If 2019 proves to be Formula 1’s last visit to Barcelona, the historic circuit didn’t exactly sign off with a classic race. There was an overwhelming sense of déjà vu as yet another race was decided in the very first metres; a race where Mercedes ascended to even greater heights of dominance whilst Ferrari continued to humiliate themselves with increasingly bone-headed strategy calls. Whilst a rather deflating Grand Prix only served to further highlight the vast cultural gulf between the reigning champions and their nearest challengers, the balance of power was rather more subtle in the cockpit…
Top of the class…
Max Verstappen – Aston Martin Red Bull Racing
Qualifying margin to team-mate: -0.351s
Race margin to team-mate: -11.897s
Whilst the internecine battle at Mercedes has hinged on tiny margins in qualifying and the opening lap, Max Verstappen has spent the opening five races of the season quietly maximising his unspectacular RB15. The young Dutchman has probably been the most complete driver of the season so far and has shown signs of using his rocky start last year as a springboard to more mature performances. Max’s headmasterly race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase even felt inclined to applaud his driver during a “stellar” second stint in Baku.
In Barcelona, Verstappen had to rely on a scruffy lap from Charles Leclerc to split the Ferraris in qualifying. The power of the two prancing horses also left Verstappen disadvantaged off the line, with the Dutchman in an effective fifth place at Turn 1. Having seized on the Ferrari tussle in Turn 2 to slip past Leclerc, Verstappen would run the high line in Turn 3 to pass Vettel in a move evocative of Fernando Alonso’s heroic opening lap in 2013. Much as Hamilton tends to be unassailable with track position, once clear in third place there was little prospect of the 21-year-old relinquishing the third step on the podium, despite flashes of superior pace from the duelling Ferrari duo.
Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport
Qualifying margin to team-mate: +0.634s
Race margin to team-mate: -4.074s
Having arguably let the win in Baku slip through his fingers with a bit too much gentlemanly conduct on the opening lap, the reigning champion was on a mission in Barcelona. Things didn’t start well. Despite Barcelona arguably being one of Hamilton’s strongest circuits, he spent Friday struggling to get on terms with a visibly recalcitrant Mercedes. Whilst Valtteri Bottas’ naturally more gentle approach in the car was generating incredible lap times, armfuls of snap oversteer on Lewis’ Mercedes left the Brit six tenths off the pace and gifted Bottas his third consecutive pole.
“It’s a great car, but we don’t always get along. I’m just grateful that we could settle our differences in the race” – Hamilton’s thoughts in parc ferme were a pithy description of the way he put all thought of a difficult qualifying behind him en-route to victory. A clutch vibration might have hamstrung Bottas’ launch, but the Finn can be in no doubt that he still has much to learn from Hamilton’s tyre management. Whilst Bottas found himself under pressure in the closing stages in Baku, Valtteri was never able to mount a sustained assault on Lewis in Barcelona. Hamilton’s knack for conserving the tyre and strategically pulling the pin at the opportune moment was graphically demonstrated on the safety car restart, as he gapped the field by four seconds in a single lap.
Daniil Kvyat – Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda
Qualifying margin to team-mate: -0.202s (Q2)
Race margin to team-mate: -2.389s
Kvyat’s return to F1 has been one of unfulfilled potential, no doubt tinged with the trepidation of an unexpectedly rapid rookie team-mate. In Barcelona, Kvyat was able to keep a solid lid on Albon for the first time since Melbourne. In qualifying the Russian was able to nestle in behind the stratospheric Haas pair – his second successive Q3 appearance. Throughout a combative race, Kvyat put a bold move on Kimi Raikkonen around the outside of Turn 4, swept past eight-placed Kevin Magnussen and could have finished as high as seventh if not for a pit-stop communication meltdown. The Russian is still yet to break through his ninth-place glass ceiling since his abrupt demotion from Red Bull, but there is, at last, a flash of confidence following Kvyat’s travails.
Carlos Sainz Jr. – McLaren F1 Team
Qualifying margin to team-mate: +0.261s
Race margin to team-mate: N/A
Sainz didn’t have the ideal build-up to race day. Having hit out against spiralling rumours of Barcelona’s demotion from the calendar, a mistake on his final lap in Q2 left him down in thirteenth on the grid and behind rookie team-mate Lando Norris. Poor pace in the opening salvos of the race left Sainz vulnerable to Daniel Ricciardo, however, the Spaniard expertly repassed the Renault having ceded the position on his pit-in lap. Pitlane pandemonium at Toro Rosso gained Sainz two positions, and Carlos would also overtake a faltering Grosjean in the closing stages. Admitting that McLaren didn’t have the pace for points in Barcelona, Sainz had to get his elbows out to maintain his 100% points-scoring record at the Spanish Grand Prix.
Homework to do…
Robert Kubica – ROKiT Williams Racing
Qualifying margin to team-mate: +1.182s
Race margin to team-mate: +7.286s
Although the first four races of the season haven’t given much cause for celebration among Kubica’s legions of fans, there has been the temptation to treat the Pole’s performances like those of a test driver: as unrepresentative of the driver’s ability and heavily geared towards car development. Whenever Kubica has been asked to compare himself to George Russell, Robert has been quick to emphasise stark differences between the cars. A fresh chassis for Kubica in Barcelona, however, did not result in any upturn in performance.
Despite Russell ending the final practice session in the barriers and earning himself a gearbox penalty, the young Brit still managed to lap more than a second clear of Kubica in qualifying. Despite starting behind Robert due to his penalty, Russell quickly overhauled the Pole in the race. Kubica claimed that a switch change on his steering wheel momentarily distracted him and allowed his team-mate past. Unfortunately, it’s increasingly clear that Kubica is not performing at a high level. An inevitably uncompetitive return to a Monaco Grand Prix where Kubica was formerly so mighty would be a fitting time to reflect whether F1 is necessarily the best place to enjoy the remainder of his racing career.
Antonio Giovinazzi – Alfa Romeo Racing
Qualifying margin to team-mate: +0.876s
Race margin to team-mate: +5.888s
Just as an anonymous Giovinazzi was yet to announce his F1 arrival after the first four races of 2019, Alfa Romeo didn’t make much of an appearance at Barcelona. An uncharacteristically subdued qualifying from Kimi Raikkonen and an excursion over the gravel on the opening lap was one thing, but worse still was Giovinazzi’s total lack of pace. Having come within half a second of being out-qualified by Russell’s Williams, Giovinazzi’s early switch to the rock solid hard compound tyres left him as one of the slowest cars on track. With Alfa having apparently slipped back in the tight midfield order, the first points of Giovinazzi’s trying F1 career don’t look to be coming anytime soon.
The onboard feed of Sebastian Vettel’s lap in Q3 showed a lap dangerously close to the Ferrari’s ultimate potential, so it was understandable that Vettel tried so hard to make progress at Turn 1. A scruffy lap in Q3 from Leclerc opened the door for Verstappen, however, the ultimate undoing of the Monegasque’s weekend came from the pitwall. The dim-witted reluctance to release Leclerc in the opening stages and the laughable decision to put Leclerc on the hard tyre was truly humiliating for the Scuderia. Maurizio Arrivabene was perhaps the only Ferrari aficionado who enjoyed the Spanish Grand Prix.
The Haas duo was separated by eleven thousandths in qualifying, and the best part of half a second clear of the rest of the midfield. As expected, their race pace was less convincing, with a typically robust assault from Magnussen on the restart robbing Grosjean of his early advantage. The flustered Frenchman would soon fall back into the clutches of Sainz and Kvyat via some WRX-style ‘joker laps’.
A difficult round for Renault and Racing Point exposed the weaknesses of their respected packages. Both Nico Hulkenberg and Lance Stroll found the barriers (with varying severity) during the weekend, whilst Daniel Ricciardo and Sergio Perez tried their best to minimise their car’s deficits in qualifying. A quantum leap in track evolution and a fine lap allowed Ricciardo to sneak his Renault into Q3, however, neither he nor his pitlane-starting team-mate was able to sustain a concerted bid for points. Whilst Stroll ended the race in the barriers thanks to Norris’ over-optimistic attempt to maintain the line in Turn 2, both Racing Points were well out of points contention by that stage.