Race Analysis: Can anyone catch Mercedes now?

Race Analysis: Can anyone catch Mercedes now?

“Our aim must be to increase the advantage we enjoyed at the last race in China”. These were Toto Wolff’s exact words in the days leading up to the Spanish Grand Prix. Many see the first round of the European “season” as the race where teams introduce their biggest upgrade packages, where they show the first real glimpses of what is to come in the remaining months of the year and where the pecking order well and truly makes itself known.

0943LB1D9296 (2)When Wolff said those words, he perhaps didn’t have an idea just how big that advantage would be in just a few days, for what seemed to be an opportunity for the likes of Red Bull, Ferrari and Williams to close the gap to the Silver Arrows was really just a stage for Mercedes to show off even more prodigious speed.

By the time first practice was over, everyone knew that the Spanish Grand Prix would once again be a two horse race. The only question that remained was whether the prevailing driver would hold onto the championship lead or take it for the first time this season.

If momentum is anything to go by, which it often is, then odds were that Lewis Hamilton would be leading the championship come Sunday evening. Most people were backing the 2008 World Champion to not only win the Spanish Grand Prix for the first time in his career, but to also win a fourth consecutive race for the first time.

But if there was anything the winner of the last three races was worried about, it was his championship-leading teammate, Rosberg. While Hamilton got the best of him in Malaysia and China, thanks to a poor start in the latter for Rosberg which set the tone for a recovery drive, Bahrain was a sticking point in the championship. It was Rosberg who absolutely hounded his teammate the whole race while dealing with an alternate and slightly riskier strategy. It was Rosberg whom Hamilton admitted was the quicker of the two drivers that weekend. It was also Rosberg whose championship lead was steadily decreasing.

In Spain, with a pace advantage far too great for anyone to even hope of matching, the two Mercedes drivers found themselves, once again, on different strategies.

Rosberg had hoped to jump Hamilton at the start, not just for the sake of having the lead (though that’s not exactly a bad thing), but because it would have mitigated some of the inherent risk of his alternate strategy. With Hamilton going medium-medium-hard and Rosberg going medium-hard-medium, having the lead (and presumably holding it through the first round of stops) would have taken away most of the risk of falling behind while on the slower tire for the second stint.

The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is a notoriously difficult track on which to pass despite its long main straight. Rosberg knew having the lead would be vital to making his strategy work to its utmost potential.

“The start was unfortunately poor,” he said. “It is a bit of a weakness I have at the moment. Three bad starts in a row and that has cost me. It is not good and we need to work on that.”

Lying second on the road, and keeping the gap to the leader at a steady two to three seconds throughout the first stint, Rosberg was planning for an extremely important middle stint initiated by Hamilton’s first stop at the end of lap 18. It was uncharacteristically sloppy by Mercedes’ high standards, and didn’t help Hamilton’s case for staying ahead.

Rosberg stayed out longer than his teammate, undoubtedly in an attempt to keep his final stint as short as possible. He immediately set fastest lap once he was in clean air, just subtly hinting at what was to come towards the end of the race.

Rosberg’s end-of-stint pace was surprisingly good. To combat this, Hamilton immediately set about utilizing his new medium tires by setting fastest lap on lap 20. This was enough for Hamilton to stay ahead of Rosberg after his pitstop.

0943LB1D4399The second half of the race, while initially devoid of much action, was one of radio confusion in the Hamilton camp. It started off when Hamilton’s engineer radioed in saying that his rear tires were cool and suggested that they were over-protecting them. Hamilton responded saying he already had oversteer and he didn’t want to risk using his tires too much and creating more oversteer.

“Where have you been for the last couple of laps, man?” said Hamilton to his engineer on lap 42. This was the start of a very tense last third of the race, one in which Hamilton was in an almost constant state of confusion and frustration as his teammate threatened to snatch away the race win.

For Rosberg’s strategy to work he needed to be, at most, two seconds behind Hamilton when the final pitstops occurred. This would ensure he was close enough to close the gap  in the final stint and win. For Hamilton’s strategy to work, he needed to be at least 4 seconds ahead of Rosberg when he pitted. This would, hopefully, provide enough of a buffer to the inevitably faster Rosberg when he was on the harder tire.

Hamilton was leading by 4.2 seconds when he did eventually make his final pitstop at the end of lap 43, but a 4.3 second pitstop effectively cut down that lead by at least a second. His advantage was slowly unraveling.

But things were already unraveled before that.

A radio message played that occurred just before Hamilton pitted in which he told his engineer to not take three turns out of his front wing. This would have been done to combat front graining, something all the drivers have been complaining about this season, but Hamilton felt it was too much. His engineer, however, didn’t hear correctly and confirmed that three turns would be taken out of his front wing. It was all a mess on Hamilton’s side of the garage.

Rosberg finally made his last stop on lap 45. He emerged six seconds behind his teammate and in some relatively busy traffic. It was now a matter of Rosberg catching up to Hamilton and keeping his tires full of enough life to try and make a pass stick.

The gap slowly started to dwindle until, by the time the last few laps came around, Rosberg was within a second of his teammate. Echoes of Bahrain started to sound, though this battle didn’t have quite the dynamic explosiveness of the one in the duel in the desert. This was more tense, with the balance of power between the two drivers teetering precariously.

In the end, Rosberg didn’t quite have enough to defeat his teammate, but did suggest afterwards that the win wasn’t out of reach.

“I think one more to be honest,” said the German when asked how many more laps he needed. “I could have given him a go. I wasn’t close enough but with one more lap I would have been.”

0943LB1D9215Further down in the pack Sebastian Vettel had an excellent race, charging from 15th to fourth place and setting fastest lap of the race, while Daniel Ricciardo finally scored his first career podium finish. The two Force Indias also made in into the points, limiting the damage of missing Q3 yesterday.

Lewis Hamilton may have won this afternoon, but the tension between him and his team of engineers does not bode well. Before this season started, everyone was debating which of the two Mercedes drivers would come out on top: the quick and aggressive Hamilton, or the calm, calculated and methodic Rosberg. The jury is still out on that one, but who knows how long this confusion between Hamilton and his engineer can carry on?

Mercedes aimed to increase their advantage over the rest of the field this weekend, and all the evidence suggests they have. They finished 1-2 for the fourth time in a row and enjoyed the biggest margin over third place this whole season. Monaco is a whole different beast, but judging by Mercedes’ chokehold on the rest of the field, you would be forgiven for thinking a Silver Arrow will stand atop the podium in the principality.

Images courtesy of Octane Photographic