Formula 1

Hamilton Wins Tense Spanish GP

Spain race

The Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton took a thrilling victory today at the Spanish Grand Prix and drew first blood in a direct head-to-head duel with the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel, proving we are indeed on for a fight for the 2017 championship.

Hamilton drove a controlled race in the end, having missed out initially to Vettel at the start for the lead. The Mercedes team optimised Hamilton’s strategy to give him the best opportunity to close and pass Vettel after the final round of pitstops, which he did leading to his second victory of the season.

The race was on from the second the lights went out, as Vettel leapfrogged Hamilton down into the first corner, avoiding all the dram behind. The Ferrari driver was quick then to pull out a steady lead of around two seconds to Hamilton in second place, who admitted at that stage he was struggling to keep up with the Ferrari. Vettel then pitted on lap 14 for a set of soft tyres, while Mercedes opted to keep both of their drivers out.
Eventually the team called Hamilton in, but critically left team mate Valtteri Bottas out to play rear gunner for Hamilton and hold up Vettel on the faster tyres. Bottas did just that and for several laps Vettel was bottled up behind the Finn, allowing Hamilton to catch the pair up again. Eventually though Vettel found a way through by throwing Bottas a dummy pass down the main straight, before diving down into the first corner for the overtake. After running out onto the grass first of course.

The Ferrari was then able to open up a six second advantage over Hamilton, but the turning point of the race came during a virtual safety car period to remove the stricken McLaren of Stoffel Vandoorne. Mercedes opted to pit Hamilton just before the end of the VSC period, while Ferrari were not so lucky and had to pit when everyone was going full speed on the track. This resulted in the Ferrari losing its precious gap, and as he emerged from the pits Vettel found himself alongside Hamilton into Turn 1. The Mercedes driver attempted to overtake around the outside, Vettel held the line though rather forcibly as the two touched, and the Mercedes took to the run-off area.

“When I came out [after second stop] I was surprised we were so close,” admitted Vettel after the race. “I was doing everything I could to stay ahead.”

However, it was very clear that Hamilton was the faster of the two drivers at that time, and on lap 44 with a hand from DRS to overtake around the outside into Turn 1, he went into the lead of the race. From there he managed his tyres to take the victory. Speaking after the race though Hamilton was quick to admit his 55th career victory had not been an easy one.

“It was a hard race,” admitted Hamilton. “My neck is fine, but physically I lost nearly two kilos just in that race. It’s draining, cars fast, he [Vettel] drove fantastically well and it’s a real privilege to race against such an awesome driver.”

The two drivers were joined on the podium by the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo, who finished 73 seconds behind the duelling pair in what had to be a lonely race for him. The Australian was one of the main people to capitalise from the first lap drama that saw the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen and the sister Red Bull of Max Verstappen eliminated at the first corner after a tangle with Bottas.

Bottas was rather cautious on the breaks into the first corner and dropped back slightly till he was alongside Raikkonen and Verstappen, who were battling one another for track position. Three into one for the first corner was never going to work, and Bottas tagged Raikkonen who was sent crashing off into Verstappen, ending the race there for the pair of them. Bottas escaped without damage and was free to race on, albeit in a distant third to the battle up front. Though his luck ran out eventually as his engine failed between the first and second pit stops. The unit had been the one he’d been running since the first race of the season, after the new one he was supposed to race this weekend sprang a water leak on Saturday morning in FP3.

With Bottas, Raikkonen and Verstappen all dropping out of the race Ricciardo claimed his first podium of the season. It is not all good news for the Red Bull though, as previously mentioned Ricciardo finished the race 73 seconds behind Vettel and Hamilton, despite the team bringing a raft of updates to Barcelona in an attempt to be more competitive. The Circuit de Catalunya is a circuit that favours cars with a good aero package, which is something Red Bull have excelled in over the years. That did not show in the race today though, proving there is still a lot more work needed from Red Bull if they wish to fight for more podiums and a possibly race victory.

As a result of Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull retiring a car apiece there was an option for the midfield teams to capitalise and score some much needed points that could prove to be crucial in the constructor’s championship. The team who arguably benefited most from the lead teams losing a car each was Force India. The pink panthers of Force India profited from the carnage and netted a fourth and fifth place finish with Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon respectively. Following the retirement from Bottas today for Mercedes, Force India are now the only team on the grid to have both cars finish in the points at every race so far this season. A result that shows in their fourth place constructors position, some 34 points ahead of their midfield rivals Toro Rosso and Williams.

Behind them it was also a good day for Nico Hulkenberg, who managed to drive his car to a sixth place finish in what has to be said is a fast improving Renault. Behind him in seventh was local boy Carols Sainz in the Toro Rosso. Originally Sainz finished the race in eighth, however he was promoted ahead of Pascal Wehrlein’s Sauber when the German was handed a five-second time penalty for a pit lane infringement. Despite the infringement, Wehrlein’s drive stood out as one of the best of the day as he wrestled his Sauber home to a points finish. The result now means Sauber go ahead of McLaren in the constructors championship, with the Woking based team now the only team on the grid without a point so far this season.

The Toro Rosso of Daniil Kvyat and the Hass of Romain Grosjean round out the top ten finishers after Kevin Magnussen picked up a puncture on the second to last lap in his Hass, dropping him out of the points with the unscheduled pitstop to 14th in the end. The second Sauber of Marcus Ericsson finished the race 11th ahead of the McLaren of Fernando Alonso in 12th.

Following his spectacular qualifying yesterday Alonso’s fate was sealed on the first lap after an off track excursion following a clash with the Williams of Felipe Massa. Alonso dropped down the order towards the back of the field and from then on it was a race of recovery for the Spaniard, who will miss the Monaco Grand Prix to race in the Indy 500 instead. Massa meanwhile finished the race behind him in 13th after the fellow McLaren of Vandoorne hit him later in the race at Turn One. It proved to be a costly move for Vandoorne who retired on the spot and triggered the VSC that ultimately shaped the victory of the race. To add insult to injury the Belgian was handed a three-place grid penalty for Monaco by race stewards and picked up two penalty points on his licence.

The other Renault of Jolyon Palmer finished the race 15th following what would prove to be the wrong strategy call. He started the race on the hard tyres and on the second lap pitted for softs, therefore getting the mandatory two different tyre compound used in a race out of the way. The issue was he could not get the softs to work it seemed, and had to pit twice more, resulting in him giving away basically a pit stop of time to his rivals for the strategy call. He still finished ahead of the Williams of Lance stroll though who was the last of the classified finishers in what was another difficult weekend for the rookie, and the Williams team as well.

Overall this was a thrilling race from a track that so often sees a race develop into a procession. Spain is often regarded as a tough track to overtake on but today Hamilton and Vettel showed that if you have the balls, you can make a move stick. There was action right from the first corner that did not let up till the final lap, with many key finishes being made in the constructor’s championship from the likes of Force India and for Sauber with Wehrlein. It was the perfect mix of drama, overtakes, and strategy too. More importantly though, this was the first direct head to head battle we’ve seen from the two championship contenders this season. While it can be argued Australia did have its moments between Hamilton and Vettel, strategy was more a deciding factor in that win. Here today however we saw the pair of them fighting over the same bit of track, and then some, in what can only be described as a refreshing change of scenery for many fans after the years of Mercedes domination. As OM’s manager Jordan Groves pointed out this really was a great race, but it really is hinting at just a little bit more as the championship heats up. “Great race, fantastic action and superb overtakes – especially Sebastian’s on Valtteri. Hamilton vs Vettel for the title is going to be spectacular.”

I’m inclined to agree with Jordan. In terms of seeing good head to head battles for a championship between two or more drivers from different teams, I would argue you have to go back to 2010 and the four way fight for the championship. While there have been some tense fights for the championship since then, so much of it has come down to reliability, meaning while there’s a championship fight we don’t often get to see the two drivers battling it out on the same bit of track. This season however as long as the development war between Ferrari and Mercedes stays equal, and reliability holds up on both cars, I think we could be in for one of the best seasons in a long time.

I’ll leave you now with my highlight of the weekend, and it’s one of the nicest stories to come out of the race this weekend I feel. When this little boy watched the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen crash out in turn 1 he could barely hold back his tears, breaking many hearts around the world I’m sure. Ferrari however made the little boys weekend by tracking him down and inviting him to meet his hero in the flesh. A classy moment from both Raikkonen and Ferrari. And a day I’m sure that little boy won’t forget in a long time.

Spanish GP result
1. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes,
2. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari
3. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull
4. Sergio Perez, Force India
5. Esteban Ocon, Force India
6. Nico Hulkenberg, Renault
7. Carlos Sainz, Toro Rosso
8. Pascal Wehrlein, Sauber (Five second penalty added)
9. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso
10. Romain Grosjean, Haas
11. Marcus Ericsson, Sauber
12. Fernando Alonso, McLaren
13. Felipe Massa, Williams
14. Kevin Magnussen, Haas
15. Jolyon Palmer, Renault
16. Lance Stroll, Williams
17. Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren, DNF
18. Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, DNF
19. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, DNF
20. Max Verstappen, Red Bull, DNF

Feature Image Credit: Mercedes AMG Petronas Press Release.

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