16 Aug 2020
Matt 'Trumpets' Ragsdale dissects the Spanish GP...
Ambient 30° Track 49.3° Humidity 55.1% Wind 2.1 m/s
The sun king was filled with rage and thrashed down the full might of his displeasure upon the paddock, waves of heat boiling off into the air as in the distance mountains of clouds observed at a careful distance. The challenge for the teams was immense, keeping the tyres from melting, brakes from overheating all while losing as little aero as possible as the more you open up for cooling the slower your car goes.
With little in it between the two Mercedes the start remained the focus of the narrative at the front, with the race to T1 having yielded in the past some glorious and unexpected results. As the teams made last minute adjustments, fine tuning their machines to adapt to the brutal climate, of note was Renault keeping Ocon on an old PU whilst having already upgraded Ricciardo's for the second Silverstone race.
Aside from the race at the front, perhaps the biggest entertainment might be Albon versus the Racing Points. Red Bull likes to be aggressive with strategy and if Albon gets round the Racing Points, who haven't been the kindest to their tyres in hot conditions, then there is the real chance for a proper strategy battle. Kvyat, Magnussen and Russell start on the Softs, but aside from that the rest of those with free choice were on the Medium tyre. One stop versus two is the other big source of potential fun, though, as always, tempered by the brutal reality of overtaking at this most difficult of circuits.....
Lights Out!!!! Great start by Hamilton, Verstappen got the tow and split the Mercs as it was Stroll, with the really good launch who sent it up the inside of Bottas, who had left a cars width between himself and the edge of the track, on the run down to the first turn. In they went and then the inevitable result, with Stroll pushing Bottas wide and Perez taking advantage as well. Bottas kept his foot in and was able to retake the spot, though and as they were halfway through the first lap it was Hamilton, Verstappen, Stroll, Bottas and Perez.
Norris was the big loser of the those starting in the points, down two spots to P10 as the race settled in, with Bottas trying to chase down Stroll and inside DRS lap 4, bleeding time to the two at the front. At the entry to T1 he had a look, but pulled back into line, just a wee bit too far off to have a go. Verstappen, meanwhile, was lingering just a second off the back of Hamilton and as lap 5 got underway, took fast lap to boot, leaving no room for the Mercedes driver to manage his tyres according to his liking.
The following lap and the battle was over, Bottas through but 4 seconds back of Verstappen. Perez meanwhile had already caught up to his teammate and was hanging around in the DRS zone as on the radio Max accused Lewis of driving "super slow". So, maybe managing after all...The strategy battle had already begun as not only was Hamilton clearly then trying to make his tyres last, but bringing Bottas into potential undercut range on Verstappen.
Lap 8 and Albon was in DRS of Perez but he was already nearly 10 seconds back, as Racing Point was already on the radio warning of hot tyre temps and telling Perez to manage slip angles to keep them from getting worse. Pirelli were predicting lap 15 to be the start of the pitstops for Soft tyre runners. Hamilton decided to turn it up a bit on lap 10 and dipped his toes into the 1:23s for the first time, and Verstappen went along for the ride, though he still lost nearly 0.3 seconds on that single circuit and the gap went out to 2 seconds, clearing the Red Bull from undercut range.
Purples the next two laps and it was almost 3 seconds as lap 13 got underway. Bottas, too, had joined in the fun and Verstappen was slowly being squeezed in the Mercedes' vise. But the pit window was not his friend, as Leclerc in P9 was lingering just at the back of Hamilton's and the amount of traffic he'd have to clear was still problematic. 1:22's then as Lewis continued to make his move and get clear for his first stop.
Finally, at the end of lap 14 it appeared the push was over and yellow appeared on the board for the first time in 4 laps, 4 seconds clear of Verstappen and just about to clear Albon, still in P6, of his pit window. Stroll was 20 seconds back, and at roughly 2 seconds a lap advantage, in about 3 more laps he would be able to pit and emerge into a nice gap of clear air...
The only car in DRS on lap 18 was Ocon on Raikkonen and as that battle started to heat up, Max was on the radio saying he was struggling with rears and it was Albon, first in and onto the Hard, looking like a one stopper and chucking him out right at the back of the Ocon-Raikkonen battle and with both of them on Mediums it looked to be a bit of a repeat of last weeks strategy "mistake" which pulled him out of a potential podium battle at the end of the race.
Both Ocon and Albon had DRS and Raikkonen was doing his best, but lap 21 into T1 he got the job done, ignoring Raikkonen's move to the inside and Albon, taking advantage of the Alfa being chucked to the outside moved to the inside and by time they got to T3 he was also by. On the radio, Verstappen was getting incredibly irate about not getting new tyres, but Red Bull preferred to wait till after he cleared the Racing Points from his pit window. Lap 23 he was in and out, just in front of them on a shiny new set of Mediums, looking to make life difficult for the Mercedes pitstops and set up for an aggro two stopper, unless, of course, they changed their minds.
Lap 24 and both Mercedes were in and as the dust settled, it was 4 seconds between Lewis and Max and a further 5 back to Bottas in P3...Sainz was in as well and out P12, on a second set of Softs and inarguably on a 2 stopper as slightly ahead, Ocon was now into DRS on Magnussen as surely the HAAS driver would be soon to pit. Certainly Albon, sitting behind Ocon, was hoping so as he continued to bleed time to the front, although he technically had 24 seconds in hand if he really was going to one stop it, which looking up the leaderboard would put him P6. At half a second a lap, which he was currently gaining on the Racing Points, it was going to be 4 more laps but aware of the threat in came Stroll lap 28 and was out just ahead of Ocon and behind Ricciardo in P8, as both the Renault driver and Albon behind had cleared the HAAS.
Ricciardo, in P7 was in DRS on Vettel who was nought but 8 seconds behind his teammate. Magnussen was in, having done his job and lap 30 so was Perez, having run an extra lap relative to his teammate. Leclerc and Vettel also chose to come in and the Ferrari pair were chucked out into P13 and P14, behind Kvyat who had already pitted and they had their work cut out for them as there was no one left to pit ahead of them.
Sainz on the Softs, was carving a swathe through the field, by Albon, then Ocon and on lap 31 was making a real nuisance of himself to Perez, who was trying to get around him and did so round the outside into T1. Next lap and it was DRS for the Mexican, and it was real racing for Racing Point, which was, apparently, the point....
Lap 34 and Albon got Ocon, and of interest was Grosjean, who finally pitted off his Mediums and was onto a set of Softs, potentially to run to the end of the race. Unless, of course, the large dark cloud at the end of T4 decided it wanted to play. Gasly was next to get by Ocon and that was that for that, Renault called their driver in as Norris in P10 was now severely balking the Ferrari of Leclerc, who was trying all sorts of interesting spots to try and force a mistake from the McLaren driver.
Ocon was out on a set of Softs, and Ricciardo was in the following lap, just in front of Raikkonen in P13 as Leclerc spun at the chicane. He reported the engine stopped while he was in gear, which locked the back axle. Leclerc got it going and boxed the following lap to get his belts redone after undoing them thinking his car was toast, at the end of lap 41. Albon was in for a set of Mediums, whatever Red Bull were thinking with that move having not at all worked out. Albon was out just ahead of Ricciardo and as it turned out, Ferrari retired Leclerc after some time poking about in the cockpit.
Red Bull, having decided that the rain in Spain was going to stay mainly away from the track, brought Verstappen in also on lap 41 and out in P3 with a set of Mediums. Macca brought Sainz in and he was out just ahead of Albon and it was another place lost to the inexplicable strategy choice for Albon. Stroll and Gasly both pitted for a set of new tyres, Stroll onto Softs and and Gasly onto Mediums. So that left Norris rocking a set of 22 lap old Mediums and still needing to pit from P5 and Perez on a 14 lap old set of Mediums and potentially able to run to the end of the race, with 20 laps left. Norris was in lap 46 and out just behind Albon, wait for it, and then Gasly, P11. Raikkonen was in and that left Ocon in DRS of his teammate as Kvyat was next to pit for some new tyres, out in P12 and that promoted Vettel to P5 on 14 lap old Soft tyres. Electrical issue for Leclerc was the announced reason for the retirement as Vettel asked for a bit of guidance.
Mercedes decided not to roll the dice on a one stopper and brought Bottas in for some Softs, 7 seconds to catch and 17 laps to do it in as he emerged from the pits. Verstappen responded to Bottas inlap by going faster than either Mercedes driver had on the same lap, as it looked like he might well have been managing his tyres for just this moment.. Hamilton, told to box, begged to differ, not wanting the Soft tyre and the team yielded, as he felt the Medium tyre was fine. Nevertheless, in he came lap 51 and per his request, was given a set of Mediums to run to the end.
After a few laps, it appeared to be status quo on pace between Verstappen and Bottas, despite the tyre differential, as ahead Hamilton was 1.5 seconds quicker and clearly enjoying his new tyres. Ferrari asked Vettel if he could get to the end on his Soft tyre, and Perez, in P4, got a 5 second dinger for ignoring blue flags, which conveniently was the exact gap to Vettel a place behind. Kvyat was next up to be investigated for the same infringement and Perez got down to it and opened up the gap to Vettel by another 2 seconds with 10 laps to go. One lap further on and it was Stroll by Vettel with Sainz, the next driver back, smelling blood in the water and turning it up.
Kvyat, too, got dinged for blue flags, another 5 seconds, but he was safe from Ocon behind as he had a nice, 16 second cushion. But the Alpha Tauri driver seemed more interested in getting around the Renault of Ricciardo ahead, as he had relentlessly closed the gap down to under 2 seconds with 5 laps to go. Sainz had quietly gotten round Vettel and Albon was next up to have a crack at the Ferrari driver. Stroll had closed it down to 3 seconds on Perez, meaning he had effective possession of P4 with Perez' penalty, but the bigger problem for Racing Point was the fact that Sainz was just 5.5 seconds back with 3 laps to go.
Gasly was in DRS of Albon, for P8 and Norris behind Gasly also had DRS as the final two laps looked set to produce some midfield fireworks as it was DRS all the way down to Kvyat in P12. Onto the final lap, line astern and it was Norris with a wee lockup not doing himself any favours at all. Around went Hamilton, through the final chicane and even though there was such promise to the last lap, in the end it ended the way it began, the famously difficult to overtake on circuit asserting its nature yet again.
Horseshoes and hand grenades for Mercedes then, stupidly dominant win for Hamilton but with Stroll upsetting the applecart at the start P3 and fast lap for Bottas will have to be close enough for them, even as the Finn continues to bleed points in the WDC to Verstappen. Likewise for Red Bull as P2 for Max had to be a moral victory but the position they put Albon in with tyre choice was, well, unfortunate if we are in polite society.
Racing Point had a banner day and even if it was by the hair on his chinny chin chin that Perez finished ahead of Sainz after his penalty P4 and P5 was massive for them. Still, they were miles back of the top 3 battle and anyone hoping they might properly mount a challenge is going to need some silliness at the front in order for that to happen. McLaren getting Sainz into P6, too was a big victory at a track where they didn't expect to be strong, and with Norris managing a points finish as well, despite not having a new PU unlike his teammate, who received his to solve the cooling issues he was experiencing.
Vettel's result for Ferrari would seem fairly remarkable, given their extreme laissez-faire attitude toward their departing 4x WDC. Asked for advice on pace, he was literally told "do whatever" probably from some random intern calling from Rome who was busy having an early afternoon espresso at an outdoor cafe. Especially impressive, if one considers that after being told to push for several laps on his Softs, he was then asked to run them all the way to the end. Which he did, 36 laps and holding on for P7. Alpha Tauri getting Gasly into the points also has to count as a victory as his run of good form continues to make life difficult for his replacement at the big boy team, as the inevitable comparisons from the commentariat continue to roll in.
It was not a great day to be a Renault driver, as the best they could do was move up two places from their starting spot, running a difficult one stop strategy, going Medium-Soft, though only Vettel did better with it, rocking up four places, though in both instances the retirement of Leclerc did help out. According to Wolff, however, the Soft tyre was not the tyre to be on and looking at the fact that Bottas actually set fastest lap on a Medium may go some way to explaining why the alternate strategy didn't really work out like the teams had hoped. HAAS had a tiny bright spot getting Magnussen up one place, but aside from that it was another week of sads for the teams at the bottom. With next week being a week off, plenty of time to sit about and think up brilliant ideas no doubt, and with Spa the next race, between the weather and the track there will be more than a bit to look forward too...