The Spanish Grand Prix was a race of unanswered questions. Would Charles Leclerc have won without his engine failure? Was Sergio Perez not allowed or not able to win? Where will Lewis Hamilton end up if he doesn’t have to make a forced pit stop after one lap? Would Valtteri Bottas have finished fourth with three stops? Did Sebastian Vettel and Mick Schumacher have realistic points chances at the World Cup?
The first question is perhaps the easiest. Leclerc would have won the race with his left hand. The Ferrari driver pulled away from his navigators on the fresh, soft tyres, and lasted longer than them. With his stop on lap 21, he traveled enough distance to complete a two-stop race. This was still faster than a three-degree race with the correct split-stopping.
Shortly before his retirement, Leclerc had a lead of 12.6 seconds. Even Max Verstappen who works with the DRS will not catch up with them. To close the gap, he had to set a pace that would ruin the tires. With its upgrade, Ferrari was the fastest car again. Thanks to the setting change on Friday night, tire wear is once again under control. Red Bull will have to step up.
Red Bull Double Tongs Against Russell
Sergio Perez asked for clarifications from his team. He was denied his chance to win when he had to let Verstappen pass without a fight, but he never regained the place. The team reassured Perez that he is following a different strategy than Verstappen’s. At the time, Perez was driving on medium rubber, Verstappen in the softest Pirelli compound.
For a long time, George Russell had two Red Bulls in his rearview mirror. Verstappen despaired of the DRS. If it worked, it was too far away. When he got close enough, the rear wing remained closed. So it was surprising that Verstappen canceled the first tire change at the same time as Russell, then, as expected, had to stand again behind the silver wall.
Perez was allowed to stay four laps longer with the first set of tyres, and after just seven laps the duo met Russell and Verstappen again. This time with the latest tires. Red Bull played double chance. At that point, Perez’s chances of winning were better than those of his team captain.
But only if Red Bull has consistently aligned Mexico’s strategy with two stops. Then Perez’s first two tire changes on laps 17 and 37 had to be delayed a bit so she could finish the third set comfortably.
But this time it counted the team’s score and the best possible race for Verstappen. The Dutchman had to stop three times due to DRS problems. That took precedence. “He wouldn’t have passed George on the track,” Mercedes said.
Decision against an indoor race
With the same strategy, Perez had no chance against his teammate. He didn’t have the speed for that. This is shown 13 seconds behind the finish line. As well as the 12 seconds he lost to stable competitors between laps 28 and 37.
Even with one fewer stops, it could have been tight as Red Bull always had to keep an eye on George Russell. The Mercedes driver forced Red Bull to respond to the undercut with his second stop on lap 36 with Perez.
With a 5.3sec lead, they could have taken two more rounds, which would have shortened Perez’s last stint. Perez could have defended his interim lead against Verstappen until lap 42. After that, the middle group could have easily survived the remaining 24 laps. Verstappen had fallen behind Perez again with his third stop.
But Red Bull has long decided not to have an indoor race. Three stops was the surest way to a double victory. “We would have done the same in their place,” Mercedes strategists testified. Perez was then allowed to take the fastest lap as a consolation.
Hamilton leads with a late stop
The task would have been much more difficult for Red Bull had Lewis Hamilton not sponsored Kevin Magnussen on the first lap. A proper stop threw the former champion 53.9 seconds behind Leclerc, 53.1 seconds behind Verstappen and 50.3 seconds behind Perez.
The accident dictated Mercedes’ strategy. Anti-lap tire changes were the best way to save Hamilton’s traffic in his race to catch up. Hamilton stopped late in laps 22 and 48, as he ran a two stop race.
The question of what would be possible for a Mercedes driver is a bit academic, as he had to turn off gasoline for the last 10 laps due to a water leak. So Hamilton’s race continued until lap 56. Up until that point, since the unplanned stop on the opening lap, he had a 12.3sec on Verstappen and 32.6sec on Perez.
If the race had gone normally, he would have become a serious opponent for both Red Bulls. Not for Leclerc. He even took 16.6 seconds off Hamilton on lap 20.
Faster than strategy predictions
Hamilton surprised Mercedes’ strategic programme. After an early stop, she gave him eighth place as the best possible result. In the end, the record winner took fifth place. “Lewis was much faster than we thought.”
His tire replacement strategy could have turned into a Joker. He was the only one in the field who started with medium tyres. At the Mercedes command center, people were surprised that no one else had this idea. “We wanted to be the only ones in the first six with that starting tire. But it was funny that no one tried that again. Even assuming we were going to be three tenths of a lap slower than Ferrari and Red Bull, our tire selection at the start was without any major risk.” No one could have done a knockout against us. The midfield was too slow to get close to us.”
Mercedes had expected an easy start on lap 14 and Hamilton driving much longer. The plan was on lap 24 or 25. “If Lewis had not been injured on the first lap it would have really paid off. The second task would have taken us to lap 50 and we would have chosen the type of tire for the last task depending on the race condition but without the collision we would have been close to 45 seconds from The introduction. Lewis was sure of the podium. And he would probably beat Perez, too.”
Bottas IV with the third leg
Leclerc’s failure gave Hamilton a free position. Carlos Sainz only ended up ahead of Mercedes with the base number 44 because his opponent had to slow down to save the engine. The Spaniard lost 14 seconds in a lap and then was extraordinarily slow. His apology: “His lower body was damaged while he was driving the gravel bed.”
Valtteri Bottas would have been tough for Hamilton if Alfa Romeo hadn’t tried to put the Finn two stops away. But the second leg on lap 34 was clearly too early for that. In the last ten laps, Bottas lost one to two seconds per round to his direct opponents. By lap 54, the Sauber driver was still 3.4secs ahead of Sainz and 7.2secs ahead of Hamilton. If Bottas had done the same thing as his opponents, he would have finished fourth.
German drivers get nothing in Barcelona. Aston Martin was still learning about its new car and had to slow down because it was too hot under the fairing. Sebastian Vettel tried his luck with a two-stop strategy, but in the end was almost 16secs away from last in points.
“We weren’t quick to get points today,” admitted team manager Mike Crack. not yet. At the Aston Martin camp, rapid progression is expected on the B version. “The car is good for the top 10,” says chief technology officer Andy Green.
Mick Schumacher hit the points in three stages of the race. From lap 1 to 12, on laps 28 to 29 and then again from lap 53 to 55. The error was in strategy. A two-stop race with a second tire change on lap 30 couldn’t go well.
The Haas pilot was literally inhaled from the competition at the conclusion of the race. Schumacher fell from ninth to fourteenth. Someone in the Haas command center should have noticed that the tires deteriorate faster than the competition. So three breakpoints are actually mandatory.