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Spanish GP: A key barometer for the top contenders

This grand prix points the way to success

The look of bewilderment on the face of Lewis Hamilton said it all. He had just won a race he had no right to win, which in turn thrust him to the top of the drivers’ championship for the first time this season.

Any joy bubbling to the surface was quickly cauterized by the sense that a reckoning was coming. There are no walls to arrest an errant driver in Spain, fewer opportunities for the kind of freak outcomes that ultimately bestowed victory upon him at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Performance at the Circuit de Catalunya has become a bellwether for the rest of the season, its classic mix of quick and slow-to-medium corners a barometer of a car’s general capability across all circuit types and configurations.

Australia, where Mercedes should have won, apart, Ferrari have bossed the season's start. That Sebastian Vettel is not running away with maximum points is a combination of bad maths on the Ferrari pit wall in China that initially cost him the lead and ultimately bad luck when Max Verstappen clattered into his rear bumping him down to eighth. In Baku Vettel was the architect of his own undoing, over-reaching into turn one in a misguided attempt to wrestle back from Bottas the first place he had held for 41 laps after the safety car changed everything.

Without fate’s curveballs Vettel’s ledger could easily have stood at four wins not two, and Hamilton might have arrived at the season’s fifth race at least 30 points down on his great rival as opposed to leading him by four.

Ferrari posted a best time more than one second quicker than Mercedes during winter testing here in Barcelona, albeit on hypersoft tyres in qualifying trim. Mercedes, concentrating on long run consistency, put the most rubber down - the only team to clock up more than 1000 laps - but in terms of outright pace it was clear the augmented Ferrari would be the ultimate reference point over the opening, four-race, long-haul sequence.

It was obvious, too, that Red Bull, with their unique aerodynamic styling, had beefed up the proposition sufficiently to make the season a genuine three-car shoot-out.

ALL WHITE ON THE NIGHT

Hamilton returns to the overalls at the Spanish Grand Prix from yet another celebrity immersion in the United States, this time at the Met Gala in New York. The annual fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art that attracts the full canon of Manhattan’s red carpet royalty.

Hamilton made the pop pages of the New York press dressed in full white Tommy Hilfiger designer rig. In dress code and setting the experience was an inversion of his previous trip to the States two weeks earlier at the Coachella music festival in California, which, you might say, was ‘far out, man’ in spirit as well as geography.

Hamilton claims the diversions do him a power of good, emptying his mind of F1 clutter. None can argue when he is winning world titles. The mood will change soon enough, however, should Vettel and Ferrari continue to challenge Mercedes’ domination of the hybrid engine epoch. The beginning of the European leg of the world championship ordinarily sees the first tranche of significant car upgrades. The arms race starts here, and if Hamilton is to really start punching his weight, Mercedes have to find something.

“There’s two weird races which have kept us within the mix but you can’t rely on those for the 17 or however many are left,” Hamilton said. “We need ultimate performance and confidence in the car. I’ve got the pace within me, the car has got the pace within it but we’re not unlocking it. We’ve definitely got to improve in lots of areas.”

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WOLFF LEADING THE PACK

Hamilton’s boss at Mercedes, Toto Wolff, is not deaf to Hamilton’s entreaties. And, unlike his globe-trotting driver, he has been back at the factory in Brackley orchestrating the team’s response.

“It’s the first step of the development race that looks like it could run to the very end of the season,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how much performance the teams can find with their upgrades and what impact those upgrades will have on the team ranking, both at the front and in the midfield.”

Mercedes have struggled to get the most from the 2018 specification Pirelli tyres, particularly in colder temperatures, ceding a performance advantage to Ferrari, most importantly in qualifying. The prancing horse hit the sweet spot in Bahrain, China and Azerbaijan and though Vettel has never started from pole in Spain the antecedents point to a fourth pole in a row. And, all things being equal, to converting that supremacy into victory given that 14 of the last 17 races here have been won from position A on the front row. Unless that is the boffins in Brackley have found a way to switch on that reluctant rubber.

As far as Red Bull are concerned, the critical matter is to observe the first law of racing, namely to keep team-mates apart. Since the Renault power unit does not have the horses to compete with Ferrari and Mercedes on the straights and big, high speed corners, Barcelona presents a stiff enough test as it for Red Bull without Daniel Ricciardo and Verstappen taking each other out as they did in Baku.

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LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED

For local hero Fernando Alonso, well, he has to look elsewhere for victories these days such are the diminishing returns at McLaren. Not that you would know judging by the reception he always receives here, the more so you suspect after his debut win in a Toyota in the World Endurance Championship at Spa-Francorchamps last week.

Like the great drivers of old Alonso has widened his circle of interest, if for different reasons. Sir Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Sir Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill et al would pick up a race anywhere in any formula if the money were good enough.

Alonso is richer than Crassus and, in the light of McLaren’s failure to reboot in F1, he’s racing for the hell of it. After his narrow failure in the Indy 500 last year, Alonso has revived his tilt at the historic triple crown of Monaco, Le Mans and Indy. Only Graham Hill has won all three. Meanwhile, he is left crossing fingers that the upgrades brought to Barcelona will see him improve on a fifth and three seventh place finishes this term.

“There is a new aero package coming, but I think 95 per cent of the paddock is bringing a new aero package to Barcelona,” Alonso said. “So, maybe the gap remains as it is, or we just recover a little bit, or we lose more ground. Who knows? I think it is up to us to make that package work to expectations and hopefully some others, they don't deliver. That is our hope.”

If anyone can score against the odds, Alonso can. The more likely outcome is the correction Hamilton fears, Vettel bringing the red hammer down in all its glory.