Mercedes absolutely nailed their strategy in the Spanish Grand Prix to beat Sebastian Vettel in the Ferrari. It still remains unclear as to which of the teams has the fastest car, such are the fine margins at the moment.
One crucial element of the race was in the leading two drivers’ second stint, with Valtteri Bottas inheriting the lead of the race on worn tyres as Vettel and Hamilton pitted. It was crucial at this point for Sebastian Vettel to maximise the advantage of the yellow-marked soft compounds, especially given that Hamilton had emerged from the Mercedes box on the mediums.
For two laps, Bottas’ sliding Mercedes prevented the Ferrari from optimising his fresh rubber, and allowed Hamilton to reduce the gap from 6s to 2s on harder rubber. Vettel pulled off a spectacular double-dummy heading into the first corner, another lap behind Bottas may have seen Hamilton within the DRS zone.
On the tactic deployed by Mercedes, Vettel said,
“I am not happy, it [the win] was there. Lewis had the luxury to stay out and choose a different tyre With Valtteri I was catching him and I knew they wouldn’t pit him. He was all over the place with the tyres, so they used him a bit to block me.”
He still somehow managed to get a decent exit [from the chicane] so I couldn’t do it first time. Second time I thought I had to find a way even if it was on the grass.
It was really close, I faked it on the inside, then went back on the outside and inside again, but nearly lost the car as I had DRS open – but it worked. I looked down and I had lost an awful lot of time.”
– Sebastian Vettel
The strategy call that put the nail in the coffin for Ferrari came in the second phase of stops, with a virtual safety car for Vandoorne’s stricken McLaren changing the race. After getting past Bottas, Vettel was able to build a gap of 8 seconds to Hamilton, who was struggling to match his pace on the harder compound. Mercedes crucially called Hamilton in to switch onto the softs whilst the Virtual Safety car was still out, meaning that all cars on track, including Vettel, were forced to drive at a slower speed.
Ferrari called Vettel into the pits as the virtual safety car period closed, meaning that Hamilton could go full-throttle on his new tyres as his rival changed for the mediums. The 8 second gap vanished as a result, and Vettel just managed to get out of the pits neck and neck with Hamilton into turn one. They made contact and Hamilton ended up going a bit wide to avoid a full collision.
Vettel retained his lead, but it was clear that Hamilton’s Mercedes would be able to get by on the softs, and after the Brit was able to catch Vettel on the main straight without the benefit of DRS from back markers, the overtake was a formality.
Did Bottas’ blockade prevent Vettel from winning the race? Not as much as the Ferrari drivers’ pit-stop after the virtual safety car period. Although, had Vettel been able to extract the maximum from his softs had Bottas not been there, he may have emerged from the post VSC stop three or four seconds ahead of Hamilton.