1) Hamilton needs answers
Fourth place for Lewis Hamilton is not what he needed in a title fight with Sebastian Vettel and indeed one that could now include his team-mate, Valtteri Bottas. He has not finished off the podium since Malaysia last year and that was a DNF. The three-times world champion lacked performance all weekend and could not put the car where he wanted. During practice he could not get the tyres in the operating window, in qualifying he lacked balance and in the race there was an overheating problem. All of which he and the team are going to investigate.
He has had off weekends before, Baku and Singapore last year for example, but what must be of more concern for the British driver is that neither he nor they could identify the problems, in stark contrast to Bottas who adjusted his car through the sessions and had it dialled in perfectly on Sunday. “I don’t know the fine details, the engineers will give me a full summary,” Hamilton said. “The direction he was able to go in I wasn’t able to and I don’t understand fully why. Our driving styles are quite similar, so I’m not sure what else in the car was stopping me going in that direction.” Nailing the answers before Barcelona is crucial.
2) Game on for Mercedes drivers
Before the race the talk surrounding Mercedes was centred on prospective team orders and both drivers proved on message, emphasising that the team would come first and that they would work together to that end. Bottas’s victory has complicated the scenario further, however. The Finn has made it clear he believes he can challenge for the title and he lacks neither the self-belief nor the confidence to do so. He has out-qualified Hamilton twice now and, as Niki Lauda pointed out, the first win is always the hardest. “The next one will come easy,” said Lauda. “He has proven he can win.”
Hamilton remains the favourite of the pair to be fighting Vettel for the title but Bottas is a genuinely credible challenger. While Vettel does not look to be in a battle with his team-mate, Kimi Raikkonen, if Bottas comes at Hamilton they may begin taking points from one another. Both are fiercely competitive and, whatever the well-rehearsed message was before Russia, both will have the drivers’ title as their real goal. They are not carrying the baggage, as Toto Wolff has it, that Hamilton had with Rosberg but another win for Bottas would add a fascinating edge to their relationship.
3) No red revolution in Russia
Ferrari looked to have the pace over Mercedes all weekend at Sochi, quickest through all three practice sessions, their first pole of the season for Vettel and the Scuderia’s first front-row lock-out since Magny Cours in 2008. But by the time the chequered flag fell, Mercedes had maintained their record of being the only team to have won the Russian Grand Prix. The track plays to the strengths of the Mercedes, especially in power through the first two sectors and in the low degradation surface but with Ferrari having promised so much right up until the lights went out, they will be disappointed not to have been able quite to match Bottas. Vettel arguably lost his best chance when the Finn out-dragged him on the run to turn two and forced Ferrari into adopting an alternative strategy by keeping the German out longer. But beyond the result the weekend was hugely positive for the Scuderia. Their car looked superbly balanced throughout and the drivers very comfortable with it, even Raikkonen. They are able to attack the corners, it is much less demanding on tyre wear and is proving quick to dial-in to new tracks. The victory was not forthcoming but on this form in the high temperatures and higher degradation of Barcelona, they should be favourites.
4) Honda’s new direction
Sauber announced before the grand prix they would be switching engine suppliers from Ferrari to Honda for 2018, having been in negotiations to do so since March. They are currently running last year’s Ferrari engine, a compromise that means they are unable to challenge the midfield but it is a switch that has been greeted with some incredulity given the engine manufacturer’s travails this season and for the past two years.
The team principal, Monisha Kaltenborn, believes, as do McLaren, that Honda will come good. “We are absolutely confident that Honda will make improvements and sort out their issues. We are convinced that it is going to happen,” she said. Unfortunately her words looked wildly optimistic after Fernando Alonso was unable to start in Russia due to an ERS failure. He has yet to finish a race this season and McLaren have yet to score a point. Honda will benefit from supplying another team in terms of developing their engine but they need results now, not in 2018.
In China the McLaren executive director, Zak Brown, said that at least the engine was reliable, a claim that looks increasingly doubtful. The Honda director, Yusuke Hasegawa, believes the core principals of the power unit are strong. “We still need time,” he said. “But we don’t think we made a huge mistake, the direction was right.” The real loss of it all, as we saw in Russia, is being denied the chance to see Alonso, a truly magnificent driver, race. His talent is going to waste and doubtless the outing to the Brickyard cannot come soon enough.
5) Red Bull need the bullet
Having been off the pace in the first two rounds in Australia and China, Red Bull showed some improvement in Bahrain, which puzzled even the drivers since the car had not been upgraded. There was no need for any head scratching in Russia, as the performance gap to Mercedes and Ferrari was back to the chasm of the opening races. Daniel Ricciardo was almost two seconds off Vettel’s pole time in qualifying and Max Verstappen outside that. Ricciardo retired with a right-rear brake fire that the team are still investigating but Verstappen, who finished in fifth, was a full minute behind Bottas. The team are putting huge store in what will in effect be a new car for the next round in Barcelona. Ricciardo certainly wanted a real step forward. “I hope for a bit of a bullet,” he said. “Something fast. We want to be in a three-way fight with Ferrari and Mercedes.”
Their car is lacking grip in the rear, highly unexpected in a downforce package designed by Adrian Newey. Spain will hopefully see an improvement but in the meantime Ferrari and Mercedes have opened a points gap to match the times and it is almost certainly too much for Red Bull to come back from to mount a title challenge. Unless Newey has a magic bullet up his sleeve.
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