Well, there’s the prologue over and — spoiler alert — I think we know how this is going to end. The next race, Barcelona, marks the start of F1’s European summer season and it’s hard to imagine that, come the autumn, Lewis Hamilton won’t be world champion. As he said on the podium after today’s easy win in China: “I was only racing myself.”
Indeed. The Mercedes W05 — and props to Ross Brawn here — is one of those racing cars; a Lotus 79, a McLaren MP4/4, a Williams FW14… last year’s Red Bull RB9. Nico Rosberg was again second behind Hamilton, although nothing like as close as Bahrain after a pretty unlucky race with no telemetry, a poor start, and an assault from Valtteri Bottas’ Williams. But that’s the point; champions make their own luck and right now Lewis is minting charms. When he fell off the track today it proved completely harmless.
Rosberg has been kicking off this week about that battle in Bahrain, claiming that Lewis’s driving crossed the line. That didn’t stop him pulling exactly the same move on Sebastian Vettel today, as he made his way back through the pack after that start. After yesterday’s mistakes it’s clear he’s feeling the pressure. On the podium his fighting talk sounded hollow; a 25 point lead is now a four point lead. After that failure in Australia, Hamilton has dominated this prologue.
Behind the Mercs its been a remarkable tale of Formula One getting used to its new order. Only two retirements today. Two! And to think only four races ago we genuinely imagined a scenario where every car retired. Of course four races ago we had no idea that Red Bull would be the nearest challenger to Mercedes. Today they weren’t quite, another one of those ‘how did he do that?’ drives from Fernando Alonso put a bloke in red overalls on the podium for the first time. It’s still hard to imagine that however buoyant Alonso sounded, Ferrari is the second best team.
That is surely Red Bull, fourth and fifth today and second behind Mercedes in the constructors’ championship, albeit nearly 100 points behind. But Red Bull has an issue and that issue is Sebastian Vettel, again beaten by his teammate again this weekend (for the second race on the trot and, yesterday in qualifying, for the third time in four races). Vettel was again asked to let Daniel Ricciardo by. “Tough luck,” he said before facilitating a very soft pass. We’ve heard a rather more sulky Seb on the phone this year. Don’t forget “DO SOMETHING!” and “Speak up when you talk to me.”
After the race Christian Horner admitted his superstar was struggling. We’re not suggesting for one minute that Ricciardo’s speed has busted the Vettel myth, just that the four-time champ and his team are properly challenged now with trying to get Vettel comfortable with the handling of the RB10. How Vettel responds to this very personal crisis will be the mark of the man, but have no doubt: his challenge will grow, and Hamilton needs to keep as much of an eye on Vettel as he does on Rosberg.
Not Alonso? This was a much better weekend for Ferrari after the career-ending race in Bahrain. We said yesterday this is not the work of Marco Mattiacci, but development already set in place by Stefano Domenicalli. And it’s good to see Ferrari going forward. The team has tended to go backwards during a season recently, only Alonso’s talent keeping the team in the fight. But there is surely more awry at Ferrari than just the senior management. That can’t be fixed inside a season, can it? Ferrari’s real pace is maybe closer to the eighth place of Kimi Raikkonen, some 40secs behind his teammate.
Hulkenberg (sixth), Bottas (seventh) and Perez (ninth) were the best of the Formula Mercedes runners. McLaren were nowhere, Jenson Button admitting afterwards that the MP429 is a miserable place to spend an afternoon. We know JB can have the odd black dog moments after a race, but this was surely a new low. McLaren, unlike Ferrari, are going backwards. No points, no sponsor and two miserable drivers. The team is shadow of former self and that shadow is engulfing Kevin Magnussen.
The rookie of the first race was eclipsed today by Daniil Kyvat, tenth and again in the points. He’s one of the stories of this season’s prologue, along with Ricciardo’s pace, Ferrari and McLaren’s problems, the brilliance of the Merc engine and the dominance of the Merc team, and the incredible rate at which F1 has gone from knowing next-to-nothing about its new cars, to knowing everything. F1 is already looking familiar. Just substitute silver for purple and Hamilton for Vettel.