Questions for the 2014 Spanish Grand Prix
An awesome foursome for Lewis Hamilton? Which team will make the biggest step? And can Sebastian Vettel sort his head out?
By Sky Sports Online. Last Updated: 08/05/14 4:27pm
Can Rosberg halt Hamilton's surge?
Amid the understandable acclaim for Lewis Hamilton's first-ever hat-trick in F1 three weeks ago in China, it was deceptively easy to overlook a rather more relevant statistic: it's Nico Rosberg, the tortoise to Hamilton's hare, who still leads the World Championship. The gap may be narrowing but in F1's game of thrones, Rosberg is still in the seat that counts.
What he doesn't have, however, is the impression of permanency. Somewhat implausibly, Rosberg claimed he still possessed "the momentum" - a sportsman's baggage of choice, whatever the sport, whatever the time - prior to departing Shanghai, but there's no disputing in real terms that the balance of power has swung sharply towards Hamilton ever since he followed his crushing victory in Malaysia by defying Rosberg a week later in Bahrain through a combination of willpower, craggy defiance, and strong-armed defence. The subsequent 18-second discrepancy between the two Mercedes drivers in China had the impression of a double consequence; a buoyant Hamilton propelled into the form of his life on the one hand, a subdued Rosberg reeling from a shattering psychological hit on the other. The German, it's fair to suspect, needed the three weeks of respite.
What Nico needs more, however, is victory over his team-mate. As Hamilton has won all three of the races he has completed this season, the Englishman is in effect undefeated this term. Rosberg's only victory of sorts over his team-mate this season was in qualifying at Bahrain - and even that advantage only lasted a single corner.
Were Hamilton to win this weekend he is guaranteed to take possession of the summit. As such, the season appears to have reached a critical juncture. It may also be tipping point as well. The time for talking is over; the only debate is whether it's now or never for Rosberg to repel Hamilton's surge. If Lewis gets out in front, the fear for Nico is that he may not be given another look-in.
Who will bring the biggest upgrade?
There's always one buzzword in F1 at this time of year: development. The start of the European season, which Barcelona's Circuit de Catalunya has staged in all but one occasion since 2006, is habitually the time when the first major in-season upgrades from the factories are delivered to the race track, although it's hard to recall many times in recent years - 2012 aside, perhaps, when both Ferrari and Williams suddenly emerged as front-runners at Barcelona - when that has resulted in a sea-change in the pecking order. Spain 2014, though, should be a little different.
The embryonic nature of the 2014-spec cars and their turbo engines means there are still big chunks of time to find from teams' respective packages in one go, rather than the handful of tenths that has tended to be the case at the end of F1's last technical era. Across the course of the more logistically-challenging quartet of flyaway races, for example, Renault managed to steadily improve the power of their V6 units while Lotus went from propping up the grid in Australia to making Q3 just five weeks later in China.
The need for everyone but all-conquering Mercedes to deliver on such theory this weekend is especially acute if the inter-team championship fight is to be anything but a formality. While the prospect of a Red Bull or Ferrari wiping out the W05's advantage in one single almighty swoop is wholly unrealistic, it's imperative the chasing pack start closing a gap which has seen Mercedes triumph in the races by an average of 25 seconds. While Renault-powered Red Bull have made no secret of where they are expecting improvements to come from, Ferrari are looking to build on what appeared tangible gains in China, even if the front-limited nature of the Shanghai circuit did perhaps flatter the F14 T.
Fast-improving Lotus have promised a big package of improvements including
engine mapping, new cooling and bodywork items while Sauber, similarly point-less after the first four rounds, will bring a lighter C33 and widespread aero changes to Barcelona. McLaren, too, are hoping for progress after back-to-back scoreless races with the MP4-29 and have signalled that the "root of our under-performance has been comprehensively analysed".
Yet, for all the promise of steps forward elsewhere, one disheartening prospect shouldn't be ruled out: Mercedes actually increasing their advantage. It may be hard to see how the Brackley team can improve on an average winning margin of 25 seconds from the opening flyaways, but yet how much of their W05's full potential have we really seen? "I don't think Mercedes in any race yet are pushing," former Red Bull Race Engineer Mark Hutcheson suggested on the post-China Midweek Report. "I even heard that they have upgrades that they're not bringing because they've got no need to." With a near-100 point Constructors' Championship lead already, Mercedes' distant rivals really have to hope that proves to be the wildest of paddock conjecture.
Just when will the Mercedes duopoly end?
Lewis Hamilton is odds-on (4/7) to prolong his winning streak by taking the chequered flag for the first time in Spain, with Sky Bet expecting Mercedes' dominant start to the season to continue in Europe.
The Spanish GP has been kind to Ferrari in the past but they're 12/1 outsiders in Barcelona this weekend, with Red Bull given a better chance at 9/1. Williams, meanwhile, can be backed for a win at 33/1, but it would take a brave punter to oppose Mercedes (1/25).
Such has been the form of Hamilton and championship leader Nico Rosberg, who is 9/4 to claim a win this weekend, Sky Bet go as short as 2/1 on Mercedes having at least one car on the podium in every race for the remainder of the season.
They're 1/4 for a one-two in the final standings in the Drivers' Championship, while they're given a 9/4 chance of breaking the record for most number of race wins in a single season, which is currently 15, held by McLaren (1988) and Ferrari (2002, 2004).
Can Vettel mind his head?
Pity the paradox of a quadruple World Champion. After four successive seasons of publicity-shy record-breaking, Sebastian Vettel has never received so much attention than now that he is losing. Indeed, never has the old adage that the higher you climb the further you fall felt quite so apposite. Judging by the tenor of his Schadenfreude-saturated critics, all the credibility and credit Vettel has claimed over the last four years has already been eroded in just four underwhelming performances.
To be sure, Vettel has been lacklustre this year. In China, where he was beaten by over twenty seconds by the resplendent Daniel Ricciardo, he was downright poor. Yet after four years of relentless excellence, a downturn was inevitable and Vettel has more than enough reserves of credit in the bank to make a few withdrawals without having his rating downgraded. Sebastian is a class act whose time will come again and whose struggles can most readily be attributed to the difficulty of adjusting to a downgraded car whereas Ricciardo is evidently relishing driving a superior model to his former Toro Rossos.
The problem is in Sebastian's head - and that's as much an indictment as it is an explanation. Deeds speak louder than words in F1, but Vettel, very much to his discredit, seems to have actually talked his way into a slump in form, dismissing the sport's new soundtrack with a four-letter word that could just as readily be applied as a summary of his performances in 2014 to date. It's surely not a coincidence.
The challenge that others - starting with his team-mate - are relishing and embracing, Vettel has scorned and rejected. And it shows. If Vettel is to arrest his slump, the first stop has to be his mind-set. We know you don't like it Seb, and we all understand why, but enough is enough. It's time to get on with it.
Which team-mate will leave Barcelona ahead?
Provided the sunny weather forecast for Montmelo, the small town in which the Circuit de Catalunya is ensconced, proves correct, then Saturday is set to play host to just the second dry qualifying hour of the new season. Not only would that give the truest indication of which team, if any, have managed to close up on Mercedes in outright pace it would also allow a more accurate assessment to begin to be made on the respective balances of power in the eleven team-mate duels.
Handily, with Barcelona the fifth round of the season, one driver in each team is certain to leave the weekend ahead in score and the match-ups pre-Spain stand as follows:
Red Bull: Vettel 1 Ricciardo 3.
Mercedes: Hamilton 3 Rosberg 1.
Ferrari: Alonso 3 Raikkonen 1.
Lotus: Grosjean 4 Maldonado 0.
McLaren: Button 2 Magnussen 2.
Force India: Hulkenberg 3 Perez 1.
Sauber: Sutil 2 Gutierrez 2.
Toro Rosso: Vergne 3 Kvyat 1.
Williams: Massa 3 Bottas 1.
Marussia: Bianchi 3 Chilton 1.
Caterham: Kobayashi 4 Ericsson 0.
For Lotus's Pastor Maldonado and Caterham rookie Marcus Ericsson, Saturdays have yet to bring any intra-team joy, which in the case of the former is a little surprising given that in 2012 the former Williams driver was one of the grid's single-lap stars. While Sebastian Vettel, Nico Rosberg and Kimi Raikkonen have at least got off the mark, a fourth qualy defeat for any of them would consolidate an early-season trend that would raise increasingly uncomfortable questions. In short, with F1's new era beginning to settle down, excuses will soon run out.
This weekend's Spanish GP, live on Sky F1, starts at 1pm on Sunday afternoon