Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas occupy their customary positions on the front row of the grid for the Spanish Grand Prix – but their team boss Toto Wolff believes the man who starts third is favourite to win the race.
Red Bull driver Max Verstappen arrived at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya this weekend to be greeted by the same high temperatures that were partly responsible for making his victory at Silverstone last Sunday possible.
Verstappen lagged behind Mercedes over one lap on Saturday afternoon in Spain but on race pace it has looked a different story.
And after tyre problems brought Verstappen into play at Silverstone, both Wolff and Hamilton are extremely wary of the threat he poses on Sunday.
“The only similarity between Silverstone and Barcelona this week is the ambient and track temperatures,” Wolff said on Saturday evening. “The track is very different so we don’t expect the same blistering issues but more degradation and more overheating. And I believe Red Bull masters those conditions very well.
“Nevertheless, I believe the work that’s been done during the week and from yesterday to today was good. We’ve improved and that is most important and I hope we can give him a run for his money. But definitely Max needs to seen as the favourite based on yesterday’s long runs.”
Hamilton’s pole was the 92nd of his career and this will be his 150th front-row start, but it brings no guarantees of an 88th victory that would put him within three of Michael Schumacher’s all-time record.
“It is going to really hard,” Hamilton said. “The Red Bulls I think are a little bit quicker than us in race trim. It’s strange how we’re quick in qualifying but then in the race they close the gap massively and the tables turn a little bit. But we’re ahead of them so hopefully we can still apply the pressure and hold position.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen on these tyres on the long run, whether blistering will happen or not. But it is going to be physically so demanding; it’s so hot. But I will be ready.”
Verstappen’s Silverstone win – the first time a Mercedes has been denied victory this year – moved him into second place in the championship ahead of Bottas, a measure of his the high standard of his performances this season. And while he is 30 points behind Hamilton, it’s worth remembering that Verstappen retired from the opening race of the season while running second.
The impression, then, of a season of total Mercedes domination is perhaps not as accurate as it might seem, at least not when it comes to the races.
“If I just keep driving behind them in the distance it’s not going to happen,” Verstappen said. “If I have the opportunity to be there, you have to push it. Yesterday [on the race runs in practice] I felt good. Let’s hope it’s going to be the same tomorrow and I hope we have an entertaining race at the end of the day.”
Will Wolff stay or go?
Wolff has this weekend been open about the fact that he is contemplating his future with Mercedes beyond the end of this season.
His contract as F1 team principal and Mercedes motorsport boss is up at the end of the year, and his position with the company is complicated by the fact that he is a 30% shareholder.
Wolff has made it clear that he is weighing up the strains of the role, his longevity in it – he has held it since 2013 – its impact on his private life, with a wife who is also a team boss in Formula E, and the fact he continues to enjoy its challenges.
No decisions have been taken. But it could well be that, even if he concludes he does not want to be team principal and attend every race any more, he remains the most senior person in the team and its boss.
Wolff said on Saturday: “It is to take the right decision for the team, which is my highest priority. I enjoy the camaraderie and the ups and downs. I couldn’t wish for a better group of people. And obviously I am discussing every millimetre with [Daimler boss] Ola Kallenius and Susie [Wolff, his wife].
“Hopefully I will be in the same place next year and discussing with you and if not I will be staying close to the team.”
Whatever happens, Hamilton said it would not affect his decision over his new contract, which is also still to be concluded.
“You have to remember it is a team,” said Hamilton, who joined Mercedes at the same time as Wolff. “There are almost 2,000 people in the team. It’s not just down to one individual. That does not determine whether or not I stay.
“I have been a part of growing with this team and the strength is there and it’s not just one individual.
“Everyone has to do what’s best for them and their career and happiness. And everyone needs to take a moment and evaluate what they want to do moving forwards, whether it suits them and their families and their future dreams.
“We have done so much already together. But I hope he stays because it’s fun working with him and negotiating with him and having the ups and downs. Truly grateful to Toto. But I will be supportive in whatever he decides to do.”
A small step forward for Vettel
The last two races at Silverstone were particularly sobering experiences for Sebastian Vettel, a man who once bestrode F1 much as Hamilton does now, but who has looked a pale shadow of his previous self for some time.
Vettel was way off the pace of team-mate Charles Leclerc in the UK, and made another of his unforced errors in the second race, too.
The regularity with which these mistakes are appearing, by the way, can be judged by the fact that Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo described his own error at Silverstone as a “Seb spin”. Ouch.
Vettel admitted to being flummoxed as to why he was struggling so at Silverstone, so when Ferrari announced that they had found a crack in his chassis and were giving him a new one for Spain, it seemed a possible explanation.
Vettel said on Thursday, though, that he didn’t “expect miracles” and so it has turned out.
He has been closer to Leclerc this weekend, but was still 0.215 seconds off in qualifying, and still failed to make it into the top 10 shootout, while Leclerc did.
Now, to be 0.215secs off a man who it is already clear will be one of the stars of the next decade and more is no shame.
On average over all the races, Vettel was just over 0.1secs slower in qualifying than Leclerc in 2019. So it is far from impossible that 0.2secs could be a typical and expected margin between the two this year, with Leclerc now in his second season with Ferrari, and very much designated as their future focus, and Vettel entering this season having been told he would be leaving at the end of it.
But Vettel is a proud man and his highly impressive career statistics mean a lot to him. And he will very much not see this as a situation he will have to accept for the rest of the year, not least with his future still up in the air.
Vettel complained after qualifying of a nervous rear on his car – exactly the opposite of comments from Leclerc, who said his “just didn’t have enough front end to rotate the car and we lost quite a bit of time because of this. It is something we regularly have with this car, struggling with the front in mid-corner”.
Two drivers reporting exactly the opposite problem with their cars, and both more than a second slower than the Mercedes. This is going to be a long and difficult year for Vettel and Ferrari.
It remains to be seen whether Vettel will still be in F1 next year – he does not exactly have a lot of options.
But he can at least console himself with some supportive words from his former team boss at Red Bull.
“Sebastian is a great driver,” Christian Horner said in an interview with 5 Live Sport this weekend, “the third most successful driver in the world and still holds numerous records and it’s sad to see him struggling as he is at the moment.
“Whatever he chooses to do will be his choice. If he decides to take a year out, he will still be attractive to teams in a year’s time. He is one of the few drivers who could afford to take a year out.
“It’s all about the environment you’re in and that’s something he’s obviously finding tough at the moment.”