Spanish Grand Prix – Ferrari were very much off the boil in Spain, but there’s no real reason to panic yet as Barcelona didn’t play to their strengths.
The Spanish Grand Prix was an odd weekend in terms of pace. Mercedes looked fast from the outset, with Hamilton quickest in practice on Friday and Saturday morning. Qualifying saw Ferrari come to life in Q1 & Q2 with extremely fast times from both drivers on the Soft tyres. But, the instant the SuperSoft tyres went on, the competitiveness of the SF71-H went out the window. While Raikkonen & Vettel both made errors on their initial flying laps, Hamilton & Mercedes unlocked enough pace on that tyre to be able to consolidate the front row on their second runs as Ferrari were forced to play catch up by bolting on a set of their preferred, albeit supposedly slower, Pirelli tyres.
From there, Ferrari were nowhere. Vettel battled his way past Valtteri Bottas and looked nailed down for a P2 finish, but he and Ferrari claim they had to make another pitstop to make sure his rear tyres were able to get him to the end. An odd problem, considering Ferrari have not struggled with tyre life so far in 2018; so much so, Vettel won in Bahrain with 39 lap old Soft tyres in Bahrain. With no new SuperSofts left to use, he was forced to use another set of new Mediums and never looked capable of getting back past eventual podium finishers Valtteri Bottas & Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. While Bottas finished P2 using the Mediums for 47 laps and was still lapping competitively at the end, Vettel was only able to get 24 laps down on the same tyre before encountering his problems with the rear.
The big talking point ahead of the weekend was the change in tyre compound tread depth for the Spanish Grand Prix. Both Mercedes & Red Bull apparently struggled with overheating issues during testing and, following consultation with the teams, Pirelli made the decision to reduce tyre tread depth by 0.4 millimetres to combat this. This was a decision Ferrari say they were ‘informed about’, not ‘consulted about’, and one that clearly rankled. Justifiably so – usually cars have to be made work with the tyre product on offer, and not the other way around. Having enjoyed seemingly excellent tyre wear rates over the four opening races of the year, Vettel couldn’t get any real pace out of either compound on Sunday, nor any longevity. Mercedes, by contrast, unlocked lap record after lap record during the race, metronomic and frightening pace seemingly at the merest touch of Lewis Hamilton’s fingertips. Red Bull also appeared to have an edge on Ferrari, with Verstappen hounding Raikkonen up until the Finn’s retirement, while Daniel Ricciardo might have finished ahead of Vettel too had he not spun off by himself under the Virtual Safety Car.
But there’s no great need for panic yet at Ferrari. Barcelona is a track known to play to Mercedes’ strengths. Fast, sweeping corners, great mechanical grip, and Mercedes’ seeming preference for the harder compound Pirellis mean the W09 was always likely to be the quickest car in Catalunya. This was the track that, two months ago at testing, suggested Mercedes’ advantage was greater than ever, according to all the pre-season analysis based on GPS data from the teams. Some technical analysts even suggested that the Haas was ahead of the Ferrari car after testing. While the Haas is excellent, the SF71-H is rivalling the W09 as the best car on the grid – it’s just not the case at this particular circuit. Where Ferrari do have to worry is Monaco, should it go wrong. Use of the softest tyre compounds, lots of traction zones and heavy braking, and two drivers that have the deftest of touches at Monte Carlo mean they have to bounce back strongly next time out. Raikkonen & Vettel dominated last year’s race, with Mercedes struggling, and a failure to at least fight hard for the win will mean that the team have lost all the impetus with which they started this season.
For now, Mercedes & Hamilton still look the slightly stronger package overall. When Ferrari have a pace advantage, it only appears to be a small one, meaning its still a struggle to bring home the win, as seen in China & Azerbaijan. When Mercedes have a pace advantage, it’s almost unstoppable. Vettel could have started the Spanish Grand Prix with a twenty second lead, and would still have lost the race. Luckily for Ferrari, the lesser treaded Pirellis are only due to make two more appearances this year – France & Britain. Paul Ricard is an unknown for everybody as it makes its return to the calendar after almost 30 years, while Silverstone is still likely to be a Mercedes vulgar display of power. While Ferrari may have said that ‘it is not in their decision to complain’ about odd technical idiosyncrasies like the one made regarding the Pirellis, there will be a background furore to rectify the decision and attempt to revert back to the compound constructions used in testing if the team cannot get a handle on why they were not able to make them work over the weekend. Maurizio Arrivabene and Sebastian Vettel have both said that they will calmly analyse the situation, a crucial response to what should be, in theory, just a blip on the calendar.
Assuming that the car’s performance was anomalous in Spain, reliability still remains an issue. Kimi Raikkonen suffered a power unit failure on Friday that resulted in him needing a new internal combustion engine, turbo & MGU-H for Saturday. Moving on to his second batch of parts, of which each driver is only permitted three for the year, his mid-race engine problem was worrying. Initial whispers seem to say that it was an electrical problem as opposed to engine related, but we await official word from Ferrari as to whether any further damage has been done to Raikkonen’s engine and parts supply. Either way, penalties look inevitable later in the year, as Raikkonen was scheduled to make it to Canada on his initial parts. If this is Raikkonen’s swan-song year, it’s a shame that the fired up Finn is bearing the brunt of Ferrari’s ill fortunes so far this season.