The first Grand Prix of the year always comes with a great sense of excitement and anticipation. But, to be honest, the weekend was a really weird one in terms of the emotions across the paddock and I actually now get on the plane to head home feeling absolutely exhausted.
We arrived at the circuit on March 14 to hear the shocking news of Charlie Whiting’s passing. Charlie leaves a huge void in the sport, not just in Formula 1. He was one of those people that fans in the grandstand wouldn’t have really known, but not a single person in the paddock didn’t know him. He was the man drivers would talk to about changes to the track or behaviour of their rivals. Team managers would talk to him about issues with sporting rules and he was the first port of call for technical directors for clarifications. His work went way beyond F1 within the FIA where he worked on various commissions for the sport’s betterment.
Personally, I first met Charlie when I was racing in GP2 and he was the race director then. We then worked together during the building of the Buddh International Circuit and I remember several phone calls and evenings where my dad and I worked with him and Herbie Blash to get the circuit and event running. When Charlie came to the marshalls tent in the evening to speak with the 1,200 volunteers, despite his soft tone, he exuded an air of authority and respect which was unparalleled in this sport.
His ability to reply to phone calls and emails at speed was extraordinary — I even asked him once if he had two secretaries secretly working in a bunker for him! But Charlie also had a good overall view of the sport and knew that if he explained things to the media properly, they could, in turn, tell the story. For example, when Bottas made “the perfect start” at Austria in 2017, I went to see him afterwards as it was clear he went before the lights went out but didn’t get a penalty. Despite it being a busy Friday at Silverstone in between sessions, he spent a good half hour showing me data and explaining just how the systems worked, so I could then go and give a more informed explanation to the television viewers.
The last time I saw Charlie was in Geneva a few weeks ago where we attended the single seater commission meeting together. We walked back to the airport together and spent a long time in the lounge chatting about a variety of subjects in the sport. That was what was unique about Charlie — he had a genuine hands on involvement in every part of the sport. An extraordinary man who will be missed, especially by his young family, and also by the motorsport world at large. Sleep well my friend.
Out on track, qualifying proved to be a bit of an anti-climactic punch after such high expectations of Ferrari and Red Bull from pre-season testing. Obviously, there were several people out in the social media world who were quick to hurl abuse and mockery at our pre-season testing analysis which clearly had Ferrari in front, but that was true from what we saw there. Ferrari did look to have the fastest car in Barcelona and that was the opinion of not just people like me watching from the outside, but also people in the paddock — including Mercedes!
The reigning world champion squad looked quite surprised at the pace of their rivals in qualifying. I got the impression that they ended up achieving the speed and lap times that they expected to achieve, but it was Ferrari and Red Bull who underperformed on their pre-season expectations. It’s worth considering that the gap from Mercedes to Haas, the leaders of the midfield, looked normal, whereas the seven-tenths gap to Sebastian Vettel was totally unexpected, although similar to last year.
Speaking to some key technical and aero people in the paddock, the feeling seemed to be that both Ferrari and Red Bull were struggling to get their cars into the right set-up window in terms of stable aerodynamic performance as well as not getting the tyres to work in the right window. Albert Park is a unique circuit that has some odd cambers in the road as well and bumps, which means that the cars can’t run at their optimal ride height. It seems like Mercedes were able to dial their car into the circuit much better than their rivals. Red Bull looked to be in big trouble with balance and grip and it took for all of Max Verstappen’s brilliance to drag a lap out of it in Q3 and get on the second row of the grid.
I was really impressed with Valtteri Bottas during the weekend. It can’t be easy seeing Esteban Ocon literally sitting in the Mercedes garage next to their boss Toto Wolff, watching for every single fumble that Valtteri may make. Bottas has come off the winter break fighting but went under the radar all through free practice, sitting a couple of tenths behind Lewis Hamilton who topped every practice session. He made a real statement with his first lap in Q3, however, and it made Lewis dig deep into his reserves of special talent and speed to sneak in front by a tenth at the end.
On the race day, once the Finn got in front on the run down to turn 1, he was utterly brilliant. Yes, Mercedes found some damage on Lewis’ floor and at the moment they’re unsure when that occurred. Either way, in that opening stint when it’s pretty safe to assume Lewis’ car was in good shape, his team-mate broke out in front and looked to be in complete command. Even without the floor damage, I very much doubt that Lewis would have overtaken Valtteri although he probably wouldn’t have been beaten by over 20 seconds. I’m very pleased for Valtteri — he’s had a very tough 2018 and it’s fantastic to see a driver bounce back from a tough period with such tenacity.
Ferrari were the big losers of the weekend. Vettel had no answer to the Mercedes pace early on and later in the race, his pace completely dropped away with some sort of problem, which neither he nor the team had an immediate answer for. Charles Leclerc had a scrappy first race weekend for Ferrari but his race pace, too, was disappointing — Bottas managed to pull a gap big enough to come out six seconds in front even after his pitstop. There will be a big investigation at Ferrari after that thrashing, and being beaten to a podium by a Red Bull Honda would have only added salt to the wounds.
I’m fascinated to see if this form carries on in Bahrain. Don’t forget last year that Lewis took pole by seven-tenths and should have easily won the race in Australia, but the Ferraris locked out the front row in Bahrain next time out. I don’t think it’s time to panic yet at Ferrari but if Mercedes come away from Bahrain and China still with the fastest car, then the alarm bells will be well and truly ringing at Maranello.
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