Mercedes feel the pain in Spain

It wasn’t the most thrilling race of the season, but one man who won’t be complaining about the result is Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard took what was in the end a very comfortable victory in his home grand prix and was joined on the podium by his team-mate Felipe Massa in third and Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen. Mercedes, on the other hand, certainly won’t have been pleased by the result in Barcelona. After dominating qualifying by locking out the front row, both cars went backwards in the race, finishing a long way off the pace of the front-runners.

Fernando Alonso on his way to victory in Spain

Fernando Alonso on his way to victory in Spain

I have to start with Fernando Alonso, though. The 2005 and 2006 world drivers champion drove another faultless race to take his second win of the season. Alonso again made a great start from fifth place on the grid, but didn’t actually move forward until turn three where he crucially passed Raikkonen’s Lotus and Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes around the outside of the corner to move into third position and grab critical track position.

As the race progressed, Alonso and Ferrari made their four stop strategy work to perfection, first passing Vettel and moving into second place through the first round of pit stops and then passing Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes just a lap later on lap 23. The Spaniard never really looked back from that point onwards. He relinquished the lead only when making his remaining four pit stops, but he never looked under threat.

Indeed, as revealed after the race, even the luck was with Alonso in Spain. When the tyres were examined after Alonso’s final pit stop on lap 50 the team and Pirelli found that the Spaniard actually had a puncture. Had he continued for even another lap it would have been likely that we would have seen a tyre delamination for the Ferrari driver, similar to the one that put Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne out of the race in the final stages of the race. I suppose that the good luck for Alonso in Spain balances out the bad luck he had in Malaysia when his front wing failed on lap two.

Lewis Hamilton's delaminated Pirelli tyre from Bahrain, which cost the Englishman a five place grid penalty after it forced a gearbox change

Lewis Hamilton’s delaminated Pirelli tyre from
Bahrain, which cost the Englishman a five place
grid penalty after it forced a gearbox change

The talk in the paddock, though, was all about the Pirelli tyres yet again. As I’ve already mentioned, we had a tyre delamination for Vergne in the race, following up the one suffered by Force India’s Paul di Resta in practice. It seems that the changed construction of the Pirelli tyres means that when the 2013 tyres fail we will see delaminations rather than deflations. It doesn’t look great, but I think that if this were the only issue with the tyres then there wouldn’t really be a problem.

However, tyre failures are not the only problem. Indeed, they’re not even the biggest problem with the Pirelli tyres. The big problem for Pirelli, and indeed for Formula 1, is the extreme tyre degradation experienced by all the teams. When Pirelli entered the sport in 2011 they were charged with making the racing more exciting by making the tyres degrade more quickly and forcing the cars to make more pit stops.

Vettel was forced to yield to Raikkonen in Barcelona

Vettel was forced to yield to Raikkonen in Barcelona

Pirelli have certainly succeeded in this respect, but I think that the 2013 tyres are a step too far. Formula 1 fans want to see cars pushing flat-out, at, and sometimes beyond the limit. This is something that is just not possible with this year’s rubber. Rather than fight to hold on to positions, drivers are told over team radio to let other cars pass them in order not to damage their tyres. We saw an excellent example of this in Barcelona as Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel didn’t put up much of a fight when challenged by Raikkonen’s Lotus.

We also heard Mercedes telling Lewis Hamilton to try lifting off in turn three to help save the tyres and the same team telling the same driver that the rear tyres were at critical temperature with the response from the driver being “I can’t drive any slower”. F1 fans and drivers want the cars to be going as quickly as possible, which is something that they just can’t do nowadays.

How would some of the great drivers of the past fare with these tyres? We would probably never have seen the exuberance of Gilles Villeneuve. We would probably never have seen the supremely talented Ayrton Senna charging around the streets of Monaco getting faster and faster, lap after lap. Formula 1 is about pushing the limits of technology and speed. F1 shouldn’t be about tyre conservation – it isn’t endurance racing.

Of course, some teams are able to manage their tyres better than others. There will always be winners and losers from changes to regulations and tyre compounds and the biggest loser this race was clearly Mercedes. The Brackley based team have clearly made huge steps forward in 2013, but they are being hugely disadvantaged by being too hard on their tyres in the races. This has been a problem for the team for some time. It’s an issue that we certainly witnessed in the opening four races, and although the team have been working to address it, on the basis of their race performance at the Circuit de Catalunya there’s still plenty more work to do.

Rosberg and Hamilton celebrating their front row lock out in Spain

Rosberg and Hamilton celebrating
their front row lock out in Spain

Mercedes had reason to be optimistic going into the race in Spain. After a three-week break, the team took their third consecutive pole position and first front row lock out of the season, with Lewis Hamilton second behind Nico Rosberg on the grid. However, any optimism would have quickly faded. Hamilton found himself down in fourth place by the fourth corner of the first lap. It didn’t get any better for Hamilton as the race progressed, either. He dropped further and further back, at one stage battling with Pastor Maldonado’s Williams over 13th place, before eventually finishing the race in 12th position. Out of the race and lapped.

While Hamilton had to pit four times, Rosberg managed to stop only three times. Although he fared better than his English team-mate, the German was also less than thrilled with his race result of sixth position, 68 seconds behind race winner Alonso’s Ferrari. Like Hamilton, Rosberg suffered with tyre wear, albeit not quite to the same extent. As a result Mercedes left Spain with just eight points; scant reward after such a dominant qualifying performance.

Mercedes can take heart that their performance in the final sector of the Barcelona track is a good indicator of a strong performance around the streets of Monaco in the next race, but that’ll be of little consolation to their drivers at this point in time. Indeed, while I expect that Mercedes will be much stronger in Monaco, tyre wear is once again likely to be the key determining factor in the race. Unless Mercedes can find a solution to their extreme wear issues – and quickly – they’re unlikely to be able to fully exploit the underlying pace in their car.

Paul Hembery promised changes for Silverstone

Paul Hembery promised changes for Silverstone

Pirelli, though, understand that they’ve probably gone too far with this year’s rubber. Paul Hembery, Pirelli’s Motorsport Director, said on twitter after the race “We aim for 2-3 pit stops. Today was too many, we got it wrong, too aggressive. We will make changes, probably from Silverstone [the British grand prix at the end of June]”. Mercedes are likely to benefit the most from more durable tyres, but where there’s a winner, as I’ve already mentioned, there will be a loser – probably Lotus, who are notoriously kind to their rubber.

Still, there are another two races before the grand prix at Silverstone. Sebastian Vettel, despite only managing fourth place in Spain, still leads the world drivers’ championship, albeit now by only four points from Kimi Raikkonen. The man on the move, though, is Fernando Alonso, who moves into third place in the standings. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him continue his charge in Monaco.

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