The German leads a Mercedes-GP one-two in qualifying ahead of championship leader Sebastian Vettel.
Nico Rosberg claims pole position for the Spanish Grand Prix
Yesterday was a case of there being good news and bad news at the Spanish Grand Prix for Lewis Hamilton.
The positive is that he is no longer driving a McLaren-Mercedes, who look to be in for their first winless season and only their second in 17 years if yesterday’s poor qualifying showing, which saw Sergio Perez finish ninth and Jenson Button 14th, is a fair representation.
But while the 2008 world champion has undoubtedly made the right decision in ditching the British outfit for Mercedes-GP it is not all a garden of roses for him with the German team.
The negative for the Briton is that for the second time in a row he is being outperformed, on raw pace, by teammate Nico Rosberg.
It was Rosberg who claimed his second successive pole position in qualifying for today’s race, with Hamilton second, 0.254 seconds adrift.
Yes, Hamilton is third in the championship on 50 points, 36 more than Rosberg, but he will know himself that is not a true reflection of how things have actually gone this season.
Rosberg has suffered two retirements through mechanical failures in the first four races and had to be told, repeatedly, in Malaysia in March, by team principal Ross Brawn, to back off from challenging Hamilton in the closing laps as they finished third and fourth.
Hamilton has the two podium finishes for the team to date, but Rosberg has the two pole positions, and that will rankle Hamilton.
When he moved to Mercedes, it was to fight for victories and championships, not to be put in the shade by his teammate, which has been the case over the last two race weekends.
Mercedes are not yet in a position to challenge for victories over a race distance consistently, due to their problems with high tyre wear, and there is no disgrace in that given how far off the pace they were in the second half of last season.
Hamilton was fairly circumspect on his problems yesterday, acknowledging that he had not got the best out of his machinery.
“I haven’t had the best of weekends up until now,” he said.
“This is still great for us today to be one-two on the grid, but I have been struggling all weekend. The long runs were pretty poor, but on one-lap pace, the car doesn’t seem to be too bad.
“I seemed a bit lost, not knowing what to change and where to go, so I didn’t make changes in practice three and into qualifying, I didn’t make any changes. I wasn’t 100 per cent comfortable.”
Rosberg has won only once before, in China last year, and he was realistic enough to acknowledge win No 2 is unlikely to come today.
The Mercedes is one of the hardest cars on the fragile Pirelli tyres, and Rosberg’s pole in Bahrain last month eventually turned into a ninth-place finish as he was forced to make four pit stops – two more than the Lotus cars
Rosberg said: “It’s a good boost for the team, the front row is fantastic, but of course we have to be a bit cautious after Bahrain.
“The team has been working really hard to be even better, understanding how to get the most out of these tyres,” he said.
“We were a bit behind in Bahrain, and we come here and there are issues again. This time, it is more degrading of the tyre, so here catching up and making the most of the situation, we have improved.”
While the Mercedes pair were doing their best to play down the achievement of the team’s first front row lockout for 21 races, history is on the team’s side today.
No one has won the grand prix at the Circuit de Cataluyna from lower than third on the starting grid in the previous 22 stagings of the event, which should, on paper, at least, make them, and third-place starter Sebastian Vettel, feel confident about their chances.
But the Mercedes is not as good when fat with fuel as it is in qualifying mode, and is likely to eat through its Pirelli medium compounds quicker than the Red Bull Racing, Ferrari and Lotus cars behind them, meaning their performance level will drop off quicker.
Rosberg dropped back through the pack very quickly in Bahrain after holding onto the lead for the first two laps, powerless to fight off Vettel’s Red Bull.
The good news for Rosberg and Hamilton is that passing will be nowhere near as easy today as it was in Bahrain. The Barcelona track is a great aerodynamic test of a F1 car, but it is not conducive to good racing, even with the DRS [drag reduction system] that has been in the sport since 2011.
It is difficult for cars to stay close to a rival coming out of the last corner onto the long start-finish straight, and that is unlikely to change today.
Hamilton himself knows the challenge of trying to overtake in Barcelona, having in 2011 been unable to get past Vettel in the closing laps, despite being clearly quicker.
So if Rosberg and Hamilton can hold their positions off the start, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso, all of who should be quicker over a race distance, will have to be patient, and potentially have to wait until the opening round of pit stops before they demote the German cars down the race standings.
Both the Mercedes drivers have played down their chances of victory, but given the challenges of overtaking, finishing on the podium should be achievable.
But Hamilton’s immediate goal will be to accomplish today what he did not do yesterday. Beat Rosberg.