F1 2021 SPANISH GRAND PRIX: Mercedes win the strategy battle again
Sir Lewis Hamilton’s 100th pole in Formula 1 dominated the headlines from yesterday’s qualifying session, however with championship rival Max Verstappen just three hundredths behind him, another duel for the win was expected.
Sergio Perez was looking to bounce back from a disappointing 8th on the grid, whilst Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari and Esteban Ocon’s Alpine were hoping to battle for best of the rest.
A Crucial Start
Just three times has someone won a Grand Prix in Catalunya from outside the front row, meaning that getting into Turn 1 in the lead could be vital in deciding the outcome of the race.
Off the line it was Verstappen who got the better launch and on the run down to Turn 1, drew up alongside and forced his way past Hamilton into the lead. Daniel Ricciardo got up to fifth in his McLaren, whilst Leclerc managed to drive round the outside of Valtteri Bottas in Turn 3 to move up to third.
Verstappen quickly pulled out of DRS range, whilst Leclerc and Bottas fell away from the top two. Perez had worked his way up to sixth, with Ocon, Carlos Sainz, Lando Norris and Fernando Alonso rounding out the top 10.
By the end of Lap 6, Leclerc was already nearly 9 seconds off the lead, effectively making the race appear a straight fight between Hamilton and Verstappen.
Safety Car Neutralises The Duel
The tide changed on Lap 8 when Yuki Tsunoda’s AlphaTauri parked up at the exit of Turn 10, forcing a full safety car to be deployed.
On the Lap 11 restart, Verstappen controlled the field perfectly to maintain the lead, with the only change in the top 10 being a superb move by Lance Stroll on Alonso for 10th place.
After that it was very much as you were, with Leclerc once again unable to keep pace with the Red Bull and Mercedes in front of him.
However as the stint wore on, Hamilton began to apply pressure on Verstappen, despite some severe blistering at the right rear. Leclerc and Bottas were in their own race for third, with Ricciardo heading the midfield pack behind.
Undercut or Overcut?
Tyre wear overall was pretty high amongst the field, meaning that the timing of Hamilton and Verstappen’s stops would be vital to deciding the race outcome.
Bottas stopped on Lap 24 in an attempt to undercut Leclerc, whilst Hamilton closed within just half a second of Verstappen as the Red Bull dived into the pits as Lap 25 started.
However, just when a perfect stop was needed, Verstappen had an issue at the rear, adding around 2 seconds to his stop.
Despite this, Mercedes elected not to take the overcut opportunity, and instead him and Leclerc stayed out in a bid to come back at Verstappen and Bottas later in the race.
However by Lap 29, Hamilton’s soft tyres finally had enough, with the top two pitting, allowing Verstappen and Bottas up to 1st and 3rd respectively.
Sainz’s Ferrari also gained a place on Ocon in the pitstop phase, whilst Hamilton immediately set to task with his fresh tyres, lapping a mighty 1.5 seconds a lap faster than the Red Bull in front.
By Lap 34, Hamilton had got within DRS range of the lead but at this point the gap finally stabilised.
Hungary 2019 Deja Vu?
As soon as Hamilton caught Verstappen, the charge faded. As the laps wore on, the gap remained around a second, with Bottas keeping station in third, Leclerc a lonely fourth, whilst Ricciardo, Perez and Sainz fought over fifth.
Mercedes knew that they were resigned to second by staying out, so on Lap 43, they suddenly brought Hamilton in for a fresh set of mediums. Hungary 2019 immediately sprung to mind when a similar strategy gave Mercedes the win; was history about to repeat itself?
Red Bull elected to keep Verstappen out and chance fate again, with the showdown set to go down to the final few laps. In brighter news for the team, on Lap 46, teammate Perez finally got the better of Ricciardo for fifth, with a beauty of a move around the outside of Turn 1.
Ricciardo and Sainz reacted to this by making a second stop of their own, coming out behind Ocon and Norris, but with much fresher tyres enabling them to swiftly get back past.
Fresh Tyres Win Out
Hamilton’s pace in third was relentless, often nearly 2 seconds a lap faster than Verstappen as he attempted to haul back the 22 second disadvantage of an extra pit stop.
However this charge was briefly disrupted when Bottas quite evidently ignored the team orders to not hold his teammate up, forcing the Brit to pass Bottas “properly”, losing him 0.3 seconds to Verstappen on Lap 52.
Bottas responded by pitting, however this dropped him behind Leclerc back into fourth place.
With 10 laps to go, the gap between Verstappen and Hamilton was down to just 4.7 seconds, with Red Bull resigned to the fact that there would be a tense battle to hold on in the last few laps.
Leclerc’s superb drive still wasn’t quite enough for a podium, when Bottas repassed him using DRS on Lap 57.
By Lap 59, the lead was just 1.5 seconds with both Hamilton and Verstappen now complaining about their tyres. However, the Red Bull’s tyre deficit was just too strong and as the two entered Lap 60, Hamilton used DRS to finally take the lead that Verstappen had held from the start.
Norris moved past Ocon for eighth, whilst Stroll and Alonso’s battle for 10th became controversial when Stroll’s Aston Martin was pushed off the road into Turn 1, but then failed to go round the red and white bollards to rejoin the track safely.
Mercedes 3-1 Red Bull
Verstappen pitted at the end of Lap 60 onto a fresh set of soft tyres for the fastest lap point, but Hamilton had once again used strategy and guile to grab victory from a losing position.
The controversy over 10th place became futile when Pierre Gasly came through to take the final points place.
Hamilton’s victory was the 98th of an ever unbelievable career, 15 seconds clear of Verstappen by the finish.
Bottas took home third, Leclerc a quite outstanding fourth, Perez fifth whilst Ricciardo held off Sainz for sixth. Norris finished a slightly underwhelming eighth, whilst Ocon crossed the line just a couple of tenths ahead of a charging Gasly to round out the top 10.
In the championship battle, Hamilton now led Verstappen by 14 points, Bottas moved up to third whilst the battle for fourth between Norris and Leclerc was separated by just a single point.
The F1 grid now takes a week off before heading to the Principality and iconic streets of Monaco in a fortnight’s time.
Here is the full provisional classification for the 2021 Spanish Grand Prix:
|2||33||Max Verstappen||Red Bull Racing||+15.8|
|3||77||Valtteri Bottas (FL)||Mercedes||+26.6|
|5||11||Sergio Perez||Red Bull Racing||+1:03.6|
|8||4||Lando Norris||McLaren||+1 Lap|
|9||31||Esteban Ocon||Alpine||+1 Lap|
|10||10||Pierre Gasly||AlphaTauri||+1 Lap|
|11||18||Lance Stroll||Aston Martin||+1 Lap|
|12||7||Kimi Raikkonen||Alfa Romeo||+1 Lap|
|13||5||Sebastian Vettel||Aston Martin||+1 Lap|
|14||63||George Russell||Williams||+1 Lap|
|15||99||Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo||+1 Lap|
|16||6||Nicholas Latifi||Williams||+1 Lap|
|17||14||Fernando Alonso||Alpine||+1 Lap|
|18||47||Mick Schumacher||Haas||+2 Laps|
|19||9||Nikita Mazepin||Haas||+2 Laps|