Vettel was full of apologies following the ‘Multi-21’ controversy, but Webber would hear none of it. (Image | AP)

Formula 1 is back this weekend as the fun and games comes to Europe and the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona after a three week absence following the Bahrain Grand Prix. Whilst it hasn’t perhaps started off with the bang that was last year, the action has been simmering just nicely to really take off over the next few races, and the level of intrigue remains high. So it is perhaps worthwhile recapping what has passed over the course of the first four races.

The new season saw a host of driver changes: Lewis Hamilton to Mercedes, Sergio Perez to McLaren, Nico Hulkenberg to Sauber; not to mention the new additions to the paddock in the form of Esteban Gutierrez, Max Chilton, Jules Bianchi and Giedo Van Der Garde. The pole-sitter for the season-opener in Melbourne, though, was an all-to familiar one as Sebastian Vettel clocked 1:27:407 to start at the front.

Q3 was held on the Sunday before the actual race as adverse weather and bad light saw only the two sessions held on Saturday. Mark Webber ensured a Red Bull lockout on the front grid but endured an inauspicious start to the race as first Felipe Massa and then Fernando Alonso got the jump on him before Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen and Nico Rosberg followed suit. Raikkonen would go on to win the Grand Prix, finishing more than 12 seconds ahead of Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel.

The race didn’t bode well for McLaren, though, as Jenson Button and Sergio Perez finished 9th and 11th respectively. Force India had better fortunes with both their drivers finishing in the Top 10. Bianchi finished a very credible 15th as Marussia took significant steps to overtake rivals Caterham.

On to Malaysia and more team order controversy as a Red Bull one-two was overshadowed by the “Multi-21” team order. Vettel won pole position with Massa and Alonso behind him. This worked in the German’s favour as Massa was too fixed on defending Alonso into Turn 1 to really pose a threat to Vettel’s lead. Alonso, though, had different ideas. There was touching of tyres between his Ferrari and Vettel’s car, but the Spaniard was soon dragged into a scrap with Webber who had made a great start after qualifying 5th. Webber was second at the halfway mark, but the Red Bull pair were being hunted down by Hamilton (who in turn was being chased by Rosberg).

Vettel lost the lead when his third pit stop came 2 laps after Webber and Hamilton. He went back for his fourth pit stop a lap before Webber did, but Webber still managed to come out with the lead, marginally. Plenty of scrapping for the lead ensued over the next few laps and Christian Horner, no doubt concerned that there would be a collision between the two, gave the order for the pair to quit fighting with each other and hold their places with Webber in the lead. Vettel did not heed this instruction, though, and continued to fight Webber, eventually taking the lead and the win.

Fernando Alonso after winning the 2013 Chinese GP (Image | Getty Images)

Meanwhile behind them, Nico Rosberg was pushing Hamilton for third although was also told by Ross Brawn to hold position. Rosberg apparently argued his case to Brawn afterwards that he would have been able to mount a challenge to the Red Bulls had Hamilton been told to move over for his German team-mate.

With Mercedes again showing good pace as the series headed to China, it was Hamilton put in a dazzling final qualifying lap to take pole. Vettel and Hulkenberg failed to set times so started from 9th and 10th place respectively (Vettel starting on medium tyres). Hamilton reported during the race that the car was experiencing some understeer. This told as Alonso used DRS to pass him, followed by Massa and Raikkonen. Alonso would take victory, with Raikkonen and Hamilton behind him. Ferrari had shown that they had a quick car this year, but they really needed a race win in the first few races and this came just in time.

Rosberg didn’t finish the race in Shanghai, but atoned for this by snatching pole in Bahrain, followed by Vettel and Alonso. Only one of these three would finish on the podium and it turned out to be the Red Bull as they all fought for position at the start of the race. Rosberg simply could not manage his tyres effectively enough to maintain a challenge for the win or even the podium and Alonso encountered problems with the DRS mechanism on his car which caused his rear wing to remain stuck open.

He had four pit-stops in all, and Ferrari were unable to fix his DRS with the car still in the race, so they decided to shut off the mechanism completely. At this point Alonso’s podium ambitions were all but gone, as he had to make his way back into the points after being 14th at one point. He would finish 8th; Ferrari telling him to watch his fuel consumption after scrapping with Sergio Perez. Vettel though was long gone, and had a rather serene, if uneventful race as he brought his car home for the win.

The real excitement came in the scraps going on behind him as Raikkonen put DRS to good use in making his way back up the grid and into second place. Paul Di Resta was at one point challenging him for position, but tyre wear meant that Grosjean was catching up to him and would eventually take over third place with 10 laps to go. Di Resta finished a very credible 4th, in front of Hamilton (who had also been told to conserve fuel) Perez and Webber.

I have been quite scathing of the Bahrain track for its relative uneventfulness but I have to confess to rather enjoying that race more than most. Yes, Vettel lead for almost the whole race, but it was the battles further back that provided the real entertainment, talented drivers scrapping with each other in the face of rapidly diminishing tyres.

Sergio Perez gave Jenson Button an almighty scare in Bahrain. (Image | EPA)

This brings me on to one of the emerging talking points of the season – the debate on whether the current compounds of tyres are actually hampering rather than helping the Formula 1 spectacle. It isn’t just the casual F1 fan who prefers it like this. Seasoned F1 analysts like the BBC’s Eddie Jordan and Gary Anderson put forward the argument that it is all about unpredictability (this is the buzz word in this particular argument) whereas David Coulthard and a lot of the current drivers would see it go back to a stronger compound, allowing drivers to focus more on actual racing.

I must admit to really loving this new concept when it first came into practice, but I see the fault in the current situation. Here you have as talented a group of drivers as there has ever been on the grid at the same time and you have the potential to experience some truly fascinating racing between them, if only they could be unburdened by the spectre of tyre wear. Yes the tyres should be a major factor in race strategies, but not the overriding factor.

Another talking point is the subject of Friday testing. It used to be that you’d rock up to a track on Friday and be able to see the relaxed side of the Formula 1 weekend, but this season, Friday practice has been limited by the tyres available. Surprisingly, a possible answer came from within the paddock as Force India put forward the idea that an extra set of tyres should be allowed for teams to use on Fridays with the proviso that teams would only be allowed to use their rookie drivers. This was met favourably by Pirelli but not really from the F1 authorities as the question then emerged as to how to define ‘a rookie’.

On the track, McLaren’s poor showings have been much discussed. Perez, after having essentially been hung out to dry by his own team responded with a strong performance in Bahrain where he jostled for track position with Button leading to the lead driver being spooked by his younger colleague. McLaren let them race, but I find it hard to see how they can put the blame on Perez’s door when Martin Whitmarsh himself said that Perez needed to “toughen up”. Be careful what you wish for, Martin. McLaren are expected to bring a host of upgrades to Barcelona so this is really where their season starts.

Williams have once again receded back into the depths of the grid after promising signs last season that their new partnership with Renault might lead to faster cars. Not so this season, as Pastor Maldonado has admitted that the car is slower than it was in pre-season testing. The Venezuelan is under pressure to not just finish in the points but finish races consistently. Certainly tyre conservation is not his forte. Valtteri Bottas has gone about his business quietly enough, and has shown some promise, having finished a credible 11th in Malaysia.

Some hope for further upgrades comes with the news that a prominent Kazakhstani investment firm will be plowing money into the team (this comes after they announced a £5m loss for 2012 but saw turnover increase by 21.5%). Barcelona, last year the scene of William’s greatest triumph in recent F1 history, will be a barometer of what kind of state the team really is in, and what their hopes for the rest of the season could feasibly be.

Jules Bianchi could potentially be a star in the making. (Image | Planet F1)

Marussia have done rather well so far this season, showing more pace than the Caterhams.  Bianchi has shown some real promise and just why he is thought of highly in Ferrari circles. It has been surprising that they have managed to do this with a Cosworth engine, but a move to a Ferrari one could be on the cards for next season. Ties between them and the Italian giants have gotten closer with Marussia agreeing to give Bianchi vital F1 experience this season. The addition of one of their engines could be an exciting turn of events if a deal is indeed agreed upon.

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