Race Review: Mercedes show ingenuity to give Max Verstappen and Red Bull Hungarian nightmares
It's not often we can say this, but what a great race we had in Spain over the weekend! Once again the clash between Mercedes and Red Bull brought excitement where there is not normally excitement. Pete Sharland looks back on the race as once again the wily old fox of Mercedes had too much nous (and speed!) for the energetic young pup that is Red Bull Racing.
Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton (R) celebrates on the podium next to Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen after the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix race at the Circuit de Catalunya on May 9, 2021 in Montmelo on the outskirts of Barcelona
Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner must have afforded himself a wry smile at Peter Bonnington’s message to Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton.
The reigning world champion had just come out of a surprise second pit-stop with a gap of 22 seconds between him and race leader Max Verstappen, who had launched a brilliant attack on turn one of the opening lap to take the lead from the Brit.
Speaking after the race he added "It was more or less what you can see coming," he told Sky F1. "Personally, I'm not too disappointed because I tried everything I could but we were just too slow.
"After the first stop when we were both on the mediums I could see he was a lot faster. To be all the time within 1.2s around here is almost impossible, so I was just trying to keep my tyres alive.
"Then he pitted so I knew it was over. Of course that doesn't go through in my wind, I'm still doing the best I can to try and bring it to the end in the best possible way, but I knew that as soon as they pitted that second time he would come back at me a bit like Hungary. There is not much you can do."
Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton talks to Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen after the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix race at the Circuit de Catalunya on May 9, 2021 in Montmelo on the outskirts of Barcelona. (Photo by Emilio Morenatt
Image credit: Getty Images
Of course it’s a carbon copy of Hungary two years ago, something Horner alluded to both on team radio during the race and when speaking to Sky Sports afterwards.
His Mercedes counterpart Toto Wolff, who was fired up in the garage, said he felt Red Bull were in a powerless position.
"It's so difficult I guess at the front for Red Bull to take the right decisions because you give up position you could have lost the race," said Wolff.
"Second is just easier when you have the gap to make that call."
Second placed Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing, race winner Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes G and Ineos CEO Sir Jim Ratcliffe celebrate with sparkling wine on the podium during the F1 Grand Prix of Spain at Circuit de Barcel
Image credit: Getty Images
It’s easy to look back now and wonder whether Red Bull should have pitted as well to try and match Hamilton. Given just how quick Hamilton was though it’s hard to say whether that would have made much of a difference.
As for Hamilton he was vocally unsure of the team’s tactics in Hungary and he admitted afterwards he still thought it was a gamble.
"When I came in I thought, 'jeeze that's a long way to catch up',” he told Sky after the race. “It's a big gamble. Obviously we had to really execute it perfectly and I think we did together."
"I was really conflicted," he admitted. "Do I come in or I do ignore the call and stay out?
"Obviously I did what the team asked and naturally that's because there's a great trust between us.
"Just a remarkable job by everyone in this team. What a day."
Race winner Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP and second placed Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing celebrate with sparkling wine on the podium during the F1 Grand Prix of Spain at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on May 09, 202
Image credit: Getty Images
As we wrote last week after another Hamilton masterclass in Portimao, any questions about the seven-time world champion’s commitment have to be put to bed now. Hamilton looks more fired up than ever and he is clearly relishing the battle with Verstappen, the respect between the two in press conferences is evident. It doesn’t seem too far a stretch to say that this fight has reinvigorated Hamilton.
The problem is how long will it be a battle for? The season is long of course but the gap is already up to 14. Horner and Verstappen both admitted there wasn’t enough pace today, particularly when the Mercedes went onto the mediums, so what’s the solution? As we mentioned earlier perhaps Red Bull could have pitted along with Hamilton and risked the position but that’s far too easy to say in hindsight. Somehow they need to find a little extra pace.
Of course the elephant in the room right now is Sergio Perez. The Mexican finished over a minute behind Hamilton and, perhaps more worryingly, nearly ten seconds behind Charles Leclerc who beat him for fourth. Valtteri Bottas isn’t exactly pulling up trees but he’s sandwiching Verstappen in an uncomfortable fashion for Red Bull.
What makes it more uncomfortable for Horner is that sitting ten seconds behind Perez is former Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo, who had one of his best races in recent years. Horner’s commitment to Verstappen is one of many reasons that Red Bull lost Ricciardo. Can you imagine what the title race would be like if we had Ricciardo competing with Verstappen and the two Mercedes in this new Red Bull car? Get that on Netflix.
One driver who really does deserve credit is Leclerc, who had absolutely no right to be competing where he was given how much faster the Mercedes and Red Bulls are. If Ferrrai can get a top car into the hands of this young man the results are going to be special. Despite Ricciardo’s heroics, McLaren need to keep watching Ferrari in that battle for third.
It was less good news for Alpine, a team we highlighted last week as being able to really push in the midfield. There were engine problems that cost Fernando Alonso points and bumped Esteban Ocon down to 10th. Hopefully for them it was just a one-off.
As a final note please can we get more FIA radio of Toto calling for blue flags for everyone’s favourite gravel collector Nikita Mazepin.