Verstappen got lucky, no doubt about that. Leclerc’s retirement with a power unit issue brought about a 32-point championship swing, compared with the likely outcome before that point: the 25 that Charles didn’t get and the additional seven that Max did by winning rather than finishing second.
But that’s presuming that Leclerc could have run the early lap pace he displayed, and coped with tyre degradation later on had Verstappen not had his early-race trip into the Turn 4 gravel and come back at him. We’ll never know. On balance though, Max was due a break after his mechanical misfortunes in Bahrain and Australia.
People keep trotting out the “Verstappen has won every time he’s finished” stat. It’s true, but it’s pretty irrelevant when Leclerc and Ferrari had him handled in both races he didn’t finish and appeared to have had him handled in Spain, too. The contest really is beautifully poised.
On Friday at Barcelona, that didn’t appear to be so. Although Leclerc was quickest over a single lap, his softs were going away after eight laps or so and Verstappen’s long runs looked significantly better. It looked ominous for Ferrari.
“We are going to have a busy night,” Leclerc confirmed. The nuances of car set-up are so significant to getting the best out of the Pirellis and the manner in which Ferrari was able to come back on Saturday and put in a much better FP3 long run on the soft compound rubber, was truly impressive. It certainly hadn’t escaped Christian Horner’s notice, the Red Bull team principal saying pre-race that any trend for the Red Bull to be easier on its tyres could not be taken for granted at a Barcelona where nobody had anticipated almost 37C ambient and 50C track temperature.
The frustrating thing is that we didn’t get a definitive answer, Sainz’s gravel excursion damaging his floor and killing his pace. But Leclerc’s 20-lap soft tyre opening stint after going quickly enough to get Max out of DRS range out of the blocks, strongly hints that Ferrari was on top of it. The irony, of course, was that Max only had his DRS intermittently.
He was not shy of venting his frustrations about that. It’s been a recurring issue at Red Bull and Max’s in-race reactions when it prevented him from getting by George Russell’s Mercedes, served only to illustrate the intensity of his Leclerc fight even more.
Charles, too, with his heartfelt “No! Nooo…” revealed just how hard a kick to the unmentionables was that Ferrari turbo failure. The beauty of ’22 is that, as last year, you have two absolutely top-drawer drivers able to fight out the championship. Rare and priceless in F1. To have it two successive seasons with different talents is spoiling us a bit!
What about the chances of it becoming a three-way fight given all the Mercedes positivity? Well, without wanting to be a killjoy, Brackley / Brixworth still has a way to go.
Post-Miami, the average deficit of the faster Mercedes in qualifying to Leclerc – pole-sitter at four of the opening six races – stood at 1.02sec. In Barcelona, Russell qualified 0.66sec behind Charles’ Ferrari. While Merc has certainly made a step, it’s not enough fight for race wins or championships.
But what it does seem to have done, if Hamilton’s outstanding race pace was any barometer, is to make the car a much more raceable proposition.
Lewis has now finished behind his team mate in the last five races. Again, it’s a meaningless stat given the circumstances, but one which he will detest nonetheless. I couldn’t help but think that it might have been behind his suggestion to stop and save the engine after his opening lap coming-together with Kevin Magnussen. Sort of, “Oh no, not again! People are going to start getting the wrong idea…” Mercedes telling him to keep going because eighth place and four points might be achievable, probably didn’t help!
But this was Lewis, never a man to go for a Sunday afternoon cruise. Eighth place. Pah! How about fourth with enough pace to nick the race’s fastest lap at one stage and earn Driver of the Day. Enough evidence that if Mercedes, having radically improved its porpoising issues, can now concentrate on unlocking more potential and get somewhere close, then they may still be a threat.
Although the result sheets have Russell ahead of Hamilton in those last five races, Lewis’s average qualifying pace is 0.14sec ahead of the man known as ‘Mr Saturday.’ And given his competitiveness, relentless race speed and ability to look after tyres, you wouldn’t bet on George still being ahead come Abu Dhabi irrespective of the racing savvy he, too, displayed last weekend. But he’s made a damn fine start.
There are other interesting team-mate dynamics. Other than Valtteri Bottas whitewashing a rookie Zhou Guanyou, not unexpected, the only other 6-0 team mate advantage across the grid is between Leclerc and Sainz. Carlos surprised many by qualifying within an average tenth of Charles across the entire 2021 season. This year, the margin is double that.
At Red Bull, Perez, who averaged more than 0.4sec shy of Verstappen last year, is much closer this season, backing up Christian Horner’s opinion that he is better suited to the less quirky RB18.
As last year, Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon are separated by the proverbial cigarette paper’s width at Alpine. At McLaren, Daniel Ricciardo outqualified an ill Lando Norris for the first time this year in Barcelona. But the fact that he was comprehensively outraced by Lando despite tonsillitis, and an average qualifying deficit of 0.33sec, will be very uncomfortable for Daniel.
Team-mate Qualifying Comparisons 2022
Table shows all qualifying head-to-heads between team-mates, with the fastest driver named first. The speed deficit calculation excludes races with variable conditions (Imola) and sessions when a driver suffers a disadvantage through no fault of his own (i.e. Sainz in Melbourne). When one driver progresses further than his team-mate in qualifying, times from the last session both contested are used.