Round four of the Formula One 2021 season and what is shaping up to be a titanic battle between Mercedes and Red Bull [Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton duelling for position in feature image above; image from Eurosport] took its latest episode at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. This circuit is perhaps the one the teams and drivers know most as they traditionally use it for pre-season testing and generally if a teams car is strong here, it is a good sign it’ll be strong anywhere.
That sets F1 in 2021 up for the title battle but also for competitive racing action throughout the grid as small margins defined the weekend. In the first part of Qualifying, 17 cars were separated by a single second, in Q2 4th to 12th were separated by three-quarters of a second and pole position was decided by just 0.036s. It really does set us up for a competitive year and potentially many more records will fall and be set.
Has the war of words also started? Faced with questions about his future before the weekend in Spain, Valtteri Bottas made a subtle hint towards Red Bull’s tendency to chop and change their drivers while Lewis Hamilton hinted they make too many mistakes. How ironic then, that Red Bull were seemingly caught out again by a bold strategic call by Mercedes.
It was a historic weekend as Lewis Hamilton became the first driver to reach 100 pole positions. 100! That is an unprecedented and remarkable achievement. None of the greats; the Michael Schumacher’s, Ayrton Senna, no one has achieved that. His victory the following day gave him his 59th win from pole, giving him a conversion rate of 59%. His pole position rate of 37% is behind only Ayrton Senna and Juan Manuel Fangio. After hitting such a landmark, it was perhaps fitting that the post-qualifying interviews were conducted by Pedro De la Rosa, the man Hamilton bettered in a test for McLaren to seal his race seat for 2007. How different things could have panned out? For Hamilton, ‘It feels just like my first! I’ll always remember that one.‘
2021 Spanish Grand Prix Qualifying
Q1: 1st Lando Norris 1:17.821……………15th Antonio Giovinazzi 1:18.549; 16th Yuki Tsunoda +0.007, 17th Kimi Raikkonen +0.368, 18th Mick Schumacher +0.596, 19th Nicholas Latifi +0.698, 20th Nikita Mazepin +1.258
Q2: 1st Max Verstappen 1:16.922………10th Fernando Alonso 1:17.966; 11th Lance Stroll +0.008, 12th Pierre Gasly +0.016, 13th Sebastian Vettel +0.113, 14th Antonio Giovinazzi +0.390, 15th George Russell +1.188
Q3: 1st Lewis Hamilton 1:16.741, 2nd Max Verstappen +0.036, 3rd Valtteri Bottas +0.132, 4th Charles Leclerc +0.769, 5th Esteban Ocon +0.839, 6th Carlos Sainz +0.879, 7th Daniel Ricciardo +0.881, 8th Sergio Perez +0.960, 9th Lando Norris +1.269, 10th Fernando Alonso +1.406
Aside from the historic achievement, it was another impressive weekend from the reigning world champion. His start from pole position was clean but staying left in the hope of giving his teammate a tow opened the door for Verstappen and he showed great maturity not to turn in and instead play the ‘long game’. Indeed that is what Hamilton did. As the stints progressed, Hamilton had better tyre management and pace as he closed him down even after seemingly giving up the chance of the overcut after Verstappen’s slow first stop. Then, came the bold race-winning move as Mercedes pitted Hamilton again on lap 42. With the fresher tyres, he had 23s to make up just to catch Verstappen but only the Mercedes-Hamilton combination can make that work and it was a terrific drive as he clawed the tome back and passed the Red Bull with 6 laps remaining for his 5th successive victory in Spain.
Max Verstappen marked his 100th start for Red Bull, on the site of his debut win and he came oh so close to repeating his 2016 success. The Dutchman was strong and coming into Qualifying was quickest. He looked favourite for pole position after Q2 but lost out by the finest of margins in Q3 but made up for it with a mighty start. Similar to Imola, Verstappen got an excellent launch off the grid and bravely out-muscled Hamilton into turn 1 with a daring move to take the lead. He led for the majority (54 laps in total) despite having a slow first pit stop but strategy ultimately let him down. After Mercedes bold move, Verstappen had to nurse his tyres home and in scenes similar to Hungary 2019 (it was not lost on the team radio) became a sitting duck to Hamilton on far fresher tyres. Verstappen immediately went for the fastest lap point and this time duly delivered it to limit the championship damage to 6 points instead of 7.
Could Red Bull have done anything different with strategy? Team Principal Christian Horner explained post-race, ‘We couldn’t have done anything differently today, Lewis and Mercedes were quicker than us and able to follow Max so closely without hurting their tyres. We were able to hold track position but when the field opens up to the degree it did behind, Lewis gains a free pit stop which leaves you in the horrible position as race leader trying to brave it out to the end instead of sacrificing track position’.
After Mercedes pitted Hamilton for the second time on lap 42, Red Bull could have pitted Verstappen the following lap but would have been exposed to the undercut. A strong out-lap on fresh tyres from Hamilton or a slow stop from Red Bull would have got the Mercedes ahead and track position along with the race would have been lost. At that stage, keeping Verstappen out was their only option to try and win the race.
Would Mercedes have been able to go for that strategic option had Sergio Perez been closer? No.
The Mexican had a difficult Grand Prix weekend as he didn’t feel 100% with the car. His frustrations could be best summarised by his post-race comments, ‘I’m getting more confident with the car now and every time I get to the end of a weekend, I think, ‘I wish the weekend was just starting now.’ Perez struggled to match Verstapens pace and ‘not feeling 100% in qualifying with some shoulder pain‘ didn’t help as a spin in Q3 put him on the back foot as he could only qualify 8th. That isn’t where Red Bull need him to be and while he is still adapting to the car he put in a strong race drive gaining a couple of places on the opening lap and topped off with an impressive move on Ricciardo from far back as he finished 5th. It’s not bad for a circuit where overtaking is difficult and he will be looking to build on it in Monaco.
Valtteri Bottas ended up playing second fiddle to his teammate due to the strategic call. Mercedes instructed Bottas to allow Hamilton through but the Finn did not make it too easy and I imagine Toto Wolff would not have been happy had it cost the win. He wouldn’t have been in that position though if not for some fine margins. Bottas was a threat for pole and was quicker than Hamilton in Qualifying apart from when it mattered where a tenth cost him. From 3rd, he was then passed by Leclerc on the opening lap and taking 29 laps to eventually pass the Ferrari meat he was not in full contention. The decision to go for the fastest lap point was perhaps too soon as it gave Red Bull two bites at the cherry but failure to get the point or closer to Verstappen will be a bitterly disappointing outcome for the Finn.
2021 Spanish Grand Prix Race Result
1st Lewis Hamilton 1:33:07.680, 2nd Max Verstappen +15.841, 3rd Valtteri Bottas +26.610, 4th Charles Leclerc +54.616, 5th Sergio Perez +63.671, 6th Daniel Ricciardo +73.768, 7th Carlos Sainz +74.670, 8th Lando Norris +1 Lap, 9th Esteban Ocon +1 Lap, 10th Pierre Gasly +1 Lap, 11th Lance Stroll +1 Lap, 12th Kimi Raikkonen +1 Lap, 13th Sebastian Vettel +1 Lap, 14th George Russell +1 Lap, 15th Antonio Giovinazzi +1 Lap, 16th Nicholas Latifi +1 Lap, 17th Fernando Alonso +1 Lap, 18th Mick Schumacher +2 Laps, 19th Nikita Mazepin +2 Laps, Yuki Tsunoda DNF
Fastest Lap: Max Verstappen 1:18.149
‘Best of the rest’ in Spain were Ferrari. When F1 last raced at the circuit in August, they finished a lap adrift. Fast forward to 2021 and they had both cars into Q3 and both cars finished the race on the lead lap. While both drivers commented that they did not have as much straight-line speed as others, the result in Spain is a further sign of the improvements that the Scuderia have made in 2021. The double points fish and outscoring McLaren indicates there could be a battle on there.
Charles Leclerc the star performer in the midfield with another impressive display. The Mnogasque qualified 4th for the third time already in 2021 and this time finished the race there too. He had an excellent start passing the Mercedes of Bottas around the outside of turn 3 and had the pace to be ahead of him until lap 29. While he couldn’t keep the Mercedes behind, he comfortably had the pace to hold onto position and finish ahead of Perez.
It was a proud weekend for Carlos Sainz driving for Fearri in his home race but it ultimately wasn’t as satisfying a result for him. 6th in Qualifying was on par with where Fearri were pace-wise but he was beaten by Leclerc again. Ferrari’s lack of straight-line speed impacted him more as he lost a couple places on the opening lap but he still recovered to finish 7th collecting some valuable points for the team.
While McLaren didn’t score as many points as Ferrari, Daniel Ricciardo built on his impressive Portimao recovery drive with his strongest Grand Prix weekend with the team so far. The honey badger got the better of Norris in Qualifying again and lead the McLaren charge from 7th gaining two places at the start and running in 5th for much of the race. There wasn’t much he could do to keep Perez behind but he had enough about him in the car to keep Sainz behind to finish 6th. Lando Norris has been one of the star performers in 2021 but Spain was far from ideal for the Brit. He was compromised in Qualifying by being impeded by Mazepin in Q1 and requiring a second set of tyres meaning he only did one run in Q3, missing out on the optimum conditions and starting 9th. He showed solid race pace but from 9th and after holding station on the opening lap could only gain 8th from Ocon with four laps to go but given this was his least impressive performance of the year so far, the fact he still scored points is a good outcome.
Alpine showed promise in Portimao and that translated into what we saw in Spain with both cars getting into Q3. However, their race pace does not seem as strong as their single lap pace although both drivers attempted the one-stop strategy. In his second season with the team, Esteban Ocon was again their star performer as Fernando Alonso gets adapted to his machinery. Alonso was more than half a second adrift in Qualifying and started 10th. The Spaniard was in the top 10 as late as lap 60 but despite all of his efforts in defending against those around him, he could not make the one-stop strategy work, ultimately stopping for a second time and coming home 17th. That was a disappointing outcome for Alonso. Ocon went one better than Portimao and qualified 5th. He lost a couple of places on the opening lap and struggled to recover but at least made the one-stop work by holding on to come home with two points which given the Alpine’s relative race pace was a good result. That was two points more than they scored in August.
The pace in practice suggested that Alpha Tauri had the machinery to get both drivers in the top 10 but execution when it mattered most deserted them. Rookie Yuki Tsunoda was vocal about the car in some rash post-qualifying comments as he exited in Q1. Ultimately, his weekend ended in disappointment as despite having some good pace in the race was forced to pull up with an engine issue prompting the early safety car.
Pierre Gasly got the most out of the car but even he could not get into the top 10 in Qualifying, bowing out in Q2. The Frenchman made the slam dunk error of missing his grid slot on the grid, which the stewards promptly gave him a 5s time penalty which he served in his pit stop. Recovering from that to finish 10th by passing Stroll four laps from home was an impressive recovery drive but as Gasly said post-race, ‘The car definitely has potential, we just haven’t made it work consistently’.
2021 Spanish Grand Prix Points
Drivers: Lewis Hamilton 25, Max Verstappen 19, Valtteri Bottas 15, Charles Leclerc 12, Sergio Perez 10, Daniel Ricciardo 8, Carlos Sainz 6, Lando Norris 4, Esteban Ocon 2, Pierre Gasly 1
Constructors: Mercedes 40, Red Bull 29, Ferrari 18, McLaren 12, Alpine 2, Alpha Tauri 1
Both Aston Martin cars had the upgrade available in Spain but it was ultimately disappointing Grand Prix weekend as neither car got into Q3 nor scored points in the race. On performance, Lance Stroll got the better of Sebastian Vettel when it mattered most as, despite the four-time World Champion looking quicker heading into Qualifying, it was the Canadian who took the inter-team spoils in both Qualifying and the race. Stroll passed Alonso on lap 6 but stopping early a second time meant he was back behind the Spaniard. The second attempt took a few attempts including running wide on lap 59 and while he did get past Alonso he was then past himself by gasly as he failed to finish in the points. Vettel was close to Stroll in the opening exchanges but after getting stuck behind Raikkonen in a DRS train after his second stop never looked to e competing for the points positions as his 12-year points scoring streak in Spain came to a disappointing end.
Alfa Romeo showed signs that he had a car that could be capable of competing for points. Kimi Raikkonen finishing 9th in FP3 was eye-catching but so too was his exit from Qualifying in Q1. Antonio Giovnazzi getting into Q2 gives him a 3-1 lead in the Qualifying battle but that was as good as his weekend got. The Italian lost a position on the opening lap and bizarrely lost a lot of time pitting behind the Safety Car as his front left tyre was already deflated. It was a great spot by the mechanic but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that, a tyre being flat when it has just come out of the tyre blanket. The Italian recovered as well as he could but ‘15th was as far as I could go’. That incident can be watched here. Raikkonen meanwhile made a stellar start gaining three positions on the opening lap and used his experience to make the alternative strategy of starting on the Mediums work. Ultimately, he did not quite have the pace later in the race as he battled in the DRS train for 10th as he finished 12th but it is still encouraging signs.
On appearances, Williams had a slightly better race pace in Spain than they did at Portimao but with only one retirement they were always unlikely to score points. George Russell came fairly close as Mr Saturday delivered in Qualifying again by getting into Q2. Williams made the bold move to pit Russel behind the early safety Car and attempt the one-stop strategy and until the final 12 laps, it looked set to work. Unfortunately, tyre wear became an issue as he fell back from points contention to finishing 14th. Still, it was a valiant effort and Russell knows ‘If we keep pushing those boundaries, the results will come’. Nicholas Latifi was disappointing in being out-qualified by Haas for the first time this season. At least the Canadian did not finish the race there though despite struggling with tyres after also pitting behind the early safety car.
With Haas not developing their car this year in order to focus on 2022, it was another predictably difficult Grand Prix for the US team with both cars finished two laps adrift. With the drivers only being comparable to each other, it was Mick Schumacher extracting the most out of the car as he qualified ahead of a Williams for the first time although he could not finish ahead of Latifi in the race for a second successive time. Still, he did finish 50s ahead of his teammate. The only blot on his otherwise solid performance was slightly missing his marks in the pit stop. Nikita Mazepin had another difficult weekend as he earned the wrath of the stewards (again) and Toto Wolff. The Russian was given a three-place grid penalty and a point on his licence for impeding Norris in Q1 not that it made a difference to his result as he qualified plum last. In the race, his only highlight was Toto Wolff complaining to race control that he was not taking notice of blue flags quick enough when Hamilton came to pass as he finished last of the classified finishers.
I do want to address that Q1 incident between Mazepin and Norris with saw the former penalised by the stewards and the latter feeling he had been compromised. Post-qualifying, Norris had said, ‘We were quite unlucky with some traffic in Q1 run one, so that put us on the back foot as we needed to use a second set of tyres when we should’ve been safe‘.
Having seen the replays of the incident, it is abundantly clear that Mazepin got in the way of Norris. Of that, there is no doubt. That said, I do feel for the Russian in this incident as two cars had just passed him while also trying to get the optimum gap to start their flying laps but they as good as stopped trying to find that gap. He has been compromised and in that narrow chicane, he’s probably thinking I need to go but surely he would have seen the McLaren behind? I think the stewards should probably do more to prevent cars from piling up excessively like that in preparation for their flying laps as at other circuits such as Monaco it is really going to give them a headache.
2021 Spanish Grand Prix Ratings
Drivers: Lewis Hamilton 9.5, Max Verstappen 9, Valtteri Bottas 7, Charles Leclerc 9.5, Sergio Perez 6.5, Daniel Ricciardo 8.5, Carlos Sainz 7.5, Lando Norris 6.5, Esteban Ocon 8, Pierre Gasly 7, Lance Stroll 7, Kimi Raikkonen 7, Sebastian Vettel 6, George Russell 8, Antonio Giovinazzi 6.5, Nicholas Latifi 5.5, Fernando Alonso 6.5, Mick Schumacher 7, Nikita Mazepin 5, Yuki Tsunoda 4.5.
Constructors: Mercedes 9, Red Bull 8, Ferrari 8.5, McLaren 7.5, Alpine 7, Alpha Tauri 6.5, Aston Martin 6.5, Alfa Romeo 6.5, Williams 6.5, Haas 6
In the Drivers Championship and after his third win in four races cemented his best start to an f1 Championship ominous signs to his rivals, Lewis Hamilton remains top of the tree with 94 points. With the fastest lap point, Max Verstappen is now 14 points behind while Valtteri Bottas (47pts) has half the points of his championship-leading teammate after only four races in 3rd. Lando Norris (41pts) drops to 4th and is now only one point ahead of Charles Leclerc (40pts). Sergio Perez, Daniel Ricciardo and Carlos Sainz, Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly remain 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th respectively while with none of the drivers in the bottom half of the standings scoring points the rest of the order remains unchanged.
In the Constructors Championship, Mercedes (141pts) have opened up a 29 point lead over Red Bull (112pts). Ferrari (60pts) remain 4th in the standings but reduce their gap to McLaren (65pts)in third to five points. Alpine are a distant 5th but remain 5 points ahead of Alpha Tauri (10pts) in 6th. Aston Martin on 5 points in 7th remain unchanged as well as Alfa Romeo, Williams and Haas who are yet to score.
After Lewis Hamilton matched Ayrton Senna’s record for five successive wins at the same circuit, it is time for the location of where Senna recorded his achievement. It is the crown jewel in the F1 calendar which returns after not holding a race for the first time since 1954 due to Covid. If you thought traffic in Qualifying at the Circuit de Barcelona Catalunya was bad, expect more of the same here…it’s the principality of Monte Carlo…The Monaco Grand Prix!