Aggression Pays off for Hamilton
‘It is impossible…’
Even as Formula 1 fans abroad look eagerly to the next pit stop on the calendar which is the glitz of the Monaco Grand Prix, absent from the 2020 coronavirus-hit line up, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes thrilled the few fans who managed to show up in Barcelona, outwitting the Red Bull plan and a dejected Max Verstappen to earn a record fifth win at the venue.
Hamilton might be in the twilight of his career but the 36 year old is leaving no stone unturned, whether with his aggressive overtakes in Portugal, bold strategy or sublime pit work, combined with seemingly simple out and out racing to make up valuable seconds that gave him a phenomenal race, despite Verstappen having led for 54 of the 66 races at the Spanish Grand Prix.
Only four races old, the 2021 Formula 1 season is already living up to its billing.
While it was expected that Hamilton would chase down a possible record eighth drivers championship, Red Bull appeared to be closing the gap late last season for Verstappen to lay down the gauntlet as Hamilton’s successor. But despite the season’s heated start, Hamilton already has 94 points on the board after four races, building on a 14-point lead over the Dutchman after Spain.
The British driver converted the 100th pole position of his career into a phenomenal hard-fought victory. Three wins in four races have reestablished Hamilton’s versatility on the track, and his ability to yield to strategy change at a moment’s notice. Although Verstappen and Red Bull managed to once again overshadow the likes of Ferrari, they have found that Hamilton and Mercedes have an additional gear when it comes to pulling off stupendous wins, sometimes from seemingly nowhere.
Twice this season, Verstappen was heard over the pit radio in the last laps of the race, futilely trying to hold off the British driver behind him, “It is impossible…”
Not what Red Bull would have wanted after an outstanding start by Verstappen in his 100th grand prix start for the team. But it had to be Hamilton, who fought from 22 seconds down to eventually overtake Verstappen for the top spot, four laps before his team’s calculated projection of a final lap shoot out.
Hamilton dominated the Portuguese Grand Prix in Portimao not necessarily because he had the upper hand throughout the race but because he fashioned his own opportunities, pulling off two spectacular and rather extraordinary overtaking moves on his own teammate at Mercedes, Valterri Bottas, and then on his closest challenger, Verstappen.
Aggressive overtaking manoeuvres marked Hamilton’s superiority at the Algarve International Circuit, indicating that even if he could see the young Red Bull driver in his rearview mirror, the Dutchman was going to have to do much more to dethrone the Briton in what was being speculated might be Hamilton’s final season with Mercedes – a scenario that seems unlikely after this phenomenal start.
If Hamilton did not appear to be working nearly as hard as expected for his win in Portugal, he was one third of a bold combination of trust in the team in the pit garage, a superior think tank, and faith in the driver that won the Mercedes top podium at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.
The Mercedes garage was all fluency and finesse as they strategised a daring and unpopular stealthy two pitstop strategy that put Hamilton in the unenviable position of chasing down the race leader with over 22 seconds between them.
True to form, Hamilton relished the challenge, although he knew he was burning his tires into the ground in the process of catching up to Verstappen. Experience came in handy here, because few other drivers might have wanted to pit in the late stages – Red Bull and Verstappen being a case in point – and still have the confidence to get out on top.
Where Mercedes outwitted the Red Bull strategy was knowing that any time lost in the pit in an unlikely two pitstop scenario could be made up with fresh tires and a ruthless driver behind the wheel. This is where the race was singlehandedly won and lost.
Verstappen will count himself unlucky in his own pit stop, and in terms of how the Mercedes outthought Red Bull by playing the gamble of an additional pit stop.
Pitting rather early for someone on a one pitstop strategy, on lap 24 of 66, until that point Verstappen seemed to have the upper hand, having caught Hamilton napping on the starting grid. With that decision alone the Red Bull pit garage seemed to be asking too much of the Dutchman, given the tire wear that would have to counter his formidable opponent towards the end.
However, a malfunctioning instrument delayed his tire change, turning what should have been a 2.5 second stop into 4 seconds, which would prove costly for Verstappen in the end as both Hamilton’s stops in the pit garage were precision perfection personified, giving the Brit the edge.
By the time Red Bull decided to follow suit and bring Verstappen in for a tire change, it had become less about catching up to Hamilton who went past his opponent well before the predicted lap, and more the team’s last ditch effort to ensure that while Verstappen would finish behind Hamilton on the podium, fresh tires would earn him an additional point for clocking the fastest lap.
Small consolation for Verstappen, who after finding himself neck and neck with the seven-time world champion must now contend with the reality that Hamilton isn’t going away in a hurry, and a fourteen point lead might become more crucial by the end of the race in Monaco.
On a side note, there was an interesting side drama in the closing laps, as Bottas did not make Hamilton’s ride quite so easy.
Holding his teammate for the better part of a second and a half, Bottas eventually yielded, but even the overtaking seemed too close for comfort. It would have been an interesting conversation back in the pit garage, with the team discussing hierarchy as well as the issue of whether Bottas was taking a stand after sometimes having to suffer the by-product of partnering a multi-time world champion, and having to follow team orders when it comes to yielding positions.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff acknowledged that had the race been closer, the conversation might well have been more “critical.”
Hamilton will relish the prospect of continuing what has already been a scintillating season thus far, and savour the fact that his win at the Spanish Grand Prix is his fifth at the venue.
In doing so he equals the long-standing record of the late Ayrton Senna for most wins at a particular circuit. Incidentally, Senna created his record at the next stop on the F1 circuit – the Circuit de Monaco.