Hungary 2019, take two.
What had been threatening to become a trademark soporific Spanish Grand Prix was reignited by a Mercedes strategy gamble, which paid off in the form of a fifth consecutive victory for Lewis Hamilton at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.
Saturday saw Hamilton claim his 100th pole position in Formula 1 – a simply mind-boggling achievement – and many assumed he would move one step closer to a century of wins on Sunday. But that assumption was immediately brought into question thanks to a bullish move into the first corner by Max Verstappen.
The two title rivals got away fairly evenly – the Dutchman aided by an unusual level of rubber on the normally dirty side of the track – and, with the Red Bull in his blind spot, Hamilton felt unable to move over and claim the inside line. Verstappen is not a driver that requires more than one invitation. He braked very late and, not for the first time this season, got his elbows out at the first corner, leaving Hamilton nowhere to go on the outside. The World Champion avoided contact and held onto second but, as team-mate Valtteri Bottas struggled in his dirty air, Charles Leclerc pulled off an Alonso-in-2013-esque move around the outside of Turn 3 to claim third.
Verstappen and Hamilton streaked away at the front, the Mercedes driver hounding his rival but never getting quite close enough to threaten a pass. With Sergio Pérez too close behind for Mercedes to attempt an undercut, it was Verstappen who pitted first. It was unscheduled – Verstappen sensing Hamilton was about to pass him on the straight – and resulted in an uncharacteristically slow Red Bull pit stop. That offered Mercedes an opportunity, but they declined – they had a different plan in mind…
Hamilton extended his stint a further four laps, rejoining a little over five seconds behind Verstappen. But, with the Mercedes clearly well-suited to the medium tyre, Hamilton was once more closely inspecting his rival’s rear wing within a few laps. As ever, the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya provided little in the way of passing opportunities, though – especially since the recent reprofiling of Turn 10 – and it appeared likely that we would watch Hamilton follow on the brink of the DRS window for the next 45 minutes.
But this is when Mercedes produced their surprise.
Hamilton darted into the pits on lap 42 to fit another set of medium tyres. This had been in Mercedes’ thoughts throughout the weekend and they were the only team to have kept two fresh sets of the medium compound for the race. So, it was to be a repeat of the 2019 Hungarian Grand Prix, as Hamilton set about closing down a gap of more than 20 seconds in just over 20 laps.
The Red Bull computers predicted that Hamilton would catch their driver on the last lap, but that would prove to be an optimistic forecast as Hamilton took nearly two seconds per lap out of the gap. Despite not getting much help from his team-mate – more on that later – the Briton was on the back of Verstappen by lap 59. The Red Bull weaved along the start-finish straight, desperately trying to break the tow he was providing, but the pass was an inevitability, Verstappen later describing himself as a “sitting duck”. Hamilton used the extra grip from his much younger tyres to brake later and comfortably claimed the lead as they entered Turn 1.
Behind them, Bottas had pitted in an attempt to claim the fastest lap, but in doing so allowed Verstappen to do the same. There was to be no repeat of his mistake in Portugal this time and the Dutchman took the extra point with ease. It was Hamilton who took the chequered flag, however, and extended his lead in the championship to 14 points.
Is the Mercedes Now the Fastest Car?
It has only been six weeks since Verstappen took pole by four tenths in Bahrain and the F1 status quo appeared to have been turned on its head. And yet now, without us really noticing, Hamilton has equalled his best ever start to a season. Three wins and one second place were also his results during the first four races of 2015 – a season that would prove to be one of his most dominant – so are we kidding ourselves that there is such an exciting title battle?
In a word, no.
But for some small yet costly mistakes – and some luck on Hamilton’s part – Verstappen would be the one leading the championship. Bahrain was his race to lose, but he did. Hamilton was very fortunate to recover to second in Imola, and the complexion of the race in Portugal would likely have been different had Verstappen not lost pole position due to a track limits violation. These are the minute differences that can swing a championship one direction or another, and Mercedes are very experienced in ensuring that they swing their way.
However, in terms of pure speed, the Red Bull looks a genuine match for them this year. Spain has always been a Mercedes circuit – that’s five wins in a row for Hamilton – but Red Bull were right there with them, three hundredths of a second behind in qualifying and leading for 90% of the race.
Monaco in two weeks time will be a very different challenge. The Mercedes car has looked strong in slow corners – of which Monaco, obviously, has many – but it also has a very long wheelbase and Red Bull have performed well through the streets of the Principality in recent years. The circuit provides such a unique test of a Formula 1 car that there’s no way of knowing who will do well until the cars are being driven in anger, millimetres from those infamous walls.
Hamilton may have the edge right now, but this title battle remains very much in the balance.
The Best of the Rest
Leclerc had another excellent weekend. He qualified in fourth for the third time in four attempts this year and the predictable combination of Ham-Ver-Bot is almost now extendable to Ham-Ver-Bot-Lec.
After his excellent early pass, he kept the far superior Mercedes of Bottas behind for the first stint and eventually finished a comfortable 10 seconds ahead of Pérez to move to just one point behind Lando Norris in the standings.
Norris himself was a little anonymous this weekend on his way to eighth and, for the first time in 2021, was legitimately beaten by team-mate Daniel Ricciardo. The Honey Badger’s trademark smile was very much back on his face as he finished a solid sixth, holding off Carlos Sainz in the final laps.
Alpine initially appeared to have picked up where they left off in Portugal with Esteban Ocon qualifying an excellent fifth but, on Sunday, their strategy was lacking and their pace disappeared. Ocon clung onto a points finish in ninth, but Fernando Alonso tumbled back through the field in the dying laps and eventually finished behind a Williams in 17th. There is still work to do for the French team.
Pierre Gasly recovered from a clumsy five-second penalty, for parking his Alphatauri beyond his allocated spot on the grid, to earn the final point for 10th. But it was the rookie on the other side of the garage who made the headlines on Saturday. One of his infamous, expletive-ridden radio messages was followed up by an interview where he questioned whether he had the same car as his team-mate. Undoubtedly, Team Principal Franz Tost will have had some very stern words with the youngster, who it appears has some growing up to do.
The Bottas ‘Block’
As previously mentioned, Hamilton’s pursuit of Verstappen late in the race was made a little harder by his team-mate. As the World Champion approached, Bottas was told by his engineer, “Don’t hold Lewis up”. But he did just that. Hamilton followed closely for the best part of a lap – losing at least a second to Verstappen – before somewhat having to force a pass into Turn 10.
“I definitely could have let him by earlier,” Bottas said after the race. “But I was doing my own race. I’m not here to let people by, I’m here to race.” He said at the start of this season that he would be more selfish and single-minded; it would appear he is following up on that promise.
Does his mindset reveal anything about Mercedes’ plans for next year? Is this a man who knows his time is up and, thus, is now going to do everything in his power to take the title in what would likely be his last ever chance? That is just conjecture for the moment. But, whether he likes it or not, Bottas has held onto his seat at Mercedes by being the ideal driver for their second seat. One that is fast enough to keep Hamilton on his toes and help with strategic battles during the race, but one that is also compliant when required.
If he ceases to be that driver, his chances of remaining with the team beyond 2021 look slim at best.
Answering the Burning Questions
Can Verstappen strike back in the title battle? Not quite, despite a valiant effort.
How will the teams fare without having had their usual pre-season testing at Barcelona? There was no noticeable difference and just the one retirement.
Can Alpine continue their good form from Portugal? On Saturday, yes. On Sunday, not so much.
Will the Aston Martin updates bring them back towards the front of the midfield? Nope, they still have quite a bit of work to do.
Will anyone pull a Maldonado? Not this time.
The Race in 60 Seconds
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