Spanish GP shows us how F1 2017 is all about being opportunistic

This weekends Spanish Grand Prix finally gave us what we were asking for, two of the main title contenders going wheel-to-wheel for the win in what was a thrilling battle.

Even though Ferrari attempted to out-wit Mercedes with their new clutch paddle which worked to great effect into the first corner, they still fell foul when it came to strategy. As we’ve seen with the first four races, being able to nail strategy and be opportunistic is something that will win or lose you races and Mercedes certainly nailed it when they needed to on Sunday.

Initially I thought Mercedes missed their opportunity since it would’ve made sense to pit as soon as the Virtual Safety Car came out, but after much deliberation it seems they went for the gamble knowing that they had the gap to Daniel Ricciardo.

Looking at the timing screen it’s difficult to see how Hamilton managed to cut the gap so significantly since it goes from 22 seconds, to 18 seconds, to within a second. I can only assume Ferrari had a slower than expected stop and Hamilton just went really quick on his out-lap which would’ve been at racing speeds.

One might be quick to point out that the race deciding overtaking manoeuvre was only possible due to the extended DRS zone, but it also allowed Vettel to overtake Bottas during those crucial stages before the Virtual Safety Car. It’s difficult to get DRS right all the time, but I think the stewards made the right call this weekend having seen last years attempts.

It’s difficult to label this ‘just not Vettel’s weekend’ since not only did he put his SF-70H on the front row and lead most of the race, but Ferrari also managed to change his power unit between practice three and qualifying on Saturday. He may have not shown his true pace in practice but Vettel was quick when it mattered this weekend, in the end Hamilton was just quicker.

While the physical strain on Hamilton wasn’t visible when he emerged onto the podium, he certainly made a note of how exhausted he became in the post-race interviews after we heard him breathing rather heavily over the team radio. Make no mistake, this is going to be one of the hardest fought battles of both Hamilton and Vettel’s careers and it’s great to see the pair respect each other despite their wheel rubbing on track.

Vettel was asked about whether he plays mind games on his fellow competitors in the Thursday press conference to which he replied: “I don’t do psychological battles” – which is something Hamilton has always professed. With the pair itching to go wheel-to-wheel on track I feel like this is going to be a fascinating storyline to follow, and hopefully we’ll see more of that at some of the classic circuits.

Speaking of story lines during the weekend, did anyone else have slight tears of joy when they saw the kid meet Kimi Raikkonen? It was a rather wonderful exchange after the FOM cameras picked him up in the grandstands with tears after Raikkonen was shunted out of the race at the first corner, and perhaps shows how much more the sport is engaging with fans in this new era with Liberty Media.

Some of the improvements made to the fan experience were rather impressive, with holders of the Paddock Club passes being able to ride in a two-seater Formula 1 car operated by former Minardi team boss Paul Stoddart. There was perhaps one comical moment when the two-seater car broke down on one run, leading everyone to brand it the ‘McLaren Honda experience’ in leu of their recent engine troubles.

I thought Fernando Alonso’s engine break down three corners into his Friday practice was rather comical, given that he’s been stirring up attention with his Indy 500 rookie orientation test which garnered nearly 2 million viewers. To be fair to Honda though they did bounce back with wins in the support races with their rookie drivers, and by allowing Alonso to qualify within the top ten at a circuit that usually exposes the true running order.

It’s a shame about the first-corner calamities he go caught up in which dropped him behind the intense midfield battle between Toro Rosso, Haas, Renault and Sauber. Pascal Wehrlein has to get my vote for driver of the weekend having out-qualified all of the above and his team mate for the third time in a row, then by getting into the top ten and executing a well-timed pitstop under the VSC.

It’s a shame he picked up a five-second time penalty for not staying to the right of the pit entry bollard, something the team admit was their fault (likely due to deliberation). But I’m so far impressed with Wehrlein’s comeback, his performance perhaps acting as a middle finger to those who criticised him for missing Australia and China.

Another impressive performance from Nico Hulkenberg by getting his Renault into sixth despite the poor qualifying, completely contrasts that of his team mate Jolyon Palmer who only managed to finish ahead of Lance Stroll two laps off the lead lap. Palmer showed he had the pace during practice on Friday, but that didn’t seem to translate throughout the rest of the weekend. I said after Russia that I think his time is limited at Enstone, more weekends like this aren’t going to do his cause any good.

Next time out we head to Monaco (where the Formula E cars have just been!) where I’m sure the talk of strategy will be more important than ever, given that these wider cars will make it impossible to overtake. After seeing both Ferrari and Mercedes make strategical blunders which has cost them race wins, could we potentially see Red Bull pick up a maiden win in 2017? As I said before, this season is all about being opportunistic.

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