We were treated to the best race of the season two weekends ago in Spain. Lewis started on pole
and finished first and Vettel started in second and finished second, but that consistency hides the drama that we witnessed between the lights going out and the checkered flag.
Mercedes and Ferrari were right on par with each other in qualifying. That lay to rest the fears that Mercedes was bringing car updates to Spain that would end the ongoing neck-and-neck competition. As mentioned, Mercedes and Ferrari split the front row and they also split the second row, leaving the top four as: Mercedes, Ferrari, Mercedes, Ferrari. Red Bull was surprisingly close to the top 4, with Verstappen only .3 seconds off Kimi and Ricciardo a further .35 seconds back. Alonso easily had the best (relative) qualifying run of the day, however, as he seemingly willed the crappy Honda-powered McLaren into 7th place. With the difficulty of passing in Spain, McLaren fans around the world hoped this qualifying position would translate into points. Force India bounced back from a troubling practice to start 8th (Perez) and 10th (Ocon). Massa in the Williams qualified 9th with a typical solid performance.
As the lights went out, Vettel, who was on the right side of the track, got a slightly better start than Hamilton and was able to get his nose ahead. Further back, Bottas got the best start of all, but dove to the right/inside and was blocked by Vettel ahead of him and Hamilton to his left. As the three of them approached the first righthand corner, Bottas backed off a bit so as not to hit Hamilton. But with that slowdown, Bottas was swamped by Raikkonen on his immediate left and Verstappen trying a very audacious move on the outside of Raikkonen (see picture below). NASCAR this is not and the attempt to go three-wide through the corner did not work. First Bottas and Raikkonen bumped, which sent Raikkonen into Verstappen. Bottas’s car was slightly compromised but Raikkonen and Verstappen were out of the race with broken suspensions.
Further back, Massa ran Alonso off into the gravel outside of Turn 2. Alonso, however, heroically drove through the gravel and back into track in P11. With the lack of power from the Honda engine, that was the end of his opportunity to score points on the day.
Back at the front and in the clear air, Vettel was pulling away from the field. Hamilton radioed that he was struggling to keep pace. At lap 12, Mercedes told Hamilton to push and sent their pit crew out. To Ferrari, it must have looked like Hamilton was going to switch to the faster Soft tyres and attempt an undercut. Ferrari brought Vettel in on lap 14 to prevent that. Either Mercedes was bluffing from the start or they decided to switch strategies because then Hamilton stayed out and was going on a two-stop strategy as opposed to the three-stopper that Vettel was primed to do.
On new Softs, Vettel needed to be putting great laps in. Unfortunately for Ferrari, Bottas was out clogging up the track in his damaged car and held Vettel up for several laps. Hamilton came in for his first stop around lap 22 and switched to Mediums. By lap 33, it was Vettel (Softs) with a 7 second lead over Hamilton (Mediums) when Vandoorne crashed into Massa and brought out the Virtual Safety Car (VSC).
Mercedes made the first move and brought Hamilton for his second stop in order to switch him back to Softs. It was going to be a long, 30+ lap run to the end on the Softs and Mercedes hoped they would hold up. In the meantime, Vettel did another lap and came in for Mediums (which he had to run at some point in the race). But in that time, the VSC was rescinded and Hamilton was free to run his out lap at full throttle. He ate into Vettel’s lead. Vettel’s emergence from the pits was the high point of the race. The two cars were side by side screaming into Turn 1. Vettel held position or pushed Hamilton off track, depending on who you ask. Hamilton wasn’t assessed a 5 second penalty for leaving the track there because he didn’t go over the speed bumps.
At that point Hamilton was on the softer tyres and although it took a few laps, he was ultimately able to charge past Vettel with the help of DRS.
Hamilton’s tyres held up well for 30+ laps. When the softest compound of the weekend can be run for half the race, that really tells you something about what Pirelli has done this season. Without much fade from Hamilton, Vettel briefly considered stopping a third time for fresh Soft tyres, but ultimately decided he would never make up the 20+ second pit lane delta in only 10 laps.
After Bottas held Vettel up, his race was over. Bottas was still on the first power unit of the season and it said “no mas” and blew up halfway through this race. With Bottas, Raikkonen and Verstappen out of the race, Ricciardo had a lonely race in P3. In fact, he turned his engine down to preserve its life, knowing that he wasn’t going to catch Hamilton or Vettel anyway.
Force India had a terrific race, taking 4th and 5th and a very healthy lead in the “midfield” section of the Constructors Championship battle. (This year, the midfield consists of Force India, Williams, Toro Rosso and Renault).
Let’s hope we see more races like the 2017 Spanish Grand Prix.
P1, Hamilton (Mercedes); P2, Vettel (Ferrari); P3, Ricciardo (Red Bull); P4, Perez (Force India); P5, Ocon (Force India); P6, Hulkenberg (Renault); P7, Wehrlein (Sauber); P8, Sainz (Toro Rosso); P9, Kvyat (Toro Rosso); P10, Grosjean (Haas); P11, Ericsson (Sauber); P12, Alonso (McLaren); P13, Massa (Williams); P14, Magnussen (Haas); P15, Palmer (Renault); P16, Stroll (Williams)