There’s an interesting paradox hidden behind the spectacular start to this Formula One season – four close races in which title contenders Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen have gone wheel-to-wheel for the win in each of them.
This is the closest Mercedes and Hamilton have come to being challenged since last season, when Ferrari had the faster car at this point in the season. Despite this, Hamilton has had his best start to a year ever.
Hamilton has only ever won three races and finished second in the first four of a season once before. And that was in 2015, when he won one of his most lopsided championships to date.
Given the razor-thin margins between Mercedes and Red Bull so far this season, it’s difficult to see this year’s championship unfolding in the same way. But, given Hamilton’s and Mercedes’ current form, you wouldn’t rule it out.
His victory in Spain was yet another outstanding effort, aided by yet another masterful Mercedes strategy, bringing him closer to a century of victories, in addition to the 100 career poles he achieved on Saturday in Barcelona.
Hamilton’s brilliant comeback victory after losing the lead at the start shows how much he is enjoying the challenge Verstappen and Red Bull are posing to him and Mercedes this season.
“I come back every year and I’m always trying to improve,” Hamilton explained. “Most of the time, it is or appears to be impossible. It is, however, a requirement.
“The Red Bulls are off to a fantastic start. They, like us, have a championship-winning car and a championship-winning opportunity. And it’ll take everything away from us. Not only must I bring my A-game, but the entire team must bring their A-game, weekend in and weekend out, or these guys will win.”
A victory based on foresight
However, Hamilton and Mercedes are currently showing Verstappen and Red Bull how it’s done.
The Spanish Grand Prix, like every other race this season, came down to razor-thin margins, to the point where decisions made in the days leading up to the race were crucial in determining its outcome.
The battle for pole was once again extremely close, with Hamilton edging out Verstappen by just 0.039 seconds – the average performance gap between the two cars over a single lap this year has been just 0.091 seconds.
With a boldly aggressive move down the inside into the first corner, Verstappen quickly usurped Hamilton’s lead.
“I was like, ‘OK.’ And switched into a different mode as soon as I got passed into Turn One,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton was able to keep a close enough distance from Verstappen to maintain pressure, but not close enough to threaten a pass. And, given the pre-race predictions that teams would only make one pit stop, the statistics of a track where overtaking is notoriously difficult suggested Hamilton was now in trouble.
So Mercedes looked snookered when Verstappen pitted first and kept the lead, despite Hamilton’s inability to do so because he would have come out behind Sergio Perez’s second Red Bull.
But this is where their pre-race strategy paid off.
Mercedes expected the one-stop predictions to be incorrect, and that two stops would be required on a track that has always been difficult on tyres.
So they saved two sets of medium tyres for the race, one new and the other lightly used, to allow them to do just that.
Red Bull, on the other hand, had only one set of new mediums and one set of new softs, which are too fragile to be used as a race tyre for extended periods of time.
These decisions laid the groundwork for the issues that would soon arise for Verstappen.
Hamilton’s first stint was extended by four laps by Mercedes, giving him fresher tyres than Verstappen for the second stint, during which he pushed the Red Bull hard once more. Hamilton then came in for a second set of mediums just 14 laps later. He had 23 laps to make up 22 seconds on Verstappen and pass him. He completed the course with six laps to spare.
“It was interesting,” Hamilton said, “because the one-stop strategy was the fastest all weekend” (according to the computer predictions). However, this is one of the most demanding tracks for tyres, and it’s not easy to get these tyres to go that far.
“It was obvious to me that I was going to a two-stop strategy, especially given how close I was chasing Max.” The team then informed me, and I replied, ‘It’s nothing new.’
“Of course, it seemed so far away when I came out 20 seconds behind, such a huge gap to close.” I wasn’t sure if I’d have enough tyre grip at the end, but he’ll have it even worse. As a result, it was the ideal strategy.”
Did Red Bull make a mistake?
It was a carbon copy of Hamilton’s victory over Verstappen two years ago in Hungary. Red Bull insisted at the time, as they do now, that there was nothing they could have done to prevent Hamilton from winning.
“Too slow,” said Verstappen. “There isn’t much else to talk about.” I tried everything I could to keep up, but it’s just not enough when they’re pushing you from behind and you can tell there’s a bit more speed.
“The fact that Lewis was able to follow so closely shows that there wasn’t much I could do out there to make a difference.”
“We gave it our all. I got a head start and it looks good when you’re in front for a long time. But overall, we just lacked a little bit of pace in the race, and it’s been that way all season: very competitive in qualifying but struggling a little bit more in the race.”
However, there is another perspective on the race. Some speculated that Red Bull could have followed Mercedes’ lead and committed to a two-stop strategy early on. Hamilton would have taken the lead and Verstappen would have been chasing him down.
But, as Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff admitted, it’s a difficult decision to make when you’re in the lead at a track like this.
“You have less to lose if you’re behind,” Wolff said. “Either you finish second on the road, where you were before, or you finish first.”
Even though Red Bull team principal Christian Horner admitted that his team’s pre-race tyre strategy had boxed them into a corner, he made the same point.
“It would be a huge gamble to pit from the lead on lap 42 when all the predictions were that the tyre would last the entire race,” Horner said. “And they would have made it to the end; it just wouldn’t have been the quickest way.”
“Track position is crucial here, and we’d been able to keep it up until that point – and remember, they had a set of mediums, and we had a set of softs that wouldn’t have had the range the mediums would have had.”
“The reality is that they had a faster car with slightly less deg than we did.”
Is there a new debate brewing?
So far, the battle between Mercedes and Red Bull has been fought in a friendly manner. But there’s only a smidgeon of the feeling of a needle creeping in.
Before the race, Hamilton was bragging about how many mistakes his competitors have been making. During the race, he mentioned a “bendy rear wing” on the Red Bull car that gave them an advantage on the straights in a TV interview.
This is a reference to Mercedes’ belief that the Red Bull rear wing has been spotted leaning backwards down the straights.
This is an old trick in Formula One that Red Bull has excelled at over the years. In the past, clever carbon-fibre manufacturing incorporated aero-elasticity into wings. The goal is to achieve just the right amount of flexibility so that wings can bend above a certain speed and reduce drag before snapping back into place for the right amount of downforce as the car slows for a corner.
After the race, Horner was questioned about it.
“The car is thoroughly scrutinized, and there are pull-back tests, and all kinds of tests it must pass,” he explained. “The FIA is overjoyed that it has passed all of the FIA’s rigorous tests.”
“I was taken aback by his remarks, but it’s something Toto has mentioned to me before.” As a result, I don’t believe it was Lewis’ opinion. It most likely came from somewhere else.”
For his part, Wolff remained silent.
A difficult opponent to overcome.
In the last few months, the outlook for the 2021 season has shifted dramatically.
Mercedes struggled in preseason testing, were beaten to pole by Verstappen in Bahrain’s first race by nearly 0.4 seconds, and only won after the Dutchman was forced to hand back the lead to Hamilton after passing him by going off the track. The world champions then appeared to be on the defensive.
Verstappen won the second race at Imola and had a chance to take pole both there and in Portugal if it hadn’t been for some driving errors.
Hamilton, on the other hand, is suddenly turning the screw. After four races, he has a 14-point lead and appears to be in better shape than ever.
“We have to take the positives to the next race in Monaco, that we have been able to push them so close at this circuit, where they were a long way ahead last year and where they have been a strong point for them,” Horner said.
“With the exception of Bahrain, every Grand Prix has been less than 0.1secs between us and pole, so it’s been phenomenally close.” We have to beat Mercedes in Monaco, but it will be extremely difficult.”