As uneventful grands prix go, yesterday’s Spanish race at the Circuit de Catalunya – the first European race of the season – was right up there with all the infamous candidates from years gone by.
It’s long been argued that if you want to mitigate a lack of overtaking, don’t stick the fastest cars at the front and expect the slower ones to pass, although you’d struggle to get Formula 1 to agree to change a system that’s been in place forever.
The follow-my-leader problem we saw in the fifth round of F1 2015 is exacerbated at the 2.9-mile circuit outside Barcelona; its propensity of long, high-speed corners rewards aerodynamically sorted cars. Which means, again, that the fast ones at the front are laughing.
The Fernando Alonso effect (he’s Spain’s only world champion, race winner and polesitter) ensures that the country has a race on the calendar, but the incumbent venue, to which thousands of fans flock to watch their hero at work, has a history of producing tedious GPs.
In fact, worryingly, among the 25 races held there since 1991, only two have been won by someone not starting on the front row. Michael Schumacher won from third on the grid in ’96 to take the first of his 72 wins for Ferrari and that man Alonso galloped to the front from fifth in his Prancing Horse two years ago. Among those 23 events, only four have not been converted into victory by the man on pole.
And so it was with statistically sound self-assurance that I assumed one of the Mercedes drivers, Nico Rosberg or Lewis Hamilton, would stand atop the podium after the 66-lap demonstration. And, of course, they blitzed it, taking a one-two, separated by 17.5 seconds, but with the closest challenger, Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari, almost half a minute adrift.
Fortunately, though, the intra-Mercedes battle proved to be one of the saving graces of yesterday’s race, for up to this point it had been a bit one-sided. World champion Hamilton had won three of the first four GPs, having started on pole for all of them, while Rosberg had managed two seconds and two thirds.
This time, the German shaded his hitherto-much-faster-this-year nemesis in qualifying to grab pole and then made the proper getaway he’s been trying to make all year, disappearing up the road for his first win of the year. Plenty had thought that Rosberg, who took 11 poles last year but only converted five of them into victories, would revert to type. Not so.
It was a timely boost to his flagging fortunes at Mercedes and reduced the championship-points deficit to 20 – less than a race-win haul. He’d clearly regrouped during the three-week break following the quartet of flyaway races in which he’d been thrashed by Hamilton and then reminded us why he pushed the Brit to the edge in their title fight last year.
The Spanish GP wasn’t all bad, then. And the next stop’s Monaco, where Rosberg has won, on the streets on which he grew up, for the past two years. With any luck, the world-title battle won’t quite be the follow-my-leader affair we first feared.