Hamilton’s Sunday afternoon stroll in Sochi

It was a day of milestones for Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes team in Russia. A ninth victory of 2014 meant that Hamilton is now on 31 career Formula 1 victories, moving level with Nigel Mansell and becoming the joint leading British F1 driver of all time. Hamilton’s race win and the 25 world championship points that come with it was also enough to give the Silver Arrows their first ever world constructors championship, even without the additional 18 points the team got for Nico Rosberg’s second place finish.

Despite the beautiful setting in Sochi, and an excellent track, the race itself was pretty uneventful, and certainly one of the least exciting of the season so far. The reasons for that were probably fourfold. Firstly, Rosberg’s mistake going into the braking zone at turn two on the opening lap meant that the two Mercedes drivers would be separated for the duration of the race.

Rosberg locked up heavily at turn two, wrecking his chances of victory

Rosberg locked up heavily at turn
two, wrecking his chances of victory

Rosberg and Hamilton both started well, but the long run down to the turn two braking zone allowed the German to slipstream his team-mate and squeeze up the inside. Rosberg, however, left his braking much too late, severely locking his tyres, running straight on into the asphalt on the outside of the corner. Although Rosberg swept into the lead, he had done so by running off track and gaining an advantage. Not only did he have to hand Hamilton back the lead of the race, but he compromised his entire race by having to stop at the end of the opening lap for new tyres because of the severe vibration caused by his turn two lock up.

So, on lap two the two Mercedes couldn’t have been further apart, with Hamilton leading and Rosberg right at the very back of the field. This leads me on to the second reason that the race was so uneventful; the track surface and tyre compounds. Amazingly, Rosberg was able to complete the remaining 52 laps of the race on the set of medium compound tyres that he put on at his first pit stop. Not only that, but he was able to fight back through the field to finish in second place.

Rosberg was able to do this primarily because Pirelli – like everyone else going to the Russian grand prix at a brand new track for the first time – had been rightly conservative in their choice of tyre compounds, choosing to bring the soft and medium compounds to Sochi. As it turned out, though, the track surface was very smooth and unabrasive. We saw clear evidence of this in free practice and qualifying, with drivers able to run multiple laps on the same tyre and continue to improve their lap time.

For virtually everyone, this meant that the race would be an easy one stop race, cutting down the opportunity for teams to try something different with strategy to move themselves forward. That coupled with tyres that were incredibly consistent meant that wheel to wheel battles were severely limited in Russia.

Thirdly, surprisingly, there was no safety car to close up the field. Having watched the GP2 and GP3 races at Sochi, a safety car looked all but certain in the F1 race. That was because, after the awful accident experienced by Marussia’s Jules Bianchi last week at Suzuka, race officials were understandably being extra cautious to deploy the safety car when cars were stopped on the track. This, coupled with the face that the Sochi track is a street circuit, which can make the recovery of crashed or stopped cars more difficult, meant that a safety car looked likely, as we saw in the support series races.

Grosjean pushed Sutil into a spin at turn two

Grosjean pushed Sutil into a spin at turn two

However, there were simply no incidents at Sochi. No cars stopped on track and there were no crashes. The closest we came was on lap 32 when Lotus driver Romain Grosjean pitched Adrian Sutil’s Sauber into a spin at turn two. The former received a penalty for the incident from race stewards, while the latter succeeded in keeping his car out of the crash barriers and was able to safely rejoin the race.

Finally, despite Williams showing some great qualifying pace, the Grove-based squad were simply unable to compete on race pace with their Brackley-based counterparts. With Rosberg out of contention for victory, Hamilton’s closest challenger was Valtteri Bottas in the Williams for much of the race. While Bottas was able to stick reasonably close to Hamilton over the first 15 laps or so of the race, the Englishman was in cruise control mode. We saw clear evidence of Hamilton lifting and coasting fairly early on and continuing to put in fastest laps of the race.

Hamilton crosses the line to take one of the easiest wins of his F1 career

Hamilton crosses the line to take one
of the easiest wins of his F1 career

Gradually the gap began to stretch into the double digits, with Hamilton never close to unleashing the full potential of his W05 Hybrid. The bottom line is that the Mercedes is simply too good. Reliability issues aside, the team have done a fabulous job in adapting best to the new regulations, delivering not only the class leading power unit, but a chassis and aerodynamic package that compliments that power unit perfectly. Hamilton’s stroll and Rosberg’s fight back through the field, in different ways, demonstrated that equally well.

A jubilant Mercedes team celebrate their first F1 world constructors' championship

A jubilant Mercedes team celebrate their
first F1 world constructors’ championship

Mercedes can be rightly proud of their first ever Formula 1 world constructors’ championship. Despite the cloud that still hangs over the sport in the wake of Bianchi’s crash at Suzuka it is right that the Silver Arrows take the time to enjoy this historic moment. The Frenchman is still very much in everyone’s thoughts, though, while he remains in a serious but stable condition in hospital.

While the constructors’ championship has been wrapped up three races early, the drivers’ championship is still very much alive. After winning four races in a row for the second time this season, Hamilton’s points lead over Rosberg now stands at 17; the largest that it’s been all season. However, with 25 points for a race win, and double points in Abu Dhabi, Rosberg still has every chance of beating his team-mate to the drivers’ crown. To do that, though, he’ll need to end Hamilton’s terrific run of momentum.

Reliability, seemingly the only Achilles heel of the Silver Arrows team in 2014, may still have a decisive role to play in deciding the drivers’ championship. Mercedes, and their two drivers, will hope that it’s decided on track in a straight fight, however. Formula 1 fans will certainly want that, too.

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Pitlane to podium for Hamilton in Hungary

A dejected looking Lewis Hamilton walks away from his smoking Mercedes in qualifying

A dejected looking Lewis Hamilton walks away
from his smoking Mercedes in qualifying

After another dreadful qualifying session for Lewis Hamilton in 2014, the Briton looked certain to lose even more ground to Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg in the fight for the world drivers’ championship. Hamilton failed to set a time in Saturday qualifying, after a fuel leak on his Mercedes caused a huge fire putting Hamilton out and giving his Mercedes team a gigantic task to rebuild a car that was almost a total loss.

In contrast, as we’ve seen so many times this season, Rosberg had a trouble-free qualifying session. The German cruised to pole position by around half a second from the Red Bull Racing of Sebastian Vettel. It looked very much set fair for another win for the world drivers’ championship leader.

Sadly for Rosberg, though, the weather certainly wasn’t set fair. A huge downpour around 40 minutes before the start of the race threw a spanner in the works and added a huge amount of spice into the race mix. Nevertheless, though, Hamilton started the race in the worst possible position – the pitlane – and Rosberg in the very best starting spot. It would need a mighty drive from Hamilton, and some of the luck that had been so sorely missing from his season so far, if he was not to fall further behind in the championship race.

The race didn't start well for Hamilton, either, as he spun on the opening lap

The race didn’t start well for Hamilton,
either, as he spun on the opening lap

It certainly looked like luck was against Hamilton in the opening laps. The 2008 world drivers’ champion spun on the very first lap, on just the second corner of his race. Hamilton scraped the barrier, but crucially didn’t cause much damage to his car. Rosberg meanwhile, serenely streaked clear in the lead of the race. By lap eight, though, Hamilton had clawed his way up to 13th position, ahead of the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, and then the safety car came out after Marcus Ericsson slammed his Caterham into the wall at turn three – a 20G impact.

Not only did the safety car wipe out Rosberg’s substantial lead over the second placed Williams of Valtteri Bottas, but it fell at an awful time for the German. Rosberg was unable to pit immediately as he’d already passed the pitlane meaning he, as well as Bottas, Vettel and Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari all had to do another lap while the rest of the field streamed in to change from intermediate tyres to, for the most part, soft option slick tyres.

Still, though, Rosberg was in fourth position while Hamilton was 13th as the restart was further delayed by Romain Grosjean crashing his Lotus with the safety car about to release the cars. All was not well with Rosberg, however. Smoke was coming from the left rear brake on his Mercedes and as the race restarted on lap 14 Rosberg fell like a stone.

Perez climbs from his wrecked Force India

Perez climbs from his wrecked Force India

Hamilton on the other hand, was going very much in the opposite direction. By lap 17 the two Mercedes cars were running fifth and seventh, with just the Red Bull of Vettel separating the two Silver Arrows. Another safety car came out on lap 23, however, as Sergio Perez slammed his Force India into the pit wall after spinning coming out of the final turn.

As the safety car came in on lap 27, Alonso led, while Rosberg was up to third and Hamilton fifth. There was no further progress for either driver until Rosberg pitted on lap 33. Almost immediately, Sebastian Vettel had an almost identical accident to Sergio Perez, but managing not to hit the pit wall as he spun out of the final corner. That let Hamilton through and straight onto the back of the out of position Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne, who had done a tremendous job to hold up Rosberg before the latter pitted.

He couldn’t do the same up against Lewis Hamilton, though, with the Englishman executing the pass of the race on lap 34 to pass the Frenchman around the outside of turn four. Hamilton was now second, with Rosberg 13th, but moving swiftly back up the field after his pit stop. Crucially, though, Hamilton was now a full pit stop ahead of his team-mate. When he eventually made his second stop on lap 40 – from the lead – and fitted the slower, but more durable medium compound slick tyres, we was able to emerge ahead of his team-mate in fifth position.

Rosberg was able to close up to Hamilton, but not close enough to make an overtaking manoeuvre. The team-mates were on different strategies. Rosberg was on the fast option tyres and due to stop once more, while Hamilton was on primes and due to run until the end of the race. Hamilton was asked by the team to let his team-mate through, but Rosberg was simply not close enough and Hamilton was unwilling to lose a significant amount of time to wave his championship rival through.

Ultimately, the decision to put Hamilton on an alternate strategy cost both him and Rosberg the chance to win the race. Hamilton was unable to close in on Alonso and Rosberg was unable to pass Hamilton, with Daniel Ricciardo leading the race by a significant distance from the Spaniard. Ricciardo pitted again for Fresh option on lap 54, rejoining behind Rosberg, with the latter making the same change on lap 56, emerging in seventh.

Alonso, Hamilton and Ricciardo battled for victory in the closing laps

Alonso, Hamilton and Ricciardo
battled for Victory in the closing laps

Alonso – on soft option tyres – led from Hamilton, but Ricciardo was closing rapidly on them both with his new rubber. Similarly Rosberg was catching the leaders at an alarming rate on his fresh tyres, but it was Ricciardo who was in the best position to win the race, and he duly did.

First of all he moved ahead of Hamilton around the outside of turn two on lap 67 and just a lap later overtook Alonso in turn one. The Australian was gone, but Rosberg was now on Hamilton’s tail. The Englishman was just able to hold his team-mate off to claim the final podium position and reduce the championship deficit to 11 points. An almost unthinkable result after their contrasting fortunes in qualifying.

It was Ricciardo who took his second win of the season, though. The Australian will be hugely satisfied with his performances at Red Bull, which have put his four-time world championship winning team-mate, Vettel, in the shade. As we head into the mid-season break, though, it’s Rosberg with the championship lead, albeit slightly reduced. Hamilton, though, may well think that the luck may now be turning in his favour.

Cruise control in China for hat-trick hero Hamilton

The thrills and fireworks that we saw last time out in Bahrain were sadly lacking at the Chinese grand prix. In that respect the two races couldn’t have been more different, but in another they couldn’t have been more alike. Once again, we saw Mercedes very firmly on top yet again, as Lewis Hamilton led home his team-mate Nico Rosberg to take his first ever Formula 1 hat-trick of victories with his third straight win and the team’s third consecutive 1-2 finish.

Hamilton proudly holds his winner's trophy aloft

Hamilton proudly holds his winner’s trophy aloft

The manner of Hamilton’s victory was akin to his first win of the season in Malaysia; completely dominant, with an 18 second margin of victory to his team-mate. In some ways, the race in Shanghai was even more impressive from Hamilton. The Englishman was severely hampered in Friday free practice because of suspension troubles which limited his running in FP1.

Despite finishing FP2 on top of the timesheets, Hamilton wasn’t happy with the car and made some big set-up changes for Saturday. Saturday free practice and qualifying were wet, however, which meant that, even though he claimed pole position, going into the race, however, he had no idea whether those changes would actually work. They clearly did, showing yet again that Hamilton’s detractors are wrong; he has the intellectual capacity to go alongside his undoubted natural speed and racing skills.

Indeed, the 2008 world drivers’ champion proved his critics wrong again during the race in China. Some said Hamilton would struggle with having to manage fuel consumption as a result of the 100 kg per hour fuel flow limit imposed in the new regulations. However, as we have seen in the previous two races, Hamilton’s fuel consumption was excellent. In China it was easily better than anyone else.

Hamilton was way out in the lead for the majority of the race in China

Hamilton was way out in the lead
for the majority of the race in China

Hamilton has also been criticised for using his Pirelli tyres too aggressively in the past, resulting in higher wear rates and faster degradation than his rivals. In China, while the likes of Red Bull Racing’s four time world drivers’ champion Sebastian Vettel complained about tyre wear over the team-radio, Hamilton declared “Surprisingly the front tyres still feel really good, as well as the rears.” He pitted some three laps later than team-mate Nico Rosberg on lap 17, after a brief off track moment as his soft Pirelli tyres finally gave up.

Hamilton, as in Malaysia, led every lap of the race, but to be fair to Nico Rosberg things might have been closer than the 18 second margin of victory suggested. Rosberg had a poor start and fell backwards as his team-mate got the perfect launch off the line to lead Vettel into turn one. Rosberg on the other had dropped down to seventh place, after heavy contact with the Williams of Valtteri Bottas in turn one.

Rosberg did well to recover from his disastrous start, to finish the race in second place. This was even more the case given that the German – the race winner in Australia – had to race without his car’s telemetry being communicated to the pit wall. This meant that Rosberg had to provide his team with fuel consumption data from his steering wheel’s LED display – an annoyance and a clear source of frustration.

Vettel seems to be struggling with his Red Bull

Vettel seems to be struggling with his Red Bull

Rosberg’s troubles pale into insignificance compared to those of Sebastian Vettel, though. Vettel, so dominant in winning four consecutive championships wth Red Bull, is clearly struggling with the 2014 RB10 and the change of regulations. Vettel has been out qualified three times in four races by his new team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, and although he leads the young Australian in the fledging championship table he is not having things all his own way.

For the second time in two races, Vettel was asked to let the faster Ricciardo through. In China, he refused to do so, questioning his race engineer about the tyres the Ricciardo was on and the reason why he was being asked to move over. When told that Ricciardo had fresher tyres he replied simply “tough luck”. A couple of laps later Ricciardo moved ahead of his team-mate into turn one and although the official line from Red Bull was that Vettel had let him through, it certainly didn’t look like that was the case.

Ricciardo leads Vettel, who eventually finished 20 seconds behind his team-mate

Ricciardo leads Vettel, who eventually finished
20 seconds behind his team-mate

Vettel eventually finished the race in Shanghai a very distant fifth, only one place behind Ricciardo, but a massive twenty seconds adrift of his team-mate. Sobering stuff for the defending world drivers’ champion. He’s not the only one unexpectedly struggling, though. Kimi Raikkonen is having a torrid time on his return to Ferrari. The Finn finished down in eighth place in China, over 50 seconds behind his team-mate Fernando Alonso who drove brilliantly to claim Ferrari’s first podium of the season with a third place finish.

There are a few other teams and drivers that are worthy of a mention. Despite Romain Grosjean’s retirement following gearbox trouble it clearly looks like Lotus are finally getting their act together in 2014. The Frenchman did brilliantly to qualify in the top 10 and had been on course for a points finish before retiring. McLaren, though, seem to be on the opposite trajectory. After a hugely promising start to the season with a double podium finish in Australia, the Woking-based team now appear to be struggling. In China, they were the least competitive of all of the Mercedes powered teams, finishing in 11th and 13 positions, both cars having been lapped.

The turn one contact between Rosberg and Bottas

The turn one contact between Rosberg and Bottas

Williams are still looking competitive. But for first lap contact for both Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas and a truly horrendous first pit stop for Massa, the team might have had more than Bottas’s seventh place to take away from Shanghai. Given the right conditions, and a bit of luck, a podium finish would not look to be beyond Williams’s reach at some stage this season, especially if Massa can continue to make the same sort of lightning quick starts that we’ve seen in recent races.

It will be a big ask for anyone to catch Mercedes, though. Such was the dominance of Hamilton in Shanghai that the chequered flag was waved a lap early. A bizarre mistake, which fortunately didn’t alter the result of the race much. The only driver to miss out was Kamui Kobayashi in the Caterham, who had passed Jules Bianchi’s Marussia on the last scheduled lap of the race, which was officially classified as running for 54 laps rather than the planned 56, in accordance with the regulations.

Next we move to Europe for the Spanish grand prix. This is the race where traditionally the teams make big updates to their cars. On the strength of the evidence of the first four races, the others will have to make some massive improvements to get onto terms with the Silver Arrows.

F1 dazzles in the desert

After two easy victories, one for each of the Mercedes drivers, in the opening two races of the season many were writing off Formula 1. Quieter engines, fuel efficiency and the same big margins of victory; no battles at the front – F1 had lost the plot, right? Wrong. The Bahrain grand prix was full of thrills and spills and featured a titanic battle for victory between the Mercedes drivers – easily the best race in recent years; a real thriller that had you on the edge of your seat right until the chequered flag.

In the end, just like a week ago in Malaysia, it was Lewis Hamilton that came out on top in Bahrain, although his margin of victory over team-mate Nico Rosberg was dramatically reduced from 17.3 seconds last time out to a whisker over a single second this time. As reflected by the narrow margin of victory, we had a real fight between the Mercedes drivers in Bahrain, not only in the final grandstand finish over the last 10 laps, but also, crucially, in the run up to the first round of pit stops.

Hamilton beat Rosberg off the line and took the lead into turn 1

Hamilton beat Rosberg off the
line and took the lead into turn 1

Unlike in the last two races, in Bahrain Rosberg beat Hamilton in qualifying to take his first pole position of the season, with his team-mate qualifying second, giving the Silver Arrows their first front row lock-out of the season. Rosberg had clearly raised his game after being dominated by Hamilton at Sepang and looked to have the edge over the 2008 world drivers’ champion this time. The German, the race winner in Australia, might have been able to streak clear in the same way that Hamilton managed in Malaysia, but he was beaten off the line, and into turn one, by his team-mate.

Having gotten the drop on Rosberg, Hamilton couldn’t pull away, though. The gap hovered around a second to a second and a half in the opening stint of the race allowing our first round of fireworks to take place as we approached the first pit stops. Knowing that the driver who stopped first would enjoy the advantage of the undercut – the advantage of fresher tyres for a lap or so – Rosberg pushed hard to overtake Hamilton and closed to within DRS range of his team-mate.

Rosberg squeezed ahead of Hamilton several times, but couldn't make the pass stick

Rosberg squeezed ahead of Hamilton several times, but couldn’t make the pass stick

On lap 18 Rosberg made his move, diving down the inside of Hamilton at turn one before conceding the lead again as the Englishman fought back. On the next lap Rosberg tried again. This time it looked like he might have made the pass stick, but Hamilton wasn’t giving up and re-passed Rosberg into turn four. It was a truly brilliant counter-attack from Hamilton and it looked critical as at the end of the lap he made his pit stop. He had secured the advantage of the undercut.

Once both of the Mercedes drivers had stopped – Hamilton for another set of option tyres, while Rosberg had switched to primes – things seemed to settle down. The undercut had given Hamilton a six second advantage, which steadily increased eventually reaching 9.7 seconds on lap 40. While it was never quite a case of ‘race over’ given that Hamilton would use the slower prime tyre in the final stint while Rosberg would use the faster options, things did look reasonably comfortable up front.

Maldonado's Lotus flips Gutierrez’s Sauber into a dramatic somersault

Maldonado’s Lotus flips Gutierrez’s
Sauber into a dramatic somersault

But then along came Pastor Maldonado in the Lotus. On lap 41 the Venezuelan exited the pits and T-boned Esteban Gutierrez’s Sauber, launching the Mexican’s car into a somersault at turn one – an incident which resulted in Maldonado receiving a five place grid penalty after the race, plus three points on his super-licence. Unsurprisingly, out came the safety car and away went Hamilton’s lead.

With Hamilton now on the slower tyres and Rosberg on the faster options, it looked to be advantage Rosberg. Just before the safety car pulled in with 10 laps to go, though, both Mercedes drivers received identical radio messages from Mercedes technical director Paddy Lowe “With 10 laps left to race, can we just make sure we bring both cars home.” Team orders, I thought. I was wrong! Rosberg attacked Hamilton immediately and while he couldn’t get the pass done he stayed close enough to Hamilton to receive the advantage of DRS when it became available two laps after the re-start.

Rosberg attacked again on laps 52 and 53, squeezing ahead of Hamilton only to be swiftly re-passed by his team-mate. It was thrilling stuff, but with better tyres and the edge in terms of outright speed I thought it was only a matter of time before Rosberg made the move stick. I was wrong again! Hamilton was told that he could use the overtake button on the exit of corners to aid in his defence and he was able to pull out a gap of around a second to Rosberg in the final couple of laps.

Perez celebrates his third place

Perez celebrates his third place

The second display of on-track fireworks between the Mercedes drivers was finally over as Hamilton took a brilliant victory, different in so many different ways to the win just a week earlier at Sepang. I haven’t even mentioned the other brilliant battles throughout the field during the race. Sergio Perez claimed third place to give Force India only their second ever podium finish and we saw on track fireworks from a whole host of other drivers. It was a tremendous race and a brilliant advert for the new era of Formula 1.

Not only did the battle between the Silver Arrows prove a thrilling spectacle, it also finally showed us the extent of the pace that the Brackley-based team have in their pocket. In just 10 laps they built up a 24 second advantage over Perez in third place; an advantage of some 2.4 seconds per lap. Something that will surely send shivers down the spines of the rest of the paddock.

Hamilton takes the checquered flag in Bahrain, just ahead of Rosberg

Hamilton takes the checquered flag
in Bahrain, just ahead of Rosberg

The championships look like Mercedes’s to lose, but we’re highly unlikely to get the sort of cakewalk that we’ve seen at times from Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel in recent seasons. The Mercedes drivers seem pretty closely matched and the team seem determined to let them race. That’s great for the sport. While Hamilton has two victories to Rosberg’s one, it’s the German that so far holds the championship advantage thanks to Hamilton’s unfortunate retirement in Australia.

There were more fireworks after the race, this time in the night sky as the organisers brought the curtain down on the 900th grand prix and the 10th at the Sakhir circuit. The next race in China has a lot to live up to.

The return of the Mack

So, that’s the first Formula 1 race of 2014 done and dusted.  In some ways you could say that, despite the new 1.6 litre turbocharged hybrid power units and regulations changes, nothing has changed.  We still had a German dominating the race, by breaking clear at the start, leading the way for the whole race and winning by a huge margin.  In reality, though, we all know that the F1 of 2014 is different from 2013 in a whole raft of ways.

Nico Rosberg on his way to a dominant victory in Australia

Nico Rosberg on his way to a
dominant victory in Australia

Firstly, of course, it wasn’t Sebastian Vettel – world drivers’ champion for the last four seasons in his Red Bull Renault – who dominated the race, but another young German in Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg.  Such was the manner of Rosberg’s victory, though, that it was very reminiscent of Vettel’s past dominance.  Rosberg won the race by a huge 24.5 seconds from Red Bull Racing’s new Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo (later excluded from the results after a fuel flow infraction), with McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen a further 2.2 seconds back.

While Red Bull Racing Team Principle Christian Horner’s prediction that Mercedes might win by a couple of laps proved to be very wide of the mark, it was certainly proved correct that Mercedes are enjoying a significant pace advantage over the rest of the field right now.  Unfortunately for them, and for polesitter Lewis Hamilton, that pace has not come hand in hand with total reliability.  Sadly for Hamilton, and for the race, he only managed to complete three laps because of a failed cylinder in his engine, which hampered him from the get go enabling Rosberg to cruise past him off the line.  Hamilton, though, handled the understandable disappointment well; you suspect that his turn will come, and before long.

Ricciardo drove an excellent race to finish second, and hold off Kevin MagnussenThere were also contrasting fortunes for the two Red Bull Racing cars in terms of race performance.  To be honest, the world constructors champions did amazingly well to be anywhere near the front after a disastrous pre-season, but they confounded expectations by looking competative in Melbourne.  While new boy Ricciardo was hugely impressive over the race weekend, both starting and finishing in second place before his subsequent exclusion from the results,  his team-mate, reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel, did not enjoy the same sort of performance levels.

Vettel was hampered by a software problem in qualifying, meaning that he could only manage to qualify in 13th place (he started 12th after a grid penalty for Valterri Bottas).  In the race, he never really got going, dropping back at the start and completing just one more lap than Hamilton before being forced to retire.  The frustration from the German was clear over team radio as he instructed his team to “Do something” while complaining of a lack of power and pace.  Things aren’t quite so easy when you’re not in the dominant car and you suspect that this is something that Vettel will have to come to terms with, particularly in the early stages of the season.

Eric Boullier has joined McLaren as Racing Director

Eric Boullier has joined
McLaren as Racing Director

While Mercedes cars, and in some ways the two Red Bulls, suffered contrasting fortunes the same cannot be said of a resurgent McLaren.  Martin Whitmarsh’s departure, the return of Ron Dennis and the recruitment of Eric Boullier as Racing Director has coincided with a huge turnaround for the Woking-based team.  McLaren struggled throughout 2013, finishing the season without scoring a single podium finish.  They ended that run in the first race of 2014 with rookie Kevin Magnussen’s brilliant drive to third place on his F1 debut.  Following Ricciardo’s exclusion this, of course, was upgrade to second.

Not only that, but Magnussen was followed home by team-mate Jenson Button who inherited third, meaning that McLaren leave Australia with a double-podium and the lead of the constructors championship.  While all is not quite as the team would hope – they’re still lacking in outright pace in comparison to Mercedes – this is a massive leap forward for McLaren.  They might not be the quickest, but they have proved that they’ve got consistency.  Not only that, but the tactical errors that have blighted the team over the past couple of seasons look to have been eradicated.  There was clear evidence of that as Jenson Button was moved forward through the pit stops from his 10th place starting position, leapfrogging cars with some good strategy, particularly when taking maximum advantage from the single safety car period – caused after Valterri Bottas brushed the wall in his Williams – by diving into the pits at the last possible moment.

Bottas, tyre smoking, squeezes past Raikkonen

Bottas, tyre smoking, squeezes past Raikkonen

While McLaren – the Mack of this article’s title – are clearly back amongst the front-runners, they’re certainly not the only ones.  Williams were hugely impressive in pre-season and they seem to have carried that forward into the season proper, along with a new title sponsorship deal with Martini.  Although they perhaps didn’t achieve the results that they might have hoped for in Australia, Bottas’s sixth place finish still resulted in eight world championship points for the Grove-based team.  That’s three more than they managed for the whole of the previous season.  Things might have been even better for the team had new recruit Felipe Massa not been taken out at the first corner by Caterham’s Kamui Kobayashi, and Bottas not brushed the wall at turn 10 on lap 10 when running in sixth position, triggering the safety car.

We’re only one race into the season, of course, but Williams and McLaren look to be back where they would say they belong.  Ferrari, clearly have work to do – the Scuderia where never really in contention at Albert park, finishing fifth (Alonso) and eighth (Raikkonen) places (both upgraded following Ricciardo’s disqualification) – but not as much as Lotus who, as expected, struggled badly, with both cars forced to retire.  Pastor Maldonado’s move from Williams to Lotus, is not looking like the wisest one right now.

One thing is clear, though, Mercedes are enjoying a significant pace advantage over their rivals.  If they can maintain that throughout the season, and minimise the sort of reliability issues suffered by Hamilton, there’ll be no stopping them in 2014.

Four-midable Vettel clinches the title in India

It’s a case of another race, another win, and in this case another world drivers’ championship for Sebastian Vettel.  Aside from the championship speculation the tyres had once again been a major talking point in India and there was some hope that the different strategies used would result in an exciting and unpredictable race.  Unfortunately, that never really developed.

As expected, Vettel led away from pole in India

As expected, Vettel led away from pole in India

With Vettel starting on pole on soft tyres that only lasted a handful of laps and his Red Bull Racing team-mate starting in fourth on the harder compound, sandwiching the Mercedes cars of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton – both of whom were, like Vettel, starting on soft tyres – there was a fair degree of uncertainty about which of the Red Bulls would come out on top.  In pure timing terms, Webber’s strategy was theoretically around two seconds faster over the course of the race.  Added to this, Vettel’s strategy meant that he would have to overtake lots of cars as he came back through the field after stopping early to switch to the harder tyre.  A great opportunity for Webber, it seemed.

What can you do? Webber walks back to the pits after retiring with an alternator failure

What can you do? Webber walks back to the
pits after retiring with an alternator failure

Although, as expected, Webber did lead in India – breaking Vettel’s 100% record of laps led at the Buddh International Circuit – such was Vettel’s speed in getting through slower traffic that Webber never really stood a chance.  Ultimately, of course, it wouldn’t have mattered if Webber had been Vettel’s equal in speed terms in India.  Another failure on his car, this time an alternator meant that he retired from the race 20 laps from the end on lap 40.

While Vettel and Red Bull Racing made their strategy work perfectly by gearing their car aggressively so that the 26-year-old German was able to pass cars with relative ease, Mercedes certainly didn’t.  In the end, though, it was a good day for the Silver Arrows; Rosberg’s second place and Hamilton’s sixth place finish enabled them to leapfrog Ferrari into second in the world constructors’ championship, which Red Bull also took in India.

The Mercedes team-mates pictured duelling early in the race

The Mercedes team-mates
pictured duelling early in the race

The Mercedes drivers would never have been able to compete with Vettel for victory in India, but it was very telling that both of their drivers struggled badly to overtake cars after pitting.  Vettel made it look easy, but Mercedes were just not fast enough down the straights.  This meant that, having been overtaken by the Ferrari of Felipe Massa on the first lap, both drivers were then stuck behind him for most of the race.  Rosberg made his way back ahead of the Brazilian using an undercut strategy at the second round of pit stops, but Hamilton, who stopped on the same lap as Massa, was unable to do likewise.

Despite outscoring both Ferrari and Lotus in India, Mercedes have to ask themselves some serious questions.  Having started both cars on the soft tyre, the team would have known that they would have needed to overtake slower cars that started on the harder compound.  Why they then decided to set their car up in a manner that did not facilitate overtaking is a mystery for me.  We saw Hamilton, for example, stuck behind the Williams of Valtteri Bottas – which Vettel managed to breeze passed easily – for a number of laps at one stage of the race.

Ultimately, though, Mercedes did well to negotiate Rosberg ahead of Massa.  This, coupled with a disastrous race for Fernando Alonso, who finished down in 11th place, unable to add to his record 1571 world championship points, meant that the Brackley based team moved ahead of the Scuderia in the constructors championship.

It was another strong result from Grosjean in India

It was another strong result from Grosjean in India

Lotus also did well to recover from a disastrous qualifying for Romain Grosjean to outscore Ferrari in India, meaning that it remains very much a three-way fight for that coveted second position in the constructors’ championship.  Having badly misjudged things in qualifying meaning that Grosjean failed to make it out of Q1, starting down in 17th position, things looked bleak for Lotus at the start of the race.  The Frenchman drove brilliantly, though, to take a place on the podium with a third place finish.  Kimi Raikkonen’s seventh place finish certainly wasn’t quite as inspiring as he tried, and failed, to make a one stop strategy work.  He did, though, at least have the satisfaction of snatching the fastest lap of the race away from Vettel on fresh tyres at the end of the race.

The final word goes to Vettel, though.  A fourth consecutive Formula 1 world drivers’ championship at the age of 26 is certainly an amazing achievement.  It does, though, make things a little dull for those that are not Vettel supporters.  Vettel’s dominance, and the extreme role that tyre strategy is playing in modern Formula 1, is certainly dulling the spectacle.  Radio messages such as the one from McLaren to Sergio Perez telling him not to fight Vettel due to their different strategies seem incompatible with the concept of racing, especially in a championship that’s meant to be the pinnacle of motorsport.

There’s hope that with a big regulation change coming next year, we may well see things mixed up a little in 2014.  One thing’s for sure, though, if Red Bull Racing build another world-beating car, it’s all but certain to be world drivers’ championship number five for Vettel in 2014.  I don’t know about you, but I find that an incredible depressing thought…