Flat-out racing. That's what the 2017 regulations had promised and that's what Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix delivered.
For 66 laps, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel were engaged in a private battle for the lead that hinged on pit stop strategy but was ultimately decided by an overtaking move on track. It wasn't a classic, but it could have gone either way and -- by non-refuelling race standards --- the pace was extremely fast.
For over a decade now the Circuit de Catalunya has been F1's unofficial barometer of car performance. It rewards and tests engine power, but the emphasis is on aerodynamic performance -- making it a track where an F1 car has a significant advantage over any other formula. What's more it is the sport's pre-season test venue of choice, which means car setups are honed and drivers have few excuses.
Much of the focus over pre-season testing was on single lap pace and whether it would fulfil the FIA's target of making this year's cars five seconds faster than they were at this same track in 2015. On Saturday afternoon that box was successfully ticked when Lewis Hamilton took pole position with a (scrappy) lap that was 5.532s quicker than former teammate Nico Rosberg's pole time two years prior. But it was the sheer speed and ferocity of Sunday's race that really stood out from the weekend, and that was best portrayed by a series breathless radio messages from the eventual winner.
"It was the intensity of the fight -- how much I was on the edge," Hamilton said when asked to explain his heavy breathing. "I was very much on the edge and it is hard to really explain but I was pushing until I could not push anymore. And that was for every lap."
Hamilton's fastest race lap was a 1:23.593, actually slightly off the five second comparison with 2015, but understandably so considering it was after 28 laps on the same set of soft compound tyres. But the fact he was still able -- and still needed -- to push after 64 laps helps underline the intensity of the race as well as heralding a triumph for this year's Pirelli tyres, which are designed to be raced harder for longer.
The irony was that the two-stop, sprint-style tempo of the race was set purely because Pirelli's medium compound had performed so poorly over the weekend. Sunday's strategies are largely formulated by the performance of the tyres in Friday practice, and in Spain there was a 2.7s gap in performance between a new set of softs and a new set of mediums. That meant the white-banded rubber was toxic to race strategists on Sunday, whose strategy models focused on maximising their time on the much faster soft tyre even at the expense of an extra pit stop. As a result, the options ahead of the race were either two-stop or three-stop, because the consensus was a one-stop would have resulted in too much time lost on the mediums.
In the end, the medium tyre actually performed much better than it had on Friday and Mercedes took full advantage of that in Hamilton's middle stint. Not only was the car's pace good, but Vettel, on the faster soft tyre, got stuck behind the second Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas, which had yet to stop and was on a set of aging softs. During four tedious laps behind Bottas, Vettel's advantage over Hamilton dropped by 6.5s at a time when the Ferrari strategists had hoped it would grow by at least that number.
The Virtual Safety Car for Stoffel Vandoorne's stricken McLaren also limited Vettel's soft tyre advantage in the middle stint before Mercedes mixed things up again and switched to the soft just as normal racing resumed on lap 37. Hamilton's out-lap on his fresh soft tyres was crucial in turning the tide against Ferrari and he delivered with truly awesome times in the middle sector (30.792s) and final sector (28.367). To put those figures in perspective, they were on the sort of pace that would have secured a place in Q3 during qualifying on Saturday despite Hamilton's car being laden with half a tank of fuel for the rest of the race.
Unsurprisingly, the two sector times were still the fastest of the race when the chequered flag fell 30 laps later and were nearly over a second quicker than the sector times from Hamilton's official fastest lap two laps from the end. If they'd been combined with a first sector that didn't involve exiting the pit lane, Hamilton's theoretical fastest race lap would have been in the high 1:21s -- a genuinely brilliant lap time for a car with that fuel load and one that would have been quick enough to secure pole position at last year's Spanish Grand Prix.
But the reward for Hamilton's uber-lap was even better than that as it gave him a shot at victory when Vettel made his pit stop on the following lap and rejoined minus the eight second lead he had had before the stops. Immediately after the race and before studying the lap times, Vettel couldn't comprehend how so much of his lead had gone missing so quickly, saying eight seconds had "disappeared" at his second stop. But the truth was that over six of those eight seconds had been down to the sheer pace of Hamilton's out lap versus his in lap and the other two could be accounted for by the advantage Hamilton gained by making his entry to the pit lane under VSC conditions.
The result was the on-track showdown between Hamilton and Vettel that F1 had been patiently waiting for since the start of the season and it didn't disappoint. A brush of wheels at Turn 1 as Vettel rejoined drew gasps in the media centre before a clean overtake at the same corner six laps later secured Hamilton victory. It was Formula One racing as it should be: fast, ferocious and above all competitive.