On the surface it looked like a brave fight against the odds by Red Bull’sMax 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.
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.
Lewis Hamilton's race-winning Spanish GP strategy was decided on long before the lights went out in the race and it caught Red Bull and Max Verstappen napping
But there’s always an optimum point of downforce/drag trade-off. On Friday Red Bull ran a big, tyre-protecting rear wing and Sergio Perez did the fastest long runs of anyone. But the drag penalty it imposed would have made them sitting ducks down the straights to the Mercs – which are inherently lower-drag anyway thanks to their low-rake concept.
To achieve position-protecting straight-line speeds required a wing of smaller area – which was fitted from Saturday onwards. Which hurt the rear tyres on a Sunday track that was rather more viscous than Friday had suggested.
All of which exaggerated the Mercedes advantage over a race stint.
Tyre allocation & strategy
Mercedes only increased its tyre advantage by making a more flexible choice on which tyres to have available going into the race. The medium was a better race tyre than the soft which would typically be faster for three-four laps then degrade faster.
If the race was a one-stop – which pretty much every team believed it would be on Sunday morning, based on Friday running – and you started on the soft (which everyone apart from Kimi Räikkönen did), then you only needed to ensure you had one fresh set of mediums to change onto. Which is what Red Bull had for Verstappen (and Perez, who had qualified out of position, in eighth and wouldn’t be a factor).
Mercedes took the possibility of a two-stop more seriously and as a precaution planned its practice and qualifying runs so that it had two sets of mediums available for each car. The race turned out to be a two-stop, something made more certain by the hard pace Verstappen set once he took the lead at the start.
In hindsight, Hamilton losing the start was perfect for Mercedes. It allowed Mercedes to let Verstappen set too hot a pace for the conditions as they turned out to be, only further amplifying Merc’s tyre advantage over Red Bull.
It put Red Bull in the position, with Hamilton shadowing Verstappen and a big gap back to the others, of having to call whether to stay out for a less demanding second stint length or come in, surrendering track position, to protect from the undercut. Whatever Red Bull did, Mercedes would do the opposite, making it a much simpler strategy game for Mercedes, especially as Perez wasn’t there to get in the way.
Verstappen came in first for what Red Bull still believed was going to be the only stop. Mercedes kept Hamilton out for a further four laps, to give him newer tyres than Verstappen for the next stint. As it slowly dawned that actually the race was migrating to a two-stop, so heavy was the degradation, so very worn were the tyres that had just come off Verstappen’s car, then Red Bull was in the awful position of realising it would lose if it stayed out – or if it came in. All that would vary would be the route to defeat.
Red Bull stayed out, Hamilton came in and Hungary 2019 was repeated as the Merc chased the Red Bull down and passed it easily six laps from the end.
Mercedes had given more credence to the possibility of this being a two-stop race and had chosen how to use its allocation of compounds through the weekend accordingly. With two sets of mediums available for the race, Hamilton was better equipped than Verstappen – who had only one set each of mediums and softs – to maximise the Merc’s kinder traits.