Ambient 26° Track 45° Humidity 45% Wind 10-15 kmh
As the last cheery strains of the Spanish Anthem echoed cheerlessly away through the concrete grandstands all thoughts turned to the start, the longest chase in the season to T1. Practice starts done, the fact was both Mercedes drivers had received new clutches overnight. With Vettel having had some cracking starts one might guess Mercedes no doubt looking forward to T1 being done with for the first time. 3 stoppers were predicted to be faster but top teams likely to be conservative as concerns with traffic and passing likely to swing the pendulum closer towards 2. Bottas in the Williams also a threat to Ferrri and Mercedes if they get in front during pitstops, though tyre degradation in the past had been an issue and the track temps were looking mighty this afternoon. Celebrities and VIPs flocked about as drivers tried to get their heads together and the grid began to clear. As they rolled off on the Parade Lap it was clear that all the cars were on the Medium tyre. As they took their spots on the grid heat rippled off the asphalt when the lights went red and then out.
IT was as if the race gods had been listening to the pleas of fans for the Spanish GP to not rival paint drying in terms of interest, given the difficult overtaking that has plagued the circuit. When the lights dropped, it was Lewis Hamilton who responded, by picking up some wheelspin, letting first Vettel and then very nearly Bottas past into the first complex of turns. Vettel happily took P2 and after 5-6 laps it was obvious that Hamilton was not going to be able to get round the slippery Ferrari under DRS, the medium high speed corners doing particular damage to the aero of the trailing cars. Given a range of unpalatable options it was Plan B indeed for Lewis and he settled in to await the first round of stops. Up front, Rosberg swanned happily away at almost 0.7s a lap and was almost 7s up the road by lap 10.
Further down the field it rapidly became clear that the Lotii were indeed fast with both Grosjean and Maldonado having made rapid progress; conversely the Baby Bulls of Toro Rosso were remarkably slow. With the chaos of the first laps settling in it was Ricciardo already into the points and not usurprisingly the McHonda struggling with unanticipated problems with driveability. According to Button after the race, applying throttle at high speed had repeatedly caused immediate and vicious oversteer.
Lap 13 saw Vettel stay out and Hamilton come in as Team Mercedes told him to play opposite to the Ferrari, then helpfully had an issue with the Lewis’ pitstop which saw them circular file the undercut. He emerged behind Vettel who then drove a fairly quick inlap to a perfect pit stop, guaranteeing a continued push from Lewis and an almost guaranteed 3 stopper.
Track termperatures continued to rise and it was Raikkonen going long as Rosberg came in Lap 15. Toro Rosso opted for the Hard tyre whereas most of the rest stuck with the faster Medium tyre.
Hamilton pushed Vettel early and hard, but there was to be no easy way by for the Brit, as this year’s change in nose height seems to have seriously impacted any hope of close running. AS in previous races, Ferrari split tyre strategy and put Kimi out on Lap 18 with the Hard compound affixed.
Hamilton’s battle with Vettel continued and a pattern began to emerge where he would close up and push, then drop back the following lap. Likely a combination of energy harvesting and tyre preservation, it also illustrated nicely the difference in energy recovery systems as it is widely understood that Mercedes takes more management than the Ferrari.
Lotus kept it interesting as Grosjean, who had replaced the hydraulic actuator in his gearbox prior to quali, lost a gear and Allen Permane strongly advised him that if he failed to lift when shifting he would indeed “blow the engine up”. Apparently that got the job done as he eventually recovered the gear and went on to a reasonable finish. Maldonado, however, in an attempt to get past his teammate who’d just had a bit of an off, cut over a touch early and ripped one of the sideplates off his rear wings. The resulting loss of support saw him first have an extra long stop as the damaged plate was removed, then eventually retired as a black flag looked likely, given the increasing likelihood that the wind would fail entirely at speed. This naturally raised the question who needs Nick Heidfeld when Maldonado’s on track.
AS the field circulated at roughly 2s gaps where it was close, an increasingly desperate FOM director was saved by a sudden and unexpected off into T1. This was rapidly revealed to be a brake issue as when the team brought him in he completely failed to hit his pit box, forcing the front jack man to bail and sending the jack flying. The car was immediately retired and though the proximate cause of failure was revealed to be a tear off caught in the brake duct, looking back to Canada last year it might be time for the FIA to revisit their rear brake regulations, as they do not seem robust enough to cope with the demands place on them if they are overheated or if there is a failure of the ERS system. Of course the FIA is just as likely to slow pitlane speeds even further, making teams run even more conservative strategies as pit stops would then get even longer.
Hamilton again led the way into the pits at Lap 33 as Mercedes looked to thread the needle between Raikkonen and Massa for his out. Massa made this unnecessary as he pitted at the end of the same lap as Lewis and as the man from Stevenage emerged on the Hard rubber he rapidly sized up and dispatched Kimi who was on much older tyres and a different strategy. Fascinatingly, Ferrari then lived down to expectations strategically speaking, as they opted to keep Vettel out on a 2 stopper, even as Hamilton turned a fast lap in the
1:29’s. Rosberg, too was being kept out on a 2 stopper and even though he continued to lap at a reduced pace to Lewis, he contued to pick off backmarkers.
By time Nico got to lap 38 he was down to lapping P10 and it was increasingly obvious that Lewis would be well ahead when Vettel finally pitted. Things at the back were momentarily settled and it became a race that was much more entertaining for those who had access to timing screens, at least till Grosjean missed his mark pitting on Lap 42, flinging his front jack wrangler into the next box down the line. He kept his hand on it and managed to elevate the car. Again, luckily no one was injured, but during the race James Allen reported that the pit boxes were very dusty and slippery, perhaps contributing to the ongoing carnage.
Raikkonen also was in on Lap 42 for his switch to the Option for what would turn out to be his last stop, leaving him a long way to go. Possibly having to defend instead of attack was not on the minds of Ferrari’s strategists, as their brilliance from the previous races seemed to have gone missing.
Meanwhile it was all going sour for Marcus Ericsson as well as his strategy was being firmly balked by his teammate, Nasr, who would not yield to the Swede’s entreaties. To make matter worse, the team asked him to hold station for just a wafer thin mint or too.
AS the race deepened all the front runners began to sing that popular hit stealing the airwaves “Blue Flags, Blue Flags”.
Hamilton continued charging hard and now it wasn’t just Vettel, but Rosberg who was losing large chunks of time, raising the prospect that maybe Lewis would convert to a 2 stop and defend as he was rapidly clearing Nico’s pit stop window and Mercedes were keen to leave Rosberg with a shorter stint on the Hard tyre, perhaps not wanting to appear to favour one driver over the other since the two were on different strategies. Discuss in comments to your hearts content.
Lap 45 saw Rosberg in for his final stop and the fact that he emerged behind Hamilton told the story that Lewis would indded be making one more stop. During the presser after the race Lewis was asked if there was any thought of staying out for a 33 lap stint and his reply that it would have been bad to stay on tyre failed to make clear if he meant with the team or whether the tyre would not have lasted.
Lap 49 was when Lewis was firmly clear of Vettel’s pit window and it was all over for the top 2 steps. Lap 51 was when Hamilton actually came in and he was cleanly back out in front of Vettel.
To save the end of the race he immediately began tearing huge chunks of time out of everyone else on track, though after a few laps Mercedes tried to reason with him. It didn’t go down to well and it wasn’t till the last 6 or 7 laps when there was still 12-13 seconds between them that Hamilton gave up his pursuit.
Slightly further back, Raikkonen had picked up the call as he had wound up sandwiched behind Bottas and by Lap 59 had reeled him in. Sadly his older tyres and the circuit design were not his friend as lap after lap, he would get achingly close only to lose that little bit out of New Holland (what? why that’s the official name for T16 natch) and then be unable to get alongsde down the Start/Finish straight.
Carlos Sainz and Danii Kvyat had the last word however as coming into T1 in the final couple of laps, Kvyat locked up under braking and shoved Sainz off track as they were alongside. Sainz took the shortcut and never looked back and was under investigation at the close of the race and later demoted to P10 by the not-impressed stewards.
When the checkers fell it was Rosberg, Hamilton and Vettel for the podium with Bottas and Raikkonen rounding out the top 5. Massa, Ricciardo, Grosjean, Sainz and Kvyat made it 10 and the end of the points.
Mercedes clearly retained their race dominance though Vettel insists today’s race not fully indicative of the step they have made. Williams appear to have made a step as well as they are now in a position to complicate life for Ferrari. Further back Lotus look racy and it’s clear that in race trim the Baby Bulls have some work to do. Sad day for McHonda as their tantalizing promise remains largely unfulfilled. Carnage in the pit lane likely to be a topic at FIA nanny school as well, and as has been seen in the past there is every likelihood that the wrong solution will be put firmly into place in a blind panic reaction by the Chicken Littles that rule F1 world.
Big winner today is of course Nico Rosberg, who happily heads to Monaco, one of his favourite races, with his first win of the year. Mercedes too gain the advantage as Raikkonen’s P5 will not help them keep close to Merc in the WCC. And naturally, it will be time for body armour and tin foil hats in the comments so have fun all and play nice.
See you in a couple weeks for the snoozefest that is Monaco!! (though maybe Pastor will help liven things up)