BARCELONA, Spain -- Valtteri Bottas keeps stepping up to the plate.
The Finn inflicted a significant defeat on Lewis Hamilton on Saturday, comfortably beating him to the pole. Can this continue? Is it time to board the Bottas 2.0 hype train?
Our roundup of the good, the bad and the ugly from qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix must start with the driver who might be the only man capable of stopping 2019 from being another Hamilton coronation.
A decisive blow?: It's hard to remember the last time Lewis Hamilton was beaten as comfortably as this in a qualifying session by a teammate. Hamilton has F1's all-time pole position record for a reason, his form on Saturday is usually prolific and there is a long list of teammates who struggled to match him consistently. Nico Rosberg beat Hamilton to the title in 2016, but since retiring has revealed how much of a mental blow his old buddy was able to regularly inflict on him by pulling a stunning late lap out of nowhere. So you could understand the gasps in the media centre when it was Bottas who set the impressive pole time early on in Q3. Six-tenths of a second may not sound like a lot, but in F1 terms it's huge, and is the sort of decisive victory Bottas has so far not claimed over his teammate despite an impressive start to the 2019 campaign.
You win nothing on Saturdays, of course, and Hamilton will fancy his chances of beating Bottas on the run down to Turn 1, but the key to beating the five-time world champion has always been to chip away at his confidence. Performances like this is exactly the way to do just that. Many people have dubbed the invigorated Finn 'Bottas 2.0' but this was a performance to convince even the harshest critic that he can beat Hamilton to the world championship. And boy, does 2019 need that ...
In Hamilton's defence: Although not worth 0.6 seconds, Hamilton did hint at a reason for his scrappy lap in Q3. At the end of Q2, he aborted his second flying attempt because he came across yellow flags. He was already through to Q3, so there was no harm in returning to the pits and back to the garage. However, in missing out on a cooldown lap, Hamilton also skipped the usual recharging procedure with the battery for his energy recovery system. In order to have full power for his first lap in Q3, he then had to leave the garage earlier than planned to recharge his battery. That hampered his outlap and also delivered him into a bit of traffic at the end of his lap (when he lost and caught the rear of his car entering the chicane. It was still his quickest lap of Q3, although none of the front runners improved on their second run. He briefly talked through the situation after the session before cutting his explanation short and admitting "ultimately, it wasn't a good enough job". Not ideal, sure, but not the difference on a day when Bottas looked unbeatable.
Killing a narrative: Sorry guys, but the Ferrari resurgence we were hoping to see this week is nowhere to be seen. An upgraded engine isn't necessarily going to close a gap at a circuit like this one, which tests the aerodynamic strength of a car, but it will be deflating for anyone in red to have been so far behind Mercedes. It's even worse to consider the gap when you look back to what happened here a few months ago, when we all left this same circuit at the end of winter testing convinced Ferrari was at least on par with -- if not quicker than -- Mercedes in terms of pace.
The data from those tests all backed up by the theory that we were due for a close season and Ferrari's pace in Bahrain, where Charles Leclerc should have won, was a glimpse of how strong the team can be this year. Let's hope the Italian team finds itself in a position to revive the narrative that it can salvage something from 2019. But it's running out of time to convince anyone that it's possible.
Don't miss the start! Toto Wolff said in Baku that he saw some similarities between the emerging title battle between Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas and Hamilton's head-to-head with Nico Rosberg in 2016. And after the pair locked out the front row of the grid on Saturday, he may be prone to the odd flashback ahead of Sunday's race start.
In 2016 the modern Mercedes team endured its lowest on-track moment when Rosberg and Hamilton collided and crashed out of the race on the opening lap. Mercedes had a mighty pace advantage over the rest of the field that year too, and yet the drivers threw away a potential 1-2 in front of the team and some very important board members. So could it happen again and ignite the Bottas/Hamilton rivalry for real?
The other thing to note is that overtaking is not easy in Barcelona, so the start represents the best place to make a move. Hamilton has made clear that he won't be as nice to Bottas as he was in Baku -- when Bottas emerged ahead in a wheel-to-wheel fight through the first few corners -- so expect to see the gloves come off through the first few corners.
Haas back on form: The opening four races were odd for Haas. The team looked to be comfortably the quickest midfield team last time we were here for pre-season testing, but has struggled with race pace ever since the Australian Grand Prix. The issue is all wrapped up in a failure to understand why its car is struggling to retain heat in its tires during races, something which is crucial to remain consistently quick over a race distance. The American team arrived in Barcelona this week with a big upgrade that it hoped would not only strengthen its overall package but also help answer those questions.
The team still isn't convinced it knows the answer, however, as the Circuit de Catalunya is a high-energy circuit that keeps tire temperatures high from high-speed corner to high-speed corner. Baku, where it struggled most, is the exact opposite as the tires lose heat rapidly on the long straights. Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen will line up seventh and eighth on Sunday, and both will feel very confident that the team can finally get a strong result on the board tomorrow if it gets through the opening lap cleanly.
Speaking to both drivers after qualifying, they sounded happy with the upgrade. Magnussen said the team already knows it can tick it off as a success, but the key tomorrow is how the tires behave. Last year Magnussen had a long, lonely race to being "best of the rest" as Haas wasn't quick enough to beat the top three teams but was comfortably quicker than the midfield -- he wasn't complaining about it then and neither of them will be on Sunday.
When asked what sort of race he wanted, Grosjean said: "Boring ... but good!"
We need to talk about Lance Stroll: Nine consecutive Q1 eliminations is his current run -- the past five are the only ones that really count given the fact he was driving for Williams last year. But it's still hardly a great statistic for someone who has a competitive car at his disposal. But it's also not great because of something unfortunate Stroll has been unable to shake since he arrived on the F1 grid in 2017.
Stroll's father, Lawrence, owns the Racing Point team and brought his son, along with his money, across from Williams at the start of 2019, six months after completing his takeover. The "pay driver" label has been a difficult one for Stroll to shake even though he has shown glimpses of real potential since arriving in F1 -- a podium in Baku as a rookie in 2017 and a front-row start at Monza that same year spring to mind.
But those performances have been few and far between. It doesn't help that Stroll has seemed intent on wrecking his dad's cars at the past two races, either, as he gave his Racing Point mechanics a busy lunch on Friday after going off track at the top of the hill at Turn 9. Not helping matters is the fact that Stroll's teammate, Sergio Perez, is consistently one of the best performers in the midfield pack. Stroll's performances haven't been shocking -- he has four points (although Perez has 13) -- but this sort of run isn't going to do a lot for his confidence or make the stigma around him go away any time soon. Stroll doesn't like his family's money to be talked about too much, but as long as this sort of form continues, he's going to have to keep facing questions of whether he's worthy of that seat.
Some stats worthy of mention:
The gap of 0.6s between Mercedes and Ferrari's quickest Q3 times is a big change from pre-season at the same venue. Sebastian Vettel claimed the quickest time of the winter -- a 1:16.221, marginally quicker than Hamilton's 1:16.224.
The last driver to claim a Spanish Grand Prix pole position while not driving a Mercedes was Pastor Maldonado, who did so for Williams in 2012. Incidentally, on that occasion Hamilton actually finished qualifying P1, but was disqualified from the session for a fuel violation.