The fifth round of the 2017 Formula One championship marked the most exciting duel between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton up to date, as the two main title contenders went wheel-to-wheel for a race victory at the Spanish Grand Prix, with the Scuderia Ferrari driver eventually having to settle for second place this time.
Joy and heartbreak for the Maranello team at the start of the race, as Sebastian Vettel got the better of his Mercedes rival, but Kimi Raikkonen was involved in an unfortunate incident with Valtteri Bottas and Max Verstappen, leaving Ferrari with only one car to battle it out in Barcelona. As the race progressed it became clearer that it was all about damage control for the Scuderia, who in the end only lost seven points to Mercedes, both in the Formula 1 Constructor and Driver Standings.
But was there anything more Ferrari could do to beat Mercedes in the Spanish Grand Prix after Sebastian Vettel’s positive start from second place? Let’s analyse the three possible strategy alternatives:
1. Not pit early
It’s easy to imagine what Ferrari had in mind when they chose to pit Seb just 14 laps into the race, which is to avoid the undercut from Mercedes. The German driver was not able to constantly pull away after overtaking Hamilton at the start and there was always the danger of Mercedes choosing to stop first and gain the few seconds needed to stay in front. Given that Kimi Raikkonen was no longer on track to make things difficult for the current Formula 1 champions, Ferrari immediately reacted and went for the tyre change as soon as possible. However, the time lost behind Valtteri Bottas and before the Virtual Safety Car was withdrawn led to the unfortunate outcome.
2. Pit early, but change to the slower tyre
It’s generally not a good idea to finish the race on the harder compound, unless you have a consistent advantage to manage in the last laps, but using the Medium tyre in the middle stint when pitting early most likely would not have been a better solution. Sebastian had to overtake on the track both Daniel Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas: his former teammate was an easy target given the race-pace and tyre difference, but getting past the second Mercedes driver would have been more difficult on the harder compound.
3 Go for ‘Plan C’.
At the start of lap 44 when Hamilton used DRS to sweep past Sebastian Vettel and take the lead, Ferrari and the German driver had two options: wait in hope for Hamilton’s mediums to lose their edge or go for Plan C, which which was for Seb to pit again, drop back, take on some fresh softs and then have the pace with which to sprint and try to make up ground. In retrospect this could have been the Maranello team’s best chance of putting pressure in the end, although given the fact that Hamilton managed to set the fastest lap of the weekend in the final stages of the races indicates that there was still life in the Soft tyres after the marathon 30 laps.