Giles Richards at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya
After four races to open the Formula One season that have at times ebbed and flowed with a glorious unpredictability, it is not entirely surprising that it should be the sport’s long-standing test track that should return a flawless and dominant processional victory for Lewis Hamilton. But it was a win his team identified as crucial to his self-belief and confidence for his title defence.
For the British driver and Mercedes this was the controlled and perfectly orchestrated race they have craved all season. It was in stark contrast to Ferrari, whose tactics proved costly, with Sebastian Vettel’s fourth place dropping him 17 points behind Hamilton in the title fight. Valtteri Bottas backed his team-mate up in second, concluding Mercedes’ first one-two of the season, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen taking his first podium of the year in third.
After dominating in the season opener at Melbourne but failing to win after Vettel took advantage of a late virtual safety car, Mercedes admitted a software error had caused the miscalculation that had cost Hamilton. Since then they have struggled, largely with optimising the tyre temperature operating window but in Barcelona it clicked perfectly, especially for Hamilton who finished 20 seconds up the road from his team-mate.
The team principal, Toto Wolff, stressed the importance of the race for Hamilton. “The best ones are sensitive and fragile,” he said. “We came to Melbourne and our car performed well and suddenly you are behind a Ferrari. This is difficult to cope with and in the following races we struggled and all that adds up and was in all our minds. So having such a good weekend it was good for his confidence.”
Wolff added that he hoped it was “turning point” and that finally giving him the right tools had been key. “I believe it is about having a car that does what you want, drives like you expect it to drive,” he said. “We let him down in Melbourne and that stays in your mind and now he has put these things behind him and had a very good weekend. This is what racing drivers need, results, podiums and wins, and hopefully it is the beginning of a good phase.”
Hamilton echoed the optimism coming from Wolff. “Today I felt a synergy with the car that I hadn’t been feeling all year,” he said. “This is when we are going to start applying some pressure. It’s early to say but I hope it can be part of a turning point. But we still have improvements to make and performance to add to the car. I’m nearly in the groove. I know that sounds weird but today is definitely I think the closest I’ve been.”
Hamilton had led from pole and in the clean air out front was able to extend his advantage over Vettel who had made it past Bottas into second through the first corner. He did not look able to threaten Hamilton however, with Mercedes optimistic that they are getting to grips wth the issue of the tyre operating window. The thinner tread on the rubber Pirelli have supplied this weekend in response to the blistering during testing in Barcelona certainly seemed to work to their advantage and the same type of tyres will be used at the French and British grands prix.
The British driver clearly felt he had exactly the car he needed beneath him but Mercedes managed their team perfectly as well. Ferrari had pitted Vettel on lap 18 but Hamilton stayed out for a further eight laps and emerged with a comfortable 10-second gap on the German.
When the virtual safety car was deployed after Esteban Ocon retired at the side of the track on lap 41, Ferrari gambled on fitting new rubber to Vettel’s car but the stop was slow and he emerged behind Bottas and Verstappen in fourth place, sacrificing track position they could not get back.
Mercedes held firm to their one-stop plan. It was gutsy, especially after the criticism they received after failing to take advantage of the safety car to pit Hamilton in China.
Wolff sympathised with his rivals at the Scuderia. “It is always a difficult decision to make and we debated it here again and for us it was clear that track position was more important,” he said. “Ferrari did the opposite. It worked out for Ricciardo and Verstappen in Shanghai and this is probably what they were thinking and I fully understand why they did it.”
But Mercedes’ decision did prove to be the right one and both drivers managed it with aplomb though Hamilton had been particularly serene out front. He has won more thrilling races in the past and will do so in the future. The fans will have wanted more but at this stage in the season, this untroubled procession is exactly what he and Mercedes required. Sensitive nerves no longer jangling, Hamilton leaves Barcelona with the assured calm he has been looking for since reeling from that shell-shocked second in Melbourne.
Daniel Ricciardo was fifth in the second Red Bull; Magnussen in the Haas in sixth; Renault’s Carlos Sainz in seventh. Fernando Alonso managed further points in eighth, with Force India’ Sergio Pérez in ninth. Sauber’s Charles Leclerc put in another sterling performance to claim a point in 10th. Kimi Raikkonen was forced to retire his Ferrari with an engine problem on lap 25.