2017 Spanish Grand Prix report

by Mark Hughes on 15th May 2017

Mark Hughes reports from the 2017 Spanish Grand Prix

Decision time in the Mercedes pits. To pit or not pit as the lap 34 Stoffel Vandoorne/Felipe Massa collision has left the McLaren beached in the turn one Barcelona gravel, putting the race under a virtual safety car with Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari leading on softs, around 7sec ahead of Merc’s man Lewis Hamilton on mediums. It was awkward timing – for to take advantage of the reduced time loss of pitting under a VSC with 32 laps to go meant a longer than ideal final stint on the softs (and they’d have lost too much time doing 32 laps on the much slower mediums). The complication in the moment was what Ferrari, as the race leaders, were going to do. If they brought Vettel in for his mediums, Mercedes would have responded and followed him into the pitlane. But they didn’t. So that gave Mercedes another VSC lap in which to make a decision – which was good for two reasons. It reduced by a lap the distance the marginal final stint softs would need to complete and it meant that if Vettel continued to stay out, then Mercedes could bring in Hamilton as the VSC was coming to an end – and thereby buy a chunk of time over Vettel who wouldn’t be able to respond until a lap later, by which time the VSC may have ended.

At Ferrari, they were in a different invidious position. They had to forget the emotion of the VSC having complicated a race they were otherwise perfectly set to win, with the faster car on the day and a handy lead. They had to focus instead on how they might still rescue the win, how they might best defend against the ambush opportunity the VSC had given Mercedes. With Vettel leading, whatever they did Mercedes could respond and do the opposite. Ideally, they hoped Mercedes would consider that 32 laps on a set of softs was too long and they would therefore leave Hamilton out. That way, they’d stay out too and retain track position over him and have enough of a gap in the final stint to stay out of Hamilton’s reach early in the stint when the Merc’s tyre grip would have been greater. Their hopes were raised as Merc left Hamilton out there at the end of the first VSC lap. But then didn’t Mercedes go and pit him next lap. And wasn’t that damn VSC rescinded as Vettel was only part-way through his responding in-lap. In that way, much of his former 7sec advantage was being wiped out. It wasn’t even certain he’d keep the lead as he left the pits.

New mediums fitted, pitlane limiter engaged, it took an age to get down there – and all the time here was the flat-out silver Merc pulling 200mph down that long straight, greedily devouring the Ferrari’s lead, Hamilton in its cockpit not about to shy away from whatever challenge to Vettel might be required…

It was the defining moment in a brilliant race between the two class cars of Formula 1 around its most aerodynamically demanding track. Both had been extensively upgraded – the Merc developments more visually obvious – but that had thankfully not upset their closely matched comparison, and so 2017 continues to be one of the best seasons of recent years. This race had some brilliantly vivid moments, not least Vettel passing the other Merc of an out-of-sequence Valtteri Bottas after a double dummy and one wheel on the grass at 200mph. Bottas in fact was another crucial component of the race’s outcome, before ‘old faithful’ – the engine that had taken him to victory and been damaged by the marginal cooling in Russia, and which was now over-mileage too – cried enough and departed in a blaze of glory. His part in the turn one choreography that saw Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari and Max Verstappen’s Red Bull collide and retire also played its part in the title battle apparently beginning to distil into Vettel vs Hamilton.    

Qualifying

The crucial deciders were the mistakes – those of Vettel and Bottas; just the smallest of errors towards the end of their final Q3 laps, a slightly bigger one for Räikkönen, and that’s all it took for Hamilton to secure his 64th career pole. All four of them had the inherent pace to have secured the place, but the first Q3 lap of Hamilton stood clear of the best of Vettel’s by a bare half-a-tenth. Hamilton too had made an error on his second Q3 run at the chicane. Even though the tyre compound selection was Pirelli’s most conservative, with the track at 45 degC the softest of them was prone to be a little too hot through the tight twists of the final sector if you’d taken all they had to give through the fast earlier sections. That’s where Hamilton and Vettel made their errors and where Bottas made one of his.

Vettel: “I can never get the chicane right. Mark Webber taught me many lessons there over the years but I still haven’t got it.” Bottas – slightly down on engine power after a water leak and electrical problems in his previous two had caused him to miss a big chunk of Saturday morning practice – got a little out of shape through the middle sector, where the wind gusts were tricky and ended up a couple of tenths adrift in third. Räikkönen was a further tenth away, in fourth: “I had a lot of speed but never really managed to make a good lap out of it. I ran wide already in turn one, but managed to get out of it and I was still fast. Then in turn four and five I just ran really wide. I need to drive better basically.”

The good news was that it remained so tight between Mercedes and Ferrari that just the smallest of errors was all that decided the order of the top four. As Mercedes had revealed an updated W08 with lots of very visible aero developments (including a dramatic-looking big concave vane between the front axle and sidepods and various new slots and slats splashed across its bodywork), the concern was that, in concert with a weight-saving programme that now allows ballast to be used to vary the weight distribution, Mercedes had developed its way back to dominance. Not so.

“I think it’s amazing that we’ve both bolted on all this new aero performance and we come here and there’s still only half a tenth between us,” said Hamilton.

Ferrari’s developments – new barge boards, floor and T-wing – had been equally effective. “Yes, ours are maybe not as bling,” grinned Vettel, “but the guys at the factory have been working really hard.” There was an underlying concern for Vettel as his fresh engine had suffered a water leak and had to be replaced between third practice and qualifying by the unit that – like the replacement unit in Bottas’ Merc – had already done four Grands Prix.  

Red Bull had some development parts of its own, the RB13 featuring new barge boards and front suspension. It allowed the car to run a degree of rake that was extreme even by Red Bull standards. It wasn‘t enough to see them challenging Merc and Ferrari around here but for the first time it was beginning to look like a Red Bull through the slow sections and Max Verstappen’s fifth-fastest time was within 0.6sec off pole, by far the car’s most competitive showing to date. “Yes, it’s definitely better,” said Max. “It’s got better balance all the way through the corner and we have a wider window in getting both the front and the rear to work. We’re still down on ultimate downforce I think but we’re going in the right direction now.” Ricciardo was next 0.25sec adrift. “I was struggling in the last sector,” he reported, “especially at the last two corners. I just wasn’t able to carry enough speed through the chicane which is where I lost most of the time. For the rest of the lap I felt we did all we could and now we have a pretty good balance in the high speed corners. There is more potential in the car which we need to unlock.”

So that was the big three teams. The mid grid section that follows is insanely closely-matched this year. Between seventh and 15th fastest in Q2 there were just two-tenths, so a small under-performance could have a big competitive impact. But heading this group at the end of it all was the remarkable Fernando Alonso, seventh on the grid with the McLaren-Honda after two superb laps, one each in Q2 and Q3. He’d not even been able to complete an out-lap in first practice before the Honda engine blew up so violently its block was split in two. He was tweeting from the tennis court before the session had even ended. But the car itself, with extensive aero upgrades, was working well and they made steady progress through the remaining practices despite the power shortfall. Although the lap was still 1.8sec adrift of pole, this was a fantastic achievement. “Today we put everything together,” said Alonso. “I felt confident in the car – in spite of quite windy and tricky conditions – and I need that confidence to push and gain those couple of tenths in quali. All the support I get from the people here in Spain always gives me extra motivation.” In the other car Stoffel Vandoorne was rather over-shadowed, 0.5sec adrift of Alonso in Q1, which left him only 19th fastest. “I don’t really know what happened today. Yesterday I was feeling quite comfortable and confident in the car... it seems like we lost a bit of performance today and at the moment there’s no real explanation why… everything felt a little bit more difficult.” The inevitable engine penalties would see him start from the back of the grid.

Had Esteban Ocon not pressed his DRS button too early on his Force India and thereby not benefitted from its effect onto the straight to begin the lap, he’d have pipped Alonso for seventh. As it was, he was back in 10th, two places behind team-mate Sergio Pérez. The VJM10’s upgrades had improved its difficult aero traits upon corner entry and Pérez had worked well to get the tyres into the tricky narrow operating window.

Between the Force Indias sat Felipe Massa’s Williams. The FW40 was giving its tyres a harder time than any other car, requiring super-slow out-laps. He’d needed two runs just to clear Q1, leaving him with just one set of softs for Q3 – and on that lap he made a small error. Otherwise, he was another that would have pipped Alonso. Team-mate Lance Stroll got within 0.3sec of Massa in Q1 (the closest he’s been all season) but that wasn’t enough to get him out of there. He’d line up 18th.

Kevin Magnussen’s Haas only just failed to make Q3, in 11th, Kevin feeling the aero upgrades were a small move in the right direction. Both cars were still locking front brakes, a particular frustration to Romain Grosjean – who eventually spun at the end of his Q2 lap, leaving him relying on his first run, good only for 14th.

The Toro Rosso was slow on the straights and tricky through the slow sections at the end of the lap and Carlos Sainz reckoned 12th was something of an achievement. Daniil Kvyat, a solid last, was uncomprehending about what could be wrong with his car. “It’s got a mind of its own. It’s driving me. It’s so odd. We’d actually made some progress with it yesterday, but today it was undriveable.”  

The high track temperatures – much changed from practice three – had caught many out. Including Renault. Through Friday it had looked clearly the fourth-fastest team, with Nico Hülkenberg actually pushing the improved Red Bulls quite closely. But come Saturday, the balance of the car had gone. It was all he could do to go 13th fastest, while Jolyon Palmer, 0.3sec slower, failed to graduate from Q1, in 17th.

Pascal Wehrlein had comfortably the upper hand over Sauber team-mate Marcus Ericsson and squeezed through to Q2, which placed him one place ahead on the grid.

Race

Beautiful weather and Alonso’s good grid position seemed to have played their part in a big crowd – not to capacity like in the vintage Alonso years, but enough to create that special buzz as the grid formed. The track was heated up to 41 degC, only slightly cooler than qualifying and well above the optimum for the tyres. The pre-weekend expectation had been for a one-stop, given the conservative Pirelli choice of soft/medium/hard but the practices had shown the medium didn’t react at all well to the temperatures and was slow, swerving the emphasis to the much faster but less durable soft and making the theoretically optimum strategy finely balanced between a two and three stop.

In the trade-off between straightline speed and downforce Mercedes had loaded its car up with more emphasis than usual towards the latter – much as Ferrari has done all season. For the first time the Merc was carrying almost as much rear wing angle as the Ferrari, and this was to better protect the surface of the tyres, forcing the tyre harder into the heat-degraded grip of the track surface to prevent it sliding so much. As a consequence the silver car didn’t carry its usual end-of-straight speed advantage over the red one, but the previous pattern of the Ferrari having greater tyre durability may no longer have applied. That was the thinking up on the respective pit walls.

In the cockpits, as they watched that gantry, all sorts of background information was filed away. Hamilton had perhaps the most straightforward task thanks to his hard-fought pole and relatively trouble-free preparation, but was aware that Vettel alongside had a new Mercedes-inspired start system, with longer clutch paddle for more finely-honed feel. Both Vettel and Bottas were starting with engines that had already completed four Grands Prix – and not by choice.

As both Hamilton and Vettel got a little too much wheelspin, it was Bottas who got away best and things got mighty crowded towards the front as they each jinked their way down towards turn one, Vettel ahead on the inside, Hamilton to the left slightly behind, Bottas in the gap between and with the momentum on Hamilton. Räikkönen and Verstappen were gaining on Hamilton but still behind. But as they approached the braking area Bottas, nervous of contact with his team-mate, backed out of it early – and that created something of a squeeze. Hamilton took up chase of Vettel but as Räikkönen and Verstappen tried to get three-aside with Bottas at the apex, the Merc’s left-front hit the Ferrari’s right-rear, flicking Räikkönen into Verstappen, breaking the steering arms and suspensions of Kimi and Max as they took to the run-off, helpless passengers as they meandered back onto the track mid-pack without proper steering control, cars passing all sides in avoidance. Bottas emerged third ahead of Ricciardo. Just behind, Massa had got a good start to run outside Alonso, but as the track swoops left, over-played his edging out of the McLaren, the pair touching and leaving Alonso with no alternative but to drive across the grass, dropping him to the mid-pack. Massa’s front right tyre was punctured in the incident and he’d be in at the end of the lap.

Vettel and his Ferrari were dynamite on the opening lap, sprinting away from Hamilton at an outrageous rate, urgent direction changes, great rear stability, Hamilton’s car looking lazier on turn in and less stable mid-corner. Red flashed by the timing beam 2.2sec before silver at the end of the opening lap. The Merc looked a little breathless in comparison. Hamilton himself would sound it too later in the race as he talked over the radio. It’s clear that the new breed of car is much more physical to drive than what we’ve had for the last few years and on a hot day around a track with plenty of long high speed corners, the physical effort could be heard in his voice.

Once Vettel had the gap out to 2.7sec by the third lap he stabilised it and set about just managing his race. In these early laps at least the Ferrari was just plain faster. It wasn’t a case of Hamilton conserving his tyres in these early stages? “No, we were chasing as hard as we could. His pace was phenomenal,” said Lewis.  

Hamilton was quickly dropping Bottas, who rather like on race day in China, could not get the car working. “It just felt uncomfortable from the start. I don’t know if there was any damage from the Kimi hit and the team are still looking at it, but my assumption is that there was.” Without balance or pace and wearing through the tyres quicker than his team-mate, he was just not going to be a factor towards the front – though he would later play a starring cameo role in the outcome of the race.

Continuing the stretching gap theme and making the early stages of this race look like a standard Barcelona-style Grand Prix, Ricciardo fell away from the back of Bottas but steadily put distance on the Force Indias of Pérez and Ocon. Hülkenberg ran the Renault a lonely seventh before a dicing Magnussen and Sainz. Grosjean was next, hassled relentlessly by Alonso. Wehrlein, Stroll, Ericsson, Vandoorne and the pitted cars of Kvyat, Palmer and Massa followed on.

The way this standard-looking Barcelona-style Grand Prix looked set to play out at this stage was with Vettel taking a fairly comfortable victory over Hamilton, the rest nowhere but headed by Bottas.

It panned out rather differently and much more entertainingly thanks to three randomisers:

1) Mercedes pressuring Ferrari into early first stop

On lap 11 Pete Bonnington got on the radio to Hamilton to deliver what he knew might be an unwelcome message. “This is a critical time now. You need to push.” It’s only because he was already pushing that he’d been able to keep Vettel in sight, the Ferrari still just 2.3sec up the road, Bottas already 8sec behind.

Assuming Ferrari was to stay on course for a two-stop, the window for the first stops was from around lap 14/15. All Mercedes could get Hamilton to do was to be within undercut range (around 2.5sec) as they approached that stage of the race. He didn’t have any more to give, but at this stage neither did Vettel. Hamilton nudged a tenth or so off each lap – putting irresistible pressure on Ferrari. Without the pace to pull away out of undercut range they could either stay out and be sitting ducks to Hamilton pitting and using a new set of softs to undercut himself into the lead. Or, they could come in before it was too late. Vettel was brought in at the end of the 14th lap – quite aggressively early for a two-stop – and got underway on his new softs.

This excited the Mercedes pit wall as they now planned to leave Hamilton out. They had made Ferrari bring Vettel in before he had cleared fourth-placed Ricciardo, the Red Bull well clear of his pursuers and therefore not planning on stopping any time soon. Merc didn’t reckon that would be an easy pass on-track and that Seb would therefore be delayed, while Hamilton stayed out long enough to clear the Red Bull and thus make up vital time on the Ferrari. This was possibly going to win them the race.

Except Vettel got past Ricciardo as soon as he came upon him, the very next lap after pitting. With the greater mechanical grip of the 2017 cars, Barcelona’s final turn is now flat-out, accelerating still from the chicane exit. Last year it wasn’t – and that made following another car close through there much more difficult than it is now. Being able to enter that long pit straight tight on the tail of the car in front made the DRS much more powerful. Vettel was through and continuing to lap very quickly.

2) Bottas’ tough race and the role it put him in

Although Vettel’s instant pass on Ricciardo was something of a disappointment for Mercedes, they still had another ace up their sleeve. The next car Vettel must pass was Bottas, 10sec up the road but lapping more than 2sec slower in his unbalanced car on old tyres.

So now Mercedes made a new plan. Bottas was going to be left out there, converted to a one-stop, in order to play Hamilton’s rear gunner. He was going to finish third whichever strategy he was on, so he might as well be put to good use.

Hamilton’s tyres were now old too and although he led the race, he was 2sec off Vettel’s new tyre pace. They would keep Hamilton out as long as possible to give him much shorter second and third stints and therefore fresher, faster tyres. He would go onto the slow medium tyres for a short second stint, just long enough to keep his final stint short enough for a set of softs, when Vettel would be obliged to be on the slow mediums. So they would be chasing Vettel down on faster tyres, but trying not to take so much out of them in catching that he no longer had a grip advantage by the time he arrived on the Ferrari’s tail.

Hamilton came in for that late first stop on the 21st lap, the mediums went on and he rejoined 7sec behind Vettel. But leading the race now – and with Vettel now in his DRS range – was Bottas. “Yes, I was driving for the team and doing everything I could do to help,” Valtteri admitted afterwards of his super-stern defence.     

At the end of the 23rd lap Vettel was hard into the Merc’s tow down the pit straight and with DRS deployed. They were side-by-side into turn one, Bottas on the inside and not giving an inch. By the time they’d done another lap, Bottas has cost Vettel over 6sec in three laps. This had allowed Hamilton, despite being on the slower tyres, to half his deficit to the Ferrari. Vettel channelled the frustration and competitive desire and as they charged down the pit straight nose-to-tail to begin the 25th lap he dummied to the outside, swerved across to the inside, with Bottas’ response just on this side of legal, Vettel then performing a double dummy and going even further inside – even though this entailed running his right-rear wheel over the grass at 200mph with the DRS flap deployed. The car gave a threatening little twitch as it kicked up the dust – but he was finally through. Thrilling stuff.

A lap later Hamilton was given a free passage by his team-mate, who was now just 4.5sec behind the race-leading Ferrari. Bottas was brought in for his only stop a lap later.

So the stage was seemingly set. On his softer tyres during this middle stint, and once clear of Bottas, Vettel began edging away once more from Hamilton. There was half the distance still to go and it was expected Vettel would stay out until his tyres became worn-out and allowed Hamilton to begin catching once more. As they each made their second stops, Vettel on the slower medium tyre would be coming under attack from Hamilton on the faster tyre. As per Merc’s earlier plan. It probably wasn’t going to be enough to steal the victory from the assured Vettel, but it would surely make him sweat.

Except…

3) The Vandoorne VSC

Vandoorne had been having a tough weekend in the McLaren-Honda, starting from the back and running last of those cars that didn’t pit for various reasons on the opening lap. He was struggling with the balance in his opening stint and had been 14sec behind Alonso when McLaren double-stacked them for their fresh softs on the 12th lap. On the new rubber, he was actually lapping faster than Alonso until he began getting the blue flags and the dirty tyres they entail. Massa – delayed by that lap-one puncture but lapping at around Ricciardo pace – had caught up to the McLaren by lap 32 and was getting a DRS run on him into turn one. Vandoorne knew he was there, but the Williams seemed a little too far back to get by under braking, as it disappeared from his peripheral vision. He wrongly assumed Massa had backed out of it and made for the apex – where the Williams already was. Thereby spearing the McLaren into the gravel trap.

At this moment Vettel had stretched out his lead over Hamilton to 7.7sec. Race control put the race under a virtual safety car, freezing the gaps on-track. This gave Ferrari and Mercedes their respective dilemmas. Most of the midfield – starting with the fifth and sixth-placed Force Indias – pitted to replace their worn softs for new mediums that would get them to the end.

But, as recalled at the top of this report, the situation was more nuanced than that at Ferrari and Mercedes. Both Vettel and Hamilton passed by the pit entry road and continued on. On the pit walls Ferrari sensed danger, Mercedes opportunity.

Ferrari was hoping Mercedes would consider the remaining 34 laps too much for a set of softs and the mediums too slow to catch Vettel – and that they would therefore stay out, giving Ferrari no penalty for doing the same. Their hopes were raised when Hamilton stayed out under the first VSC lap. If Ferrari had then just brought Vettel in, then Mercedes would surely have left Hamilton out there – and attempted to get to the end on his mediums. It was possible to do, though would surely have entailed some robust defences late in the race. Because Ferrari was leading the race, it was at the tactical disadvantage. It had to make the first choice and Mercedes could always just respond. It did so by bringing Hamilton in for his softs at the end of lap 36.  By the time Ferrari responded and brought Vettel in a lap later, the VSC had been rescinded. Hamilton’s pitting with the pack restricted to VSC speeds and Vettel not, had found him 6sec. This in addition to the 6sec Bottas had gifted him.

So as Vettel accelerated out of the pit exit towards turn one, Hamilton was bearing down fast. They approached the corner level, with Vettel hugging the inside, Hamilton trying for a run around the outside. Vettel edged him over, Hamilton forced to cross the white lines in avoidance. The Ferrari still led – with Seb perplexed about where his 8sec lead had gone – but Hamilton was on a mission to pass it, while he still had greater tyre grip.

For the next few laps Hamilton tried to get by at the end of the pit straight, but Vettel was managing to hold him off with a combination of tactical ERS deployment and getting DRS from lapped cars. Finally, there were no more lapped cars to protect him and into the 44th lap number 44 passed number five. “No chance,” reported Vettel on the radio. “It was like a train.”

He was told not to lose hope, as Hamilton would surely be suffering with his tyres towards the end. But Hamilton’s a wizard with tyres and besides, with the fuel load low and the track rubbered in, it wasn’t a done deal he couldn’t get the softs to stay in good shape despite their mileage.

Bottas by this stage was gone. His old engine finally surrendered on the 38th lap, probably the consequence of how much life it had taken out of it running hot and in high power mode for the closing stages in Russia. There had been a heated discussion in the Mercedes garage at the time about that between Niki Lauda and engine boss Andy Cowell. Lauda’s prevailing had won Bottas that race, but here was the price. Valtteri would surely have accepted it. Ricciardo thus assumed a very distant third, well ahead of the Force India pair Pérez and Ocon. Hülkenberg was just out of reach of a feisty one-stopping Wehrlein, the Sauber repelling the attacks of Sainz. Behind them was Magnussen, chased hard by Kvyat who had made a great recovery drive from the back of the grid and had jumped Grosjean’s Haas at the second stops. Alonso still trailed just behind.

A Sting In The Tail?

“What do you think of Plan C?” Vettel was asked. This would have involved a third stop where new softs would have been fitted to allow him to chase down Hamilton from around 25sec back but going around 2sec per lap faster and plenty of laps left.

It was a danger Mercedes was acutely aware of and so it instructed Hamilton to open up an undercut gap over the Ferrari. That way, they’d be able to respond and do the same without losing the lead. Which finally put the race into a stalemate. Vettel chased hard, but it soon became clear that Hamilton’s tyres were going to hold out just fine. “I think there might have been a Lewis Hamilton factor in that,” remarked Toto Wolff of how the rubber had held on for so long. That said, Wehrlein’s one-stop had entailed an opening stint on the softs of 34 laps. He was carrying a 5sec penalty for passing the wrong side of the bollards after taking to the turn one run-off, meaning his seventh across the line was eighth behind Sainz in the official results. Carlos had jumped ahead of Magnussen at the second stops, with the latter then coming under attack from the other Toro Rosso of Kvyat and receiving a puncture, entailing a stop that dropped him out of the points – and promoted Grosjean into them.

Ricciardo’s third place was almost 75sec adrift of the winner and it’s clear Red Bull still has much to do. Force India’s double points haul brings them within a few points of Red Bull’s third place on the constructors.     

“That was an amazing race,” said its winner. “That’s how racing should be, as close as it’s possible to be. Sebastian was incredibly close, incredibly fast. The team did an amazing job on the strategy today.”

Indeed they had. With a car not quite as fast, they’d made intelligent use of the hands that fortune dealt. Hamilton did the rest and Vettel could consider himself unlucky, even though he does still lead the championship.

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