Valtteri Bottas could barely believe the extent of his qualifying victory over Lewis Hamilton for the Spanish Grand Prix.
Bottas issued a statement of championship intent after beating Hamilton to pole position by an enormous 0.634 seconds.
It marked the Finnish driver’s third straight pole to continue his fine start to the campaign.
Bottas might consider himself fortunate to still be sitting alongside Hamilton at Mercedes following last season’s winless campaign.
But he has bounced back with a swagger this year, and heads into Sunday’s race at the Circuit de Catalunya on the outskirts of Barcelona holding a one-point title advantage over Hamilton – the pair tied on two victories apiece.
“For sure the gap to Lewis is big, and I never would have expected that,” said Bottas, who yelled in delight over the radio upon hearing he had taken pole.
“To complete a lap like that is a nice feeling, a nice adrenaline rush, and in terms of qualifying this has been my best start to a season.”
Hamilton paid tribute to Bottas, but there is no question he will be irked by the margin of defeat. The world champion has not been at his best this weekend, and he made an uncharacteristic mistake, running wide in his maiden assault on pole. The Briton was then unable to improve on his second attempt.
“It was a bit of a tacky Q3 for me,” said Hamilton. “It is kind of rare, but it happens.
“They were not very good laps – it is as simple as that. Valtteri was just quicker today. He deserved the pole. I am looking at all the solutions to improve in qualifying. We will get there eventually.”
Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel will line up in third, but the German, who is already 35 points off the championship pace, finished the best part of nine tenths adrift.
The Scuderia hoped their new engine would provide the power boost required to reignite their faltering title charge yet they are further away from the Mercedes cars than they have been at any stage this season.
“Coming here, we didn’t expect that,” admitted Vettel.
Red Bull driver Max Verstappen managed to finish ahead of Vettel’s team-mate Charles Leclerc to add to Ferrari’s disappointment.
Ferrari’s failure to build on an encouraging pre-season is ensuring Bottas may be Hamilton’s closest rival for a sixth world crown.
And it could be argued that Hamilton is sensing that, too. In the build-up to this race, the Briton has upped the ante on Bottas, challenging his team-mate to last the title course.
He was also keen to point out that one of his championship-winning engineers, Riccardo Musconi, has moved to Bottas’s side of the garage.
It was at this venue three years ago where Hamilton and Nico Rosberg collided on the opening lap of the race, and the run down to the first bend, one of the longest on the calendar, could prove critical in determining the outcome on Sunday.
Hamilton said he was too kind to Bottas during the opening corners at the last round in Azerbaijan – the Finn going on to take the chequered flag.
So, will Hamilton adapt his strategy on Sunday?
“I will approach it as we always do,” he said.
British teenager Lando Norris, meanwhile, starts 10th after finishing two places ahead of Carlos Sainz in the sister McLaren.
Novice George Russell out-qualified Williams team-mate Robert Kubica for a fifth consecutive outing, but he will occupy the final grid spot, penalised for a gearbox change after he crashed out of final practice.
When Daniel Ricciardo passed Valtteri Bottas to score a stunning win at the Chinese Grand Prix last season, there was a genuine feeling that the Australian could challenge for a future world championship.
At 28, he was entering into his prime and had the vast array of skills and pace to light up F1 tracks worldwide on a fortnightly basis. Added to that was his high-watt smile and contagious personality, serious marketing tools for any of the elite teams.
Ferrari and Mercedes looked like frontrunners to secure his signature at one stage during last season, but the Perth native shocked the F1 world by opting instead to pen a bumper two-year deal with Renault.
The French outfit finished fourth in the constructors’ championship in 2018 and while it was hoping to make up ground on Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari with their new man, there has been little evidence of this in the opening four rounds of the season.
In the four race so far, Ricciardo has retired three times and finished seventh in China. Two weeks ago in Baku, he reversed into Daniil Kvyat after trying to overtake the Russian and then going down the run-off area.
As a result, he will have a three-place grid penalty at the Spanish GP this weekend.
Moving to a team who have not clinched a podium in eight years seemed like a bizarre decision – maybe the £26.5 million-a-year salary didn’t – and bodes the question as to whether it was a poor career move for the once-firing Monaco resident.
The early-season struggles sees Renault languishing in seventh in the constructors’ standings, behind fellow midfield contenders McLaren, Alfa Romeo and Racing Point.
Ricciardo’s smile is still evident on race weekends, although not as high-watt as his Red Bull days, nor is his supreme overtaking, partly down to the fact that the Renault struggles to overtake fast cars much anyway.
But his initial difficulties are normal in a new machine. The biggest problem for Ricciardo is how the car would not allow him to brake as aggressively as he is used to on the Red Bull’s approach to corners.
A secondary issue was the Renault was disrupted when it was driven heavily over kerbs, forcing him to change his lines in some cases.
Looking back, it is hard to argue with Ricciardo’s decision to leave Red Bull, though, especially knowing only one driver can be a world champion from the factory and special preference acting in Max Verstappen’s favour.
Whether Renault talked too good a game during contract discussions and Ricciardo fell for the trap remains to be seen. But he was clearly fed up at his former employers and needed a fresh challenge after his disappointing eight retirements last season.
However strong the Red Bull might be, Ricciardo wasn’t happy and never would have performed to his maximum if he had stayed.
Renault were the only other option on the table at the time and has allowed him to rediscover his love in a new environment and a hefty pay day (three times his 2018 salary).
But one thing he may not have realised was the significant drop from a top team to a midfield outfit.
It’ll take time to adapt, but if he can understand the car and its limitations better over the course of the season, then results will be more positive and Renault could be sitting tidy at the top of the midfield.
It’s still early into his two-year contract but with his sky high confidence and strong driving ability, the 29-year-old needs to show why is one of the leading men on the grid.
With 17 races still to go in the Formula 1 season, the championship is already over.
Okay that’s a little facetious but it is difficult to see how Ferrari can make this is a genuine battle.
Mercedes have recorded four successive one-two finishes in the first four races and look high on pace and confidence. At this early stage of the season, the points table makes for difficult viewing, with Ferrari trailing their rivals by 74-points in the constructors’ championship.
Twelve months ago, Sebastian Vettel held a nine-point lead over Lewis Hamilton in the drivers standings. This time around the German trails the five-time world champion by 34-points.
The Prancing Horse looked the team to beat at pre-season testing in Barcelona, with a beautiful, well-balanced machine. But in the season opener in Melbourne they could not match Mercedes’ searing pace.
In Bahrain, Charles Leclerc led for most of the race but a mechanical issue late on denied him victory. Had the Monaco man won, there could be a different feeling around Maranello.
Positivity did increase for Ferrari after the Gulf race, but they were average in China, where Mercedes sealed another one-two by a considerable distance.
Fastest for a large sections of the weekend in Baku, Leclerc crashed during Q2 and was forced to start from eighth on the grid – he gained two places after penalties to Kimi Raikkonen and Pierre Gasly.
Without him clocking a time in Q3, it’s hard to determine how much quicker he could have been if he was to start higher up the grid.
The 21-year-old did hold the lead for a brief stint during Sunday’s race, but Ferrari kept him out on the mediums for too long, and he subsequently lost eight seconds in the space of five laps before being called in to pit on lap 35.
Returning out on fresh softs, he had problems with getting the tyres in the correct temperature window and was unable to challenge Max Verstappen for fourth place. Another poor strategy call by the Italian marque?
But even aside from Leclerc’s mistake in qualifying on Saturday, one significant positive is that he has proven to be a real threat to his team-mate Vettel, paling a vast contrast to previous years when Raikkonen seemed content to play second fiddle to the German’s prospects.
It might not fully come together for Leclerc this year, but he looks a future world champion in the making. He just needs time and experience to adjust to being a central figure in one of the top teams.
Based on form and pace in the opening races, team boss Mattia Binotto should make it a level-playing field for both drivers instead of favouritism towards Vettel. Leclerc had to agree to team orders in the first three rounds and had his race ruined in Baku due to the team’s decision to leave him out for too long on the medium tyres.
Vettel, though, is not a four-time world champion for nothing and probably is the team’s best chance to win a world title at the moment. But the Heppenheim native is struggling to show consistent pace in qualifying this season – apart from clocking the second fastest time in Q3 in Bahrain.
Even if we are only one fifth of the way through the season, the feeling now is Vettel is out of the title picture, Leclerc requires more experience and Ferrari out of the constructors’ championship. A shame really after such confidence in the car coming into the new season.
Ferrari need to bounce back next weekend in Barcelona or they will be edging towards crisis point. Binotto insists he knows what the issues are with the car but it is going to take time for the package to fully flourish.
A year that was expected to be a thrilling duel between the two top teams now looks like a one-sided season with little excitement.
Let’s hope for reverse fortunes in Spain for one of F1’s most famous outfits.