Spanish GP no reason to write off rest of F1 season

While Mercedes took a one-two at Catalunya, Ferrari was right up there in the previous three races in Bahrain, Shanghai and Baku, so maybe the Silver Arrows’ level of dominance is a one-off occurence.

Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton celebrates with his fans on the pit wall after the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Catalunya.   -  Getty Images

Let’s be honest, after the excitement of the opening three corners, the Spanish Grand Prix was a bit of a snoozefest. But you know what, most of the time, the Spanish GP is. So don’t write off the rest of the season! Since the first race at the Circuit de Catalunya in 1991, 25 out of the 28 races have been won from the front row. The drivers and teams know the track too well, and the layout of the track with those long-radius medium- and high-speed corners means that it’s hard to follow another car. Plus, if we don’t have the occasional dull race, we won’t appreciate the good ones!

I do a bit of consultancy work for race track designers and I do wonder whether we ought to be doing something about the circuit to make it more interesting for racing. One of the big challenges, of course, is that nowadays the circuit’s bigger earner is the MotoGP weekend and, therefore, whatever is done to the layout has to work for the bikes as well. However, I do think that by changing the width of the track on the entry to some of the corners, and tweaking the layout a bit, we could create some decent passing places by creating some new lines. The trouble we have now is that with the modern cars carrying so much downforce, Turn 1 isn’t a long braking zone and the only decent braking zone into Turn 10 comes after two corners where it’s very hard to follow the car in front.

The 2019 F1 aero regulations are meant to help cars follow each other. There’s quite a bit of debate over this, with five teams in favour and five against the regulation changes. The teams for the change, including Ferrari and Mercedes, feel that the research that’s been done by the new technical team at F1 headed by Ross Brawn justifies the modifications. The five against, including Red Bull, feel that it’s a bit premature and that more research needs to be done, plus the cost implications with designing a whole new concept isn’t ideal, especially when the rules are expected to change again in 2021. There are arguments for both sides, of course, but in principle we would all like to see more overtaking.

We’ve seen the wings get bigger, smaller, wider, higher, lower and a combination of all of these, but the feeling coming out of the F1 technical camp is that this time the changes proposed have been better researched than anytime before. Let’s wait and see!

Red Bull once again had a weekend where they couldn’t get the qualifying performance they needed, but the race pace was again very good.   -  Getty Images

Now, to talk about the Spanish GP weekend itself, Mercedes looked to be on great form. Despite all the talk of updates, as usual the ultimate performance seems to come down to who can get the tricky Pirelli tyres to work best for them. In China and Baku, the Mercedes drivers seemed to be struggling to “wake up” the tyres as well as the Ferrari drivers for the one-lap performance they needed in qualifying. But in Spain, the higher track temperatures, combined with the long-radius corners, allowed them to get the tyres into the right window.

The tyres created all sorts of headaches for the teams. The supersoft tyre wasn’t delivering the grip and peak performance they expected and, in fact, the Ferrari drivers ended up qualifying on the soft tyre even in Q3. This shows that Pirelli still needs to make progress in terms of choosing the tyres for the weekends, and I would like to see them have a two-step difference in compounds (so, for example: ultras, soft, mediums). We would then have a true qualifying tyre, which forces a short first stint in the race and, therefore, a two-stop strategy.

 

In qualifying, despite the Ferraris obviously not being 100 percent happy with their tyres, Sebastian Vettel managed to get within a sniff of pole position. But on Sunday, Lewis Hamilton was in devastating form. Clearly the Ferrari was eating up its tyres more than the Mercedes, which is why the team felt the need to also do an extra pit stop. However, Hamilton’s pace in that opening stint was absolutely mighty. That stint alone should make Ferrari and Vettel a bit worried when looking at how they’re going to get back in front in this World Championship battle.

On the up side, the Mercedes was particularly strong in pre-season testing in Barcelona and, as we’ve seen so far, the Ferrari has been right up there in Bahrain, Shanghai and Baku, so maybe this level of dominance is a one-off. For the sake of the World Championship battle and fans around the world who want to see the fight go down to the final round in Abu Dhabi, I hope that’s the case.

Red Bull once again had a weekend where they couldn’t get the qualifying performance they needed, but the race pace was again very good. I’m very interested to see what happens in Monaco next time out as they should be in better shape in qualifying. Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo are both pretty awesome around street circuits, and Monaco represents one of their best chances to qualify on the front row and battle for victory in a straight fight. Verstappen finally got his first podium of the season and fulfilled his obvious speed and potential, which is good to see.

Ferrari versus Mercedes versus Red Bull should be well and truly on at the Monaco Grand Prix on May 27.   -  AFP

Charles Leclerc was one of the other stars of the race, backing up his strong performance in Baku. He’s now settled into Formula 1 after a bit of a wobbly start, and with Romain Grosjean having a tough run of races, I can see Ferrari and Leclerc starting to push Haas for a seat for him there in 2019 in preparation for that final step into a Ferrari seat down the line.

Grosjean’s spin that caused carnage on Lap 1 was the only bit of excitement of the Grand Prix. Why on earth he kept his foot hard on the throttle, spun back into the pack and created that smoke cloud I have no idea, but it was an extremely dangerous thing to do. In a way, while it was a shame for Nico Hulkenberg and Pierre Gasly, it was lucky that there weren’t more cars wiped out in that or drivers injured.

On to Monaco next, where I’ve been this weekend driving at the Historic Grand Prix weekend in a Williams that Keke Rosberg won the race in back in 1983. It’s the jewel in F1’s crown, and Ferrari versus Mercedes versus Red Bull should be well and truly on. Lewis and Seb have been brilliant there in the past. Kimi Raikkonen took pole last year. Valtteri Bottas delivered probably his best qualifying lap of the season there in 2017. And Max and Daniel are hungry for their first Monaco wins. Game on!