By Bob Constanduros
I have to admit that I wondered what sort of race we were going to get after both Mercedes crashed out of the Spanish Grand Prix after three corners. I was looking forward to an inter-Mercedes duel, as we all do, and the prospects looked good. Lewis Hamilton on pole, perhaps finally having a decent race and getting past the first corner without incident, Nico Rosberg proving that his form until now was good enough to beat his teammate fair and square.
There were a lot of tourists in Spain looking forward to the same thing. It was their first opportunity to support the British drivers with a cheap trip to Barcelona and as usual there were a lot of them as witnessed by the Petronas shirts at the airport on Sunday night. (I assume they were Hamilton fans, not Rosberg…)
Sadly, of course, it was not to be. Thanks to some super-sleuthing by Anthony Davidson, we knew that Nico Rosberg hadn’t changed his engine map on the grid, and that he was lacking power out of turn three, in spite of a great start to take the lead from Hamilton in turns one and two. But then that lack of power meant he found himself prey to a challenging Hamilton heading for turn four. He needed to change the engine map and block his teammate. So he went for the inside line into turn four as Lewis headed for the inside line.
As we know, Hamilton had part of his car inside Rosberg’s – enough? Rosberg maintained his line, Hamilton didn’t back off, was on the grass, lost control and they collided. So now you ask yourself did Rosberg cover too late? Was Hamilton already there or was he too aggressive, after all, that’s what he’s expected to be?
You can be sure that the stewards asked all those questions and more and in great detail. And you have to respect their decision. Tim Mayer – son of Teddy – was one of the stewards; Radovan Novak, a former Czech competitor and involved in motor sport since 1963, was another; and Martin Donnelly – no introduction needed – was the drivers’ steward. I think we can rely on them.
And in spite of Niki Lauda’s initial outburst that it was Hamilton’s fault, and David Coulthard’s subsequent laying of blame on Rosberg for not changing the engine mapping, they said it was a racing incident and didn’t apportion blame. In my eyes, there was blame but maybe 50-50 or 60-40 but not sufficient to penalise anyone. It was Mercedes’s first non-scoring race since USA 2012, and their first double DNF since Australia 2011.
Even without them, what came next was really a superb Grand Prix, a great duel between the four drivers – one making his debut – of two top teams who then chose different strategies for each of their drivers. Historically this race was won with two stops, but three stops was certainly a possibility, and Pirelli had said before the race that a three stop strategy was quicker but required cars to overtake, never easy here.
Pirelli themselves had slightly erred on the side of caution here, bringing a hard instead of a supersoft which would have opened up strategy even more. The hard was scarcely used, only by the Renault drivers in the race itself, so it was a bit of a waste but we still needn’t have worried, we still had a race on our hands.
Two stoppers Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen virtually covered one another in terms of the timing of their stops, while Vettel went longer than anyone on his first set of used softs before changing to the mediums along with the other front runners. But while their rivals stayed out for another five or six laps, leader Ricciardo and third placed Vettel pitted just before lap thirty of the 66, suggesting a three stop race for them. Second and fourth for Verstappen and Raikkonen became second and third after the second stops and then the lead when their teammates stopped again, although Vettel did only eight laps on his second set of used softs before a final 29 lap stint on mediums.
So we then had a pair of duels: Verstappen driving like an old pro, just ahead of Raikkonen. Max was just three years, five months and five days old when Kimi made his debut with sixth place at the Australian Grand Prix in 2001; Max’s Dad Jos was tenth that day. Further back we had Vettel just ahead of Ricciardo for the final 12 laps, although Ricciardo had rejoined 7.1s behind Vettel on lap 44. The Ferraris, however, weren’t as good as the Red Bulls in the twisty final sector, which meant that Vettel lost most of his time there, allowing Ricciardo to challenge in the final 12 laps. It also meant that Raikkonen was never really close enough on to the straight to have a look around Verstappen , handing victory to the amazing youngster.
I first met him about five or six years ago. I’ve always got on well with Jos anyway and I was determined to meet Max who my colleague Joe Saward reckoned had the best genes to become a racing driver, with his father being a Grand Prix driver, and mother, Sophie Kumpen a talented kart driver. Max had won his first race as a Red Bull Junior team member at the Nurburgring in August, 2014 and now was heading for victory in his first race as a Red Bull Senior. He had become the first Dutch driver ever to lead a World Championship Grand Prix and was soon to become not only the youngest driver ever to stand on a podium, but the youngest ever winner, and the first Dutchman to win a Grand Prix.
(There’s a little bit of an anomaly here. Sophie is Belgian and Max was born in Hasselt, Belgium. He also has a Belgian passport. Jos is Dutch of course and although Max started his kart racing in Belgium, he did most of it in Holland and therefore has a Dutch licence. It meant it excited and pleased our Belgian colleagues just as much as it did the Dutch!)
Max was the eleventh different winner of the Spanish Grand Prix in the last 11 years. His win came just 831 days or two years, three months and 11 days after his first automobile race win at Palm Beach, Florida in February, 2014. He has raced in 71 races and won 14 of them. No wonder we are so excited about Max – and he’s a nice guy too. Just to complete the picture, his former karting rival Alessio Lorandi had his first car win on Sunday as well, just over the Pyrenees in European F3 at Pau.
So we had seen history made. Max had made his statement, former teammate Carlos Sainz too with his fine sixth place. Ricciardo had missed out thanks to his three stop strategy but he had shown his pace – and that pace in the third sector could well be indicative of potential form at the next race, Monaco, where Red Bull technical chief Adrian Newey scored a fine fourth place in a Lotus 49 at last weekend’s Monaco Classic!