Mercedes had established themselves as the dominant force to reckon with over the opening rounds of the 2014 season.
But with the ‘flyaway’ series of races drawing to an end, would a return to Europe see rivals make inroads into the Silver Arrows’ formidable advantage?
Also, how long would it be until their closely-fought battle for motor-racing’s top prize began to eat away at Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg’s childhood friendship?
In Part II of our ‘Season so Far’ feature, we look back at the Chinese, Spanish and Monaco Grands Prix.
Chinese Grand Prix
Following their dismal showing in Bahrain in the presence of President Luca di Montezemolo, changes were afoot at Ferrari.
In the build up to the Chinese Grand Prix it was announced that team-principal Stefano Domenicali, a 23-year Ferrari veteran who had led the Scuderia since 2008, had taken responsibility for the team’s poor showing and stepped down.
His replacement? Little-known Marco Mattiacci, an F1 outsider who had been running Ferrari’s business in North America.
With no experience of Formula One, everyone in the sport was curious to see how Mattiacci would cope with the rough and tumble world of the paddock.
In other off-track news, Red Bull’s appeal over Daniel Ricciardo’s exclusion from the Australian Grand Prix, which was heard ahead of the race in China, was rejected.
The FIA’s International Court of Appeal upheld the verdict of the Australian Grand Prix stewards but cleared the team of fraudulent behavior.
Meanwhile, on the circuit Lewis Hamilton – aiming for his first hat-trick of Formula One wins – took pole at the end of yet another damp qualifying session.
Rosberg started fourth after spinning on his final attempt, which allowed Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel to slot in between the two Mercedes.
Rosberg had to contend with further problems during the race as he had no car-to-pit telemetry which left him on his own out on track, essentially driving blind, with no data or help available from the pitwall.
A poor start and a collision with Valtteri Bottas that saw him lose ground on the opening lap complicated things further for the German.
But he was nevertheless able to use his Mercedes’ superior speed to make his way back up through the field and finish second to Hamilton which, crucially, allowed him to stay in the championship lead albeit by a slim four-point margin.
Tensions flared at Red Bull, however, as Sebastian Vettel in an almost karmic twist of fate was asked to make way for new team-mate Daniel Ricciardo for the second consecutive race.
Ricciardo represented Red Bull’s best chance of getting onto the podium that afternoon and, with the team anyway thinking of switching Vettel onto a different strategy, asked the German to let his faster team-mate through.
Struggling to come to terms with the handling of the 2014 cars and so far outshone by an unknown quantity, the four-time world champion, used to being Red Bull’s golden boy, refused to let Ricciardo through.
Depending on who you speak to Vettel did relent or was overtaken by Ricciardo a few laps later, though the time he spent stuck behind Vettel may have cost the ever-smiling Aussie a podium finish.
It was instead Fernando Alonso who finished third, scoring Ferrari’s first podium of the season and giving new boss Mattiacci something to smile about on his first weekend in the job.
Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton. Race Winner: Lewis Hamilton
Spanish Grand Prix
The Spanish Grand Prix marked the start of the European leg of the season as Formula One returned to its traditional heartland after a bit of a breather following the hectic series of flyaway races that traditionally kick off the year.
The return to Europe was also the first chance for teams to introduce major upgrades to their cars and outfits up and down the pitlane had spent the three-week interval following the Chinese Grand Prix furiously working to churn out new parts.
And though nobody was expecting the formbook to be turned on its head, the question on everyone’s minds heading into the race on the outskirts of Barcelona was: had rivals, particularly Red Bull who had emerged as their closest challengers, managed to close to gap to the dominant Mercedes?
Apart from any upgrades that could potentially help Red Bull make inroads into Mercedes’ advantage, the Circuit de Catalunya, predominantly made up of fast, sweeping corners, was also expected to play more to the strengths of the Adrian Newey-desgined RB10 and negate at least some of their German rival’s power advantage.
However, any hopes that the opposition had made tangible gains on the all-conquering cars of Hamilton and Rosberg were dashed at the end of the very first day of running.
A Mercedes driver headed each of the three practice sessions and the two silver cars duly locked out the front row in Saturday’s qualifying session.
Daniel Ricciardo was once again the lead Red Bull in third but his deficit to pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton’s benchmark, on a weekend during which the reigning champions were hoping to give their rivals a closer fight at the front, was over a second.
Inevitably, in the race the two Mercedes once again ran away at the head of the field but it was close between them and we were treated to yet another Hamilton vs. Rosberg battle for the win.
The racing between the two wasn’t quite as close as it was in Bahrain but it was an intriguing battle nonetheless and, though Rosberg was once again the quicker Mercedes, Hamilton managed to only just keep him at bay, crossing the line a mere 0.6 seconds ahead of his team-mate.
Victory in the Spanish Grand Prix was Hamilton’s fourth straight win of the year and allowed him to finally erase the points deficit to Rosberg — which he had been fighting to overcome since his retirement in Australia — and seize the championship lead.
Crucially, though, he had beaten Rosberg in effectively every race the two had contested so far — even when the German had the quicker car — and heading to Monaco, Hamilton looked unstoppable.
Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton. Race Winner: Lewis Hamilton
Monaco Grand Prix
Monaco – among the most dramatic locations on the calendar – set the stage for one of the best pieces of off-track Formula One theatre in recent years, as the tensions between childhood friends Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, which had been simmering for some time now, finally boiled over.
The duo had both resorted to mind games in the build up to the race but it was in the final part of qualifying, with the clock ticking down to zero and pole position up for grabs, that the gloves really came off.
Rosberg was on provisional pole from Hamilton by a narrow 0.059 seconds following the initial runs of the final shootout and was ahead of the Briton on track as the pair began their final laps.
However, just a few corners in, Rosberg locked up and ran up the escape road bringing out the yellow flags. As a result, Hamilton who had been following the sister Mercedes and was on a lap good enough for pole was forced to back off and abort the attempt.
With neither car completing their final laps, pole by default went to Rosberg.
Only the German will know whether the lock-up was a mistake or a deliberate attempt to sabotage his team-mate’s lap.
The facts tell us that he was subsequently investigated by the stewards and cleared of all wrongdoing.
But that didn’t matter as far as Hamilton was concerned as the former world champion clearly believed his team-mate harboured sinister motives.
Rosberg, after all, absolutely had to halt Hamilton’s run of four-straight victories and win this weekend to regain the initiative in the title-race. And what better way to do that than start from pole at a circuit around which only once in the last ten years has a driver not starting from first on the grid claimed the win?
Sure enough, Rosberg won the race to regain the championship lead. Hamilton hounded him all the way through the race before backing off dramatically in the closing stages as he had something in his eye and very nearly fell prey to third-placed Daniel Ricciardo who took a maiden podium in Monaco.
Hamilton’s mood had soured further during the race when he felt he had been denied a chance to leapfrog his team-mate when his Mercedes failed to bring him in during a safety car period. The team instead brought both cars in together the following lap, thereby maintaining the status quo.
He complained about it over the radio but Mercedes were in fact just following their established pit-stop policy which was to give the lead car, in this case Rosberg, the preference on strategy.
The body language after the race between Rosberg and Hamilton was perhaps most telling in how far the relationship between the two former friends had deteriorated.
Whereas in Bahrain, minutes after having contested a tense wheel-to-wheel duel, the duo had shaken hands and slapped each others’ backs in congratulations, the two kept their distance in Monaco, refusing to acknowledge each other.
And while Rosberg struck a conciliatory tone, Hamilton declared his friendship with the German was at an end.
Pole Position: Nico Rosberg. Race Winner: Nico Rosberg
Images courtesy of Red Bull/Getty and Octane Photographic.