"It could be Hungary all over again, mate," was the mid-race radio message from the Red Bull Racing pit wall to Max Verstappen. After losing the lead to Verstappen at Turn 1 on the opening lap, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes used a combination of race strategy and on-track overtaking to reclaim the lead at the 2021 Spanish Grand Prix. At the flag, Hamilton clinched the 98th win of his Formula 1 career and became the only driver to convert a pole position to victory this season.
Valtteri Bottas claimed third in the other Mercedes, making this yet another 'HAM VER BOT' podium finish. The trio have shared the podium (in no particular order) at the Spanish Grand Prix since 2018. In fourth place was Ferrari's Charles Leclerc followed by Sergio Perez in his Red Bull. Mclaren's Daniel Ricciardo finished sixth, less than second ahead of Carlos Sainz Jr (Ferrari) while Lando Norris grabbed the eighth place. Alpine's Esteban Ocon finished ninth and was the only driver in the top-10 to use the one-stopper. AlphaTauri's Pierre Gasly overtook six cars in the last stint of the race to go from 16th to 10th and score the last championship point.
Has Mercedes bounced back?
Early season form indicated that Red Bull Racing were the class of the field and the clear favourites for this year's titles. The conversation around 'low rake vs high rake' concepts peaked as Mercedes claimed that the rule changes this year impacted their low rake aerodynamic philosophy more than Red Bull. After back-to-back wins in the last seven days in Portugal and Spain, one wonders if Mercedes have found effective solutions to adapt to the rule changes and claim the 'best of the class' tag from Red Bull. Mercedes-Hamilton's response to the threat from Red Bull-Verstappen has been a mix of technical development and the driver's ability to deliver superlative performances time and again.
Irrespective of which team claims the tag, the margins between the two are extremely fine. On Saturday, Hamilton clinched his 100th pole position in Formula 1 by 0.036 seconds to Verstappen. But come Race Day, Mercedes had the measure of Red Bull in race pace. Despite losing the lead to Verstappen at the start, Hamilton was able to keep pace with his rival. In fact, the reigning World Champion's pace on the medium tyre was unmatchable " a key to Mercedes using a two-stopper strategy vs Red Bull's one stopper (Verstappen's second stop was for the fastest lap of the race).
"It had been the plan all weekend for us to make sure we had two mediums to be able to do a two-stop. Even though a one-stop potentially looked better, I know from experience here that a one-stop is very, very hard to pull off," Hamilton explained ,
Mercedes' Toto Wolff elaborated further on his team's tyre strategy, "I think we had a quick car, but when you lose position on the first lap it puts you on the back foot. It was difficult for Red Bull as the car in front to make the right decision on strategy, being in second it's easier if you have the gap to make the call that we did today."
Could Red Bull Racing have avoided defeat?
If Red Bull knew all along that Mercedes were repeating their race-winning strategy from the 2019 Hungarian Grand Prix, why could they not respond differently and protect their win? For starters, Red Bull were convinced that they didn't have the pace to win in Spain.
"We couldn't have done anything differently today, Lewis and Mercedes were quicker than us and able to follow Max so closely without hurting their tyres. We were able to hold track position but when the field opens up to the degree it did behind, Lewis gains a free pit stop which leaves you in the horrible position as race leader trying to brave it out to the end instead of sacrificing track position," Christian Horner, Red Bull's Team Principal said.
Like in Hungary, Red Bull Racing missed having their second driver in the fight against Mercedes. The 'second driver' problem has existed since Ricciardo left the team in 2018. It is true that Mercedes can and do play with race strategy using both their drivers against a lone ranger Verstappen. But in Spain, they could have attempted two possible scenarios. First, pitting a lap after Hamilton's second stop. They would have lost track position, but could have remained in the fight for the lead of the race. The key element in Red Bull not opting for this strategy could have been that they had only a soft compound remaining for the race for Verstappen.
In which case, could they have pitted 12-14 laps to the end of the race, switched Verstappen to the softs and tried to chase down Hamilton? Red Bull are generally the best executors of race strategy and the general sense is that in the 2021 Spanish Grand Prix the team settled for second place rather than fight and accept the resulting outcome. "I pretty much knew that when he (Hamilton) pitted for the second time that he would come back at me on the new tyres a bit like Hungary 2019 and although I did everything I could I was a bit of a sitting duck," said a dejected Verstappen post-race.
After qualifying a fine fourth place, Leclerc delivered a splendid race to claim fourth at the flag. Despite starting on the dirty side of the grid, Leclerc managed to overtake Bottas on the opening lap and kept position till the first round of pit stops where the Mercedes driver managed to undercut him. Unlike Portugal, the team didn't experience graining on the medium compound in Spain, a key to their good performances this weekend. Sainz's seventh place meant that Ferrari have scored double points in three out of the four races contested this season.
Leclerc said, "It was a very good race. I had a good start, then went for the outside in turn 3, which worked out for us. From then on, we had a very competitive race. Our pace was strong, both on the soft and medium tyres. Still, P4 was the best we could achieve."
After four races, Hamilton leads the Drivers' Championship from Verstappen by 14 points. The two drivers have exchanged first and second positions at every race this season. Bottas' third in Spain saw him jump Lando Norris to third place in the standings. In the races he's completed this season, Bottas has finished third!
In the Constructors' Championship, Mercedes lead Red Bull Racing by 29 points while Mclaren (65 points) and Ferrari (60 points) are separated by only five points in their battle for third place. Alpine are in fifth place with 15 points, scoring only a fourth of Ferrari's points yet. Three teams " Alfa Romeo, Williams and Haas are yet to score a point this season.
Up next is the 'Crown Jewel' of the Formula 1 calendar, the Monaco Grand Prix (21-23 May). For Red Bull-Verstappen to get a hold on their championship fortunes, victory will be key.