After an exciting start to the season that saw Ferrari versus Mercedes playing out in four corners of the world (Australia, China, Bahrain and Russia) all eyes were on the Spanish Grand Prix, the first of the European races this season. We knew that all teams would bring updates to Barcelona — what would this mean for the competition at the top of the table?
Barcelona did not disappoint. In fact, it was one of the most exciting races in the recent times (maybe one of those legendary races that will get discussed in admiring tones in the years to come). We saw both Mercedes and Ferrari push to the limit and a little more in a bid for podium glory.
Hamilton triumphs, Vettel stays close
Just like I had predicted, Lewis Hamilton bounced back in Spain, and how. Hamilton triumphed in Barcelona with his 12th career hat-trick. His personal score against Sebastian Vettel is now levelled at two wins apiece.
Despite starting on pole, this was not an easy race for Hamilton — Vettel made him work every bit of the way to earn it. The Spanish Grand Prix saw not one but two overtakes for the lead — that too in a season where overtaking has anyway been a concern, and on a track where overtaking could be a challenge. At the start, Vettel managed to jump Hamilton and fly into the race lead. Mercedes and Ferrari seem evenly matched even when it comes to the race starts. In Russia, Valterri Bottas jumped Vettel and then Vettel turned the tables around in Spain. But of course, by now, it is public knowledge that Ferrari have copied Mercedes’ clutch-paddle design and I am assuming that this helped Vettel in his start from the dirty side of the grid.
In the first four races of the season, we had seen teams rely heavily on strategy to gain track position. But in Spain, we had the perfect display of overtaking and strategy being used astutely. We had Vettel and Hamilton run different tyre compounds in their second stint — one that actually tilted the race back in Mercedes’ favour, who did play the game of strategy to perfection.
In the lead, Ferrari decided to pit Vettel a few laps earlier than scheduled, their first questionable decision in the race. The second, was when they decided to pit Vettel just after the Virtual Safety Car (brought out to recover Stoffel Vandoorne’s McLaren) session ended — one that saw Vettel lose the 7.7 seconds gap to Hamilton.
Mercedes, on the other hand, used the VSC period and Bottas’ track position to their drivers’ advantage as Hamilton (on soft tyres) chased down Vettel (on mediums) and after five laps of fierce wheel-to-wheel action finally managed to overtake him into Turn 1. This was not long after Vettel offered Bottas a double dummy to overtake the Finn for the lead of the race himself. In fact, Mercedes offered a public ‘thank you’ to Bottas for his contribution to hold up Vettel — an act that cost the Ferrari driver four seconds.
The Constructors' battle
If it wasn’t evident already, Spain reminded us that this season will be won (or lost) on strategy. Arguably, Ferrari made some strategic errors in Barcelona by not pitting Vettel under the VSC and then planning his stints so he had maximum time on the slowest tyres (while Hamilton was flying around on his softs) at the end of the race. This is the second time in five races that Ferrari went wrong on strategy — something that will surely be a cause for concern for them. And while it is easy for one to make comments, it must be remembered and the teams must be applauded for playing the high-speed game of chess in real time.
Both Mercedes and Ferrari had only one car each finish the race. Kimi Raikkonen perished in the first lap after a racing incident with Bottas into the first corner, taking Max Verstappen out with him). Bottas retired later due to engine issues. Hamilton’s victory means that Mercedes is able to open their constructors lead up six valuable points. Seems little, but is a lot given how close this season has been.
Ferrari and Mercedes both brought updates to Spain, but luckily, the teams remained as close. In fact, both Hamilton and Vettel were driving so much on the limit that Hamilton was panting on the radio (also an indication of the new 2017 cars, which are far more physically demanding to drive). Given that both teams also had engine issues (Vettel in FP3 and Bottas during the race), I am also wondering if the teams have pushed so far that they have compromised a bit on of reliability for extra pace. As a proof of this pace, they lapped everyone up to P3.
The ‘new’ Formula 1
The highlight for me, and many others surely, was an adorable little boy dressed in Ferrari colours who promptly burst into tears when Raikkonen crashed out — even though Raikkonen’s sister Ferrari was in the lead. We later spotted him in the Ferrari garage receiving a Ferrari cap from Raikkonen, beaming broadly. Nice touch, Formula 1. Surely this young boy will be a fan for life. On a lighter note, the thousands of fans waiting to meet Raikkonen now know what they need to do to make the cut.
— Scuderia Ferrari (@ScuderiaFerrari) May 14, 2017
We have known that the 2017 cars are harder to drive and demand superhuman levels of fitness. Hamilton lost 4.5 pounds of fluids during the race. These cars also need intense concentration to drive — several drivers issued Raikkonen-esque radio messages asking to be “left alone” and demanding “less talk.” Maybe that’s why we didn’t have any interesting radio messages to laugh over.
Red Bull vs Force India?
In the past, we have often seen that when the top runners suffer from ill fortune, one man who generally capitalises well is Daniel Ricciardo. In Spain too, he managed a podium finish (P3) — his first of the season. While their race pace remains an issue — he finished 78 seconds off the lead car — they will be happy to have a good finish. Verstappen courted bad luck when he didn’t make it through the first corner intact.
Force India continued their streak of solid performances with a fourth (Sergio Perez) and fifth (Esteban Ocon) finish. Crucially, they have brought home both cars in the points in all five races this year, building up to a comfortable fourth-place in the Constructors’ table — and evidently, no other midfield team has been able to pose a challenge. Surely the team will motivate themselves by eyeing Red Bull Racing in P3, who are 19 points ahead in the standings. While Red Bull may have the quicker package, Force India have the upper hand in terms of consistency. Let’s not forget that Red Bull have brought home both cars only once this season.
Bad luck for the top teams means better outcomes for the rest of the field. Nico Hulkenberg for Renault had his best finish of the season in 6th place. Bolstered by his team’s brave one-stop strategy, Pascal Wehrlein scored the season’s points for Sauber (they will be delighted with their 8th place) which means that Mclaren is the only team yet to score this season.
Spanish fans were delighted with Fernando Alonso’s performance on Saturday. Unfortunately, Sunday was a different story with the McLaren struggling throughout. Thank god for small mercies, Alonso was not embarrassed in front of his home crown with a stalling car that he had to push.
McLaren believe that Monaco is their best chance of picking up points, however, things are not quite falling into place. Vandoorne picked up a three-place grid penalty (costly, given how hard overtaking is at Monaco). Alonso will be off to America and Jenson Button, who is still untested this season, makes a comeback.
Tune in to my Facebook discussion with Kunal Shah and Nikhila Makker on the Firstpost Pole Position about the Spanish Grand Prix!
Updated Date: May 15, 2017 20:45 PM