The guys in the pub know you’re into Formula 1. You walk in on Saturday evening and the conversation goes something like this...
‘Who’s on pole in Spain?’
‘Bottas – by six tenths of a second from Hamilton.’
‘Six tenths! Woah! That’s impressive. Is Valtteri going to get the job done?’
‘He’s certainly on the case; really calm and focussed. A perfect lap.’
‘So, is Lewis under pressure? This could be good for the race.’
‘Yes and no. Valtteri has raised his game and he’s quick. But Lewis had what he called an untidy Q3.’
‘He would say that, wouldn’t he? What was wrong?’
‘Well, he didn’t have his tyres properly prepared because his battery hadn’t been fully charged because of a yellow flag on the previous lap at the end of Q2 and that meant he had to spend his out lap of Q3 charging the battery while trying to look after his tyres and so…..’
‘Yeah, whatever… Thought qualifying was supposed to be all about who is quickest and none of this…whatever you just said. Anyway, it’s your round mate…’
The knock-on effect of incredibly complex F1 cars may not be user friendly for the majority of those paying handsomely for the privilege of watching from the grandstands. But it was not lost on Toto Wolff, judging by his expression when interviewed by Karun Chandhok after qualifying had ended.
Responding to Chandhok’s valid assertion that ‘This has been a big statement from Valtteri’, the Mercedes boss immediately launched into an explanation of Hamilton’s problems before adding, almost as an afterthought ‘…but Valtteri is in good form and deserves to be on pole.’
Pressed further on the significance of Bottas’s third pole in succession and asked if he was nervous about the race start, it became clear Wolff’s thoughtful expression had actually been created by a front row lockout that you would think should have been the cause for smiling satisfaction.
‘A bit nervous is probably the right state of mind,’ admitted Wolff. ‘They know it’s important to be ahead in Barcelona, a track where it’s difficult to overtake, so I hope we won’t be coming back to 2016 – but they [Hamilton and Bottas] are in a totally different place to each other [compared to Hamilton and Nico Rosberg prior to the first lap collision that wiped out the Mercedes team].’
Maybe so, but Wolff’s preoccupied look implied the ‘different place’ could lead to the same wrecker’s yard given Hamilton’s promise not to be as generous as he had been during the first lap wheel-to-wheel confrontation in Baku.
It’s probably uncharitable to suggest that Wolff was quietly relieved when a minor clutch glitch for Bottas ruled out not only a battle of wills 565 metres later at Turn 1 (helped by Sebastian Vettel squeezing Bottas) but also any chance of a decent motor race during the next hour and 35 minutes. Bottas would remain there or thereabouts, the usual nonsense of being unable to run in close company without affecting tyre performance being the final contributor to another procession.
It has to be said that a familiar fail by Ferrari played a major part in the latter. Mercedes cut the feet from under Ferrari’s latest aero and engine development by introducing more substantial upgrades that, among other advantages, overcame a previous weak spot in slow corners.
More embarrassing by far was neither Vettel nor Charles Leclerc being made aware of differing strategies that called for instant place changes rather than time-consuming in-house battles. Vettel may have set the trend by locking up into the first corner and forcing his young team-mate to back off and lose vital ground but neither driver could be faulted for strategy calls that appeared to be determined by a sun dial and egg timer.
The only good thing to say about the two red cars getting in each other’s way was that, unlike Hamilton’s over-complicated procedural issues in Q3, fans in the pub and enclosures could see exactly what was going on even if, like the rest of us, they didn’t necessarily understand why it should be happening. Again.