One in the eye for Hamilton in Monaco

Having grabbed the lead of the world drivers’ championship with victory in Barcelona – his fourth straight win – Lewis Hamilton promptly surrendered it back to Nico Rosberg, who took a lights to flag victory in Monaco. All quite straightforward, you might think, but that would be a massive over simplification.

The tensions between the two Mercedes team-mates, which had been bubbling away under the surface prior to Monaco, finally erupted this weekend. The battle between the two drivers has been close all season and, going in to the final Q3 run in qualifying the pair were separated by less than six hundredths of a second. But it was what happened on that final qualifying run that has ramped up the tension at Mercedes to such an extent that come the podium in Monaco, the two team-mates couldn’t even look at each other, let alone congratulate each other on another 1, 2 finish.

Rosberg's qualifying error actually guaranteed him pole position

Rosberg’s qualifying error actually
guaranteed him pole position

The flashpoint was the mistake from Nico Rosberg on Saturday, which saw him lock up at Mirabeau and go straight on down the escape road. The error ruined Rosberg’s final run and opened the door for Hamilton, who was half a lap behind him and going quickly. However, the problem for Hamilton was that Rosberg’s error also brought out yellow flags; yellow flags that Rosberg guaranteed would continue to be waved as he reversed backwards onto the track.

There was talk that Rosberg deliberately went off to guarantee himself pole position, but I don’t agree that was the case. Indeed, the stewards didn’t think so, either, having examined the TV footage and telemetry as part of their post-qualifying investigation into the issue. The issue for Mercedes is, though, that many in the paddock, including, crucially, Lewis Hamilton thought otherwise. Hamilton’s mood would not have been helped by Rosberg’s pole celebrations, which I would say were over the top, particularly so given the circumstances.

It’s in a situation like this where the media like to stir the pot. Hamilton fell into the trap of saying that he’d deal with the situation like Senna in a post-qualifying interview, which ramped up the tension another notch. The Prost/Senna comparisons, already prevalent in the media, were brought out again. All the talk was of a potential incident at turn one.

Rosberg leads the field into Saint Devote

Rosberg leads the field into Saint Devote

As it happened there was no such incident come race day. Rosberg got off the line brilliantly, unlike in other races this season, and led Hamilton and the rest of the field into turn one. Given the nature of the Monaco track – tight, twisty, and with limited opportunities to overtake – the start was the first of two big chances for Hamilton to overtake Rosberg; one which he couldn’t take.

The second chance would come through strategy, with Hamilton hoping to use the single pit stop that both drivers were scheduled to make to his advantage. Unfortunately for him, the second of the two safety car periods, caused after Adrian Sutil crashed his Sauber heavily coming out of the tunnel, fell in the ‘window’ for making that pit stop.

The safety car all but ended Hamilton's chances of beating Rosberg

The safety car all but ended
Hamilton’s chances of beating Rosberg

We heard over the radio that Hamilton was irked that he hadn’t stopped immediately, before the deployment of the safety car. Instead Mercedes took the safe option and stopped both drivers on the same lap, following the deployment of the safety car. That decision, while completely understandable, meant that Hamilton had to wave goodbye to his second big chance to overtake his German team-mate.

With Hamilton questioning the decision and his frustration levels rising, he resumed the fight after the safety car in the wrong frame of mind. Not that it mattered at the time, though. Hamilton could never quite get close enough to Rosberg to attempt to pass, even when the latter was forced to save fuel for several laps. The fight was over long before Hamilton suddenly and alarmingly dropped back several seconds from Rosberg after dirt became lodged in his eye.

Ricciardo celebrates his podium finish after the race

Ricciardo celebrates his podium finish after the race

In the end, Rosberg won the race comfortably, by over nine seconds from Hamilton who did well to hold off the hard charging Daniel Ricciardo who took third for Red Bull Racing. Once he’s had a chance to calm down and reflect on the situation Hamilton may feel differently, but he was certainly not happy post-race. The body language between the two team-mates at Mercedes suggests that they’re on the verge of meltdown; a consequence of the team’s decision to let their drivers race each other on an equal footing.

Jules Bianchi scored his, and Marussia's, first points in Monaco

Jules Bianchi scored his, and
Marussia’s, first points in Monaco

While meltdown might be on the cards at Mercedes, there was delight for one of Formula 1’s smaller teams. Marussia, through 24-year-old Frenchman Jules Bianchi, finally scored their first point in Formula 1 in their fifth year in the sport. Bianchi’s ninth place finish (he actually crossed the line eighth, but had to take a five second penalty) resulted in the Banbury-based team scoring not one, but two world championship points.  This means that they’re now ahead not only of fierce rivals Caterham, but also Sauber in the world constructors’ championship. A massive achievement.

There’s no chance of them, or anyone else for that matter, overhauling Mercedes, though. That is unless the Brackley-based squad shoot themselves in the foot by going into a full-scale meltdown. The Silver Arrows have now amassed 240 world championship points. Their nearest rival, Red Bull Racing have yet to break into three figures, thanks, in part, to an early retirement for Sebastian Vettel in Monaco.

All eyes will continue to be on Mercedes as we head to Canada in two weeks’ time. Lewis Hamilton will be desperate to reassert his authority, and retake the championship lead, in Montreal; a track he loves and has had great success at in the past. Nico Rosberg will be equally keen to ensure that the momentum remains with him. The battle between the Mercedes team-mates looks set to be a season long one.

Rosberg feels the pain, as Hamilton takes the championship lead in Spain

So, Lewis Hamilton has made it four wins in a row with a hard fought victory in Barcelona. It certainly wasn’t easy, with Nico Rosberg closely shadowing his Mercedes team-mate for the entire race, eventually crossing the line just 0.6 seconds behind the Briton. While there was none of the dicing that we saw in Bahrain, Hamilton’s margin of victory was certainly similar, as was the significant nature of the win.

Bahrain and Spain are both theoretically Rosberg tracks; tracks that play to the strengths of the German. At both of these tracks Hamilton has now beaten his team-mate – psychologically, you suspect, this must give him a massive boost.

Just like in Bahrain, Hamilton was struggling in Barcelona. While Rosberg beat him to pole in Bahrain, though, this time Hamilton somehow managed to wrestle pole position away from his team-mate. The 2008 world drivers’ champion had been delighted with his car on Friday as he dominated both free practice sessions, but it was a different story come Saturday.

In free practice three, and more importantly in qualifying, Rosberg seemed to have the advantage over Hamilton, who was struggling with the setup changes that had been made to his Mercedes. In the qualifying top ten shoot out, though, Hamilton found some extra speed and snatched the pole position that Rosberg must have thought was his.

Hamilton led away from pole position, securing himself a vital advantage

Hamilton led away from pole position,
securing himself a vital advantage

Pole position is seen as hugely important in Barcelona, where overtaking opportunities can be limited. And so it proved. Hamilton got away to the perfect start and Rosberg was forced to slot in behind him. Things remained close in the first stint, which the gap between the two Mercedes hovered at around the two second mark – well clear of the chasing pack headed by Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo.

This, of course, meant that Hamilton got the advantage of pitting first, just like he did in Bahrain. Again mirroring the Bahrain race, Hamilton took the option tyres for his second stint while Rosberg switched to the hard, prime tyres. Hamilton, on the supposedly quicker tyres was unable to extend the gap to his team-mate in the second stint, though. He was struggling with the setup of the car, complaining about severe oversteer over team radio, while Rosberg seemed to have the car exactly where he wanted it to be.

As both drivers made their second and final pit stops Hamilton had a four second advantage over Rosberg, who now had the faster option tyres on his car, while Hamilton had to manage with the slower primes, again just like in Bahrain. This time, though, there was no safety car to close down the gap and spice up the action. Rosberg had 20 laps to close down and pass his team-mate.

He did the former brilliantly. The gap between the team-mates see sawed over the closing laps, but ultimately Rosberg was closing down his team-mate. As we entered the final couple of laps the German enjoyed the advantage of DRS as he closed to within a single second of Hamilton. It looked inconceivable that Hamilton would again be able to hang on to victory.

Rosberg (onboard) got very close to Hamilton in the closing laps, but there was no way through

Rosberg (onboard) got very close to Hamilton in the closing laps, but there was no way through

The Stevenage-born racer had other ideas, though. While Rosberg certainly got close, he was unable to pass Hamilton or even make an attempt to do so. As Hamilton took the chequered flag he also took the lead of the world drivers’ championship, yet another huge psychological blow. Hamilton has managed to beat Rosberg in two races where the German was clearly the quicker driver. Rosberg must wonder what he has to do to beat the Englishman.

2014 SPA RIC Trophy

Ricciardo might have been a distant third, but he was delighted with his trophy

The rest of the field, though, will be wondering what they have to do to beat Mercedes. While the battle between Rosberg and Hamilton was a close one, the battle between Mercedes and the rest was anything but. Daniel Ricciardo finished almost 50 seconds behind the Mercedes cars with his team-mate, Sebastian Vettel, over 25 seconds further back in fourth position, having driven brilliantly to claw his way up from 15th on the grid after a transmission problem in qualifying and a grid penalty for changing his gearbox.

In the preceding four races of the season the gap between the winning Mercedes and the first non-Silver Arrow was around 20-25 seconds. In Spain, that gap doubled. While Hamilton has struck a psychological blow over Rosberg, Mercedes are on the verge of a knockout over the rest of the field. Spain – the start of the European season – is the race where the teams traditionally bring big upgrade packages to their cars. With a three week gap between the races in China and Spain, the rest of the field would have been hoping to close the gap. Instead, that gap has doubled.

Yes, you can argue that other factors contributed to the bigger gap in Spain. Track characteristics, maybe, or the fact that Ricciardo was being held up behind the Williams of Valtteri Bottas, which eventually finished fifth, in the first stint of the race. However, you could also argue that the gap might have been even larger had Hamilton been happy with the setup of his car. Whatever the case, Mercedes now have a lead of over 100 points over second placed Red Bull Racing in the world constructors’ championship.

Alonso finished just ahead of his team-mate Raikkonen, but well adrift of the podium places

Alonso finished just ahead of his team-mate Raikkonen,
but well adrift of the podium places

Ferrari, boosted by Fernando Alonso’s third place last time out in China, must feel utterly demoralised in third place in the constructors’ standings. In Spain they were nowhere, qualifying in sixth and seventh positions and finishing the race in the same positions, albeit with Alonso managing to get ahead of his team-mate Raikkonen, after being out qualified by the Finn. More embarrassingly for the Scuderia, though, is the fact that Raikkonen was lapped and Alonso only escaped that indignity by a few seconds, finishing nearly 90 seconds behind Hamilton’s winning Mercedes.

The tight and twisty streets of Monaco will minimise the Silver Arrows’ power advantage, though, and the rest of the pack will hold out some hope that they’ll be able to take the fight to Mercedes in two weeks’ time. Both championships look out of reach already, though. It’ll be a battle between Hamilton and Rosberg throughout the season, but you suspect that the German needs to beat Hamilton again very soon.

Hamilton has the momentum and the psychological advantage. You suspect that he’d like nothing more than to rub it in around the streets of Monaco, where Rosberg won last season.