Sunday 11 May 2014

Spanish GP Report: All's well that ends well

Perhaps today underlined that you should never give up on a Grand Prix.

You'd have been forgiven for so doing partway through today's Spanish race. It was rather tepid stuff for much of the way, in the worst Montmelo tradition. No one was passing anyone, and the broader story seemed merely a continuation of what he'd witnessed already in 2014. Lewis Hamilton with a clean pair of heels on his Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg, but both way ahead of everybody else. Yet, whaddaya know, it got rather fun by the end.

Lewis Hamilton - just - was the one smiling at the end
Photo: Octane Photography
The Mercedes of course remained well ahead of the rest; no need to be silly now. But beyond that there was plenty of tension of the unforeseen sort. This race can be filed under 'slow burner'.

But another thing that stayed the same was that Lewis indeed remained where he needed to be, in first place, when the chequered flag fell. But even in his case there was tension added; he was hanging on at the end. And in the non-Mercedes class there were plenty of intriguing battles going on too.

And how did this come about? Well, unpalatable though it may be to some (especially to Sergio Perez given his sentiments expressed earlier in the weekend), we can thank Pirelli. The Italian tyre company has consciously retracted its horns somewhat this year, but it's still left enough in the rubber to allow strategy variation, and the processional fare early on rather disguised the differences in such approaches that laid beneath the surface.

And it applied to the two Mercs too. At the end of the opening stint Lewis pitted first and took on another set of medium tyres, the preferred ones by consensus. But Nico - curiously it seemed - stayed out a couple more laps and then bolted on the hards. And - even more curiously - he refused to lose the time to his team mate in the subsequent stint that the extrapolations suggested he should if Lewis was to be safe.

Lewis too indulged in some heated conversations on the radio with his engineer at this stage, bemoaning his car's handling as well as questioning the regularity of the communication as well as the strategy and set-up choices. All a little redolent of his bad old days that we thought shed this campaign...

And he was right to be worried as in the final stint with the tyre situation now reversed Nico tore chunks out of Lewis's hardly thick advantage. Come the end he was just on the cusp of being within range of having a go at the lead, but he ran out of laps, and the two Silver Arrows indeed finished in the same order. Lewis now finally - after four straight wins - makes up for his Australia DNF and leads the drivers' table too.

Nico Rosberg once again was the one following his team
mate home
Photo: Octane Photography
'One more (lap) I think I could have given it a good go' said Nico afterwards.

Nico will be encouraged that just as in Bahrain he's reminded all, not least his team mate, and in a rather timely fashion that he cannot be discounted as a factor in the 2014 drivers' championship. But by the same token, again like in Bahrain, he may be perturbed that even in the races wherein he can take the fight to Lewis he's not yet been able to beat him.

He has the comfort that Monaco is next up, where 12 months ago he took his then rather bewildered team mate to the cleaners. 'I'll be going there to do one better, and repeat the win from last year. That's the aim' Nico added. Somehow you suspect though that the Lewis of 2014 will be a tougher proposition.

Lewis meanwhile had rediscovered his happy face after the event, and was more contrite about his in-race
squabbles: 'I wasn't fast enough today, Nico was quicker, I struggled a lot with the balance and had to rely on my engineers more.'

Later he added: 'What's really comforting is that I've really been able to keep it together when the pressure's you can see today it can still go either way, when you don't get the car right on it Nico's going to be right there, so this year requires me to be 100% at my max every race'.

While it feels ever so slightly like a kingdom of the blind coronation right now, Red Bull today in Spain underlined its status as best of the rest. Daniel Ricciardo once again was quick and safe, motoring smoothly to third place to take his first ever podium finish, officially at least. 'I'm sure I'll get to keep it this time' he said only partly in jest.

Daniel Ricciardo made the podium, and presumably will
keep this one
Photo: Octane Photography
But even with this he made no effort to dodge the fact that even he finished some 48.3 seconds after the nearest Merc. 'They were a long way ahead, coming into the race we knew that a boring race for us would have been a pretty good one for us'.

While a certain Sebastian Vettel made it a 3-4 for the Bulls. The same Sebastian Vettel that did almost no running on Friday thanks to technical woes, and then started the race in P15 with yet more technical woes in qualifying plus a penalty for a gearbox change. Just like the race itself, Seb came alive in the second half and moved forward with rapid lap times and sharp passing moves.

'Difficult weekend all in all' said Seb, 'because I didn't get a lot of practice, obviously was quite happy with the car in the race and in the beginning had to be patient, very tricky when you're stuck in a train, the car lose grip from the tyres. Once the traffic cleared we were able to use the pace...'

Perhaps the reports of his F1 death in 2014 have been greatly exaggerated.

And it was a certain Valtteri Bottas who was next home, a handy result for the Williams team which had been giving the impression in the early rounds of not quite getting the results that the cars' pace really should have been getting.

And what of the Ferraris when all this was going on? They were but a footnote, running in tandem and far back for the race's opening part, with Alonso in the main brooding impatiently at the back of Kimi Raikkonen's F14 T. The two were another to split their ticket however, with Alonso going for three-stops to Raikkonen's two, and the Spaniard was another to bear down on his stable mate in the late throes. The red cars then had a highly spirited battle over P6 lasting many laps (a deliberately incendiary point, but one that still is worth raising: with an immediate 'Fernando is faster than you' order would Alonso have taken fifth from Bottas? Maybe, but on the other hand the team would be forgiven for not wanting the resultant strife).

Fernando Alonso - like everyone at Ferrari -
has plenty to think about
Photo: Octane Photography
It rather confirmed - as if we needed confirmation - that either Ferrari pilot is not too keen on the idea of ceding to the other. Alonso, on fresher and softer tyres, eventually prevailed just before the end after a classic Fernando move - lining up and moving around his opponent for several corners before striking.

But for all of the fun of the frolics there was a sharp reminder of grim reality seconds after Fernando passed, as the Mercs could be seen but seconds down the road, the two set to lap the Ferraris. And given the Montmelo track is very much one that rewards chassis more than engines, it perhaps demonstrates that the Scuderia's troubles are not confined to the power unit.

It's now been a year since Ferrari's last win, which was at this very venue indeed. It looks a lot like that inauspicious run will go on somewhat longer.

When Alonso said earlier this weekend that the Mercs could win every race this season it was not necessarily born of a Machiavellian subplot - as things stand it looks a genuine goer. We indeed - and accepting that in F1 more than in most activities there is many a slip between cup and lip - are rapidly running out of scenarios in which one could imagine their being beaten this campaign. But fortunately for us watching on the battle is much more McLaren in 1988 than Ferrari in 2002. In other words, even though the championship looks almost certainly a private Mercedes battle, at least there is some uncertainty over which Mercedes is to emerge on top.

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