Pole centurion Lewis Hamilton will lead Max Verstappen away from the grid at the Spanish Grand Prix, but picking a favourite for the race is as difficult as ever.
Mercedes had the smoother build-up to qualifying and was confident heading into the grid-setting session, but Red Bull Racing could see its true pace hidden behind its lowly practice times, and Verstappen unleased the RB16 in Q3 to run Hamilton close in the fight for pole.
But Hamilton got the job done on the first runs, and it’s this ability to deliver his maximum in an instant that served him well here again. By the time the second runs arrived the circuit had slowed, and neither Hamilton nor Verstappen was able to improve.
Pole 100 belonged to Hamilton, and at a circuit around which track position is historically crucial. The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya has hosted 30 Spanish grands prix, 25 of which have been won from the front row, including 22 from the head of the grid.
But with the cars so closely matched and potentially poised to adopt different strategies, a Hamilton victory cannot be considered a formality.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
Distance: 4.675 kilometres
Lap record: N/A (new layout)
Track record: 1:16.741 (Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2021)
Lateral load: high
Tyre stress: high
Asphalt grip: high
Asphalt abrasion: medium
Safety car probability: 60 per cent
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 368 metres
Pit lane time loss: 19.6 seconds
Fuel consumption: High
Tyres: C1 (hard), C2 (medium), C3 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 1.0 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.8 seconds
The performance of the tyres in Barcelona puts the strategy outlook on a knife-edge — a two-stop race is theoretically faster, but the one-stop strategy will always remain the default at a circuit around which passing is typically difficult.
The reason the two-stop strategy may prove tempting is the lack of performance from the hard tyre, the C1, the most durable in the Pirelli range. It’s 0.8 seconds slower than the medium tyre, a couple of sets of which should easily be able to cover three-quarters of the race, and up to 1.8 seconds slower than the soft tyre.
Further, the tyre-stressing layout of the circuit makes it difficult to keep the rubber from overheating. The rear tyres take a beating in particular, as does the front left, and therefore trying to squeeze a long stint out of any compound risks irreversible degradation that leaves a driver way off the pace for a substantial part of the race.
The top 10 will start the race on the soft tyre — Mercedes and Red Bull Racing eschewed the mediums in Q2 owing to the soft’s superior launch performance and, again, the importance of track position after the first corner — after which the Pirelli-suggested optimal strategy is a middle stint on mediums and a final stint on softs.
But the outlook in terms of the battle for the lead is more complicated. Both Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas have a couple of sets of mediums available — one new and one scrubbed each — whereas Verstappen has only a single set of new softs to his name along with several used sets. It means the Dutchman is locked into a soft-medium-soft strategy if stopping twice, whereas Mercedes will go with the more flexible soft-medium-medium.
But a one stop will remain tempting where track position is able to be gained or held, in which case extending on softs to lap 25 will be key to run a long final stint on the less competitive hard compound.
There’s an interesting dynamic to play out in the podium battle, with a Mercedes driver on either side of Verstappen in second. It gives the team a numerical advantage, but it will have to be aggressive to make the most of it. Bottas could be used as undercut bait for Verstappen on a two-stop race, but Red Bull Racing could easily hold for a one-stop strategy and force Hamilton into a single-lap pit duel for position — and RBR is typically quicker at changing its tyres than Mercedes.
Alternatively Red Bull Racing may force Hamilton to decide to follow Verstappen in a two-stop strategy, which would theoretically leave Bottas to run a one-stop race as cover — but Hamilton and Verstappen would then have to pass the Finn near the end of the race, which might generate some uncomfortable internal politics for Mercedes — a new front in the Mercedes-RBR championship battle.
Traffic also needs to be considered, because a pit stop that drops you into a gaggle of cars yet to stop and potentially not due to stop for some time has great potential to completely undo a strategy. This may not be a substantial risk for the frontrunners, who will have the pace to gap the midfield relatively quickly, but for the rest of the top 10 it’s a real risk, particularly where the bottom-10 starters open the race on a more durable compoundn to run later into the race.
The bottom line is track position and clear air is everything in Spain. Maintaing both is the key to an effective strategy here.