Don Kennedy on Formula One
There was plenty of drama in the Spanish Grand Prix and mixed fortunes for the championship leader, Charles Leclerc, and defending world champion, Max Verstappen.
Anyone just checking the results without knowing what happened, will see that Verstappen won the race, his fourth in six races, and 24th F1 victory, while Leclerc didn't finish, meaning Verstappen has taken a lead of six points in the championship.
Fernando Alonso remarked after starting from last place on the grid and finishing 9th "that's the magic of motorsport", a sentiment Leclerc can probably relate to.
This was a topsy-turvy affair for the championship leaders. In the first half of Qualifying 3, Leclerc had a spin and it looked like Verstappen would take pole position. But on the second run, Leclerc put in a stellar lap, while Verstappen had to back out of it due to a power issue caused by a malfunctioning DRS system, an issue that would continue to plague him in the race itself, which Leclerc started on pole.
Leclerc was building a lead over Verstappen when the latter went off at Turn 4, caught out by a gust of wind, rejoining behind George Russell in the Mercedes and his Red Bull teammate, Sergio Perez. It seemed Leclerc could cruise to victory, but the racing gods had other ideas because, on lap 27 of 66, he had a loss of power and had to retire the car.
Leclerc's demise left Russell leading the race, something that seemed unthinkable even after the Miami GP two weeks ago.
But like a lot of the teams, Mercedes arrived at Barcelona with substantial upgrades, including a car with sideboards, having started the season without any. Mercedes now has the third-fastest car and Lewis Hamilton, having started the race sixth on the grid, may have been able to race up front with his teammate had he not tangled with Kevin Magnussen on Turn 4 of lap one.
Hamilton had to pit with a puncture, dropping to the rear of the field with Magnussen, who had tried to go around the outside of Hamilton's under-steering car, when the two made contact.
Magnussen ended up travelling through the gravel trap instead, which the race stewards deemed to be a racing incident, but Hamilton may have been lucky to avoid a penalty for causing a collision. As it was, he was all set to give up, there and then, radioing the team, suggesting they may want to "save this engine if I was you".
However, his race engineer encouraged Hamilton to keep going, suggesting a good points haul was possible, and he was right. Hamilton would finish fifth, lamenting the fact he had to give back fourth place to Carlos Sainz, as had to cool his Mercedes engine to finish the race.
"Gutted to lose that place to Sainz, but especially after like coming from where I came from, you know, like I mean that was 30 plus seconds behind last place," Hamilton said. I mean that's no man's land, and I'd say it's a horrible feeling being that far behind."
But the feeling Hamilton had was nothing compared to what Leclerc felt, knowing his demise meant losing the lead in the championship to Verstappen. He did not know what had happened to his car that had given him his fourth pole in six races.
"I don't know anything, more than what happened basically," an exasperated Leclerc said. "I had no indications before, and it just broke and then lost power completely. So, it's a shame."
Even with Leclerc out of the fight, and the other Ferrari of Sainz too far back after he also went off at Turn 4 early in the race, Verstappen didn't have it all his own way.
"The first 30 laps for me was very frustrating because I really don't know what happened in Turn 4," Verstappen said.
"I just brake at the same point and suddenly I just completely lost the rear and went off which really caught me by surprise."
"They told me there was a lot of tailwind suddenly because it was very gusty around the track the whole race and some laps you went in and everything's stable, next lap suddenly it was all a bit more on the edge."
The second problem for him was the DRS only working intermittently, and despite having caught up to Russell, after Perez under team orders had let him through, he couldn't overtake Russell without the use of DRS despite trying lap after lap. He was on the team radio letting them know his frustration.
"We can't even make the DRS work, unbelievable," he raged on the team radio.
His engineer suggested he was switching it off after switching it on, but Verstappen knew it was not something he was causing. The team decided to pit him for fresh tyres and then begin to chase down Russell, who Perez had passed.
The pit strategy paid off because Verstappen on fresh tyres was able to take the lead after Perez, who had passed Russell, pitted as did the Englishman. In the post-race debrief, the Sky sport commentators were keen to press the issue of Red Bull imposing team orders and perhaps depriving Perez of a possible victory. Certainly, the Mexican, who had never been on the Spanish podium until finishing second in this race, did not shy away from showing his feelings about being asked to move over for his teammate, and later pit for a third time.
"That's very unfair, but okay," Perez said on the team radio. "I'm happy for the team but we need to talk later."
Red Bull boss Christian Horner defended the team's decision.
"The last thing you want to risk is you know, DNF, when you have got two cars that can potentially one-two, and they were on different strategies, so it wasn't a straight fight. Max had such a tyre advantage. And of course, Checo's tyres wouldn't have made it you know, we don't think to the end so that's why you know, he pitted towards the end of the race to get that valuable fastest lap as well.
"Our responsibility is to bring the cars home with as many points as we can. I think we discuss it, you know openly. I think he will see the race plot."
By the time Perez got to the post-race interviews, he had either had a chat with Horner, or better understood why he had to yield the race lead.
"We were on different tyre strategies at the time. I let mine expire in the beginning, then I thought at the time I could go by and not lose crucial seconds, you know, to make my strategy work," Perez explained. "But anyway, it's a good team result.'
The 1-2 finish for the team, the second this season, gives Red Bull a lead of 26 points over Ferrari in the all-important Constructors' championship. It is after all a team sport and Perez, who is not yet confirmed for next year, knows he has a role to play rather than wanting the drivers' title for himself. He will also know that Verstappen is quicker than
him. His role is very much like Valtteri Bottas had as Hamilton's teammate for five seasons.
Sky F1 commentator Ted Kravitz couldn't understand what Perez doesn't understand about being a number two driver.
"Let's face it, I think if you don't realise that that's your position in this team then you're probably the last person on God's green earth who doesn't realise that this is your position within the Red Bull team," Kravitz said on TV.
Rubens Barrichello was the number two to Michael Schumacher at Ferrari from 2000 to 2005. He learnt all about team orders at the 2002 Austrian GP. Schumacher had won four of the five races held before Austria, but Barrichello took pole and had a lead of one second over Schumacher starting the last lap.
The Ferrari team principal at the time was Jean Todt, who until recently was the FIA President, and he ordered Barrichello on the team radio to give the win to Schumacher on the last lap, or he would be fired. Fifty metres short of the finish line, Barrichello let Schumacher through and the crowd went crazy, booing the drivers and the team. It brought the sport into disrepute and the FIA responded by banning team orders. But Barrichello knew Ferrari was Schumacher's team, and that he wouldn't be allowed to win unless Schumacher was not in a position to win himself.
Verstappen called Perez "a great teammate" and will be well aware of the importance of having a teammate supporting him, as opposed to one who always wants to beat him. Perez is 35 points behind Verstappen and obviously still a title contender after six races, but the reality is he will struggle to beat both Verstappen and Leclerc.
The next race is the Monaco GP this weekend. Leclerc was born in the principality, so would love to win his home Grand Prix, and the street circuit will possibly suit the Ferrari more than the Red Bull, as cornering speed will be more important than straight-line speed. Pole position is key on a circuit where overtaking, on-track at least, is just about impossible. Leclerc already has four poles in six races and would love to make it five.
Two weeks ago, Leclerc drove the late Niki Lauda's 1974 championship-winning Ferrari in a historic sports event and crashed it at the Rascasse corner. It wasn't his fault as something broke on the car, the magic of motor racing, Alonso might say.
Verstappen won the race last year for the first time and if he wins it again on Sunday, it would be his 25th Grand Prix victory, a significant milestone, as that is the number of wins the late Jim Clark and Lauda both achieved. Verstappen is only 24 and already in the top 10 drivers in terms of race victories.
- Sources: F1.com; Sky F1; Red Bull Racing