Insight: How the Spanish GP swung between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel until Ferrari left open goal
Vettel, Hamilton Spain 2017
Strategy Report
Posted By: James Allen  |  16 May 2017   |  3:40 pm GMT  |  239 comments

The Spanish Grand Prix was one of the best races from a race strategy point of view for many years.

It was a fascinating cat and mouse game of chess, with two drivers fighting it out on track to the limit of their ability.

Like last year’s Spanish Grand Prix, strategy decided the outcome, but the two main protagonists, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel also surpassed themselves, with heroic drives, making it a truly memorable race

Here we will analyse the momentous decisions that dictated the outcome, at how the pendulum swung from one driver to another several times. And we will also look at how the lowly Sauber team managed to score its best result since 2015, with a very bold one-stop strategy, yielding four points for the team, which will prove very valuable.

Grid Spanish GP 2017
Pre-race considerations

Before the race Pirelli said that three stops was a marginally faster strategy, but the key factor was the calculation on the difference between the soft and medium tyres.

This is because on Friday the gap looked enormous; some teams were reporting two seconds per lap difference between the compounds.

But history shows that comes down on race day and Friday was also a tricky day with weather conditions, especially wind, so it exaggerated the appearance of a problem.

Another consideration in Spain is that Virtual Safety Cars and Safety Cars are a rare occurrence, so they do not figure highly in the list of probable scenarios.

Vettel, Hamilton
Vettel vs Hamilton: Phase one of the race – Advantage Vettel

This was a race where Vettel proved his value as a leader, as on two separate occasions he made important calls from the cockpit. Ferrari heeded one and didn’t heed the other, which is why they lost this race, as we shall see.

A few minutes after the start of Saturday’s qualifying session, Vettel was told to switch off his engine. A less experienced driver might have obeyed, but he questioned it, during which time the problem righted itself. So instead of starting on the back of the grid, he was able to fight for pole. He should have had the pole, but made a small error on his final lap.

But it didn’t matter as he took the lead at the start.

To do an optimum three-stop race you need to stop on Lap 13. Around Lap 12 Mercedes, who had Hamilton in second place, started to make moves that looked like they were going to pull the trigger on a stop. Hamilton was told to pick up the pace. At this point Vettel was secure and had a 2.2 second lead. That came down to 1.8s as he caught some traffic, putting him in range of being undercut, if Hamilton were to stop and use the performance of the new tyre to jump the Ferrari driver.

Up ahead was Vandoorne, so there was an element of risk for Vettel and Ferrari opted to pit him. The problem was that Ricciardo was inside the 22-second gap back to pit safely, which is why Mercedes didn’t go for the early undercut attempt. Memories were still fresh of Melbourne where Hamilton could not pass a Red Bull, but Vettel could and that swung the race.

Vettel duly stopped and then was able to pass Ricciardo easily.

So it was clearly advantage Ferrari at this point.

Bottas, Vettel F1
Mercedes play chess with Bottas and then Ferrari gives them an open goal

Mercedes reacted by deciding to extend the stint for both Hamilton and Bottas. In the case of Bottas this was to prove the race-winning move, as the Finn was able to hold Vettel up for two laps, costing four seconds of race time.

In Hamilton’s case it cost him valuable time, but a combination of Bottas playing the team game and then an extraordinary mistake from Ferrari, handed the race back to Mercedes.

On Lap 34 the Virtual Safety Car was deployed for Vandoorne’s car, highly unusual at this stage of a race in Spain. Past half distance, it meant that a driver could pit for medium tyres and make the finish.

Strategists look at the state of the damaged car, signs of any debris, whether cranes are involved, when assessing how long the VSC might be out for and whether it might turn into a Safety Car.

This one looked straightforward, so likely to be only a lap or two under VSC, was the judgement of most.

The saving in time difference between pitting under a VSC versus pitting at racing speeds in Barcelona is nine seconds.

Vettel had a nine second lead over Hamilton (it would have been 13 secs without Bottas’ intervention).

There were three possible scenarios: Both cars pit, which would favour Vettel; Vettel alone pits, which would also favour Vettel. The only scenario that favoured Hamilton was that he alone pits, which is what happened.

Ferrari,, Mercedes F1

Vettel radioed the team to say that he felt they should pit him, but they decided not to. One of the contributing factors here was memory of Canada 2016, a race that Ferrari lost in similar circumstances, because they pitted as the VSC ended.

Mercedes knew that if they could pit and catch some of the VSC period, they could close the gap. They had no way to know when it would end.

Fearful of a repeat of Canada 2016, the longer Ferrari left it, the less likely it was that they would stop. Mercedes pulled the trigger and gained some time but it wasn’t perfect as the VSC ended when Hamilton was still in the pits.

But it won them most of the time and then Hamilton had a very strong out lap. Ferrari had to react and pit Vettel a lap later and when he came out, he was side by side with Hamilton. They raced brilliantly but Vettel just held position.

Now the challenge for Vettel, on medium tyres, was to keep Hamilton behind him for long enough to take the edge out of the soft tyres Hamilton was using, much as Bottas had done to Vettel at the start of his second stint.

Vettel, Hamilton F1

With these 2017 cars, the following car is more easily able to exit the final corner flat out than in past years, where an overtake on the main straight was therefore really hard, (for example with Raikkonen and Verstappen last year). But Hamilton was able to get the job done, while the tyres were still fresh and took the lead.

Ferrari thought about a Plan C, which was a third stop, but Mercedes kept Hamilton at 2.8secs, which covers off that opportunity.

Vettel said afterwards that this race was like a bar of soap in the shower that you can’t keep hold of and it is true; this should have been his race and he had Hamilton where he wanted him before Ferrari presented him with an open goal.

It will be interesting to see how punchy they are next time there is a VSC when Ferrari has control.

Sauber F1

Narrow squeak for Sauber on VSC brings points bonanza

When you are a team like Sauber, that has the slowest car in the field on a track like Barcelona, you have to be bold. If you plan a safe two-stop strategy like the cars around you, the best that might happen is to beat one of them and finish 16th or 17th.

So Sauber took a gamble, one that had a potentially big upside, but the downside would be limited by general expectations.

Sauber approached the weekend with a single minded aim of doing one stop. This meant that the drivers approached the crucial Free Practice sessions with that in mind, when setting the cars up.

Wehrlein F1

The strategy relied on Wehrlein doing the first half of the race on a set of new soft tyres, which he did very well. The team was on target for a 10th place finish ahead of Daniil Kvyat, but then the VSC intervened and fate presented the team with a rare opportunity to shine.

The VSC was deployed when Wehrlein was exiting the final chicane, less than two seconds from the pit lane entry. He was called in immediately; so late that he had to cut a bollard on the pit entry, which brought him a five second penalty, so this was not his fault.

If he had missed that chance to pit, he risked being mugged by all the cars behind and coming out behind Grosjean in 11th place, who was seven seconds behind, which is less than the time gained by stopping under the VSC. So Sauber would have lost all chance of points.

It was extremely tight but it worked.

The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the F1 team’s strategists and from Pirelli.

Race History Graph, courtesy Williams Martini Racing – Click to enlarge

The zero line is the lap time of an imaginary car doing the winner’s average lap speed every lap. It is intended to show the gaps between car performance.

Note the massive gaps back from the top two cars to the Red Bull, which will take some work to bridge. Also note the Force India cars, which capitalised on a great start to maintain track position.

Also look where Williams was racing relative to the Force India cars, which cost them 22 points to their rivals in the championship.

And note on Tyre Usage chart that not a single hard compound tyre was used; another weekend where the three tyre options were too hard, reducing the strategy variations possible.

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I think everyone referring to this as game of chess. I would say poker is more like it. Ferrari did the same thing in Australia.

One other thing Mercedesa seems to have upgraded their car a lot. Monaco will be boring affter the first lap. I don’t see someone being passed on track for the lead this time


It was an absorbing race at the front. Ultimately, despite Mercedes ekeing every advantage out they could from making excellent strategy calls, one has to remember that Vettel still held the lead when he rejoined the circuit for his final stint and it was only through Hamilton’s sheer will that the Ferrari was finally overhauled. I reckon that’s 1-1 now in Vettel vs Hamilton “nick the other’s win” tally. Ham could and probably should have taken Australia, and Vettel could and should have taken Spain.


Hi James

I’m a huge fan of your post-race analysis and I always read it. This one is one of your best, but I’m said to read it elsewhere also and they haven’t put your name on it or the source.

Hope that it’s only a simple mistake. Bellow you’ll find the link with the copycat:

Kind regards,



That is plagiarism pure and simple

A direct lift without permission

Will pursue this



“You are making an assumption that RIcciardo was extracting the maximum performance out of the RedBull for the whole race. Since he had a substantial gap over Perez (who was lapped) why stress the mechanicals any more than absolutely necessary. In these days of penalties for changing pretty much anything, once the podium place was secure, there was no reason to push the limits. Bring it home with the least amount of wear and tear. Plus stretching the useful life of the current spec engine leaves scope for pushing the new spec engine harder over less races.”

As can be seen from the lap trace Ricciardo noted (more like was advised over the radio) that Perez was falling back from around lap 52. As a result his pace on an ever reducing fuel load does not increase as other competitors does. So it’s either tyre degradation related, which is unlikely due to him running on the soft compound for only 14 laps at that time, or he turned the engine down to preserve its life, which is a far more likely and logical conclusion.

As a general comment this is a pretty bad scenario for F1 when the 3rd place runner tuns his engine down with a quarter of the race to go due to the ridiculous limitation on the number of engines available in a season. The evidence is that it has achieved nothing in regards to cost reduction which is the excuse often trotted whenever the logic of such a limitation is questioned.


Two F1 gladiators fighting it out on the track? Hardly. It was all done by pit lane strategy calls except for one, DRS pass. Still a lot more work to do if making “new F1” a spectacle is the aim.


Vettel is the real deal. Not only is he super rapid he is mentally a step ahead of the rest.

Ferrari need to listen to him otherwise they will keep on throwing away wins and championships; this was a golden opportunity to pile the pressure on Merc and create some clear air.

First rule of competition; never give anything away to your rivals.


I think that while getting held up behind Bottas and failing to utilise the VSC cost Vettel time, I think his goose was cooked anyway with the initial commitment to 3 stops. Hamilton would have caught him regardless of the gap, he would have had less chance of making the overtake and doing so may have left him more open to Vettel striking back at the end of the race but given the way Hamilton breezed past him I don’t think it would have mattered.


James could you explain your comment in more detail…
‘With these 2017 cars, the following car is more easily able to exit the final corner flat out than in past years’
I thought following cars was much more difficult with the new car specs??


wider tyres, better grip out of slow corners..


Brilliant driving from Seb, deservedly won driver of the day. The 3rd time this year!


Why does Hamilton pushing to keep at 2.8 seconds cover off plan C? I would have thought going as slow as possible in front of Vettel (apart from the last couple of corners), conserving tyre life, was the way to cover off plan C. Are we saying that Vettel would clearly have closed a 23 second gap after a 3rd stop, but that a 24.8 second gap was too much? On which lap are we assuming Vettel would be stopping on? Surely just as important was the state of Hamilton’s tyres when Vettel caught him?


I guess it means that if Vettel pitted, Hamilton would have the option to pit safely the following lap and still rejoin in the lead … if they chose to match strategies. But yes, realistically they were more likely to stay out and enjoy the luxury of a 24-second gap instead of a 1-2 second gap!


A couple of things.
To compare this race with chess is too much praise. If one looks at last years race in Spain there were four cars and three tire types involved. That was really chess and judgment errors were made. This race only 2 cars and 2 tires, a much more simple starting point. I would compare this race strategy not with chess but rather with tic-tac-toe.
So why did Ferrari make an error even in this simple situation? Because for me that is the baffling point. I think prior to the VSC they had the race under control, even though Vettel needed a long time overtaking Bottas. It was up to Mercedes to switch from medium to soft (as you don’t want to run too long on the medium) en they would simply follow. That way the 9 seconds gap would in all likelihood take them to the (winning) end. Even with a VSC there is ample opportunity, I think they calculated this as well. But what was killing Ferrari was the timing of the VSC. If the VSC was 5 laps earlier then no way Lewis would have switched to softs, because the remaining stint was too long for the softs to keep up. If the VSC was 5 laps later then (Ferrari would have known for certain that) Mercedes would use it to switch Lewis to softs and in anticipation also Ferrari would have switched Vettel. So, again, I think Ferrari had it all figured out except when the VSC came in just that spot. They had to mentally switch from “certain win scenarios” to “probable win scenarios” and that was just too much.
A more general point (nothing to do with strategy) is that I notice that the mid-field teams are getting screwed twice over. Once for the enormous gap between them and the top teams, and secondly because of the fact that at the top it is always exciting this year with the fight between Lewis and Vettel going on. That means that even though there is plenty of close racing in the middle field it is not on tv, because the Lewis/Vettel battle is broadcasted. And that is a shame. I remember 2 years ago a lot of Max tv, because at the front Lewis was having a boring time. No such luck for the current mid-field teams.


All the main phases of the race, including the nail-biting wheel-to-wheel action as Vettel exited the pitlane on his final stop, are all reminiscent of the many Schumacher/Ferrari vs Hakkinen/McLaren battles of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.

Very nice to see that kind of action is back on TV.


Stroll is very happy because the Safety car wasn’t deployed. It would have probably lapped him.


James could you help explain why Hamilton found it difficult to near the Ferrari in the early parts of the race, but was able to close up and surpass it later?
Was it purely because of the fresh tires or Mercedes have cured their ailment of being unable to follow other cars?


For all you maths and charting buffs…here’s a nice bit of trivia regarding the UBS Race Strategy Chart (that we all love).
The y-axis (vertical) this year spanned 215 seconds to fit the entire field in.

What was it for last years Spanish GP, i hear you ask?

….100 seconds


Part of that difference, not all, is that last year’s race-winning Red Bull was not the dominant car. If the Mercs had kept their suspension components attached and their steering wheel dials in the correct settings, that 100 second spread would have been greater. But yes, I’m sure it wouldn’t have been 215 seconds!


That’s true, I forgot that there was a crash! But the spread is definitely still expanding.


It will always spread in the first year of new regulations. It will shrink in subsequent years.


Thanks, James!

It looks like team players could become crucial in being King makers this season. I think we might even need a new category of excellence, like “team player of the day”. We saw that last Sunday wotj Bottas : first he kicked out two of the potential Mercedes challengers / obstructers (Räikkönen & Verstappen) — two birds with one stone — and then, he hold Vettel up for two laps. Can we imagine Rosberg in Bottas’ place? Never! So, the humble Bottas is team player of the day.


*James*, I find your report perplexing. So far this season ferrari has been very aggressive strategy wise, reason being, their superior race pace.

Stereotypically, Vettel opened up a 2.2-2.5 second gap on the first lap, which hearkens back to his RBR days – brilliant. With clean air I thought he’d disappear into the distance, frightening race pace if I’m honest. Fortunately he’d taken too much from his tires and lewis was able to inch ever closer. Mercedes instructed lewis to push for an undercut but ferrari countered. The key, and something I’d hoped you’d mention is the resolution of mercedes’s overheating tires. Not only could lewis push, he could sustain the pace over consecutive laps. Which gave them strategic flexibility, something previously unavailable this year. Extending the first stint, going short the 2nd on mediums and mounting a final attack on soft was their only option for victory. Yes the VSC and bottas played a role but crucially the ‘B-spec’ update gave them a fighting chance.

Had Ferrari pitted under the VSC, it would have meant a long final stint on the medium which were significantly slower. Lewis would have stretched his middle stint as long as possible and mounted an almighty attack. Canada 2012 comes to mind.

While many thought mercedes was sandbagging in preseason, they genuinely could not match ferrari. The upgrades worked as intended judging by lewis sector 3 times.

As for the overtake – brilliant. Some say its all DRS and merc PU, but keep in mind vettel had the strongest first sector and straight line speed all weekend. Lewis had an excellent exit out of the final chicane and nail vettel down the straight.

Impressively, lewis was able to manage his almost 30lap old softs and still wring out a lap 1.1 seconds faster than vettel could. Incidentally it was the race’s fastest lap.

Bring on monaco, this season is going to be sweet 🙂

The Grape Unwashed

Great post Oblah. Mark Hughes (Motorsport) reports that Mercedes also copied Ferrari for this race and chose downforce over top speed: this gave them better tyre wear over previous races. Just another reason why Mercedes seemed closer to Ferrari this race.



Just a quick question on HAM accomplishments, if he started in a Minardi rather than McLaren would his stats be vastly different? It seems he had a good start to his career and from his own words this year if he wins the title would be his best.

The last 3 years were really a gift in terms of results, anyone could have won with that car.

The Grape Unwashed

@ W Head He started in a McLaren because he was good enough – hence his beating a 2 x WDC in his rookie season.


You seem to have missed the fact that ALO and HAM were tied on 107 points whilst RAI won the WDC on 108 points, so even to me.

There are many drivers as good as HAM and could of done the same job in the same seat, ie ROS last year, anyone in that car could won the WDC and ROS achievement is so much better as he beat HAM (a superior driver in your eyes), fair and square. Mechanical retirements are all part of racing.

I was actually wondering where the conspiracy theorist are, will they jump on the reason why BOT engine blew, if they are going to do it for HAM you got to keep the consistency going, you know the team is working against BOT to make HAM look better after the embarrassment of last year. Fishing line cast…


Kimi had 110 pts in 2007, HAM & ALO on 109. FIA doesn’t consider them even, with HAM 2nd on countback. Them’s the rules, have been for ages.


So were many others like ALO but started in the lower teams. Just means he was able to achieve more without the struggle of using a lower team car that is not competitive

The Grape Unwashed

Saying Alonso was good enough to start in a winning car is an assumption, not a fact; an assumption based on nothing other than wishful thinking – it’s not one you can supply evidence for. I seem to remember Trulli doing very well against Alonso when they were paired together (so well that Briatore sided against him). Good as Alonso was, he might not have thrived if he’d been placed alongside the reigning champion as a rookie – Schumacher, in his case.

Most drivers would have cracked when paired against an experienced WDC, Hamilton proved his mettle. His career stats are remarkable and speak for themselves.


James a question for you.
Have you heard if the fia are considering increasing the hybrid power. Ie the power that can be stored and used from the current 160bhp. The reason I ask is when these power units were first mentioned the idea was the engine would produce 600bhp and the hybrid 160bhp, similar total bhp to outgoing v8. If I understand it the engines are now producing 800+bhp and the hybrid part is limited to 160bhp. Could this not be doubled to increase performance?.


Great analysis James. You are absolutely right, the only scenario that worked against Ferrari during the VSC was Hamilton pitting on his own. All other scenarios gave them the advantage.

It would have been very interesting to see if Hamilton could have closed a 8 second gap & overtake on those soft tyres! That said, I think that the key strategic element was Bottas being available with Raikkonen out. That gave Mercedes more opportunities- and Bottas deserves credit for the strength of his “assist”..


Seb and Ham in Spain reminded me a bit of some of the Mika v Schu battles, Seb being especially unlucky this time.

He lost time with the vsc and Bottas, but what did you make of the Vandoorne hit that caused the vsc?

Silly error, looked like he wasn’t looking at first, but for me the problem is also the slooooow Honda PU.

It was amazing from Massa on board, just how far back he came from and how quickly he was closing even before the braking zone.

Poor Stoff could have glanced in his mirrors before braking and seen a dot that was the Williams.


Also it was amazing how quickly vettle got up to speed to come out even with hamilton from the pits. F1 cars have tremendous acceleration. That bump between hamilton and vettle could have spoiled the whole race if one of them had damage.


Another great analysis James. You’ve answered most of my questions regarding Ferrari strategy; however, one that remains is why did Ferrari pit Vettel ahead of Hamilton (first pit stop) – I can see your point of an undercut, but it felt, during the race, that Vettel had enough pace to ward off HAM had HAM pitted/tried the undercut. I feel Ferrari made a mistake there as well – pitting the lead car ahead of the chasing car.


Another great analysis James. You’ve answered most of my questions regarding Ferrari strategy; however, one that remains is why did Ferrari pit Vettel ahead of Hamilton (first pit stop) – I can see your point of an undercut, but it felt, during the race, that Vettel had enough pace to ward off HAM had HAM pitted/tried the undercut. I feel Ferrari made a mistake there as well – pitting the lead car ahead of the chasing car.


If VET had the pace he would have built a 4/5 second gap to protect from the undercut. The reason he did not do this is because the cars were quite evenly matched at that phase of the race.
This left them vulnerable to the undercut, that and a bit of Merc gamesmanship caused them to jump first.


You can say that again


James, I’m a little confused about the gap between Hamilton and Vettel when Hamilton enters the pit-lane under the VSC. Your report says the gap was 9 seconds, but the FOM world feed pictures indicate that it was 7.7s. Are the timings shown on the world feed pictures therefore wrong?


At the start of the VSC it was 9 sec, but during the VSC it fluctuated between 7.5 and 8.8 secs if memory serves, probably due to different fluctuating speeds of the two drivers.

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