Verstappen wins Spanish GP battle, but is Leclerc winning the war?
- Last updated: May 24th 2022
Charles Leclerc lost the F1 championship lead after retiring from the 2022 Spanish Grand Prix. But Ferrari's pace - and a resurgent Mercedes - mean Max Verstappen's advantage could be short-lived, writes Mark Hughes
Charles Leclerc couldn’t believe his beautiful day could be coming to such a brutal conclusion as the Ferrari lost power 27 laps into a race which he’d dominated from pole. But his anguish didn’t last long. He coasted the car around the remainder of the lap to retire, got out and, looking remarkably unstressed, consoled his team. It was as if rediscovering the pace with which to take on and beat Max Verstappen’s Red Bull, rather than being soundly trashed by it on race day – as had happened in the previous two races – was such a relief that the fact of the retirement didn’t sting quite as much as it might have done.
Inevitably it was Verstappen who ended up benefitting and his victory sees him leading this championship for the first time. But it was a nervy display all weekend, with a troublesome DRS mechanism which had cost him a shot at pole and compromised his race – and then a trip through the Turn 4 gravel on the ninth lap which dropped him from right on Leclerc’s tail to three places and many seconds behind. From there, as well as Leclerc’s retirement, he twice needed the co-operation of team mate Sergio Perez to win this race – and had to fight his way past the epic defences of George Russell in a Mercedes which finally seems to be working.
Was Red Bull really slower?
Maybe not. It had certainly looked much the fastest car in the long runs of Friday. That was before Ferrari decided to change the set-up overnight, though. But even so, that faulty DRS had denied Verstappen what looked like a real shot at pole on his final Q3 run. It went instead to the always-dramatic Leclerc who’d spun his first Q3 attempt away two corners from home but who produced a stellar high-pressure lap in the dying seconds to take career pole 13.
Verstappen’s first attempt secured him the front row though and so it was Leclerc/Verstappen into the first turn and they eased away from Russell, who’d aggressively defended his place against Perez through Turn 2.
There seemed nothing in it as Verstappen tracked Leclerc. This was going to be a race of heavy tyre management and the answer to who was faster was going to be answered by which of them best solved that equation. The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya and its fast, long-duration turns, is always very tough on tyres. Add in a Spanish heatwave that gave August-like conditions in May and the tyres were melting. Keeping the rubber’s degradation in balance front to rear over many laps was going to be the key. The Red Bull had shown on Friday that it could do this brilliantly well. But then so had Leclerc’s car on Saturday morning after the simulator boys had got busy at Maranello on Friday night.
The new set-up took the strain away from the front tyres, albeit at the expense of a more oversteer balance, one which Carlos Sainz – struggling all weekend – really didn’t like but which Leclerc relished.
Strong crosswinds at Turn 4 gave Sainz a trip through the gravel on the seventh lap and Verstappen a similar incident a couple of laps later, the latter moment seemingly releasing Leclerc into a comfortable victory. He was leading by over 12sec when the sudden power loss came.
Without either Verstappen’s incident or Leclerc’s retirement, this was poised to be an epic contest between them. Verstappen wasn’t sure how it might have panned out. “He did pull away from me a little bit at the time, but there were races also before where this has happened where we still won. I’m not saying that I’m not looking at it; for sure they had a really strong weekend and we definitely need to improve. We need to be better over one-lap performance, especially. But I think we were so early on in the race that it was a bit difficult to tell how big the margin was exactly. After I went off we never really had a reference anymore. But this weekend shows that with all the upgrades they brought they definitely took a step forward. So now it’s up to us to try and close that gap down again.”
Is Mercedes Back?
Not fully, yet. But it looks on its way. Its deficit to the front has been slashed. The porpoising is now under control, revealing a car very fast on the straights now it’s no longer being pounded into the track, very good in slow corners and not bad in fast ones.
It was enough to give Russell a car with which he could enjoy an epic multi-lap wheel-to-wheel fight with Verstappen for the first time since they were karting kids. Russell was super-tough in defence and Verstappen with a repeat of his qualifying DRS failure was unable to pass him.
After Verstappen’s off, Perez had allowed him past under team instruction to attack the Mercedes. But now Checo felt he was being slowed by them and was asking Red Bull to revert. That wasn’t going to happen. Instead Verstappen was switched from a two to a three-stop strategy. He had more than enough pace to beat the Mercedes that way. Or at least Russell’s Merc, which was ultimately around 0.5sec adrift on race pace. Lewis Hamilton’s might have been a different matter – because he was flying. But from way behind, courtesy of a first-lap incident with Kevin Magnussen, a punctured tyre and a long, slow drive to the pits which lost him 45sec in all.
If the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya was going to be the ultimate test of the success of the 2022 regulations, then it certainly delivered, but it was perhaps reliability that was…
Hamilton’s set up was different to Russell’s, didn’t work as well over a lap of qualifying but protected the front tyres better. Extrapolating the actual tyre deg numbers he had to a place 45sec up the field (where he would have been without the incident), Mercedes reckon he’d have been fighting Perez for second – and with the end of straight superiority to have got him past. That would, though, have involved moving Russell aside.
As it was, Hamilton took fifth, with almost no coolant left in the engine because of a leak. This required him to virtually coast the last couple of laps, handing fourth place back to the damaged Ferrari of Sainz and just keeping Valtteri Bottas’s Alfa behind.
A Red Bull 1-2, a Mercedes on the podium, a quiet, dispirited fourth for the only Ferrari running at the end. But the underlying form is quite different, with a revitalised Ferrari – and Mercedes almost ready to join the party.