When Bernie Ecclestone and Luca di Montezemolo arrived in Bahrain last month, their proclamation of “taxi cab racing” was immediately written off as the drivers served up a thriller under the lights.
However, at the halfway stage of yesterday’s Spanish Grand Prix, their argument appeared to have some truth. Lewis Hamilton held an easy lead over teammate Nico Rosberg, and there was little going on further back.
In the final third of the race, though, it came alive. Not only did Rosberg threaten to rain on Hamilton’s parade and snatch the win away, but the split in strategies meant that the likes of Valtteri Bottas, Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean all went into battle. Who says that you can’t overtake in Barcelona?
Let’s start with the battle at the front. Mercedes’ decision to split their drivers’ strategies ensured that it was a fair fight. Theoretically, Hamilton had the advantage in the middle stint on the option tire, and Rosberg had an equivalent improvement in pace when he made the switch. However, Rosberg’s middle stint on the prime compound was simply superb.
The two sides of the Mercedes garage were setting targets for their respective drivers. The gap after both drivers had stopped for the first time stood at around four seconds, and over the following 20 laps, Peter Bonnington – Hamilton’s engineer – wanted that advantage to double. On the other side of the garage, Tony Ross informed Nico Rosberg that he was to cut the gap to two seconds, largely matching the pace of Hamilton on the option tire. Frankly, Hamilton didn’t deliver during this period, and instead saved a lot of fuel that he ultimately didn’t use. Maybe he was right when he said that Rosberg had the edge?
So in the final stint, Rosberg managed to use low fuel and the quicker tire to carve into his teammate’s lead, but ultimately fell six-tenths of a second short. The German driver said that he needed one more lap, and again, he is probably right. He never actually was close enough to make a move on Hamilton. It was a tantalizing battle at the front, and although it was a big psychological victory for Lewis, Nico certainly proved that he was no push-over.
Further back, the split in strategy that Pirelli had predicted – two or three stops – made things very interesting in the closing stages of the race. Romain Grosjean ran well to score Lotus’ first points of the season in eighth place, but he just wasn’t quick enough to finish any higher. Williams’ race was lost in the later stages, with Felipe Massa’s decision to run a low downforce setup costing him dearly. Valtteri Bottas finished a solid fifth, but again the decision to pit him late at the first round of stops cost him a shot at the podium, and ultimately Sebastian Vettel also found a way past.
The Vettel-Alonso-Raikkonen battle was a particularly interesting one. Ferrari made the mistake of pitting Raikkonen too late for his second stop, and this meant that both Alonso and Vettel could find a way past. The raw pace of the Red Bull allowed Vettel to come out ahead of Alonso when the Spaniard pitted for a final time, but the real masterstroke with his strategy came with the early first stop. By running in clear air, he was able to easily pass the likes of Hulkenberg and Button who would have otherwise compromised his pace.
All in all, it was a ‘good’ race, with ‘good’ being the perfect adjective. It was by no means Bahrain, but the mix of strategy that Formula 1 has craved for so long was on display for us all to see.
Let us hope that we see more of the same in Monaco, given that overtaking is nigh on impossible around the streets of the principality.