Five talking points from a sizzling Spanish GP

23rd May 2022
Damien Smith

Charles Leclerc can’t catch a break right now. A week after a brake failure pitched him into an embarrassing crash in an ex-Niki Lauda Ferrari at the Monaco Historic Grand Prix, his modern-day F1-75 let him down just as his day job appeared to be going as well as it possibly could. Leclerc was stroking to victory from pole position at a sizzling hot Spanish Grand Prix, only for an engine failure to rob him blind.

To rub it in, the retirement handed the world championship lead to his rival Max Verstappen for the first time this season, the Red Bull ace enduring a trying afternoon at the Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona before claiming his first victory at the track since his F1 breakthrough win in 2016.


Leclerc shows his class

“No, no, no, no,” Leclerc wailed on the radio as the Ferrari lost power on lap 27 of 66, and who could blame him? Having recovered superbly in qualifying from a spin on his first Q3 run to take pole position, he retained the lead of the grand prix with a decisive move at the start to prevent Verstappen taking an advantage into Turn 1. Once the Dutchman skated off at Turn 4 on lap nine, it seemed Leclerc’s hard work was all done. Ferrari let its lead driver down badly in Spain.

Yet, when interviewed in the aftermath and while the race was still going on, Leclerc showed no sign of petulance or complaint, and calmly spoke of the “positives” of a strong weekend’s performance from Ferrari in the wake of Red Bull’s strength at Imola and Miami, then added how there were “plenty” of them too. He was hurting, of course he was, but it was also noticeable how, when he retired the Ferrari to the pits, he shook hands and hugged each and every member of his crew who were keen to console him. He’s a class act.


Tensions simmer at Red Bull

In contrast, Verstappen once again blew his top on the radio when technical problems made his afternoon harder than it had to be. The world champion had already made a rare unforced error with his moment in the gravel at Turn 4, when it seems he was “caught by surprise” by a gust of wind, just as Carlos Sainz Jr had been two laps earlier. Then Verstappen lost his cool while hunting George Russell, in what became a fight for the lead after Leclerc’s retirement, when his Drag Reduction System (DRS) rear wing only worked intermittently.

At times, the flap would open only to immediately close, making it impossible for Verstappen to make a move on Russell stick into Turn 1. “We can’t even make the f****** DRS work, man! Unbelievable,” he raged, presumably in reference to Red Bull’s reliability problems that have already led to a pair of race retirements in 2022. Verstappen is not a patient man when confronted by such vulnerabilities – but that’s not news.

Red Bull reacted well, using pitstop strategy to lift Verstappen past Russell and then made that different approach an excuse to implement team orders against Sergio Perez. The other Red Bull didn’t have the pace to beat Verstappen over 66 laps, but nevertheless ‘Checo’s’ frustration at his ‘number two’ treatment caused obvious tension. Like Leclerc, he kept his cool in public but made it clear he wished for further discussion behind closed doors. It always hurts to be treated as second-best – but again, the fact Red Bull prioritises Verstappen over his team-mate is hardly surprising, Perez shouldn’t have been surprised.


Russell earns deserved podium

Having outqualified his team-mate Lewis Hamilton and Perez, George Russell put in a terrific drive to earn himself a podium finish. His own good start combined with a poor one for Carlos Sainz Jr lifted him from fourth on the grid to third, which became second when Verstappen made his error at Turn 4. But it was his robust defence against the Red Bulls that will have pleased Mercedes-AMG the most. There were radio mutterings of Russell changing his line in the braking area, but his defence was just the right side of fair and the moment when Verstappen attacked at Turn 1 on lap 24, only for Russell to come back at him through Turn 2 and ease him wide through the long Turn 3, was the best of the race.

In the end it was inevitable that both Red Bulls would overcome him to claim a one-two, but it was clear afterwards he was pleased with his efforts and a Mercedes performance that bodes well for the team’s revived hopes after its difficult start to the year.


Hamilton’s what-might-have-been

Lewis Hamilton was also pleased with his afternoon’s work and reckoned he could have taken on the Red Bulls if he hadn’t clashed with Kevin Magnussen’s Haas at the start. From sixth on the grid, he was in that zone where anything could happen and as Magnussen drew up on the outside line the pair came together, the Dane shooting off through the gravel as Hamilton limped back the pits with a puncture and damage. Magnussen reckoned: “He rammed me. Lewis knew what he was doing.” But the stewards declared it a racing incident, and that was about right.

Hamilton’s dejected remark on the radio about “saving the engine” suggested he was ready to give up. But the seven-time world champion must have given himself an internal talking to, because he then put in a measured comeback drive that lifted him well into the points –far above the eighth place his team had initially projected as a possible outcome.

Late on, he came across Sainz battling the two-stopping Alfa Romeo of Valtteri Bottas, watched as the Ferrari passed at Turn 1 and demoted his former team-mate further at Turn 3. Then Hamilton closed in on Sainz and calmly despatched him into Turn 1 to seemingly earn a fine fourth behind team-mate Russell, only for late cooling worries to force him to back off. That allowed Sainz through to claim a consolation fourth for Ferrari, with Hamilton fifth. Still, the point had been made and Hamilton was pleased with the progress he found in his W13 after the team brought updates to Spain to cure those dreaded ‘porpoising’ issues.

Lewis also revealed a conversation to a terminally ill child the day before had helped his sense of perspective and given him extra motivation, and he dedicated his drive to her. A lovely touch.


Excellent Bottas is best of the rest

Sixth place for Bottas was a great return for the Finn, who qualified seventh to continue what is turning into a great season for him. Once Sainz and Hamilton passed him, he voiced his frustration on the radio about a strategy that went against the three-stop choice that was best in Spain. Regardless, it’s good to see Bottas thriving out of the cauldron that was his life alongside Hamilton at Mercedes.

Esteban Ocon rose from the 12th on the grid to finish seventh for Alpine, ahead of Lando Norris who drove well in the face of illness. Spanish hero Fernando Alonso put in a typically great drive to rise from a penalised back-of-the-grid start following an engine change, and a disappointing qualifying where he failed to progress beyond Q1, to finish ninth. And Yuki Tsunoda, who is quietly improving for AlphaTauri, took the final point in tenth.

It’s Monaco next, and we only have six days to wait. Will it prove to be another procession around the principality or will the new-era F1 cars give us a better show?

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • Formula 1

  • F1 2022

  • Spanish GP

  • Charles Leclerc

  • Max Verstappen

  • George Russell

  • Lewis Hamilton

  • Valtteri Bottas

  • f1-2021-spain-lewis-hamilton-mercedes-steve-etherington-mi-main-goodwood-10052021.jpg

    Formula 1

    Four talking points from the Spanish GP

  • f1-2021-austria-max-verstappen-sam-bloxham-mi-main-goodwood-05072021.jpg

    Formula 1

    Seven talking points from the Austrian GP

  • f1-2021-austria-george-russell-valtteri-bottas-steve-etherington-mi-main-goodwood-05082021.jpg

    Formula 1

    Mercedes 2022: Bottas or Russell?