• Karun Chandhok's ESPNF1 column

Tyres rule, OK?

Karun Chandhok May 24, 2011
Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton battled it out until the final lap © Sutton Images
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The Spanish Grand Prix was once again dominated by the subject of tyres. Another absolute thriller where you really had to focus on what strategy people were using not just on Sunday but for the weekend as a whole. Barcelona is a circuit where you have nowhere to hide the deficiencies of your car and the requirement for efficient downforce is higher than most places. Where a team stacks up in terms of pace at the Circuit de Catalunya is normally a great indicator of where they are relative to the rest of the field.

The Red Bull's qualified on pole by a country mile but on Sunday it was very evident that the Mclaren's certainly had the pace to match them, if not actually be a bit quicker. Sebastian Vettel's pole position run finally came to an end when Mark Webber used his single qualifying run to good effect at a track where he has always gone well. The McLarens were split by an inspired lap from Fernando Alonso who, on a weekend when he signed for the next five years with the Maranello squad, once again proved he is worth every cent he is - and will be - paid!

Indeed, off the start line he managed to make every Spaniard at the circuit think their tickets were worth every cent they paid, when in a blur of hand movements and controlled aggression, the scarlet Ferrari scythed into an early lead. Jenson Button's opening lap sent him the other way down to 10th and effectively removed him from the battle for the win straight away. Mark got caught in no-man's land between Seb and Fernando and had to back out of the battle into turn one, leaving him third at the end of lap one.

For the first two short stints Fernando kept the Ferrari in front and for the opening few laps even looked quite comfortable up there. Based on Turkey, I was amongst a lot of people who believed that Ferrari had the race pace to fight with the others, despite lacking the one-lap pace in qualifying. But as the afternoon wore on it became clear that this wasn't the case. When Seb pitted a lap earlier at the second round of stops, and used the outlap to good effect, he jumped ahead of Fernando and there ended Ferrari's chances of victory. By the end of the afternoon car No. 5 was amazingly a lap down, such was the pace of the leaders. Fernando struggled for pace on the prime tyres, so much so that they even shortened his first stint on the hard compound to just 10 laps suspecting a problem with that set of tyres.

Fernando Alonso made a breathtaking start from fourth on the grid © Sutton Images
The battle between the Red Bull and McLaren cars was fascinating. Webber, who started on pole, dropped two places off the line and then didn't jump Fernando at the early pitstops when Seb and Lewis did. He then spent a frustratingly long time staring at the back of the Ferrari but lacking just enough straight-line speed to sneak in front. By the time Fernando pitted for the fourth time on lap 39 and Mark was set free, he was nearly half a minute behind his team-mate and had also lost out to Jenson on a three-stop race.

Jenson made his three stopper work very well by managing the tyre wear across longer stints on the option tyres. From being down in 10th at the end of lap one, it was a well executed strategy to get him back onto the podium. His pace at several times of the race was very comparable to Seb and Lewis, given the relative freshness of their tyres and he will certainly be hoping that his future Sunday afternoons aren't compromised by the poor opening lap. Though I'll admit a question mark at the start of the year, there's no doubt now that Jenson's smooth style is helping him massively on these tyres and he could be a real championship contender again this season if McLaren carry on their development.

The battle for the win turned out to be a two horse race after the second round of stops. Seb did just enough to stay in front at the third and fourth round of stops, but for the last 10 laps Lewis was looking very racy indeed having a couple good looks into turn one. The Red Bull was faster in the high-speed corners by enough of a margin which meant that Lewis had to use KERS around the whole of the lap just to stay in touch coming out of the final corner and couldn't really save it all for the start finish straight. It was a top quality battle from possibly two of the best drivers of their generation - neither of them making any real mistakes, both pushing 110%.

Sebastian Vettel ended up on the top step of the podium, but there was more to the race than the final result © Sutton Images
In the end it was once again the reigning world champion who took the 25 points but as has become the norm this year, you need to look beyond the headlines to know just what a fascinating grand prix it was. The relative qualifying and race pace of the two top teams suggests that the McLaren cars were perhaps set up to preserve tyres and therefore more towards the requirements of the race, whereas the Red Bull cars didn't have the advantage in race pace that they had in qualifying. It's become clear now that the strategy for the whole weekend has to have more emphasis on the Sunday and tyre conservation, rather than the all-out battle for pole and track position in the race.

Monaco's going to be total chaos in terms of strategy - do you stay out longer and hope to pull out enough of a lead so that when you do pit you come out in front of the pack? Or is there too much of a risk that the cars that have pitted earlier will actually be much quicker on fresh tyres and ultimately jump ahead of you? The teams will have to work harder than ever at the strategic poker game and, with five drivers looking like podium contenders at every race, there's a lot to watch out for. Roll on Monaco!