Ferrari have a lot to do to match rivals Mercedes

Wednesday May 15 2019

Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton (right) celebrates on the podium of the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya in Montmelo in the outskirts of Barcelona on May 12, 2019. PHOTO | LLUIS GENE |

Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton (right) celebrates on the podium of the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya in Montmelo in the outskirts of Barcelona on May 12, 2019. PHOTO | LLUIS GENE |  AFP

ALEX MWANGI
By ALEX MWANGI
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The start of the Spanish Grand Prix was going to determine a lot given that the 4.7-kilometre Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is not so accommodative of overtaking.

Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas had set a stunning pole lap on Saturday, eclipsing his more illustrious teammate, Lewis Hamilton, by more than half a second and setting a new track record in the process.

It was the third pole in a row for the Finn who is seemingly keen to take the fight to the five-time world champion this year.

Hamilton got the better start but it was Sebastian Vettel in the Ferrari who got the best and heading into Turn One, was marginally ahead of both Mercedes.

Vettel, however, was on the outside and the three-way approach into the turn would definitely have had casualties had one or more of the drivers not ceded ground.

It was Vettel who braked hard, locking his front-right tyre in the process, and getting a flat spot just seconds into the race.

Hamilton was determined not to be as soft to Bottas as he was during the previous race start in Azerbaijan. The Briton maintained his line bravely after the start and did not yield going into Turn One, which gave him the lead.

Bottas was almost squeezed by his teammate and Vettel, but was able to hang on to second place as Vettel steered left and off the track to avoid a collision. The German got back into track in Turn Two but took the corner wide and had his teammate, Charles Leclerc who braked, to thank for avoiding another potential collision.

Red Bull's Max Verstappen was able to take advantage of the jostling for position ahead of him overtaking Vettel on the outside of the lengthy Turn Three. Against expectation, Verstappen had been able to split the Ferraris in qualifying and had remained confident that Red Bull could compete with Ferrari on race day. How right he was.

As with previous races, a question that soon needed an answer was how Ferrari would treat their drivers in case one seemed to have greater potential to go after the leaders. Leclerc got within DRS range of Vettel and fans wondered whether “team orders” would come into play, or the pair would be left to race.

For about four laps, and some would argue that that was too long, Leclerc followed Vettel closely which led to “team orders” coming into effect, with the German being told to let the younger driver through on the twelfth lap.

Vettel was soon losing time with even Pierre Gasly, in the second Red Bull, beginning to catch up with him. The German dived into the pits for a 4.4-second stop. That prompted Red Bull to pit Verstappen in the next lap to avoid the undercut.

Surprisingly for Ferrari, Leclerc's pit stop six laps after his teammate also took 4.4 seconds, almost two seconds more than their competitors.

The Mercedes pair also pitted before the halfway point of the race, with second-placed Bottas coming in first. With Vettel on mediums and his teammate, Leclerc, on the hard compound, the German caught up with the Monegasque, but then again, Ferrari seemed unsure on whether to invoke “team orders” immediately.

This left Vettel 'stuck' behind his teammate for about seven laps before Leclerc let him hrough. By this time, Ferrari were fighting their own 'internal battles' rather than racing to catch up with Verstappen and the Mercs ahead.

Twenty laps from the end, McLaren's Lando Norris got overambitious in Turn One while pursuing SportPesa Racing Point's Lance Stroll, taking out the Canadian in an incident that invited the entry of the Safety Car.

Bottas had pitted a lap before and Hamilton took advantage of the Safety Car to pit and still emerge as the race leader.

At the restart of the race six laps later, Hamilton zoomed off and with his fresh tyres gaining sufficient temperature, was able to set the fastest lap of the race, crucial for the extra point it earns one this year.

Against all odds, Verstappen was able to keep Vettel at bay for the remainder of the race, cruising home to claim the third podium slot. This means that with almost a third of the season done, the Dutchman is third in the drivers' standings, two points ahead of Vettel and nine ahead of Leclerc.

It was no surprise then that Verstappen was crowned the “Driver Of The Day” through the people's vote.

It leaves Ferrari with a lot of homework since they had brought an aero upgrade combined with a revamped power unit to Barcelona.

The only consolation, perhaps, is that the season is still relatively young.

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