10 things about the Spanish Grand Prix
No more Noah’s ark
1. Barcelona’s reputation is of a circuit that makes it hard to pass where the chassis is so critical that results tend to come in two by two, dominated by team performance. All weekend the talk was of the fact that 24 of the past 27 grand prix here had been won from the front row and — if you weren’t there — how important the first three corners would be. You didn’t need to be Nostradamus to forecast that the chance of incidents at the beginning of the race would be high.
It was ironic, then, that a track that causes so much trouble for cars following each other managed to create so much tension at the beginning that we had four different teams in the final top four positions. This was entirely a result of the first lap drama. Four different teams in the top four is something that usually only happens once per season (last year, at the perpetually mixed up Canadian GP, the previous year at the then new Russian track). That the incidents on Sunday were initiated by a driver clearly trying to avoid them is more evidence of the fact that it’s sometimes best to look ahead rather than think about what is behind you.
Number two blues
2. Kimi Raikkonen’s day ended after one corner. Even by his monosyllabic, monotonal standards his response to a question about what positives he could take from the weekend was glacier-cold: “none, none at all”. This was delivered whilst walking away from the interviewer who asked the question.
Why the reaction? Vettel now has more than double the points of Raikkonen. Kimi knows that the near-equality of last season is gone and that Ferrari now has a clear number one. Mercedes has raised the bar for constructors and it’s unlikely that Italy will accept an Alonso/Massa disparity of this nature for long.
The look on Kimi’s face was of a driver who knew that Sunday might have been the point when, at 37 and short of a good result against his team mate this season, he realised his F1 career had come to an end. Over the road at Mercedes it’s now hard — short of an immediate turnaround — to see his fellow Finn escaping a similar role as understudy this season. The difference between the two is that Bottas has time on his side.
Number two blues part two
3. Outside of the championship contenders it got worse not better. Jo Palmer — almost discarded at the end of last season — started 17th and finished 15th whilst teammate Nico Hulkenberg went from 13th to 6th. It may be that he’s getting the wrong end of the resources in a team that nearly ditched him at the end of last season and believes more in his team mate but Jan Magnussen will tell you that this doesn’t get you any credit. Jo’s F1 future — in any team — boils down to the next five races.
Strolling down the highway
4. Over at Williams Lance Stroll’s season performance moved from disappointing to embarrassing when his 36 year old retired-not-retired team mate passed him late on after recovering from an early incident that cost him the best part of a lap. Stroll then fell further in the rankings to finish last.
Williams ditched Niko Hulkenberg for Maldonado’s PDVSA cash in 2012. A couple of decades after losing Honda engines for refusing to take his dad Satoru as a driver, they accepted Kazuki Nakajima as the price for Toyota engines in 2008. Those are probably the only two occasions when Williams have accepted the hard realities of F1 and allowed one driver in their squad to be influenced by commercial concerns.
The current situation is concerning for racing fans for two reasons. The first is that Maldonado won a race and Nakajima scored semi-regular points in his first season — something that Stroll, driving a far more competitive car, can only dream of. The second is that the current deal allegedly specifies not only Stroll but an experienced driver alongside him, mandating the resigning of Massa (and not a punt on the likes of a Giovinazzi or a Vergne).
The recent habit of moulding ever younger drivers into F1 prodigies was always going to reach a limit at some point. People who think that matching Verstappen’s age is the best approach are missing the point; matching his results is what matters. The question now is whether anyone has the sense to save Stroll’s career by finding a way for him to take a step back.
All the indications are that Jaime Alguersauri was a world class driver in the making. The tragedy for him was that that we never got to find out because he got promoted into F1 too soon. The tragedy for Stroll is that the narrative is fast approaching a steeper drop and, given the amount of Daddy’s cash involved, there’s likely to be less sympathy.
5. There were two no2s who did have good days. The star was the under-appreciated Daniil Kyvat. Downbeat in Saturday’s press conferences after qualifying last, the cameras missed his committed drive to 9th . After his team mate managed a stellar 12th to 7th, assisted by Wehrlein’s pitlane indiscretion, this counts as a major save.
Almost as good was rookie of the year (by a country mile) Esteban Ocon, finishing behind experienced team mate Perez in 5th but enhancing his reputation by more. Tellingly, there are no longer stories of Sergio as Raikkonen’s replacement at Ferrari but there are a few about Esteban making the step up. France has been waiting a long while for an F1 star but they may have finally found it.
Mental toughness will win the title
6. Last season, the Russian grand prix started a pattern of angry Seb Vettel radio messages, culminating in the Anglo-Saxon message to Charlie Whiting issued in Mexico. The image was of a rattled ex-Word Champion under enormous pressure to win. It didn’t paint a good picture and, 2014 aside, it accompanied the worst form of his career. This season we’ve had a more relaxed and a more competitive Vettel.
Sunday saw a little more than a hint of frustration creeping back in, both in the messages when Hamilton came past him — “I had no chance… no chance” — and then later on when his mistake caused a problem with a clearly co-operative Felipe Massa — “why is it always Massa?”
Hamilton is no stranger to accusations of poor mental management; the last coming after suggestions that his turbulent private life contributed to his poor showing in Russia. It might not fit the narrative but the truth is surely that Vettel’s messages on Sunday were more emotional than Lewis’s downbeat “that was dangerous” message about the close contest that saw him lose out in a major way in his first overtaking attempt.
The machinery is fascinatingly balanced. Hamilton gained both from pitting under the Virtual Safety Car and from his team mate holding his rival and he won by less than five seconds. How Lewis and Sebastian, and their respective teams, manage their headspace could be the deciding factor in this year’s championship.
Punches don’t mean points
7. Aggressive driving is nothing new in the safer post-Senna F1 era. Apart from the odd anomaly like Pastor Maldonado (or, for F2 watchers, Sergio Canamasas), the verb is usually applied in a complimentary way by commentators and observers. The reality is more complicated. It’s a fine line and, unless the aggression is controlled, it can cause more problems than it delivers results.
Kevin Magnussen has talent but is no stranger to the appellation and his late race refusal to accept a pass from Kyvat is not a surprise. People may say that he doesn’t deserve to lose points to a below par Grosjean after out-performing him all weekend. In truth, Sunday’s incident is no surprise to anyone who remembers his wheel banging with his team mate in Belgium in his debut season with McLaren. It could be equally costly.
Home isn’t that sweet…
8. Damon Hill was the latest to pull out the hoary old chestnut of home race fans being “worth a second a lap” from the “our Nige” days of British GPs. It was ridiculous nonsense then — more about Mansell ceaselessly playing to the gallery than reality — and it’s nonsense now. If you ever had a situation where a driver showed up at a race and went a second faster and then went that much slower at the next race, his team boss and the media would be asking some difficult questions sharpish.
In Barcelona, Carlos Sainz had a difficult day stuck behind a determined Wehrlein. Alonso meanwhile showed the world that creating an engine that looks reasonable in fuel unrestricted qualifying is different to creating an engine that performs across a full race difference. In a sport as competitive as this, there is little space for fairy tales.
9. Pascal Wehrlein reminded us of his talent in dragging his Sauber up to 8th on the same weekend that his cash-strapped team announced a deal with Honda for engines next year. It’s ironic that this result will move Sauber off the bottom and ahead of McLaren in the constructors standings. There’s no question that Sauber will benefit from the deal in the short term. Most fans will be hoping that Honda step things up. If not, Sauber may end up looking back at this decision as the reason for their move down from 9th to 10th in 2018.
10. Adrian Newey has had an undeniably stellar F1 career as a designer but all good careers come to an end and F1 seldom allows any dilution in focus.
Gordon Murray and John Barnard stand out amongst the few who could match his achievements in former eras. Gordon Murray’s F1 career may have ended working for McLaren in their heyday but his last car was Brabham’s unloved BT55 (“like reading in bed at 200mph” — Derek Warwick). John Barnard’s last F1 points were scored courtesy of Pedro Diniz.
Newey — also involved in other projects and not seen on the pitwall in a while — was supposed to mastermind Red Bull’s return to the top in a new aero-dominated era. Red Bull’s eagerly anticipated improvements in Spain left the team comfortably a second a lap off the pace in race trim.
Many have suggested that the close season banning of a suspension approach has penalised Red Bull. It’s tempting to go further — without any evidence — and speculate that, in the Ecclestone era, this type of innovation would have gone unchecked. Either way, Newey is going to have his commitment to the sport tested in new ways in the next few months.