Spanish Grand Prix: The Takeaway
The Mercedes/Red Bull boxing match continued on Sunday, with Max Verstappen looking to cause an upset at one of Mercedes’ strongest circuits.
Lewis Hamilton took an 8-point lead in the Drivers’ Championship with a dominant victory in Portimao, but his main rival Max Verstappen appeared to be much more closely matched on a track that does not characteristically suit the Red Bull chassis. Red Bull’s high-rake philosophy and slightly inferior power output meant that both Portimao and Barcelona were expected to yield victories to Mercedes, but just as he did in Portugal the young Dutchman showed just how much progression has been made in Milton Keynes over the winter with a strong showing in Spain.
Initially, however, Red Bull didn’t appear to be in with a shout at all. In Friday practice, Verstappen’s best lap was only good enough for 9th position and almost a second behind Mercedes. Granted, it was only practice and Max didn’t have a clean run on soft tyres, but the times didn’t seem all that promising for Red Bull. Uncertainties were diluted by Verstappen and Christian Horner after the session, however, and with a different rear wing fitted for Saturday and stronger laps from Verstappen, Red Bull once again appeared the team to beat. A mighty lap from Hamilton in Q3 gave him a marginal pole position, but with a half-kilometre run to Turn 1 and Red Bull’s lower-profile rear wing giving them strong straight-line pace, the consensus was that Hamilton didn’t have the upper hand just yet.
That turned out to be the case on the first lap of the race, with Verstappen gaining some ground then being latest on the brakes to take the apex and run Hamilton out of road for turn 2. Verstappen took the lead through the first stint and managed the gap to keep his rival on the cusp of DRS. He protected against the undercut and Hamilton was kept out for a longer stint, which didn’t appear to work. By the time he exited the pits he was 6 seconds behind Verstappen having previously been observing the Honda-emblazoned rear wing for several laps. Hamilton caught him with ease but again appeared unable to make a move. With just over 20 laps remaining the team made a bold strategic gamble, pitting Hamilton onto fresh medium tyres to chase down a 25-second gap as Verstappen nursed his tyres to the end.
Verstappen got his elbows out in Turn 1 and took the lead from Hamilton for the first stint of the race, before pitting on lap 24 to cover a Mercedes undercut.
Red Bull were really stuck between a rock and a hard place with the strategy call. Given the Mercedes could stay so close to the Red Bull for so long through the first stint, it was obvious they had the upper hand on raw pace. If Verstappen covered off the 2nd pitstop by Mercedes by pitting earlier himself then Hamilton could’ve stuck with the one-stop strategy, with the slower Red Bull less likely to close that 25-second gap fast enough. Once Lewis had pitted, the opportunity to pit and keep track position was gone, so Verstappen had no choice but to stay out and hope the Mercedes was too far back to catch him. Could he have pitted a few laps later for some softs and gone to battle with Hamilton on faster tyres? Perhaps, but unfortunately for Verstappen he couldn’t hold on for long enough with competitive pace on the one-stop and the Brit caught him with five laps to go. Hamilton took his 98th victory in Formula 1 to go with the 100th pole he'd taken the day before. The silver lining for Verstappen was that the gap to Bottas behind was large enough for him to pit for fresh soft tyres and claim the point for fastest lap, a point which may just prove crucial come December.
Contrary to what Mercedes, Toto Wolff and Lewis Hamilton would have you believe, Red Bull have not had the fastest car at the start of this season. Both Hamilton and Verstappen have extracted the maximum potential out of their cars at every race this season and yet Mercedes have still appeared quicker in race conditions, except for Bahrain and Imola where they were still working to understand their new W12. Hamilton will get the plaudits for his supreme drive to take 25 seconds out of the Red Bull in less than 20 laps, but Verstappen must also take some credit for producing a drive good enough to force the Mercedes team into such a bold strategy. There’s not many drivers that could do what Hamilton did, but it takes a pretty incredible driver to hold him off for so long in a car that clearly wasn’t as fast. What we’re seeing is two exceptional drivers in two fast, but characteristically different cars that will excel at different venues through the season. It may look like Hamilton has the upper hand at the moment, but it really could swing either way.
Hamilton currently has a 14 point advantage at the top of the championship, but he must keep up his form as Formula 1 heads to more venues that should suit Red Bull, such as Monaco, Austria and Hungary.
Further back, it was a pretty miserable weekend for Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez, though the former did take a podium. The Finn had nowhere near the pace of the front three and never looked like challenging Verstappen for 2nd, mugged by Charles Leclerc at the start and failing to take fastest lap despite pitting for an attempt to do so. Perez, meanwhile, had a dismal qualifying after complaining about dizziness and a sore shoulder, but did recover a little in the race. If there was ever a race that epitomised exactly why Red Bull need their second driver in the mix at the front to disrupt Mercedes’ strategies, this was it.
Ferrari and McLaren once again proved they are the two main challengers for 3rd place in the Constructors’ championship. Charles Leclerc started 4th and had the pace to retain it, while his teammate Carlos Sainz had a decent weekend at his home Grand Prix to finish 7th. The Spaniard still isn’t quite as comfortable as his teammate in the SF21, but Leclerc is at least proving the Ferrari has some seriously strong pace at this early stage. It wasn’t as strong a weekend as McLaren had been having recently, but with Daniel Ricciardo outpacing his teammate Lando Norris to finish 6th and 9th respectively, there’s at least signs the Australian is getting to grips with his new wheels. Both cars seem to be really solid all-round packages and there’s been very little to split the two teams at each weekend so far. It’s another solid haul of points heading back to Woking and Maranello, once again proving they’re set for a season-long duel over the best-of-the-rest accolade.
After post-qualifying optimism, it didn’t turn out to be the best weekend for Alpine. Esteban Ocon dropped from 5th to 9th in the race and teammate Fernando Alonso couldn’t hold onto his tyres towards the end of the race, forcing a late pitstop and a drop to a miserable P17. Ocon said after qualifying that P5 in qualifying was the confirmation they needed of their improved pace, but the race result suggests otherwise. It was another iteration of the trend we became accustomed to from the old Renault team – promise so much but fail to deliver. I can’t anticipate Alpine being a true midfield powerhouse picking up good points every weekend. They’re currently relying on mistakes and poor weekends from their competition rather than particularly impressive weekends from themselves, something which isn’t sustainable for long periods.
After a promising qualifying it was a pretty dreary race for Alpine, finishing with only one car taking points in 9th. A few more laps and Esteban Ocon could've dropped out of the points altogether.
Aston Martin might be slightly happier with their performances over the last two races, but they were unable to take any points back to Silverstone this week. Sebastian Vettel is still to get off the mark for his new team but there are signs he’s starting to settle in a little bit more – he just needs to work together with his team now to drag the car into the points on a regular basis. At AlphaTauri, though, it seems like another example of what might have been. Pierre Gasly received a slam-dunk penalty for overshooting his grid position while Yuki Tsunoda retired early in what was a horrible weekend for the Japanese rookie. Tsunoda showed naivety when he angrily questioned the team in the media, something he was forced to apologise for. He clearly has talent but needs to reign in his emotions quite considerably. It’s another weekend where AlphaTauri don’t seem to have shown their true hand again as they’ve made mistakes which have ruined their weekend.
Yuki Tsunoda has failed to score a point since his 9th placed finish on his debut in Bahrain, with mistakes and angry outbursts denting his profile somewhat only a few races into his F1 career.
Alfa Romeo looked good on race pace again and, after Mick Schumacher managed to beat Nicholas Latifi in Portimao, the Williams team have bounced back to reinstate their advantage over Haas. George Russell was once again running in the points but unfortunately couldn’t convert, while Raikkonen opted for an alternate strategy by starting on the mediums on his way to 12th. Antonio Giovinazzi and Latifi had pretty uneventful weekends by comparison, but there’s clear improvements by both teams as they slowly close the gap to the rest of the midfield.
It was yet another miserable weekend for Haas as they finished 18th and 19th ahead of the only retiree Tsunoda. Mick Schumacher once again beat his teammate but both cars were lapped twice by the leaders. The conduct of Nikita Mazepin has yet again caused a stir and rightfully makes many wonder how he can justify his seat in the sport. He received a penalty point on his licence and an ineffective grid-drop after blocking Lando Norris in qualifying, then was on the end of a rare radio call to the FIA by Toto Wolff as he failed to respect blue flags and allow Lewis Hamilton to pass. His pace was a little closer to Mick’s this weekend, but he still finished clearly behind. After Callum Ilott’s impressive first FP1 session with Alfa Romeo in Portimao, it’s a sin that someone so talented has been deprived of a seat while someone so lacklustre has claimed one. As always in sport, though, money talks.
A look ahead to Monaco, then, where we might see a less eventful fight through the field but one that means just as much. Pay particular attention to qualifying on Saturday which, at Monaco, is always the most important session. Passing is notoriously difficult around the tight streets of the principality, so save for any mishaps expect the pole sitter to convert the victory. Red Bull have appeared fairly strong in qualifying even on tracks that don’t necessarily suit them, so with Monaco being one of their favoured venues I’d expect Verstappen to beat Hamilton and teammate Sergio Perez to pole position – anything less would be a disappointment. McLaren and Ferrari are pretty evenly matched behind them, so it really comes down to driver performance with those two. I can see Charles Leclerc or Lando Norris, who are more familiar with their cars than their teammates, challenging for a podium on this demanding circuit. Watch out for AlphaTauri too, as last time out both cars finished in the top eight here. See you there!