Lewis Hamilton overcame a 24-second time deficit to hunt down and pass Max Verstappen to win the 2021 Spanish Grand Prix. But Mercedes had laid the foundations of that victory long before the lights went out on Sunday.
Their big-picture view of the strategy for the entire weekend meant they were able to rely on a crucial advantage at the perfect moment, and leave Red Bull with no ability to respond.
But at a circuit which has always proved kind to the world champions, was losing this race really the blow to the championship underdogs that it seemed to be?
Mercedes have been so dominant on Saturdays in Catalunya that it is a wonder the circuit’s officials haven’t painted the front row grid markings silver in their honour.
Having secured pole in all seven Spanish Grands Prix in the V6 era – with six front row lockouts – it was little surprise to see Hamilton reach the milestone of 100 pole positions in qualifying which he missed in Portugal a week earlier. But with Verstappen less than half a tenth of a second behind, and sharing the front row of the grid with him, the threat from Red Bull was very much real, for the fourth consecutive race weekend.
“I think second for us here on this track was very good today,” said Verstappen on Saturday. “We know that they’re hard to beat around here, but to be that close, I can be happy with that.”
A carefully restricted crowd of 1,000 Spanish spectators had been allowed to attend the race on Sunday – enough to give Fernando Alonso “extra adrenaline” as he prepared to race on home ground for the first time in three years.
Overcast skies greeted the teams as they prepared for the fourth round of the 2021 season, but not even a light sprinkling of rain was enough to convince anyone that this would be anything other than a direct fight between the Mercedes duo and Verstappen.
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With Valtteri Bottas third on the grid in the other Mercedes, and Verstappen’s team mate Sergio Perez starting a relatively lowly eighth on the grid – well out of the picture for the front runners – Mercedes planned to neutralise Verstappen on the 600 metre sprint to the first corner.
As 19 cars correctly lined up on the grid for the start, Pierre Gasly was a little too eager to get to the first corner and drew to a stop beyond the boundaries of his 12th place grid slot. He would later be rewarded with a five-second time penalty for his eagerness.
When the lights finally went out, Mercedes’ planned pincer movement on Verstappen promptly backfired.
“Valtteri was obviously starting third and the goal was to work as a team,” later explained Hamilton. “So I’d stay to the left.”
But when Verstappen tucked in behind Hamilton for a slipstream boost, Hamilton kept to the left, as planned, hoping that Bottas would cover the inside, forcing Verstappen to yield under braking for the first corner.
The problem was, Bottas was not there.
Hamilton’s commitment left a gap to the inside small enough for most drivers to decide to back out, by easily large enough for a Verstappen to take without hesitation
Verstappen held firm to the inside and pushed his way through into the lead, almost forcing Hamilton to bail to the escape road. Bottas, who’d failed to get away quite as well as the pair ahead, could only watch as Charles Leclerc drove clean around the outside of him at turn three to take third position. What should have been their cars running one-two had instead turned into second and fourth for Mercedes.
With F1’s current-spec cars and the Circuit de Catalunya’s technical layout combining for notoriously poor overtaking opportunities, Verstappen and Hamilton quickly began stretching their legs out front, leaving a frustrated Bottas struggling to find a way past the Ferrari.
Over the opening laps, the leading pair pulled away to be almost ten seconds clear of Leclerc. But that would change on lap seven.
Running in 16th place, Yuki Tsunoda was asked to change to “mode six” on his Honda power unit. Whatever it was intended to do for him, however, instantly losing all life in his car and crawling to a stop on the exit of turn 10 was likely not the intended outcome.
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A full engine reboot did not solve the apparently fatal problem and with the leaders coming past the scene on their next lap, Tsunoda decided to abandon his machine, until being instructed to remain in the car while the field passed by.
Unsurprisingly, the Safety Car was deployed to allow the stricken AlphaTauri to be removed. While still far too early for the leaders to consider stopping – everyone bar Kimi Raikkonen had started the race on soft tyres – towards the rear of the field Williams pair George Russell and Nicholas Latifi decided it was worth a gamble, as did Antonio Giovinazzi in the Alfa Romeo.
In a cruel stroke of luck, Giovinazzi’s new front-left tyre was discovered to be flat as he arrived into his pit box. He was eventually fitted with four correctly inflated tyres and released an eon later, but he was still over 10 seconds from the field when the race restarted on lap 11.
Verstappen made no mistakes in leading the pack away as Hamilton gave chase, while Leclerc continued to hold third in the Ferrari. With their new tyres, the Williams pair made light work of passing the Haas cars of Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher ahead.
Eventually, those still on the softs reached their pit window and the first round of stops began as the field looked to the medium tyres to try and take them, potentially, to the end of the race.
With the leaders hitting traffic and knowing that Verstappen could soon be in, Hamilton began to push, closing the gap to Verstappen within DRS range. After all the pre-race chatter had been on the effectiveness of the ‘undercut’, surely Red Bull would need to pre-empt Mercedes to hold track position?
Red Bull kept Verstappen out, content with his pace and confident in their own strategy. Then he suddenly appeared in the pit lane.
The Red Bull mechanics scrambled to fit a fresh set of mediums onto the car, leading to a delay of around two seconds that could easily have been much more. But was it a late call from the team?
“No, he called himself in,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner later revealed.
“We weren’t expecting it, which is why the pits weren’t ready. I think the boys did a phenomenal job to recover so quickly. We lost minimal time and managed to retain track position so managed to salvage it very well there.”
Verstappen put the confusion down to a “miscommunication”.
“I thought I had to pit that lap and clearly I didn’t,” he explained. “But luckily we didn’t lose too much time.”
Eventually, Verstappen rejoined the race, but the door appeared to be open for Hamilton and Mercedes to respond immediately. However Mercedes kept the new race leader out on track for the time being, as Verstappen quickly ate away any advantage he would have had over his rival.
Hamilton eventually pitted on lap 29, rejoining six seconds behind Verstappen before whittling the gap down to within just a few seconds.
But rather than go all out to find a way by the Red Bull, Hamilton was instead content to carry out some intense analysis of his championship rival’s strengths and weaknesses.
“It was actually a really good day as I learnt a lot about Max today,” he later explained. “As soon as he got past in turn one, I was like, ‘okay, switching in to a different mode.’
“When you are with people on track, you get to see different things and watch closely. And obviously I was following relatively closely. So I learnt a lot about his car and a lot about how uses it.”
While conventional wisdom suggested that a two-stop strategy was wisest, the lack of overtaking opportunities around the Barcelona circuit meant that a one-stop might be plausible. But making the mediums last for over 40 laps around the high speed, constant radius corners would be a tall order indeed.
“Even though a one-stop potentially looked better,” said Hamilton, “I know from experience here that a one-stop is very, very hard to pull off.”
It was at that moment when Mercedes chose to play the ace up their sleeve. Unlike Red Bull and Verstappen, who had one a single set of medium at their disposal for the race – the ones Verstappen happened to be on – Mercedes had deliberately structured their weekend to make sure they had options available for Sunday.
“It had been the plan all weekend for us to make sure we had two mediums to be able to do a two stop,” explained Hamilton. And on lap 42, Mercedes took advantage of that, calling Hamilton in for a second time.
“I was really conflicted,” Hamilton admitted. “Like, ‘do I come in or do I ignore the call and stay out?’ Obviously I did what the team asked and naturally that’s because there’s a great trust between us.”
The field had opened up enough behind the leaders that Hamilton was able to rejoin in third behind Bottas. He would have 24 laps to take 24 seconds from the leader and successfully covert another aggressive strategy call into victory.
Red Bull were cornered. They knew they were unable to respond – and that they were vulnerable.
“It’d be a hell of a bold decision to pit from the lead on lap 42 when all the predictions are that the tyres should – and they would – have got to the end of the race,” said Horner.
“We had a set of softs that wouldn’t have had the range that those mediums would have had. So I think the reality is whatever we’d have done, they just had a fast car with slightly less degradation than us today.”
As he had in 2019 at the Hungaroring, Hamilton began hunting down Verstappen taking chunks of time out of the leader’s advantage with every lap. Despite the rate Hamilton was catching Verstappen, both Mercedes and Red Bull’s projections suggested that he would be in striking distance on the final lap.
All that stood between Hamilton and his target was his team mate. Now freed from Leclerc, Bottas did not make life easy for the much faster Hamilton, but eventually offered no defence as the number 44 Mercedes moved by on lap 52. Hamilton lost around 1.3 seconds dispatching his team mate – which would have been a crucial factor had he indeed caught the leader as late as the strategists predicted.
“I definitely could have let him by earlier, but I was doing my own race as well,” Bottas admitted. “I was trying to get Charles off the pit window so I could stop again and try and go for the extra point [for fastest lap]. And so the main thing in my mind was my own race.”
But as the gap shrank further, a sense of inevitability began to creep in – both on the Red Bull pit wall and in the cockpit.
“I knew it was over because I was already struggling with the tyres and you could see that every lap he was getting closer and closer,” said Verstappen. “[I was] a bit of a sitting duck.”
Such was the scale of Hamilton’s advantage, that he was able to catch the leader by lap 60 – far earlier than both teams’ initial projections.
With much fresher tyres and the additional benefit of DRS, Hamilton slithered up behind Verstappen on the main straight as the pair began lap 60, before claiming his prey by sweeping by on the outside of turn one.
Defeated, Red Bull immediately pitted Verstappen, to give him fresh softs and a chance of taking the bonus point for fastest lap that he had been denied the previous weekend in the Algarve.
Out in front for the first time proper, Hamilton could afford to take it easy and wound down the remaining kilometres to claim his third victory of the season and his 98th career win.
Unsurprisingly, the plaudits of the victors went to their strategists.
“It was a long way to come back from 20-odd seconds back,” said Hamilton. “But it was a good gamble, really great strategy by the team.”
“Today was brilliant work from the team back home,” added Mercedes CEO Toto Wolff. “It was our head of race strategy, Rosie [Wait]’s, last race before going on maternity leave and I’m so proud.”
For Verstappen and Red Bull, losing a race they had led for so long may have been disappointing, but it wasn’t surprising.
“It shows that we are not there, where we want to be,” admitted Verstappen. “So we have to push hard and catch up because at the moment, we are a little bit slower.”
Christian Horner was more magnanimous. “We’ve got to take the positives out of the weekend that we’ve managed to push Mercedes this close at this circuit, a track where they were a long way ahead of us last year and one that has been a strong point for them.”
Bottas finished third for the third time this season, accepting that losing track position to Leclerc at the start had “really compromised” his afternoon.
Leclerc himself was delighted with ‘best of the rest’ honours in fourth, with Perez finishing in fifth after another weekend where he just had not been able to put it all together.
Daniel Ricciardo led McLaren team mate Lando Norris home for the first time in 2021 with sixth place. “I’m happy, I don’t think any other scenario today we were getting better than sixth,” said a satisfied Ricciardo.
Carlos Sainz Jnr was disappointed in his inability to realise the full potential of his Ferrari at his home grand prix in seventh, while Norris accepted it had not been his best weekend after crossing the line eighth.
A weekend of mixed fortunes for Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly saw them converge on the final lap and sprint over the line with little to separate them as they claimed the final points paying positions on offer.
Despite Verstappen and Red Bull leading over 50 laps of the Spanish Grand Prix, only to be hunted down and passed in the final lap, the sting of defeat was lessened by the fact that they would have always expected Mercedes to prevail at one of their favoured circuits.
In the opening salvos of this long championship season, Mercedes and Hamilton had beaten Red Bull and Verstappen in three very different ways: Strategy won the day in Bahrain, they capitalised on Verstappen’s errors in Portugal, and outright speed told in Spain. Another reminder of how formidable is the winning machine Red Bull are striving to defeat.
Yet again, however, Verstappen had been in contention throughout the weekend – demonstrating that they will always be there to capitalise if Mercedes were to ever let their seemingly impenetrable guard down.
But if Red Bull really are to take the fight to such a disciplined, well-prepared stable as Mercedes this season, then Verstappen is certain of what they require.
“We just need a faster car. It’s very simple.”