Monday 14 May 2018

Spanish GP Report - Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

There are two things we associate chiefly with Spanish Grands Prix at the Barcelona track. One is dull races with little overtaking. The other is a strong steer of the competitive pecking order among the competing cars.

Mercedes and particularly Lewis Hamilton
dominated the Spanish Grand Prix
Photo: Octane Photography 
We certainly got the former this time. It was indeed, to use the well-worn euphemism, not a thriller. But if the latter applies too it then it's ominous. And a familiar sort of ominous.

As if this one was dull it was made so in large part by Mercedes's dominance. And particularly that of Lewis Hamilton.

"It's one of those happy Lewis days when he's unbeatable," opined Martin Brundle early on, noting something that hasn't been present all that often in 2018 prior to this one. It had that sort of inevitability about it from the point poleman Lewis led into turn one.

He won by 20 seconds and probably would have been happy to drive his W09 straight home to Monaco too if such things were allowed.

"Today the car and myself, I felt that synergy today, which I haven't felt this year," he said afterwards, confirming what it all looked like.

"People probably think it was an easy race and that I was cruising. I wasn't.

"I was comfortable, and at no point did I feel I was going to lose it, but I was pushing every single lap, using it as a test bench to understand what I liked about the balance, how can I play with it a bit more, can I squeeze any more out of it, and then just understand what I've got to get more from.

"In Melbourne I was really comfortable in the car, with the balance," he continued, referring to his struggles since the season-opener.

Hamilton's win never looked in doubt
Photo: Octane Photography
"And since then I just didn't have the confidence to attack, to lean on the car, to have the rear particularly where I wanted it.

"And then [in Spain's race] we just happened to get the right wing setting, for example, for the race, and the car was a little bit nicer to drive. It was a little bit more of a normal balance.

"It's the greatest feeling to have that kind of performance and have a convincing win."

Sebastian Vettel in second clung to Hamilton's coattails for the first few laps but then dropped away dramatically with fading tyres, a portent of his day unravelling.

In a reverse of this season's usual way Ferrari this time struggled with the rubber and Mercedes didn't. The day before the red cars shunned the softest compound in qualifying as they couldn't get it to work. Then in the race Vettel pitted early to change wheels, a result of his wear problems. It looked like quick 'overcut' laps from Valtteri Bottas combined with that the mediums Vettel switched to take a time to get up to temperature, as well as that he was behind Kevin Magnussen on the road, would get Bottas ahead a la China, and thus cement a Merc 1-2. But a slow stop kept the Finn behind.

It mattered not though, as later Ferrari delivered him the place in any case. Esteban Ocon parking his Force India with an oil pressure problem just after half distance meant a Virtual Safety Car appearance. And this time keeping with a chief theme of 2018 the race - some of the race anyway - pivoted with such an intervention.

As Vettel and Ferrari, convinced they weren't going to make the end on that set of tyres, pitted for a second time. Trouble is it dropped Vettel from second to fourth (not helped by the stop being very slow at 5.6s), places he never looked likely to get back particularly on this circuit where following another car is not easy. Everyone else around Seb stuck to the one-stopper.

Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari had a frustrating time
Photo: Octane Photography
And so in another chief theme of 2018 Ferrari threw points away. You wonder already if it will live to regret it. Seb's fourth place means Lewis's championship points lead now is a healthy 17.

Vettel put a brave face on things afterwards. "We got a fair beating this weekend," he said. "We were not quick enough. If we are not able to see that, we are more than blind.

"I have said many times this team is strong and we have a lot of potential but we also need to make sure we address the problems we have and work together in the same direction.

"The season so far has been positive for us. Today was not a good day. It is important these days to understand why and then you look back and understand what is missing in the preparation to the race."

In typical F1 style a few (including the Ferrari drivers) cried foul nevertheless, suggested Merc was handed this one by Pirelli bringing a thinner than usual tread due to the threat of blistering on the track's fast corners. Ignoring that the decision was made weeks ago and Ferrari was among the teams advocating that switch...

Ferrari added unreliability to its lot this time as well, as Kimi Raikkonen dropped out at one third's distance with a power loss. He was confident in his one-stopper and likely would have finished third. Ferrari had changed his engine earlier in the weekend too after a problem in Friday practice.

Kimi Raikkonen had to retire with a power loss
Photo: Octane Photography
It wasn't necessarily a Lewis walkover though as team-mate Bottas once rid of Vettel ahead lapped at roughly Lewis's pace, having the day before qualified a mere four hundredths off the Englishman. Even if this race suggested Mercedes returning to its natural order compared with the rest it doesn't apply necessarily to the balance of power between its drivers. Bottas completed the Mercedes 1-2.

The recently-maligned Max Verstappen completed the podium for Red Bull despite picking up front wing damage clipping Lance Stroll as the VSC was ending. The Bull pair pedalled hard all weekend but were just two more to not have an answer to the Mercs. Daniel Ricciardo rather ignominiously spun behind the VSC but it only cost him ground to the cars ahead and not places. He finished fifth.

Kevin Magnussen was about as impressive, dominating the 'best of the rest' class with seventh on the grid (which he likened to pole) and sixth in race. Even more impressively he finished 36s up the road from the next in class. And in so doing shrugged off his recent pariah status.

Next in class to the flag was Carlos Sainz despite a late fuel problem. He always goes well at his home track and continued his improved form seen last time out in Baku.

He was chased home by countryman Fernando Alonso in eighth. Alonso had dropped a number of places on lap one avoiding an extraordinary misadventure by Romain Grosjean. It accounted definitively for Nico Hulkenberg and Pierre Gasly, as well as Grosjean himself. Grosjean rightly picked up a grid penalty for Monaco as a consequence.

Romain Grosjean caused a multi-car smash on lap one
Photo: Octane Photography
Alonso fought back with an impressive pass of Ocon around the outside of turn three and later ambushing Charles Leclerc when the VSC ended. The pace gap to the front still gaped for McLaren though, and this in a round that was long supposed to be where its 'real' season started.

Sergio Perez got ninth after being another to be impeded in the first lap chaos, but an attacking two-stop strategy got him back in the game. Leclerc completed the scorers after a fine drive, continuing Sauber's improvement since the season start - it was the second time in two races Sauber and Leclerc had scored.

So is Mercedes's dominance the new way of things? After all, as noted, Barcelona is a bellwether. And we're conditioned these days to assume Merc dominance being established simply is a matter of time.

But perhaps concluding as much is premature. This one always was likely to suit Merc. The next race is Monaco where Mercedes really struggled last year - Lewis and his boss Toto Wolff even in Spain's post race party were expressing trepidation over that one. Red Bull is expected to be particularly good around the Principality, judging by the yardstick of pace in Barcelona's tight final sector.

Then there's how this season is going more generally. We've seen repeatedly that the myriad voodoo effects of the tyres combined with the temperatures, surfaces, track layouts and compounds can make one heck of a difference. Not least to Mercedes.

But for now Mercedes, and Lewis, will be mighty relieved.

No comments:

Post a Comment