Spanish Grand Prix – Some thoughts on qualifying as Mercedes throw down a rather large gauntlet for Ferrari to ponder…
Mercedes emphatically ahead as European season begins:
Mercedes have been simply untouchable so far this weekend. Throughout practice, throughout qualifying…it’s been Mercedes leading the way convincingly ahead of Ferrari, despite the increased power of the Ferrari and their various aero tweaks.
Part of this may be down to the fact that Catalunya isn’t a particularly power intensive circuit, but it’s concerning for Ferrari that they are being simply outclassed in the corners. Qualifying saw Vettel set the quickest first sector of anyone – the sector that includes most of the main straight, as well as the fast sweep of Turn 3, but once the cars enter the slower Sectors 2 & 3, Ferrari are exposed. Vettel was three tenths slower than Valtteri Bottas in the second part of the lap. The final sector is astonishing. By far the slowest and most finicky portion of the track, Vettel was a monstrous 0.7 seconds slower than Bottas. This accounts for around 80% of the total laptime deficit, and it’s all down to one particular sector.
Worryingly for Ferrari, it looks like they’ve made no progress since pre-season testing. The fastest times for the two top teams on the final day of testing were in the 1:16.2s, with Ferrari setting a virtually identical time in Q3 today. Compare that to Mercedes, who went 0.8 seconds quicker. It’s also worth pointing out that the tyre compounds in use this weekend are harder than the ones used to set those testing times, meaning Ferrari are theoretically actually going slower than they did in testing…
The one possible saving grace for Ferrari is that the Mercedes looks like a far twitchier car to drive than the SF90. Over a race distance, this could equalise things a little if the Mercedes proves to be using its tyres harder.
Bottas getting under Hamilton’s skin:
Three pole positions in a row for Valtteri Bottas, and it comes at a track where Lewis Hamilton usually excels. It’s the first time since 2005 a Finn has taken three consecutive poles and it’s no mean feat to have done so against Lewis, who is a renowned qualifying expert.
The W10’s nervousness appears to suit Bottas moreso than Hamilton at this early point of the season. Lewis may have started Q3 with an undercharged battery that led to a less than ideal preparation for his first flying lap, but he also visibly struggled to keep his car under control. The car didn’t quite seem under him, with errors at both Turn 7 and Turn 13. The gap to Bottas should have been smaller, but he admitted himself that he didn’t have enough to usurp his teammate’s time: “I wasn’t quick enough today and wasn’t able to extract the full potential from the car. I have been struggling with the car all weekend, so I will have to look into the details, figure out how I can improve my pace and keep working.”
There’s no doubt that Hamilton will work to redress the balance, but the ‘Bottas 2.0′ that was a humorous bit of fun just a few weeks ago has turned into a real thorn in Lewis’ side. Azerbaijan’s opening corners showed that Bottas is prepared to go to battle and, while they both say things will be respectful and nicey-nicey, just one incident will quickly change the complexion of their relationship. In a battle of the big dogs, Lewis has been the gracious alpha to Valtteri’s quiet beta. Until now. Just how will Lewis respond if Valtteri keeps chipping away at his dominant status?
Red Bull having to fend off Haas
Red Bull have been fighting with the interloping Haas drivers all weekend. While Romain Grosjean & Kevin Magnussen appeared able to fight with Max Verstappen & Pierre Gasly throughout FP3, the Red Bulls edged a few tenths clear in Q3. Impressively, though, Haas wrapped up P7 & P8 with more than half a second of pace advantage over the P9 car of Daniil Kvyat.
While both Grosjean and Magnussen say they expect Red Bull to pull away in race pace, the Friday long runs were promising for the Haas. It could end up being a lonely no mans land type race with Grosjean and Magnussen racing each other for P7. However, Magnussen says there are still questions marks over whether their ongoing tyre issues are rectified: “I’m not expecting for us to be on our own tomorrow, but I’m hoping for it. The last few races have been so tough, but the good thing here is it’s very hard to overtake. So even if we lack a little bit of race pace, we should be able to stay ahead better, like we did in Melbourne, We’re very much learning at the moment, and tomorrow will be a big day of working and if it works, then we’ve learned something. If it doesn’t work, then we’re still lost and we’ll go home and cry a bit. I’m a lot more positive now though than in previous race.”
Renault’s struggles continue
Renault’s sporadic performances are continuing in Barcelona, with Nico Hulkenberg crashing all by himself to knock himself out early in Q1 and Daniel Ricciardo scraping into Q3 before his grid penalty was applied.
The team are running an updated car, although Hulkenberg was keen to stress that the changes weren’t far-reaching. The front wing, barge boards, and rear of the floor have been altered for this race, while all the Renault power units have been changed out for the newer Spec 2 units. Aimed at fixing their reliability issues, Hulkenberg is already onto his final permitted power unit for the year by fitting this engine. Grid penalties are guaranteed at some point in the season as a result.
Their qualifying pace wasn’t good and their race pace on Friday didn’t suggest that they will clearly score any points either. Haas, Toro Rosso & customers McLaren all appear to be on par, if not ahead, of them here and their tough start to 2019 looks set to continue.