The first race in Europe is done, and at the venue where F1 carries out pre-season testing, it was Mercedes who came out on top, albeit yet again not without a demonstration of how razor-thin the margin is between themselves and Ferrari.
A pulsating race started with a bang – Lewis Hamilton had put his Mercedes on pole but Sebastian Vettel had narrowly missed out, only 0.051 behind, having locked up slightly at the final chicane to cost him top spot. Further back, Fernando Alonso confirmed his reputation as a miracle-maker by putting his McLaren into 7th – an astonishing piece of magic from the maestro. Vallteri Bottas had beaten Kimi Raikkonen into 3rd on the grid, with the two Red Bulls just behind, albeit some way off the pace, despite a completely revised chassis.
As the race got underway Hamilton and Vettel both enjoyed good starts and Vettel actually got ahead into the first corner. Hamilton followed him round but behind them, Bottas, squeezing around the inside of Raikkonen, bumped the Ferrari and bumped him straight into Max Verstappen’s Red Bull. Raikkonen retired there and then with damaged suspension, whilst Verstappen limped back to the pits, where he too retired. In the chaos, the Williams of Felipe Massa forced Alonso wide at the exit of turn 2, and sustained a puncture in the process, ending any hope either man had of any points, though Alonso would go on to finish a race for the first time this season.
After just one lap Vettel had opened a 2.5 second lead over Hamilton, once again showing how strong Ferrari are this year. This gap would remain more or less the same for several laps, with both cars on the soft tyre. Hamilton would pit first, on lap 14, switching to the medium compound tyre, whilst Vettel wouldn’t pit for several laps, going into the soft again. Vettel came out behind Bottas, who played the role of rear-gunner for Hamilton for a couple of laps, but could nothing as Vettel sold him a dummy on the main straight, ducking around the Finn. It was a move with echoes of Mansell’s famous one against Piquet at Silverstone in 1987 – and it seemed that the advantage was back with Vettel.
The race would turn on its head though, when Stoffel Vandoorne was pushed onto the gravel at turn 1, leading to a virtual safety car spell. Hamilton pitted under this, losing less time than his rivals, whilst Vettel stopped just after it had finished, switching to the medium tyre. The Ferrari came out of the pits just as Hamilton was shooting down the start/finish line, and the two were wheel-to-wheel as they approached the first corner, where (yet again) we would see a clash of wheels, as Vettel pushed Hamilton off-track. In the eyes of some Hamilton clipped a speed bump and should have driven to the left of a bollard – yet the replays showed that, at worst, only one of Hamilton’s rear tyres caught the bump, whilst it has to be remembered that he had been pushed off-track.
Hamilton would trail Vettel for a few laps, with the two encountering traffic and with Vettel benefiting from DRS as a result, but once the traffic was cleared, Hamilton seized his chance, closing in under DRS on the start-finish straight and breezing by the Ferrari. He would open up a small gap, though it’s to Vettel and Ferrari’s credit that on the slower tyre, they didn’t lose too much ground. However, the Mercedes would hold on to stay ahead, allowing Hamilton to claim his 55th career win, and 2nd win of 2017. For Hamilton’s teammate Bottas, it was a different story, as mechanical failure ruled out any points.
With one each from Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull all out, there were opportunities to be had for other teams. Fourth and fifth were snatched by the Force India duo of Perez and Ocon, whilst Nico Hulkenberg continued to impress with 6th for Renault, dramatically eclipsing teammate Palmer. Spanish driver Carlos Sainz was classified 7th for Toro Rosso (bumped up a place after a time penalty for Pascal Wehrlein, whose sterling performance is worth singling out in a moment). Daniil Kvyat was 9th for the other Toro Rosso, and Romain Grosjean completed the points positions with 10th for Haas. Coming back to Wehrlein, his four points for Sauber may prove invaluable for the small team, who are now ahead of McLaren in the constructor’s championship, and Wehrlein (whose team put him onto a gutsy 1-stop strategy) held off a lot of pressure from Sainz, over a prolonged spell. His composure and performance serve as a reminder of his potential, during a season where several contracts at big teams are up.
Back toward the front of the field, hopes that Red Bull would close the gap on the top two evaporated. Ricciardo was the only driver to avoid being lapped, but he was 75 seconds behind Hamilton come the end. This is a crushing margin, in spite of upgrades to the Red Bull, which clearly needs improvements to the Renault engine to be a serious contender. The next race, at Monaco, will highlight aerodynamic strengths, but even with Red Bull’s quality in this area, will it be enough to offer even a sliver of a chance for anything other than best of the rest?
So, after five races (we are 25% of the way through the season), Vettel leads on 104 points, Hamilton is second on 98 points, with Bottas third on 63 points, and Raikkonen is fourth, with 49 points. In the constructor’s championship, Mercedes lead on 161 points, with Ferrari on 153, and then a big gap to Red Bull, who are on 72 points. Force India are looking good in fourth, with 53 points, comfortably clear of Toro Rosso (who are on 21 points).
Next up is Formula 1’s crown jewel, Monaco!