McLaren's 2011 Spanish GP despair repeated in '24 — with Verstappen in Vettel role


At the 2024 edition of the Spanish GP, George Russell replicated Fernando Alonso's brilliant start from 2011. As Mark Hughes points out, it wasn't the only similarity the two F1 races share

Fernando Alonso George Russell Spanish Grand Prix

Two sublime Spanish GP starts — 13 years apart

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“I was channelling my inner Fernando Alonso there,” said George Russell of his spectacular start to the Spanish Grand Prix on Sunday — from P4 into the lead by Turn 1. What he was making reference to was Alonso’s 2011 vault to the front from the same position. Both were brilliant manoeuvres but quite different in how they played out. As ever, there are always historical parallels and looking at that 2011 race and that of Sunday, the one which really stands out is that the victorious Red Bull driver was made to work hard by an aggressively fast McLaren. Max Verstappen and Lando Norris were reprising the parts of Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton from Barcelona 2011.

As with the Russell/Alonso comparison, the way it played was slightly different but the essence was the same. History doesn’t repeat, as the saying goes, but it very often rhymes. There were other instances too in the detail of the races where the chords were resonating through 13 years of time.

In 2011 Alonso sat on the grid in his Ferrari on a scorching Spanish afternoon looking at two Red Bulls ahead of him on the front row, Mark Webber on pole from Vettel, and Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren — which had qualified P3 — to his left.

2011 Spanish Grand Prix

The front-runners of 2011 prepare for take off in Barcelona

As the lights went out, Alonso got the drop on Hamilton immediately and was straight into the slipstream of Vettel, who in turn was getting a tow from Webber. Vettel, caught between trying to attack Webber and defend from Alonso, shimmied right. Alonso — now really being sucked along by the tow — was gaining fast and Vettel chose to suddenly dart left to go for Webber’s outside, leaving the inside line available for Alonso. Shifting up to seventh gear at 286km/h (178mph), he dived decisively to the right of Webber who tried hard to dissuade him, showing him the grass at close to 300km/h (186mph), but Alonso, to the great roar of the crowd, kept it nailed to take the lead, with Vettel, Webber and Hamilton tucking in behind him.

On Sunday Russell sat in his Mercedes in that same grid slot, Norris’s McLaren and Verstappen’s Red Bull sharing the front row ahead of him, with team-mate Lewis Hamilton – who had qualified P3 — to his left. He’d been watching videos of old race starts here. He’d been particularly taken by Alonso’s 2011 getaway. Because the run to the first corner is so long here (the longest of the season), whoever gets away in the initial lead is always at something of a disadvantage in that they are fighting the full force of the air, whereas those behind are getting a tremendous tow. If George was going to repeat Alonso’s move, he’d need to utilise that tow and not back off, so as to keep the momentum.

The start was good, immediately giving Russell the drop on Hamilton and allowing him to get straight into the tow of Verstappen and Norris who were two-abreast, with Norris easing Verstappen over towards the grass. Perfect. Not only were they slowing each other, but Russell could get the tow from first Verstappen, then switching left, from Norris – to give him enough of a boost to go clean around the outside of both of them as he changed up to eighth gear. By the time he stood on the brakes he was cleanly in front, with Verstappen and Norris tucked in behind him. As in 2011, the pole sitter had been demoted to third by Turn 1.

As with Alonso in 2011, Russell’s car wasn’t good enough to keep him in the lead, but it was a similarly brilliant cameo. Russell stayed in front for just two laps, Alonso managed to stay there for two whole stints before finally being undercut by Vettel and Hamilton.

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This — 2011 — was Pirelli’s first year as the standard tyre supplier and it had gone adventurous on compounds. The demands made by Barcelona’s long, fast corners made this a nominal four-stop race! Remember those? As Red Bull struggled to get Vettel — who was suffering an intermittent KERS failure — into clear air to express his car’s superior performance, they were even considering a five-stop… So many stops made it ridiculously difficult for fans to keep hold of what was happening.

Vettel’s first attempt at undercutting the Ferrari had floundered on him not clearing traffic on his out-lap. He managed to do it at the second stops. Hamilton managed to overcut himself ahead of Alonso and Webber, with a huge in-lap. He then set chase for Vettel. Jenson Button, meanwhile, was running a very conservative three-stop in his McLaren and would later emerge ahead of the Alonso/Webber dice too, in third.

Running such aggressive strategies and defending or attempting undercuts left Alonso and Webber committed to a very long final stints – obliging them to fit the much slower hard tyres for 37 laps. The Ferrari was hopeless on the hard tyre. Webber did eventually get past it and the home hero who’d lit up the start would be a lapped fifth by the end.

Fernando Alonso 2011 Spanish Grand Prix

Mark Webber passes Alonso, who would eventually finish fifth

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Russell faced a similar dilemma on Sunday. His side-by-side dice with Norris in the second stint — which lasted from Turn 2 to Turn 7 — used up the last of his medium-compound tyres but it was still far too early to fit the softs. He had no more mediums left and the pitwall watched his rear tyre temperatures beginning to drop ominously – a sure sign they are close to finished – and his gap over Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari was reducing steadily. If they waited any longer, the tyres would drop off and he – and his closely-following team-mate Hamilton – would be undercut by the Ferrari. So he was obliged to come in with 25 laps still to go and also obliged therefore to take the unloved hard tyre. Hamilton was able to run long enough to get onto the soft tyre – and with that was able to pass Russell for third.

Which was one place lower than he managed in 2011. He’d kept the pressure on Vettel through the last two stints, but despite the latter’s KERS problems, track position decided it. There just wasn’t enough lap time difference despite Hamilton’s newer tyres for an on-track overtake to be feasible, though several times Hamilton got alongside and just 0.7sec separated them at the flag.

Norris of course made a thrilling late charge on Verstappen’s Red Bull too. But that time stuck behind Russell in the first stint was ultimately too much to come back from. Yes, Verstappen and Red Bull were managing the gap, but if he’d been obliged to push, Verstappen was pretty certain he could not have matched the late-stint times Norris was setting. Second is tough to take when a victory feels within your grasp. And that’s how it was for McLaren. In 2011 and ’24.