Well, it certainly wasn’t as easy as it could have been…but at least the monkey’s off his back now, isn’t it? I mean, regardless of the style of racing or the status of a specific championship, the world of motorsport is a fiercely competitive business, with drivers constantly being pressured to achieve the best possible results in an attempt to justify their position on the grid, but the longer it takes for that success to arrive, even the most talented peddlers can find it even more difficult than normal – particularly at such a high level as this – to establish themselves as a credible contender, and that’s why it sometimes pays for them to take a chance. Of course, you could make the point that any seat is better than no seat at all, and so it’s sometimes easier for them to stay where they are (which is a perfectly fair assessment), but any aspiring racing driver has to have aspirations of making it to the very top, and, with so few actually making it there, it’d be foolish to pass up an opportunity like this when they come along…and we’re already starting to see the benefits such a decision can have. There’s a saying that ‘two’s company, three’s a crowd’, and, when it comes to the 2017 Formula One World Championship…the identity of the third contender is rapidly becoming an awful lot clearer.
When reigning champion Nico Rosberg announced his retirement from the sport days after securing the ultimate honour in Abu Dhabi, the rumour mill went into overdrive about who would take the German’s place in arguably the most coveted seat on the grid, but, after all manner of different suggestions, the eventual signing of Valtteri Bottas was seen by many as a safe yet unspectacular choice, with the Finn coming off the back of four consistent years with Williams without ever making it onto the top step of the podium. Initially, though, it looked as if the higher level of expectation by stepping into a title-winning car was going to be too much for the Silver Arrows new boy as he tried to match the performances of new teammate and three time former champion Lewis Hamilton, with the Brit romping to victory in China to kick-start his bid for a fourth title, but, for once, the Mercedes pair had competition at the front as the new-for-2017 technical regulations played into the hands of a rejuvenated Ferrari and, in particular, four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, with the German grabbing the early advantage in the title battle after taking victory in both Australia and Bahrain.
However, the form book was turned on its head last time out as the series arrived in the Black Sea city of Sochi in Russia, with the dominance of the Silver Arrows over a single lap being broken in qualifying as a last-gasp lap from Vettel saw the championship leader grab his first pole of the year ahead of team-mate Kimi Raikkonen as the two Prancing Horses locked out the front row for the first time since the French Grand Prix in 2008, but a brilliant getaway from Bottas saw the Finn surge into the lead while team-mate Hamilton – who had suffered with handling issues in qualifying – continued to struggle with a lack of power that saw him begin to drop back. After relatively limited action in the opening half of the race, though, contrasting strategies amongst the front-runners almost had a defining influence on the final outcome, with Vettel able to make full use of much fresher tyres in the later stages to close right up onto the tail of the Mercedes, but, despite never having been in such a position before, the Finn – who forcefully told his team he wanted ‘less talking’ over the radio as he looked to hang on – produced a superbly controlled drive to take his maiden victory in the sport at the 81st time of asking by just 0.6s, with Raikkonen rounding out the podium in third.
It wasn’t all bad news for the German, though, as a fourth top-two finish of the season saw him extend his advantage at the head of the championship table to 13 points over nearest rival Hamilton after the Brit endured a torrid race and faded badly in the later stages to finish a distant fourth, with new Silver Arrows stable-mate Bottas consolidating his position in third – the Finn now only a further 10 points back – ahead of compatriot Raikkonen in the second Ferrari in fourth. After a brake failure forced him to retire early on while well placed in Bahrain, flying Dutch teenager Max Verstappen bounced back strongly to finish fifth – albeit in a fairly lonely race – and move ahead of Red Bull stable-mate Daniel Ricciardo in the points after the ever-smiling Australian was forced out in the early laps with smoke pouring from his rear brakes, with Mexican Sergio Perez continuing his consistent start to 2017 to lie equal sixth as ‘best of the rest’ in the first of the Force Indias.
After the challenge of four consecutive long-distance races, there was a sense of the familiar for the fifth round of the year as the championship made its way back to Spain, with the Circuit de Catalunya – situated on the outskirts of Barcelona – marking the start of a shorter than usual European leg of the season. Having opened back in 1991, the track has remained an ever-present fixture on the calendar since it hosted its first Grand Prix later that same year, as well as becoming a favoured venue for many pre-season tests over the years by virtue of the relatively favourable climate and the variety in terms of its layout, while, with most of the current teams now based in Europe, the race also often provides the first opportunity for them to introduce a raft of new upgrades and packages to their cars in an attempt to close the gap to their rivals.
Measuring in at 4.6km (2.9 miles) and containing a mixture of 9 right-handers and 7 left-handers, a typical lap begins with a long run downhill to the short apex, 90 degree Turn 1 – which is slightly cambered towards the inside of the track, allowing more speed to be carried on entry – that feeds almost immediately into the similar left at Turn 2, with the drivers then having to cling on through the endless, flat-out right-hander at Turn 3 before hitting the brakes for the open hairpin of Turn 4 at the end of the first sector. From there, it’s a short blast to the tight Turn 5 before the track drops sharply downhill on exit and through the kink at Turn 6, with a quick change of direction through the relatively open left-right chicane at Turns 7 and 8 then leading up an equally steep climb towards the blind, sweeping right-hander of Turn 9, with speed off the corner crucial as the cars head down the long back straight before hitting the brakes again for the sharp left-hand hairpin at Turn 10. After another kink through Turn 11, the final sector – which used to be a fearsome sequence of fast downhill sweepers – now sees the cars negotiate the endlessly looping right-hander at Turn 12 before braking for the 90-degree Turn 13 that then leads into another left-right chicane at Turns 14 and 15, with the final fast right-hander of Turn 16 then bringing them back onto the pit straight.
Despite the relatively high speeds at several points, however, the track isn’t known for producing a huge amount of overtaking, with the best chances to make a pass stick (as with many current F1 venues) generally being with the benefit of DRS down the pit straight into Turn 1 – although the rapid change of direction through Turn 2 can leave a passing car vulnerable to being re-passed as the inside line for the first part quickly becomes the outside line for the second – or, failing that, with a good run out of Turn 9 before dive through on the brakes into Turn 10 at the end of the back straight. Elsewhere, a car’s ability to carry the momentum and hold a tighter line all the way around Turn 3 can sometimes invite a lunge down the inside into Turn 4, while, despite appearing to be ideal passing places on paper, the raised kerbs on the inside of both chicanes means any move at either point requires a sizeable amount of co-operation from the car in front in order to avoid contact.
The corresponding race here 12 months ago saw the first signs of the bubbling championship rivalry between the two Silver Arrows explode in spectacular fashion, with Hamilton striking first blood in qualifying to grab pole by almost three-tenths of a second ahead of his team-mate, but it wasn’t long before the pair came to blows in the race as, having lost the lead off the line, the Brit had a much better run out of Turn 3 and dived to the inside just as the German came across to close the gap, with the resultant contact sending Hamilton spinning out of control across the grass before collecting his team-mate as he rejoined, taking both cars into the gravel and out of the race within a few corners of the start. This left Ricciardo and Red Bull out in front for the opening stint, but, with contrasting ideas on strategy forcing the Australian into making an extra stop, it was new team-mate Verstappen – the Dutchman making his first appearance for the team following his surprise switch from junior team Toro Rosso – who somehow held off a hard-charging Raikkonen in the closing stages to take the chequered flag, and, in the process, become the youngest ever winner in the sport by a slender margin of just 0.6s, with Vettel (who was also put onto a three-stop strategy by Ferrari) completing the podium in third.
So, bearing all of that in mind, could Bottas – having finally broken his duck last time out – maintain his early-season momentum in the second Mercedes and begin to mark himself out as a regular contender at the sharp end, or, after being forced to play second best to his new team-mate in Sochi, would Hamilton be able to deliver an immediate response to get his title challenge firmly back on track? With two victories already under his belt, could points leader Vettel continue to extend his growing advantage as the championship battle began to get into its stride, or would the leading runners again trip over themselves and open the door for the likes of the Red Bulls (or someone else from the chasing pack) to spring a surprise? Well, it’s time to find out – this is the story of the fifth round of the 2017 Formula One World Championship, the 2017 Spanish Grand Prix…
There was almost a major talking point in the opening few moments of the first part of qualifying as, having reverted back to an older engine following free practice, Vettel’s Ferrari suddenly slowed midway round what was effectively his first flying lap, but, after some frantic radio communications, the issue was swiftly resolved to allow the points leader to set the early pace, but it wasn’t long before Hamilton took over at the top with an opening effort that was more than 0.4s quicker, while team-mate Bottas was only a fraction further back from the Ferrari in third. Despite going out a little later compared to the other leading contenders, Raikkonen’s second flying lap was enough to move the veteran Finn ahead of his team-mate and into second when the chequered flag came out, while, behind the top four, the Red Bulls were again some way adrift despite the introduction of several new parts, with Verstappen leading the charge in fifth ahead of team-mate Ricciardo, whose best lap was only just over a tenth faster than the Haas of Frenchman Romain Grosjean – who span in the early stages at Turn 13 – in seventh.
However, as always, the main focus of the opening segment was to find the five drivers that would be knocked out and take no further part in proceedings, and, once again, there was something of a surprise casualty after the final scramble to improve as Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat – the Russian youngster under pressure following a lacklustre start to his season – was unable to extract anywhere near the required amount of speed from his car and duly found himself at the bottom of the timesheets, although a raft of engine penalties for McLaren-Honda’s Stoffel Vandoorne meant the Belgian would line up at the tail of the grid after missing out on a Q2 berth for the fifth consecutive race. Having looked reasonably quick during free practice, a disappointing session for Renault saw Britain’s Jolyon Palmer again miss the cut along with the Sauber of Marcus Ericsson after the Swede was bumped out at the death by a last-ditch improvement from Felipe Massa in his Williams, but it wasn’t such good news for his rookie team-mate as Canadian teenager Lance Stroll also failed to make it through.
Eliminated in Q1: 16th – Ericsson, 17th – Palmer, 18th – Stroll, 19th – Vandoorne and 20th – Kvyat
The early pattern continued at the start of Q2 as the two Silver Arrows continued to hold the advantage, with Hamilton leading the way by a fraction ahead of team-mate Bottas – the Finn having to abort his opening effort after a sizeable lock-up on the brakes into Turn 1 – before Vettel managed to split the pair and move into second, with just 0.090s covering the top three after the opening runs as Raikkonen found himself the better part of half a second adrift in fourth after making a slight mistake into the final chicane. Behind, an improved showing from Red Bull saw Verstappen only a tenth further back from the second Ferrari in fifth, with Ricciardo again on his team-mate’s tail in sixth, but, with none of the leading contenders electing to go out for a second run as a means of protecting the set of tyres they would start the race on, the focus soon switched to the battle for the remaining places in the top 10, and there was a welcome sight for the home fans as, after enduring a tough start to 2017, Fernando Alonso managed to find just enough in his McLaren-Honda to squeeze into Q3 for the first time this season.
However, while there was delight for one Spaniard, it wasn’t quite such good news for the other as, having looked so strong in the opening segment of the session, youngster Carlos Sainz was unable to reproduce the same kind of form in his Toro Rosso and so missed out on a top 10 position, while there were also troubles for Haas as Frenchman Romain Grosjean found himself at the bottom of the pile after spinning twice at Turn 13 (the second on his final flying lap, destroying any chance of improving his time), although an improved display from team-mate Kevin Magnussen saw the Dane get within a whisker of making it through. After only missing out on the final part of qualifying once in the last 17 races, there was disappointment for Renault as Nico Hulkenberg found himself pushed out of contention in the final few moments after a series of last-ditch improvements from those around him, with German youngster Pascal Wehrlein completing the quintet that would go no further in the second of the Saubers.
Eliminated in Q2: 11th – Magnussen, 12th – Sainz, 13th – Hulkenberg, 14th – Grosjean and 15th – Wehrlein
Initially, it looked as though there might be a surprise in store in the final part of the session as Bottas posted the fastest splits through both the first two sectors, but a major sideways moment for the Finn at the penultimate corner cost him dear as team-mate Hamilton produced a superb lap that was almost a quarter of a second faster to move onto provisional pole, with Raikkonen only a fraction further back from his compatriot in third in the leading Ferrari after the opening runs. Having suffered from a minor problem that saw his engine fail to deliver its power as efficiently as normal for his first lap, points leader Vettel did recover in time to improve in the dying seconds and secure a spot on the front row, but it wasn’t quite enough to prevent Hamilton – who failed to find any more time on his last effort – from grabbing his third pole position of the season by just 0.051s.
Behind the leading duo, Bottas was unable to replicate his earlier pace on his final flying lap and was ultimately forced to settle for heading up the second row of the grid ahead of compatriot Raikkonen – the margin between the pair a little over half a tenth – while the Red Bulls again found themselves in no-man’s land between the leading quartet and the rest of the pack, with 2016 winner Verstappen over half a second clear of an unusually subdued Ricciardo as the pair rounded out the top six. After surprising many to get the underpowered McLaren into the final segment of the session, Alonso again outperformed his machinery to snatch ‘best of the rest’ honours with a superb seventh – by far the team’s best performance of the season to date – ahead of Perez in the leading Force India in eighth, with the top 10 being rounded out by Massa, who managed to salvage something from a difficult session for Williams to steer the team’s sole remaining car to ninth, and young Frenchman Esteban Ocon in the second Force India in tenth.
Q3 – Top 10: 1st – Hamilton, 2nd – Vettel, 3rd – Bottas, 4th – Raikkonen, 5th – Verstappen, 6th – Ricciardo, 7th – Alonso, 8th – Perez, 9th – Massa and 10th – Ocon
When the lights went out, both front-row men got away fairly evenly, but a slightly better second phase of the start from Vettel saw the German gradually ease his way alongside pole-sitter Hamilton before outbraking the Mercedes on the inside at Turn 1 to grab the early lead, but behind, there was chaos when Bottas tagged the rear corner of Raikkonen’s car at the same point, sending his fellow Finn sliding wide and into the path of the fast-starting Verstappen on the outside, with the resultant contact causing enough damage to both cars to put the pair out of the race before the end of the opening lap, while, after his superb qualifying performance, Alonso also lost out as a robust move from former team-mate Massa – the Williams picking up a puncture as a result – on the exit of Turn 2 sent the McLaren skating through the gravel. Up front, though, Vettel wasted no time in establishing a manageable margin over Hamilton in the early laps while Bottas – who somehow escaped significant damage in the Turn 1 shenanigans – initially came under pressure for third from a resurgent Ricciardo in the sole remaining Red Bull before gradually easing clear, with Perez and Ocon again going well for Force India in fifth and sixth, but, with the leading gaps opening out to a point where even the effect of DRS was virtually negated, the order remained relatively static throughout the first stint of the race.
However, the first round of pit stops seemed to have more of an influence, with the first action coming on lap 14 when Magnussen and Sainz – who had been dicing for ninth on track – almost came to blows leaving the pit lane as the Toro Rosso was shoved onto the grass after trying to squeeze down the inside of the Haas before Vettel surprisingly became the first of the leading runners to come in at the end of lap 15 of 66 as Ferrari looked to cover off the potential for an undercut from Mercedes, with Hamilton then throwing a curveball when he eventually came in for a set of medium tyres at the end of lap 21 (the Ferrari having gone for another set of softs). Despite going onto the slower, more durable rubber, the Brit was then able to slash his deficit to Vettel as the German found himself held up by some strong defence from a longer-running Bottas before eventually getting through with an eye-catching ‘double dummy’ on the brakes into Turn 1 on lap 25, with the Finn quickly releasing his team-mate before finally pitting the second Silver Arrow a couple of laps later, rejoining in a clear third place ahead of a distant Ricciardo, while, further back, an alternative one-stop strategy from Sauber saw Wehrlein stretch his soft tyres further than anyone else to consolidate a strong seventh place at half-distance.
The pattern of the race then took another turn on lap 34 with the introduction of the Virtual Safety Car after a clash between Massa and Vandoorne into Turn 1 ended with the Belgian suffering broken suspension that forced him to park his McLaren in the gravel, with Hamilton then electing to make his second stop and switch back to the soft tyres just as it ended, and this almost proved a masterstroke from Mercedes as, when Vettel then responded on the following tour, the difference in speed between the pair saw them rejoin side-by-side in the braking zone for the first corner before the Ferrari edged back in front through Turns 2 and 3. Behind, there were more problems for the Silver Arrows when Bottas’ engine – which had completed the first four and a half races of the season – finally expired on the approach to Turn 7 on lap 39, dropping the Finn out of a comfortable third place, but up ahead, now on the much faster compound of tyre, Hamilton was able to bide his time against Vettel, and, despite seeing the Ferrari get the benefit of DRS from several of the backmarkers to resist for several laps, the Brit finally made his move with a fine pass around the outside at Turn 1 on lap 44 to sweep into the lead, while behind, the battle for the minor placings was also getting interesting, with just over 6 seconds separating Wehrlein in seventh from Grosjean’s Haas in 11th.
From then on, the race at the front gradually began to peter out as the anticipated degradation of the soft tyres on the Mercedes failed to have much of an effect, and, despite Vettel briefly closing the gap, a clumsy move to lap Massa’s Williams at Turn 10 on lap 60 extinguished any faint hopes of a Ferrari victory, leaving Hamilton clear to click off the remaining laps and take a second victory of the season by a final margin of 3.4s, with Ricciardo securing his first podium of 2017 for Red Bull despite finishing a country mile adrift in third as the only other driver to finish on the lead lap. Behind, Force India kept up their streak of points-scoring finishes as Perez came home fourth ahead of team-mate Ocon – the young Frenchman netting his best-ever finish in the sport in fifth – and the Renault of the impressive Hulkenberg in sixth, while Sainz benefitted from a 5 second time penalty for Wehrlein after the Sauber driver went the wrong side of the bollard on the entry to the pit lane to move up to seventh, but the German showed strong pace late on to maintain eighth and pick up his and the team’s first points finish of the season, with Kvyat making his way up from the back of the grid to ninth in the second Toro Rosso ahead of Grosjean, who grabbed the final point for Haas at the death after team-mate Magnussen sustained a puncture and was forced to pit on the penultimate lap.
Max Verstappen (NED) – #33 Red Bull Racing TAG-Heuer
RACE RESULTS – TOP 10: 1st – Hamilton, 2nd – Vettel, 3rd – Ricciardo, 4th – Perez, 5th – Ocon, 6th – Hulkenberg, 7th – Sainz, 8th – Wehrlein, 9th – Kvyat and 10th – Grosjean
Drivers – Top 10:
1. Vettel (Ferrari) – 104pts
2. Hamilton (Mercedes) – 98pts
3. Bottas (Mercedes) – 63pts
4. Raikkonen (Ferrari) – 49pts
5. Ricciardo (Red Bull) – 37pts
6. Verstappen (Red Bull) – 35pts
7. Perez (Force India) – 34pts
8. Ocon (Force India) – 19pts
9. Massa (Williams) – 18pts
10. Sainz (Toro Rosso) – 17pts
1. Mercedes – 161pts
2. Ferrari – 153pts
3. Red Bull – 72pts
4. Force India – 53pts
5. Toro Rosso – 21pts
6. Williams – 18pts
7. Renault – 14pts
8. Haas – 9pts
9. Sauber – 4pts