Sebastian Vettel took his fourth victory of the 2011 Formula 1 season in Barcelona today, yet it was far from a simple affair.
The Red Bull driver crossed the line shadowed by the McLaren of Lewis Hamilton, as the 2008 World Champion pushed hard right up to the flag.
A race dominated by constantly evolving tyre strategies and ineffective DRS made for one of the best Spanish Grand Prix in recent memory, yet still something was missing…
Mixing the Starts
Starting behind teammate Mark Webber, Vettel jumped ahead of the Australian, despite having no KERS, only for Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso to slide passed both of them and take the lead.
It was an awe inspiring start from 4th by Alonso – who also jumped Hamilton – on the way to turn 1. Getting off the inside of the grid, the Spaniard stuck to Webber’s tail, bravely squeezing the nose of his Italian 150ᴼ in the corner apex and the race lead.
Jenson Button wasn’t quite as swift from the grid. The Briton bogged down on the grid, dropping from 5th to 10th by the end of the straight, as Vitaly Petrov (Renault), Michael Schumacher, Nico Rosberg (both Mercedes), Felipe Massa (Ferrari) and Sebastien Buemi (Toro Rosso) all streamed by.
Unwilling to hang back and let the race come to him, Button made short work of Buemi (lap 5), yet had already lost 12 seconds to the leading group, as he close up to the rear of Massa.
Another driver to plummet down the order was Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi – the Japanese pilot ran onto the gravel on his first lap, only to be clipped as he rejoined.
A right rear puncture and a pitstop later would see Kobayashi last of the runners.
There was not long to wait for the first series of tyres stops. Sergio Perez was the first in on the 7th tour, but it would be another two before the front men pulled.
Vettel was the first to make the move, only to rejoin behind the slower Button, yet what should have been a disaster for Vettel, turned to gold quickly.
On his fresh Pirelli rubber, the reigning Champion made short work of Button, taking him into turn five, before doing the same to Massa a few corners later – it would prove to be key.
Over the following two laps, Alonso, Webber (lap 11) and Hamilton (lap 12) all pitted, with Alonso and Hamilton coming away cleanly, while a sluggish Webber dropped to 5th behind Button, before passing the McLaren soon afterwards.
Vettel, meanwhile, slotted back in behind Alonso, but the gap was still only 0.4 of-a-second. It was a gap that would stay for the rest of the stint, for as solid as Alonso was, he could not pul away.
Not only was Vettel staring closely at the Ferrari’s rear, Hamilton was on the Red Bull’s radar, but it was becoming clear that if any passing was to be done, it would probably not happen on track.
Webber, now on used softs, fell away from the leaders, yet was not close enough to the pack behind to feel worried.
Button stayed out until lap 15, filtering out into 6th between the two Mercedes, headed by Michael Schumacher.
The veteran had not reached the top five by some fluke – in fact Schumacher had been “on it” since he made a great start, keeping Rosberg at bay in the meantime.
That top five would swiftly become top six, as Button exerted the prowess of his better handling McLaren, taken 5th from Schumacher on lap 16.
Watching the trio closely was Petrov, who had fallen to 8th during the first pit sequence, just ahead of the speedless Massa (9th).
With little confidence in Massa moving through the field, Ferrari placed their will behind Alonso, but when Vettel took an early second stop on lap 19, the game was up for the red machines.
Ferrari – sensing their lead was about to disappear – panicked and brought Alonso in a lap later. One lap was all Vettel needed to clear the Spaniard – thereafter, Ferrari were truly nowhere.
Webber pitted the same lap as Alonso, but it would be another four tours before Hamilton came in – a brave strategy by the McLaren crew, yet Hamilton held his pace on older tyres and with a 20-second gap, he jumped the Ferrari, despite a slower stop.
Nick Heidfeld was another driver making the best of his tyre strategy. The Renault man could not qualify yesterday due to a damaged car, but with several unused sets of Pirelli’s available to him, the German veteran was tearing through the field.
He had even reached the edge of the points positions when he he made his first stop on lap 21, but the speed was clearly apparent in the Renault.
Tyre strategy was not working quite as well for Heikki Kovalainen. Following a good qualifying that left him 15th, the Finn ran long in the first stint – getting up as high as 11th place, but he began to fall backward during his second stint.
Falling backward is not something one could say about Hamilton – if anything, the Briton continued to push.
Having lost five seconds during his slow stop, Hamilton had pulled to within two seconds by the 29th lap, while the Alonso / Webber pairing had disappeared from view, over 11 seconds in arrears.
Button, meanwhile, was playing the long game. Having avoided any pitstop madness since his first stop, it was clear the McLaren driver was pulling a three-stop strategy together – only unlike Turkey, it was working this time.
Whereas both Alonso and Webber made their third stops on lap 30 (changing to hard tyres), Button made only his second tyre change on lap 31 – somehow, Button was getting fifteen lap stints out of the softs.
As Alonso and Webber struggled for grip on the “icy” hard tyres, Button reeled the pair in (at two seconds per lap).
It helped a lot that Alonso and Webber were fight hard amongst themselves, even swapping positions with eachother on occasion, but all it really did was bring them closer to Button.
And Button pounced – first Webber into turn one (despite the Australian’s vigorous defence) and then the McLaren sliced by Alonso later that same lap.
Once Button had passed, he was gone and Alonso and Webber resumed their battle – albeit for 4th.
However, Button was not going to be a threat to the leading pair, yet Vettel was still very wary of Hamilton’s insistence upon remaining in his mirrors.
A pair of stops – lap 34 (Vettel) and lap 35 (Hamilton) – saw both change to used hards, as each matched the other’s challenge, though the gap stayed at just over two seconds.
As Vettel / Hamilton tore through the field, they probably barely noticed the Hispania of Vitantonio Liuzzi.
It was awfully difficult to be honest – on a track that rewards good aerodynamics, the Hispania looked like a savage machine to drive. Even to the naked eye, the Cosworth-powered machine lacked grip, stability and confidence.
So when Liuzzi pulled off the track with a(n apparent) gearbox problem on lap 31, he may have breathed a quiet sigh of relief. There are not many circuits that will show the Hispania as badly as Barcelona – sadly Liuzzi’s teammate, Narain Karthikeyan still had half a Grand Prix to go.
Liuzzi was not the only driver in trouble on track – Massa’s race was also beginning to collapse completely.
Compared to his more illustrious teammate, Massa looked less and less comfortable as the Grand Prix, resulting in an embarrassing half-spin on lap 39.
The Brazilian was also finding difficulties with his gearbox, something that would bring his day to an early end seven laps from the end of the race.
While Massa struggled badly, Alonso continued uninterrupted; however the Spaniard interrupted his battle with Webber to make an early final stop.
It would be a disastrous move for the Ferrari team – now seemingly losing any grip on the strategy game – as Webber bedded in his fourth set of tyres neatly, the Ferrari man could not do the same with his fifth set.
As Alonso’s times fell away, all Webber had to do was keep running a steady pace and 4th was his.
One battle that certainly wasn’t dissipating was Mercedes tug-o’-war. Both Schumacher and Rosberg were playing three-stop strategies in a battle over 6th and 7th and with the race in its second-half, Schumacher was winning the fight.
Crucially, the pair had been briefly split by Force India’s Paul di Resta at the midway point when they took their second stops, but Rosberg had little patience for the Scot, dispatching him quickly.
As the silver-and-turquoise pair pitted for the final time (Schumacher; lap 42 and Rosberg; lap 43), they were resumed the battle almost together, separated by – at most – two seconds.
Indeed several times, Rosberg had a look down the inside of Schumacher into turn 1, only for the veteran to play hardball in a way that only Schumacher can… The word “forceful” comes to mind, especially when Rosberg clipped Spanish grass.
On this occasion, Schumacher had the advantage over his (much) younger teammate.
Forceful was a word to describe Lotus’ Heikki Kovalainen. Having run in the midfield early on, the pace of the car betrayed the Finn’s talent, as he fell to 18th approaching the final stint.
Pushing hard as always, Kovalainen over-stepped his own limits, hitting the turn 4 barrier on the 51st lap.
“It’s a real shame my afternoon came to an end like that, but up until that point the race was pretty good. Both Jarno and I were right in the mix early on and we were fighting in the midfield for a lot of the race but then the tyres started to go off and the early pace wasn’t there for the later stages of the afternoon.”
Several cars, including both McLaren’s, Webber and Jaime Alguersuari (Toro Rosso) were later reprimanded for taking too high a speed through the yellow flag zone.
Close, but Not Close Enough
Up front, the fight was tempting, and as Vettel and Hamilton stopped for the last time on laps 48 and 49 respectively, the race became a fight to the wire.
Clearly showing themselves to be the finest of the Formula 1 crop, the duo pushed eachother harder and harder as they scythed through swathes of traffic.
So dominant were the Red Bull / McLaren pair, that even Alonso would lose a lap to the front men, such is the true gulf between the latest Ferrari and leading cars.
Yet, for as much as they fought, Hamilton never really looked like he was ever going to pass Vettel.
The young German was too quick, too confident and Vettel’s stuttering KERS was balanced out by Hamilton’s ineffective DRS – status quo. As Hamilton charged, the gap closed to one second, then 0.7 of-a-second, then half-a-second, before settling at 0.6 each lap.
This wasn’t Shanghai and there was no magic late pass coming – Hamilton couldn’t even get close enough to try. Occasionally, a lappee would misjudge the gap and slightly block Vettel, before doing the same to Hamilton – in short, no one was going anywhere.
…and Vettel took the chequered flag – victorious again – with an advantage of only half-a-second. It was close – yes- but not that close.
“At the beginning of the race I thought I had a good start, I didn’t understand where Fernando came from! We couldn’t get close enough to use the DRS, but we got him with the pit stop. It looked like the McLaren’s were very strong; they stayed out longer on a different strategy, which bought them up to second behind us. From then on I knew that it would be very, very close; going into the last 10 laps felt the same as in China. At the end of the straights he would be right in my mirrors, so you don’t know if you should defend or not. It was very close, but on the last two laps, I could make it stick.”
Button, on the other hand, was really making his race come together. The ex-Champion had pulled so far ahead of Webber on his third set of tyres, that he had earned himself a free pitstop.
One final tyre change on lap 48 saw the McLaren man assume the last podium position and while it was no victory, it was a big improvement for Button.
Yet Webber may not be so pleased. After starting on pole, the Australian’s race really unravelled and come the chequered flag, Webber was nearly 48 seconds off his teammate – a staggering amount and an indication that Vettel may have fully conquered his teammate.
Alonso defeated Massa’s confidence long ago, but even he would dismayed that his Ferrari was a lap off of the Red Bull. Indeed the 2011 Ferrari may be lacking grip, but strategic thinking was also slightly askew for the Scuderia.
“The best bit of the race was obviously the start. I tried to do the maximum, keeping the quickest ones behind me for around twenty laps, but after that, there was nothing I could do. We lack aerodynamic downforce: here we did not have a wing that suited this track. We must analyse carefully the behaviour of all the modifications we brought to this Grand Prix and understand why, in the space of two weeks, we have lost ground to Red Bull and McLaren.”
And Then Everyone Else…
Schumacher eventually won the Mercedes battle and 6th will be a fine reward after starting 10th. It was a signal to Rosberg that the veteran isn’t ready to leave just yet, but it may not be long for Rosberg to regain the initiative.
Nick Heidfeld took 8th place after an excellent, if quiet drive from the rear of the field. The Renault man found himself embroiled in a battle just outside the points with Sebastien Buemi (Toro Rosso), di Resta, Perez and Petrov, taking all of them with the help of his fresh Pirelli’s.
In his final stint, Heidfeld even pulled 30 seconds out of the Mercedes pair, with Heidfeld coming home just half-a-second shy of Rosberg.
“I’m satisfied with eighth after starting from last position. Just like in Turkey, with one or two laps more I could have gained one or two more positions from the two Mercedes, but it’s still a good result if you look at where I started and everything that happened to the car over this weekend. It’s always encouraging to put in a strong performance, and I’m more happy and relaxed heading to Monaco.”
The Sauber’s took the final points, with young Mexican Sergio Perez assuming the point.
As in Australia, Perez had not shown startling pace, but did show enough consistency, especially on the hard tyres early in the race to bring himself into the points. A battle for 8th with Massa was fought briefly before his Ferrari gave up.
Kobayashi claimed the last point, as he battled back from his first lap incident.
One driver that may be disappointed with his performance is Vitaly Petrov. After a time behind the Mercedes’ in the first half of the race, the Russian fell further behind and out of the points in the latter stages. The Force India’s eventually made it 12th and 13th at the flag, with di Resta leading the duo.
Sebastien Buemi also had a silent Grand Prix, as Toro Rosso continue to struggle with race pace, although not as much as Pastor Maldonado, whose dropped helplessly down the order throughout the event.
Jaime Alguersuari disappointed in his home Grand Prix. The Spaniard was lapped twice by the leaders, as his poor 2011 continues – the thought of being replaced by Daniel Ricciardo taking his place mid-season must be growing large at this stage.
Rubens Barrichello was also nowhere in his Williams – the veteran took 17th, also two laps down, with Lotus’ Jarno Trulli not far behind in 18th spot.
Both Virgin’s came home 19th and 20th, with Timo Glock beating Jerome d’Ambrosio to the flag, while Narain Karthikeyan was the last finisher in 21st, albeit four laps adrift.
The 2011 Spanish Grand Prix may be remembered as one of the best to ever take place at the Barcelona circuit, but it was no classic by any means. The moment Hamilton came up to the rear of Vettel, the winner was obvious – and it was never going to be the Englishman.
It gives Vettel a 41 point advantage going into next week’s Monaco Grand Prix – McLaren need to come up with something fast if they are to topple the RB7.
Race Rating: 3 out of 5
The Spanish Grand Prix Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain; Pos Driver Team Time 1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1h39:03.301 (66 laps) 2. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes + 0.630 3. Button McLaren-Mercedes + 35.697 4. Webber Red Bull-Renault + 47.966 5. Alonso Ferrari + 1 lap 6. Schumacher Mercedes + 1 lap 7. Rosberg Mercedes + 1 lap 8. Heidfeld Renault + 1 lap 9. Perez Sauber-Ferrari + 1 lap 10. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari + 1 lap 11. Petrov Renault + 1 lap 12. Di Resta Force India-Mercedes + 1 lap 13. Sutil Force India-Mercedes + 1 lap 14. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1 lap 15. Maldonado Williams-Cosworth + 1 lap 16. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 2 laps 17. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth + 2 laps 18. Trulli Lotus-Renault + 2 laps 19. Glock Virgin-Cosworth + 3 laps 20. D'Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth + 3 laps 21. Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth + 4 laps Fastest lap: Alonso, 1:26.727 Not classified/retirements: Driver Team On lap Massa Ferrari 60 Kovalainen Lotus-Renault 49 Liuzzi HRT-Cosworth 29 World Championship standings, round 5: Drivers: 1. Vettel 118 2. Hamilton 77 3. Webber 67 4. Button 61 5. Alonso 51 6. Rosberg 26 7. Heidfeld 25 8. Massa 24 9. Petrov 21 10. Schumacher 14 11. Kobayashi 9 12. Buemi 6 13. Sutil 2 14. Di Resta 2 15. Perez 2 World Championship standings, round 5: Constructors: 1. Red Bull-Renault 185 2. McLaren-Mercedes 138 3. Ferrari 75 4. Renault 46 5. Mercedes 40 6. Sauber-Ferrari 11 7. Toro Rosso-Ferrari 6 8. Force India-Mercedes 4