Lewis Hamilton handled the threat from his team mate so comfortably in the first four races of 2015 that it came as a surprise to see the balance of power reversed so suddenly at the Circuit de Catalunya.
After taking the chequered flag in first place for the ninth time in his career, Nico Rosberg said there had been “nothing different” about how he had tackled the Spanish Grand Prix. “Just the same approach, keep on going, and this weekend it all came good,” he insisted. “That’s all.”
This was as plain a warning Hamilton can expect to receive that Rosberg is not about to let him walk to this year’s championship.
Hamilton struggles at the start
The Circuit de Catalunya has always been more about the chassis beneath the drivers than what they do with it. Saturday’s qualifying session gave ample proof of that fact: but for a faulty tyre blanket on Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari and a slip-up at turn three on Felipe Massa’s sole lying lap in Q3, the cars would have lined up in neat pairs from Mercedes to Manor.
The world champion had been out of sorts for most of the weekend, pirouetting at turn three during final practice, fiddling with his set-up, unable to get into the same groove as his team mate. Pole position went to Rosberg by two-tenths of a second, and that’s half the battle at this track.
Much of the other half is how good a start you make, and Rosberg nailed that too. Having reverted to the same clutch he used last year he fired his Mercedes W05 into a lead he never looked like losing.
Hamilton, however, had wheelspin on his final practice start and again when the lights went out. Not only did Vettel pass him easily but he looked like he might be swallowed up by Valtteri Bottas as well. Desperately late braking at turn one kept him ahead, but in that moment his priority for the afternoon ceased to me how to beat his team mate and became a question of how to get ahead of Vettel.
Despite running the full quota of Ferrari’s new parts, Vettel’s Ferrari was if anything further away from the Mercedes pace than usual. By lap ten Rosberg was seven seconds to the good, but Hamilton was unable to get within striking distance of the Ferrari even when he had the assistance of DRS.
Go ad-free for just £1 per month
Strategy succeeds for Hamilton
A pit stop pass was always going to be Hamilton’s best chance of getting ahead. He duly arrived at the Mercedes pit box as early as lap 13 for his second set of medium compound tyres.
The left-rear was slow to attach, however, and despite quickly passing Pastor Maldonado’s Lotus on his out-lap, Hamilton arrived on the pit straight just in time to see Vettel’s Ferrari completing his first pit stop still in front of his pursuer.
Fortunately for Hamilton the Safety Car did not make an appearance all day and behind the front runners the rest of the field was dropping back quickly. This all meant Mercedes could afford to switch him to a three-stop strategy – a theoretically faster plan providing the time spent in traffic was minimal.
At half race distance Hamilton came back in for his second pit stop and although he rejoined the track behind the other Ferrari of Raikkonen, the combination of fresh tyres plus DRS meant he was instantly past. That plus a hold-up for Vettel in traffic meant Hamilton was on course for second place.
Mercedes eased his passage by delaying Rosberg’s second and final pit stop so Hamilton’s charge would not be interrupted by his team mate leaving the pits ahead of him. But did the thought crossed Hamilton’s mind to not make his third pit stop and try to stay ahead of Rosberg and steal the win? “It wouldn’t have been good to stay out,” was all he said about it afterwards.
Lotus team mates tangle
The Spanish Grand Prix was a depressing experience for fans of wheel-to-wheel racing. Drivers either found it impossible to get within range to launch an attack – as with Hamilton on Vettel – or received such a powerful boost from DRS that overtaking became inevitable, even routine.
Both Toro Rosso drivers lacked speed on the straight and were easily passed by their rivals. By the time the chequered flag fell the STR10 drivers had fallen far below their impressive third row starting positions.
Meanwhile the Lotus pair went on the attack from row six. Aided by the advantage of being the first cars allowed to start the race on fresh tyres, Mercedes power meant they had the Renault-propelled Toro Rossos and Red Bulls largely outgunned in the DRS zone.
Both E22 pilots had spotty races, however. Romain Grosjean went off at turn one early on and regained the track just as his team mate was passing by. Pastor Maldonado, showing his usual standard of spatial awareness, squeezed his team mate to the inside of turn three, making passing contact.
Grosjean’s car was unscathed but the jolt weakened Maldonado’s right-hand rear wing end plate, which subsequently failed. It was removed on his first visit to the pits, but the loss of time and performance eventually led the team to withdraw him from the race. It was something of a surprise the stewards did not show the car the black and orange flag to order to the team address the fault sooner, as a failure at speed could have caused a huge crash.
Following the brush with his team mate Grosjean recovered one place from Carlos Sainz Jnr, and despite losing fourth gear in the latter stages he managed to bring the car home in eighth place.
Sainz and Kvyat trade paint
Rumours have linked Bottas to a move to Ferrari in the near future and on the strength of the last two races it’s not hard to see why. In Bahrain he held Vettel back to take fourth, and in Spain he beat the other Ferrari despite Raikkonen spending the last ten laps all over the back of the Williams.
Massa came in some 20 seconds further back in fifth, while Daniel Ricciardo’s run to sixth was even lonelier.
The Red Bull driver at least made it to the end of the race, as did all of the other Renault-powered runners. The engine manufacturer used more conservative settings for this race in a bid to get a handle on its reliability problems.
However two of its drivers nearly eliminated themselves on the final tour, as Daniil Kvyat and Sainz made contact on the run to turn one. Sainz ran wide and rejoined the track ahead of his Red Bull stablemate in ninth place, and the stewards cleared both drivers of any transgression.
Max Verstappen missed out on a point by little more than a second. The next car home was Felipe Nasr, who had irritated his Sauber team mate Marcus Ericsson by briefly holding him up in the middle of the race.
Having got both cars into Q2 for the first time this year, McLaren’s hope of collecting their first points were dashed as Jenson Button struggled with dire handling problems and Fernando Alonso suffered a brake failure which gave his team a fright when he entered the pits unable to stop. This wasn’t the only pit lane drama during the race – Grosjean sent his front jack man flying when he skidded on a slippery pit box.
Rosberg fires a warning shot
The 2015 Spanish Grand Prix was not one for the ages. But it may have added a shot of life to the drivers’ championship as Rosberg has now moved within striking distance of his team mate in the points standings.
Outwardly, Hamilton appeared unruffled by his disappointing weekend. “I’m just going to do what I did in the previous times,” he said. “This is just a hiccup, I guess, this weekend.”
The combination of a sub-par qualifying performance and a poor start had put paid to his hopes of racing Rosberg and left him stuck behind Vettel. “Unfortunately, this track isn’t very good for overtaking,” he summed up.
“Actually it’s the worst for overtaking,” he added, perhaps forgetting that the world championship heads to the tight confines of Monaco next. Another Rosberg pole and win there – as we’ve seen in the last two years – would really give Hamilton something to think about.