An unpredictable Spanish GP and a reliable Hamilton win

Winning at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya requires not just a great car setup, but also the right balance between team and driver, and that showed in Mercedes’ ability to seamlessly switch strategy midway through the race while Red Bull floundered in response.

Race winner Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas celebrate after the 2021 Spanish GP. With Bottas finshing third and Max Verstappen second, it was for the fourth straight year that the same three drivers stood on the podium at Catalunya.   -  Getty Images

It was Hungary 2019 all over again.

A sense of deja vu would have descended on the Red Bull garage as Lewis Hamilton gambled on a set of fresh tyres and set about chasing down Max Verstappen over the last one-third of the 2021 Spanish Grand Prix. His tyres nearly dead, Verstappen was — in his own words — a sitting duck as the seven-time world champion got past the Dutchman on lap 59 of 66 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

In circumstances remarkably similar to Hungary 2019, Verstappen pitted for new rubber towards the end of the race in order to grab the extra point for fastest lap and limit the damage on a day when his team was comprehensively outmanoeuvred by Mercedes, the world constructors’ champion for the last seven years running.

READ: Lewis Hamilton: I learned a lot about Max Verstappen today

A better balance

The 4.675km Catalunya circuit, with its long straights and variety of turns, is always a challenge. With its inherently changing wind and weather conditions making it difficult for the teams to find the right setup for the cars, the track demands the finest aerodynamic balance. But then you find the tyres aren’t doing for you what they’re doing for your rivals, when they’d worked perfectly well for you in practice or qualifying.

It is this unpredictability that makes the Spanish Grand Prix — the race has been held at Catalunya every year since 1991 — exciting. It is also no surprise then that the race has been won 20 of those 31 times by the eventual world champion, as it requires not just a great car setup, but also the right balance between team and driver to win here, and that showed in Mercedes’ ability to seamlessly switch strategy midway through the race while Red Bull floundered in response.

After Hamilton became the first driver in F1 history to take 100 pole positions, Verstappen took the lead at the first turn of the opening lap, and the two championship frontrunners began to eke out an advantage over the chasing pack. The two kept together till Red Bull blinked first and brought in Verstappen for his only planned pit stop on lap 22. The call was a nervous one as Hamilton had looked ready to make a move on Verstappen, and Red Bull crew weren’t completely ready for their driver. A 4.2-second stop for Verstappen gave Mercedes a window to bring Hamilton in and send him out into the lead, but the reigning world champion stayed out a full six laps more.

A 4.2-second pit stop for Red Bull’s Max Verstappen gave Mercedes a window to bring Lewis Hamilton in and send him out into the lead, but the reigning world champion stayed out a full six laps more.   -  Getty Images

 

After pitting on lap 28, Hamilton immediately began reeling in his title rival, highlighting the difference in tyre performance between the two teams. Red Bull has shown the ability to “switch on” the tyres much faster this season, which has allowed Verstappen to pull off single-lap stunners in qualifying. But the car’s stronger front end puts a heavier load on the rear tyres. And while a small wing reduction at Catalunya allowed Red Bull to reduce drag, it also allowed the back of the car to slide more, leading to more tyre degradation than on the Mercedes.

So, as Hamilton reeled Verstappen in, it was time for Mercedes to take a gamble. In the words of the legendary motorsports commentator Murray Walker, it’s one thing to catch and another thing to pass at Catalunya. For all its excitement, it’s notoriously difficult to overtake on the track.

But is it still a gamble if Mercedes had planned for such a possibility? The team had clearly covered all its bases by saving an extra set of medium tyres for Hamilton. When he came in on lap 42 for the change, Red Bull had only a set of softs available for Verstappen with 24 laps remaining. While faster over a short stint, the Red Bull driver would have had to nurse the softs to get to the chequered flag. Iacta alea est.

READ: Hamilton hopes new contract can be sealed by August

Advantage Mercedes

Verstappen struggled with a one-stop strategy at the site of his first F1 victory, but following Mercedes’ cue also wouldn’t have ended in victory as Red Bull just couldn’t match Mercedes on the day.

“I tried really everything to manage it as good as I could, looking after tyres and stuff, but it’s just not enough when behind you, they’re just pushing you and you see there’s clearly a bit more pace. In a way, I could see it coming, you know?” Verstappen said after the race.

“But nevertheless, I think it’s still of course a good result. Of course you always want more, I think that always needs to be the aim, I think we shouldn’t be happy with a second place at the moment. But nevertheless, we tried everything,” he added. “I got ahead in the start so basically you really try to go for it, and then of course it looks good when you’re leading for so long in the race. But you have to also look to all the things that are happening throughout the race, and I think overall, here we were just lacking a little bit of pace in the race.”

In addition to the on-track excitement, the Spanish GP was also a statistician’s delight. Hamilton’s sixth victory at Catalunya put him on par with Michael Schumacher, whose record of seven world titles he is attempting to break this year. Also, Hamilton’s fifth straight win at the track tied the record for most consecutive victories at the same venue held by Ayrton Senna, who won at Monaco every year between 1989 and ’93.

READ: Deja vu for Red Bull as Hamilton reels in Verstappen again

With Valtteri Bottas bringing the second Mercedes home in third place, it was for the fourth straight year that the same three drivers stood on the podium at Catalunya; no other trio has ever done this more than two years in a row at a single track.

With 94 points from the first four races of 2021, this is Hamilton’s best ever start to an F1 season, but Verstappen on 80 is within a sniff, especially with 19 scheduled races still to go. Next up is the Monaco Grand Prix — the most glamorous race in the world, but more importantly for Red Bull, a circuit that’s all about downforce and where neither drag nor tyre degradation should be so much of an issue.