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Mercedes Blitz Practice, Snare The Front Row At Barcelona.

Even the most hardened supporter of any F1 team other than Mercedes has to acknowledge the dominance of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas in 2019. And with a good portion of the teams plugging in aero and engine upgrades for this weekend’s round 5 in Spain, the gap, at least after FP1 and FP2, seems to have grown further between the Silver Arrows and the rest.

Although a gap of 0.25 seconds, as was the case after FP2, may not sound like a lot, in F1 terms it’s a chasm. And it would be Bottas taking the flowers for practice, leading a pack of four in the 1:17 lap time. Ahead of Hamilton with times of 1:17.284 to 1:17.333, the pair would shade the Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel. Leclerc, though, would later admit that the team hadn’t pushed the cars after the upgrades, saying: “Today we tried to understand our new package, we did all the tests we wanted to and tomorrow we will try and push it and see where we are.”

FP1 was a slightly different story. Bottas would lead the field however it was the two Ferraris for 2nd and 3rd, ahead of Hamilton. Haas would see Romain Grosjean in the top six for both sessions, and crucially would be fifth in FP2. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen had taken 5th in FP1 but fell through the timesheets to be 12th in FP2, behind former team mate Daniel Ricciardo. An effervescent Grosjean said:“I’m feeling optimistic. I’m feeling like we’ve got a good chance to qualify both cars in the top 10, and even maybe play with Red Bull. I think we’re in the mix with them. So we’ll dream big, and let’s see where we go. Saying that, [Red Bull] always seem to find something in qualifying, but I think we’ve got more coming as well. Let’s see. Tomorrow could be a good day.”

Haas have gone into practice with changes to the Frenchman’s car in an effort to evaluate the body changes. The look to his team mate’s car, Kevin Magnussen, has been untouched as the team utilize his car as a tire test bed. Haas have, this season, performed well in practice and qualifying but the tire management during the race has eluded them.

Verstappen changed engines before FP2 after a garage inspection detected an oil leak. “I missed a bit of running in first practice, so I think that did put us a little on the backfoot for the second session.” said Verstappen, who had a close call with Bottas on track in FP1.“Clearly there is still some work to do. Tonight, we will analyse the new parts and see what is going to be positive for tomorrow. [The update] is good, it works for sure, but with this track, you have to see, with downforce levels as well.”

The Renaults of Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg were well off the pace for the two practice sessions on Friday, with the Australian philosophic about the pace. “(But) there’s certainly some improvements in the car. I don’t think we got it all this afternoon, especially on the short run, so we’ll just put it all together tomorrow.”

Lance Stroll in his Racing Point raised the heartbeats of his team after momentariliy losing control in FP1, enough to spear the front of his car into the barriers. Luckily for the young Canadia, the damage was minor enough to have the car repaired and out for FP2 where he would finish in 13th, ahead of Hulkenberg.

Carlos Sainz and Danil Kvyat would round out the top ten in FP2, with Kvyat just 0.005 of a second ahead of the taciturn Kimi Raikkkonen.

FP3 was largely the same, except for the name at the top of the leader board. Hamilton was the sole entry into the 16 club, with a 1:16.568, a full half second ahead of Leclerc, Bottas, and 6/10ths ahead of Vettel. Haas continued to improve in Spain, with Grosjean knocking on the top five, and Kevin Magnussen 3/10ths adrift. Alexander Albon, Kimi Raikonnen, and Carlos Sainz completed the FP3 top ten.

Q1 and Nico Hulkenberg was the first to have an issue. He ran wide at exactly the same spot as Stroll, but didn’t tag the wall. However he had torn the front left wing and damaged the barge board. This continued his horror run at Catalunya as he’s never seen Q3. Bottas showed early pace ahead of Hamilton, with the latter seeking his fourth consecutive pole at the Spanish circuit. Verstappen was also quick early in Q1, with both he and Bottas in the low 1:17s. All combatants for Q1 were out on soft tires.

Bottas continued to improve and would pin down Q1 with he again being the only driver with a 1:16, but only just, with a .979 suffix. Hamilton was nearly 3/10ths adrift, and Vettel 0.15 shy at the end of Q1. Robert Kubica and George Russell from Williams continued their miserable 2019 season, Antonio Giovinazzi from Alfa Romeo, Stroll and Hulkenberg all missed out on Q2. Daniel Ricciardo was slowest of the fifteen to make it through Q1.

Q2 and Bottas was quickest again. Tweaks by the Mercedes engineers saw both he and Hamilton find an incredible one second of pace, taking Bottas into a 1:15.924, and Hamilton a 1:16.038. Hamilton’s time lowered the track’s lap record, and looked good enough to have him on pole. Bottas shook the tree with just moments left in Q2 to lodge his even quicker time, an amazing result given he was over 2/10ths slower than Hamilton when he lodged that time. Ferrari could only shake their heads as Vettel could only manage a 1:16.667. Leclerc crueled his chances with the high kerbs at Turn 9 damaging the undertray of his scarlet F1 car. Somehow the damage turned out to be not serious enough to keep him from Q3.

Verstappen continued his good run and also lodged a 1:16.726. His team mate Pierre Gasly lit his candle too, dropping down to a 1:16.932. Grosjean and Magnussen were looking good for Haas late in Q2, with both nearly  into the 1:16s. The five that would be elimnated for Q3 were all in the 1:17s, and separated by a half second. Lando Norris, Alexander Albon, Sainz, Raikkonen, and Perez were gone. Albon would be eliminated after the Q2 session had finished as others were quicker on the closing laps.

Q3 and seven of the top eight would be into the critical 1:16s. Danil Kvyat, who had expressed some disappointment about his progress earlier in the week, would take P9 and finished on a 1:17.573. Ricciardo rounded out the top ten with a 1:18.106, but faces a three grid spot penalty after his Baku brain fade.

Haas are now a possibility for points at Spain as both Magnussen and Grosjean made it to Q3, with P8 and P7, separated by 0.011. Gasly snared P6, meaning both Red Bulls are in the top ten, and sits next to Leclerc who will start from P5. The top four are Verstappen and Vettel who will start behind P2 holder Hamilton, and Bottas shocked with a blinder. His Q1 lap, and set very early in the session, took him to a time a half second quicker again, down to 1:15.406, and another front row lockout for the Silver Arrows.

The time for Bottas has hin 8/10s ahead of the Ferraris, with Vettel observing: “Coming here we did not expect this. But also we seem to lose quite a big amount of time in the last sector. I think it’s quite clear that we seem to be faster down the straights so probably carry a little bit less wing than them, but then obviously in the last sector there are no straights, and we are struggling a little bit to bring it together.”

Bottas, naturally, was overwhelmed, “I really enjoyed that,” adding: “One of my best, if not the best. It’s such a nice feeling when you succeed with a lap like that… The car was so good and I could really 100% trust it and really do with it whatever I wanted to and it’s a good feeling.”

The race gets underway at 16:10 local time on Sunday, May 12.

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David Conole

Dave Conole is the former long-term circuit commentator for Sydney Motorsport Park, has worked trackside at the Australian F1 Grand Prix in Melbourne and is self-employed as an automotive content producer.

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