Spanish Grand Prix Analysis: Move closer

by Rachel Hack

The 2017 Spanish Grand Prix saw one of the closest on track battles in recent times between the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team driver Lewis Hamilton and Scuderia Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel, as the two likely title contenders went wheel-to-wheel in an exciting race for victory.

So far this season the competition element of F1 has not disappointed, with the Italian squad well and truly providing a threat to the German squad’s title crown in 2017, and the start of Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix looked for all intents and purposes like Ferrari were once again going to control the action from the front.

However, that was not to be the case, as plenty of drama and some well thought out tactics were thrown into the fray…

Get ready for launch…

Vettel got a fantastic launch off the line to beat pole sitter Hamilton into the lead at the first corner, as the Brit bogged down and dropped behind the German. Though Hamilton initially got away well, he appeared to slow in the second part of his launch, an occurrence that has featured in the majority of his race starts this year.

Kimi Raikkonen and Red Bull Racing driver Max Verstappen were forced to retire from the race early, when the pair attempted to go three abreast at turn one alongside Valtteri Bottas.

The ambitious move ended in the Mercedes driver touching the right rear tyre of the Ferrari, which was enough to spear Raikkonen into the unfortunate Verstappen, sending them onto the gravel. Both drivers sustained damage to their suspension, their races over.

Meanwhile, Vettel continued to lead up front with Hamilton keeping the German within touching distance but having to push hard to keep up with him, as could be heard in his heavy breathing when talking over team radio.

The early bird doesn’t always catch the worm…

On lap 15 the German was the first to pit, most likely to try to avoid the undercut, switching to another set of the soft compound tyre. Were Ferrari hoping to force Mercedes hand in making the first move? If they were, the plan was ineffective, and instead of following suit, the German squad encouraged Hamilton to push before extending his stint for a further five laps.

It was also an interesting move by Ferrari to switch Vettel to the soft tyre for his middle stint, which meant he would then be on the slower tyre at the end of the race. That strategy is never usually the favoured option, especially allowing for unforeseen events during the race.

A problem attaching the left front tyre during that stop also led to Vettel being delayed longer than the team would have liked, significantly bringing him back out right behind the Mercedes of Bottas, and those two key factors possibly lost the German the race.

Team player…

The Finn, who had been some six tenths off the pace of the two front-runners since the start of the race, was now perfectly placed to hold up Vettel as he tried to make the most of his fresh rubber.

Despite being on much older tyres, Bottas was able to keep the German at bay for a couple of laps, losing him four seconds in the process, whilst Hamilton pushed like crazy on his new set of mediums to bridge the gap, which he did perfectly, even though he was using the much slower option.

Bottas eventually pitted, leaving Hamilton right behind Vettel, and he was advised by the team to keep the gap to the German manageable.

Keeping it safe…

Vettel remained just ahead of the Brit until the Virtual Safety Car (VSC) was deployed following a coming together between McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team driver Stoffel Vandoorne and Williams Martini Racing driver Felipe Massa, seeing the Belgian end up in the gravel at Turn 1 as he attempted to complete an opportunistic move around the outside of the Brazilian. The incident brought an end to Vandoorne’s grand prix and with it a three place grid penalty for the next round in Monaco.

Hamilton saw his chance to shake things up and pitted for a set of the soft tyres and his final stint of the race, as the VSC period ended, all the while Vettel remained out on track unable to capitalise on the faster pace of his faster tyres.

As soon as Mercedes made the move to pit, Ferrari reacted and brought Vettel in on the very next lap, switching him to the medium compound tyre for the last part of the race.

In just one lap, Hamilton was able to take advantage of his faster soft rubber, and as Vettel exited the pits the Brit was right alongside him. Vettel defended and the pair briefly touched as the German strong-armed his way past, forcing Hamilton onto the run-off, with Vettel maintaining the lead.

That lead would not last for long however as just five laps later Hamilton had caught the Ferrari, before easily passing him on the main straight with the help of DRS.

Manageable chunks…

From there on in it was plain sailing for Hamilton who was able to keep his tyres alive and control the gap to Vettel for the remainder of the race, to seal only his second ever victory in Spain.

Despite the German’s efforts to catch the Mercedes, he was unable to plough through the traffic in the final laps of the race, and a misunderstanding with Massa, as the Brazilian pulled over to let him pass, more or less sealed the German’s second place.

In the end, the Mercedes driver took the chequered flag 3.4 seconds ahead of Vettel, with the RB13 of Red Bull Racing driver Daniel Ricciardo, completing the third step of the podium, after an engine failure for Bottas saw him retire from the race with a third of the race left to go.

The Australian was the only remaining driver not to be lapped by Hamilton and Vettel, and finished almost a minute down the road.

Rest of the field…

Spanish GP 2017 – podium. Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

It was a strong race for the Sahara Force India F1 Team who recorded their best result of the year so far, with drivers Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon coming home in fourth and fifth place respectively. The Silverstone based squad are also now the only team to maintain a 100% points scoring record at every race this season.

Nico Hulkenberg continued on his run of points finishes, with a sixth place, to secure his best result yet for the Renault Sport Formula 1 Team, whilst Sauber F1 Team driver Pascal Wehrlein crossed the line in seventh.

The Mercedes backed youngster was dropped down the order to eighth following the race however, after receiving a five-second time penalty, for failing to stay to the right of the pit-entry bollard.

It was a sensational drive by the German nonetheless, who profited during the virtual safety car period having run an extra-long first stint on the medium tyre, earning himself a free pit stop, allowing him to bring the C36 home for a career best finish.

Scuderia Toro Rosso driver Carlos Sainz Jr finished seventh at his home race, after a scary moment with Haas F1 Team driver Kevin Magnussen, as they exited their pit boxes almost simultaneously, and banged wheels trying to beat each other back onto track. The pair fought for most of the race, with the Spaniard eventually coming out on top.

Magnussen had more bad luck to contend with, after picking up a puncture through contact with the Spaniards team-mate Daniil Kvyat, forcing him to pit at the end of the penultimate lap, taking him out of what looked like a sure-fire points paying position.

Kvyat took that ninth place instead, with Romain Grosjean completing the top ten, ahead of Marcus Ericsson and Fernando Alonso, who saw the chequered flag for the first time this season.

It was perhaps somewhat disappointing that the double world champion did not end the race in the points, having qualified in an amazing seventh place on the grid, but an altercation with Massa on the opening lap, the Brazilian having sustained a puncture, sent the Spaniard careering through the gravel in avoidance and down the order to eleventh place. Massa finished the worse off and was forced into an early pit stop before re-joining at the back of the grid.

Despite two collisions and an extra pit stop however, Massa finished the race in thirteenth place and was still ahead of Williams’s team-mate Lance Stroll, who was the final classified driver in sixteenth, with Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer just ahead of him.

What’s the craic?…

Sunday’s result has allowed Mercedes to extend their lead in the constructor’s standings to eight points from Ferrari, whilst Vettel is now just six points clear of Hamilton in the drivers’ championship, and things could not be tighter at the top of the order.

Mercedes introduced an extensive array of upgrades in Barcelona, and that appeared to pay off for Hamilton at least, as he was able to keep the Ferrari at bay. There will be some work to do for the Italian squad ahead of the Monaco Grand Prix, as they look to keep up with the German squad and strive to get ahead of them.

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