2014 Spanish GP analysis: Delving into the detail and strategies from Barcelona
What were Ferrari's strategists thinking? Were Merc caught out by unexpected tyre graining? Just how low have McLaren fallen?
By James Galloway and Mike Wise
Last Updated: 13/05/14 5:41pm
Was Kimi right to be confused?
While Kimi Raikkonen's comically understated response to questions over Ferrari's strategy split in Spain will probably live longer in the memory than the details of the controversy itself, Sunday's race provided the Scuderia pitwall with their first acid public test of how they handle the individual ambitions of their two World Champion drivers.
That the result - three-stopping Fernando Alonso defeating two-stopping Raikkonen despite the Spaniard following the Finn through the first two stints - prompted accusations of Ferrari favouritism towards their established number one showed how delicate a balancing act the situation is likely to prove.
Having outqualified Alonso for just the second time - and in front of the Spaniard's fanatical home fans - Raikkonen had appeared on course to deliver an important first race-day defeat of his generational rival and new team-mate.
Raikkonen was the lead Ferrari through the opening exchanges of the race, but it was Alonso who was the first Ferrari driver to stop for a new set of tyres on lap 16 even though he was second on the road to the Finn. Traffic on his out lap meant the Spaniard couldn't make the jump on Kimi, but it was still a close-run thing.
But fast forward to lap 63, and having been switched to the three-stopper mid-race, Alonso, on tyres which were ten laps fresher, caught and passed the sister car to claim the sixth place finish that had appeared Raikkonen's for the taking.
"The decision to go for a three-stop strategy was taken in an attempt to cover Vettel," explained Alonso after the race, "but unfortunately I lost the place at the pit stop and I only managed to make up one on Kimi, who was impossible to pass when we were on the same tyres."
For Raikkonen's part, the Finn, in the wordier world of the official Ferrari press release, said: "Going for a two stop strategy proved to be the wrong choice because tyre degradation meant I couldn't push all the way to the end."
So had Raikkonen been dealt the losing hand? Certainly when running within a couple of seconds of each other in the middle phase of the race, there was no discernible difference between the Ferraris' lap-times on the hard compound. In actual fact, only three times in the eight laps before the Spaniard stopped for the second time on lap 35 did the then lead Ferrari register a faster lap despite running in clear air. Then again, Kimi knew he was running on a two-stopper, so may have been protecting his tyres...
With Vettel beginning to make headway on a three-stopper himself behind, the threat from the World Champion was clear to Ferrari, so an attempted cover was legitimate. However, Alonso lost out to Vettel anyway when Red Bull successfully executed an undercut on lap 52. To compound the Scuderia's latest disappointing race, Vettel soon went on to scythe past the now-struggling Raikkonen. That Alonso then followed suit on his team-mate opened up one rather large can of worms.
Was Lewis Hamilton right to question the Mercedes pitwall?
Not for the first - or probably last - time in his ever-eventful career, it was Lewis Hamilton's edgy conversations with his race engineer in the Spanish GP which contributed heavily to Sunday's radio soundtrack.
While you can be sure that the relentless presence of Nico Rosberg behind him was starting to take its toll in the cockpit, Hamilton's comments certainly weren't without their merit. Take, for example, the Briton's questions following his final pitstop on lap 43 over the timing of his change from the medium to hard tyres for the decisive final stint:
Hamilton: "How was last lap? Was it too slow?"
Engineer: "No pace was good at the end of that stint."
Hamilton: "Then why did you bring me in?"
Engineer: "We are keeping you on the optimum strategy, Lewis. We are currently four seconds safe to Nico."
Hamilton: "You said I needed five-and-a-half."
Although the hard compound Hamilton would complete the race's final 23 laps on was supposedly the weekend's more durable tyre, it was suffering from more graining around Barcelona's aerodynamically-demanding corners. That trend duly played out for Hamilton on his W05's left-front with around ten laps to go as Rosberg, now on the faster mediums - which the German had earlier reported had been holding on well when he first ran them in the opening stint - began to relentlessly close on the race leader.
Had Hamilton therefore been correct to wonder why the pitwall had ended his middle stint when they did?
Having started the second stint with a 3.7-second lead over the sister car on lap 23, Hamilton initially managed to edge clear of Rosberg by a further eight tenths by lap 30, before the German came back at him approaching that second stop to effectively cancel out the Briton's gains.
Rather than that being the result of Rosberg noticeably upping his own pace, Hamilton's own times had fractionally started to slow - a 1:31.344 on lap 40; a 1:31.587 on lap 41, a 1:31.728 on lap 42 - although hardly by a rate to set off warning sirens. In his final stint, Hamilton regularly ran in the 1:29s-1:30s, but, remember, he had far less fuel on-board at that point.
The other consideration is that had Hamilton stayed out in order to try and trim his final stint on the primes, any delay would have complicated Mercedes' strategy with Rosberg given the German pitted just two laps later. The team would have wanted to avoid both cars pitting at the same time at all costs. The computer would certainly have said no.
In any case, the best strategy is the winning strategy, and for the fourth straight race it was Hamilton's side of the garage which was left with no regrets.
Where are McLaren in the order now?
You'd think 'no points since March' would be the sort of headline to set more alarm bells ringing at McLaren but what was noticeable after another poor showing at the Spanish GP was the team's measured response. Even though Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen both failed to score points for the third straight race, the team insisted that progress is being made with their MP4-29 car.
Instead, Button held his hand up for a poor start that dropped him from eighth on the grid to 13th on lap one while Magnussen - who ran wide on the opening lap to avoid contact with his team-mate before surviving a brush with Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull - was already on the back foot after power unit problems in qualifying left him 14th on the grid.
That the World Champion came through from 15th to fourth while McLaren's drivers remained mired in the midfield says plenty about the current competitive order and relative performance, although crumbs of comfort can be taken from both Button's grid slot (he was also fourth fastest in Q2) and the race's fastest laps:
1) Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull/Renault, 1:28.918, Lap 55.
2 Nico Rosberg, Mercedes, 1:29.236, Lap 51.
3) Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1:29.483, Lap 54.
4) Fernando Alonso, Ferrari, 1:29.898, Lap 55.
5) Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull, 1:30.012, Lap 65.
6) Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso, 1:30.269, Lap 59.
7) Kevin Magnussen, McLaren, 1:30.318, Lap 43.
8) Valtteri Bottas,Williams, 1:30.424, Lap 47.
...notice that Magnussen's fastest lap was set relatively early, therefore with a heavier car.
McLaren might have fallen to sixth but team boss Eric Boullier certainly doesn't think they have the sixth fastest car. "No, it's not," he told Sky Sports Online on Tuesday. "We had a DNF [in Bahrain] that was not to do with performance and now I think it's the case that we're not the fastest by far but we're at the top of the midfield.
"Just as something goes wrong, such as the power unit problem for Kevin in qualy or the poor start of Jenson, you can just see that everything went wrong. The gaps between the cars are very, very close after Mercedes and Red Bull."
The question of challenging Ferrari - not to mention of how Lotus's re-emergence might develop - is one that will be answered in the longer run when any fruits of the "aggressive" development path promised by Boullier can be measured. But the first step is to re-assert themselves against Williams and Force India.
Are Marussia catching Sauber?
The size of Marussia's update package for Barcelona may have naturally been dwarfed by those brought by teams further up the grid, but in terms of providing real-term gains, few proved as fruitful.
Three weeks after being outqualified by a Caterham and then seeing Kamui Kobayashi pass Jules Bianchi for 17th on the penultimate lap in China - the move was, however, erased from the record books due to that over-eager man with the chequered flag - both Marussia drivers outqualified and outraced their rivals in Spain, the first time since Canada 2011 that both their cars had finished in front of the Caterhams still running at the chequered flag.
The gap between the two teams in qualifying - 0.726s - showed that the tweaks made by the Banbury team to the MR03, front and rear, had emphatically proved their worth around the aerodynamically-demanding Circuit de Catalunya.
So what of the Holy Grail that Marussia have been fruitlessly chasing since launching in 2010, catching the tail end of the midfield? The travails of Sauber since the start of the season have certainly brought the Swiss outfit, regular points scorers in the second half of 2013 remember, closer to them and they remained the team directly ahead at Barcelona, despite a big overhaul of the C33 which reputedly included a weight decrease of 15kg.
Although the Swiss team finished only one lap down, to Marussia's two, on race day the Banbury team seemed to think they were creeping up on the midfield, with Max Chilton saying: "I'm really pleased that we've seen a good step forward here and we've been able to lift our performance versus the cars around us. We've definitely gained a really strong advantage on the Caterhams and the Saubers are now in our sights."
In Marussia's 'sights' position-wise, certainly, but the gap between the fastest C33 and MR03 was still 1.2 seconds in Q1 on Saturday, even if Bianchi's pace in the final stint of Sunday's race was often quicker than Adrian Sutil's and comparable to that of the similarly two-stopping Force India Nico Hulkenberg, who finished up in tenth.
So, progress, but Marussia's wait to crack the midfield will go on for a wait yet.
How big a step did Williams make?
McLaren's efforts might prove a whole lot tougher if Williams can maintain their progress in Barcelona. Much has been made of the team's timely switch to Mercedes power and yet they ultimately performed better in Spain than they did in Shanghai - where that endless straight suited them perfectly.
The Circuit de Catalunya has a long straight too, of course, and Valtteri Bottas made use of it to fend off Daniel Ricciardo in the opening stint of the race. But the Red Bull was ahead after 'undercutting' by a six full laps at the opening pit-stops while Sebastian Vettel used fresher option tyres to pass the Finn (on primes) ten laps from the finish.
Still a strong fifth place for Bottas, then, but even though team-mate Felipe Massa finished out of the points after struggling with his tyres, both drivers were effusive about the upgraded FW36 on a track which rewards good aerodynamic performance.
"Every single thing we've brought has been a step forward," Bottas said. "Small steps but something and it's really good to see. Compared to others here, we were better than in China."
Massa added: "We don't have downforce compared to other teams but the car was more competitive than I expected."
Their claim to having the third quickest car overall was (more than) borne out by the sector times in qualifying, as sectors one (featuring the long Turn 3) and three (the tight, twisty part of the track) indicate:
1) Lewis Hamilton 23.156.
2) Nico Rosberg 23.299.
3) Felipe Massa 23.438.
4) Valtteri Bottas 23.564.
1) N Rosberg 29.783
2) Lewis Hamilton 29.924.
3) Daniel Ricciardo 29.989.
4) Valtteri Bottas 30.292.
While Williams might have not performed quite as strongly in the early races as pre-season testing suggested they might, neither does the Spanish GP indicate they're a dead cert to fall behind once the development war starts to build.