Gary Anderson: F1 title between Alonso, Vettel & Raikkonen

 

Fernando Alonso dominated the Spanish Grand Prix and now, five races into the championship, Ferrari have had three extremely strong results and two more lost through unreliability or errors.

As a whole package, balancing qualifying and race, the Ferrari is obviously a pretty good car. The form of Alonso's team-mate Felipe Massa, who was third on Sunday, backs that up.

Three stops - which Lotus used with Kimi Raikkonen and Red Bull tried to make work with Sebastian Vettel before being forced to back out of it - was the faster strategy in Spain on paper.

But four stops, which Ferrari chose with Alonso and Massa, was only seven seconds slower. That is nothing and it gives the driver the chance to push the tyres harder. If you find you can stretch the stint length, you can convert to a three-stop.

As soon as Alonso made his second stop on lap 21, everyone in the pit lane knew he was doing a four-stop and no-one reacted.

For Alonso, knowing he was committed to a four-stop strategy, it was doubly important to make places early on. He knew he had to nail his lap times to make the plan work and the more cars he had in front of him, the harder that was going to be.

He and Vettel are always very strong on the first lap - they know they have to make up ground to make the race work for them, to use the pace of their car.

Alonso could not afford to get stuck behind a car that was slower or - even worse - was doing three stops.

He made a great move around the outside of Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes at Turn Three on lap one and the race unfolded perfectly for him from there.

The Ferrari does not quite have the qualifying pace of some, but there is always a compromise to be had between that and race pace and Alonso understands the points are handed out on Sundays.

Top 10 in Barcelona

1. Fernando Alonso (Spa) Ferrari 1hr 39mins 16.596secs

2. Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Lotus +00:09.338

3. Felipe Massa (Brz) Ferrari 00:26.049

4. Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 00:38.273

5. Mark Webber (Aus) Red Bull 00:47.963

6. Nico Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes 01:08.020

7. Paul di Resta (GB) Force India 01:08.988

8. Jenson Button (GB) McLaren 01:19.506

9. Sergio Perez (Mex) McLaren 01:21.738

10. Daniel Ricciardo (Aus) Toro Rosso 1 lap

THREE-WAY TITLE RACE - CAN LOTUS KEEP UP?

It's still early days in the championship - we are now a quarter of the way through the season - but it's looks already as if it is between Alonso, Raikkonen and Vettel.

The next couple of races may change that but it looks already as if they are the men on the move.

The big question is whether Lotus have the resources to keep up. It's not always about big budgets; it's about spending the money you do have wisely.

Lotus are shrewd enough to do that but the big question is whether anyone has their finger on the pulse as effectively as their former technical director James Allison, who is leaving the team.

Short term it will be OK in terms of performance but in the short term you are also setting your future development plans.

MERCEDES

Mercedes had a very disappointing race, despite putting a huge amount of work into trying to solve their problems with excessive use of rear tyres.

Nico Rosberg was able to lead until his first pit stop, without being threatened seriously, but Mercedes threw away their chances by trying to do a three-stop strategy.

They managed it, with Rosberg driving like a granny to try to look after his tyres, but when you know your car is harder on tyres than everyone else it is counter-intuitive to try to do fewer stops.

Hamilton did do four stops and was dreadfully slow because his car was eating up the tyres. But in the long runs in Friday practice, Rosberg's degradation and pace was stronger than Hamilton's by a considerable margin.

But even Hamilton started off trying to do a three-stop and when you have a car that bad on its tyres I do not understand that.

The problem with driving to suit three stops is you are throwing away the lap time too early in the race and you cannot go the other way. But if you aim for a four-stop you can always go the other way if the tyre usage is better than you expect.

It is a different situation for Raikkonen and Lotus. That car does not quite have the out-and-out pace and they know they have an advantage in the way it looks after its tyres, so they are trying to use that to eliminate the extra pit stop time.

And I do not think Raikkonen had the pace to challenge Alonso had he done a four-stop - especially after dropping behind him on the first lap.

THE BIG TYRE DEBATE

The large number of pit stops in the Spanish Grand Prix has reignited the debate about whether the fragile Pirelli tyres are good or bad for F1.

The tyres are part of the car and some teams are using them better than others.

Barcelona is always very tough on the tyres - and back in the tyre-war days sometimes you would get two or maybe three laps out of the softer tyres and then be five or six seconds a lap slower for the next four or five laps before they cleaned up and you could push again.

Tyre management has always been part of F1, no matter what anyone will tell you, and there has never been a time when a driver could push flat-out for the entire race distance.

Having said that, personally I think four stops is too many.

Pirelli want to have two or three stops and that would be about right. Any more and it gets confusing for people who are not following the race that closely - which, in reality, is most of the audience.

The last thing we want is a choice between one or two stops. That would be horrendous at some tracks - boring, processional races.

Of more serious concern is that there were more tyre failures in Spain - on Paul di Resta's Force India in practice and then Jean-Eric Vergne's Toro Rosso in the race - to follow the three in Bahrain. And Alonso had a puncture prior to his final pit stop which Ferrari caught before it caused a problem.

Pirelli has admitted it is concerned about the situation.

They are blaming cuts in the tyre but I do not buy into that. There is no reason if that was the case for the rubber to sheer off in the way it is.

At each grand prix, 616 sets of dry-weather tyres are used. To date there have been four tread delamination failures from the 3,080 sets of tyres used in the first five races. That is not often enough for it to be an inherent design problem. I believe it is more to do with quality control.

Pirelli tyres have always had some internal blistering, where the inner rubber of the tyre overheats.

This year, the carcass of the tyre has been reinforced to keep more of the tyre in contact with the track, with the idea of reducing the wear on the inside shoulder that was being seen last year.

But that means the tyre has a very different working environment at high speed.

At high speed, the rubber tread is subject to very high centrifugal forces. With the reinforced carcass, the tread-to-carcass bonding is put under increased stress. With the elevated temperatures some cars suffer from, it goes too far and the rubber can peal off the carcass.

The fastest cars are a second a lap quicker than they were last year - a performance increase of just over 1%.

A lot of sheer-load is going into the tyre. There is so much cornering force - more than 5G - and braking force - 6G - and I think in some cases that, combined with the centrifugal forces, is proving too much for the tyres to cope with.

DID THE UPGRADES CHANGE ANYTHING?

The Spanish Grand Prix is traditionally a race many teams enter with high hopes of making progress thanks to new parts designed to improve their car's performance.

For struggling teams, this takes on extra meaning and as ever in Barcelona there were differing results.

Toro Rosso had a new floor, sidepod and exhaust design which seemed to be a significant step forward - they were on the verge of the top 10 all weekend and Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne qualified 11th and 12th just 0.039secs apart and Ricciardo finished 10th.

Williams' package has apparently not done anything - Pastor Maldonado and Valtteri Bottas did not even make it out of first qualifying.

At McLaren, Sergio Perez produced their best qualifying performance of the year with ninth place, but that seemed to surprise even him and the team, and their race form and the team's general demeanour suggested the developments had not worked.

If a car has problems, sometimes you do not know what to develop first. I think that is McLaren's situation.

In my opinion, they should be looking at the front wing.

Up and down the grid, the trend is for more and more elements at the outside edge of the front wing. But McLaren have gone the other way this year.

While Ferrari and Red Bull each have seven separate downforce-producing flaps on the wing, McLaren have only three. For most of last year - for much of which they had the fastest car - they had four, and for the last two races - which they won after introducing a new front wing - they had five.

Fewer elements means more total downforce, but it also means the wing is more critical and more prone to lose more performance when it 'stalls'. So the driver will have more inconsistent grip levels and lose confidence.

When you have a car problem, that is the last thing you want. McLaren need to stabilise the aerodynamic platform of the car, even if it is at the expense of a bit of total downforce, and work out what is going wrong.