Formula 1

DAN AND ‘FRIEND’ BOTH MISS A CHANCE

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IT’S Hamilton again as Russian rain brings McLaren drivers undone, writes PETER COSTER:

THE “gladiators,” as F1 drivers are being called in this extreme sport, morphed into the “centurion” on Sunday for Lewis Hamilton as he won his 100th Grand Prix.

A century of Grand Prix victories would never have been considered possible had Michael Schumacher not won 91 races and a similar seven world drivers’ championships.

Hamilton, the “new centurion,” can add “matador” to his name after the British Grand  Prix at Silverstone where he lunged dangerously at the Red Bull driven by Max Verstappen.

The Red Bull driver was forced into the barriers and lucky to escape death or serious injury.

At the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, won by Daniel Ricciardo in a faultless return to form, it was Hamilton who likely escaped death.

Verstappen’s Red Bull landed on top of the Mercedes as both drivers refused to give ground.

With seven races remaining on the 22-race calendar, Hamilton is two points ahead of Verstappen.

The Russian Grand Prix suffered from the same monsoonal downpour as the Belgian Grand Prix two rescues ago when the cars floated on top of the downpour and McLaren’s Lando Norris became a passenger in a car he could not control and which destroyed itself as it catapulted from barrier to barrier.

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At Sochi on the Black Sea on Sunday, it was Norris who led with three laps to go when the F1 heavens opened. The rain turned the track into an ice rink. 

The McLaren team wanted Norris to make a last-minute stop to change to intermediates as other cars darted for the pits.

“No,” screamed  Norris over team radio. He would stay out, not realising the conditions were even worse on the other side of the circuit.

The team should have told him as they had the advantage of seeing more rain falling on radar.

Norris must have felt the Grand Prix was his. Unfortunately, it was his to lose as he found it impossible to stay on the track and was forced to come in for wet tyres.

But too late.

Hamilton and Verstappen, who had driven brilliantly from the back of the grid after an engine penalty, had changed to wets.

Norris was to finish seventh and to count himself lucky after so nearly sliding into the barriers.

Instead, he was “devastated” to lose what would have been his first Grand Prix win. It was also the  first pole position for the young gladiator.

Daniel Ricciardo, who started fifth on the grid and held second place ahead of Hamilton for much of the race, finished fourth.

As with Norris, he was let down by the McLaren team. Unlike Norris, he wanted to come in for wet tyres, but the team waited too long.

By the time they brought the Australian driver in it was too late. What would have been a place on the podium was lost.

The lesson has not been lost on McLaren. Both drivers would have been on the podium, as they were in the McLaren one-two at Monza.

Hamilton wanted to come in for wet tyres at Sochi, but was overruled by the team. McLaren let their 23-year-old driver stay out when what was an unlikely monsoon in Russia was flooding the other side of the circuit.

The vastly experienced Ricciardo, a multiple winner from 203 starts, knew he had to come in but was kept out on the circuit.

He had also been held up in the pits as other cars flashed by when the team had a problem with the left-hand front tyre. The wheel was on but the wheel gun failed to go “green.”

Playing the diplomat, the Honey Badger made no comment about Norris’s decision to stay out. Teammates they may be, they are also rivals and Norris was playing with Ricciardo’s headspace when he waved from the cockpit as he lapped Ricciardo back at Monaco.

Before the Sochi race, Norris hacked into Ricciardo’s Twitter account when the Australian wasn’t looking.

“Apart from just getting beat 5-0 by Lando in table tennis, he’s taught me so much this year, especially in high-speed corners,” the tweet read.

“Impressive. He’s got some large cojones. Something I didn’t have.”

It didn’t take Ricciardo long to figure out who was to blame as he saw Norris grinning.

The jibe about high-speed corners would have stung. Ricciardo might still be “the king of the late brakers” but it has been holding his speed instead of “rolling” through the corners that has held him back.

But the sting in the tail of the tweet identifies what pundits believe was the car driving Ricciardo rather than Ricciardo driving the car.

The Russian dolls bought by tourists in Russia gives a clue. Dolls within dolls. You remove one only to find another. Ricciardo has had to do the same with the McLaren.

As he solves one problem, he finds another. It has also been difficult for the McLaren team to contend with a reversal of what they expected would be the difference between the two drivers.

It was Ricciardo who was expected to be the leader and Norris the attentive rookie.
But the true measure of Ricciardo’s in the sport of the gladiators, the matadors and the new centurion is that he has regained his place among the top five drivers.

That ranking has changed as the young chargers find their place.

Without doubt, Hamilton and Verstappen lead the group. Valtteri Bottas slips back as he is replaced at Mercedes by George Russell and Lando Norris joins the elite, although yet to secure his first victory.

Russell, who was  third on the grid at Sochi in a Williams, would have been a winner had Mercedes not bungled a pit stop at the Sakhir Grand Prix last year when he sat in for Hamilton who was suffering from Covid.

Carlos Sainz, who was on the podium for Ferrari at Sochi and perhaps Charles Leclerc, who has lost some of his earlier promise, also have claims.

Hamilton, aged 36 and Ricciardo at 32 are the oldest drivers of what is a generational change.

*     Melbourne trained engineer Trevor Hall has been appointed project engineering manager of the Corvette program at General Motors in the United States. Hall moved to the US seven years ago after being part of the team that featured in the World Car Awards for its design of the Camaro sports sedan. 

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Author: Peter Coster

PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games.

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