OK, perhaps it’s not going to be easy steps but there are some things the Mercedes, Ferrari and dare we say Verstappen & Ricciardo must do to win at the Circuit de Catalunya.
Despite all the testing done at Barcelona, when F1 arrives for the Spanish Grand Prix, the result will be anything but a foregone conclusion. So what will be the golden rules for success in Spain?
1/ To finish first you must first finish.
Having the fastest car means nothing if it can’t make it to the chequered flag. Ferrari have been pushing aggressively to bridge the gap to Mercedes, but despite their impressive progress there must be concern that a price will be paid later on in the season – Ferrari fitted their third turbocharger of the season to both cars in Russia (with only four allowed during the season before incurring a grid penalty), and although they will be able to re-use the earlier ones without penalty, this means that they will only be able to fit one more upgrade to the turbocharger without penalty – such a situation is hardly ideal, and underlines the issues Ferrari have been facing in the push to match the mighty Mercedes PU. For Mercedes, pace is nothing if you can’t use it, as Lewis Hamilton’s frustrating Sunday in Sochi underlined, with Lewis intermittently showing just how fast his Mercedes could go if it were not for overheating issues. The nightmare of last year’s Spanish Grand Prix which saw the dominant Mercedes throw away a certain victory as both their cars tangled on the opening lap will be fresh in Mercedes memory – and following Valtteri Bottas maiden victory in Sochi after having taken pole position the previous round in Bahrain, any talk of Bottas being a compliant number 2 behind Hamilton are surely a thing of the past. Mercedes are very much in the territory of having to manage two drivers with title aspirations, so expect plenty of nail biting on the pit wall if Lewis and Valtteri are in close proximity on the opening lap! Red Bull will hope their B-spec car can help them crash the Ferrari/Mercedes party after suffering a disappointing start to the season, but will need quickly get on top of their early season reliability issues if they are to play a significant role in this year’s title battle.
2/ Track position is king.
Just in case we were in any doubt, Sochi provided a long, boring reminder that overtaking in 2017 is going to be hard. Really hard. The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is one where overtaking has traditionally been difficult in any case. Last year Max Verstappen enjoyed a dream debut for Red Bull, delivering a flawless drive to both manage his tyres and keep Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari at bay and claim his first F1 victory after Mercedes hit the self-destruct button and Vettel and Ricciardo made the mistake of opting for fresher rubber over track position! Lewis Hamilton will be determined to get his qualifying mojo back after struggling in Sochi, as he is all too aware of the difficulty of overtaking in Spain. Back in 2011, Sebastian Vettel took a superb victory for Red Bull with a masterfully judged drive to hold off the faster McLaren of Lewis Hamilton, while Lewis lost any hope of victory here in 2015 as Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg scampered up the road as Hamilton lay stuck behind Vettel’s Ferrari after being outgunned by Vettel at the start. So, don’t expect the race order to be decided by wheel to wheel action on track – outside of lap one anyway! Qualifying, the start, and pit strategy will be crucial to determine the outcome. The teams will face a tough challenge as they try to get the balance right between taking pole position and ensuring their tyre wear doesn’t destroy them on Sunday, while practice starts will be an important part (as ever) of the preparation for Sunday’s race!
3/ Understanding the tyres is the key to victory
With the new regulations for this season we are seeing a major emphasis on getting on top of tyre use, both in terms of getting tyres into the required operating window, and more importantly, getting them to last there. While the early races gave us a scenario where Mercedes had the better one lap pace but Ferrari would handle their tyres better, Sochi showed that things won’t stand still. With both Ferrari’s making the front row in Sochi, Mercedes certainty of a raw pace advantage is a thing of the past. Yet in Sochi, Mercedes clearly made a decision to focus a bit more on their Sunday pace, and it payed dividends with Bottas great opening stint on the ultra-softs laying the foundations for his victory. Of course, had he not been able to get past Vettel at the start it would have been a whole different race! The last season which saw such major tyre tribulations was 2012 (the year of the great Pirelli tyre lottery). Yes, it really happened, the much maligned Pastor Maldonado ripped up the form book and took a superb victory for Williams. Maldonado, on pole position after Lewis Hamilton was disqualified for not having enough fuel in his McLaren, lost out to Fernando Alonso at the start, but kept a cool head and drove the race of his life, getting the jump on Alonso in the pits, and holding him off to take a stunning victory in what would be his only podium appearance (to date) in F1. If Pastor could do it in 2012, who knows, maybe we’ll get a surprise winner in 2017. They say a good start is half the battle, but in 2017 F1 it might just be 90%! After Bottas opening lap flyer in Sochi, who knows, Spain could be the race where Max Verstappen and Red Bull kick start their 2017 campaign on the anniversary of their famous first race together.