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ANALYSIS: Strategic Superstars Shine in Barcelona

ANALYSIS: Strategic Superstars Shine in Barcelona

Lewis Hamilton scored a superb 64th pole position and 55th grand prix victory as the focus of what is proving to be an epic Formula One season for Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport switched to Europe and the Spanish Grand Prix.

Those simple facts do not begin to tell the story of another intense fight with Ferrari that saw every facet of motorsport brought to bear on achieving the end result: driving brilliance, strategy and teamwork, with Valtteri, out of luck this weekend, playing his part.

Although modern-day F1 is a constant development race, component lead times still see more significant upgrades introduced for Barcelona. So it was with the Mercedes-AMG W08, which boasted the grid's most visible aerodynamic upgrades, along with a fresh engine with multiple reliability updates and additional weight-saving developments.

Unfortunately for Valtteri, after his debut GP victory a fortnight earlier in Russia, he found himself on the back foot from the opening day in Spain when an engine issue resulted in the team having to break F1's mechanics' 'curfew' to try to solve the problem.

As this electrical fault was fixed, and the engine reassembled, a water leak appeared which could not be resolved in time for qualifying. With just one other engine available - which had completed the first four race weekends - the team was left with no alternative but to fit the higher mileage unit for qualifying and the race. While the two specifications didn't differ in terms of ultimate qualifying performance, it did leave Valtteri with a minor performance deficit for Sunday.

During Q3, however, only a bit of over-ambition in sector three prevented Valtteri challenging for his second pole of the year. Again, the battle with Ferrari was incredibly tight, with Lewis pipping Sebastian Vettel by just 0.05s - the Ferrari man left ruing a small error at the chicane. With overtaking always difficult at Barcelona, although aided slightly by a 100m longer DRS zone in 2017, both drivers knew that the start was crucial...

Lewis experienced a fraction too much wheel spin and Vettel it was who led into Turn 1 - although momentarily it looked as if Valtteri might repeat his Sochi heroics from P3, getting the best start of all and looking at the inside before thinking better of it.

'The getaway was nice again and I was catching the guys in front pretty quickly,' Valtteri said, 'but this time there was nowhere to go. I was looking to go left at first but there wasn't quite enough space and so I went inside. There was a gap initially but then Sebastian closed it.

'Going into Turn 1 I was right behind him and you can't leave the braking point as late as optimal because if the guy in front brakes at the same point you are going to run into the back of him. And when you're so close and there's a car on the left-hand side, you lose braking reference a little bit. Possibly I braked a bit early, then released the brakes, and that's why Kimi had a chance to go on the outside. But I didn't want to take any silly risk trying to shoot in between Seb and Lewis. It was unlucky that Kimi and me collided. It was all just a bit too tight.'

Lewis, disappointed at not converting his pole position into the race lead, feared that it might now be hard to win the race with the Ferrari - a car that has hitherto shown phenomenal race pace on both Pirelli compounds this year - running in clean air. But after Vettel opened out a 2.2s advantage via a stunning opening lap, Lewis never allowed the four-time champion to extend his lead to more than 2.7s before the first pit stops.

Strategically, this was important. As long as Lewis was still within undercut range of the Ferrari, he was likely to force Ferrari into an early stop to avoid the undercut, as proven by Vettel heading for the pits on lap 14 when Daniel Ricciardo's Red Bull was still within his pit stop window (just 20s behind the Ferrari with a 22s pit stop loss).

The Mercedes strategists saw this as an opportunity, figuring that Vettel would have a tough task passing the Red Bull and that they may be able to gain overall time with Lewis and pit out ahead - essentially an assisted 'overcut'. Had Vettel not stopped, they would have tried the undercut instead, illustrating just how fine the margins are between the two teams.

As it turned out, Vettel, on a new set of Pirelli Soft compound rubber, had searing pace and went straight past Ricciardo, crossing the line just 20.4s behind Lewis at the end of lap 16. Without sufficient margin to attempt the overcut, Mercedes thus extended Lewis's opening stint and went onto the Medium compound Pirelli when they finally pitted him after 21 of the race's 66 laps. The hope now was that he would be able to attack on the softer tyre later in the race thanks to this offset tyre strategy.

Valtteri was now brought into play as well, having lost time to Vettel and Lewis during the opening 10 laps.

'After the contact with Kimi I really struggled in the first stint and we will have to look to see if everything is okay with the car because I suspect not,' he explained. 'The pace gap to the guys in front was way bigger than it should have been. So, on the fly, we changed the strategy and tried to do one stop.'

Events conspired against him, however, when a Virtual Safety Car effectively gave Lewis and Vettel a cheap pit stop and then the older Power Unit bit him when it failed on lap 39, robbing Valtteri of a fourth podium in five races. For the moment, though, he was still very much in the race and helping his team-mate.

The team knew that with Valtteri unable to challenge at the very front and with Ricciardo no real threat over the race distance, an upside of the switch to a one-stop race was the on-track interaction with Vettel.

When Lewis made his first pit stop on lap 21, Valtteri took over the race lead with Vettel, on his fresh tyres, lapping around two seconds per lap quicker and closing fast. Crossing the line at the end of lap 22, the Ferrari was within DRS range of Valtteri, who defended manfully at Turn 1 and then managed to hold off the Ferrari for another two laps, costing Vettel some 4-5s. Lewis, now on his Medium tyres, which should have seen him losing more ground at this phase of the race, had pitted out 7.3s behind the Ferrari but was now just 4.2s behind.

'I was doing everything I could to keep Sebastian behind - I wasn't going to give him a free pass,' Valtteri said. 'That was my mission and job at that point but the pace difference was just too big and eventually he got it. But I think I definitely helped the team's chances and I hope it made a bit of a difference!'

The next key development was a Virtual Safety Car just after half distance, on lap 35. In normal circumstances, a pit-stop in such circumstances is a no-brainer. But the timing of this one was enough to make the team on pit wall think hard rather than immediately pull the trigger.

At the time the VSC occurred, Vettel had his lead over Lewis back out to 7.7s and may not necessarily have responded to a Mercedes stop. With 32 laps still to go, it was also a marginal stint length on the Soft tyre to the end. The Silver Arrows strategists were concerned that, if Ferrari stayed out and extended Vettel's Soft tyre stint, Lewis' final set of Soft tyres may go off towards the end and offer Vettel a sufficient delta to overhaul him on the Medium in the closing stages.

By delaying, the team were shortening Lewis's final stint length, robbing Ferrari of the opportunity to respond and, hopefully, by timing the stop just as the VSC was ending, also gaining time if Ferrari did respond. Another option also being considered was leaving Lewis out to get his Mediums to the end - a 45-lap stint. Had Vettel stopped first, however, the team would simply have followed him in, hence the crew being readied in the pit lane but Lewis going around again, asking 'What's happening, guys?'

What was happening was that the team were affording him a shot at the race lead with a clever strategy. They did call him in on lap 38, with the VSC period almost over, and he did gain relative to Vettel when Ferrari covered him on the following lap. Vettel was somewhat surprised to emerge from the pits and find that his 8s advantage had evaporated and Lewis was flying down the pit straight and alongside him as they reached the braking point for Turn 1!

Vettel, knowing this was crunch time, defended robustly, using all of the road and forcing Lewis wide. A situation that Lewis initially described as 'dangerous' over the radio, he had re-assessed by race-end: 'I avoided contact but it was very, very, very close. But I enjoyed it. I'm glad that I was able to have a battle and didn't damage anything and there's nothing lost between us. The respect stays the same. I thought he was tough and hard - just to the edge and no more.' It was, no doubt, exactly as Lewis would himself have done, hard racer that he is!

Team boss Toto Wolff may not have been quite as surprised as Vettel to find Lewis challenging into Turn 1 after those final stops, but he was still impressed: 'I really take my hat off to James (Vowles) and his group of strategists. That pit stop wasn't actually much faster than Sebastian's and we timed it perfectly.'

It hadn't QUITE come off, though, and Lewis still had a red car in front of him. Now on the quicker Soft tyre with Vettel on the Medium, it was crucial that he attacked before the edge went off his grippier rubber. For five laps, though, the pair were in traffic and, across the DRS activation line, Vettel was getting assistance from tail-enders, neutralising Lewis's DRS gain. Out of the final turn on lap 43, however, the Ferrari was on its own, Lewis lined him up and swept past around the outside into Turn 1 to the delight of the team.

'No chance...' said Vettel over the Ferrari radio, 'he came like a train.'

It was far from over, though. Ferrari told Vettel to keep his head down because Lewis's tyres would likely degrade at the end of the race. The other option open to Ferrari was to pit Vettel again with 16-18 laps to go, put him onto another set of Softs and attack hard.

The pit wall was all too aware of that threat, particularly as there appeared to be no downside for Vettel once he was behind. Valtteri was now out of the race and the Ferrari had a huge 50s margin over Ricciardo's Red Bull. The way to defend the possibility was to open a sufficient gap to Vettel to allow Lewis to cover him with a stop of his own if the Ferrari did pit again. On the softer tyre it was certainly feasible but, in doing so, you risked taking life out of the Soft tyre and leaving yourself more vulnerable in the closing laps if Vettel stayed on his Mediums. The ultimate game of high-speed chess!

In the final analysis Lewis and the team managed the task supremely well and he crossed the line 3.49s clear of a Ferrari that had led the race at the end of the opening lap. On a track such as Barcelona, against a car such as the 2017 Ferrari and a driver such as Vettel, that was no mean feat!

If the Silver Arrows had enjoyed dominance across the first three years of F1's Hybrid formula, the boundaries are being pushed now. Lewis, for example, doesn't carry a drinks bottle to save weight - something he may well have been inwardly cursing given the physicality and sustained effort needed to win in Barcelona!

If he was, he didn't show it.

'It was the rawest fight I can remember for some real time...' he beamed, '...which I loved! Before, I don't think I've really had the pace in the race to keep up with Sebastian but I think today was a bit different. That's an improvement.'

Words that will be music to the ears of the women and men working round the clock to deliver the upgrades seen on the W08 in Spain. Encouraging too, was that in high race-day track temperature on a reasonably delicate Soft tyre, Lewis set his quickest lap just two from home, showing that the team has improved its tyre usage, an area in which Ferrari enjoyed an early-season advantage.

Toto summed it up perfectly: 'It was an epic race and I hope the fight continues like this. It's how motor racing and F1 should be.'

A challenge of an altogether different nature is another mouth-watering prospect in Monte Carlo on May 28!

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