By: Max Davies, F1 Correspondent
- Vettel wins by a small margin
- Alonso surprises with super start
- Hamilton happy to fight again
This was, in all honesty, a Spanish Grand Prix with a difference. In the previous nineteen races staged at the Circuit de Catalunya, the sight of cars overtaking one another was usually reserved for the fight out of the car parks. Not so in 2011.Amid stunningly clear blue skies, Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel won a race to savour once more.
In keeping with the exciting rounds already witnessed at the start of the year in Australia, Malaysia, China and Turkey, Pirelli’s tyres contributed to as fascinating race that encapsulated everything that motor racing should be.
Unable to find a way past the winner, McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton took a fine second place ahead of team mate Jenson Button and the sister Red Bull of Mark Webber who had claimed an impressive pole barely 24 hours earlier. Fifth was the home favourite and Ferrari star Fernando Alonso just ahead of a resurgent Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg for Mercedes GP.
At the lights, the Red Bull’s made a clean start as did Hamilton yet behind them, Alonso rocketed away from fourth position, found a gap just wide enough for his Ferrari while Webber was busy covering Vettel, and sensationally lead into the opening corner.
It was a masterstroke of opportunism and the Spanish faithful went into utter delirium as the field headed through Turn 3 with Alonso ahead of Vettel, Webber, Hamilton and Petrov’s Lotus Renault.
“We have worked so much on this area,” Alonso said, describing his getaway. “And you could see the outcome. It was fantastic to see the crowd cheering in the grandstands!”
It was fantastic to see the crowd cheering in the grandstands!
Having lined up fifth on the grid, Button’s start was the polar opposite – the McLaren driver now 11th after the worst start for many a race – the 2009 champion now defending vigorously from the Toro Rosso of Sebastian Buemi.
"It was a disastrous first lap for me," Button said. "I got a bad start and then Turn 1 and Turn 3 were just a disaster, I was on the outside on the marbles and I couldn't get back in. I was hung out to dry as they say.”
Unable to convert an impressive qualifying performance into a decent race start, Pastor Maldonado lost four places while Michael Schumacher was up to sixth from 12th and crucially ahead of his Mercedes GP team mate Rosberg while Kamui Kobayashi was into the Sauber pits with a puncture.
Lap 3 and Vettel began to close on the leading Ferrari with Hamilton, Webber, Petrov, Schumacher, Rosberg and Felipe Massa. Having started 24th and last - following his Saturday morning fire, Nick Heidfeld tore through the field in the opening laps and was now up to 17th.
Button was soon making progress and after a two lap battle with Buemi, the McLaren soon began catching Massa. The Brazilian’s team mate crossed the line on lap ten still in the lead but Red Bull – spotting a chance for Vettel to undercut the leader, called the German into the pits. Stationary for less than four seconds, Vettel rejoined in heavy traffic right behind the Massa/Button scrap, now on soft rubber and keen to not loose time behind the duo ahead.
Into Turn 5 on the next lap and Vettel made a bold move on Button before beginning his chase of Massa. At the front, Ferrari, now aware of Red Bull’s plan, called Alonso into the pits with the Spaniard rejoining ahead of the charging Vettel who was now ahead of Massa.
Now into a temporary lead, Hamilton pitted thus dropping back into the mix behind Alonso and Vettel with Button passing Massa and hounding the Red Bull of Webber.
Lap 15 saw Button into the pits for his first change of tyres resuming in seventh, behind Schumacher. Paul Di Resta was now running fifth at this moment but his pace began to drop back which resulted in the Scottish rookie pitting for new rubber the next lap round.
Over the line for the 17th time, the leading trio were now nose-to-tail though the DRS - much publicised overtaking aid, was ineffective in helping to provide any changes of position. On fresher rubber and keen to make up for his poor start, Button was soon past Schumacher into turn 3 and into a series of very fast laps.
Vettel was into the pits three laps later in a bid to undercut the Ferrari once more, the German back into the race after 3.6s and into clear air. Covering the Red Bull again, Ferrari pitted Alonso next time round but the Spaniard resumed behind Vettel who had unleashed a lap from the gods to jump ahead of his rival.
Lap 21 and the gap between Hamilton and Vettel was 16.6 seconds with the Brit keen to maintain a scintillating pace before pitting a second time. Now driving like man possessed, Vettel set the fastest lap and closed the gap to 15.4s while Hamilton was now 20 seconds ahead of Alonso. Entering the penultimate turn, Hamilton was into the pits on lap 24, stationary for less than four seconds before emerging back into the race, now ahead of Alonso.
Further back, Schumacher was nearly 13 seconds behind Button in sixth and busy keeping teammate Rosberg at bay who was clambering all over the gearbox of the seven-time champ.
Clearly on a three stop strategy to everyone else’s four, Button was soon falling away from Webber who himself was struggling to pass Alonso for fourth despite assistance from the DRS.
Back at the front and Hamilton was now on a charge, closing on Vettel to the tune of 2.7s and putting the leading Red Bull under the greatest pressure we have seen so far in 2011.
Lap 30 and with it came the pit stop battle of Alonso and Webber with both men in for fresh rubber at the same time and the Ferrari mechanics releasing their man just in time to prevent Webber passing. It was a close call, but the width of the Barcelona pit lane being one of the widest on the calendar, the two were professional enough to give just enough room and rejoined the race without contact.
With most of the front runners now on the harder tyres, Button – making one less stop, pitted on lap 31 and resumed with another fresh set of identical compound, safe in the knowledge that his tyres were nearly two seconds a lap quicker.
Webber and Alonso were still battling commendably for position and providing the watching world with a sight previously never witnessed at the Catalunya venue. So this is what they call motor racing…
Lap 35 saw the Red Bull finally ahead under braking for Turn 10 while teammate and race leader Vettel was soon into the pits for hard rubber. Covering his rival, Hamilton was in next time by, resuming just behind the German.
His tyre advantage now evident, Button had caught Webber and pulled a brave move on the Australian into Turn 1 on the 36th tour before marching past Alonso a lap later and into third place after the Spaniard ran wide at Turn 10.
Lap 43 and Vettel’s lead was a mere 1.2 seconds from Hamilton who was charging as hard as he could, using every inch of available road and more. The Red Bull was not using KERS at this point in the race and there was initial concern about whether the call should be made to employ the system, albeit in a limited amount of available time for their leading driver.
Vettel was into the pit for the final time on lap 48 while McLaren instructed Hamilton to stay out to try and get the jump on the defending world champion.
Resuming from his final stop, Button emerged on lap 49 into third place which he would keep to the flag and a well deserved podium finish.
Team mate Hamilton was next in but resumed just behind Vettel once more in second place. In the interests of keeping Hamilton from the door, Red Bull permitted their driver at this point to use his KERS system and so began the will he/won’t he conundrum of Hamilton taking a second consecutive win.
Egged on by his adoring team, the Englishman got close to the Red Bull but in the fast corners, the RBB7 had downforce a plenty and was able to eek out enough of a gap onto the pit straight and the DRS activation zone, to prevent any challenge from behind.
The McLarens gave us a very hard time
Unable to gain sufficient ground, Hamilton rounded the final turn on the 66th and last lap to see Vettel take a well deserved fourth win of the year and into a commanding 41-point lead.
“Many people said today would not be a race, but only between Mark and myself,” Vettel said. “But we have seen, poof, Turn 1, the Ferraris are there, and then the McLarens gave us a very hard time, so that is why I am even more happy today that we made it as these guys were pushing very hard. I am just happy now.”
“I don't think we can be disappointed with today,” he declared. “The team did a fantastic job throughout with the pit stops and throughout the weekend to get us up there and put us in the fighting position.
“The Red Bull’s were massively, massively quick in the high speed Turn 3, Turn 9 and through the last corner. His downforce was incredibly clear for me to see. But, nonetheless, I gave it my all to move forward and score some good points and retain second place.”
Button was delighted that unlike his previous attempt in Turkey a fortnight ago, he had managed to make the three stop strategy work to take a fine podium.
“It was great fun for me coming through and passing Fernando and Mark when they were on the prime tyres and I was on the option and we made the three-stop work,” a smiling Button said in the post-race press conference. “Two weeks ago it wasn't the right call, but this week it was and it is good to get some nice points and also to have fought my way through. I really felt like I raced today.”
Unable to do anything about closing the gap to Button ahead, Webber was a disconsolate fourth ahead of a frustrated Alonso and a content Schumacher in sixth.
Rosberg was seventh with the impressive Heidfeld eighth for Renault and the Saubers of Sergio Perez and Kamui Kobayashi rounding out the top ten.
A fascinating race this, and a welcome tonic for a track renowned as a technical one that prevents drivers from racing one another.
Again, the Pirelli rubber delivered a wonderful race rammed with overtaking that wasn’t artificial.
Who ever thought specifically designing your rubber to have a high-wear rate, could generate so much positive publicity for a tyre manufacturer…