‘Strug­gling’ Lewis holds on

Span­ish Grand Prix 11.05.2014 / Cir­cuit de Barcelona-Catalunya

F1 Racing - - FINISHING STRAIGHT - by James Roberts

An­other lap and Nico Ros­berg might have squeezed past – in­stead, Lewis now leads the cham­pi­onship

For the rst time this sea­son, Lewis Hamil­ton leads the driv­ers’ world cham­pi­onship fol­low­ing his fourth con­sec­u­tive grand prix vic­tory – co­in­ci­den­tally, his rst ever win at the Span­ish Grand Prix. Af­ter scor­ing an­other 25 points, 29-year-old Hamil­ton has nally been able to claw back the decit caused by that spark-plug fail­ure in Aus­tralia. But, as ever, his team-mate Nico Ros­berg shad­owed him through­out the race and nished right on his tail.

Mercedes split the strate­gies of their two pro­tag­o­nists, putting sec­ond-placed Ros­berg on op­tion-prime-op­tion, com­pared with Hamil­ton’s op­tion-op­tion-prime tyre se­quence. This re­quired a mas­terly de­fence from the Bri­tish racer, since it put him on the slower, or­ange side-walled hard-com­pound Pirellis in the lat­ter stages of the race.

Af­ter a quiet open­ing gam­bit, from the rst cor­ner on­wards Hamil­ton and Ros­berg were mostly driv­ing in isolation. It made for a tense endgame: with two laps to go, Ros­berg got within a sec­ond of his team-mate and was able to use his DRS, while Hamil­ton was nurs­ing the grain­ing on his tyres (in par­tic­u­lar the left-front). Af­ter 66 laps, Hamil­ton’s mar­gin of vic­tory was just 0.636 sec­onds. Ros­berg ad­mit­ted af­ter­wards that if the race had been just a sin­gle lap longer, he could have had a shot at pass­ing Hamil­ton for the vic­tory.

If you wanted an ex­am­ple of how close this in­tense bat­tle was, then lap 49 made for a fas­ci­nat­ing snapshot of the race. Both Mercedes run­ners had al­most a half-minute ad­van­tage over Red Bull’s Daniel Ric­cia­rdo, but be­tween them their pri­vate duel was hot­ting up. Hamil­ton lit up the tim­ing screens with a blind­ing 1min 29.759secs lap – at that point, the fastest of the race. Just be­hind him, Ros­berg did his per­sonal best lap of the grand prix, record­ing 1min 29.793secs. The 0.034sec decit proved how close the ght for the race win was – ul­ti­mately reect­ing the big­ger bat­tle for world cham­pi­onship honours.

The dif­fer­ences be­tween them are down to the nest of mar­gins; the frac­tions of a sec­ond lost or gained in the pit­stop or sub­tle vari­a­tions in set-up trim. Dur­ing this race, Hamil­ton was af­fected by a slow change on the front-left tyre at his rst pit­stop and an­other some­what laboured tyre change at his sec­ond. It led to some fraught ra­dio mes­sages from the cock­pit of the num­ber 44 ma­chine back to the Mercedes pit­wall.

“While I am driv­ing I am al­ways ask­ing how much of a gap do I need,” said Lewis in the sanc­tu­ary of the Mercedes mo­torhome af­ter the race, when quizzed about the nal laps. “When I was in Bahrain I knew I had to have a ten-sec­ond lead, but then the Safety Car came out. Here I was ask­ing about the gap I needed, but lost a lot of time in my pit­stops.

“Nico’s pit­stop was three sec­onds, mine was 4.8 sec­onds – or some­thing like that. That was signicant. On those last laps there was a huge amount of pres­sure and he was very, very close to tak­ing it – and I don’t like that, be­ing in that po­si­tion. I like to say it was no prob­lem and un­der con­trol – but it wasn’t.”

Hamil­ton con­ceded that the ad­van­tage he en­joyed over his team-mate on Fri­day af­ter­noon dis­ap­peared with set-up changes made on Satur­day morn­ing. From that point, he was on the back foot. But again, as was the case in China, at a race where he wasn’t com­fort­able with his car, he was able to ex­tract the max­i­mum points haul while in dam­age-lim­i­ta­tion mode. As a re­sult, you could un­der­stand the terse na­ture of his ra­dio trans­mis­sions, some­thing that Mercedes mo­tor­sport boss Toto Wolff ad­mit­ted in his post-race de­brief.

“You have to un­der­stand that the in­ten­sity of the bat­tle is huge and if you are alone in the car you have to rely on the in­for­ma­tion from the en­gi­neers – you don’t re­ally know where your team-mate is,” said Toto. “Lewis has a very strong per­son­al­ity and he’s ul­tra-com­pet­i­tive, and some­times his words might sound harsher than he ac­tu­ally means them. Thank­fully his race en­gi­neers have known him for some time now, so there is no prob­lem.”

While there were smiles in the Mercedes camp, just next door at Fer­rari it was a very sombre af­fair. Lo­cal hero Fer­nando Alonso had spent most of the race tucked up be­hind his team-mate Kimi Räikkö­nen. On his home turf, you could sense the grow­ing frus­tra­tion in Alonso’s driv­ing, and then the re­lief as he was able to mus­cle his way past, into Turn 4, in the clos­ing laps.

Af­ter the race, much of the at­ten­tion was fo­cused on why the team had de­cided to bring Alonso into the pits rst on lap 16 in­stead of Räikkö­nen, who was ahead on track. Both driv­ers tried to down­play the mo­ment, but it was clear from Räikkö­nen’s body lan­guage that the de­ci­sion had left him fum­ing. Even though he is a man of few words, it was signicant that he en­gaged with the press for less than four min­utes. That in it­self spoke vol­umes. Alonso was much more vo­cal about where the team had nished. In his nal stint he had to con­cede po­si­tion to Se­bas­tian Vet­tel who had driven bril­liantly to nish fourth af­ter start­ing the race from 15th.

“We had some chances to ght but we are still far away from where we want to be,” said the un­happy Alonso. “Over­all we were the fourthquick­est team, so it’s dis­ap­point­ing.”

For ev­ery team aside from Mercedes, ‘dis­ap­point­ing’ is be­com­ing a recurring ad­jec­tive this year. At this rate the Sil­ver Ar­rows are likely to win ev­ery race, some­thing that Toto Wolff was ques­tioned about – and joked: “Yes, we will do that… and then we’ll re­tire!”

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