After a week of hype that Red Bull Racing had gleaned a Mercedes weakness and was ready to go for the jugular, Lewis Hamilton dominated the Spanish Grand Prix in typically demoralising style to take a stronghold on the championship race.
Mercedes had genuine concerns for its ability to keep the tyres alive after severe blistering lost it the race last week and tyre failures almost cost it victory two weeks in the British Grand Prix. Toto Wolff even singled out Max Verstappen as the favourite for the race win despite the Dutchman qualifying third behind polesitter Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.
Hot weather has long been a weakness of the German marque, and the step in downforce taken in 2020 combined with the sport sticking with 2019-specification tyres means the Pirellis suffer more significantly in the heat.
But there are scarce few examples of Mercedes making the same mistakes or suffering the same problems twice. Having had the week to analyse its Silverstone problems, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the team was at its field-crushing best again come race day.
From the outset some of the optimism for a levelling of the competitive order was ambitious at best. First, Pirelli reverted to its hardest compounds — C1, C2 and C3 — for Barcelona, eliminating the problem of too-soft tyres at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix that caused the team blistering.
The heat — around 30C air, 50C track — remained similar to Silverstone, but the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is a different challenge. It comprises a great variety of corners and demands higher downforce, whereas as Silverstone is increasingly flat out and therefore more demanding of the tyres.
The combination of harder tyres and kinder layout brought Mercedes back from the brink. Admittedly Red Bull Racing did look more impressive on the medium tyre during Friday practice, but Mercedes rarely turns its engine up enough on Friday to offer a truly representative comparison, so the times should have been treated more cautiously.
Verstappen did have one potential play up his sleeve, though. Mercedes couldn’t be certain it had cured its ills until the race got going, and it was likely to play a conservative strategy anyway. If Verstappen could use what appeared to be a genuinely kinder car on its tyres to make one stop fewer than Mercedes, he was a chance to snatch track position at a track around which passing is very difficult.
In might’ve been a nice idea for Verstappen, and for the first 10 laps of the race, having jumped Bottas for second, he seemed to have Hamilton’s measure.
But the closeness was artificial. Hamilton used this opening stanza to get a feel for the soft tyre, still of marginal performance in the heat. Once he was confident it was holding up, he put his foot down and gapped Verstappen, leaving us in no doubt the W11 was the quickest car.
Verstappen hoped that the team’s better pace on the medium tyre might reverse the momentum, as per Friday practice data, but even on the yellow compound Hamilton was too strong.
Indeed Hamilton was so comfortably on the medium that he specifically requested it for the final stint, despite Bottas taking the soft compound. Speaking after the race, Hamilton said he spent Friday night analysing the tyre data and had decided the medium was the better choice — as Bottas’s lack of pace on the soft ultimately suggested. It had no tangible effect on the race outcome, but it was an insight into Hamilton’s completeness as a driver.
Really the race had been decided at the first turn, and after 66 laps Hamilton crossed the line almost half a minutes up the road.
Verstappen, clearly stuck in second from early in the race, was notably snappy with his engineer, contrasting starkly with his joviality in the past two weeks. His eagerness to get off the soft tyre for the more competitive mediums was a particular flash point.
But once it became clear that even on the medium tyre the pace wasn’t there, his race became about keeping Bottas in check to maintain third. Ensuring the Finn couldn’t get too far up the road before his second stop meant Bottas left pit lane third, but it was a surprise even to Red Bull Racing that Bottas couldn’t use the soft tyre in the final stint to make any meaningful inroads to second place.
While Verstappen maximised the car, Albon again struggled. Though he qualified sixth, he was still 0.7 seconds off the Dutchman’s pace, and he couldn’t make up ground on the first lap, boxed in behind Bottas battling the Racing Point cars for third.
But Albon’s race wasn’t helped by Red Bull Racing’s strategy. He was brough in early, on lap 17, for the hard tyre in a vain attempt to undercut Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll ahead of fourth place.
It was a dodgy move. The early stop dropped the Thai driver to 16th behind Esteban Ocon, who started the race on the medium tyre and was therefore going long. Worse, the hard tyre offered so little pace that Albon couldn’t find a way past the Frenchman till Renault brough him in for his first stop on lap 33.
Released, there was little more to squeeze from the unfavourable compound, and Red Bull Racing brought him back in for a set of mediums on lap 39.
He eventually climbed his way up to eighth, a loss of two positions from a strategy ostensibly aimed at gaining him to positions.
Was the strategy a veiled opportunity for Red Bull Racing to assess the suitability of the hard tyre for Verstappen one-stop gamble? Team boss Christian Horner insists that it was simply that Albon was suffering so much degradation on the softs that the hard seemed worth a shot.
Whatever the case, a race to forget for Albon, who appeared notably demoralised post-race as his difficult season continues.
Racing Point finally maximised a race weekend, qualifying and finishing fourth and fifth. The pink cars were clearly the third fastest this weekend, so much so that a split strategy — Sergio Perez one-stopping while Lance Stroll stopped twice — delivered almost identical results, with less than three second separating them in the final classification.
It was an impressive by typical drive from Perez in particular, the Mexican’s famously soft touch with the tyres paying big dividends. He took the flag first, but a five-second penalty for responding too slowly to blue flags dropped him behind Stroll.
Vettel was the only driver other than Perez to score points with a one-stop strategy, but neither Ferrari nor the German seemed to expect it.
Vettel qualified 11th and started on the medium tyre. A slightly early pit stop on lap 29 — Ferrari double-stacked with Charles Leclerc, who started on softs — switched him to the soft on what seemed sure to be a two-stop race, but when the rest of the midfield made their second stops and Vettel assessed his tyres as still good to run, he asked whether a one-stop was worth a shot.
The team radioed back to him to push, suggesting a two-stop, which Vettel duly did — but three laps later the team came backed and asked him whether he thought a one-stop was achievable.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Vettel replied.
More extraordinary still was that Vettel subsequently walked the team through whether it would be worthwhile having a crack, asking how fast those on fresh tyres were lapping and directing calculations for what time he had to hit to be in with a chance, all from the cockpit.
“We can try, we’ve got nothing to lose,” he concluded. Fifth at the time, he lost places to only Lance Stroll and Carlos Sainz, finishing seventh.
After the race Mattia Binotto played down the frustrated exchange as nothing more than a sign of the openness with which Ferrari communicates. But speaking to Italian media, Vettel suggested the team is no longer really listening to him, to which Binotto returned that he suspects Vettel is disappointed not to be racing at the team next season.
Lewis Hamilton: soft (used) to lap 23, medium (new) to lap 50, medium (new) to lap 66.