The Spanish Grand Prix was a race with unanswered questions. Would Charles Leclerc have won without his engine failure? Was Sergio Perez not allowed or unable to win? Where would Lewis Hamilton have ended up if he had not had to make a forced pit stop after a inning? Would Valtteri Bottas have become number four with three pit stops? Did Sebastian Vettel and Mick Schumacher have realistic chances for World Cup points?
The first question is probably the easiest. Leclerc would have won the race with his left hand. The Ferrari driver pulled away from his pursuers on the fresh soft tires and held on longer than them. With his pit stop on the 21st lap, he had come far enough to complete a two-stop race. It was still faster than a three-stop race with the right portioning of stops.
Just before his retirement, Leclerc’s lead was 12.6 seconds. Even a Max Verstappen with a working DRS would not have caught up with them. To close the hole he would have had to set a pace that would have ruined the tires. With its upgrade, Ferrari was again the faster car. And thanks to a setup change Friday night, the tire wear was back under control. Red Bull will have to go up.
Red Bulls double-edged sword against Russell
Sergio Perez demanded explanations from his team. He was deprived of his chance to win as he had to let Verstappen pass without a fight but never got the spot back. The team assured Perez that he was on a different strategy than Verstappen. At the time, Perez was running on medium rubber, Verstappen on Pirelli’s softest blend.
For a long time, George Russell had two Red Bulls in his rearview mirror. Verstappen despaired over his DRS. If it worked, he was too far away. When he got close enough, the rear wing remained closed. It was therefore surprising that Verstappen completed the first tire change at the same time as Russell and then, as expected, had to stand in line behind the silver wall again.
Perez was allowed to hold four laps longer with the first set of tires, and after just seven laps, he caught up with the duo Russell and Verstappen again. This time with the fresher tires. Red Bull played a double chance. At the time, Perez’s chances of winning were even better than his team captain’s.
But only if Red Bull had consistently adapted the Mexican’s strategy to two stops. Then the first two tire changes for Perez on laps 17 and 37 should have been delayed a bit to be able to finish comfortably with the third set.
But this time the team result and the best possible race spoke for Verstappen. The Dutchman was forced to make three stops due to his DRS problems. It took over. “He would never have passed George on the track,” Mercedes is convinced.
Decision against an internal race
With the same strategy, Perez would never have had a chance against his teammate. He did not have the speed to do that. It shows the 13 seconds after the finish line. And also the 12 seconds he lost to stable rivals between laps 28 and 37.
Even with one stop less, it would have been close because Red Bull always had to keep an eye on George Russell. The Mercedes driver forced Red Bull to respond to the undercut with his second pit stop on the 36th lap with Perez.
With a lead of 5.3 seconds, however, they could have taken two more laps, which would have shortened Perez ‘last stint. Perez could have defended his temporary lead against Verstappen until lap 42. The midfielder would have so easily survived the remaining distance of 24 laps. And Verstappen would have fallen behind Perez again with his third stop.
But Red Bull had long ago decided on an internal race. Three stops was the safest way to a double victory. “We would have done the same in their place,” the Mercedes strategists confirmed. Perez was then allowed to take the fastest lap as a consolation.
Hamilton in front with late stops
The task would have been even more difficult for Red Bull if Lewis Hamilton had not grazed Kevin Magnussen in the first half. The overdue pit stop threw the ex-champion 53.9 seconds behind Leclerc, 53.1 seconds behind Verstappen and 50.3 seconds behind Perez.
The accident dictated the strategy of Mercedes. Anticyclical tire changes were the best way to save Hamilton traffic in his race to catch up. Hamilton stopped late on laps 22 and 48, and actually ran a race with two stops.
The question of what would have been possible for the Mercedes driver is a bit academic as he had to stop the gas the last ten laps due to a water leak. So Hamilton’s run lasted only until lap 56. And until that time, since the unplanned pit stop on the opening round, he had won 12.3 seconds on Verstappen and 32.6 seconds on Perez.
If the race had gone normally, he would have become a dangerous opponent for both Red Bulls. Not for Leclerc. He even took 16.6 seconds from Hamilton at the 20th lap.
Faster than the strategy forecast
Hamilton surprised Mercedes’ strategy program. After the early pit stop, it gave him eighth place as the best possible result. In the end, the record winner became number five. “Lewis was much faster than we had calculated.”
His alternative deck strategy could have turned out to be a joker. He was the only one in the field to start on the middle deck. At the Mercedes command post, people were surprised that no one else had this idea. “We wanted to be the only ones in the top six group with that starting tire. But it was funny that no one tried it back. Even if we assumed we were going to be three tenths a lap slower than Ferrari and Red Bull, it was ours. “tire choice in the beginning without any great risk. No one could have made an underbid against us. The midfield was too slow to get close to us.”
Mercedes expected that the soft starters would drop from the 14th lap and that Hamilton would drive significantly longer. The plan was round 24 or 25. “If Lewis had not been hit on the first round, it would have really paid off. The second round would have taken us to round 50, and we would have chosen the tire type for the final round depending on the race situation. “Without the collision, we would have been 45 seconds closer to the front. Lewis would have been on the podium. He would probably have beaten Perez as well.”
Bottas fourth with third stop
Leclerc’s failure gave Hamilton a free kick. Carlos Sainz only finished ahead of Mercedes with starting number 44 because his opponent had to slow down to save the engine. The Spaniard lost 14 seconds in a spin and was then unusually slow. His apology: “The undercarriage was damaged as he drove through the gravel bed.”
Valtteri Bottas would have been a tough nut for Hamilton if Alfa Romeo had not tried to put the Finn over the distance with two stops. But the second stop on the 34th lap was clearly too early for that. In the last ten innings, Bottas lost one to two seconds per round to his direct opponents. At the 54th lap, the Sauber driver was still 3.4 seconds ahead of Sainz and 7.2 seconds ahead of Hamilton. If Bottas had done the same as his opponents, he would have been number four.
German drivers got nothing in Barcelona. Aston Martin was still learning its new car and had to slow down because it got too hot under the hood. Sebastian Vettel tried his luck with a two-stop strategy, but in the end he was missing almost 16 seconds from last place in the points.
“We did not have the momentum for points today,” team manager Mike Krack admitted. Not yet. In the Aston Martin camp, rapid progress is expected with the B version. “The car is good for the top ten,” says technology director Andy Green.
Mick Schumacher scored in three stages of the race. From rounds 1 to 12, in rounds 28 to 29 and then again from rounds 53 to 55. The mistake lay in the strategy. A two-stop race with the second tire change on the 30th lap could not go well.
The Haas pilot was literally inhaled by the competitors in the final of the race. Schumacher dropped from ninth to 14th place. Someone at Haa’s command post should have noticed that the tires were breaking down faster than the competitors. So three stops are actually mandatory.