Sunday, 22 May 2011

McLaren Nearly Catch Red Bull in Spain

Red Bull's qualifying pace deserted them in the main event in Barcelona as McLaren took the fight almost all the way to the front. The race was the best part of the weekend despite a DRS miscalculation by the FIA, which only proves that the Pirelli P Zero's are the biggest factor in Formula one's rediscovered excitement.


Saturday started badly for Nick Heidfeld after his car caught fire in the third practice session. Heidfeld pulled to the side of the track and got out safely but his car was severely damaged. The team worked as hard as they could but the limited time meant that it couldn't be repaired in time for Q1. Renault claimed that a cracked exhaust was the culprit but there seemed to be a huge amount of fire for that. It may well have been the start, but something a lot more flammable was involved to get the car burning that well.

This meant that there was one less car to beat in Q1 for the remaining drivers which should have taken the pressure off a little. But with a two second difference in performance between soft and hard tyres some of the teams were nervous enough to run the option tyre in the first session. Mercedes and Ferrari both used a set to get into Q2 which cut down on their supply for the race.

In Q2 the usual suspects quickly rose to the top of the time sheets, all of them using the softer tyres. As the end of the session closed in it became clear that Massa's time might not be enough to get to Q3 as he was pushed further and further down the order. The biggest news came from Heikki Kovalainen who put in a last minute lap to beat both Force India cars and take the last place in Q3. It was probably not the best move for the Lotus team from a race strategy point of view, but its great to see them moving up the field regardless.

Q3 was a relatively quiet session. The new tyres are forcing the teams to be very careful about using any when they don't have to. This meant that everyone would only try a maximum of one run, with Scumacher not even managing that. He went out on the hard tyre and came back in before setting a time, which gave him the choice of tyres to start the race on. Red Bull waited just long enough for McLaren to set some times before sending their drivers out. Vettel went first and embarrassed the silver cars by posting a time 0.8 seconds faster than Hamilton could achieve. Webber then went and did the unthinkable by beating his team mate by 0.2 seconds and proving once again that Red Bull are the toppest of the top teams this year. The only other real surprise came from Alonso who, this time out, got rid of his fifth place curse and beat Button to fourth on the gird.

Photo courtesy of Team Lotus

Nick Heidfeld was expected to start on soft tyres due to his lack of running in qualifying, so it was a surprise to seem him line up on the grid on hard tyres. There was speculation that Scumacher would start on hard tyres having saved his softs in qualifying but he stuck with the more standard softs for the first stint.

Off the line Fernando Alonso got a blinder as he brilliantly managed to find a gap and slide past both Red Bulls into the lead of the race in turn 1. In the confusion behind, Mark Webber dropped back behind Sebastien Vettel and Jenson Button lost out even more badly, finding himself in tenth as the smoke cleared. The end of the lap saw Kobayashi in the pit for a new front wing and the race was underway.

The top five cars were very close as the Drag Reduction System activated on lap 3. This showed that the zone was set wrongly as the cars closed in, but didn't get alongside with the rear wing flap open. Button started his fight back regardless, pushing Felipe Massa into a few mistakes early on.

The pit stops started early with some cars coming in on lap 9 and the majority following them in on the next laps. Vettel came in on lap 10 for the first of four stops and ended up behind Button. But not for long, even without the benefit of DRS. Lap 11 saw Alonso and Webber pit in order to stop Vettel gaining too much advantage. As they came out of the pit lane the German dispatched the last of his traffic and ended up directly behind Alonso once more.

By lap 12 almost everyone had completed their first stops, except for Jenson Button and Paul Di Resta who was now up to sixth. It seemed that Button would be trying a three stop strategy despite the lack of success last time it was tried. Lewis Hamilton seemed to have the fastest car at this stage of the race, consistently posting fastesr laps than the people ahead of him.

Jenson finally stopped for new tyres on lap 14 behind some traffic, which stood a good chance of spoiling his race already. Di Resta went longest of anyone though, stopping on Lap 16. Fernando Alonso was still holding his own at the front, with Vettel and Hamilton chasing him hard but not able to make any further progress.

Vettel stopped again on lap 19 putting the hard tyres on this time and cementing the fact that he was on a four stop strategy. As Webber caught the leaders the rest of them started to pit. Alonso failed to stay in front of Vettel after his stop this time around and it seemed that Red Bull would carry on in their usual manner and dominate the rest of the race. But Lewis Hamilton was still putting in fast laps, and even though he stayed out two laps longer than Alonso, he beat him out of the pits and took second place.

By this time Nick Heidfeld had moved onto a set of the brand new soft tyres he had available and started to charge up through the standings. Mark Webber was stuck behind Alonso after a very tight pit lane race and despite having the Drag Reduction System available, couldn't make it past the Spaniard. Despite having massive high speed cornering pace the Red Bull couldn't make enough difference to get past in the slower sections.

Hamilton was gradually closing the gap towards Vettel now. Jenson dropped into the pits again, the three stop strategy still seemed to be working so far. The new tyres also allowed him to start catching up with Alonso and Webber's fight. Webber eventually got close enough to throw himself down the inside and past, only for Alonso to switch back and regain the position at the next corner. Meanwhile Vettel dropped into the pits for yet another set of tyres.

Felipe Massa slowly slid down the order and now his afternoon got worse as he lost the back of his car and stopped sideways just off the track. The engine was still running though and so he continued. Hamilton got a fresh set of tyres to continue his hunt of Vettel. Throughout the afternoon the two Mercedes were fighting each other hard, Michael was making sure to stay in front of his younger team mate this time out.

As the race started heading towards the closin stages, Button's tyres were still surviving, and Heidfeld was climbing further up the score sheet. By lap 48 Webber was in the pits again for a second set of hard tyres, followed by the rest of the front runners. No change in position this time around but it became clear that Vettel was not using the Kers system on the Red Bull. As Hamilton slowly caught up, Vettel's team came on the radio telling him to start using it again.

Kovaleinen came off the track up ended up against the barriers bringing out the yellow flags. Vettel, Hamilton, Button and Alguersuari were put under investigation after the race for failing to slow down in the yellow zone. Hamilton's speed kept the gap to Vettel heading down and down, but the laps were also running out. As Hamilton got into the DRS activation zone it seemed that his car was faster, but the German's defensive driving was faultless. The McLaren looked more settled and much more comfortable holding the racing line than the Red Bull. Despite this Vettel had the better drive out of the last corner and could defend into turn 1.

Felipe Massa was suffering badly by now with what turned out to be gearbox troubles, and dropped out of the race. Jenson was still keeping Webber behind at this time and with the end of the race approaching fast, it was clear the Englishman would take the last place on the podium. Hamilton meanwhile, was getting more ragged behind Vettel and couldn't make up the difference to get past. The race ended with Vettel first and Hamilton only 0.6 seconds behind. Jenson finished third with Webber taking fourth. Alonso ended the race in fifth with Schumacher finally getting a decent result in sixth followed by Rosberg in seventh. Nick Heidfeld finished a great race for him in eighth place.

The steward's investigation after the race ended up with all the drivers involved receiving only a reprimand.

The FIA did get the DRS wrong here. Almost no overtakes came solely from the system but still the race was not another overtake-less bore as usually happens in Spain. From Canada onwards there will be two DRS zones to stop this problem despite the shorter straights. But its the tyres that are really creating the change now. Pirelli have almost single-handedly revitalised Formula 1 into an exciting, dramatic race series. And the only thing that can spoil that is Red Bull walking away with every race. McLaren are closing the gap in the races. But Hispania may fix that for us, if they follow through on their threat to lodge a formal complaint against the teams using blown diffusers in Monaco. The next week should be interesting to say the least. Could we possibly have overtaking at Monaco?!

Full Result

Championship Standings

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