The expectation before the cars took to the track for the Spanish GP was the beginning of a new phase in the championship, after nine of the ten teams brought news to their cars. And who seems to have made the biggest jump was Mercedes, which will have George Russell starting in fourth place and Lewis Hamilton starting in sixth place. Charles Leclerc takes the lead, but it was Max Verstappen, who starts second and who won the last two races, who did the best race simulation.
“It’s the same position I was in the last race, but the car’s behavior is very different,” Hamilton said. His companion Russell was even more emphatic. “It’s very significant that we had the best qualifying of the year as a team with the right car thinking a lot more about the race, and the last part of qualifying was not the best for us. Proof of that is that my time in Q2 was faster. Red Bull, at least with Max, is out of reach for what he showed on Friday, but it’s possible that you can fight the Ferraris.”
This speech is completely different from the reality of the first five stages of the season. Mercedes believes it has found a way to solve the problems of porposing, a floor instability that causes the car to slam into the ground at high speeds. The phenomenon still happens, even in two high-speed corners, but the frequency observed in Barcelona, after the debut of a modified floor, is much lower, which allows the team to use the car configuration closer to the ideal.
But why does Russell talk about fighting with the Ferraris, who start first with Leclerc and third with Sainz, and who lead both worlds? The big question mark of this Spanish GP is the consumption of Ferrari tires. What was the advantage of the Italian team in the first races, became an Achilles heel of the car, which was decisive for the defeats in the last two races.
In Spain, drivers believe the race will be defined by tire wear. As the Barcelona track has corners that put a lot of energy into the tires and it is very hot this weekend at Montmeló, conserving the rubber will be even more important than usual for the Spanish race, which was even won last year by Lewis Hamilton with a bet on high tire degradation.
On the Ferrari side, there is some confidence that the wear and tear will not be as great as rivals hope. At least on Leclerc’s side, since Sainz recognizes that he is still not as comfortable as his teammate and has suffered more with the rear tyres.
“That’s what will define the race: tire management. We completely changed the car from Friday to Saturday, which didn’t affect the performance on a launched lap, but I hope it helps a lot on the longer lap sequences”, he recalled. Leclerc. In other words, all that advantage that Verstappen had in the first free practice simulations may not be repeated if Ferrari’s choice of setup was the right one.
On the Dutchman’s side, there is also a concern with reliability, Red Bull’s weakness at the start of the season. He had provisional pole position but on the last attempt his DRS did not open and he had to abort the lap. It’s not a problem to worry about for the race, but it’s more of a failure, and again something that hasn’t happened before.
On pace, Verstappen said he had seen a significant improvement at Ferrari with the changes made from second to third free practice. “So now I don’t think we have the same advantage as day one.”
Another strength of Red Bull was the straight-line speed, but Ferrari in Spain is managing to have a top speed very close to the Austrian car. At this point, even Mercedes, now able to ride with a configuration closer to the ground and having debuted a new power unit, has evolved a lot, in this race that could mark the beginning of a different season for the eight champions.
Other teams that have updated their cars a lot have had different results. Valtteri Bottas did not hide his smile with yet another top 7 with Alfa Romeo, a position he believes he has the pace to maintain in the race. Daniel Ricciardo, on the other hand, said that McLaren has so much news that it still hasn’t managed to get the car’s full potential, which makes him excited for the next races. And Aston Martin just didn’t see the improvement it was hoping for with its new parts, even though they look a lot like Red Bull.