It’s rare for one race, as it is at any one round of any sport, to encompass all of Formula One’s best bits, but the Spanish Grand Prix was one of those weekends.
If 2017 indeed becomes an against-the-odds classic, Barcelona will prove one of its defining races.
The new regulations have separated the field into three distinct tiers, but the grand prix still featured fierce racing.
Honda continues to anchor McLaren to the bottom of the order, but Fernando Alonso nailed an electrifying qualifying lap to put his car seventh on the grid.
The sport continues to distribute prize money so inequitably that the smallest teams are squeezed to within an inch of their fiscal lives, but perennial independent Force India embarrassed its rivals with fourth and fifth places for its 17th consecutive points finish.
There was action aplenty, too. A first-lap tangle eliminated Kimi Räikkönen and Max Verstappen from the race, while Valtteri Bottas’s engine failure — an old unit after Mercedes’s new specification proved too unreliable — just before half distance was testament to how hard Mercedes is pushing the envelope in pursuit of performance.
But best of all was Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel’s fight for the lead, a duel that featured every element in each team’s toolbox to ensure the battle went down to the wire.
Sebastian Vettel aced his start to pull into the lead at the first turn, forcing Mercedes to strategise pole-sitter Hamilton’s way back to the front.
The Silver Arrows hinted on Hamilton’s team radio that a three-stop race could be on the cards, daring the Scuderia to pit early. Ferrari took the bait and stopped Vettel on lap 14 — only for Hamilton to stay out until lap 21.
Vettel, now committed to a more aggressive race, had to pass cars quickly to ensure he preserved his lead — so Mercedes deployed second driver Valtteri Bottas to slow him down. Stopping the Finn later compromised his race — though engine failure put paid to his podium chances anyway — but it allowed Hamilton to slice down Vettel’s lead after he made his own pit stop.
Luck played its part, too, with a lap-34 virtual safety car handing Mercedes a trigger to switch Hamilton from the unfavourable medium tyre and onto the soft compound for the rest of the race. It eliminated Vettel’s seven-second lead and put both cars on the same patch of road but with the Briton on the better tyre.
It was wheel-to-wheel racing, however, that ultimately got the job done.
Some robust defending from Sebastian kept Lewis behind him for six laps, but in the end the Mercedes, with the advantage of stickier tyres, a DRS-assisted slipstream and a newer engine, proved irresistible.
The battle featured everything, and it required everything from the drivers — Lewis Hamilton’s radio conversations recorded him out of breath for much of the race, and the three-time champion couldn’t help but sit down on the podium so depleted was he after such an uncompromising performance.
“I think it was the rawest fight I can remember having for some real time,” said the victor. “This is what the sport needs to be every single race.”
But the completeness of the weekend was confirmed off the track rather than on it.
F1’s return to Europe was the sport’s new commercial rights holder’s first opportunity to start implementing major changes to bring value back to the fans. Some small changes were immediately obvious — interviews with the top there qualifiers on the front straight in front of the grandstand, for one — while others took place away from the track, including the ‘F1 Fan Festival’ [https://www.formula1.com/en/latest/headlines/2017/5/formula-1-fan-festival-launches-in-spain.html], a refreshing investment after years of money extraction from the previous administration.
But it was the treatment of one particular fan that stole the show. Thomas Danel from Amiens in France broke hearts when TV cameras found him bursting into tears when hero Kimi Räikkönen retired from the race on lap one, but an impromptu Ferrari motorhome visit was quickly arranged by the Formula One Group for him to meet his crashed-out idol.
It was a golden moment for a sport that has long struggled to express its human side, and it was a visceral moment for the sport’s new bosses to demonstrate that fans, youth, and emotion will be guiding F1’s path forward as distinct from the cold exclusivity that defined the old regime. One couldn’t imagine a Bernie Ecclestone-led sport doing the same.
For the first time in a long time the sport is starting to feel a great deal of optimism for its future. In the most unlikely of circumstances in 2017, Formula One might finally be getting it.