How do you deal with a problem like Mercedes? The modern F1 era has seen much dominance, and seasoned F1 veterans will remember the likes of Ferrari and even Brawn before Red Bull’s three years at the top but by even those comparisons the early dominance of Mercedes has been startling and on all the current evidence only mechanical failure can prevent the works outfit from taking yet another 1-2 in China this weekend.
From testing their dominance has been pretty much unchallenged, with Malaysia bringing yet another unchallenged win, but it was an exciting sprint finish to Bahrain, a race unlikely to be bettered this season and already being talked about as a classic, that bought home just how far clear they truly were of the field. In the 11 laps from the end of the safety car to the race in Sakhir, they pulled 24 seconds clear of the rest of the field, a rate of 2.2 seconds a lap. The fear of a procession is understandable, but with chief executive director Toto Wolff actively encouraging Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg to go toe to toe with eachother we were treated to a sterling duel between the two including some of the closest racing seen for a long time. In a race famous for team mate battles, we had the phenomenon of the Red Bull’s, Force India’s, Williams and Ferrari’s all finished in tandem, with the latter pair drawing clear from the field in just 11 laps after the safety car.
Form can change rapidly from circuit to circuit but China, with it’s long straights and sweeping corner complexes, is very similar to Bahrain and those who prospered last week have an ideal opportunity to do so once again. In the qualifying session the field had to deal with heavy and quite sustained rainfall but that didn’t stop Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes from going nearly a full second quicker of both Red Bull’s (with Riccardo once again out-qualifying Vettel) with Nico Rosberg fourth after overcooking the exit of the back straight.
Rosberg will be frustrated with having only qualified fourth and despite being split by the two Red Bulls, he looks to be Hamilton’s main contender by a considerable distance for the top spot of the podium. Mercedes were 1-2 in Malaysia and Bahrain; at no point ever looking like they were going to be caught, and had Hamilton’s car held up the story would likely have been the same in Melbourne too, making the 11/8 on a dual forecast a very tempting option as the forecast is for a dry race tomorrow.
This is also likely to be of huge benefit to Williams, who qualified superbly in Bahrain, Vateri Bottas coming third behind the Mercedes on the grid and Massa starting in seventh, and they were nip and tuck with the Force India’s and Red Bull’s, set for a podium challenge, before the safety car and a three stop strategy that bought them in just outside of the safety car window. Their positions of sixth and seventh are excellent starting launchpads for a race around a track that won’t be as hard on their rear tyres, a problem for the Williams which was much better in the wet today then in qualifying sessions in Malaysia and Bahrain. With that behind them both should be aiming for strong showings and either of them is an interesting top 6 competitor – with marginal preference for Massa out of the two, but the better bet might come from the man just behind them.
Their main rivals, the Force India’s, should be amongst the pack battles once again despite a less than ideal qualifying. They’ve had the better of Williams in the qualifying but both Nico Hulkenberg (left) and Sergio Perez especially struggled with the car balance on Saturday in wet conditions. However a dry race is likely to see them in much better shape and Nico Hulkenberg can take advantage of that to push for a fourth straight top 6 finish on the bounce. He starts in eighth, a fair effort considering that Adrian Sutil failed to make Q3 as well, and with Force India’s car in the dry having handled tyre wear well, and with the car arguably the third fastest around he can have high hopes of improving upon his position. A top 6 finish is 11/8, bigger than any price available pre practice, and interesting, but a far better bet would be the evens on him winning Paddy Power’s Group C. His rivals in this market are the McLaren pairing of Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen, and his team mate Adrian Sutil. There’s a gap of 4 places between him and Button with Magnussen and Sutil 7 and 8 places behind, and while the two McLarens were going well when clutch failures took them out of the running in Bahrain, in third practice and qualifying Nico was comfortably the faster out of the quarter and with a head start of four places and above, evens looks very generous.
6 pts Nico Hulkenberg to win Group C (evs Paddy Power)
2 pts Hamilton/Rosberg dual forecast (11/8 Hills)