2011 Spanish GP – Race Analysis

Sebastian Vettel is in the midst of a humongous purple patch. Four pole positions this year, and now four wins and a second place. Doubts about Sebastian’s racecraft, especially when he was not on pole have been blown away. This was by far and away the hardest win of Vettel’s career, and no doubt, the most well deserved.  The Circuit de Catalunya’s 10 year record of the pole sitter winning the race fell by the wayside as the world champion emerged victorious after a dramatic Spanish GP. The young lad had to push his car to the limit for over 40 laps to defend his lead once jumped everyone at the pitstops.

It’s a fact that Sebastian has never had to defend the lead of a race this hard in his F1 career. Usually his Red Bull is a class apart, and is unchallenged at the front, or the fight would be for second or third or other places when something goes wrong for the German. Given the RB7’s massive advantage in qualifying, we assumed that it would be the former, with Mark Webber somewhere alongside him. But we were wrong. The two McLarens were right up there on pace with the two Red Bulls, and even the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso was able to hold its own on the soft tyre stints. The performance variation between the teams is quite inconsistent, with each circuit presenting a different level of advantage for the Red Bulls.

At the start of the race, Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel were so busy fighting with each other that they didn’t notice the brilliant start from Fernando Alonso until it was too late. The Ferrari driver blasted off the line like the others were in reverse, weaved a bit, avoiding the squabbling Bulls, saw a tiny gap on the inside, and went for it despite Sebastian deciding not to do so. He put his car on the edge of the track, almost on the grass, and surged through to take the lead and the Spanish crowd in the grandstands just went berserk. Even when the DRS was activated from lap 3 onwards, the Ferrari stayed ahead of the Red Bulls and Lewis Hamilton for the whole stint. Webber who had settled into fourth place found himself in damage control mode – so too did Jenson Button who had a disastrous start, falling down the order into 10th place.

Kamui Kobayashi also had a bad start, with his car suffering a puncture which forced him to pit immediately. Michael Schumacher and Heidfeld made good progress on the first lap, both making fast starts and overtaking several cars. With almost all the cars on the soft tyres, it seemed as if the DRS zone, despite being the longest in this season so far, wasn’t allowing the drivers to overtake. The Spanish GP was shaping up to be a procession yet again. But from lap 9, much to everyone’s surprise, the front runners dived into the pits for their second set of options. Only Jenson stayed out, with his trademark tyre saving skills helping him stretch the first stint a little more than the others. Red Bull tried to bring Sebastian in a lap earlier than Alonso to give him one lap on the fresh tyres to leapfrog the Spaniard, but Vettel was caught in traffic and was still stuck behind the Ferrari.

Fernando Alonso displayed tremendous skill to keep the Ferrari ahead of a much, much faster Red Bull for the second stint in succession, but it was only a matter of time before Red Bull brought Sebastian in early, rejoined on a clear track and took the lead from the home hero. That is exactly what they did, and pace of the RB7 once released from the Ferrari was blinding. Setting fastest lap after fastest lap, the German easily moved past Alonso and into the race lead. Hamilton, who had managed to make his tyres last 5 laps longer than Vettel, also had enough pace to clear the Ferrari, but came out a few seconds behind the world champion. This time, it was Mark Webber who was stuck behind the struggling Ferrari. Despite a variety of moves and sticking to the red car’s diffuser, Alonso did not yield. It still appeared as though Ferrari could salvage a podium from this race.

But barely 10 laps into the stint, the hard tyres on the 150 Italia looked severely damaged, suffering from extreme levels of blistering. It was game over. It was an indication of just how hard Fernando had had to push and perhaps the slight inconsistency of the Pirelli tyres – he had driven the wheels off the car, and yet he was on average 2 seconds a lap slower on ultimate pace. Thanks to the extra set of options wasted in Q1, he could not extend his soft tyre stints as much as Hamilton or Button, and the result was he had to make his last set of tyres last for 26 laps while Mark Webber barely did 15 laps before his pace dropped like a stone in water. The Ferrari is very kind to its tyres, but there lies a disadvantage as well – on the harder compound, the car wont get heat into the rubber, and thus provide no grip. Felipe Massa experienced that first hand, had a spin while pushing too hard, and eventually stopped with a gearbox problem far away from the leading battle.

Once again, the tyre preserving abilities of Jenson Button came to the fore, the Brit making one less pitstop than the others, simply because he was able to make the soft tyres last much longer than anyone else. He blew past Alonso and Webber when the two were struggling on the hard tyres and took the final podium position. He was too far behind Hamilton to challenge for the lead, and will be ruing his poor start. Lewis was outstanding throughout the race and came very close to depriving Sebastian of his win with better tyre management and strategy. He pushed the Red Bull driver every inch of the way, on every second of every lap, but in the end, it was the phenomenal downforce of the RB7 through the last corner that saved his rival. Lewis had terrible understeer while following the RBR rocket, and despite using the KERS and DRS, Seb’s car just managed to pull out a sufficient gap out of Turn 16. It was a great race to the line, and if the McLaren had passed the Bull on the final turn, it would’ve been Senna Vs Mansell all over again. It was a battle to savour, nevertheless.

The Mercedes duo of Schumacher and Rosberg battled long and hard for the entire race on similar pace and strategy and finished 6th and 7th respectively. Nick Heidfeld used his fresh sets of tyres and good strategy to scythe through the field to 8th at the end, which was a lot better than Vitaly Petrov’s afternoon,who finished 11th and out of the points. Between these two came the Sauber drivers on identical strategies. Sergio Perez finished ahead, and had a great battle in the top ten with Massa and Heidfeld, but it is to Kamui’s credit that he managed to finish 10th after a puncture on lap 1 forced him to pit.

The Force Indias had a decent race, with the drivers getting 12th and 13th places despite displaying poor pace in practice. Behind them, and markedly off the pace were the Toro Rossos and Williamses. Maldonado ran the same strategy as the other front runners, but the car didn’t have the speed and he fell down the order gradually to 15th. Barrichello tried out a very different strategy but nothing worked for him, and he finished 17th after another dismal race. His relationship with the Williams team is going downhill steadily. Jarno Trulli brought home his Lotus in 18th place after Kovalainen crashed out with about 15 laps to run. Virgin Racing got both cars to the end of the race, finishing ahead of HRT’s Narain Karthikeyan, in the sole surviving Hispania car. Liuzzi retired early on with an unspecified problem.

At the end of the Spanish GP, we can come to some surprising conclusions. The Ferrari car is gentle on it’s tyres and will be very difficult to beat when the softer compound tyres are being used in warm climates. But on a tyre-destroying track like Barcelona, the Ferrari is nearly undriveable on the hard tyres. In contrast, the Red Bulls and McLarens are competitive in almost all circuit and temperature conditions, and the British squad have definitely closed the gap to their Austrian rivals on raceday. But they were a full second off the pace in qualifying here, and that is still a massive advantage for RBR that no one has been able to crack. Red Bull haven’t solved their KERS reliability issues, and it is probably the one reason that the racing is somewhat close, for the car’s sheer downforce is enough to win races for the team. But full credit to McLaren, for they have kept the world champions on their toes and are giving them a proper fight. Ferrari and Mercedes will fight back at some point of time or the other, but Fernando is waging a lone battle, and may find his team’s recovery to be too little, too late. Onwards to Monaco, where the supersoft tyres, the DRS and unforgiving barriers could turn the game upside down. Until then, adios amigo.


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