Spanish Grand Prix review by Bob Constanduros
The Spanish Grand Prix was a fascinating race in that it provided a direct head-to-head contest between two great drivers and two great teams. Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel clearly loved racing wheel-to-wheel – even though one of them had to lose – and Ferrari and Mercedes had to use all their guile and racecraft to provide the right tactics. It was a race that Ferrari probably should have won – but one where Mercedes triumphed in the end.
It was obvious that both teams had brought a lot of updates to the Circuit de Catalunya, a circuit that all teams and drivers know well from pre-season and one that provides a good standard to establish a base set-up. Being the first European race, it was also the scene of the introduction of many new parts and the testing of more for the future. Of these we don’t know, but Mercedes and Ferrari had obviously brought major updates, as everyone else had brought something, whether major or not.
However, Friday testing of these parts was not made easy by track conditions. The temperature itself was fine: 19 degrees up to around 25 degrees but the track temperature ranged from 25 degrees at the start of Friday morning, up to 44 degrees and fractionally more in the afternoon, but there was also a wind to liven things up – as there frequently is at the circuit – and drivers had problems getting grip and stability, few people really feeling satisfied even if they completed their job list.
But the day ended the same for the top teams: Mercedes on top, Hamilton ahead of Bottas; then Ferrari, Raikkonen ahead of Vettel; and then Red Bull, Verstappen ahead of Ricciardo. And in FP3, it was Ferrari on top this time with Raikkonen fastest again. The Finn seemed a pretty good bet… sorry if you followed my advice!
In qualifying, Mercedes and Ferrari were nicely mixed up, with Mercedes on the left side of the grid, and Ferrari on the right, Vettel lining up beside Hamilton, just 0.051s slower than the Mercedes, and their respective teammates behind them.
In theory, the left side of the grid should have been the cleaner and therefore the quicker, and yet anyone studying the support races would have appreciated that the right side was just as good, if not better. And so it proved, with Vettel making a great start, while Red Bull and Ferrari lost a car each at turn one when three abreast – with Bottas – failed to work, although the Mercedes escaped the subsequent contact.
However, it soon became obvious that the race was to become a two horse race as Vettel pulled out 2.5s over Hamilton but there it stayed. Bottas dropped back and then out, with Ricciardo unable to keep up the pace inheriting third.
But it was the tactics employed by the teams and their implementation by the drivers which made this race stand out. The choice of soft tyres for Ferrari at their first pit stop after just 14 laps, Mercedes choosing medium seven laps later by which time Vettel had caught Bottas but didn’t find a way past for three laps which cost him vital time.
Even so, the Ferrari pulled away on the softer tyre and would have a seven second lead when a mid-race virtual safety car was activated. Both cars came in at the end of the safety car period, Hamilton taking a set of softs for the final 30 laps, and Vettel having to go onto mediums for a lap less, but rejoining just ahead of the Mercedes – or maybe more side-by-side.
There was a great tussle for six laps – enjoyed by both protagonists – but then Hamilton got past and although he didn’t pull out that much of a gap over Vettel, it was enough to see him through to the chequered flag; he had enough performance from those soft tyres to set fastest lap two laps from the end. And it was interesting to hear that the effort of launching himself onto this team in parc ferme sent Lewis’s heart rate rocketing. He has eschewed a drinks bottle for weight saving and we haven’t heard much about the physical demands of these cars recently, but if he continues not to carry a drinks bottle, he may find himself in trouble in some of the hotter races, at Hungary for instance.
Mercedes then won, Ferrari lost it and may well feel frustrated at having done so, following a pretty convincing performance throughout the weekend. Vettel had usually been out-performed by his teammate in practice and qualifying, but while he’d provided a strong challenge to Hamilton in the race, it had never been quite enough, his adversary always just out of reach. But it was a fine cat-and-mouse contest between the drivers and teams.
Red Bull, sadly, were nowhere in the hunt, well off the pace in spite of their substantial update. Questions will be asked but make no mistake, after last year’s disappointment, Daniel Ricciardo will be – already is – well fired up for Monaco. But apart from Mercedes and Ferrari, the team of the moment is surely Force India, who are the only pairing to have finished all the races so far, and were the second highest scorers in Spain, now within 19 points of Red Bull in third place. It isn’t just the standard of engineering and design, Sergio Perez is being shadowed all the way by the excellent and popular Esteban Ocon who is really impressing. And surely, a word of congratulations to Sauber for their wise choice of a one-stop to get Pascal Wehrlein well into the points in spite of a time penalty.
Apart from the competition on the circuit, it was interesting to see some novelties in the paddock and fan zone experiences. Star Wars featured pretty heavily, with a massive robot greeting the drivers and making appearances in the paddock, while there was a strong presence and representation for fans on the big screens. Various ideas are being trialled, not all properly thought through which sometimes make things seem somewhat haphazard. In the Ecclestone era, these novelties would have been properly discussed and planned; in the current era, they are trialled with a certain random freshness which sometimes borders on the chaotic.
The Spanish Grand Prix was pretty busy in lots of ways following the relatively relaxed overseas events but this is the way it should be. It wasn’t the best-attended GP, perhaps due to Fernando Alonso’s current predicament but it was a race that promises great excitement and commitment for the future. Next stop Monaco!