Five seconds: that was all it took for a lightning Lewis Hamilton to sweep past Valtteri Bottas and lay the platform for Mercedes’ fifth consecutive one-two finish, extending a start of unparalleled dominance to any Formula One campaign. No wonder “big boss” Dieter Zetsche, the chairman of Daimler, Mercedes’ parent company, could not stop smiling as he was borne aloft by his drivers in the Barcelona sunshine. Any resistance to this behemoth of a team appears futile. At this rate, with a 96-point lead in the constructors’ standings and not even a quarter of the season gone, staff at the Silver Arrows can start counting their annual bonuses by September.
Hamilton was peerless here, reacting to the lights with hair-trigger precision and holding off Bottas for his third straight win at the Circuit de Catalunya. Even at the re-start after a long safety-car period, imposed for a collision between Lando Norris and Lance Stroll, he set off on a tear, taking advantage of fresher tyres to seize an extra point for the fastest lap. A 76th victory was his, and with it a renewed grip on the championship. From the moment he launched out of Turn One in the lead, such an outcome never looked in doubt.
The less comfortable question is how much longer F1 can cope with this story of remorseless supremacy. There is gathering momentum behind the idea that Toto Wolff, Mercedes’ team principal, could be the sport’s next chief executive beyond 2020. His verdict on this remarkable quintuple of one-twos reflected a combination of emotions: sheer elation at his team’s feats, but also underlying concern over the competitiveness of the sport. “I’m in an awkward position,” he said. “We’re trying to push the benchmark every single day, every single year. Seeing this all come together gives a super satisfaction. But as a fan, the sport needs a certain unpredictability.”
Back in 1955, Mercedes withdrew from any involvement in F1, arguing they had nothing left to prove. They could do the same tomorrow, citing the same reason, and few would have any complaints. They are setting a standard that nobody, even in a sport of perpetual innovation, can live with. Max Verstappen is F1’s most aggressive, eyeballs-out driver in years but might as well have been in a different race, trailing home a distant third. Ferrari have a greater budget and more decorated history than anyone, Mercedes included, but they are being made to seem rank amateurs by their arch-rivals. All that Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc, fourth and fifth, had to remember this Spanish Grand Prix by was a row over team orders.
Verstappen noticeably took his time in parc fermé, studying Hamilton’s car and wondering just what he had to do to beat such a machine. “I was looking to see what’s different to mine,” he said, grinning. It was a forlorn quest: Mercedes’ distinction lies as much in what you cannot see as what you can. In the coming weeks, the team are preparing to unleash more upgrades, refining an engine that is already the envy of the grid. In this game of catch-us-if-you-can, Mercedes are like an electric hare, offering hope but ultimately no reward to their frustrated pursuers.
At one level, Hamilton is relishing the serenity of life at the front. “This is the strongest team there has ever been, I think,” he said. “It will be very hard to break that.” But as a born racer, he finds that the experience of duelling with Bottas lacks the exhilaration of being closely-matched with rival teams. “It’s exciting when you arrive at the track and you’re competing against one or two other teams who are bringing their A-games. Racing within a team? It’s not really what F1 should be. People might be unhappy at the gap we have to the Ferraris – but it’s not our fault.”
In every department, Mercedes left the rest standing. Even at the first round of pit-stops, they took half the time that bungling Ferrari mechanics needed for Vettel and Leclerc. All that remained was an in-house fight for top billing. While Bottas had been expected to offer a fierce challenge, having taken pole by over six tenths, he was slow off the line, a mistake that he blamed on clutch problems.
The best racing was reserved for the first corner, which Hamilton, Bottas and Vettel entered three abreast. In his efforts to steal a march, Vettel locked up, creating a flat spot on his tyre that limited his speed and set up a needling tussle with Leclerc behind. The Ferrari pair have crossed each other already this year – in Bahrain, Vettel had to make way for a charging Leclerc – and the to-and-fro was equally intense here. First Vettel, with badly-degraded rubber, had to let Leclerc pass, before the young Monegasque was soon ordered to return the favour.