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GP Week : Issue 117
25 Digitasdasd F1 SPAIN >> Mark after benefitting from a bit of a tow, was none other than the fans’ favourite, Fernando Alonso. Seb thought about running around Fernando on the outside of T1, and thereby muscling in to the inside for T2, but prudently backed away at the last millisecond, delighted, as least, to have gazumped Mark. Lewis, you ask? He with the mega- Mercedes KERS system? He was dead- level with Fernando off the line but lost momentum when Fernando suddenly flicked left in about fourth gear – a move designed to disabuse Lewis Carl of even thinking about moving across. As starts go, it was sensational – and it proved – if proof was needed - that the ‘two moves only’ rule that they enforce for race conditions (but thankfully not for the start!) should be abolished in perpetuity. The whole silly business was born of Michael Schumacher’s tactics off the line, so what is the point of penalising drivers for making three moves later in the race, when just two of them are contesting a position, and not penalising them for ‘weaving’ at the start – at the most potentially dangerous part of the afternoon? That wasn’t all. Vitaly Petrov, who had qualified an excellent sixth in the Renault that didn’t set fire to its revolutionary exhaust system, all but lost the rear as he exited T2. Nico Rosberg darted right, Michael Schumacher darted left – and the three of them headed off up the hill into T3 like that, with Michael on the outside and looking as if he might just try to stay there. He did. Petrov backed away, his moment having reminded him that his rear tyres were probably still a little way from optimum temperature, while Nico lived with the inside approach to T4 for as long as he dared. Michael, on the outside, arced down to a late-ish apex and seized the corner as if he was a 23-year-old hot-shot. For how long could the Fabulous Fernando stay in front? For a surprisingly long time (17 laps), as it turned out. Seb was of course all over the Ferrari on the fast corners – T3, T9 – but Fernando offered no holes and maximised the Ferrari’s strongest points – to wit, it’s top speed (Fernando was about 5mph quicker by the time they reached terminal velocity) and its generally good braking. Seb was near enough to be able to flatten his rear flap on the pit straight on virtually every lap of that opening phase – but it was not enough. Seb couldn’t pass the Ferrari with any sort of confidence. Instead, he stopped early for his first set of hard tyres (Seb’s second stop) and ‘undercut’ Fernando on his pit stop delta and out-lap. The fans sighed – but then they shouldn’t have expected more: the Ferrari was never going to beat the Red Bulls or at least one (if not both) of the McLarens around Barcelona, not when it came time to running the hard tyres. It was never a question of Fernando racing to the ‘right strategy’ or holding up the field for the entire distance, Gilles Villeneuve-style. Those days have gone. All Fernando could do was take what was out there; and Fernando did that to perfection. Speakingofthep-word,Lewiswas conservative in that first stint when the fuel tanks were full; he passed Webber at the first round of pit stops by being two seconds quicker on his in-lap and then three seconds faster on his out-lap; next, after those first stops, he put major pressure on Seb Vettel, pushing him hard on the slower corners and filling his mirrors. (Seb was at this point still boxed-in behind Fernando, so there was little he could do about it except hope that Lewis would behave.) Then, on the hards, the race began. It turns out that the McLaren was at least as competitive on the hard tyre than was the Red Bull; this isn’t totally surprising when you consider the flip side of that: on new softs, there is no faster combination in the world right now than Seb Vettel and the RBR7 (give or take a Mark Webber pole or two). The point is, the McLaren doesn’t have the downforce to maximise the soft tyre. On the hard, though, when everyone’s sliding, the McLaren’s slight deficiencies are more or less balanced out, indicating that it is indeed at least the second-best car out there right now (in terms of downforce level); and the new, more durable hard allows drivers like Lewis to do that balancing out for longer. Seb and Lewis switched to used hard tyres at about the same time (laps 34 and 35) and I don’t think anyone on the RBR pit wall would have been surprised at this point if Lewis had faded into a solid second place. On the contrary, the flamboyance that Lewis had shown in practice on the hard tyre was now converted into absolute maximisation of the components at hand. Lewis was breathtakingly good on the fast corners and could live with Seb on the slow stuff. Only at the important, final corner, where downforce comes seriously into play – and where Lewis needed to be close in order to activate his flap – did Seb sustain any sort of useable advantage. And then Seb’s KERS system began to give more trouble, failing to discharge completely over the lap. They both switched to new hards for the final phase. Lewis was there. Right there. The critical zone was the braking area for T1. Lewis would flatten his wing, gain momentum, feint to the inside ... and Seb would brake absolutely as late as the Brembos would let him. Without a mistake or even a bobble. Not one. It was spellbinding racing – and there was not a pass to be seen. Indeed, Seb, not Lewis, had been responsible for the aggressive passing much earlier in the race (after his first pit stop), when he had scythed past Jenson Button and Felipe Massa without DRS (on a circuit on which historically it has been almost impossible to overtake) and then Nico Rosberg at the end of the straight (with DRS). No, the Seb-Lewis duel in Spain was a classic example of brilliant motor racing without the passing; as a spectacle it far surpassed the wholesale place-changing in Turkey, and before that in China. Both drivers were superb in every way – stunning to watch either as individuals or as a pair. Lewis extracted all there was to extract from a McLaren at Barcelona; and Seb Vettel, the World Champion, was exemplary in both attack, defence and mechanical sympathy. This, in my view, was his best win to date: he never allowed Lewis the room he needed at T16 – and he was faultless, as I say, under heaving braking into T1. Jenson finished third, almost unnoticed on a three-stop strategy; the pole-man was only fourth, having lost still more time in traffic and with a relatively early switch to the hard tyre; Fernando was an excellent fifth, having delivered more than anyone could have expected; and Michael, fighting oversteer with spectacular balance, was a good sixth. Special mention should also be made of Nick Heidfeld’s drive from the back to eighth (and third-fastest lap); to Kamui Kobayashi recovering from a first-lap puncture to finish tenth behind team-mate Sergio Perez; and to Jarno Trulli’s mid-race pace in the Mike Gascoyne Lotus. It was a relatively promising weekend for Williams, too. Pastor Maldonado qualified a creditable ninth and Rubens (gearbox problem in Q1) actually set the second-fastest lap of the race (behind Lewis, on lap 60).