By Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent
- McLaren getting closer and closer
- Domenicali hails breathtaking display
- Pirelli again provided all the action
Although current world champion Sebastian Vettel scored his 14th career win and his fourth win of the season during the Spanish GP last weekend, it was clear he won the race by the smallest of margins, as McLaren and in particular Lewis Hamilton are closing in on the Austrian Red Bull outfit. This time the difference at the finish line was just 0.630s, a few more laps and Hamilton would have overtaken him as his pace near the end of the race was considerably faster.
Of course Vettel saw Hamilton appearing in his rear view mirrors during the last stage of the race. “That was crazy, crazy man, you were coming, coming, coming,” the German said to Hamilton after he had parked his Red Bull in front of the number one sign in the parc ferme. Vettel also referred to the race in China, where Hamilton won the race thanks to a superior tyre strategy. “Going into the last 10 laps it felt a bit like China, with the tyres going away, McLaren and Lewis especially gave us a very, very hard time,” he admitted. “It was a great result and after yesterday a good confirmation that we are strong but, as expected, McLaren and Ferrari are giving us a hard time and are pushing hard -- I’m very happy today.”
For Mark Webber, who started the race from pole position, it became a disappointing race. “My reaction to the lights was good,” said Webber, “and I got away reasonably well. But Fernando had an absolute flyer and he got the jump on everyone. I got done by Seb under braking, which wasn’t great, but I still thought I could challenge for the win at this stage.” However, the Australian wasn’t able to fight for the win, as he got caught up in traffic, and he was afraid an aggressive approach would damage his tyres. When he finally arrived at the tail of Alonso’s Ferrari, he had huge problems overtaking him, because he lost his KERS and thus spent two stints behind the Ferrari. “By the time I cleared Fernando on lap 39, I was too far behind Jenson [Button] to challenge for the final podium position,” Webber explained.
McLaren closing in on Red Bull
Hamilton was really the only driver who could keep up with Vettel, and commented after the race, “I pushed as hard as I could all afternoon, and I’m really happy with the result -- a few more laps and it might have been a different order at the front, but I just ran out of time at the end.” And he added, “We’re probably still losing out a bit too much in qualifying, but our race pace is right there. So, as you’d expect, we’ll be looking at ways of improving our qualifying pace.”
Is was a race of mixed emotions for Jenson Button, the Briton was in tenth place after his troublesome start, but he slowly kept carving his way through the field, and as he managed to make one pit stop less than his rivals, he was able to make up for the time he had lost during the first part of the race and crossed the finish line in third position.
I was down in 10th at the end of the first lap, which was extremely disappointing
“I had a terrible start and was on the outside into Turn 1 and Turn 3, where I lost further places. I was down in 10th at the end of the first lap, which was extremely disappointing,” Button said. He was happy his strategy worked out well, “I didn’t think third would really be possible, but as the others all made their pit stops so early, and as my tyres still felt good, I started to think it might be on. After Turkey, it was really fantastic to make the strategy work for me today.”
All in all a good result for the McLaren team, who went home with second and third position, and team principal Martin Whitmarsh was pleased with the result, “In summary, then, we scored 33 world championship points today, which is another decent haul. But we want to win and we intend to win, and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing our damnedest to do on the famously challenging streets of Monte Carlo in just a few days’ time.”
Fernando Alonso’s stellar start
The race held many surprises, but the biggest surprise came from Fernando Alonso during the start. Always expect the unexpected in Formula One, and Alonso surprised friend and foe and did what he had to do in front of his home crowd. The Spaniard was the first to dive into the first corner after he had courageously positioned his Ferrari F150° Italia on the inside of Turn 1, outsmarting Hamilton and both Red Bull drivers, who were paying too much attention to each other, and he took the lead as if it was just another day at the office.
Spurred on by the cheering Spanish spectators he remained in the lead until the 18th lap, when he made his second pit stop. From then on it became more difficult for the two-times world champion, he was able to hold on to third position, but Webber, who had been on his tail for over ten laps, finally found a way past the red Ferrari. After another round of pit stops Alonso was on the hard and slower tyres, and the second McLaren of Jenson Button also got ahead of him. For the remainder of the race Alonso wasn’t able to keep up the pace, as the hard tyres were three seconds per lap slower, he finished in fifth place, one lap behind the leader.
Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali had to admit it did hurt seeing his number one driver being lapped by both Red Bull and McLaren drivers. “It's even more painful after seeing a driver of Fernando's caliber putting on such a breathtaking display at the start and then fighting like a lion to keep drivers with clearly faster cars behind him for almost 20 laps,” the Italian said.
Alonso was obviously disappointed, “I tried to do the maximum, keeping the quickest ones behind me for around 20 laps, but after that there was nothing I could do. We lack aerodynamic down force. Here we did not have a wing that suited this track,” he said after the race. He was of course hinting at the fact the FIA had deemed Ferrari’s new rear wing was illegal and the Maranello squad was forced to use an older type. And he added, ”We must analyze carefully the behavior 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.”
Miracle recovery for Nick Heidfeld
Another man who performed a miracle was Lotus Renault driver Nick Heidfeld. He had to start from the back of the grid because he couldn’t participate in Saturday’s qualifying after his Renault had caught fire during the morning practice session. Although he didn’t qualify for the race, he was permitted to start the race ‘due to setting a suitable lap time during a free practice’ after Renault had filed a request with the FIA Stewards. The German started the race from 24th position, and crossed the finish line in eighth position after he had carved his way through the field.
Because he didn’t participate in qualifying, Heidfeld had plenty of unused tyres, he started on unused hard tyres, taking on fresh sets of unused soft tyres on laps 21, 36 and 50. ”It was definitely a lot of fun, it was satisfying because we had a good strategy, and I made it work perfectly. On the other side, if you finish half a second behind two other cars, and you are a few seconds quicker per lap, you always wish for one two or more laps,” Heidfeld said.
“We knew beforehand we stood a chance to score points, actually that was our target, but I needed to do the overtaking quickly without loosing any lap time. I managed that, thanks to DRS and a different tyre strategy. I had a good start then I had to fight through the field with many overtaking moves so it was good fun for me behind the wheel,” he said with a smile.
Heidfeld ended ahead of his Russian team mate Vitaly Petrov, who was certainly not happy about the fact he started the race from sixth position, and ended the race in 11th position. “I am naturally disappointed not to make better use of my grid position and not pick up some points. I managed to start ok and move up a position into fifth, but it was then difficult to get to the leading pack, which is where we want to be,” he said after the race.
Mercedes duo happy with performance
From the top ten who made the cut in qualifying, Michael Schumacher was the only driver who opted to deliberately stay in the garage during Q3 on Saturday, and therefore had one extra set of new soft tyres. In the end it paid off, he only made three stops during the race, and he was able to keep his German colleague Nico Rosberg behind him for the entire length of the race. The seven-time world champion started from tenth position, but after the first lap he was already in sixth position, ahead of Rosberg, who had started from seventh position.
”I had a good start; going right through the middle was tight but fortunately it worked out. Then the race was about holding position from there,” he said. Schumacher was satisfied with the result, “We managed to make the most out of our possibilities today which is good news. We can be happy with the result but other than that, it was just tricky with oversteer, tyre degradation and poor balance [I had] to deal with.” Schumacher made his stops on lap 10, 26 and 41, Rosberg followed the same strategy and pitted on lap 11, 27 and 42.
Rosberg had a number of problems during the race, ”I lost radio communication with the team early on which was tough, and my DRS was not working properly which made any overtaking almost impossible.” About his battle with Schumacher he said, “I had fun in the battle with Michael for P6, although I wasn't able to attack him fully and was therefore stuck behind him for most of the race. I'm now looking forward to my home Grand Prix in Monaco. I love the track and I'm sure we can be closer to the front there.”
The ups and downs of the Williams team
Ahead of the race Brazilian Rubens Barrichello had set his hopes on the new updates the Williams team had brought to Spain, but he was soon to be utterly disappointed. The team has made its worst season start ever, and has yet to score their first championship points. Barrichello started the weekend well, and finished in tenth position during the last free practice session on Saturday. But everything went wrong for ‘Rubinho’ during the first qualifying session, he had a gearbox problem and could only put in a few timed laps, and had to start the race from 19th position.
He made a poor start and even lost one position to the HRT of Vitantonio Liuzzi, but took that position back from Liuzzi the next lap. Although he had five unused sets of tyres for the race, he couldn’t find the right pace, things got even worse after his stop on lap 11 took almost 30 seconds, and he rejoined the race in 24th and last place. Whatever the most experienced man on the track tried, he did not get further than 16th place, he finished the race in 17th position, two laps behind the leader.
“I had a very tough race,” he said. “Starting on primes [hard tyres] meant the base wasn’t good but we had the option so it should have been better at the end. Unfortunately, we had more problems today. First, during the pit stop and then with KERS again, which lost us a lot of time. That’s another race with no points. We need to improve,” a visibly disappointed Barrichello reported after the race.
It was certainly not a bad weekend for Pastor Maldonado, although he again had spent some time in the gravel trap during the practice sessions like he usually does, he nevertheless surprised everyone in the Formula One paddock by making it into Q3, and landed a ninth qualifying position, just 0.064s behind the Mercedes of Rosberg. But the inexperienced Venezuelan lost four places at the start, and after he had made his first stop he rejoined the race in 18th position.
We didn’t have a great start, which is something we need to work on
He then clearly improved his pace and made his way through the field and on lap 19 he was in 11th position. He was in 10th place when he made his third stop, but after that it went downhill, and Maldonado finished the race in 15th position. “It was a difficult race,” said Maldonado. “We didn’t have a great start, which is something we need to work on. We then struggled to keep on the pace and unfortunately our strategy didn’t help us. But we finished the race and so we now have more data to work with. We need to push hard and concentrate on improving our race pace for Monaco.”
To complete the picture
Sauber drivers Mexican Sergio Perez and Japanese driver Kamui Kobayashi were best of the rest and finished in ninth and tenth position respectively, and Perez finally scored his first two championship points. “It was a tough race today and a hard fight for points. I’m really happy we made it. My first points in Formula One are obviously something special for me, and it is good for the team that Kamui also scored,” the 21-year old driver said.
Both Force India drivers rookie Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil finished in 12th and 13th position. Sebastien Buemi was the fasted Toro Rosso driver and crossed the finish line in 14th position, while Jaime Alguersuari finished 16th. Jarno Trulli finished 18th on behalf of the Team Lotus outfit, and both Marussia Virgin drivers Timo Glock and Jerome d’Ambrosio finished in 19th and 20th position, albeit three and four laps behind the leader, while Narain Karthikeyan took 21st and last place.
Three drivers didn’t make it to the finish in Barcelona; Liuzzi had to retire his HRT with a malfunctioning gearbox, Heikki Kovalainen made a small mistake and ran wide in Turn 4, and ended his race in the tyre stack with a damaged front wing and front suspension. And Felipe Massa, who had a problematic race to say the least, also had to retire due to gearbox problems and parked his Ferrari along the circuit after 58 laps.
Again the Pirelli tyres provided plenty of race action
Pirelli introduced a new hard tyre compound, and initially a number of drivers were very skeptic about the performance of the new rubber. But as it turned out, their fears were unfounded, as again the magic Pirelli tyres provided an action-packed race in which there were plenty of overtaking maneuvers and pit stops. Most drivers opted to start on the soft tyres, only Heidfeld, Sutil and Barrichello started the race on the hard tyres.
Of the top ten Vettel, Hamilton, Webber and Alonso made 4 pit stops, Button was again superior in tyre management, and finished in third place only visiting the pit three times for a change of tyres. This time it was Marussia Virgin driver d’Ambrosio who finished the race making just two stops, he started on softs, then did another stint on the softs, and finished the race on a set of hard tyres, demonstrating the durability of the new hard tyres, as they lasted for 32 laps.
And more statistics: Barrichello was the only driver who had five sets of new tyres available for the race, and made four pit stops, and together with Heidfeld they were the only drivers who started and finished the race entirely on new tyres. A total of 77 pit stops were recorded, Mercedes confirmed their reputation as being the fastest team when it comes to pit stops, Rosberg’s stop on lap 27 took in total 19.534s, McLaren took second place with Hamilton’s stop on lap 11 lasting a mere 19.761s, and Red Bull completed the top three with Vettel’s stop on lap 18, which lasted 19.887s. Race winner Vettel spent a total of 1m20.858s in the pit lane, Hamilton spent 1m21.457s in the pit lane, and his team mate Button, who made one stop less, spent 1m00.885s in the pit lane.
Pirelli’s Motorsport Director Paul Hembery looks back at another successful weekend for the Italian tyre manufacturer. “It was certainly a dramatic finish to the race, with the battle between Vettel and Hamilton going down to the final lap once again, using our new PZero Silver tyres. Both of them drove magnificently, treating us all to a fantastic spectacle, and it was thrilling to see such an amazing start to the race from Fernando Alonso and Ferrari as well,’ an enthusiastic Hembery said.
However, he was not entirely satisfied with the number of pit stops. Ahead of the race he had hoped all teams would make three stops, “We’re still not happy with the idea of having four pit stops as three is our target,” he said. “This was caused by the performance differential between the hard and the soft tyres, which prompted the teams to opt for a sprint strategy, as can be seen from the sheer pace of this Grand Prix -- although it’s interesting to note that the fastest lap was actually set on the new hard tyre.”
Completely different race expected for Monaco
The next Grand Prix will be completely different, the fast sweeping corners and long straights of the Circuit de Catalunya will now make place for the narrow, tight and twisty corners of the streets of the principality of Monaco. A Grand Prix which is without a doubt the most prestigious and imaginative, but also the most difficult race on the this season’s calendar. Winning this race and receive the trophy from the hands of Prince Albert of Monaco, is the highest honor imaginable in Formula One, and every Grand Prix driver dreams of at least winning this venue once in his career.
Double world champion Alonso has won this glamorous event twice, McLaren drivers Button and Hamilton have also won this race, Trulli has also won this race and last year Webber won the race; but the King of Monaco is Schumacher, who won the race five times. One big name is still missing: Vettel has never won the event, and the 2010 champion will without a doubt push hard to add this Grand Prix to his list of career wins. Grid position will be important as overtaking, even with KERS and DRS, is very tricky, the walls and guardrail are always close, one little mistake and the race is over.
Vettel is currently leading the championship with 118 points (out of a maximum of 125 points!) and is followed by Hamilton (77), Webber (67), Button (61), Alonso (51) and Rosberg completes the top six with 26 points.