Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes back in business but has F1 2018 turned?
Mercedes' return to form in Spain leaves Ferrari with problems to solve - but Red Bull could be the favourites for Monaco
By Pete Gill in Barcelona
Last Updated: 11/12/18 12:44pm
The question being asked after the Spanish GP is whether Mercedes and the 2018 F1 season have found their turning point.
The world champions, led by a flawless display from their world champion driver Lewis Hamilton, were a class apart in Barcelona.
But was the transformed picture at the front merely a one-off provoked by a special set of circumstances? Or did the result mark a critical turning point in the 2018 season, a pivotal moment when Mercedes finally found their groove just as Ferrari fell out of form?
Hamilton's victory, meting out what Sebastian Vettel called a "fair beating", was both one of his best in F1 and one of his most straightforward.
Less straightforward, however, was pinpointing exactly why the competitive order swung so dramatically in Mercedes' favour this weekend.
Ferrari slump as Mercedes find their groove
For Ferrari, the Spanish GP weekend was an uphill struggle from start to finish.
Their car wasn't quick. They didn't like Pirelli's revised tyres and were convinced that it hurt them relative to the opposition. On race day, Vettel lacked pace and chewed through his tyres to such an extent they only lasted half as long as Red Bull's. Kimi Raikkonen fared even worse, suffering an apparent engine failure just a day after another issue had necessitated the power unit was changed.
As Maurizio Arrivabene put it: "This was a weekend in which nothing went right."
Only the team's strategy could be absolved of blame. Vettel may have given up two places when he pitted for a second time on lap 42 but having been forced, because of severe front-left tyre graining, to end his first stint nearly 20 laps before Red Bull, a second stop was a certainty. Stopping behind the Virtual Safety Car was the smart call and but for Vettel overshooting his pit-box he would have returned ahead of Max Verstappen.
The fundamental problem, as Vettel said afterwards, was simple. Ferrari didn't have the pace required.
"We have to address the problems we have," he said. "The bottom line is we were not quick enough."
By contrast, everything went Mercedes' way on a weekend when everything was set fair for the world champions.
As team boss Toto Wolff put it: "We have been competitive in Barcelona at winter testing, the circuit suits us, the tarmac suits us and the cold weather suits us."
And those revised tyres probably helped too - although shaving off 0.44 of tread didn't explain why 30 seconds separated Hamilton from Vettel at the chequered flag.
Hamilton finally settles into the W09
Hamilton was phenomenally quick on race day and consistently a second a lap faster than Vettel through the opening stint. Finally at ease in the W09 after failing to "punch my weight" for the last month, Hamilton kept on pushing, only backing off when he hit traffic at Turn 12 on his final lap, determined to wring every ounce of performance from a car he had been struggling to master.
"This is the hardest year I have faced," he told Sky Sports F1 after the race.
The question applied to Mercedes applies to Hamilton too: has he found an answer to the problems which plagued him in China, Bahrain and Baku? Or could this weekend's form have been circuit specific?
"Since Melbourne I haven't had the confidence to lean on the car or get the rear where I wanted it to be," Hamilton reflected. "For whatever reason, I still didn't have it yesterday. It was a very nervous car throughout qualifying, better than it had been but still not great. Today, we just happened to get the right wing setting and the car was nicer to drive. I was much more comfortable and I was amazed to see the pace difference I had to the others."
Hamilton's partnership with the W09 remains a work in progress. Hence Hamilton, no fan of testing, will be back behind the wheel as early as Tuesday or Wednesday for more testing at Barcelona.
"Today was a rejuvenating experience," he said. "I pushed every lap, using it as a test-bench about what I liked and understand what I can get more from.
"This has been a good race in feeling what I felt in the first race, it shows it wasn't just a one-off."
In simplistic terms, Hamilton has had three indifferent races this year bookended by two very strong events. But repeating his Barcelona form at the upcoming races will not be easy.
"There are a lot of challenging races coming up. Monaco is going to be a serious challenge. In Montreal it's going to be very, very hard to get temperature in the tyres. For the races coming up, I don't think it's going to be as clear as it was today."
Wolff reveals Hamilton's confidence suffered
On the surface, Valtteri Bottas had a poor weekend in Barcelona, suffering a 20-second defeat to his team-mate on race day.
But Bottas was within a tenth of beating Hamilton to pole and Vettel's flying start, coupled with a slow pit-stop which saw the Mercedes return behind the Ferrari, meant the Finn spent almost two-thirds of the race losing performance in the Ferrari's dirty air. Fine margins can sometimes add up to big defeats in F1.
Bottas didn't shy away from self-criticism last year so his relaxed assessment this Sunday - "the gap to Lewis was huge but there were many reasons for that" - carried weight.
Wolff, meanwhile, had some interesting things to say on how Hamilton's confidence had suffered in the wake of his defeat in Australia when Vettel pounced behind the Virtual Safety Car.
"We let him down in Melbourne and that stays in your mind," said the Mercedes boss. "The best ones are very sensitive and fragile and that is something we know and he knows. He was solidly in the lead in Melbourne and suddenly he was behind the Ferrari. It is difficult to cope with and in the following races we struggled. But having such a good weekend here is very important for his confidence."
Where do Red Bull fit in at the front?
It wasn't just Mercedes who beat Ferrari this weekend. The Scuderia were also beaten by Red Bull, losing out even after Verstappen pranged his car into the back of Lance Stroll's Williams.
The feeling at Red Bull after the race was that they could have even challenged Hamilton if only they possessed the engine modes which Ferrari and Mercedes can deploy in qualifying.
"The damage done on a Saturday compromises your race on a track like this on a Sunday," said team boss Christian Horner. "We had a strong race car. As soon as Kimi retired, it was clear that the pace of our car and the degradation of our tyres was very strong."
But the time lost behind Raikkonen after both Red Bulls started from the third row meant neither Verstappen nor Ricciardo, who spun behind the Virtual Safery Car before setting the fastest lap of the race, could realistically challenge.
"Our pace was on a par with what Lewis could do, particularly in the second half of the race," rued Horner. "The key thing for us is increased competitiveness on a Saturday, grid position is so important. We don't have the ability to go with our rivals' engine modes."
An upgrade from Renault is scheduled for Canada. It's likely to go a long way in determining the shape of Red Bull's season and whether they elect to switch to Honda for 2019 and beyond.
What next in Monaco?
Mercedes winning in Barcelona, when the conditions and circuit favoured them, is one thing. Mercedes prospering in Monaco, where they have struggled in recent years and where the circuit won't play straight to their strengths, would be quite another.
Hamilton has previewed Monaco as a "serious challenge". Wolff went further, telling reporters: "Monaco comes into my mind and l worry. It's very difficult to undo the DNA of a car. Why our car doesn't like to be quick around the corners of Monaco we haven't found out yet."
In the Monaco-like final sector at Barcelona, Red Bull were consistently quickest of all this weekend, suggesting they will be the team to beat in the Principality. "Red Bull are going to be rapid and very hard to beat," predicted Hamilton.
For Ferrari, the prospect of Red Bull being genuine victory contenders next week is both an opportunity and a problem.
If both Ferrari and Red Bull are ahead of Mercedes in Monaco, then Vettel and Raikkonen should claw back most, if not all, the points they lost this weekend.
The alternative outcome, however, will be causing a few sleepless nights in Maranello this week. If Ferrari don't beat Mercedes, and lose out to Red Bull, in a race where they claimed a 1-2 a year ago, the season really will have turned.