Every year it happens- sometimes we fall for it, sometimes we don’t. The Ferraris are bang on the pace, or even setting it, in pre season testing. Every year, they flatter to disappoint…. This year though, for some reason, it seemed more convincing than ever. Even Karun Chandhok’s impressive calculations on Twitter, taking into account tyre compounds, fuel loads etc, showed the red machines were quickest. I suppose we should have known, when Hamilton banged in a time a fraction shy of Vettel on the final day but most, Hamilton included, still expected to see a red front row in Australia.
The stories go that in the Enzo Ferrari days, the team were always under massive pressure to go well at pre season tests. If they didn’t, the Italian press would destroy them and back at Maranello, heads would roll. As a result, they often concentrated on low fuel runs with soft tyres, and not so much on actual testing- meaning they ultimately started the season on the back foot. Whatever the reason this time round though, everyone was stunned by the immediate and sizeable advantage enjoyed by the Mercedes duo as soon as they took to the track in FP1. I am in a number of motor racing related WhatsApp Groups and they all lit up as soon as the times came up. “Sandbags have been removed from the Mercs!”, “Congratulations to Hamilton on the 2019 title!” and worst of all “Looks like 2019 will be a snoozefest.”
💬 "This gap was really surprising to see. This is the first time we've unleashed the full potential of the car."
— Mercedes-AMG F1 (@MercedesAMGF1) March 16, 2019
In the race itself, Bottas got the perfect start, snatching the lead from a surprised Hamilton on the run down to turn one. From then on, the Finn didn’t put a foot wrong and completely dominated the season opener, with Hamilton never looking like he could challenge and crossing the line more than 20 seconds adrift. Afterwards, Bottas was elated and there was talk of a new mental attitude and being better prepared than before. F1 fans loved it, because it meant that even if the Ferraris couldn’t challenge this year- Bottas looked like he was going to challenge for wins. Only a few short hours later though, the Mercedes team announced that there was a piece missing from the floor of the World Champion’s car at the end of the race. Was this just to appease their lead driver? Was it true? Could they not allow Bottas to enjoy his win?
Let’s assume it is true, as it’s highly unlikely not to be. Even so, we must assume that the piece of floor was lost at some stage of the race. From the opening lap though, Hamilton never looked like challenging Bottas, broken floor or not. This, allied the the fact that, as all sportspeople know, winning makes you better- and mentally stronger, means that Bottas will be surely aiming for, and even expecting, more such weekends this year. As for the Ferraris- nobody seems to know what happened there. Leclerc, as we expected, was close to Vettel’s pace from the off, but a half attempt at a run round the outside of his team leader at turn one earned a firm “Back in your box Bruno” response as one Ferrari ran the other wide. No doubt there are meetings in Maranello as I type, with the fact that Verstappen’s Red Bull completed the podium making it little short of a disaster for the pre season favourites.
Ferrari Team Principal Mattia Binotto: “We struggled with the tyres, we tried different set-up approaches, but we never got the right balance,” he admitted. “We were lacking grip. Do we understand that yet? Probably not. We need to go back, analyse all the data and assess what happened.”
Other points of note in the first round of the 2019 included the performance of Max Verstappen. A bit like Alonso, you always get the feeling that Max gets the very best out of the machinery at his disposal. His third place surely will have delighted Honda, as it was their first podium finish in over ten years. His former team mate Daniel Ricciardo had a disastrous debut for Renault at his home event- damaging the front wing on the run to turn one and subsequently retiring as a result. His new team mate Nico Hulkenberg, hand a good run to seventh and the inter team battle at the French team will be very interesting this season, as both of those guys are highly rated.
Lando Norris shocked everyone with his incredible qualifying performance, somehow managing to stick the unfancied McLaren in 8th place! In the race though, he was held up when he was unable to pass Italian Alfa-Romeo rookie Antonio Giovanazzi, who was on a different strategy, but still managed to bring the McLaren home in 12th. What can we say about Williams Grand Prix? Unfortunately they looked more like an underfunded rookie team, than one which has scored 114 victories, 308 podiums and 128 pole positions. Worse still, F1 returnee Robert Kubica wasn’t even near the pace of his team mate George Russell- the pair right at the back and finishing three and two laps down respectively. Anyone who watched the recent Williams documentary, myself included, will have been upset to see this form for such a famous team, and we can only hope that they somehow manage to claw back at least some of the massive deficit before too long.
Either way, we don’t have long to wait, as the Bahrain Grand Prix is just over a week away- can Ferrari fight back? Will Bottas beat Hamilton again? Your guess is as good as mine!