Before I get writing in earnest, it’s important to note that I didn’t get to enjoy much of this race! I was at work (fair enough), but with the race starting at 1pm, there was always the chance that the store would be quiet by then. Instead, 1pm appeared to be the signal for wave after wave of customers to come into the store – typical!
The consequence is that I don’t have a great deal to offer. I know Fernando Alonso retired on the warm-up lap, marking his fourth retirement of the season – in as many races. To say he is probably nearing the end of his tether with his current situation is a bit of an understatement! I also know that Palmer’s Renault collided with Grosjean’s Haas on lap 1 – I have no idea who was at fault as I haven’t seen the incident. Finally, I did spot, in the corner of my eye, Ricciardo’s Red Bull pulling into the pits to retire early on – I am not all too sure why, though he was mentioning very hot brakes at one stage.
So four early retirements, an early safety car too (the result of the Palmer/Grosjean accident), and a lightening start from the Mercedes of Bottas, who slipped by both Ferraris at the very start to assume the lead. Without having seen much of the race I can’t say much else at this point. So let’s rewind for a mo.
The Ferraris of Vettel and Raikkonen had locked out the front row of the grid, the first time a Ferrari was on pole since 2015 and the first lock out since 2008 – Vettel took pole, and looked comfortable, though for the first time this year Raikkonen looked pacey. Bottas was pretty close, but Hamilton was well off the pace, unable to find the right balance with his car. It was a situation that would continue into the race itself, with Hamilton adrift in fourth, devoid of a chance. Up front, Bottas would eke out a small lead over Vettel, who in turn steadily pulled away from Raikkonen.
What I did manage to see of the race underscored a theme that’s emerged over the course of the first few races – strategy has been crucial to determining the winner. As the pit stops took place, and the cars donned the super-soft tyres (the ultra-soft being the initial preference), the Ferraris (well, Vettel’s Ferrari) came alive. Vettel began to catch Bottas, and a mistake from the Mercedes man (he locked up badly at one stage, hurting both front tyres) allowed Vettel to reduce the gap quite considerably. By the end of the race Vettel was loitering around a second or so behind Bottas, but the question over strategy is – had Vettel pitted a lap or two sooner, might he have had more time to hunt Bottas down? Raw power is no longer the factor behind who wins – Ferrari can match Mercedes for pace, so it’s the little details – staying out an extra lap, traffic, tyre choice – that are going to have the main impact on the championship. Vettel couldn’t quite catch Bottas (who had a little bit of help from a cheeky Massa as the pair came to lap his Williams on the final lap), leaving the Finn to claim his first win in 81 races.
The outcome is that Bottas is now only ten points behind teammate Hamilton, and 23 points behind championship leader Vettel. Mercedes are a point ahead of Ferrari in the constructor’s championship. Now that Bottas has demonstrated he can win races, it will come more naturally to him, and will raise difficult questions for Mercedes, should he start to look like he can compete for the title. Vettel is more or less unchallenged (at least so far) by Raikkonen at Ferrari, but the two Mercedes drivers could end up costing each other valuable points. We shall see.
Elsewhere, there were positive performances to be had from a few quarters. Nico Hulkenberg took points for Renault with 8th place, following 10th in qualifying. The Force Indias of Perez and Ocon were 6th and 7th respectively – a good performance from them, that keeps them firmly in fourth place in the constructor’s championship. Verstappen was anonymous for Red Bull in fifth; the car just wasn’t up to the task, though Red Bull are promising a major chassis update for Spain.
Speaking of Spain, this is where we shall resume battle. I look forward to it!