we push on with development through the summer.

As for our next stop, that’s in Germany – another home race for the team, and the home event for both of our drivers. It will be the first time the Silver Arrows have raced at the famous Nürburgring in the modern era – and it’s a place where we have made a fair bit of history over the years. We will certainly be aiming even higher in two weeks’ time. Bis bald!

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