The beginning of a bold new era of Formula 1 in 2022 had truly been a bright one for Ferrari following two winless years mired in mediocrity.Charles Leclerc’s two victories, four pole positions and four podium appearances in the first five races had left none questioning Ferrari’s speed, the team’s spotless reliability record in races – with zero mechanical retirements in ten combined starts – had built the narrative that they held a key advantage over their far more fragile Red Bull opponents.
That perception was reinforced during qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix, when Max Verstappen’s rear wing began misbehaving, failing to open when the driver instructed during his final flying lap, robbing him of a realistic last chance to take pole position. Leclerc gladly accepted this opening invitation to secure the top spot on the grid – his second pole in succession.
While Verstappen was understandably frustrated, he at least could draw consolation from the fact Red Bull were able to address the fault pre-race, replacing the DRS actuator and flap pins. Problem solved, surely?
Not that Verstappen’s DRS would be of much use to him over the 600 metres between the start line and the first corner as he aimed to jump the championship leader at the start of the race, under the gaze of over 150,000 spectators slowly being baked under the Spanish sun around the Circuit de Catalunya, the five red lights flashed on in order before rapidly extinguishing.
When they did, Verstappen’s initial launch was a touch cleaner than Leclerc’s. But before the Red Bull could use his momentum to draw alongside, the Ferrari covered off the inside line, holding it through the first corner and, with it, the lead. Behind, Carlos Sainz Jnr proved a little too eager in his desire to join that exclusive club of grand prix winners in front of his home crowd and almost jumped the start from third on the grid, catching himself at the last moment, but losing out to George Russell and Sergio Perez once the field was released.
As the field filtered through the opening sector, Lewis Hamilton’s much-improved Mercedes came under attack from the largely unaltered Haas of Kevin Magnussen over sixth place. Rounding turn four, the metal of their 18-inch wheels briefly met as if magnetically attracted to each other, bouncing Magnussen into the gravel and down to the very bottom of the order.
“All okay, Kev?”, Magnussen was asked. “Err, no,” came the reply. “Puncture. Front-right. Fucking Lewis just rammed me.”
Hamilton’s front-left tyre was now rapidly losing pressure at much the same rate as Magnussen’s front-right. With no Safety Car to spare them, the two wounded cars had to crawl, painfully slowly, back to the pits, leaving Hamilton 54 seconds from the leader and Magnussen a full minute in arrears.
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Leclerc led the opening laps from Verstappen, with Russell, Perez, Sainz and then Valtteri Bottas behind in sixth. The entire field had opted to start on soft tyres – bar Hamilton, who was seemingly now out of the picture – making the opening stint of the race more akin to a Formula 2 sprint race than a typical grand prix.
Russell could not keep pace with the two out front and began dropping back from the leaders by around half a second each lap, with Perez and Sainz in pursuit of the Mercedes. Then, on lap seven, Sainz’s Ferrari suddenly lost grip entering turn four, skidding into the gravel and causing alarm on the Ferrari pit wall.
“Update for damages, please,” Sainz’s engineer Riccardo Adami calmly demanded after his driver had sheepishly rejoined the circuit. “No damage, just the tyres. Check the tyres,” Sainz replied. “I’m happy to keep going.” Sainz’s fourth significant error over the last four race weekends had, on this occasion, cost him six positions, but at least he was still in the race.
With track temperatures on this scorching day roughly comparable to the surface of Mercury, Red Bull had instructed Verstappen to go “straight into management” of his soft tyres before the first lap was over. The primary mission was not to catch Leclerc, but to nurse his delicate tyres as effectively as he could to reach his target lap without burning through them.
So it was especially shocking when, just two laps after Sainz, Verstappen uncharacteristically lost the back end of his car entering turn four and became the third driver in just over 10 minutes to acquaint himself with the gravel trap on the outside of the corner.
“It really caught me by surprise, because I didn’t feel like I was actually braking later or throwing more speed into the corner,” Verstappen later explained. “But it was very gusty out there today. One lap it felt all stable and then the next lap suddenly you could have more oversteer in places. So probably that caught me out by surprise.”
Luckily for Verstappen, Sainz’s earlier off had left a convenient gap ahead of Bottas for the Red Bull to slot back into in fourth, only two places and eight seconds worse off from where he had been prior. But now Verstappen was behind team mate Perez, who was now within DRS range of Russell in second.
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“Let’s get him, Checo,” race engineer Hugh Bird told his driver. With Verstappen right behind him as the three approached the long main straight at the end of lap 10, Perez was given one more chance to pass the Mercedes. “This is your chance,” Bird said. “Get it done.”
But Perez was not able to draw alongside Russell let alone pass him.
“Okay Checo, let Max have a shot,” Bird instructed.
“Give me one more lap,” Perez pleaded.
“No, give him a shot now,” Bird swiftly countered. “We’ll pay it back later.”
“Copy,” Perez reluctantly accepted, blending out of the throttle to allow Verstappen by into turn seven.
The switch was executed so well it allowed Verstappen to be within DRS range of the Mercedes the next time by the pit straight. But after Verstappen failed to close up on Russell, Gianpiero Lambiase came over the radio.
“Max, info,” Lambiase called in to his driver. “The DRS flap did not open last lap,” he explained. “Keep trying.”
But while he was close enough to have DRS available at the end of the lap, neither of the two would take to the straight as both Russell and Verstappen pitted at the end of lap 13, switching onto the medium tyres and rejoining the track in tandem. Over the next 10 laps, Verstappen’s battle with Russell became secondary to the battle he was having trying to get his rear wing to open correctly.
“Oh, the fucking DRS!,” Verstappen shouted, unimpressed. “Engine 11, position five,” Lambiase suggested. “Well that didn’t make a fucking difference!” replied the increasingly irate driver.
Aware of the problem, Mercedes kept Russell informed about his pursuer’s DRS status, having deployed a team member to keep an eye on it from the pit wall each time the Red Bull passed by. Despite never falling outside of a second behind Russell, his inconsistent rear wing allowed the Mercedes driver to hold onto third, which was upgraded to second when Perez pitted on lap 17.
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Eventually, on lap 24, Verstappen’s DRS did open when requested, giving him a powerful tow down the main straight. Russell pulled to the inside, but Verstappen went further, out-braking the Mercedes into turn one and appearing to be through. However, Russell fought back, countering up the inside of turn two to take back the place, before fending off Verstappen’s attempt around the outside of turn three, the Red Bull having to take to the run off.
“Not sure he left you a car’s width,” Lambiase mused on the radio, though if that was for the benefit of the stewards, it drew no reaction.
While Verstappen was fighting with Russell and his rear wing, leader Leclerc pitted after a long opening stint, and resumed comfortably at the head of the field. The fastest car of any on the circuit, Leclerc looked to be in complete control of the race when he dropped down the hill from the exit of turn five on lap 27. But as soon as he began to climb back up it again, a loud pop from just behind his crash helmet changed everything.
“No! No, no no…” cried the championship leader. “What happened? Lost power.”
Ferrari frantically searched for solutions as Leclerc’s lead began to evaporate in the heat, but none were in their driver’s power. What was looking like a commanding victory for the team was now set to be Leclerc’s first retirement of the season, made all the more real when the team cleared the garage and told their driver to pit – game over.
“Sorry about that,” race engineer Xavier Marcos Padros tried to console him. “It’s okay,” Leclerc replied. “We’ll come back stronger.”
Ferrari had no indication that their chances of victory were over until it was too late, said team principal Mattia Binotto after the race.
“It was a sudden issue,” he said. “We do not have yet an explanation, so the power unit will be back at Maranello travelling during the night and we will disassemble it tomorrow morning.”
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The unexpected twist of Leclerc’s departure meant that the battle for second between Russell and Verstappen was now a battle for the lead. But it became a three-way battle, with Perez on fresher tyres having caught back to the pair. And after his good deed for his team mate earlier, he was expecting restitution.
“Get Max out of the way,” demanded Perez, “so I can overtake quickly.”
However, Perez was told they were concerned about his tyres and asked him to drop back to around two seconds behind his team mate.
“Why don’t you let me by?”, Perez protested. “I have very fresh tyres. I could get by quickly.”
“We’ll get our chance,” Bird promised.
Red Bull solved any difficult conversations with their drivers by pulling Verstappen in for his second stop on lap 28, taking advantage of the spread out field behind to have him fall to only fourth behind Bottas, who he would rapidly get by for third.
Around the same time, Perez got the run he was looking for on Russell and, with the help of DRS, breezed by the Mercedes and up into the lead of the race of the first time. With new soft tyres on his car, Verstappen wasted no time in getting up to the back of the Mercedes for a second time. In response, Mercedes opted to take Russell’s second stop, moving him onto another set of medium tyres but not losing any positions in the process.
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This left a Red Bull one-two out at the front of the field for the first time that afternoon. Red Bull pitted Perez for the second time on the lap after Russell, their driver now far enough ahead to rejoin before the Mercedes came by.
Verstappen was already committed to a three-stop strategy and it was little surprise when the now-leader dipped into the pits on lap 44, switching to soft tyres and away from his old mediums. Perez inherited the lead back from Verstappen. With no more planned pit stops to take and their team first and second, Red Bull’s one-two seemed assured, but in what order?
On his fresher tyres, Verstappen began catching Perez at a rate of over a second a lap. “Okay you’re on a different strategy to Max,” came an ominous warning from Red Bull to Perez. “If he’s quicker, we let him through.”
“That’s very unfair,” Perez insisted. “But okay.” Perez would eventually comply at turn four, the scene of so much of the day’s action, allowing his team leader to take up position at the head of the field.
“Thank you,” Bird offered in gratitude.
Despite being likely to be able to reach the flag on their current tyre set, Russell and Perez were both called in for a third stop, but retained their positions. Perez took the fastest lap honours, but any temptation Verstappen had out front to pursue the same was overridden in both his own mind and by his team. “Just bring it home,” Verstappen radioed to the team. It was likely music to their ears.
While the race at the front appeared to be over, there was plenty of action behind. Bottas had been next in line behind Russell for most of the second half of the race, but now he was under intense pressure from Sainz and a remarkably resurgent Hamilton, who was in genuine contention for a top five finish.
On lap 58, Sainz got a strong run along the main straight and was past the Alfa Romeo before the pair had even hit the brakes for turn one. Hamilton then followed his former team mate by on the exit of turn two before running around the outside at turn three to take fifth. But that did not seem to be enough for Hamilton, who later overtook Sainz to claim fourth – an impressive recovery as there had been no Safety Car to help his recovery from 50 seconds back.
But out front, Verstappen was just waiting for the race to end with no one around to keep him company. He had benefitted from the first real instance of misfortune for Leclerc, but with the race pace he had shown in practice, it was not surprising to see him claim his third consecutive win in a row. With that came the championship lead – a remarkable turnaround after his lap nine plunge into the gravel.
“A bit of a race of two halves,” Verstappen summed up after the race, “because the first 30 laps were very frustrating.”
Although he had moved ahead of Leclerc in the drivers’ championship, Verstappen believes Ferrari proved they were more formidable opponents with their upgrades last weekend.
“We always have to improve, but, for sure, after this weekend, it shows that with all the upgrades they brought I think they definitely took a step forward,” he said. “So now it’s up to us, of course, to try and close that gap down again.”
Perez was all smiles on the podium, and though he clearly wished he had been granted permission to defend a possible race win he was eager not to rock the boat too much in public.
“It still is a great team result,” Perez accepted. “The season is still very young and I think the momentum in the team is great.
“We just have to discuss a few things internally. If anything, I can say that the atmosphere in the team, the momentum we’re carrying – it is tremendous, like no other team, so I’m pleased with that.”
Having secured his second podium of the season, Russell had plenty of reason to feel positive about his weekend. Not just from his result, but what the overall performance from Mercedes said about their prospects for the rest of the season to come.
“I think we probably have probably halved the gap to those front-runners, compared to the rest of the season,” he explained.
“We know there’s probably more performance to find. It’s been a season of problem solving, as opposed to trying to find more performance and bring more performance to the car. We’ve now finally solved our issue and we can now focus on bringing more performance.”
Mercedes’ most competitive showing of the season was soured by a late problem for Hamilton. A water leak on his car forced him to back off heavily in the final two laps just to ensure he would finish, and let Sainz back through into fourth. Nonetheless Hamilton described his comeback drive through the field as “amazing.”
“To start the race today positive and then to have that problem, but then to come back, it felt a lot like some of the olden days, older races that I’ve done,” he said. “That for me feels amazing.”
Bottas finished in sixth, with Esteban Ocon claiming seventh ahead of Lando Norris. This was a mighty performance by the McLaren driver who was a grim sight out of the car as he battled the worsening effects of tonsillitis. Fernando Alonso also enjoyed a strong recovery drive from the very back of the grid to finish ninth at home, ahead of Yuki Tsunoda in tenth.
While Sunday may have been Verstappen and Red Bull’s, the entire weekend had given Leclerc and Ferrari plenty to feel confident about despite losing the lead of the championship. As strong as Verstappen’s race pace had been, Leclerc had also been in complete control of the race until his power unit had let him down.
“So in those situations I think it’s good to also look at the positive and they are there today.”
Heading into his home grand prix at Monaco next weekend – a track that has never proven kind to him – Leclerc will be more determined than ever before to show that he will be in the hunt for this title right up until the very end.
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