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#1 » by Christalker from Uyo » May 15th, 2017, 12:21 pm

The long-awaited champion of champions clash between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel has finally ignited.

It has been a decade in the anticipation. Vettel and Hamilton may be the sport's most successful drivers, claiming seven of the last nine F1 drivers' titles, but their on-track battles have been few and far between

Which is what made Sunday's Spanish GP such a special event, when a slow-burning tactical game of cat-and-mouse was catapulted into a classic as the sport's two modern greats converged and went to battle in a thrilling contest for the ages.

"That is how racing should be," Hamilton later reflected after his 55th F1 GP victory. "That is as close as it could be."

But it was also a victory dependent on much more than Hamilton's brilliant driving. Smart strategy, clever teamwork and luck all had a role to play - and underlined just how decisive small details could be in determining the identity of this year's champion.
Did Mercedes beat Ferrari on strategy?
While the race's decisive act occurred with 20 laps remaining when Hamilton finally passed Vettel, its pivotal play had occurred 10 laps previously when Mercedes pitted Hamilton behind the Virtual Safety Car.

Until its deployment Mercedes had been planning to run Hamilton on an ultra-long middle stint on medium tyres. He could then be unleashed to attack Vettel - required to use medium tyres on his final stint - on a short final run on softs.

But the appearance of the Virtual Safety Car changed Mercedes' thinking and allowed the team to seize the initiative with a smart piece of opportunism. "Our strategy group opted now to do the opposite of what was planned: to pit at the very end of the VSC to make it impossible for Sebastian to react," explained team boss Toto Wolff. "Our timing was perfect."

Vettel pitted a lap later, putting on the mediums, and emerged back on track startled to find the Mercedes alongside him. "I don't know what happened in the last stint because I thought I had eight seconds in hand," said Vettel.

Critically, whereas Hamilton had pitted under the Virtual Safety Car, it had been removed by the time Vettel made his stop - meaning Hamilton, on fresh soft tyres, could lap at full speed.

"When you do a regular pit stop your loss under normal circumstances is about twenty-one seconds as all cars move very fast," explained Wolff. "But under the VSC every car moves much slower and the effective pit stop loss is much less. This is where we gained time."
Bottas plays his part for Hamilton
But it wasn't only the quick thinking of strategist James Vowles which Hamilton had cause to thank afterwards within the Mercedes motorhome. Without Valtteri Bottas effectively sacrificing his own race to boost Hamilton's chances, Vettel's advantage would have been far in excess of 10 seconds at the second round of stops.

After losing the lead into the first corner to Vettel, Mercedes' only play, once the Ferrari had pitted early to cover off the undercut, was to run for an additional five laps and then bolt on the mediums to set the stage for an all-out-attack final stint. Hamilton had done his bit by pegging Vettel to a lead of around two seconds throughout the first stint, preventing Vettel from running long for fear of being undercut.

But there was a significant problem with Mercedes' 'Plan B': the mediums were around a second slower than the softs - the compound Vettel had put on at his first stop. In other words, the risk Mercedes were taking is that Vettel's lead could have become unassailable during that second stint.

Spanish GP driver ratings

Enter Bottas - or, to be more precise, enter Bottas staying out as the Finn, handicapped by his first-lap contact with the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, ran for even longer than Hamilton to form a roadblock against Vettel. The Finn's blocking manoeuvres were so effective that not only could Vettel not find a way past but Hamilton, running on the mediums against Vettel's softs, was able to close the gap to Vettel from almost nine seconds to less than four.

"I was doing everything l could to keep Seb behind and lose him time," Bottas candidly admitted. "That was my role and my mission."

It was an act of supreme team support from the Finn - gratefully acknowledged by Hamilton afterwards - and one which was only broken by Vettel taking to the grass at Turn One to pass Bottas' Mercedes.

"I faked it on the inside, went back on the outside and then on the inside to surprise him, which worked, but I nearly lost the car doing that because I had the DRS open and it was a quite aggressive move on the steering wheel," said Vettel. "So I was really happy but then equally I looked down and saw I'd lost an awful lot of time so I wasn't that happy because the real fight was with Lewis."

Mercedes and Hamilton improve on their weaknesses
Yet while credit and thanks are due elsewhere in the Mercedes garage, the influence of Hamilton's own brilliance on his triumph shouldn't be underestimated.

His only mistake was at the start when his pole-sitting Mercedes became bogged down with wheel-spin, allowing Vettel through. But to his own surprise, Hamilton was able to run throughout that first stint close to the Ferrari - a suggestion, perhaps, that Mercedes are closer to finding a fix for their struggles in dirty air.

His stint lengths were also surprising: to win the race, Hamilton had to make his final set of soft tyres last for almost 30 laps. He managed it so well that he was even able to set the race's fastest lap with two to go.

"The work we have done is paying off," Hamilton said in reference to the recent two-day test at Bahrain in which the Silver Arrows focused on improving tyre life. The extensive suite of conspicuous upgrades introduced this weekend by Mercedes must have been a factor as well.

"We prove every race weekend that we understand the car and tyres better," added a jubilant Wolff.

Hamilton doesn't pass up his winning opportunity
In the end, Hamilton's overtaking move on Vettel for the lead - and win - was, relatively speaking, straightforward. Vettel was on slower tyres and, after clearing traffic, deprived of the DRS boost which Hamilton used so effectively to blast past the Ferrari. "No chance, no chance," said Vettel forlornly over team radio.

But the move had also been expertly engineered by Hamilton. As Vettel acknowledged afterwards, the pass had really begun in the final sector of the previous lap when Hamilton closed almost to within touching distance of the Ferrari.

"I thought it would be more difficult for him the longer he tries. But then I had no tow from any car in front and he sailed past," said Vettel. "He managed a good exit and he was very quick in the last sector."

Their mutual respect still intact, the pair later agreed to disagree on the small details of what had occurred seven laps previously when Vettel emerged alongside Hamilton and the Mercedes briefly skirted off track.

Vettel said he had left enough room. Hamilton said he had to take "avoiding action". They had a laugh and a joke about it and the sense persisted they really quite enjoyed pushing each other, and themselves, so hard.

"I was on the edge," Hamilton later reflected when asked why he had sounded so breathless on team radio during the race. "It's hard to explain. I was very much on the edge. I was pushing until I couldn't push anymore."

Long may F1 2017 serve up more of the same.



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