On the surface it looked like a brave fight against the odds by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in initially leading a faster Mercedes driven by Lewis Hamilton, but succumbing to the inevitable before the end. But beneath that, some fascinating dimensions about this season’s battle between them were revealed, both technical and sporting.
Barcelona is arguably the most aerodynamically demanding track on the calendar. But that probably wasn’t the crucial differentiating factor between Mercedes and Red Bull on this occasion. Rather, it was the way the abrasive track surface and long duration turns worked the tyres of the two different cars which turned out to be key.
It’s linked to aerodynamics, but is also about elastomers and chemical bonding and the different effects the two cars had on those mechanisms. We’d seen only glimpses of it in the season to date but at Barcelona it was very clear: the Red Bull brings its tyres up to temperature much quicker but takes more out of them too. Especially on a thermal degradation-inducing track like this.
Verstappen snatched the race lead at the start – actually a move which suited the Mercedes camp perfectly
Eric Alonso/Getty Images
So there was absolutely nothing between them over a lap – Hamilton taking his 100th pole position by the margin of hundredths from Verstappen – but over a sequence of them, there really was no question which was the faster car around this track, on this day.
After Verstappen won the contest down to turn 1, Hamilton simply shadowed him, allowing Mercedes to put a repeat of Hungary 2019 on him, trapping him into defending on much older tyres, a sitting duck towards the end of the race.
The key factors of this weekend’s contest were nicely scattered. They were:
Hamilton is brilliant at managing the rubber while conjuring searing pace at the appropriate moment. But this was a car matter too.
The temperature of the left-hand tyres are the crucial ones here, typically the fronts initially, the rears as the stint goes on. There is wear and there is thermal degradation. Usually one or other is the critical consideration according to the layout. Here those two mechanisms are to be taken equally seriously.
The Red Bull around these turns was generating higher tyre temperatures, just as it was around Portimão. Which was a boon in qualifying, a pain in the race, because unlike in Portimão, it accelerated the reduction in performance. The tyres get ample chance to recover around the lap of the Portuguese track but not here. The rears were the limiting factor on the Red Bull much sooner into the stint than on the Mercedes.
The surest way to look after your rear tyres is to smother the car in downforce. It will slide less and the temperatures will be better controlled, which in turn will cause it to slide less further – a nice virtuous circle. Red Bull can put more aerodynamic load onto its car than Mercedes.