2014 Spanish GP report

by Mark Hughes on 12th May 2014

“No more feedback please,” said Lewis Hamilton to his engineer Pete Bonnington as he went into the last couple of laps, team-mate Nico Rosberg hard on his tail and on the faster option tyre. All through the race Lewis had been pumping Bonnington for more information, not less. "How much time loss did we suffer in the pits?" "Which corners am I losing time on?" "What can I do to limit the oversteer?" "Where you been the last few laps?"

It was brain-frying in there, competitive paranoia mixed in with strategic options. But now, having not pulled out the gap he really needed to have done in the middle stint of the two-stop race – when he was on the option, Rosberg on the prime – he had his hands full, just like in Bahrain.

It was all going to come down to street-fighting smarts and making no lock ups on tyres that were graining, with a car that was now understeering a little more than he would’ve preferred. He was just trying to keep it all under control, the high stress of holding onto what would be a crucially important win amid the mass of information, keeping it clean and measured but being ready to fight if needed. It’s a place he’s been many times before.

The rest were a long way back – though the eventual 49sec margin back to the third place Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo gave a misleading picture, as he’d been stuck behind Valtteri Bottas’s Williams for all his first stint and furthermore had skewed his strategy to escape. But that enormous Mercedes advantage is putting a responsibility upon the team for the sake of interest in the championship and to its credit, it’s responding by allowing Hamilton and Rosberg to race.

The contest built to a thrilling crescendo, as differing tyre strategies weaved together for the last stint – not only at Mercedes, but with Sebastian Vettel and his three-stop charge from a penalised 15th on the grid to an eventual fourth; at Ferrari where Fernando Alonso threw the strategic dice to beat team mate Kimi Räikkönen home to sixth. They were behind Bottas who maximised a Williams that was potentially hard on its rear tyres, with a beautifully judged drive that sat on the cusp of attack and conserve.

The Circuit di Catalunya’s combination of abrasive surface, long fast corners yet several low gear acceleration zones place horrible demands on the tyres. Pirelli brought the toughest combination possible of hard and medium – though perhaps that turned out to be slightly on the conservative side, as even with the high track temperatures of a sunny Spanish day the medium was the faster tyre through a stint. Twenty-one of the 22 starters began the race on it, and most planned only to use the hard at the end.

Traditionally, the front left was the limitation here, but in the new era it’s the left rear. “We’re getting six per cent less energy through the tyres here than last year,” said Pirelli’s Paul Hembery, “and that’s protecting the front more. But the rear is sliding more and of course has a lot more torque to deal with.”

Furthermore, the safety-inspired policy of this year’s minimum allowable pressures has hurt rear performance more, making the working tread area effectively the wrong shape, taking load over a much narrower section of tread than it was originally designed for. “For those teams that have been able to limit their rear sliding and wheelspin – notably Mercedes and Red Bull – there was a big advantage around here.”

So, in addition to Mercedes’ ‘normal’ advantage, here they probably had a tyre usage advantage over everyone but Red Bull too. The gaps were thereby stretched out - as reflected in qualifying where the W05 was around 1sec quicker than the RB10, 1.5sec quicker than the Williams FW36 of Valtteri Bottas, 1.8sec quicker than the improving Lotus of Romain Grosjean and almost 2sec clear of the Ferraris.

Qualifying

Hamilton had been in a serene league of his own on Friday, Rosberg gasping to keep pace. The smallest of changes into Saturday, combined with a lower grip surface, changed that quite decisively and for the rest of the weekend, Rosberg generally had a better balance than Hamilton. “I don’t know what we’ve done to this car,” Hamilton said over the radio during the early stages of qualifying, “but we’ve made it worse.”

This is all within the context of a car still vastly faster than anything else, but Lewis was now finding turn-in oversteer and inconsistency from one corner to the next, where before there’d only been beautiful balance. The calm, measured response of the team prevented this from becoming a crisis. Even though the regulations now allow very little to be changed once you’re into qualifying, a few tweaks of differential and a rethink on how he was driving it – a bit earlier on the brakes, picking up the throttle more progressively – saw him able to best Rosberg by a couple of tenths in their final Q3 runs.

The Red Bulls were 14kph slower through the speed trap and 1sec slower over the lap, the deficit roughly equally split between the three sectors. Ricciardo’s was the only RB10 working properly. Vettel had a placebo change of chassis after being beaten by Ricciardo in China. But as a result of that change, the wiring loom was chafing against the chassis, causing a short circuit that left him unable to do more than three laps on Friday. The gearbox then selected two gears at once at the beginning of Q3. This and a five-place penalty for the replacement gearbox was what left him mired in 15th on the grid.

The race

“It’s all still to play for,” said Rosberg in the post-qualifying conference. “If I make a better start, then I’m back in front.” But he didn’t. “That’s three races running my start’s not been good,” he rued, “we need to understand why.” Hamilton was cleanly into the lead while Rosberg was even having to get defensive from Bottas in the fast-starting Williams, which had immediately out-gunned Ricciardo.

Grosjean’s Lotus had been prone all weekend to locking up its front tyres and did so again into turn one, but he held onto to fifth ahead of the Ferraris of Räikkönen and Alonso, Felipe Massa’s Williams and the Force Indias of Nico Hülkenberg and Sergio Pérez. Grosjean blocked a look Räikkönen was taking into the hairpin of four and Hamilton headed the pack down the snaking hill from there to Seat hairpin, the kinking downhill run to the slow turn seven, the lowest point of the hilly track.

Hamilton was clean out of there and heading up the climb towards Campsa even as Rosberg was just arriving. Out of the low geared seven-eight, Räikkönen’s Ferrari was luridly out of shape as he continued to hold Alonso at bay.

2014 Spanish GP results

1. L Hamilton, Mercedes 1h41m5.155s
2. N Rosberg, Mercedes +0.6s
3. D Ricciardo, Red Bull +49.0s
4. S Vettel, Red Bull +76.7s
5. V Bottas, Williams +79.2s
6.  F Alonso, Ferrari +87.7s
7. K Räikkönen, Ferrari +1 lap
8. R Grosjean, Lotus +1 lap
9. S Pérez, Force India +1 lap
10. N Hülkenberg, Force India +1 lap
11. J Button, McLaren +1 lap
12. K Magnussen, McLaren +1 lap
13. F Massa, Williams +1 lap
14. D Kvyat, Toro Rosso +1 lap
15. P Maldonado, Lotus +1 lap
16. E Gutiérrez, Sauber +1 lap
17. A Sutil, Sauber +1 lap
18. J Bianchi, Marussia +2 laps
19. M Chilton, Marussia +2 laps
20. M Ericsson, Caterham +2 laps

Retirements
K Kobayashi, Caterham 34 laps
J-E Vergne, Toro Rosso 24 laps

Through the blind apex sixth gear Campsa, onto the short back straight where the electric turbine ersH, after it's done spooling up the turbo and recharging the battery, gets a chance to send charge to the ersK and into the crankshaft just before they are hard on the brakes and making five downchanges to second for the tight left of turn 10, climbing up through the kink of 11, rear tyres struggling to get the torque fed through to the track, around the long loop of 12, a quick burst of acceleration to the highest point of the track, the third-gear turn 13, then downhill through the snaking slow final section of chicane and back onto the long main straight, flashing past the tall grandstand full of Alonso supporters, over 210mph by the time they trigger the speed trap.

Hamilton’s lead was already over 1sec. He’d doubled that by the fourth lap, but thereafter Rosberg was able to hold him steady. At this early stage, Rosberg’s gap to the scrap for third place between Bottas and Ricciardo was already over 5sec...

The Red Bull was comfortably faster than the Williams – but substantially slower in all the places where Danny might ordinarily have been able to pass it. “Yes, I got a bit of help from the Mercedes engine there, I think,” grinned Bottas. Even with the Red Bull’s DRS flap open, it couldn’t quite scratch alongside, let alone past. He made a lunge down the inside from a long way back going into turn one to begin lap seven, but Bottas had enough momentum to hold on around the outside which feeds into the inside line for two. Danny was being told to drop back and look after his tyres if he couldn’t pass. They’d think of another way to do it.

The Mercs disappeared into the distance, separated by a couple of seconds, new front wings, tighter cooling inlets and outlets glinting in the sun. These developments were reckoned to have been worth around 0.15sec – or roughly the same as the new Total fuel in the Red Bull’s engine. With software upgrades making the Renault’s energy recovery efficiency around "95 per cent as good as it’s going to be" the RB10 was fully armed. Yet still as far behind the Merc as it’s been since the start of the year.

Red Bull’s focus was not on the Mercs but on helping its drivers out of the cul-de-sacs the RB10’s lack of straightline speed had put them in. Vettel had made up only one place from his 15th starting slot, stuck in a slow McLaren sandwich between Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen.

They brought him in on lap 12 and put him on a set of the hards – allowing him a long second stint in what would be a three-stop race, enabling him to make up places as others pitted. He’d then be on the faster mediums when there were faster cars that needed to be overtaken later in the race. The early stop put him temporarily near the back, passing Caterhams and Marussias, but on a clear track he was soon going very quickly, even on the slower tyre. At this stage, only the Mercs were going faster.

Next, Red Bull sought to get Ricciardo past third-place Bottas. They brought him in for a change to fresh options on the 14th lap, early enough to suggest they might be three-stopping him. They weren’t; they were simply ensuring they got to undercut Bottas, confident they could remain on the slightly faster two-stop regardless.

With the place already effectively lost, Williams was not tempted into responding. Bottas remained resolutely on a two-stop, doing just enough to keep the pace without opening up those delicate rears to graining. Team-mate Massa wasn’t faring so well. Harder on the rears early into his stint, the tyres were graining and he was in from behind the Ferraris on lap 15, committed to a three-stop.

Teams are still in the early days of mapping their software to suit the drivers’ styles, particularly in the entry phase to a corner. Red Bull, for example, believes there could be as much as 0.3sec of lap time for Vettel to extract if only they can get the car to do on corner entry what he wants. The same could be true for Massa.

Drivers' Chanpionship

1. Lewis Hamilton 100
2. Nico Rosberg 97
3. Fernando Alonso 49
4. Sebastian Vettel 45
5. Daniel Ricciardo 39
6. Nico Hülkenberg 37
7. Valtteri Bottas 34
8. Jenson Button 23
9. Kevin Magnussen 20
10. Sergio Pérez 20
11. Kimi Räikkönen 17
12. Felipe Massa 12
13. Romain Grosjean 4
14. Jean-Eric Vergne 4
15. Daniil Kvyat 4

Meanwhile, Massa’s stop was the trigger for a bit of controversy at Ferrari. Alonso, having been unable to find a hole in Räikkönen’s defences, had used up the best of his rear tyres and had for a couple of laps been asking if he could stop. But there were no traffic gaps to drop him into. Well, if he was going to come in soon, he needed to do it now to avoid being undercut by Massa on his new tyres.

This of course meant Räikkönen – who as the team driver ahead would ordinarily be given first call at the stops – would have to stay out until a lap after Alonso. It alerted Kimi’s paranoia antenna – though he emerged still just in front of Alonso who on his out lap had suffered a delay in passing the slow Sauber of Adrian Sutil. It was a close-run thing though, the Ferraris wheel-to-wheel through turn one, Fernando on the outside locking a front as Kimi resolutely held onto the place.

Hamilton vs Rosberg

On the 13th lap Rosberg was closing the gap to Hamilton and would continue to do so for the next five laps. What had built into a 3sec cushion for Lewis had dissolved into just 1.6sec as he was called in. His rear tyres were fading. Rosberg’s were still in good shape. In fact Nico stayed out for an extra three laps and for the first of those was going faster on his old rubber than Lewis was on his new options. Furthermore, there’d been a small problem with the left-front on Hamilton’s car and at 3.8sec he’d been stationary for a full second longer than Rosberg.

Nico was beginning to feel the race could be coming to him. He was momentarily confused when Tony Ross informed him he’d be fitted with a set of hards when he came in at the end of lap 21. “There were two scenarios discussed before the race in which I might do the second stint on hards,” related Nico.

“One was if my mediums had grained in the first stint. The other was if I was second to Lewis – in which case they’d do it like in Bahrain, so that I had another chance at the end. My mediums had been fine through the first stint so I was momentarily confused but then realised that it was the second scenario. Which was absolutely the right thing.”

He rejoined just under 4sec behind Hamilton – and the two halves of the Mercedes garage now set about competing against each other. “You need to increase the gap by about 4sec over the next 20 laps,” Lewis was told. “You’re looking to have the gap to Lewis down to around 2sec by the end of this stint,” said Rosberg’s man. The final on-track battle would unfold in the final stint.

Rosberg’s pace on a tyre that was reckoned to be 0.8sec slower than Hamilton’s mediums was very good. Over the next 20 laps they each averaged 1min 31.4sec as Hamilton struggled with the balance. Initially it was oversteer he was troubled by. “Give me a hand,” he demanded of his engineer, who suggested he might try closing the diff on turns four and five.

This worked for a time but as the slot gaps in his front wing slowly began to fill with discarded rubber, so the balance moved through neutrality and towards understeer. The crucial middle stint on the faster tyre, in which he was supposed to pull out the cushion needed to fend off his team mate in the final stint, did not go well. On the other hand, he was taking less from the engine, using up less fuel. In his first stint alone, he had used 1.3kg less than Rosberg.

Constructors' Championship

1. Mercedes 197
2. Red Bull-Renault 84
3. Ferrari 66
4. Force India-Mercedes 57
5. Williams-Mercedes 46
6. McLaren-Mercedes 43
7. Toro Rosso-Renault 8
8. Lotus-Renault 4
9. Sauber-Ferrari 0
10. Marussia-Ferrari 0
11. Caterham-Renault 0

After all had made their first stops, Ricciardo in third was around 20sec behind the Mercs, with Bottas a further 12sec back and falling away, unable to run at the Red Bull’s pace without destroying his tyres.

Grosjean’s Lotus was a few seconds back from there but a partial failure of his ers system had left him well down on power and on the 25th and 26th laps respectively he was passed for fifth and sixth by the Ferraris of Räikkönen and Alonso.

Massa was unable to do the same, out of rear rubber already, and was in the pits for the second time on lap 28 and fitted with a set of hards. His tyre appetite would ruin his strategy, leaving him to fade out of the points to an eventual 13th place finish, behind even the McLarens.

As Massa pitted, it released Vettel into clear air and he closed down the gap to Grosjean. He was on the Lotus’ tail by the 32nd lap but suspecting he’d be unable to pass on-track, he was brought in for his second stop a lap later, his old hard tyres replaced by fresh mediums. Upon returning to the track, he was the fastest man out there and quickly picked off Massa and Magnussen.

This brought him onto the radar of Ferrari – for at this rate it was possible he might undercut them, unless they responded now. But such an early second stop would consign them to a three-stop race. “Just before Vettel came in they asked me what I wanted to do,” said Alonso, “a two or a three-stop? I said I didn’t know. Then Vettel came in and we decided to respond.”

Räikkönen however remained on a two-stop and therefore in fifth place for now, no threat to Bottas. Kimi noted Alonso disappearing from his rear view mirrors and heading for the pits. He trusted the two-stop would work for him but the competitive paranoia had placed questions in his head.

The finish

Maybe he wasn’t the only one. Hamilton was still 4sec ahead of Rosberg as Mercedes called him in at the end of the 42nd lap. He stayed out. He’d been talking to his crew about what adjustments he wanted when he did stop and the claim is that he hadn’t properly heard the instruction to pit.

He came in the following lap and again there was a delay – this time the right rear. He was stationary for 4.3sec as the hards were fitted, even longer than last time. “How was my pace?” he asked as he rejoined. “Your pace was good,” came the reply. “So why’d you bring me in?” he queried. “This is the optimum strategy,” he was reassured.

The cockpit is a lonely place when you’re out there fighting, not armed with all the facts, your team-mate coming at you. Paranoia is a natural state in such circumstances.

Rosberg was just beginning to be troubled by rear graining when he was brought in two laps after Hamilton and fitted with his mediums. He was stationary for 3sec – and he rejoined just 4.8sec behind, on the faster tyre and with 20 laps to go. Game on. “How much time did I lose to Nico with the pit delay?” asked Hamilton. “He lost more time in traffic so don’t worry about it.”

But he did worry. He worried about the balance of his car too. The discussion he’d been having on the radio before he pitted was about how many turns of front wing to take out to combat the oversteer he was expecting with the new tyres.

“I’d asked for two holes of front wing angle [to come out] and they suggested three. I didn’t realise about the rubber build-up and that they’d be cleaning it out [making it more powerful] and I said, ‘No, don’t take three holes out!’ Actually it was good that they didn’t because I had so much understeer at the end that I was getting graining fronts. If they’d taken the extra hole out it would’ve been even worse.”

Rosberg’s balance was just fine, his tyres were grippier and the gap came down. But he didn’t want to rush up there in too much of a hurry. He needed to time his run carefully in order not to arrive on his quarry’s tail having used up all his tyre life. By lap 59, seven from the end, he was within DRS range. Luckily Hamilton happened upon Button just before the final corner, enabling him to have DRS for himself, helping him stave off Rosberg at a crucial moment.

The in-team battle continued at Ferrari too. Räikkönen made his final stop on the same lap as Hamilton. This put him well behind Alonso but with Fernando yet to make his final stop – which was taken on the 53rd lap in response to Vettel’s final stop the lap before. The undercut jumped Vettel ahead of Alonso – Seb passing the Ferrari around the outside of turn one as Fernando rejoined – and closing fast on Räikkönen.

Fernando rejoined 5sec behind Kimi but on new option tyres to Räikkönen’s 10-lap-older primes. Kimi got an oversteer snap as he exited turn nine on the 56th lap, making him slow onto the back straight. Vettel was able to come from a long way back to pass him under braking for the hairpin of 10. Next in Seb’s sights was Bottas, just 6sec up the road and on much older prime tyres. He left behind the Ferrari battle in his mirrors.

On lap 62, just as Rosberg was getting back within DRS range of Hamilton, Alonso was jinking in Räikkönen’s mirrors down to turn one. A lap later and Alonso made his move around the outside of turn three, switching to the inside as they raced up to four. He was alongside and through and quickly pulling way, leaving Räikkönen to ask pointed questions about strategy and driver priority. Later in the lap Vettel scythed down the inside of Bottas at turn 10 to take fourth place, albeit a long way behind team-mate Ricciardo.

Two laps from the end, with Rosberg having been within less than 1sec for three laps, Hamilton locked up briefly at turn 10, ran slightly wide but got away with it. Rosberg couldn’t quite find a way through, just as in Bahrain. He tried one last time into turn 10 on the final lap, but that was it. A few moments later Hamilton took his fourth consecutive victory – and put himself into the lead of the 2014 championship for the first time. “I’d like to say it was all under control, but it wasn’t,” he said. “Nico was faster today.”

“It all went wrong at the start for me,” said a clearly dejected Rosberg. “Track positioning was everything.”

Ricciardo got to stand on a podium for the second time – and to keep the place on this occasion. Vettel, Bottas and Alonso were next, the latter almost a lap down. The lapped Räikkönen and Grosjean filled out the top eight while, keeping the battling team-mates theme going, Pérez beat Force India team-mate Hülkenberg to ninth, having passed him around the outside of turn one just after the final stops. The McLarens finished out of the points again.

“They are like cars from a different category.” It was Alonso who actually said it. But it could have come from any of Mercedes’ rivals.

 

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