After thrilling contests in Bahrain, China and Azerbaijan it’s possibly fair to suggest that the champagne fell somewhat flat for the 2018 Spanish Grand Prix. But each episode of this soap opera called Formula 1 adds to a greater storyline…
On the face of it, Lewis Hamilton not only won in Barcelona — his second victory on the trot — but thrashed the opposition, pulling the pants down of not only his team-mate Valtteri Bottas, whom he beat by over twenty-seconds, but his title-rival Sebastian Vettel, too.
So is that it, then? Game over? Hamilton’s fortuitous victory on the streets of Baku has opened the floodgates to the sort of dominant performances we saw in Spain and it’ll be Hammer-time from now until the end of the year.
Don’t bet on it.
MORE TO THE STORY…
There were extenuating circumstances in Spain that perhaps skewed the championship picture. The first, is the Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona itself; in dry conditions its endless array of corners and just two major braking zones are not exactly conducive to great racing. The rain in Spain sadly never came.
But perhaps of greater significance were the changes made by Pirelli to the tyres brought to this race. During winter testing around the circuit, teams shared concerns over Pirelli’s rubber showing signs of severe blistering, even in the arctic conditions of a winter where even Spain saw snow.
The Italian manufacturer duly changed the tyre compound for the sport’s return to Barcelona, essentially thinning the tread depth by 0.4 millimetres in order to limit surface blistering. The same is to be done for races at Silverstone and Paul Ricard later in the year, but the controversy comes after suggestions that Pirelli made the changes at the behest of Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport.
Those rumours gained traction once Hamilton and Bottas crossed the line to score Mercedes’ first one-two of the year while Scuderia Ferrari, masters of tyre management so far this season, struggled to a best of fourth place for the two-stopping Vettel.
But let’s hear what Mercedes team chief Toto Wolff makes of the alleged Pirelli/Mercedes collaboration theory?
Wolff is likely right, if a little blunt. Nonetheless, Hamilton’s dominant performance in Spain was down to more than just tyres. Half the job was done in qualifying when Hamilton scored his second pole of the year at a circuit that historically rewards front-row starters.
Untroubled at the start, Hamilton was able to extend his lead to over six-seconds after the early safety car period and from there was able to control his pace, never once looking in danger of being headed. In short, he looked like a Hamilton at his full-swagger best.
Of course, Hamilton’s situation out front was made all the more rewarding by his main title rival Sebastian Vettel’s need to stop twice, opposed to other’s once, and drop from second to fourth come the checkered flag.
Ferrari’s call to stop Vettel for a second time, albeit under virtual safety car conditions, has been heavily criticised by people who don’t have access to the necessary data, such is the wonder of that most public of forums, the internet.
But Vettel and Ferrari insist the medium tyres on which Vettel was racing would not have lasted the race distance, making the second stop necessary.
Whether it’s Ferrari or the trolls who are right, Vettel haemorrhaged a further thirteen points to Hamilton in the pair’s strive for five titles.
But fear not, the script in Barcelona is unlikely to be indicative of the remaining championship narrative. The circus heads to Monaco next, a circuit dominated by Ferrari last year and where Aston Martin Red Bull Racing are expected to be strong. Despite Hamilton’s domination in Spain, this championship still has plenty of twist and turns ahead.
And as we wind down those twists and turns, the pressure will mount on certain drivers; after Spain, most notably, Romain Grosjean…
The Haas F1 Team has started 2018 with a cracking little car, as demonstrated by Kevin Magnussen who finished sixth in Barcelona. Yet, Grosjean remains one of only two drivers – the other being rookie Sergey Sirotkin – to languish at the foot of the drivers’ standings on nil poi.
To some extent Grosjean has been unlucky – if he had a duck, it would likely sink – but the incident that removed him from the Spanish Grand Prix appeared entirely his own doing.
At the long, quick turn three, it was Magnussen, catching his car as it twitched on cold tyres, that caught Grosjean out. As the Frenchman checked up to avoid his team-mate he lost control of the car, lighting up the rear tyres as he kept his foot buried on the throttle, creating a smoke screen for others to drive blind into.
The incident took Pierre Gasly and Nico Hϋlkenberg out of the race, as well as Grosjean, all three cars destroyed and all three drivers counting their blessings that they walked away.
The incident also gained Grosjean a three-place grid penalty for the next race, at Monaco, no less. But while Grosjean’s…indiscretions, for want of a better word, have ramped up the heat on the talented Frenchman, he’s not alone…
Max Verstappen exacerbated Vettel’s tyre trouble in Spain by beating the German to the final step of the podium, his first of the year, but along the way Verstappen kept up his 100% record of hitting something each weekend so far in 2018.
After fireworks in Baku with team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, a costly collision with Vettel in Shanghai, a string of early-season incidents and now clipping his own wing against Lance Stroll‘s Williams Martini Racing, questions still remain over Verstappen’s exuberant style.
Does the sport’s most exciting driver still need to calm down a touch? For his sake, maybe. For you and me, the watching fans, it would perhaps be a shame to lose the thrill Verstappen brings to the grand prix grid. But watch out should he and Grosjean find themselves fighting over the same piece of track…
Next, Formula 1 heads to its crown jewel and the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix, another circuit that offers little by way of overtaking opportunities but never fails to add to the season-long narrative…