Mercedes has comfortably locked out the Spanish Grand Prix front row, but the team doesn’t consider itself favourite to convert pole to victory.
It’s been a complicated month for Mercedes. The W11 is obviously extremely quick over a single lap, but this unusual season, with races run in the height of summer, when teams are normally on break, the car is showing signs of weakness over a race distance.
At the British Grand Prix his manifested in tyre blowouts at the very end of the race. Admittedly the final stint was ambitious long, but only one other car suffered similar issues.
At the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix, again at Silverstone but with tyres one grade softer, both cars suffered extensive blistering that left them defenceless against Max Verstappen’s rubber-whispering Red Bull Racing car.
Now, in Spain, Mercedes has taken pole with a 0.7-second margin over Max Verstappen, but on the evidence of Friday practice the RB16 looks more than a match when it comes to taking the tyres over a race distance.
There are of course some caveats.
Mercedes typically also runs substantially lower engine modes during practice, distorting the competitive picture.
The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya also isn’t quite the same sort of challenge as Silverstone, comprising a greater mix of corner speeds where the British track has become incredibly fast and highly loaded. That will play to Mercedes’s favour.
And in any case Mercedes has identified and rectified its problems from last weekend, so even if tyres remain a weakness, the effects shouldn’t be as disastrous as they were.
Add too that Mercedes is willing to talk down expectations pre-race and buy into the battle narrative and suddenly thins are less cut and dry.
That isn’t to say Red Bull Racing can’t strike for a second victory this weekend; it’s just too early to say Mercedes will start on the back foot.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
Distance: 4.655 kilometres
Lap record: 1:15.406 (Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 2019)
Track record: 1:18.441 (Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing, 2018)
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: 368.2 metres
Pit lane time loss: 16.6 seconds
Fuel consumption: 1.67 kilograms per lap
Tyres: C1 (hard), C2 (medium), C3 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 1.0 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.7 seconds
Despite the heat — track temperatures have hovered around 50°C all weekend — and the soft (C3) tyre’s relatively poor showing at Silverstone two weeks ago, the red-walled Pirelli is holding up well to extended usage in Barcelona.
Coupled with the unsuitability of the hard tyre — it’s 1.7 seconds slower than the soft and most drivers reported a lack of grip from the white-marked rubber during practice — softs and mediums are forecast to form the spine of any strategy on Sunday.
But there are a couple of asterisks on this too. While Pirelli says the sheer level of wear in this heat — not to mention memories of tyre failure at Silverstone two weeks ago — will make a one-stop strategy extremely marginal, the difficulty overtaking at Barcelona will puts a premium on making the fewest stops possible.
Charles Leclerc and Esteban Ocon both demonstrated last week that adept tyre management and fewer stops — in that case, just one stop — can pay big dividends.
Considering how hard passing is here, Verstappen’s best way past the two Mercedes cars will be to make one fewer stop — whether that’s two stops to three or, ambitiously, one stop to two — and defend sternly in the final third of the race. He won his maiden grand prix here in 2016 by defending against a faster Kimi Raikkonen for 30 laps, and the RB16’s easiness on the tyres will be an advantage here.
Red Bull Racing is already sounding confident that a long first stint on the soft tyre is possible — using the medium in Q2 never entered its calculations — and getting to lap 20 will be key to making this strategy work.
But Mercedes has a numerical advantage on Red Bull Racing, and while the team is always keen to ensure parity between its drivers, protecting the race win will prove more important if Verstappen’s threat manifests early in the race.
The second car may then be called on to cover Verstappen to benefit the leader, potentially a stern test of Mercedes’s tyre wear fixes over the past two weeks.
Of course having Alex Albon play the same rear-gunner role would be helpful here. The Thai driver will start sixth behind both Racing Point cars after another qualifying session well off Verstappen’s pace. But Albon’s race-day performances have been strong, and if he can jump the pink cars early, for the first time since the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix he’ll have the chance to play a decisive role in deciding the winner of this race.
The midfield battle will likely give rise to some interesting strategic variations ranging from one stops to three. Racing Point looks destined to be in a battle all of its own behind the leading two teams but likely ahead of the midfield. It could prove for an interesting straight comparison between Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll as rumours continue one will be dropped at the end of the season for Sebastian Vettel.
McLaren is well placed for a strong weekend after some shaky weekends, with both cars starting in the top 10 and demonstrating strong pace on the soft tyre. It was less convincing on the medium, though did less running on the yellow tyre relative to Renault.
Sebastian Vettel is the first driver with free tyre choice. He starts only two places behind Charles Leclerc, locked into starting on the soft tyre. Vettel has looked marginally more competitive this weekend than he has all month, and overcoming his teammate with the added flexibility of free strategy choice could be the morale boost he needs to get his season back on track.