Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Barcelona battle offers hope of a competitive season

22nd May 2011
Spanish Grand Prix, Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona

The Spanish Grand Prix, so often a lights-to-flag procession threw up it's fair share of surprises this year, and ended up being an intriguing and tense, if not exactly action packed, race meeting.

One aspect that was certainly no surprise was the result;  a pole position and race win for the Red Bull team. Barcelona's aerodynamically demanding track was always going to suit the RB7 and Sebastien Vettel's fourth win out of five races looked, on paper, to be the most nailed on result of the year so far. So the manner in which Lewis Hamilton's McLaren was able to match the Red Bull's speed was a great relief to those of us who were starting to worry that the championship would be tied up before the end of the summer. With Monaco and Canada coming up, two circuits that may suit the McLaren more than the Red Bull, it might be just the fillip Hamilton needs to really take the fight to Vettel.

Vettel wasn't the only one who was left scratching his head after a one second advantage in qualifying completely vanished during the race. My hunch is that it is the Red Bull's DRS that is skewing the qualifying charts. Freely available to the driver in qualifying, Vettel and Webber were able to maximize the RB7 system compared to their rivals, opening up their rear wings in the middle of some of Barcelona's long medium and high speed corners. Christian Horner is also pointing the finger at the 'fragile' Pirelli tyres, and it is certainly true that the McLaren seems to be able to run longer stints, even for the more abrasive Hamilton. We'll see at Monaco. If the Red Bull is still a second ahead around the slow street circuit of Monte Carlo then McLaren will need to start worrying again.

The big disappointment in Spain was Mark Webber. So completely thrashed by his team mate in the opening rounds, there was a growing feeling that it was now-or-never for Webber at one of his happiest hunting grounds. Pole position historically is a massive advantage at the Catalunya circuit with the past ten races being won from the pole, but Webber only managed to lead for a few hundred yards on the way to turn one. Third position behind Alonso and Vettel still had him in contention for the win, however a combination of poor strategy and a lack of consistent speed saw him leapfrogged first by Hamilton and then also by the three-stopping Button, whose disastrous first lap had seen him drop as low as tenth at one point. Only five races down and Webber already looks like he'll be fighting with Button for third in this year's championship, and after the way he bottled the championship last year, one can't help but feel that the sun is beginning to set on Webber's career at the top.

For me the driver of the day in Spain was Lewis Hamilton. The fastest man on the track, and for once he was also one of the kindest to his tyres, he hounded Vettel all the way to the flag, and it's fair to say that at a track with a few more overtaking opportunities we would've seen a different result. Hamilton has been out performing his machinery for the last two seasons, so to see him in a car that can go that fast at Barcelona will be a massive encouragement to McLaren. Hamilton - Vettel is the rivalry we all want to see, two prodigies that were always destined for the top, the youngest world champions in the sport, the natural racer against the speed demon, and of course the old England versus Germany rivalry!

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