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Formula 1 2019: From Mercedes' continuing dominance to mature Max Verstappen, talking points from a boring Spanish GP

On Lap 40 of the 66-lap-long Spanish Grand Prix, Formula 1 decided to replay the start of the race with different camera angles. This was possibly the biggest hint of how boring the 2019 Spanish Grand Prix was — in fact, very little happened after the opening lap. Apart from Ferrari’s repeated use of team orders and Daniil Kvyat’s slick overtaking moves, the race was a boring one until Lando Norris and Lance Stroll had a typical incident at Turn 2 on Lap 45 to bring out the Safety Car. The restart of the race brought cheer, but it was only temporary.

Hamilton snatches the lead at the start

The start of the race was an important for one big reason. Usually, the Mercedes driver leading into Turn 1 and at the end of Lap 1 is given the preference (or race-winning strategy). This meant that both the Mercedes drivers, starting 1st (Valtteri Bottas) and 2nd (Lewis Hamilton), had everything to play for.

Hamilton, who boldly claimed a few days ago that his race starts were among the best on the grid, snatched the lead from Bottas into Turn 1. Bottas, who drove the lap of his life on Saturday to qualify six tenths ahead of Hamilton, found himself sandwiched between Hamilton (on his right) and Sebastian Vettel (on his left) as three cars entered the tight Turns 1 & 2 abreast.

The Finn later blamed an unexpected clutch behaviour for his dismal getaway from the start line — one that cost him the race win. In fact, hats off to Bottas for not spinning in the middle of the corner despite a mid-corner twitch.

Ferrari loses out to Red Bull, despite issuing team orders twice

Vettel finished a distant 4th. But he did make his presence felt at the start of the race. From 3rd, he got away cleanly and used all of the Ferrari’s power advantage and the tow from the Mercedes cars ahead to get alongside Hamilton-Bottas. In an attempt to keep position, Vettel went in too hot in the braking zone and ended up locking his right front — an issue that cost him dearly for the rest of the race.

While critics were quick to question Vettel’s tactics at the start (yet again!), let’s remember that given Mercedes’ advantage, Vettel’s best chance to meddle with them was at the start — so full marks for his attempt. Apart from the flat spot, Vettel ended up losing 3rd place to Verstappen — a position he couldn’t wrest back. And in fact, he cost Charles Leclerc, who was 3rd at that point, positions too.

A flat-spotted Vettel was fast chased down by Leclerc. For the 4th race this season, Ferrari had to use team orders to get Vettel-Leclerc to swap on track. The team’s intentions were to see if the visibly faster Leclerc could catch Verstappen, but even the young Monegasque’s progress was limited. Eventually, Ferrari ended up using team orders twice, the second time to benefit Vettel (who was on the faster tyre). Unfortunately for Ferrari, the timing of their swaps — should they have swapped their drivers earlier than they did — became a mid-race discussion; even more so because there was little happening elsewhere. Apart from of course when Vettel begged his team to bring forward his first pit-stop so he could discard his flat-spotted Pirellis.

A mature Max Verstappen

Max Verstappen’s stable start to a Formula 1 season is paying dividends — for himself and Red Bull Racing. In qualifying, Verstappen ended up splitting the Ferraris yet again. As for the race, he ended up overtaking Vettel for 3rd. But from then on, it was a boring-ish race for the Dutchman. The Mercedes cars were way out of his reach and the Ferraris were squabbling between themselves to threaten his final podium position. In an attempt to undercut Verstappen in the second half of the race, Ferrari employed alternate strategies with both their drivers, but ultimately, Red Bull Racing are rarely a team one can outfox when it comes to tyre strategy.

Verstappen retains 3rd place in the Drivers’ Championship — ahead of Vettel (by two points) and Leclerc (by nine points).

The 2019 Formula 1 season is a true testament to Verstappen’s talent and consistency. Thankfully, the immaturity seems to have been ironed out for good.

The other Red Bull Racing driver, Pierre Gasly, finished 6th — a position most would expect him to finish at with ease. In the five races contested yet, the Frenchman is yet to showcase a performance close enough to Verstappen’s. As Red Bull Racing work on strengthening their package with Honda, they know that a strong driver pairing in the future is as much of a requirement — one hopes that they patiently build on Gasly rather than fast-tracking promotions in their junior driver line-ups.

Magnussen controversially grabs best of the rest

While the Safety Car didn’t impact the top-6 runners, it certainly bunched up the midfield and impacted the final points scoring finishes. Romain Grosjean, who ran 7th and the ‘best of the rest’ for most of the weekend, was dealt a harsh hand by teammate Magnussen at the restart. Grosjean had to use the escape road in the Turns 1 and 2 complex after a nudge from his teammate. Magnussen’s aggression saw him claim 7th place, but enraged Grosjean — who only went backwards after this incident.

As one of two midfield drivers yet to score points this season (the other being Giovinazzi), Grosjean knew the importance of a strong result in Spain. The French driver did well to extract the most out Haas’ updated car and consistently ran ahead of Magnussen through the weekend. In the end, Grosjean ended up using the escape road for three laps in a row (FIA, how did you miss that?) while unsuccessfully defending positions from McLaren’s Carlos Sainz Jr and Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat. Instead of a meaty six points, Grosjean crossed the line in 10th place to score the final championship point, that too after fending off aggressive challenges from the other Toro Rosso driver, Alexander Albon.

Sainz, the local favourite, and Kvyat’s overtakes

Sainz’s 8th place finish saw him continue with his points scoring streak at his home race — he’s scored here ever since he arrived in Formula 1 six years ago. Kvyat, who finished 9th, pulled off some slick overtakes on Magnussen, Kimi Raikkonen and Grosjean — an indicator of the strength of Toro Rosso’s package.

Unfortunately for the team, their attempt to double stack their cars in the Safety Car period backfired after the crew wasn’t ready with tyres to service the Kvyat, the first car in the queue. The delay not only resulted in a slow stop for Kvyat, but also for Albon — but luckily for the team and drivers, the Safety Car meant that the impact of the delay was minimal. However, it did mean that Kvyat had to overtake Grosjean once again after the restart.

The disappointments in the 2019 Spanish Grand Prix were Renault, Alfa Romeo and Racing Point. Nico Hulkenberg’s error in Q1 saw him start from the pit-lane after penalties, but their decision to single-stop didn’t yield points. As for Ricciardo, a penalty from Baku saw him start 13th and eventually finish 12th — with the only consolation being his overtake on Sainz. Perez started and finished 15th — unable to recreate the pace he had in the last race in Baku. His teammate Stroll, faced his 9th consecutive exit from Q1 in qualifying and ended up with a ‘Did Not Finish’ classification against his name. In their post-race inquiry, the FIA deemed that Norris-Stroll were involved in a ‘racing incident’ with no driver being blamed directly. However, from the on-board footage, one does wonder why Stroll left Norris almost no room to maneuver Turn 2.

What this race means for F1

However boring and processional, the 2019 Spanish Grand Prix will be remembered as the race where Mercedes further edged forward of their competitors. The upgrades brought by the reigning World Champions delivered well to earn them their fifth consecutive 1-2 finish — another record in itself.

And of course, it was also their 7th consecutive pole position at the Circuit de Catalunya. The German team did not put a single foot wrong for yet another race apart from the questionable radio message asking Bottas to not chase the point for the fastest lap, one that Hamilton was holding at that moment. While the team will issue an explanation in the days to come, one wonders till what extent Mercedes can actually control this year’s Drivers’ Championship fate. From the 220 points available this season, Mercedes have scored 217 of them — the three points lost were down to the fastest laps in Bahrain, China and Baku.

As for Ferrari, we had claimed in our pre-Spain column that their battle would be with Red Bull Racing and not Mercedes and our prediction did come true. It seems that whatever Ferrari attempts to do this season — engineering, strategy, team orders and even pit stops, they are found lacking. In Spain, even their otherwise robust pit stops came under scrutiny after both their drivers suffered a left-rear tyre issue leading to slow stops.

We would expect Ferrari to win a few races this season, but it would take more than a miracle for them to actively challenge Mercedes for the titles.

But how much harm is Mercedes’ domination causing Formula 1? Do the powers that control the sport need to urgently re-group to address how to make the sport more interesting? Again, the idea is not to write rules to stop Mercedes from winning, the idea is to bring back competition in the sport. If it can exist in Formula 1.5, why not in Formula 1?

Tricolour waves as Daruvala wins in Formula 3

And finally, Jehan Daruvala brought much cheer to Indian motorsport fans as he powered his way to winning Race 2 of Formula 3’s Round 1 in Barcelona. The Mumbai lad started the race in 2nd place, benefitting from the reverse grid (he was 7th in Race 1), and grabbed the lead at the start itself. From there on, the Prema driver held his nerve and position to cross the finish line in 1st place and jump to 3rd place in the standings. Even though competition was close in the inaugural round of Formula 3’s season, the Prema lads were the pacesetters. The playing of the Indian national anthem with Jehan on the top step of the podium gave fans a rare goosebumps moment, one that we hope continues through 2019 and further.

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Updated Date: May 13, 2019 22:17:30 IST