After their four years of near-total domination, the Formula One community could be forgiven for expecting the season to start in earnest once Mercedes had found their groove. In Spain over the weekend, that is exactly what happened.
World champion Lewis Hamilton drove faultlessly to convert pole into his second win of the season - one he enjoyed a great deal more than a hard-fought triumph in Azerbaijan - while, for the first time in 2018, Valtteri Bottas followed him home in second.
A first-lap crash for Haas’ Sebastien Grosjean triggered the ‘heavy impact’ alarm on the Frenchman’s car and also accounted for the races of Renault’s Nico Hulkenburg and Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly, but there were more memorable weekends for the likes of McLaren’s Fernando Alonso and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who nursed home a damaged front wing to take third.
Verstappen had profited from a frustrating weekend for the Ferraris. Kimi Raikkonen retired with an engine failure on lap 24 while Sebastian Vettel, keen to build on two early wins in this campaign, slipped from second to fourth after being hampered by a poorly timed pitstop. The German called on his team to look for reasons for their underperformance at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya after a “very positive” start to the season.
After two wins earlier this season, Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari were well off the pace set by Mercedes in Spain
Can you VSC a problem here?
Vettel attributed his loss of position to making the mistake of stopping in the pits on cold tyres, but he also claimed that the new Virtual Safety Car (VSC) system brought in for 2018 had left drivers with a loophole to exploit.
"It's the same for everyone but the FIA is supplying us with a system that makes us follow a delta time, and everybody has to slow down by, I think, 40 per cent, but I think everybody's aware you can have a faster way to go under VSC than just follow the delta - by saving distance," Vettel said.
"So, I think we should have a system that hasn't got this loophole, because it forces us to drive ridiculous lines around the track and everybody's doing it so I don't think it's a secret.
"Our sport should be in a better shape than supplying software that's just poor and allows us to find some extra performance that way."
Charlie Whiting, the FIA race director, said he was not aware of any problem. “I don't know what he's talking about, honestly,” he added.
However, Whiting said he would remain open to recommendations about the system.
"I can sort of see what [Vettel’s] saying, but the racing line is the optimal one,” he said.
"If they have some evidence of this we'll obviously have to have a look and see if it can be manipulated. From what we can see over a lap and a half, as long as they are at zero at the VSC ending point I don't think any advantage can be gained.
"Where the advantage can be gained is coming into the pits and going out of it. But everybody knows that, it's not new."
F1TV stutters into life
Organisations across the world of sport are finding it essential to have some form of OTT digital service available to fans; more than many of them have encountered some form of technical setback to be part of the journey.
So it has proved with Formula One. Between Liberty’s background in broadcast media and a self-imposed delay to iron out pre-launch issues, expectations had been fairly high for the debut of F1 TV this weekend. For some viewers, glitches rendered Friday practice and Saturday qualifying unwatchable, with error messages blocking them out of live streams and other errors creating a series of interruptions.
It is unclear exactly how many people were affected but in the digital space, of course, most discontent becomes public and Formula One was moved to issue an official apology and a partial refund to those affected.
Those who missed the live action will be able to catch up on demand, while Liberty will need to recover some reputational ground. It is a tricky start and a difficult PR episode, but not one that is likely to deter the owners from the “biggest investment in [Formula One’s] digital transformation to date”.
Formula One's owners continue to pursue improvements to the fan relationship at race venues
New experiences in Miami
Leaving those OTT issues to one side, Formula One made further strides last week in updating its live venue experience and infusing it with digital sophistication. Partnerships were announced last week with FanVision Entertainment and Fanatics. The former will create a new handheld device called F1 Vision, allowing fans at the track to listen in on live driver and team communications, get timings and statistics in real time, and follow each Grand Prix radio broadcast.
Fanatics, meanwhile, will become the championship’s official merchandise retail partner, bringing the scale and expertise it has developed in partnerships with the likes of the National Football League (NFL) and National Basketball Association (NBA) to the souvenir sales process online and at the circuit. Formula One says the new retail experience will make it easier for fans to purchase a wider range of premium souvenirs over the course of the race weekend, with additional vending locations to be set up around each venue.
The prospect of one of those venues being Miami in the near future also became likelier after the Floridian city’s commission granted unanimous approval last week to Formula One’s proposal of a street race there in October 2019. Sean Bratches, the series’ managing director of commercial operations, gave a hearty welcome to the news.
“Formula One in Miami represents a fantastic opportunity to bring the greatest racing spectacle on the planet to one of the world’s most iconic cities,” he said in a statement, “and we are delighted that the journey is underway.”
Miami would be a glamourous new stop on the Formula One calendar but while there is excitement within the paddock about spending weekends in the city, not all of the drivers are convinced about how much they’re set to enjoy the race itself.
“Miami is a super cool place, and I was very, very excited to hear about it... and then I saw the layout,” said Lewis Hamilton, speaking to CNN last week.
“I dread the thought of a street circuit like we had with Valencia, which wasn't really a great street circuit. It can be very hit and miss, but maybe it's a hit.”
Hamilton has offered to redesign the layout and lamented the fact that few former drivers are involved in circuit design in the same way as retired golfers have been known to create new courses.
“Not that we're designers or anything, but we've not been asked for our input or anything like that,” he added.
Motorsport outlet Wheels 24 drew a line between Hamilton’s comments and those of Vettel, who complained on Saturday that drivers had often been left out of the loop when packages of regulatory changes were agreed.
“I think you should ask us what we need to overtake,” Vettel said. “I mean, we are drivers.
“Not to say that we know everything, we don't know anything about engineering the car, but we know how the cars feel, how to drive the cars. And their limitations to overtake. But we're not really asked."
FIA president Jean Todt dismissed the argument that drivers were not being consulted, suggesting that there had been occasions when their schedules had forced them to miss key meetings.
“Any driver who wants to see me from the front of the grid to the back of the grid will be able to see me within 48 hours,” he said.
Robert Kubica made his first appearance at a Grand Prix weekend since 2010 but the Williams car he drove continues to have major performance problems
Williams seek inspiration
One of the feel-good set-ups of the season was in place on Friday practice as Robert Kubica drove a Formula One car on a Grand Prix weekend for the first time in seven and a half years. The Pole, whose hugely promising career was interrupted by serious injuries incurred in a rallying crash in February 2011, has a reserve seat with Williams this year and took the FW41 through its paces in Friday practice.
Now 33 and still bearing limitations in the use of his right arm and hand, Kubica was comfortably ahead of 19-year-old teammate Lance Stroll - who crashed late in his run - but there was little triumphalism after a session in which he was only 19th overall.
"I was surprised that I was not more emotional. It felt normal," he said. "But I can't say it was fun. The car balance is very bad. It's very difficult to drive."
Kubica’s astonishing return could well culminate in a race drive this season, but it comes amidst Williams’ wider malaise so far in 2018 - not least with its errant vehicle. After Stroll had picked up Williams’ first points of the season in Azerbaijan, he and Russia’s Sergey Sirotkin were on the back row after qualifying in Barcelona and only fell further behind from there, finishing two and three laps back respectively. Stroll has admitted that the team are struggling “a bit everywhere” while former driver Alexander Wurz, who now acts as a consultant, has described the problems with the car as a “crisis”.
"We lose downforce at the diffuser, at the floor,” Wurz said to ORF, Austria’s national broadcaster. “We had this problem a little bit last year, but it was only annoying. Now it's basically a stall.
“We lose so much grip, and then the driver has no confidence in the car at all. That's our problem. Identifying the problem is only ten per cent. To correct and implement this is in fact the difficult task."
It is all an indication of how difficult it can be for a team of Williams’ resources to keep up every season, but they are trying to maintain a forward-looking approach away from the track. Heading into the weekend, they confirmed the arrival of their first esports team. The Williams eSports team will compete in the second season of the Formula 1 eSports Pro Series in 2018, with inaugural signings Javier Perez, Jani Vitsaniemi and Bernardo Perez given access to team’s factory and simulator in Oxfordshire for training and events.