No mercy from Mercedes
Tom Millard warns not to expect any let-up in performance from Mercedes in the Spanish Grand Prix, but says Lotus could surprise.
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After three successive one-twos and with a 97-point lead in the constructors' championship, it's becoming increasingly clear that Mercedes are unlikely to be caught any time soon.
Their latest demolition of the opposition came in China last month, where even a series of electronic glitches on Nico Rosberg's car, which saw him end the first lap in sixth, was not enough to prevent another straightforward clean sweep.
Despite being on the second step of the podium in each of the last three races Rosberg still leads the drivers' standings by four points thanks to Lewis Hamilton's engine failure in the season-opening race in Australia, but it seems only a matter of time before the Englishman usurps his team-mate at the top of the table.
- 6pts Mercedes to take a double podium-finish at 1/2 (bwin) - in a race of their own; slightly better value than the 4/7 on another one-two
- 2pts Daniel Ricciardo to win the race 'without Mercedes' at 4/1 (Ladbrokes) - should have the second-fastest car this weekend
- 3pts Romain Grosjean to finish in the points at 2/1 (General) - big upgrades planned from Lotus; was in the mix in China regardless
- 0.5pts Grosjean to finish in the top six at 25/1 (General) - small chance new package could vault Lotus ahead of midfield rivals
- 1pt Lotus to take a double points-finish at 14/1 (bwin) - Previous winner Maldonado has course form and an improved mount
Hamilton's dominance reached a new level in Shanghai, even allowing for Rosberg's telemetry issues, and it's no surprise to see him at a best price of just 8/13 to take a fourth win in a row at Barcelona's Circuit de Catalunya on Sunday.
Rosberg's odds of 13/5 means the Mercedes pair take up almost 90 per cent of the book between them and, frankly, it's difficult to argue with those numbers given the ease with which they have gone about their business so far this year.
The Spanish race traditionally marks the start of the 'European season' - a stretch of eight races on that continent (broken by a trip to Canada) which comprises the backbone to the championship - and ushers in the most intense phase of car development by the teams.
We often see the biggest swings in relative performance at this event, so it would be no surprise to see the bigger-budget teams such as Red Bull and Ferrari finally shake off the likes of Force India and Williams, while McLaren will also be looking for positive progress after an inconsistent season to date.
But it would be a huge surprise if the Mercedes juggernaut were to be derailed and there will be plenty of money for bets such as the Hamilton/Rosberg straight forecast (9/10 at bwin) and the equivalent dual-forecast wager at Ladbrokes' 4/7.
Slightly better value than that latter bet appears to be bwin's 1/2 on a double podium-finish for Mercedes (also available at a less-appealing 2/5 with Ladbrokes) - this would allow an interloper to break the Merc stranglehold for only a fractionally worse price.
Those without an account at the Austrian firm might want to discard the insurance and try a smaller bet at 4/7 on the one-two.
The battle to be best of the rest has been a compelling one in each race so far and the smart money might be on Daniel Ricciardo to make it five different drivers from the first five races to trail home behind the Mercs.
Ricciardo has had the measure of his world champion team-mate Sebastian Vettel in the last two races and looks to be genuinely quicker at this stage of the season as the German struggles to get to grips with this generation of car.
His Red Bull team had to instruct Vettel to cede position to the Aussie in both Bahrain and China, where Ricciardo was able to pull out 20 seconds in 30 laps.
That pace ultimately wasn't quite enough to overcome the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso but the race underlined the fact that, in Ricciardo's hands at least, the Red Bull is currently the second-fastest car in the field.
It is claimed that in Shanghai the RB10 was losing up to 1.3 seconds to the works Mercedes on the straights alone, a deficit which engine suppliers Renault claim will be drastically reduced with software changes due to be introduced this weekend.
Alonso remains the favourite in the 'without Mercedes' market but circumstances played into the Spaniard's hands last time out and it would be a surprise if his Ferrari was quite as fast as the Red Bull around this aerodynamically-demanding circuit.
With straightline speed being relatively less important and high- and medium-speed aero balance and traction being more so, the grinning Aussie and the gloomy German should have the measure of all but the Mercedes cars this weekend.
Ricciardo is 4/1 to win the race without the Mercs, which looks a solid bet under the circumstances.
Finally, consider getting the troubled Lotus team onside this weekend.
After the highs of taking the final few races of last season to Red Bull, the Enstone squad atrophied over the winter.
Budgetary problems and a lack of testing left their pre-season plans in tatters and the team are still playing catch-up.
But while reliability is far from perfect, they have been making solid progress under the radar, something underlined by Romain Grosjean's 10th place on the grid in China, and his subsequent run in the points-paying positions before gearbox gremlins struck.
The Frenchman was nip-and-tuck with the Toro Rossos and faster on merit than the McLarens, so the potential is there for the black-and-gold cars to be taking the challenge to the frontrunners again.
"We've got further improvements on engine mapping... a new cooling and bodywork package coming - quite a big upgrade - plus some updates to the rear wing and various other bodywork parts," claimed technical director Nick Chester earlier this week.
"All of the developments that we've brought for the car so far have been an improvement, which is highly satisfying," he added. "I hope we'll get a further step-up in Barcelona, which will make a massive difference."
Grosjean is 2/1 to finish in the points this weekend, which looks a price worth taking if the upgrades work as planned.
In the event that the developments provide a significant boost, the generally-available 25/1 on the Frenchman finishing in the top six also looks worth a speculative bet.
And the 14/1 offered by bwin on Pastor Maldonado joining his team-mate in the top-10 for a double points-finish looks far too big.
Maldonado won this race for Williams two years ago so if he can keep the car on the tarmac he should be able to mix it with the other midfielders.