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The Formula 1 season had paused for breath following the first four races. In the three-week gap before start of the European sector, it had been hoped that the inevitable performance improvements would allow the likes of Red Bull and Ferrari to close the gap on Mercedes. Such optimism hung on the flimsy theory that Mercedes had started the season so well prepared that their development curve would begin to flatten while others, still getting to grips with the radical new technology, would make much larger steps.
The lesson from the Spanish Grand Prix was that those improvements had indeed been made – but Mercedes, having plenty in hand, merely turned up the wick and kept their rivals at arm’s length. The race at Circuit de Cataluña was another intense fight between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg and, on the evidence of the Spanish weekend, you could say that one of them will become 2014 World Champion. The most difficult and intriguing question is deciding which one.
Having been unable to prevent Hamilton from winning the previous three races, Rosberg needed to nail this one. The weekend started badly for the German when a cooling problem with the energy recovery system (ERS) seriously restricted his running on Friday to the point where he said he was not comfortable with the car. Hamilton, after a trouble-free day, said it was his best Friday practice of the season so far.
Hamilton’s mood changed on Saturday when he declared his car felt worse and, no coincidence perhaps, Rosberg got into his stride and set fastest time in the final free practice session. ‘I really thought Nico was going to get pole,’ said Mercedes F1 director Niki Lauda. ‘But then Lewis went out and did a typical Hamilton lap. It really was incredible.’
Those were not the words Rosberg used as he studied the lap times and wondered why a certain pole position had disappeared. ‘I’m not happy,’ said Rosberg. ‘I had a good lap – but Lewis just went quicker.’ His circumspect mood made it very clear he was going to fight back on race day.
Just as certain was the fact that the Mercedes pair would have the race to themselves. Daniel Ricciardo, third fastest, summarised the latest state of play. ‘We’ve improved our car in a lot of ways,’ said the Red Bull driver. ‘But, obviously, Mercedes have done the same. One second – the gap between them and us – is just huge. It’s too much.’
To rub salt into the Red Bull wound, Sebastian Vettel had a terrible two days, side-lined for most of Friday with a wiring loom change and not completing a lap in the final part of qualifying thanks to broken transmission, the subsequent unscheduled change of gearbox earning a penalty and a drop from 10th to 15th on the grid. This would prompt a ‘nothing to lose’ drive as the reigning champion pulled off bold overtaking moves to eventually finish an excellent fourth, 27 seconds behind Ricciardo – who, in turn, was 48 seconds and a world away from the incredibly tight battle at the front.
Apart from pit stop phases, Hamilton led all the way. But that does not begin to tell the story. The silver cars were never separated by more than 2,5 seconds during the first phase, Hamilton stopping first, followed three laps later by Rosberg who, unlike his team-mate, decided to run the harder tyre and get it out of the way in the middle phase, leaving a return to the soft tyre in readiness for a final attack.
Hamilton, knowing this would be coming when running the potentially slower hard tyre, began a constant dialogue with his hapless engineer that indicated he was fretting about the handling, the balance, the tyre wear, the strategy, the changes to the front wing; you name it and Lewis was complaining about it. Or so it seemed. It was is if Hamilton needed a ‘backs against the wall’ mentality to drive himself on, particularly when, with 10 laps to go, Rosberg closed the gap from 4,6 to 2,3 seconds.
With five laps remaining, Rosberg was just over a second away, the drama and domination being magnified by the leaders lapping Kimi Räikkonen’s seventh-place Ferrari in the process. Hamilton kept his cool and crossed the line to take win number four and, for the first time in 2014, the lead of the championship. The gap at the finish was 0,6 seconds. Rosberg said if he had another lap, he could have taken the win at this psychologically important moment.
As things stand, it’s all to play for between these two. The next race is Monaco, where Rosberg won last year. Saying that, anything could happen on the streets of the Principality. And usually does.
That will be the saving of the season.