The Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton carried on his fine form this weekend by claiming pole for the Spanish Grand Prix just ahead of current championship leader Sebastian Vettel.
Throughout the qualifying session things looks incredibly tight between the Mercedes and the Ferrari’s, though in the end it was the Mercedes of Hamilton who was able to triumph. In the first runs he was able to set a blistering 1:19.149, the fastest ever qualifying lap for the Circuit de Catalunya. The teams went out into the final run knowing the benchmark they had to beat if they wanted to be on pole.
On his final flying lap in his Ferrari, Vettel looked like a genuine threat when he was up in the first two sectors on Hamilton’s fastest time. However, it all came undone for the German at the final chicane, a corner he has admitted he’s struggled to perfect in the past. He suffered a lock up into the chicane which lost him time and cost him pole by just five hundredths of a second. He will start the race second on the grid behind the Mercedes of Hamilton.
“A tiny lockup was the difference,” said Vettel. “I’ve been coming here so many times and still the last chicane is tricky for me. It was really close. I just need to do everything right at the start that is the best way to attack and defend.”
Vettel did not have the easiest session though compared to Hamilton, as following some issues in Free Practice Three earlier on the team opted to change Vettel’s engine. Normally an engine change takes four hours, but in a mammoth effort by the Ferrari mechanics they changed the engine in two and a half hours ready for Qualifying. When Vettel went out for his first lap in Q1 however the team seemed to pick up a session-ending problem on his car. The team came on the radio and advised the German to “stop the car.” Though Vettel asked them, “are you sure?” before he received permission to carry on from the Ferrari pit wall. They were ultimately able to change the engine mode, which meant Vettel could continue on in Qualifying in a move that may prove significant in the championship. If Vettel had retired in Q1 then he would have had to start Sunday’s race from last place at a track that is notoriously difficult to overtake at, which would have threatened his lead in the world championship.
He was not the only driver who had to endured a disrupted build-up to Qualifying due to unplanned engine change, as the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas also had to change his engine from the one he ran in Free Practice this morning. He is now running the same engine he ran in the opening four races, something that may prove a disadvantage on a lap you’re traditionally expected to spend 67% of the time on full throttle for. Bottas managed to qualify third ahead of the sister Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen in fourth place.
The Red Bulls managed to qualify fifth and sixth today, with 2016 race winner Max Verstappen edging out Daniel Ricciardo for fifth. It’s clear despite the extensive upgrades brought to Barcelona for the RB13, Red Bull still remain the third fastest team on the grid behind the battling Mercedes and Ferrari’s. The team can take some solace in the fact Verstappen was just over half a second behind the pole sitter Hamilton though, as this is the smallest deficit to pole the team have had all season, proving the updates work.
The biggest shock of Qualifying however went to the McLaren of Fernando Alonso, who managed to overcome the issues he’s had this weekend with the Honda power unit and qualify his car seventh in front of the adoring Spanish fans. Yes, you are reading that right, a McLaren was in the top ten. The team have struggled all season with an uncompetitive power unit that has had some serious reliability issues, which have resulted in Alonso failing to finish a single race this season. Despite this fact the team have tried to stay positive, and that positivity was rewarded with the “best of the rest” grid slot behind the top three teams.
“I was preparing myself yesterday for qualifying,” he joked. “Everything today went perfectly. It’s a nice surprise. We say the potential yesterday and today we put everything together. I’m happy for the team, they changed many power units and to now be P7 and feel tomorrow on the grid around the cars we should be fighting for will be really nice.”
However, it was not all good news for McLaren, as Alonso’s team mate Stoffel Vandoorne suffered his fifth successive Q1 exit. He will start the race in 19th tomorrow, proving that there is still a lot of work needing to be done on that Honda power unit.
Lining up alongside Alonso in eighth tomorrow is the Force India of Sergio Perez, who continues to outperform what many suspect the car is able to do. His team mate Esteban Ocon lines up tenth in the sister car, with the Williams of Felipe Massa splitting the two after another positive session for the Williams team.
Elsewhere down the grid a number of drivers have been left to reflect on some sizeable deficits to their team mates. On a track that often produces a rather “Noah’s ark” grid the Renault of Jolyon Palmer, the Williams of Lance Stroll, and the Toro Rosso of Daniil Kvyat all also falling a long way short of their team mates fastest time. With all three going out in the Q1 session.
Tomorrow’s battle could be interesting, the circuit has a very low chance of a safety car coming out, and it will all be about the run down into the first corner due to the difficult nature to overtake round here. Strategy will be a key element in the race tomorrow as Hamilton and Vettel go up against each other once again.
Spanish GP Qualifying results
1. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1:19.149
2. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, +0.051
3. Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, +0.224
4. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, +0.290
5. Max Verstappen, Red Bull, +0.557
6. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull, +1.026
7. Fernando Alonso, McLaren, +1.899
8. Sergio Perez, Force India, +1.921
9. Felipe Massa, Williams, +2.093
10. Esteban Ocon, Force India, +2.123
Knocked out in Q2
11. Kevin Magnussen, Haas
12. Carlos Sainz, Toro Rosso
13. Nico Hulkenberg, Renault
14. Romain Grosjean, Haas
15. Pascal Wehrlein, Sauber
Knocked out in Q1
16. Marcus Ericsson, Sauber
17. Jolyon Palmer, Renault
18. Lance Stroll, Williams
19. Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren
20. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso
Feature Image Credit: McLaren Honda Press Release