With Formula One’s exotic opening leg now consigned to history, the sport arrives back in its more traditional homeland of Europe, with round five of the championship this weekend in Spain. Yet, for all the talk of car upgrades, and the obvious change in scene, not a great deal seems to have changed on track as Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes once again stole the show, the 2008 champion picking up pole number four of the season. Dan Paddock runs you through the talking points from qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix.
What now for Nico Rosberg?
Three weeks ago in my analysis of qualifying for the Chinese Grand Prix I suggested that Nico Rosberg might be starting to wilt under the strain of being involved in what is his first championship battle, questioning whether the manner of his defeat in Bahrain, a race he should really have won, had got to him.
He had won excellently in Australia, but as it stands it is the only time that the German has beaten his team-mate during a race this year, Hamilton having now won three in a row since his early retirement from the season opener.
With the race in China effectively a write-off after his slip-ups on Saturday, qualifying in Spain provided Nico with his real chance to reverse the current run of form inside the Mercedes camp.
And you have to feel for Rosberg, because it looked to be going so well. The German was fastest in the final practice on Saturday morning. He was fastest in Q1, ahead of Hamilton, then he went fastest in Q2, again, ahead of Hamilton. Then, when it all really mattered Hamilton snatched pole from him by a mere tenth of a second.
Sunday could be a pivotal day in this championship battle, because a fourth successive defeat for Rosberg at the hands of Hamilton would hand the Brit the lead in the drivers’ table for the first time this year.
If Nico is to be considered as a serious challenger to his team-mate for the drivers’ crown this season then he must fight and beat Hamilton on-track on Sunday in Barcelona.
Is there any stopping Lewis Hamilton right now?
Having waxed lyrical over the damage done to Rosberg by Hamilton, it is only right that the 2008 champion receives credit himself for his own performance on Saturday.
Hamilton, on current form, is driving better than he ever has done in his eight-year Formula One career.
This is a man who, despite claiming that the changes that his team had made to his car had in fact made it worse, went and snatched pole with it by a tenth from under his team-mates nose.
Sure, there’s always the fear that a Nicole induced wobbler will come along later in the season and knock Lewis off form, just as it did in 2011 and late on last year. But as of now Hamilton looks just as near enough unbeatable as Sebastian Vettel ever did over the last nine races of 2013.
Vettel’s woes continue, while Ricciardo continues to quietly impress
As Sebastian Vettel’s RB10 ground to a halt on the exit of turn three during qualifying it almost came with an air of expectation. Here was the four times world champion, broken down at the side of the Circuit de Catalunya for the second time this weekend.
The weekend thus far has been arguably the most troubled of Sebastian Vettel’s Formula One career.
Bringing a new chassis – or old, depending which way you see it as he used it in testing – for this weekend was supposed to mark Vettel’s fightback against the big bad Mercedes duo. Instead, he broke down after just four laps on Friday morning with an electrical issue, which it later transpired had also wrecked the wiring loom, a fix that meant he would miss FP2.
Final practice on Saturday morning went by without so much as a hitch, but during Q3, on his first stint the German lost all drive owing to a gearbox issue, leading to the aforementioned stoppage at turn three.
As in Bahrain earlier this year, Vettel would start just tenth. At least that was until his Red Bull team opted to replace his gearbox, incurring a further five-place drop. Aside from his disqualification in Abu Dhabi in 2012, which saw him start from the back of the grid, it will be the 26-year-old’s worse starting spot since the 2009 Brazilian Grand Prix, when Vettel, like his then rival Jenson Button, was caught out by the rain in qualifying.
There were no such problems for his new team-mate Daniel Ricciardo though, who will line-up behind the Mercedes as the best of the rest. The Australian continues to impress with his level-headed approach, and it is not beyond the realms of possibilities that the smiley 24-year-old could claim his first genuine podium position this weekend.
For Vettel, a man so often decried for his ability to ‘only’ win in top machinery, Sunday’s race presents the German with a perfect opportunity to remind the F1 world why it is he has four world drivers’ titles to his name. If the car holds, expect Seb to make inroads well into the points.
Either way, expect the bubbling undercurrent of what could turn out to be one of F1’s great rivalries to rumble on, even if the chances of team orders coming into the equation this weekend now appear slim.
As a plus point, reliability aside, the Red Bull is almost certainly now the second best car in the field which bodes well for the remainder of the campaign.
The Williams recovery continues, but who is really leading the charge?
With a bucket load of upgrades on the FW36 this weekend Williams would have at least been hopeful that they could maintain their ground in the midfield battle that continues to rage on between them, Ferrari, Force India, McLaren and Toro Rosso.
Yet, on the back of the impressive performance of Valtteri Bottas, who will start alongside Ricicardo on the second row, on Saturday, it appears that the Grove-based squad may well have taken a leap forward, even going so far as to vault the stagnating Ferrari.
Felipe Massa, who had been excellent all weekend up until Q3, when a mistake in the final segment of qualifying cost him seven or so tenths, might well have been fifth, a spot behind his team-mate were it not for his blunder.
After flattering to deceive in the opening races, Williams seem to be finally living up to their pre-season hype.
What we now want to know is which of their two drivers will seize the initiative in the intra-team battle. On the back of Saturday’s performance it is most certainly advantage Bottas. Expect both Massa and the Finn to feature strongly in the battle for the big points on Sunday. Dare I say it, Bottas could even potentially trouble Ricciardo for the final podium slot.
Contrasting fortune at Lotus
The contrast in fortunes of the two Lotus drivers could not have been much different on Saturday during qualifying.
Pastor Maldonado, the man fans love to hate, despite his evident talents – he won at this very track for Williams just two years ago – had slammed his E22 into the inside retaining wall at turn three after a misjudged attempt to avert a spin while running through the fast sweeping corner. The Venezuelan’s session was over, without a time on the board for the second successive grand prix weekend. Maldonado will start 21st on the grid, only ahead of Jean-Eric Vergne by virtue of the Frenchman’s grid penalty.
Any hope of a first points haul in 2014 now seems a long shot. That is unless Pastor can conjure up a performance worthy of his win here two years ago, something that would go a good way to repairing some of the Venezuelan’s damaged credibility.
On the other side of the garage you have Romain Grosjean, the extremely likeable Frenchman, who dazzled us all with his fine run of form at the tail end of 2013, having just shot the twin-tusk Lotus into fifth on the grid, both his and the team’s best grid slot of the year.
After he very nearly hauled Lotus into second in last year’s constructors’ championship single handedly, it has been painful to see the Frenchman first suffer over the winter with what at times certainly appeared to be a terminally sick Lotus team, only to then later be blighted with such a difficult car in the early phase of this season.
Watching Romain Grosjean hustle his Lotus to second behind an untouchable Sebastian Vettel in the United States last year it was evident that here was a man with the outright talent to win grand prix’s, and lots of them.
Romain was in fact unfortunate not to collect Lotus’ first points of 2014 last time out in China, only denied by a gearbox issue, having progressed to Q3 for the first time this year on the Saturday.
Fifth on the grid for Sunday’s race is a solid reward for the hard work that has gone on at Enstone since the E22’s delayed launch, and the perseverance that Grosjean has shown with the team, despite having to accept that the podium finishes of last year are out of reach, at least until 2015.
Lotus – at least Grosjean’s side of the garage – are seemingly in renaissance this weekend, any reliability issues aside expect to see the Frenchman battling away for his, and the team’s first points of 2014.
Honourable mentions must go to Max ‘Gilles Villeneuve’ Chilton on saturday, as well as to Marcus Ericsson, as the pair both out qualified their highly rated team-mates, in Jules Bianchi, and Kamui Kobayashi.
Bianchi complained that he had lost time on his final quick lap, and would otherwise have been ahead of his team-mate on the grid for Sunday’s race, but the long and short of it is that Chilton, despite two offs leading up to qualifying, pulled out a lap six tenths better than the Ferrari starlet to put himself 17th on the grid for what will be his second Spanish Grand Prix.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic