The five key talking points ahead of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone this weekend.
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU
Formula One heads back to where it all began as Silverstone hosts the British Grand Prix this weekend, and as the final Grand Prix in a stretch of four races in five weekends, there’s plenty of momentum – good and bad – being taken into the blast around the signature sweeps of the former World War II airfield this Sunday. What are the key talking points ahead of round 10 of the season? These.
1. Toto’s tough call
There’s an argument that Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff has been the most important person in F1 for the past three years. Why? Consider this stat: Mercedes has won 40 of 47 races since F1 moved into the 1.6-litre turbo hybrid era in 2014, but the team has continually let its drivers race one another – often to its detriment – over that time. It’s a period of domination that reprises memories of Ferrari in the early 2000s – and the sound of Lewis Hamilton being booed on the podium in Austria last weekend, the same podium where Michael Schumacher and the Scuderia were jeered for manipulating the result of the 2002 race at the same circuit by demanding Rubens Barrichello to move over for his team leader – showed just how things could have been if Wolff and Mercedes had elected to employ an all eggs in one basket approach with one of its drivers. There have been flashpoints before 2016, most notably Belgium 2014, but in the last five races, Hamilton and Nico Rosberg have taken one another out on lap one in Spain, clashed at the first corner in Canada, and then tripped over one another on the final lap in Austria, causing Wolff to angrily bang his fist on the table in the Mercedes garage as a sure-fire 1-2 very nearly became a double DNF. Does Wolff decide that some sort of team orders have become necessary to stop a repeat of the last few races? Or will the voices of the fans – and, amongst others, Bernie Ecclestone – drown out any conversations among the Mercedes’ brass to potentially call off the fight? Should Hamilton and Rosberg come together again at Silverstone in a highly-charged atmosphere at Hamilton’s home race and just seven days after the Austrian argy-bargy, Wolff and Mercedes’ management may have no choice.
2. Who has home-ground advantage?
Hamilton will get more cheers at Silverstone than anyone, particularly after the less-than-positive crowd reaction to his win last weekend, but the jet-setting three-time champ hasn’t lived in the UK for years. Jenson Button (more on him later) will get plenty of applause, and Jolyon Palmer some home cheering that’ll soothe some of the pain of his underwhelming start to F1. But it’s arguably Force India (its factory is 1.1km away from the Silverstone circuit) who can really lay claim to home-ground advantage, and even after its pointless Austria disaster, Vijay Mallya’s team crosses the road to Silverstone in a comfortable fifth place in the constructors’ standings, and looking more legitimate than ever after Sergio Perez’s podiums in Monaco and Baku, and Nico Hulkenberg’s front-row start last weekend. Williams (with 92 points to Force India’s 59) isn’t far up the road, and Perez in particular has looked so assured this season that he’s been spoken of as a potential Ferrari driver if the Prancing Horse bites the bullet and doesn’t re-sign Kimi Raikkonen, a turn of events few would have seen coming after his ill-fated dalliance with McLaren in 2013. Beneath the headlines, Force India has had a very solid year indeed.
3. Ricciardo’s Sunday drive
Buried in the avalanche of statistics that goes with any Formula One season is a revelation that might want to make Daniel Ricciardo fans avert their eyes; in nine races this year, the Australian has finished ahead of where he’s started just once, the season-opener at Albert Park. It’s a stat that comes with an asterisk – he could have won in Spain from third on the grid after being committed to what was, in hindsight, the wrong strategy to finish fourth, and absolutely should have won at Monaco from second at the start – but his penchant for brilliant Saturdays followed by Sundays that don’t quite hit those heights is becoming an unwanted trend. He knows it, too. “We’re looking into it,” Ricciardo says. “We’re trying to work out if we are focusing too much on Saturdays and not looking ahead enough at the Sunday – I don’t think that’s the case, but with the way Formula One is now, especially with the tyres, you can just be a little bit out with the set-up and that can change the races.” Ricciardo has routinely been mesmerising in qualifying this season and is the only driver yet to be beaten by his teammate on Saturdays, but making that count when the points are handed out will be a priority from Silverstone onwards. As it stands, he’s only eight points away from being in third place in the drivers’ standings, the unofficial ‘best of the rest’ tag behind the Mercedes drivers that he made his own in 2014.
4. Waiting for Ferrari
In the pre-season, plenty of experts had the 2016 title race as a two-way fight between Mercedes and a resurgent Ferrari, and when it appeared only a conservative tyre strategy scuppered Sebastian Vettel’s quest to win the season-opener in Melbourne, those predictions looked on the mark. But as we approach the near-halfway point of the season at Silverstone, Ferrari is yet to win this season, and has already fallen 100-plus points behind the Silver Arrows in the constructors’ race. With four races in five weekends in July, it’s now or never for the Scuderia. Last weekend in Austria saw Vettel retire from the lead in spectacular fashion when his right-rear tyre exploded on the start-finish straight, while teammate Raikkonen inherited a podium on the final lap thanks to the Rosberg-Hamilton stoush after what appeared to be another tactical mistake by the team, pitting the Finn to cover off race-leader Hamilton, but releasing him behind Red Bull pair Max Verstappen and Ricciardo, the former of whom he never managed to pass. Both drivers have 96 points after the first nine races, and Vettel’s title hopes may have already been dashed by moments outside of his control – a blown engine in Bahrain on the warm-up lap, getting taken out by Daniil Kvyat in Russia, and last weekend’s sudden end to a race where a podium at the very least looked nailed-on. The team has already used all but three of its 32 engine development tokens permitted for the year – by contrast, Honda (12 remaining), Mercedes (11) and Renault (a whopping 21) have development potential in spades. Halfway through a season where a title tilt was expected, is it time for Ferrari to swallow its pride and switch focus to 2017, and make the most of the sweeping rule changes that could give the sport a reset, something Mercedes took full advantage of when the rulebook was last ripped up three years ago? Where Ferrari stands at the end of a hectic July will reveal much.
5. Button’s Silverstone swansong?
A month ago, you would have got good odds on the British veteran soaking up the adulation from his home fans one final time before being ushered into retirement at the end of the season; now, it seems ‘JB’ might stick around next year after all. If he does, it’s unlikely to be with McLaren given Stoffel Vandoorne is very patiently waiting in the wings, but reports out of Europe are linking Button with a full circle return to Williams, where he spent the first season of his career in 2000. Reading between the lines, Felipe Massa’s comments this week that money won’t be a factor in his plans for 2017 suggests he may need to take a financial hit to stay at Williams for a fourth season next year, and intimates Williams has other options. That’s all for the future, but for Button, arresting his wretched record at Silverstone will be a more immediate focus this weekend. For all his success elsewhere, Button has never cracked it for a single podium at home – even in 2009, his championship season, Button came to his home GP having won six of the first seven races of the year, but could only finish sixth. He’ll be at very long odds to get on the podium this weekend unless the weather (insert your own jokes about the ‘English summer’ here) plays a part. But last weekend in Austria, where he qualified a superb fifth in changeable conditions, ran second in the early laps and eventually finished sixth, well ahead of where a McLaren should be on merit, was a timely reminder of Button’s quality.