Tuesday, Aug 28 09:53am
AUTHOR: Richard Gee

Column: When all's not fair in love and war… or Formula 1

I have to say, I was more than a little disappointed with Toro Rosso's race strategy for Brendon Hartley at Spa-Franchorchamps at the weekend's Belgian Grand Prix, one of my favourites and one I’ll stay up for because it's on a proper track where proper drivers always go well.


There's been endless talk about him underperforming over the year and much of that chatter has that odour about it of people knocking him without truly knowing what goes on during a race. I reckon the Belgian Grand Prix was a prime example. Why? Well, to put it bluntly, what I saw suggested to me the team sacrificed his race to maximise the points opportunity for his teammate. So what? 'It’s a team' you say. These things happen in teams. My point though is that in the fickle world of Formula 1, where even the likes of the hugely influential Dr Helmut Marko are telling everyone the future's in Brendon's hands, why not have equal strategies instead of different ones and let the guy race to the best of his abilities? Especially with a career in Formula 1 at stake.


Qualifying was interesting as Brendon all but matched Pierre Gasly throughout. Ultimately, they were separated by only fractions and would start the race - following engine change penalties to Valtteri Bottas and his Mercedes - from 10th and 11th on the grid. And while there was cautious optimism, nobody including the drivers was really expecting either car to make serious inroads into the Mercedes and Ferrari-powered fleet ahead of them, unless of course it was wet. But while the weather did play a part in qualifying, it was fine for the race and both of the Toro Rosso boys, rightly, targeted lower points finishes as the best possible outcome for a dry Grand Prix.


Both got away from the start pretty well, Gasly a fraction better than Brendon and both looked to have a clean run into Turn 1. Without the carnage that ensued as Nico Hulkenberg forgot to brake and punted Fernando Alonso's McLaren right over the top of Charles Leclerc's Sauber and Daniel Ricciardo was punted into Kimi Raikkonen alongside them, the two blue and red cars might have come out of the spectacular opening corners differently, but it was 8th and 12th once the dust had settled and the various stops for repairs had been made under the Safety Car. So, it was advantage to Pierre in that respect. Surely though, 12th did not mean all was lost for the Kiwi? Did it?


Throughout the first 20 laps Brendon raced well, chasing Carlos Sainz's Renault hard. And as the field spread, he seemed well able to maintain a 12-15 second gap behind his team mate. That's generally how it rolls in F1 these days, a few cars between them more often than not means a few seconds too. I don't doubt Brendon would have been wanting to be a bit closer at this point of the race, but what happened after that in terms of race strategy left me shaking my head a bit to be honest.


In the group the Toro Rosso boys were racing in, Carlos Sainz was first to blink and came in for tyres when he was about two seconds ahead of Brendon. Our boy had been quietly reducing the gap to him and the guys like Lance Stroll and Sergei Sirotkin in front, doing what he does so well and getting his tyres to last a little longer than some of his more illustrious peers. At that point it was game on, and Renault in particular knew it, bringing Sainz in for a lightning stop and giving him the extra grip he would need to fight off an undercut from what was surely going to be an imminent stop for Brendon. Only Brendon didn't stop on the next lap, or the lap after that. And so on.


No, I suggest Toro Rosso had already identified what Brendon was for and it wasn't to try and give the team two shots at points. Knowing the runners ahead of Brendon would come in for stops at some point, and also knowing Brendon easily had enough pace to stay in touch with that group in the meantime, they left him out. Up the rankings he went as those ahead of him pitted, 13th, 12th, 11th then 10th. And that's where I believe Toro Rosso wanted him. No matter that he was losing time hand over fist to the guys on fresher tyres behind, he had the track position they needed when they brought Gasly in.


Gasly you see, had been embroiled in a very close scrap with Marcus Ericsson in his Sauber Ferrari throughout and with Bottas steaming through the field and passing him with ease, it was touch and go as to whether he might get ninth, tenth or even nothing given the speed of Sainz after his stop. Were they fearful of that Ferrari engine monstering their Honda motor up the long uphill Kemmel Straight after Eau Rouge where engine power was king? Possibly. Could a Safety Car intervention have left Gasly a sitting duck to the Sauber and a few others behind with more grunt? Probably. And thus Brendon became, as it is known in the trade, a 'rear gunner'.


Pierre duly took his stop and came out just behind Brendon, who then let his team mate by promptly. In came Ericsson and as he gathered speed up the hill after his stop, Brendon sailed by to become the meat in the sandwich between his team mate and the Sauber. The pair then enjoyed an entertaining scrap trading DRS-powered passes for a lap or two. Exciting to watch it may have been, but it was destroying both drivers races at that point. Ericsson was losing time in his battle with Gasly (around 7.8 seconds by the time he cleared Brendon) and the longer Brendon stayed out, the worse his finishing position was going to be. When the Kiwi finally did come in after Ericsson had made good his escape, he had lost a massive amount of time relative to those cars around him that had been on the same pace before the pit stops. Sainz in particular had looked vulnerable to Brendon earlier and yet ended the race a huge amount ahead in 11th.


How nice it would have been to see Toro Rosso hedge their bets and give both drivers an equal opportunity to go for points. Optimise both strategies instead of compromising one to fulfil another. Perhaps Brendon might even have been able to use his undoubted tyre managing abilities to challenge Ericsson for the final point in the last few laps.


You could argue Brendon should have made it harder for Gasly to get by, but really there was nothing at all to be gained from that, and a great deal of goodwill could have been lost had he not moved aside. That goodwill will be important to Brendon as team seats are decided for next season. Let's hope Toro Rosso remember it too, because that was one race where he wasn't allowed to compete to the best of his abilities and dutifully became the team player to guarantee his team mate the maximum points possible for him. But was it the maximum points possible for the team? I don't think so.


Team orders, team strategy, number one and number two status. Call it whatever you like, but don't forget they started on exactly the same row of the grid. So please, if you're listening Dr Marko, give him a fighting chance to prove he's worth the seat before you make a judgement. That was a cop out in Belgium. A motor racing world champion deserves a whole lot better.


Young Gasly has earned his spurs this season, there's no doubt about that. His reward is that he gets to put on the big shoes next year replacing Danny Ricciardo alongside Max Verstappen. Rest assured Brendon is a whole lot closer to Red Bull's new ace than you might imagine from watching a race like Belgium and a one-sided strategy play out.


Try it Toro Rosso. You just might like it.