Wednesday 20 September 2017

Barcelona could be a watershed for Hamilton

British driver winning psychological battle in Mercedes civil war writes David Kennedy

Lewis Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton

David Kennedy

FIVE races into the season and the sole winner has been Mercedes. They'd like it to stay that way too. They were first out of the blocks and the rest of the teams are still stuck in the nursery playing follow-the-leader.

Lewis Hamilton's battle against his team-mate Nico Rosberg is tense, deeply personal and at the same time a fascinating study in psychological warfare. Rosberg, first to put his stake down in Australia. Hamilton equalled it in Malaysia. It was one-all. Hamilton did it again in style in Bahrain and was triumphant in China. But even after that Herculean effort, the Englishman remained second in the championship.

It was at the Catalonia circuit last weekend that Hamilton threw his heart, soul and mind into preventing a hard-charging Rosberg from snatching victory in the closing laps. It was a crucial win that gave him the lead in the championship and if he goes on to win it, Barcelona will serve as the watershed. Despite the wrong tyre choice and a faster team-mate, Hamilton nailed his supremacy to a sign saying 'keep out'.

Rosberg said afterwards he could have done a Kamikaze on the last lap and just gone for it. And therein lies the clue to his Achilles heel. Very few drivers are prepared to cross that rubicon. When they were team-mates, Jenson Button invariably didn't whenever he was in crucial wheel-to-wheel combat with Hamilton and now Rosberg too has capitulated. Fernando Alonso, on the other hand, was never intimidated by Hamilton in their McLaren days. Against Rosberg, the psychological battle was won by Hamilton in Spain. Hunger is the best sauce and Hamilton is starving for this title.

That Mercedes has allowed this war of team-mates to propagate freely is impressive. It's very easy to lose two drivers to a collision when each driver's requirement to prove themselves is elevated at every encounter. What if the decisions to allow them to dice with impunity were to cost the manufacturer the championship? The team's head honchos would look back and wonder why they didn't tame their progeny as Red Bull and Ferrari were wont to do. Full credit to Mercedes for being bold enough to allow us a front row seat in this fascinating spectacle.

So who can challenge Mercedes? The way it's looking at the moment Red Bull seem to be the ones. The Austrian outfit know a thing or two about winning, and there isn't a second when they aren't working their way back to that Pantheon.

If you think Sebastien Vettel has gone off the boil, think again. He's up against a perceived opinion that he can only perform in a race-winning car. Adrian Newey will deliver as soon as he has sorted out the team's short-comings while simultaneously cracking the enigma code that is Mercedes domination. Rumours that Vettel's chassis was misaligned have been denied. But you just don't go from four consecutive world titles to struggling to qualify and being consistently beaten by a rookie team-mate, overnight. Something somewhere has to be fundamentally wrong.

Daniel Ricciardo has been very impressive, nonplussed at being faced with the Vettel legend. He has beaten his team-mate in the last three races and of course in the first race until he was disqualified after finishing second. In Malaysia, Vettel gave us a flash of his old form when he qualified second and finished third. In Barcelona, he did well to come from 15th on the grid to fourth in the race. But so too did Ricciardo when he performed a similar feat from 13th to fourth in Bahrain. It's inspiring to see new blood in these new generation of cars outperforming their more experienced and successful counterparts. But will it last?

Lotus enjoyed a resurgence with Romain Grosjean last weekend; it must have given the Frenchman a kick to have beaten his former team-mate Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari in qualifying as he lined up fifth on the grid, although the advantage was short-lived in the race. Once again, by dint of consistency, Alonso is third in the championship but there's a mighty chasm between Ferrari and Mercedes.

Barcelona heralded the first race on the GP3 calendar. Status GP enjoyed a very encouraging season opener with a third and a fourth, which combined, take us to second in the championship. Team Principle Teddy Yip's Theodore Racing reigning Macau winner, Alex Lynn, won the first race. The second race was won by Dean Stoneman, a driver who was due to be team-mate to Ricciardo in the Renault 3.5 championship in 2011.

The then 20-year-old was struck down by testicular cancer and he could only watch Ricciardo reach the dizzy heights of F1 as his own career took a back seat while he fought the illness, which thankfully he did successfully. Winning in Barcelona was especially poignant for him. Dean's Irish team-mate Ryan Cullen recorded a personal GP3 best finish with a 15th place in the first race and 16th in his following race, which is impressive when you consider this is just his second season of GP3 and he never had the benefit of a karting background.

Monaco and F1, I don't know which is more dependent on the other. It's the playground to fantasies or the resting place for many a failed dream. It will relish the arrival of this new generation of F1 cars. It could throw up a few surprises.

Rosberg won it last year and he considers the place home. He has scores to settle and no better place to do so than in his own backyard. Hamilton isn't going to let his title lead just fritter away like chips in the famous Monte Carlo casinos. Could Red Bull be in with a chance? They won the race in the three years preceding Rosberg's win.

There's always the maverick who's been waiting in the wings for the odds to change in their favour and Monaco is the perfect venue for a curve ball. So watch out for Hulkenberg, Massa, Bottas, Grosjean, Magnussen or who knows. But particularly watch qualifying because the race will be won or lost there. Of course the sky will play its part. Button in a rainy Monaco? Now that would be interesting as he battles to retain his drive at McLaren. Formula One, gambling, Monte-Carlo – they're all synonymous with the one and only spectacle that is Monaco.

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