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Chaos In The Red Corner, Silver Arrows Take The Gold, At Barcelona.

Round five of the 2019 Formula 1 season was more of the same at the Barcelona-Catalunya circuit. Bottas was on pole, Hamilton was next door, and it would be Hamilton that would lead his team mate to the chequered flag at the end. Behind them would be a Ferrari team in disarray and in chaos, as indecision about whether it should be Vettel or Leclerc to lead the scarlet horses on the tarmac.

As has been the norm with the Finn on pole, Hamilton had the better start from the line, with Bottas later claiming it was clutch issues that slowed his car on the start. Vettel challenged at the first turn, and appears to have not realised that three don’t go into two safely. The car came out of turn 1 with flatspotted tires, and that effectively took the German out of contention for the rest of the race. Vettel would eventually finish 4th, behind the two Mercedes and the Red Bull of Max Verstappen. That’s a repeat of the podium from 2018 and yet another needle that Daniel Ricciardo doesn’t need as a reminder of his choice to leave the team.

Pierre Gasly from Red Bull would finish 6th, whilst the Renaults of Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg, who had started from pit lane after stewards deemed his replacement front wing wasn’t the same specification as the one damaged the day before, were out of points contention down in 12th and 13th. In comparison, the Haas pairing of Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean both finished in the top ten, continuing the strong form shown in practice and qualifying, and highlighting in their own way the woes being experienced by Renault.

Charles Leclerc would also gain points, finishing in 5th, but the Ferrari team’s confusion had him both above and below Vettel throughout the race. Carlos Sainz and Danil Kvyat would fill the top ten with 8th and 9th. Alexander Albon had a wonderful day and barely missed out on the top ten, finishing just 8/10ths behind Grosjean.

Kimi Raikkonen continues what promises to be a fairly pointless year with a 14th, ahead of Sergio Perez, Antonio Giovinazzi, George Russell, Robert Kubica, with Lance Stroll and Lando Norris out after a tangle on lap 47. Giovinazzi and Russell both had grid place penalties from practice and qualifying after gearbox swaps.

The start had Vettel out wide on drivers left, ending with that flat spot. Credit though to the German as he was able to stay on track but would be in a position where Leclerc would be in close quarters. It would be an issue throughout the race for Ferrari, where each would be in a position to challenge the other, however this race and the four before have shown that Leclerc is consistently the quicker driver during a race. Lap 12 would be the first of the team orders to let Leclerc  through. Vettel would then radio though to the pits calling desperately for a tire swap.

Sainz and Ricciardo were battling for entry into the top ten a third of the way into the race. Sainz was three seconds behind Albon, who was a bare second behind Kvyat. Ricciardo was a second and a half behind the Spaniard but there wasn’t enough pace to find that vital extra two seconds. This would continue for the rest of the race. Vettel finally pitted on lap 22, forcing Red Bull to do the same in an effort to keep Verstappen in podium contention. The yound and fiery Dutchman would benefit from a glitch in the Ferrari garage, holding Vettel for a vital extra second or two as a left rear refused to go on securely.

Pierre Gasly pitted shortly afterwards and would be sent out on medium tires. The new rubber this season has proven to be a bane for most teams, with the soft rubber around 8/10ths slower but oddly proving to be longer lasting for some teams. On lap 26 the battle between Ricciardo and Sainz is resolved, with the Australian finally finding the gap, only to be called into the pits. Shortly after there’s action in the top end, with Leclerc on new rubber, and then Bottas to match him in the Mercedes garage. Bottas was back out quickly and working his mediums well. Albon surprised the crowd with a beautiful pass on the veteran Raikkonen at turn 4.

Mercedes display their team strategy with Hamilton in the lead. He’s in, and out, and still on song for the win. Leclerc gets caught by Vettel after his pit stop for hard rubber, and Leclerc also had a left rear fitment isssue. The tire choice for the pair is adding to the confusion as now Vettel’s pace seems to be better, so do they again make a team order choice? This is playing into the hands of the Mercedes team and Hamilton has confirmation he’s well ahead.

Renault has Hulkenberg in the top ten half way through the race, however “The Hulk” hasn’t pitted for fresh rubber. Their grip levels are leaving quickly, as he’s three seconds slower than Kvyat. Lap 35 and Vettel’s pace is now such that another team swap is performed. Questions are being asked as to why the two cars were sent out on differing rubber.

Lap 37 and Hulkenberg is finally on new tires but drops substantially through the field as a result. The struggle for minor top ten places sees the Russian Kvyat making space and passing the Haas of Magnussen. Verstappen is brought in on a calculated two-stopper, and that’s in response to yet another Ferrari garage stop, this time for Vettel being swapped to mediums.

Twenty laps to go and Hamilton has a look at his rears. They’re wearing badly however he has time to get in and out and still challenge for the lead from a position of authority. In the interim Mercedes pit Bottas, he’s on softs for the run home.

F1 timing can be cruel and with lap 47 underway, Stroll and Norris collide. Norris has gone tight into a left hander and Stroll looks unaware of the dive bomb on his rear left, and turns across the nose of Norris. The front right of Norris spins Stroll, pushing both out to the right onto the gravel. Norris has momentum enough to roll across the track, but this brings a substantial amount of gravel from the outside of the turn on the right. This brings out the safety car and allows teams to use the break to swap rubber again. Bottas now has warm tires cooling, Hamilton in for new rubber, and Leclerc also in. Soft and mediums are the call, yet race analysis has shown identical times for the three rubber choices spread across different teams.

Hamilton is back on track and back in the lead, Leclerc is behind Vettel but on better, newer, rubber. Where to from here for Ferrari? Kvyat has pitted and he also gets a slow stop. Luckily there’s room either side and he’s back out in P9. It takes six laps to clear the track, with the pair of silver cars showing clean tails to the field. Haas sees Grosjean go for a pass as he watches Leclerc and Gasly fight for a place, and messes it up with the result he falls behind Magnussen.

Inside the final ten laps and the Frenchman is fighting anyone near him as he battles to stay in the top ten. Sainz comes close and Grosjean uses a turn to run wide after Sainz comes to within handshake distance. A replay shows the cars did touch, the stewards will investigate. A lap later and Sainz shoulders Grosjean aside. It appears there may be unseen damage for Grosjean as now Kvyat is upon him and passes with five to go. Albon get a radio rocket with the advice being to attack Grosjean. However Albon has his rear vision mirrors full of Renault and the grinning visage of Ricciardo.

The final lap and it’s Hamilton greeting the chequered flag. He’s strangely muted, saying: “This is history in the making to have five one-twos, so I’m very, very proud of that. She’s a great car but we don’t always get along – I’m glad in the race we could settle our difference.” adding “An interesting start, very, very close.” Bottas says his clutch system’s issue is one he’s never experienced before and Verstappen is confident that Red Bull’s improvements are bringing them closer to Mercedes and ahead of Ferrari.

“It’s good, but not as good as Mercedes did, so we clearly still need to work harder and bring better things to the car, but it’s good to see that we, I think, closed the gap to Ferrari so I’m happy about that.” said Verstappen after the race.

History will also show that it’s the fifth time Mercedes finished as a one-two, with Hamilton acknowledging that something special is in the wind: “This is history in the making to have five one-twos.” and with the next race just two weeks away, F1 may well see this extended to an unprecedented six silver finishes for the top two. May 23 to 26 is the weekend where F1 heads east and to the streets of Monaco.

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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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