By Gary Becker
As the laps ticked off late in the Spanish Grand Prix the difference in performance between Pirelli's medium compound tires and their softer counterparts became evident on lap 44 of the 66 lap race as Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes wearing the gripper soft compound easily passed the medium compound shod Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel for the lead and eventual victory. The difference in strategy as to when and wear what tire playing heavily into the outcome of the race.
When the lights went out at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya to begin the Spanish Grand Prix all the leaders were wearing the soft compound tires knowing that sometime during the event they would have to do at least a few laps on the harder, marginally slower medium compound tires. It was when to wear that slower tire that would come into play.
Vettel shot into the early lead followed by Hamilton. It was 15 laps later that the difference in tire strategy between Ferrari and Mercedes began to come into play. Vettel was the first to pit returning to action with the soft compound tires on his car. Hamilton pitted seven laps later taking on a set of the medium compound rubber to satisfy the rules makers.
As Vettel worked to pull away from Hamilton he suddenly found himself behind the second Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas who was running slightly off pace with worn tires. As Vettel struggled to pass Bottas the other Mercedes was catching up. The much needed distance Vettel would need when to maintain the lead while the Ferrari was on the medium tires later in the race evaporating.
By lap 37 Hamilton was close enough to race finish to close out the event on the soft compound and headed to the pits. A lap later Vettel, with 29 second lead over Hamilton, pitted, sentenced to finish the race on the medium compound tires. As Vettel left the pits he found himself side by side with charging Hamilton. As the two went through the tight right hand Turn One Vettel on the inside line forced Hamilton wide off course to maintain the lead.
That lead would only last six laps as Hamilton blasted by Vettel on the main straight to take the lead on lap 44. For the remaining 12 laps it was up to Hamilton to maintain his lead and tires which he did taking the checkered flag for the 55th time in his career.
"It’s been a really good weekend and a great way to bounce back from Russia." said Hamilton "It was the rawest fight that I can remember having in a long-time. I loved it, this is why I race. This is what made me get into racing in the first place. This is what the sport needs to be like every single weekend. To have a close battle like that with a four-time champion is awesome. I lost out on the start and had to watch Sebastian fly by. He was so fast out in front and it was such a push to keep in touch with him and not let him pull away. I was able to manage my tires in the first stint and keep relatively close, then it was tricky to keep up on the Medium tire and then after the second stop. We came out so close together which was super tight into Turn 1. He didn’t give me much space, it was close! I thought Seb would get me at the end of the final stint but I was able to do it. I have to congratulate my team today, with the strategy and the pit stops, as well as everyone back at the factory that has worked so hard to deliver these upgrades, enabling us to be so close in this fight with Ferrari."
For Vettel it was close by no cigar.
“My start was good, I saw Lewis struggle with wheelspin, and kept looking in mirror to see if anybody else had a better start." explained Vettel "The first stint went ok, then we had to pit, otherwise they might have got us with an undercut. My second stint was also pretty good: I managed to get close to Valtteri who was all over the place with his tires He blocked me, in the end I managed to get past, but by then I had lost an awful lot of time. Then in the last stint we did everything we could, the car was good, it was close with Lewis. I am happy when we have the chance to race the Mercedes cars, we can be very happy but not entirely happy today. The most important thing, though, is that we were in the fight; the team is in great form, we need to improve because we want to be ahead of them.”
Finishing third was Red Bull Racing's Daniel Ricciardo who was able to stay out of trouble and take advantage of the misadventures of others.
Those misadventures included Bottas, Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen going three wide into the tight right hand Turn One at the start of the race. Bottas pinched at the bottom of the track made contact with Raikkonen who then made contact with Verstappen. Both Raikkonen and Verstappen were done for the day.
“I made a good start, but on the main straight I got blocked once by Bottas." said Raikkonen "I chose to lift and go a little bit on the left to leave him space, but, I don’t know how, he hit me on the right rear corner , my car jumped and I end up going into Verstappen. There was nothing me or Max could have done, when you get hit from behind in that way there’s no way to avoid the collision. I’m pretty sure Valtteri had enough space. Unfortunately my race ended there. Obviously it’s very disappointing, we had been running quite well all weekend and I was happy with the behavior of the car.”
Verstappen's view, “An unfortunate start to the race which ultimately finished it also. I tried to go around the outside as there was plenty of room there. If Valtteri had not touched Kimi, we all would have had enough room to get through that corner. Due to the contact it meant Kimi lost control and slammed into me, but it wasn’t his fault. Sometimes you have a bit of luck, like last year, sometimes you don’t as we can see this year. It was shame to not be able to take part in the race after the incident as I think with this weekend’s upgrades it could have been fun and we could have got a good result. After an unfortunate race for me it’s important to focus and look ahead to Monaco, I’m hoping we can continue to improve and have a good fight there.”
Later in the race Bottas would feel the cold hand of fate as he parked his smoking Mercedes.
"It’s been a tough weekend." said Bottas "We had problems straight from practice, when we had to swap to the old engine on Saturday morning. Then today we had an engine failure in the race. We don’t know any more than that at this stage. We knew it was a risk switching back to the old Power Unit in terms of the mileage but we didn't if we wanted to qualify yesterday. At least we got more points than Ferrari today in spite of the retirement. The first corner was very tight. I had a good start but there was no were to go. I tried to avoid the collision but I touched Kimi. Lewis was on a different strategy while I was running long. We tried to execute a one-stop which is why I was lapping slower at that point. It could have been a rewarding strategy but with the Virtual Safety Car the guys in front had a free pit stop. We should have both been on the podium today. It’s always disappointing when you don’t finish but we’ll pick ourselves up and move on."
Hamilton with 98 points has closed the gap on Sebastian Vettel with 104 points to just six points in the Drivers’ Championship, Bottas with 63 points is a further 35 points back in third.
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