A start they hope could stop the Mercs

Mercs flop… Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari (centre) surges ahead of the powerful Silver Arrows of Nico Rosberg (left) and Lewis Hamilton (partially hidden behind Vettel) at the start of the Hungarian Grand Prix at Hungaroring. Vettel, the four-time world champion, went on to win the race in style.-REUTERS Mercs flop… Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari (centre) surges ahead of the powerful Silver Arrows of Nico Rosberg (left) and Lewis Hamilton (partially hidden behind Vettel) at the start of the Hungarian Grand Prix at Hungaroring. Vettel, the four-time world champion, went on to win the race in style.

The new rule concerning the start of a race, coming into force at the Belgian Grand Prix, could bring more uncertainty, and with it a hope for teams such as Ferrari and Williams of challenging the dominant Mercedes, writes S. Dipak Ragav.

As the teams head for the Ardennes mountains for the Belgium Grand Prix (August 23), there will be some renewed hope that Mercedes, which dominated the whole of last year and the first half of the current season, can be stopped, just as it was in the Hungarian Grand Prix before Formula One went into the summer break.

It is not going to be an easy task, though, to halt the silver arrows in their tracks, for the race in Budapest can at best be called an aberration for the Anglo-German outfit, which was beaten by the fast starting Ferraris that controlled the race in free air, and on a circuit that is not kind to overtaking. However, the race did show that the Mercedes team, despite having the best two cars on the circuit for the past two years, is prone to panic attacks when the heat is on. This has cost the team two wins this year.

Even at the Monaco Grand Prix, a bit of confusion and indecisiveness from the pit-wall led to Lewis Hamilton pitting during the safety car period when actually there was no need to and gifting away the race to team-mate Nico Rosberg.

New starting procedure

The Belgian Grand Prix, after the summer break, usually sees teams coming in with new upgrades and this season, it will be no different. In addition, the new rule concerning the start of a race, coming into force at Spa-Francorchamps, could bring more uncertainty, and with it a hope for teams such as Ferrari and Williams of challenging the dominant Mercedes.

The Mercs have suffered from poor starts in the last three races, with Williams trumping them at the British Grand Prix and the Ferraris beating them in Budapest. While mid-season rule changes are generally despised and need unanimous acceptance from the teams, the change in rule with regard to the start of a race is, in actuality, a more strict interpretation of the article 20.1 of the Formula One Sporting Regulations, which says that “The driver must drive the car alone and unaided”.

As per the new rule, the teams are forbidden from changing the clutch bite points once the cars leave the pits 30 minutes before the start of the race, and it will be left to the driver to figure out the ideal bite point. In the past, the bite point was recorded during the reconnaissance and parade laps and the race engineers advised the drivers appropriately.

Unlike a road car, a Formula One car has two clutch paddles. When on the grid, the driver selects first gear and holds one clutch paddle at the ideal bite point, the point where the car moves forward, while holding the other paddle fully. At this point, the car remains stationary. When the lights go out, the driver dumps the fully pressed paddle as quickly as possible and steps on the power and slowly releases the second paddle held at the ideal bite point for a perfect start.

The teams are also not allowed to radio any information to the driver on tyre or brake temperatures during the formation lap before the start of the race. The only information a driver can receive is for safety reasons about fault in the car or any debris and other drivers’ positions on the track.

A two-horse race?

With nine races to go, the championship battle is most likely to be between Hamilton and Rosberg. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel is only 42 points behind and is ready to cash in on any errors from the Mercs, and with 225 points still to play for it will be premature to rule him out yet.

Hamilton, after finally winning his second title last year, seems to have raised his level a couple of notches and has been in dominant form throughout the season. Last year, he was better in races, while Rosberg had the edge over him in qualifying. However, this year, the Briton has been better than his team-mate even in qualifying.

After a disastrous campaign with Red Bull last year, Vettel moved to the marquee outfit from Italy, and it seems to have given the German a huge dose of motivation and momentum. The four-time world champion, who has hardly put a foot wrong this year, is the only non-Merc driver to win (he triumphed in Malaysia and Hungary) so far this season. If Ferrari can bridge the gap to the Mercs, Vettel could prove to be more than a headache for the Brackley-based outfit. But then, he would need Rosberg to raise his level and start taking points off Hamilton.

Last chance for Rosberg

Rosberg has largely struggled this year. Barring the Spanish Grand Prix and the Austrian Grand Prix, he has looked clueless against Hamilton. If the Hungarian Grand Prix is any indication, Rosberg’s mental frame does not seem all right. The German had a chance to win the race after the safety car drastically cut down Vettel’s huge lead. Ahead of the second round of pit stops, Rosberg had the chance to fit the softer and faster tyres and challenge for victory after having run on the slower tyres in the second stint. Instead, he was content running on slower tyres and staying behind Hamilton, as a cover for the Briton.

This defensive tactic, in the end, proved costly as Rosberg was beaten by Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, who was running on faster tyres. And to make matters worse for Rosberg, he suffered a puncture when the duo collided, and this meant that the German finished behind Hamilton.

Rosberg needs to arrest the slide in his performance or else, he risks losing his way as Mark Webber did in 2010 when Vettel beat him to the world title despite being behind throughout the season. He cannot ask for a better circuit than Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps — the venue of his infamous clash last year with Hamilton that derailed his title charge — to get his campaign back on track.