Issue 15: Spanish Grand Prix Review

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13 May 2014

F1 driver’s world championship on a knife-edge

‘Where did it all go so right?’, Lewis Hamilton was asked by the BBC after the race. The answer’s obvious. Hamilton took the bold decision to move to Mercedes in late 2012 when many pundits said he should stay at McLaren. In the 2014 Spanish Grand Prix, McLaren finished a miserable 11th and 12th while Hamilton won his fourth Grand Prix in a row. That says it all.

The race was an intriguing rather than a scintillating event,  even though the denouement brought a nerve-shredding final 15 laps or so, especially for anyone emotionally invested in which Mercedes driver would ultimately triumph. The Spanish Grand Prix confirmed that the intra-team battle at Mercedes is the fulcrum around which the rest of the season will pivot. Mercedes have all but won the 2014 constructor’s championship, barring a monumental performance meltdown. However, the driver’s championship is on a knife-edge. In spite of Hamilton securing his fourth win in a row and his first in Spain, there was very little to choose between the Mercedes pair. Throughout the race, the gap from Hamilton to Rosberg see-sawed from 1.5 seconds to 4.5 seconds as they traded personal best sector times until the final few laps when Rosberg closed to within a second. Unlike in Sakhir, there was no close combat, but this was tense stuff. One slip from Hamilton and the win was Rosberg’s. One error from Rosberg and Hamilton would gain the breathing space he needed for victory. Who would crack? In the end, neither driver did. Hamilton’s advantageous track position rather than Rosberg’s slightly quicker Silver Arrow was the deciding factor, but it was a narrow run thing!

In their two most closely fought contests this season, Rosberg has failed to break Hamilton despite being in the marginally quicker W05 Hybrid. These defeats for Rosberg – albeit narrow ones – mean so much in the unfolding psychological drama. Hamilton knows he can defend even when under huge pressure and whilst driving a car that’s not handling to his liking (post-race, he complained of oversteer under braking and locking rear wheels at Turn 10). Rosberg knows he has yet to beat Hamilton in a straight fight. On the track, it is Rosberg handing out the pressure, but in the strategic duel for the title, it is Rosberg who is under the cosh. This is a fascinating dynamic that is primarily a function of Mercedes building a vastly superior car, hiring two world-class drivers and most importantly, allowing them to race. They are to be saluted. Let’s hope their ‘free to race’ policy continues for the good of F1.

Great drives by Ricciardo, Vettel and Bottas

Daniel Ricciardo produced another stellar – if slightly anonymous – performance to take a deserved first podium. Likewise, his Red Bull team-mate put in an excellent eye-catching drive to finish fourth after starting a lowly 15th. In the process, Vettel also set several fastest laps, hinting that he is becoming more comfortable with the RB10. He made a succession of bold and unconventional overtaking moves, such as on Felipe Massa on Lap 37 and Kimi Raikkonen on Lap 57, and has now surely dispatched the out-dated notion that he cannot overtake. Yet, for all of Vettel’s manoeuvres, the award for overtake of the race must surely go to Daniil Kyvat for his ‘Dan Dare’ move round the outside of Esteban Gutierrez at Turn 3 on Lap 8. A great pass that had me out of my seat cheering! Valtteri Bottas deserves an honourable mention for finally extracting the obvious potential in the FW36 to finish a superb fifth. The Finn drove an error-free, consistent and speedy race.

Early rumblings at Ferrari?

In Issue 2 on WheelSpinF1, I said I expected that the intra-team dynamic between Alonso and Raikkonen would lead to fireworks. The first evidence of conflict emerged at the Spanish Grand Prix. Raikkonen put in a much-improved performance over earlier rounds to qualify ahead of Alonso and almost beat him to the flag on race day. However, it was clear from mid-race conversations over the radio and Raikkonen’s post-race comments that he suspected Alonso was being favoured in strategy calls. One can see it from the Finn’s perspective: after bettering Alonso for much of the weekend and in need of a strong result, he is still pipped by the Spaniard in the dying laps. Alonso appeared to get first calls on pit stop timing despite being behind Raikkonen on the track. Another dispute or two like this will be all that’s needed to light the real fireworks down the line…

Upgrades all round, but little change to the competitive order…except for Lotus

In Spain, the only team to really challenge the competitive order established in the opening rounds of this season was Lotus. And then only in Roman Grosjean’s hands. Grosjean qualified and raced impressively, in stark contrast to his team-mate. Lotus’ ability to climb up the order in Spain was most likely a function of the team continuing to unlock untapped potential in the car as well as Renault’s software update to its powertrain. This probably improved the co-ordination between the combustion engine, turbo and Energy Recovery System, enabling the powertrain to function more effectively as a single unit for better power delivery and driveability. Lotus’ move up the field was no doubt assisted by the lack of major upgrades brought by the competition. From what could be observed, almost all teams brought smaller updates than expected. Ferrari, for example, had been due to deliver a big upgrade to the F14-T. Instead, small tweaks to the rear-wing mountings, slightly slimmer sidepods and a new exhaust tailpipe were the main developments. The effect of a largely unchanged car showed; the F14-T was a handful. Lacking in grip and balance, Alonso and Raikkonen had to fight the car as it slide through corners. It all looked a bit edgy.

One of the main talking points in Spain post-race was the question of whether Red Bull has closed the gap in relative performance terms to Mercedes. Red Bull claim they have. They argue that Ricciardo would have finished less than 48 seconds behind the Mercedes had he not been stuck behind Bottas’ Williams in the opening stint. They also point to Vettel setting the fastest lap of the race as further evidence of them reeling in the Silver Arrows. However, I’m not convinced that the performance gap has closed at all. And even if it has narrowed, how much of the difference was due to chassis and powertrain improvements for Red Bull and how much was down to track layout? Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is after a Red Bull track so they should have been closer in relative performance. Red Bull say that Ricciardo could have finished closer to the Mercedes, but this ignores the fact that Mercedes likely lost comparatively more time in traffic as they had to lap more cars than Ricciardo. Furthermore, all of Red Bull’s pit stops were quicker than those of Mercedes, again, theoretically allowing Red Bull to close the gap in the race.

However, when comparing laptimes, what is interesting is that Red Bull appeared to be much closer to Mercedes in the final third of the race than at the beginning. This is not necessarily a change in relative performance though because one finds a similar trend at the Chinese Grand Prix after comparing the laptimes of each of the quickest Mercedes and Red Bull. Why this is happening is another question, but the biggest change in the RB10 over the course of a race is a lower fuel load in the final stint, which might offer at least a partial explanation for their stronger finishes.

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