By any measure, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are two of the finest drivers of their generation. Arguably, they are two of the very greatest drivers ever to be strapped into Formula One cars.
It has long been a dream of many a fan to see these two highly gifted, fiercely competitive and incredibly potent driving talents locked in battle over the most valuable prize in motorsport – the Formula One world championship. Finally, it seems like that is exactly what we will be treated to this season.
The Spanish Grand Prix showed not only that Vettel versus Hamilton is indeed the heavyweight contest that so many of us have been waiting for, but that this was just one of the early rounds in a fight that will last throughout 2017.
Three into one won’t go
The dominance of Mercedes-Benz in Formula 1’s hybrid era had been so ruthlessly efficient that it was hard not to assume that Ferrari’s competitiveness in the opening rounds would fade as the Silver Arrows introduced their first raft of major upgrades in the first European race of the season.
But with Sebastian Vettel only a lock-up away from taking a second consecutive pole from Hamilton on Saturday, Ferrari and their passionate supporters had every reason to feel confident that Mercedes were still very much beatable come Sunday.
As the lights went out, Ferrari’s ‘new start procedure’ that Hamilton had so cheekily alluded to after qualifying proved to be more effective than the one the red machines had utilised in Russia.
Vettel out-dragged his Mercedes rival on the 700 metre run to the first corner and took command of the racing line as the field swept right through the first turn. “I had a really good start,” explained Vettel after the race. “I think Lewis and myself both picked up wheelspin straight away, then I pulled the clutch in again and I could gain on him. So I was really happy with that.”
Behind, Max Verstappen found himself with momentum and slipstream behind Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari, who had the slipstream of Valtteri Bottas’s Mercedes ahead. The three fanned out, with Verstappen sensibly laying claim to the outside line and the copious room it offered, while Bottas was forced to stay tight to the inside and hope the space afforded to him by Raikkonen would not run out. It did.
The resultant contact left both Verstappen and Raikkonen with broken steering, virtually ending their respective races on the spot. There was no blame to appoint, but that did little to ease the frustrations of the stranded Raikkonen or soothe the pain of a heart-broken young French fan in the Barcelona grandstands.
Meanwhile, a near-miss between Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso saw a significant part of the local hero’s hard work from Saturday disappear into a dust cloud while also leaving the Williams limping to the pits for a front wing change.
Vettel had taken early command of the race but, crucially, was now left to fight Ferrari’s battle against the Mercedes juggernaut alone. Mercedes would play this numbers game to their advantage later in the race, but in the early stages the sole remaining Ferrari was more than happy to take the fight to its silver rivals.
The championship leader pushed hard to build an early gap as Hamilton gave chase behind. The pair quickly began to pull away from the field, with even Bottas in third quickly losing touch with the two multiple world champions.
Bottas takes one for the team
Pre-empting an attempted undercut with Hamilton, Ferrari opted to box the leader earlier than anticipated on lap 15, fitting him with a second set of Softs. Vettel rejoined in fourth, behind Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull, but was able to quickly dispatch his former team mate without losing too much time.
Rather than mirroring Ferrari, Vettel’s early stop had turned Mercedes’s strategic focus to the end of the race and instead they asked Hamilton to push.on his older tyres. The level of effort Hamilton was exerting in attempt to make the new strategy work was audible in his breathy, laboured voice over team radio.
Hamilton eventually pitted on lap 21, but Mercedes opted for a switch to Mediums instead, banking on being able to capitalise on the pace advantage of the Softs in the final stint when Vettel would be forced to take the slower rubber.
Such was the advantage that Mercedes and Ferrari enjoyed over the remainder of the field, Mercedes realised that they could afford to keep Bottas out on track to hamper and frustrate Vettel’s progress at a time when taking advantage of the fresh Softs in clear air was at its most critical.
Vettel took just over six laps to eliminate the 11 second gap to Bottas out of the pits, latching onto the back of the Mercedes on lap 22. Despite old tyres and DRS at the Ferrari’s disposal, Bottas’s smart defensive driving meant that that Vettel was forced to spend three agonising laps staring at the rear wing of the W08, unable to pass.
Eventually, Vettel changed his way back into the lead thanks to a dramatically daring move along the main straight, two wheels on the grass after Bottas attempted to cover off the inside. Bottas may have been unable to keep the Ferrari at bay, but those three laps had allowed Hamilton to gain over three seconds on his rival at a time when it should’ve been the Ferrari gaining ground over the Mercedes.
It was a striking example of how serious the threat that Vettel and Ferrari now pose to the hegemony of Mercedes in Formula One. That a team which had gone to considerable lengths in recent years to allow their two drivers to race freely would compromise one of their cars to provide a strategic benefit to the other shows how Mercedes are prepared and willing to do what it must to ensure that it beats the Ferraris to the chequered flag.
Vandoorne virtually changes the race
While the battle for the lead raged, a concurrent but almost entirely separate race was taking place behind it.
Ricciardo was all alone in the Red Bull, ahead of the Force Indias of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, who were showing solid pace in fifth and sixth. Pascal Wehrlein in the Sauber was adopting a similar strategy to Bottas by trying to go as long as possible on Soft tyres and had found himself in seventh, still showing respectable pace.
Renault too had made progress up the order, albeit only in the form of Nico Hulkenberg. Not for the first time this season, there was a significant gulf between Hulkenberg and his team mate, Jolyon Palmer, although the gap had been flattered somewhat by Palmer opting to ditch the Medium tyres he started on just two laps into the race.
After starting from the back of the grid following a component change penalty, Stoffel Vandoorne’s difficult weekend was about to come to an abrupt end.
Under pressure from the recovering Williams of Massa, the McLaren driver appeared to be completely unaware that the Brazilian had attempted to pass on the inside after picking up the slipstream with the help of DRS, The pair made wheel-to-wheel contact and, not for the first time in the race, the driver on the outside was left with suspension damage, instantly ending Vandoorne’s race.
The rookie could only apologise to the team over the radio as his McLaren lay stricken on the inside run-off of turn one. But it was perhaps a visual demonstration of the straight line speed deficit of the Honda power unit to its rivals that Vandoorne’s team mate Alonso has been so vocally critical of in recent seasons.
To compound the McLaren driver’s misery further, the stewards awarded him a three-place grid drop for the Monaco Grand Prix, as well as two penalty points on his super license.
The Virtual Safety Car was deployed as marshals recovered Vandoorne’s car. Perhaps the biggest instant winner from this unexpected wildcard was Wehrlein, who took the opportunity to finally pit for Soft tyres and save significant time in the process. But a late call meant the German failed to stay to the right of the pit entry bollard – earning him a five-second post-race time penalty.
Hamilton makes it stick
Back at the front, Mercedes had to make a decision whether Hamilton would be able to last the remaining 30 laps on Softs and hold off Vettel on more durable Mediums. Mercedes brought their man in just as the VSC was ending, not quite enjoying the full benefit of a stop under yellow but saving them a handful of seconds that they otherwise would not.
With Hamilton primed on fresh Softs and in clear air, Ferrari knew they had to respond to keep track position and their best chance of victory alive. Vettel pitted immediately and with Hamilton’s advantage having pitted under the VSC, the two barrelled towards the same apex at turn one as the Ferrari left the pit lane.
It was as close as the two combatants got to each other all race, with Vettel desperately holding onto his position on the inside and squeezing Hamilton as the track swept back to the left, the Mercedes having to take to the kerbs to avoid contact. It was a dramatic flashpoint in the brewing war between the two powerhouse manufacturers, but Vettel had won this battle for now.
Suddenly, Bottas was out. The Mercedes pulling off the circuit just after turn five with smoke coming from the rear. “It was unlucky with the engine,” lamented Bottas after the race, the engine having expired in its fifth weekend of use. “It could’ve done one more race, but seems like it couldn’t take anymore.”
It meant that Mercedes had lost their rear gunner. It was now a straight fight between Hamilton and Vettel for the honours.
All too aware that he must strike while he had the advantage of fresh Softs in their prime, Hamilton piled the pressure onto the Ferrari. Vettel defended with similar tenacity that Bottas had shown him earlier in the race, providing little in the way of true opportunity for Hamilton to attempt a move.
Almost fittingly enough, lap 44 finally presented Hamilton with the opportunity he was looking for. A good exit out of the final corner and a freshly-extended DRS zone provided the perfect combination for Hamilton to sweep past the Ferrari on the pit straight and retake the lead.
“Nothing I could do,” Vettel told the team. “He was like a train.”
Although the actual battling between the leaders would turn out to have concluded, Vettel and Ferrari did their best not to let the Mercedes out of their sights for the remaining 20 laps of the race. For the second race in succession, Vettel would spend the final third of a race trying to maintain pressure on a leading Mercedes – and ultimately having to accept second.
With the performance advantage of the Soft tyre, Hamilton was able to manage the gap to the chasing Ferrari and duly held on until the chequered flag to claim his second win of the year. That Vettel and Ferrari will leave Spain disappointed not to have won is itself hugely promising for the many fans wishing to see this increasingly intriguing battle continue over the coming season.
In victory, Hamilton recognised the role that his team mate had played in assisting him in beating the championship leader on the day, but it was also clear how much he had relished the first major skirmish between Vettel and himself in this intensely competitive 2017 season.
“That’s how racing should be,” he said. “That’s as close as it could be.”
Any newcomers tuning into the sport for the first time could be forgiven for thinking that Formula One was a two-tier series, such was the gulf in performance between the two leaders and the rest of the field that saw all cars lapped up to fourth place at the finish.
Daniel Ricciardo took his first podium of the season in the Red Bull after a lonely race, while Force India consolidated fourth place in the constructors championship after yet another solid double points finish for Perez and Ocon in fifth and sixth.
Carlos Sainz inherited seventh from Pascal Wehrlein following the Sauber’s penalty, having enjoyed an eventful home race of his own. But the reward of a decent points finish early in the season will certainly override any frustrations at Sauber.
Daniil Kvyat drove well to recover from a back row start after a horror qualifying to take tenth, despite late contact with Kevin Magnussen’s Haas that left the Dane out of the points with a puncture.
With a tumultuous home grand prix behind him, Fernando Alonso can now finally forget about Formula One for a couple of weeks and enjoy what is likely to be one of the biggest challenges he’ll face as a racing driver – a guest appearance at the Indy 500.
That Felipe Massa was able to make an extra pit stop following a broken front wing on the opening lap and still catch and pass Lance Stroll before the end of the race will have done little to dissuade some of the Canadian rookie’s most vocal critics. But Williams will be disappointed to leave Barcelona with no points to show for it.
Looking past the satisfying on-track action of the weekend, the 2017 Spanish Grand Prix ultimately provided a highly promising blueprint for the future of Formula One’s Liberty-era.
With a wealth of new efforts to enhance the spectator experience for race attendees and TV audiences alike, it seems that a new, open and positive spirit is sweeping through the sport.
Perhaps no better example of this than Ferrari inviting the young fan seen to be so upset at Kimi Raikkonen’s early retirement on the world feed to come to the paddock and meet with his hero in person.
It seems like with this welcome injection of fun and optimism into the sport – and an enthralling contest developing on track – there is plenty for F1 fans to look forward to in the sport’s brave new world.
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2017 Spanish Grand Prix
- What do drivers ask in their pre-race briefing? New video reveals all
- Bottas admits braking “too early” in Spain crash
- Second Driver of the Weekend win for Wehrlein
- Tense Spanish Grand Prix gets solid rating
- 2017 Spanish GP team radio transcript
2017 F1 race reviews
- Rosberg denies Hamilton a winning end to his championship year
- Rosberg frustrates Hamilton as Vettel gives hope to Ferrari
- Rosberg gets his revenge as Hamilton holds back
- Hard-fighting Hamilton pounces on Rosberg error to seal third title
- Rosberg’s misfortune brings Hamilton within touching distance of title