The annual Spanish Grand Prix held at the Circuit de Barcelona is often one of the most boring races on the calendar. The track is regularly used for testing which means most teams have enough data to optimise their cars and the scope for unpredictability is less. Also, the track layout in itself is not where there are a lot of chances to overtake except for the start-finish straight.
However, on Sunday, high ambient and track temperatures forced teams to do multiple pit stops as the tyres melted in the scorching heat and produced a fine race as teams battled to find out the right tyre choices for each stint.
At the end of the day, Max Verstappen produced another splendid race despite battling technical issues on his car and having a spin to secure his fourth win of the season and take the lead in the drivers’ championship from Charles Leclerc, who was forced into retirement with a power unit issue.
The Ferrari, too, brought upgrades to this race and saw Leclerc take pole position with a stunning lap, while teammate Carlos Sainz was third behind Verstappen with Mercedes of George Russell qualifying an impressive fourth.
Verstappen’s final lap in qualifying was compromised when the Drag Reduction System — a flap on the rear wing that opens to reduce drag and boost speed on the straights — failed to work. Though he might have still not got pole position, the problem carried over to the Sunday and was set to compromise his race until luck turned on him.
Leclerc started strongly from pole position with Verstappen, Russell and Perez running behind him as Sainz slipped down the order at his home race.
Leclerc was controlling the race nicely through the first phase on Sunday and his job was made easier when his chief rival Verstappen spun on lap nine at turn four when a gust of wind destabilised his Red Bull. In the previous lap, the other Ferrari of Carlos Sainz had an identical spin and fell further down the order.
Verstappen’s spin allowed Russell and Perez to move ahead of him. Even though the Red Bulls were faster around the lap, Russell did everything to make his car as wide as possible on the track, thwarting Perez’s attempts at passing him. Later, Red Bull ordered Perez to let Verstappen by and the Dutchman, too, tried his best to get past Russell. It was here the DRS problems hurt Verstappen as he was not getting the necessary straight line boost to overtake on the start-finish straight.
This battle was proving to be a godsend for Leclerc who had stretched his lead enough to pit and be still ahead of the pack. However, on lap 27 disaster struck the Ferrari as Leclerc suddenly lost power and crawled into retirement. Sensing a potential big payday, Red Bull responded immediately by pitting Verstappen for a second stop on the faster soft tyres to reel in some quick times and the Dutchman duly delivered and got ahead of Russell when the latter made his second stop on lap 37.
At the same time, Perez, on fresher tyres, managed to breeze past Russell and take the lead and once Verstappen was behind him, grudgingly gave up his position to his teammate.
From there on it was a relatively straightforward race for the top three as they all then stopped once again and Verstappen led Perez for Red Bull’s second 1-2 finish of the season on a day when Ferrari struggled.
Before this race, Verstappen was 19 points behind Leclerc after he failed to finish in Bahrain and Australia — races won by Leclerc. After the race, the 24-year-old now has a six-point lead in the drivers’ standings after securing his 24th Grand Prix win.
The 1-2 finish also helped Red Bull jump past Ferrari in the constructors’ standings and now has a 26-point lead.
However, despite a strong result, Red Bull would want to get its reliability issues in order as it already has lost a lot of points with two retirements for Verstappen and one for Perez.
The other big headline of the weekend was how competitive Mercedes was after bringing a raft of upgrades to its car. The reigning constructors’ champions have struggled so far but in Barcelona, it was closer to the pace of the Ferraris and Red Bulls than they have ever been so far this season.
Russell secured his third podium of the season and was ahead of teammate Lewis Hamilton who finished fifth. Despite early struggles, Russell, in the Mercedes, is now just 36 points behind leader Verstappen. A vastly competitive Mercedes under his belt than at the start of the season should boost his confidence and belief that he has a shot at the title, if his car’s competitiveness is real.
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In the other car, Hamilton suffered a puncture on the opening lap after contact with the Haas car of Kevin Magnussen and was more than half a minute behind the race leader after stopping at the end of the first lap.
The seven-time champion even questioned the rationale of trying to race without purpose and wanted to retire the car. However, goaded by the team about having a chance to score a handful of points, Hamilton produced a superb drive to finish fifth. The Briton was running fourth until the final laps when cooling issues forced him to take it easy on the final few laps which allowed Sainz to pass him on the last lap.
After the race, Hamilton said he could have fought for the race win without the first lap puncture as he battled from the back of the front to score a handful of points.
If the pecking order from Barcelona stays true for the upcoming races, F1 has a treat on its hands as three teams will be in contention for wins which should make the next races and the championship exciting.
Other notable performances were Valtteri Bottas finishing sixth for Alfa Romeo and the Alpine cars of Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso finishing seventh and ninth respectively after starting outside the top ten.
Alonso gave the home crowd something to cheer as he moved up the order steadily after being forced to start last for taking new power unit elements after exceeding his quota of three for the year.
Bottas could have finished fourth had his team done a three-stop strategy instead of the two-stop it did, which meant towards the end of the race, Bottas struggled on worn tyres.