Mercedes take precedent in Barcelona

In the wake of three difficult races, in which the Pirelli tyres had been the bain of their life, Mercedes turned up to a track that would work the tyres harder than any other circuit since, with a track surface broadly different to the abrasive nature of those already visited in 2018, on which they faired significantly worse than Ferrari.

Couple that to a change made by Pirelli to counteract blistering on certain cars and you have a perfect storm of a W09 that seemed as comfortable at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya as its rival SF71-H had been at Baku, Shanghai and Bahrain before it, as well as a faultless race performance by Lewis Hamilton – despite Valtteri Bottas being right on his pace all weekend – and a Ferrari that lacked the raw speed and race pace that was so ominous in the last three Grands Prix.

However, it was a race whose action largely took place on the opening lap; Sebastian Vettel got a double-Mercedes tow in the long run into turn one, overtaking Bottas before holding the Silver Arrows behind him for over 40 mostly uninterrupted laps.

To cap off a nightmare opening five rounds, Romain Grosjean left Barcelona with another zero-point haul and a three place grid penalty for the Monaco Grand Prix. Coming into turn three Grosjean followed Kevin Magnussen, who had a wobble, thereby spooking his teammate and pitching him into a spin – Marcus Ericsson style. The Geneva-born Haas driver then floored the throttle, later citing Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg as his inspiration, though it looked as though the rear gripped more than he was anticipating, thus propelling him into the line of fire of a series of competitors, blinded by the resultant cloud of smoke from the Haas’ rear tyres.

Consequentially, he was out on the spot along with Pierre Gasly and the out-of-position Nico Hulkenberg, when the former Lotus man could have made a far easier and safer job for the following drivers to negotiate the carnage and, as such, is fully deserving of the book hurled in his direction.

From there the chasm between the Mercedes and Ferrari on race day was highlighted by Hamilton’s surge in the first few laps after the restart, and the championship leader pulled out a sizeable gap in ample time, making hay while Vettel held behind the sister Mercedes.

In sharp contrast to the Constructors’ champions fortunes, Ferrari couldn’t get to grips with the tyres – no pun intended – and therefore lacked the one-lap pace they showed in the previous three races. Their lead driver blamed it on Pirelli’s decision to shave of 0.4mm from the tyre tread for the Spanish GP, and two other races in isolation, and the general consensus appears to be that this benefitted Mercedes and penalised their rival – they, of course, deny any coercion.

Incidentally, the reigning Drivers champion flagged the race as a potential turning point, so that and Mercedes’ lead in both standings begs the question: have Ferrari had the best of their year?

If we look at it one way, the Scuderia have improved on three different types of circuits where Mercedes were previously much closer, or even edging ahead. In Bahrain, Ferrari were dominant over one lap and certainly ahead on race pace, while 2017 was fairly even, with Ferrari gaining the edge on general race pace and strategy. As regards China – a track requiring some opposing strengths than the Sakhir International Circuit – Ferrari were again much better in qualifying, but were only slightly ahead on Sunday when Mercedes were fairly comfortable 12 months previously. At Baku – where traction and slow-speed grip are equally necessary as in Bahrain, but straight-line speed has more onus placed on it – Ferrari were again reasonably comfortable and only undone by a Safety Car that allowed Bottas ahead.

However, the main difference between 2017 and 2018 is the effect the tyres have on the pecking order. Much of Mercedes’ deficit in the interlude between their two pole position stems from not getting the tyres to work; there were signs in China that when the conditions turn in their favour, they gain pace relative to Ferrari. As was the case last season, Mercedes have a ‘diva’ that has the raw speed that Ferrari probably can’t match, although their car is much more of a workable machine that should be there or thereabouts at just about every circuit. It may not be the case this year that the title is decided by the fastest or most reliable car, but by the tyres and Mercedes varying ability to get the best out of them.

For Red Bull, a supposedly vast amount of updates clearly made the car a faster package, ultimately, albeit one whose maximum can’t yet be extracted for significant lengths of time. According to Daniel Ricciardo, it was only possible that he could put a lap together on ‘one in every five’ laps. Regardless of the capability of the car to lap at least as fast as the leaders, its race pace wasn’t good by comparison. That being said, Max Verstappen’s podium will undoubtedly provide some much-needed relief for the Dutchman, while the ideal that, if they were to smooth off the rough edges, they can challenge for wins on merit could serve to add a spring in their step going into Monaco, where they would have almost certainly been confident of a strong result.

Outside of the top 6 battle, Haas effectively romped their way to the proverbial ‘win’ in the ‘best of the rest’ section of the grid. Magnussen qualified a clear seventh and took sixth by over half-a-minute from Carlos Sainz, as the Americans returned to the kind of midfield dominance they showed in Melbourne. By putting two and two together, Haas have a car akin to the Mercedes in a way; they had strong results in China, Austria and Japan to name a few in 2017 – or in other words, front-limited, high speed circuits – and would seem to have maintained much of that strength going into this season. Though the similar dominance shown by Renault in Shanghai this year shows that ‘Team Enstone’ are a threat going forward, but perhaps Haas will keep the upper hand in certain conditions – but they have a lot of ground to make up, if they’re still eyeing fourth in the championship.

Staying with the midfield teams and McLaren arrived in Barcelona with the most noticeable update package on the grid – which naturally yielded the widespread proliferation of goldfish memes on social media that looked cannily like the new-and-improved MCL33. But the most notable observation was that the McLaren was improved; Stoffel Vandoorne was as close to a Q3 appearance as he has been this season, while the home hero broke into the top ten shootout for the first time in 2018. Having fallen back at the start, Alonso quickly overcame the fast starting Esteban Ocon around the outside of turn three, before setting about doing the same on the Sauber of Charles Leclerc, which he eventually did.

Leclerc continued his bounce from Baku to score consecutive points and, in doing so, showed a level of strength in pace seemingly beyond his years. Marcus Ericsson struggled relative to his rookie teammate, three-quarters of a second behind the Monegasque in the first part of qualifying and out of the points come Sunday evening. The Ferrari protégé showcased his defensive driving, assuredly placing his car in the middle of the circuit to keep a much faster McLaren at bay, although his tyre management – or lack thereof – perhaps did for him in the end; Sergio Perez got the luck of the draw with the VSC, using the delay to his advantage to switch on to the softer rubber that allowed him to close in on and overtake the Sauber. Ultimately, though, it was a positive afternoon – for Sauber because they scored points in consecutive races for the first time in three years, and for Force India because Ocon ran in the points until his botched pit stop, while the Mexican was on hand to reap the spoils when they seem to be gradually abating the issues that have plagued them since the start of the season.

Speaking of plagues, eleventh in the race hardly has a pacifying effect for Williams and arguably papers over the cracks of a back-row lockout, with no sign of a change in fortunes. Naturally with such a downturn, rolling heads would have seemed inevitable, and lo, it was when it was announced that Ed Wood had left the aerodynamics department of the former world champions. The Grove-based stragglers did bring updates, but nothing revolutionary to the balance of the car should be expected until the middle of the season, supposedly.

But with what was a bit of a borefest behind us, thoughts were always going to be turned to Monaco, and if you’re looking for a hot tip then a decent bet would currently appear to be Red Bull.

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