The European leg of the Formula 1 season got underway today as Free Practice kicked off at the Circuit de Catalunya for the Spanish Grand Prix. And with teams bringing a raft of updates with them all eyes were on the timing screens to see who’s gained the most performance from their changes.
In Free Practice One it was a welcome return to the top of the timesheets for the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton, after the team brought some radical aero updates to the car. The team have added some scoop-style vanes to the front wing of the car that filter the air through the upgraded bargeboard and side bargeboards, and then out towards the diffuser.
More importantly though, the team have been able to put the W08 on a diet. Since Melbourne at the start of the year the Mercedes has been about six kilos over the minimum weight due to a newly designed gearbox, which has affected the performance of the car. This meant the team on average were giving away one and a half tenths per lap to their competitors simply from being overweight. Mercedes have worked hard to reduce this weight deficits and it showed during Hamilton’s fastest lap of the session, a 1:21.521. However, it appears Mercedes have not quite been able to engineer all of the excess weight out of the W08 just yet.
“We have managed to make some decent steps but we are not yet where we want it yet,” Team Principal Toto Wolff said. “We are not there yet [at the stage of moving ballast around].”
Hamilton’s team mate Valtteri Bottas finished the session second in the sister Mercedes and was just under three hundredths of a second off of Hamilton’s fastest time, proving the updates are working well for both drivers. The Mercedes team were also almost a second ahead of their rivals Ferrari, with Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel having to settle for third and fourth respectively.
It wasn’t a smooth session for the Ferrari of Vettel though, who lost a chunk of track time early on in the session when he stopped at the exit of the pit lane. Vettel initially suspected that the issue was gearbox related, however the team later found out it was a broken wheel. Once the car was fixed he was sent on his way, but had to settle for fourth fastest behind his team mate.
Behind them it was a welcome return to the front of the field for the Red Bulls. The team have been in the wilderness for much of the first part of the season. Too fast for the midfield, but not fast enough to challenge the Ferrari and Mercedes. Many suspected the team would be bringing a huge raft of updates to the car in Barcelona to help them, and they delivered. The team have heavily revised the RB13 with new front wing details, bargeboard details, a revised engine cover, and work on the rear of the car as well.
The revisions seem to have done the trick for the team, as Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo finished fifth and sixth respectively. They also appeared to be close to the pace of the Ferraris, although both drivers lost track time at the start and end of the session.
After the top six it was a positive start to the weekend for Haas team, With Kevin Magnussen seventh and Romain Grosjean eighth. Though Magnussen did get into some trouble at the end of the session when he ran off the road with mechanical problems. The team, like many others, have brought some extensive upgrades to the car. But Team Principal Guenther Steiner admitted they are no closer to solving their brake issues which plagued them in their debut campaign last year and have continued this season. The Renault of Nico Hulkenberg finished the session ninth for the team, while their development driver Sergey Sirotkin stepped in for Jolyon Palmer during FP1. Carlso Sainz rounded out the top ten for Toro Rosso.
The big talk of FP1 though was home grown hero Fernando Alonso’s speedy exit from the session after failing to complete even one flying lap, as the nightmare that is the McLaren Honda partnership carries on. The car suffered an oil leak which triggered a failure and caused Alonso to spin off the circuit in front of his adoring fans. After returning to the paddock Alonso decided not to wait out the end of FP1, and instead returned to his hotel for a round of tennis. It is worth remembering at this point Alonso has yet to record a race finish this season.
Free Practice Two also went the way of the Mercedes once again, as Lewis Hamilton finished ahead of Valtteri Bottas, securing another 1-2 for the team. Hamilton was just under a tenth of a second quicker than his team mate, with a 1:20.802. The Ferrari’s however were able to close some of the deficit to Mercedes, as Kimi Raikkonen was just over three tenths of a second slower that Hamilton. While Sebastian Vettel was just over four tenths slower, though it was clear the Ferrari driver was not happy with the car.
“I’m not happy. Struggling a bit to find the rhythm, with the conditions, probably more myself than the car.” Vettel said after the session. “I didn’t get everything together but I can feel the car is quick so that’s good. I am not worried. I am just not happy with how the day went. I wasn’t always feeling as if I was captain on board. Sometimes somebody else was steering my ship but I hope tomorrow whoever that was will disappear.”
He wasn’t the only driver to struggle during the session, as at times it appeared the track was more akin to an ice rink thanks to the number of cars who were skidding off. It didn’t help that there was quite a wind around the track today, which threw many drivers. One of the biggest issues was gusting winds smacking into the shark fins on the car and causing the tail end of the car to step out. Drivers tried to recover this as best they could but sometimes it simply wasn’t possible.
It also didn’t help that the medium tyres were not as grippy as the softs in the high temperature, meaning when the car was blown about in the wind and were snapping out there simply wasn’t the grip available for drivers to use so they could recover, resulting in many trips across the gravel and run off areas. Some of the higher profile drivers to be caught out were Bottas and Raikkonen as well as the Red Bull of Max Verstappen, who even had to take time out of his session while the team fixed some of the damage he’d caused.
Verstappen however was able to finish the session fifth again, while his team mate Daniel Ricciardo was sixth in the sister Red bull. The top six were covered by less than eight tenths of a second, closer than any other time so far this year. Nico Hulkenberg and Jolyon Palmer capped off another good day for Renault by finishing the session seventh and eight respectively. While Felipe Massa put a smile on the Williams team face by finishing ninth for the team. While once again the Toro Rosso of Carlos Sainz finished tenth in another positive session for the Spaniard.
If only the same could be said for his fellow countryman Fernando Alonso. The McLaren driver did return to the track for FP2 but had to wait for nearly half an hour before he could get out on track while the engine change he needed was completed. When he eventually did get out his engine was down on power, and he finished the session slowest of all. To put it in perspective he was half a second slower than the Sauber of Pascal Wehrlein in 19th, and almost a second and a half slower than he team mate Stoffel Vandoorne in 13th. As ever Alonso was quick to take to the radio to complain. “The engine feels slower, amazing.”
With the prediction of a wet qualifying tomorrow and the fight between the top three teams heating up at a track where qualifying is key, this could be an interesting session tomorrow for teams.
Spanish GP Free Practice One Results
1. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1:21.521
2. Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, +0.029
3. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, +0.935
4. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, +1.079
5. Max Verstappen, Red Bull, +1.185
6. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull, +1.563
7. Kevin Magnussen, Haas, +2.149
8. Romain Grosjean, Haas, +2.237
9. Nico Hulkenberg, Renault, +2.472
10. Carlos Sainz, Toro Rosso, +2.483
11. Sergio Perez, Force India, +2.667
12. Esteban Ocon, Force India, +2.803
13. Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren, +2.879
14. Felipe Massa, Williams, +3.097
15. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso, +3.121
16. Marcus Ericsson, Sauber, +3.445
17. Pascal Wehrlein, Sauber, +3.661
18. Lance Stroll, Williams, +4.398
19. Sergey Sirotkin, Renault, +4.772
20. Fernando Alonso, McLaren, No time
Spanish GP Free Practice Two Results
1. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1:20.802
2. Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, + 0.090
3. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, + 0.310
4. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, + 0.418
5. Max Verstappen, Red Bull, + 0.636
6. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull, + 0.783
7. Nico Hulkenberg, Renault, + 0.885
8. Jolyon Palmer, Renault, + 1.190
9. Felipe Massa, Williams, + 1.213
10. Carlos Sainz, Toro Rosso, + 1.463
11. Romain Grosjean, Haas, + 1.569
12. Esteban Ocon, Force India, + 1.718
13. Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren, + 1.891
14. Sergio Perez, Force India, +1.920
15. Kevin Magnussen, Haas, +2.205
16. Marcus Ericsson, Sauber, +2.280
17. Lance Stroll, Williams, +2.419
18. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso, +2.434
19. Pascal Wehrlein, Sauber, +2.797
20. Fernando Alonso, McLaren, +3.275
Feature Image Credit: Scudaria Toro Rosso Press Release