Six points. That is the difference between the championship leader Sebastian Vettel and his hunter Lewis Hamilton after the Spanish GP which served as a showcase for the latest developments as the opener of the European season.
Red Bull Racing’s much awaited development step did not want to materialize while the already good-looking package of Mercedes got another push. The track lying near Montmelo posed a real challenge with its very low-grip surface despite to the rich knowledge due to the fact that it is the venue of the winter testing. Crashing top drivers, smoking Mercedes power unit, Ferrari’s reliability woes, flying Fernando Alonso and Sauber’s first points of the season brought the highlights of the Spanish GP weekend.
Ferrari experienced a rather woeful race weekend in Spain. The team kept quite over its upgrades, but sounded relaxed when it was confronted by the scale of its arch-rival Mercedes’ development package. The Italians also introduced a series of small modifications like minor changes to the KERS, modified bargeboards, U-shaped wing instead of the T-Wing.
Despite series of mechanical problems for Vettel over the weekend and setup issues on Friday, Ferrari did not fail to impress on Saturday and Sunday with its speed. In the qualifying session, Räikkönen set the best time in the first sector, Vettel in the second. The German was on course to claim pole before his attempt faded in the last sector. Comparison of Vettel’s and Hamilton’s best laps showed that Vettel lost out on turn 10, 12 and in the chicane which are all slow speed turns. It came as a surprise after Ferrari had the better of Mercedes in the technical slow last sector of the Sochi race track a fortnight ago. However, Ferrari opted for a lower downforce setup in Spain and Vettel did not really have the best of preparation for the all-important qualifying session due to the mechanical issues he suffered during practices.
One of Ferrari’s key developments was the new clutch paddle system. Ferrari had the measure in terms of race starts last year when its long clutch lever proved to be a big success. However, this year’s restricted rules on the clutch system meant Ferrari’s advantage was effectively wiped away. The Italians were lagging behind Mercedes and even Red Bull in term of starts in the first four races which forced them to work on their starting procedure. Ferrari copied Mercedes’ interesting clutch lever which also features finger holds to give the drivers a better feel.
The new starting sequence proved to be effective as Vettel stormed into the race lead at the start, however things worked against him after that. He seemed to have a tiny edge over the race winner Hamilton in terms of pure pace, but he lost around 6,4 seconds when Mercedes forced its driver Valtteri Bottas to pose a blockage for Vettel. The German then started building an advantage on his much more worn soft tyres against Hamilton who was running on the mediums at that time, but a virtual safety car period wiped away Vettel’s advantage of 7,1 seconds when Hamilton pitted right after the VSC period ended. That meant Vettel was robbed of around 13,5 seconds against Hamilton.
Ferrari’s reliability continues to worry its engineers. The team’s duo was already on the limit of some of six the individual power unit components, but the Spanish GP caused for further complications. Both drivers got their second MGU-K unit on Friday. Vettel received his only second internal combustion engine in Spain. Ferrari seem to have the control over the reliability of those two elements. However, Vettel’s car stroke in the dying minutes of the final free practice session. The engineers found a water leak on the power unit and made a precautionary step. They swapped the new engine which only had seven laps on it and replaced it with the old one which already had four complete race weekends, but they also changed MGU-H and turbocharger. That meant Vettel started using his fourth and last turbocharges from his allocation for the whole years.
It shows Ferrari is confident with the reliability of the internal combustion engine, the MGU-K, energy store and control electronics, but the MGU-H and especially the turbochargers will make grid penalties inevitable very soon. Despite to the claims of the Italian engineers that the some old power unit components can be used later on in the season, Vettel could be already set for two penalties for two new turbocharges.
Mercedes shocked the F1 paddock with its thorough development package on Thursday. The Anglo-German team introduced a what could be called a B-spec car. New bargeboards, new underfloor, narrower nose, huge turning vanes under the nose, new camera mounting, monkey seat, modification to the power unit. That is only the list of the most visible changes on the W08.
The upgrades worked very well as analysis indicated Mercedes was on pair with Ferrari in corners which was not the case during winter testing.
Bottas and Hamilton was neck on neck in qualifying in the first two parts of the Barcelona track. 21,730 against 21,752 in the first sector, 29,537 against 29,543 in the middle part of the track with Hamilton setting the better time in both track sections. However, Hamilton had the better of the Finn in the last sector where he went faster by 0,285 seconds.
Mercedes’ usual proven reliability was not perfect in Spain. The engineers found a water leak on Valtteri Bottas’ W08 which prompted an engine change. The Finn returned to the internal combustion engine which he was using throughout the first four races of the year. Mercedes was confident there will be no issues with it with Niki Lauda claiming that Bottas will not even lose any power compared to Lewis Hamilton’s fresh unit. The internal combustion engine, however, failed in the race and went into smoke.
McLaren-Honda made a step forward with both its chassis and power unit. The latter worked reliably through the qualifying and the race while the car behaved well balanced in the variety of corners of the Barcelona race circuit.
Alonso set the seventh fastest time in the qualifying. He was only 14th fastest In the first sector which is dominated by the long start-finish straight and the full-throttle corner three. However, he was seventh fastest in the middle sector and eighth fastest in the last part of the track. The Spaniard hailed the behaviour of his car in the turns.
The two-time world champion, however, said, Honda still has a deficit of over 50 hp in peak power compared to the field-leading Mercedes and Ferrari power unit. In fact, Alonso and Vandoorne were lagging behind in terms of top-speed in the qualifying session. Alonso’s highest top speed was by 12,4 down on the highest speed recorded by Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari while Vandoorne was a further 3,9 down on Alonso.
The Formula One community turned it back to Spain and heads to Monaco where the Anglo-Japanese collaboration intends to turn it fortunes around depite the absence of its start driver Fernando Alonso. „The MCL32 is a chassis that our drivers can really lean on,“ was the statement from team boss Eric Boullier after the Spanish GP which indicated McLaren-Honda really counts on its chassis and hoped to shine on the narrow streets of the Principality.
Renault ended the Spanish GP with a result which was labelled by the team’s German driver Nico Hülkenberg as rewarding. The team recorded its best finishing position with the sixth place. That was helped by the early retirement of top-drivers Kimi Räikkönen and Max Verstappen and was then further backed by the fatal engine failure of Valtter Bottas’ Mercedes.
Renault started the weekend with a strong showing on Friday, but could not get through the middle qualifying session. The middle pack was incredible tight in Barcelona and Renault did not have the final edge it has had this year so far in qualifying.
Hülkenberg was 13th fastest in the first and second sector of the track and recorded the 10th quickest time in the slowish technical final segment in the qualifying session. According to the drivers, the car’s handling was quite sufficient over the weekend, but it just did not post enough of a challenge to its current rival Williams, Force India, Toro Rosso and the qualifying sensation McLaren-Honda.
Jolyon Palmer endured another difficult weekend. He missed out the Q2 by a tenth and was nine tenth down on his team-mate’s best qualifying time which is a massive gap even if the track evolution is taken into consideration. The Briton then followed an aggressive strategy in the race which did never want to pay off. He pitted on the first lap to get rid of the slower medium compound and built hopes on a safety car period.
Sauber has completed its best race weekend of this year. The Swiss team scored its first points with Pascal Wehrlein’s eighth finishing position. That success was aided by the sequence of misfortunes for top-drivers.
Pascal Wehrlein followed a very aggressive one-stop strategy. He pitted on lap 33 around the Virtual safety car period. His race pace was consistent, starting in the low 1:29 region, then dipping into the 1:28s and posting high 1:27s for his closing phasing of the first stint. His consistency in the middle part of the race was also superb and posted a 1:26.476 as his best race lap which was the 14th quickest lap, but was only around 5-6 tenths of a second down on the best lap times of two-stopping drivers.
Wehrlein’ best Q2 time was a 1:21.803 with setting the 15th sector time in the first and second sector and the 14th best split time in the last track segment. Sauber is still lagging behind in terms of raw pace compared to is mid-field rivals Haas, Renault, Force India. This time, however, McLaren-Honda proved to be the better package while the Sauber car was closer to the usual mid-field leader Williams.
Marcus Ericsson endured a woeful race with wrong timing for his pit stop. „ I was just at the wrong place at the wrong time,” the Swede concluded. The former GP2 front-runner was tantalizingly close of getting into the second qualifying session as he missed only 0,005 seconds to his team-mate.
Franz Tost was delighted to see his team scoring a good haul of points after a disappointing qualifying session. The Toro Rossos ended the all-important Saturday session in the 12th position with Carlos Sainz and in the 20th place with Daniil Kvyat.
The Spaniard followed a two-stopper while the Russian elected for a one-stop-strategy. Both made their last stop around the timet he virtual safety car was deployed. Their fastest race laps were the 8th and 9th fastest laps of the field which shows how much of an improvement the Toro Rosso cars made compared to the qualifying session.
In the qualifying session, the STR12 was competitive through the middle part of the track with Sainz setting the 9th best split time, but was lagging behind in the first sector where the top-speed posed an issue and the car did not behave well through the slow corners of the last sector either.
Toro Rosso made good progress over the winter in terms of pit stops compared to the last season. The Faenza-based team’s improved pit stop performance helped the team to achieve these great results.
Haas did not have the best of form in the first European race of the 2017 championship campaign.
The Kannapolis-based team struggled for pace in the qualifying session. Magnussen ended the session in the 11th place while his team-mate Romain Grosjean finished in the 14th position. Interestingly, both had almost identical best sector times in the most important session of Saturday.
The VF-17 had quite a good pace through the first two sectors, but proved to be very unstable in the slow turns of the last sector. Grosjean lost its car on a couple of occasion in the tricky turn before the chicane. The rear end of the car posed a real challenge for the drivers to handle.
The race brought a slight upturn in form. Grosjean finished the race in the 10th position to score a single championship point. However, Magnussen was set to finish the race in the 9th place before he suffered a puncture due to contact with the Toro Rosso of Daniil Kvyat.
Both drivers had promising pace in the race on the soft compound, but they never seemed to find the pace on the mediums. According to the team, they never managed to put that compounds into its working window.
Red Bull Racing
Red Bull was looking forward to the Spanish GP as it was set to turn its fortunes around with a major technical overhaul. Adrian Newey who is now more involved in the F1 project of the energy drink-owned team after he has curtailed his involvement over the past years. He flew to Barcelona as “he wanted the feedback from the drivers to to better understand the car and determine the direction for the future," as Christian Horner, the team principal revealed.. That much awaited upturn in form failed to materialize over the weekend.
In fact, Red Bull seemed to have closed the gap in qualifying as Max Vertappen was only six tenth down on the pole time while Ricciardo was further four tenths away. Both drivers were 2-3 tenths down in both the first and second sector while Verstappen’s sensational third sector time was on par with Bottas’ and the Ferraris’ one.
However, the race brought a bitter waking call for the Milton Keynes-based squad. Daniel Ricciardo completed a rather lonely race to score his first podium finish of the season thanks to the retirement of Kimi Räikkönen and Valtteri Bottas. The Australian’s pace was around 1,2 second slower than the one of Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton on both compounds. His race pace did not show the usual consistency of Red Bull, fluctuating times, higher tyre degradation on never-wearing tyres were among the issues.
Max Verstappen’s race ended in tears after he got tangled with Kimi Räikkönen after the Finn was hit by the too ambitious Valtteri Bottas at the first corner.
Red Bull’s development package was not as evident as expected. It included a major modification to the bargeboards, but other upgrades were less spectacular. Renault is expected to introduce a new power unit in Canada, but concerns over its reliability mean that the upgrade could be delayed. Red Bull is already working on its next major upgrade package which should arrive in its home GP in Austria.