Lewis Hamilton takes control after the Spanish Grand Prix


Lewis Hamilton takes control after the Spanish Grand Prix
FILE PHOTO: Formula One F1 - Turkish Grand Prix - Istanbul Park, Istanbul, Turkey - November 15, 2020 Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton celebrates after winning the race and the world championship Pool via REUTERS/Clive Mason

In Summary

  • Behind the fabulous spectacle of the start of this Formula 1 season - four close races, in all of which title protagonists Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen have gone wheel-to-wheel for the win - there is an interesting paradox.

  • This is the closest Mercedes and Hamilton have been challenged since 2018, when Ferrari at this stage of the season had the faster car. But despite that, Hamilton has equalled his best-ever start to a year.

Behind the fabulous spectacle of the start of this Formula 1 season – four close races, in all of which title protagonists Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen have gone wheel-to-wheel for the win – there is an interesting paradox.

This is the closest Mercedes and Hamilton have been challenged since 2018, when Ferrari at this stage of the season had the faster car. But despite that, Hamilton has equalled his best-ever start to a year.

Only once before has Hamilton taken three wins and a second place from the first four races of a season. And that was in 2015, which turned into one of his most dominant championship victories.

It’s hard to imagine this year’s championship developing in the same way, given the tiny margins between Mercedes and Red Bull so far this season. But the way Hamilton and Mercedes are going, you would not rule it out either.

His victory in Spain was yet another superlative performance, coupled to another masterful Mercedes strategy, and it edged him to just two away from a century of victories, to go with the 100 career poles he achieved on Saturday in Barcelona.

The manner of Hamilton’s brilliant fightback victory, after losing the lead at the start, demonstrates just how much he is revelling in the challenge Verstappen and Red Bull are posing him and Mercedes this year.

“Every year, I come back and I am always trying to improve,” Hamilton said. “Most often it tends to be or seems impossible. But it’s a necessity.

“The Red Bulls have started off incredibly strong. They do have a championship-winning car and opportunity – as do we. And it is going to take everything from us. Not only me bringing my A-game but the team bringing their A-game, weekend-in weekend-out, otherwise these guys will be winning.”

A win built on foresight

At the moment, though, it is Hamilton and Mercedes showing Verstappen and Red Bull how it is done.

As with all the races so far this season, the Spanish Grand Prix came down to fine margins, to the extent that decisions made in the days before the race were crucial in deciding its outcome.

Again, the fight for pole was extremely tight, Hamilton edging out Verstappen by just 0.039 seconds – the average performance gap between the two cars over one lap this year so far is just 0.091secs.

But Verstappen immediately usurped Hamilton’s advantage with a boldly aggressive move down the inside into the first corner.

“As soon as I got passed into Turn One,” Hamilton said, “I was like: ‘OK.’ And switched into a different mode.”

Hamilton was able to follow Verstappen closely enough to keep up the pressure, but not close enough to threaten a pass. And the statistics of a track on which overtaking is notoriously difficult suggested Hamilton was now in trouble, all the more so given the pre-race predictions that teams would make only one pit stop.

So when Verstappen pitted first and retained the lead – Hamilton unable to do so himself because he would have come out behind the second Red Bull of Sergio Perez – Mercedes looked snookered.

But this is where their pre-race planning came into play.

Mercedes suspected that the one-stop predictions would prove to be wrong, that two stops would be needed on a track which has always been tough on tyres.

So they saved two sets of medium tyres for the race – one new and one lightly used – to give them the chance to do exactly that.

Red Bull, by contrast, had only one set of new mediums and one set of new softs, which are too fragile to be a race tyre on which drivers can push hard for a long time.

In these decisions lay the foundations of the problems that were about to emerge for Verstappen.

Mercedes extended Hamilton’s first stint by four laps, giving him fresher tyres than Verstappen for the second stint, on which he again pushed the Red Bull hard. Then, just 14 laps later, Hamilton came in again for that second set of mediums. He now had 23 laps to close a 22-second deficit and pass Verstappen. He did it with six laps to spare.

“It was interesting,” Hamilton said, “because all weekend the one-stop strategy was the quickest (according to the computer predictions). But this is one of the most aggressive tracks for tyres and it isn’t easy to make these tyres go that distance.

“It was clear to me, especially given how close I was pushing behind Max, that I was going to a two-stop strategy. And then the team told me and I was like: ‘It’s nothing new.’

“Of course, when I came out 20-odd seconds behind, it seemed so far, such a huge gap to close. I didn’t know if I would have enough pace at the end tyre-wise, but he will have even worse. So it was the perfect strategy.”

BBC Online

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