The Spanish Grand Prix turned out to be dream hand-to-hand combat between Vettel and Hamilton that fans had thought might never happen with the technical regulations over the past three years. It had been teased mightily in the previous Grands Prix but hadn’t materialised due to weather, extreme temperatures and Ferrari’s new boldness to stir the strategy pot to throw Mercedes off their established game. Those limitations all changed as the F1 circus started its European season in Catalunya.
While Red Bull declaration that they would bring a fully redesigned car to Spain dominated the pre-race headlines, it was Mercedes who stole the show. The Silver Arrows arrived in Barcelona demonstrating that they could parse the tight FIA technical regulations with the best. The most apparent result was a large flared diffuser flanking the nose cone used to channel air under the car.
Mercedes had seen their front tyres suffer from excess understeer, and this new “shove” would prove a solution. Mercedes also debuted a new rear floor, bargeboards, front and rear brake ducts, and a revised rear wing to complement a brand-new upgraded engine. Let’s just refer to it as the W08-B spec shall we?
The Ferrari SF70H also wore new barge boards, floor and T-wing, but Vettel couldn’t fully explore the benefits due to a water leak in his new engine that required replacement between FP3 and qualifying by the power unit that had already run four Grands Prix. Ferrari also brought along a launch system utilising two short clutch paddles that feature finger holds that offer the drivers a more precise feel of what is needed at launch. The new paddle system would earn its stripes with Vettel’s storming start on race day.
Mercedes had seen their front tires suffer from excess understeer, and this new “shove” would prove a solution.
Red Bull’s anticipated RB13 revisions featured the now-ubiquitous barge board redraw and a repositioned front suspension that added an incredible amount of front-to-back rake, far exceeding even Red Bull’s traditional extreme tilt. Max Verstappen commented that the upgrades translated into a vast improvement in the balance of the car and he felt the RB13 was stronger in every area, with better balance from entry, to mid and mid-to-exit of the corner. With a more stable balance, he felt he could push a lot more. Qualifying proved him correct as his fifth-fastest time was within 0.6sec off pole, by far the car’s most competitive showing to date. However, more work needs to be done as the RB13 couldn’t visibly carry enough speed through the chicane and it cost him plenty of time. Teammate Ricciardo was just 0.25sec back.
Qualifying revealed just how much spec revisions affect competitiveness; the margin was infinitesimally tight, just 5/100ths of a second between the Mercedes and the Ferrari after all the upgrades.
Thanks to the new updates, Mercedes was finally able to employ much more rear wing, similar to the Ferrari. Now their tyres would be pressed into the track surface instead of sliding and causing tire degradation. While adding increased rear wing and its drag coefficient took away a bit of the W08’s straight-line speed, it was balanced with improved tyre durability.
Ferrari brought along a launch system utilising two short clutch paddles that feature finger holds that offer the drivers a more precise feel of what is needed at launch. The new paddle system would earn its stripes with Vettel’s storming start on race day.
While Hamilton earned his third pole of the season and the 250th pole position for a British driver in Formula 1, Vettel split the two Mercedes. Vettel felt he lost the pole with a mistake in the final chicane corner, where he has traditionally had problems. Vettel’s combativeness signified that the start would be critical if Hamilton were to convert his pole into a win.
Even though Hamilton’s 64th career pole ranks him one short of Ayrton Senna, it was Fernando Alonso who was the hero of qualifying. In the face of an FP1 engine failure, he managed to start in 7th place, despite McLaren’s struggling Honda power unit giving up at least 12kph top speed to other cars on the straights.
It would be Vettel and Hamilton side by side on the front row; Russian GP winner Valtteri Bottas and Raikkonen on row two. It appeared that the smallest of errors would decide the finishing order of the top four.
The newly tweaked Ferrari launch paddles did their job as Vettel exploded into the lead at the start. Both he and Hamilton encountered wheelspin, but Vettel dipped the clutch, regained traction and leapt ahead. With the run down to Spain’s first Turn 1 of the longest of the season, his challengers could be seen darting from one side of the front straight to the other looking for holes to punch through to gain positions. Bottas was slightly ahead approaching the first turn and lifted early, putting him three-wide with the following Verstappen and Raikkonen. Bottas punted Raikkonen in his right rear corner sending his Ferrari careening into Verstappen. Raikkonen suffered a mangled left front wheel as it bent Verstappen’s steering rod and suspension. While Bottas continued in third, Raikkonen and Verstappen were out. Riccardo was now fourth.
Vettel had a gap of 2.2-seconds at the end on lap 1, and he set about methodically increasing his lead. His Ferrari was responding perfectly with precise corner turn-in and lots of mid-corner grip. In contrast, Hamilton’s Silver Arrow seemed slower to react and less strident, especially in the chicane. Vettel pitted for another set of softs at the end of lap 14 of 66. However he was delayed due to fitting the new front left.
Raikkonen suffered a mangled left front tyre as it bent Verstappen’s steering rod and suspension. While Bottas continued in third, Raikkonen and Verstappen were out.
Ferrari called Vettel in when radio transmissions suggested Mercedes were asking Hamilton to push on Lap 11 and 12 as if planning for a three stop strategy. With Vettel pitting early, Mercedes took the opportunity to change plans and run its cars long. Hamilton finally pitted on lap 21 for mediums, finding that the new B-spec improvements allowed him to push the tyres without of the compounds failing. The fast closing Vettel was now being held up by Bottas who was locking his left fronts under braking. He had been left out to struggle on rapidly fading tyres to provide a rear guard for Hamilton.
Desperate to pick up the pace, Vettel set up Bottas for a brilliant pass. His Ferrari’s DRS open, Vettel faked it on the inside, then went back to the outside and then inside again with one tire on the grass at 200mph. He nearly lost the car, but he regained the lead. However, the damage was done. In the four laps it took to get by Bottas, Vettel lost time that allowed Hamilton on the slower mediums to shrink the gap. Bottas then pitted for mediums as Mercedes told Hamilton to manage the gap between him and the Vettel’s now leading Ferrari.
On Lap 32, Stoffel Vandoorne triggered a Virtual Safety Car when he ended up in the gravel at Turn 1 after turning into Felipe Massa’s Williams. Mercedes jumped on the opportunity pitting Hamilton just as a virtual VSC period was ending. Now given the advantage of having switched tyres with the field slowed, the race swung back to Hamilton – he rejoined on soft tyres, 24-seconds behind Vettel. Ferrari immediately stopped Vettel for mediums on the next lap, however when Vettel re-entered the track Hamilton was already alongside. Hamilton didn’t lift and attempted an outside pass, but Vettel closed the door, and they banged wheels, with Hamilton choosing the run-off area instead of pressing the matter.
Hamilton gathered himself and took off after Vettel, and within five laps caught the Ferrari down the long pit straight. Vettel was a sitting duck; on Lap 44, Hamilton used his DRS to whistle past Vettel around the outside into Turn 1.
Vettel radioed into Ferrari, “No chance… it was like a train.”
Ferrari replied not to give up hope. There were thoughts of the third stop for new softs. With tyres able to lap 2-seconds faster, Vettel could then reel in Hamilton from around 25-seconds behind. On this day, however, Mercedes was on its game. Visualising the same scenario, they asked Hamilton to push to establish an undercut gap over the Ferrari. If Vettel changed tyres, they would already have lengthened the gap back to Vettel. Vettel pushed on hoping that Hamilton’s tyres would give up, but the Mercedes’ teams updated “aero shovel” proved its worth. On this day, Hamilton’s tyres would not give up.
He crossed the line 3.5-seconds ahead of Vettel.
Ricciardo was a distant third almost 75-seconds back. Thanks to Sergio Pérez and Esteban Ocon, Force India’s double points haul continues into the sixth race and brings them within a few points of Red Bull’s third place in the Constructors Championship battle. Hülkenberg finished just ahead of the determined one-stopping Wehrlein’s Sauber who had held of Sainz’s Toro Rosso followed by Magnussen (Haas) and Kvyat (Toro Rosso). Alonso’s McLaren, damaged by a bump from Massa on the first lap, finished 11th.
“That was an amazing race. That’s how racing should be, as close as it’s possible to be. Sebastian was incredibly close, incredibly fast. The team did an amazing job on the strategy today.”
On this day, Sebastian Vettel was precise, determined and hungry. His no-holds-barred pass of Bottas was a distillation of the three. Frustrated behind Bottas for several laps, and with Hamilton breathing down his neck, Vettel filled Bottas’ mirrors right-left-then right again before making it stick while dropping two wheels on the grass with DRS and thus little downforce at 200mph. That’s the stuff of the greats.
Watching next to the exit of Barcelona’s chicane and then inside the FLAT OUT final corner, is about as close to F1 cars AT SPEED as you can get these days. Seeing both Vettel and Hamilton battle each other mano a mano, physically dancing their machines feet apart, hands moving in quick wrist snaps as they fought the kerbs, followed by the twitches of oversteer flat out onto the front straight while mere feet apart can’t be transmitted by a televised image. The force of the air being moved – the primal lurches of the cars – the visceral impressions of maximum physical effort by two great champions bent on beating each other any way they can, is only truly comprehensible when you are 15-feet away. The experience is both profound and riveting – once observed, you’ll never see the sport the same way again.
Pascal Wehrlein – stuck with the underpowered, underfunded, and under-engineered Sauber – bravely stayed with the team’s one-stop plan to finish eighth (it was seventh without a time penalty) with an epic drive.
Barcelona has traditionally served as the actual start to a Formula 1 season, and if this fight carries forward, 2017 has the look of a classic season. This kind of Grand Prix fight will do a world of good for the new owners of F1 and for Formula 1 fans worldwide who have patiently waited to see a real F1 race-long battle instead of a procession.
Now it is on to one of the spiritual homes of F1 and the premier Grands Prix venue – Monte Carlo. See you there.