Lewis, Seb and the Barcelona blast

The racing was really great. The moves Sebastian Vettel had to pull off against Valtteri Bottas, the way Lewis Hamilton came at Vettel in the dirty air — the racing was really good. We’re seeing once again those quality moves.

Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel (face to the camera), who finished second, embraces the winner, Lewis Hamilton after a gripping finish in the Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.   -  REUTERS

That was one heck of a race — gripping stuff from start to finish and yet another sign that the championship race this season could be one of the best ever. We see such close margins in qualifying and the race, and the way Mercedes and Ferrari are having to juggle things is great to watch. The World Championship battle is really going to be an interesting one.

I really enjoy going to the Spanish Grand Prix. The weather is normally amazing and the city is quite close to the circuit, which is quite good fun. It was a busy weekend for me as I managed to finally secure a development driver deal for my protégé Arjun Maini with the Haas F1 team. He then went on to win the GP3 race which was a good way to celebrate the deal!

The update war

Traditionally, Barcelona is the race where most of the teams bring updates. It’s the start of the European season; they’ve got four races of data and logistically it’s a lot easier to bring new parts from the factory. Friday (May 12) was about looking around to see who has brought new parts, and Mercedes visually looked to have made the biggest upgrade.

We on the outside have to take that with a pinch of salt because we don’t know what teams have done under the skin. Engine upgrades, weight... We can’t see those things.

Mercedes had a new dramatic-looking scoop under the nose and new camera mounts. They also had made changes to the rear floor, engine cover, barge board and rear bodywork — all adding up to a big upgrade.

Ferrari and Red Bull, visually, didn’t seem to have brought too many upgrades, but you have to look at the lap times, as that’s the ultimate judge. Ferrari were right in the hunt with Mercedes though sporting a new T-wing and some edits to the barge boards and front wing. It was interesting to see how aggressive the Mercedes cars were.

F1’s new physicality

Qualifying was really good. Practice showed that Ferrari were right there in the hunt. I don’t think Lewis Hamilton’s lap was perfect; in fact, he did his best time on his first run in Q3 and would have been a couple of tenths up if he had closed out that lap. But so was Sebastian Vettel. His first and second sectors were really good, but he made a bit of a mistake at the chicane and we heard him ranting and swearing over the team radio about his mistake. He was saying he thought that all weekend he had been missing the apex of the chicane and did it again in qualifying and didn’t get it hooked up.

A nerve-wracking moment from the Spanish Grand Prix, as Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel (foreground) go wheel-to-wheel.   -  REUTERS

 

But when we got to the start of the race, they were hooked up. No question. You just had to listen to Lewis’ radio and he was panting, showing how hard he had to work. I think that’s great, whether you’re watching the Olympics, Tour de France or swimming, you want to see the athletes using every bit of energy they have got to get the result. We hadn’t seen that in the past, and this 2017 generation of cars have certainly helped that I think the physical strain has really gone through the roof. It’s really good to watch.

The racing was really great. The moves Vettel had to pull off against Bottas, the way Lewis came at Vettel in the dirty air — the racing was really good. We’re seeing once again those quality moves.

The strategy game

I think Mercedes, particularly, were really good at thinking on the go during the weekend. They managed to prolong Lewis’ first stint by nine laps over Seb and then went to the medium tyre in the second stint of the race. They went for the medium tyre on heavy fuel and they pitted as the Virtual Safety Car period was ending, and so gained time because Lewis was already in the pit-lane.

Lewis only did 14 laps on the medium, which was a lot slower than the soft. It was a really clever move to get rid of the mediums so quickly. When you have a lighter car — which you will at the end of a Grand Prix — and more rubber that is put down on the track — which again you will see in the final stint — the soft tyre will last longer. So by using the medium tyre earlier on, Mercedes outfoxed Ferrari and Lewis was, therefore, on the faster tyre at the end. Despite the fact that Lewis came out behind Seb, although only just, when the German rejoined on Lap 37, Lewis had so much more pace. Then he became the hunter rather than the hunted, and Seb, on medium tyres, was vulnerable. We heard him on the radio say there was nothing he could do and that Lewis just blasted past him. James Vowles and the Mercedes strategy team did a fantastic job.

What was clear to me, as Bottas and Kimi retired, was that the A-listers, Seb and Lewis, once again staked their claim as the No. 1 drivers of their teams. You could argue that if Kimi had outqualified Sebastian and been on the front row he wouldn’t have got into the tangle. Valtteri had the engine issue but he was already a long way behind the front two at that point. It’s status quo after the wobble from Lewis in Sochi.

The best of the rest

Force India scored solid points in the midfield battle. Daniel Ricciardo finished on the podium, which is always nice going into his adopted home race in Monaco (May 28), but he was 75 seconds behind the race winner. That will not have escaped the team’s attention because it’s a long, long way to be behind.

Nico Hulkenberg and Pascal Wehrlein had great races and came away with a solid haul of points. The lap of the weekend though was Fernando Alonso’s from qualifying. It’s a shame he got messed up with Massa at Turn One, but it was the most amazing lap.

Monaco is next with its very different demands. The usual suspects, Ferrari and Mercedes, will be right up there — there’s no reason why they wouldn’t be. Both Lewis and Seb are brilliant around there, so we’ll see how it unfolds.

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