How the Spanish Grand Prix reset the title fight

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12: 18 PM ET

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    Laurence EdmondsonF1 Editor

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      Joined ESPN in 2009
      An FIA accredited F1 journalist since 2011

BARCELONA, Spain — The Spanish Grand Prix hit the reset button on Formula One’s 2022 championship. After six rounds, just six points separate Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc at the top of the championship and there is next to no margin between the performance of the Red Bull and Ferrari on track. Meanwhile, Mercedes has finally started to unlock the potential of its car, introducing the prospect of three teams fighting for wins in the coming races.

The reliability issues that cost Verstappen 36 points earlier in the season were partly cancelled out by Leclerc losing 25 points to his own issues on Sunday. Ferrari, which has enjoyed strong reliability up until this point of the season, finally showed some mechanical weakness, although it should be noted that Verstappen’s Red Bull remains a temperamental beast, with the Drag Reduction System (DRS) on the rear wing refusing to obey his commands while fighting for position with George Russell‘s Mercedes.

Leclerc’s shortened race leaves unanswered questions hanging over the true performance difference between Ferrari and Red Bull, but up until lap 27 he looked like he had the race firmly in control as Verstappen had to battle back from an uncharacteristic mistake. The upshot is a championship that is incredibly difficult to call between the top two, combined with the added spice of Russell and teammate Lewis Hamilton entering the battle.

A new championship leader but still no clear favourite

Verstappen’s victory in Spain means he has won every race he’s finished this season. His car’s reliability let him down in Australia and Bahrain, so it’s easy to conclude that Verstappen is on track to be unbeatable this season.

But as impressive as Verstappen’s win record in 2022 is, it only tells a fraction of the story. Verstappen was second at the two events where he retired after being outperformed in Leclerc’s lap. What’s more, his most recent win in Barcelona was anything but easy and would have been a second place finish had Leclerc’s car not failed him on lap 27. After being behind Red Bull in Miami and Imola, Ferrari introduced a major upgrade to its car at Barcelona. Ferrari’s first major attempt to get more performance out of the car since preseason testing began. The package is built around a new floor design.

Rivals Red Bull has been adding new parts to their cars since the beginning of the season. Ferrari, however, have taken a more gradual approach to upgrading each car in an effort to get a significant improvement in performance. Although Friday practice showed that Ferrari might not have achieved the performance it hoped for, both drivers were struggling with excessive tire degradation. However, the team had already honed their car setup to the new parts by Saturday and had gained a small, but significant advantage over Red Bull.

Reflecting on the race on Sunday evening, Leclerc was convinced he would have won the race had he not encountered reliability issues.

” Based on the laps that I’ve done, everything was going really, really well,” Leclerc said. “It would have been difficult for them, because there would be quite a bit a gap and we had very high degradation on the soft tires and we could do quite some more laps than them. Overall, I believe we managed to control the race. “

However, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner believes it may have been closer had the race played out, owing to the tyre degradation experienced on Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari towards the end of the race and the fact Leclerc looked committed to a two-stop strategy whereas Verstappen found an advantage over teammate Sergio Perez from his three-stop approach. Horner stated that if you look at how Carlos performed in the second half, I believe we did very well. “It’s a shame that we didn’t have the opportunity to see the race between Charles and Max today. I think it would’ve been very close.

“And maybe a three-stop would have been better than the two they adopted. The cars are still very closely matched. “

But this ignores the fact Sainz was having trouble managing his tyres and his performance after his mistake in the race. It also ignores the more significant fact that Verstappen was struggling to overtake rival cars due to a problem with his DRS, which kept him bottled behind Russell’s Mercedes for 18 laps and meant Red Bull had to ask teammate Perez to let him by to win the race.

Despite the obvious disappointment of going home without any points after securing pole position and leading the first 27 laps of the race, Leclerc was upbeat about the overall progress Ferrari made in Spain.

“Let’s just say that I feel more positive after this weekend than the previous two weekends.” he stated. Although there was a problem with the car, I was very disappointed. However, I believe there were many positive signs throughout the weekend. “Our qualifying pace was good, the new package worked well, which is not always the case, and everything was going well with our race paces and tyre management. We have struggled with tyre management in the last two races, but today it was much better than Red Bull.

“In these situations, I believe it is important to look at the positives. There are many today. “

In theory, Ferrari should have an advantage at the next round of the Monaco Grand Prix. Since the first test, the Italian team has had an advantage in slow-speed corners. Verstappen has also benefitted from the Red Bull’s lower-drag aero package. This means Ferrari should be able to extend its lead over its competitors.

Has Mercedes joined the battle at the front?

Complicating the battle between Ferrari and Red Bull is a resurgent Mercedes. From the start of the season the world champions were confident they had a car with the potential to fight for victories, but the W13’s tendency to bounce on its suspension when the floor of the car was forced into the track surface – a phenomenon dubbed ‘porpoising’ as it made cars replicate the motion of a porpoise moving through water — at high speed meant that potential remained locked away. Mercedes had to raise the ride height at its rear to stop the car from bouncing. This was a dangerous and unsafe practice that made it extremely difficult to drive. It made a tradeoff between downforce and performance. However, the team was unable to achieve the potential it had seen in the factory simulations for the first five races.

In Spain updates to the floor were made to reduce bouncing. Mercedes was able then to find a setup that would allow it to harness the true performance potential of the car. Russell qualified 0.6 seconds behind Charles Leclerc, but Mercedes’ engineers believe that there is only a 0.3 second gap in race performance.

Hamilton’s performance was particularly impressive as he fought back from 19th after an early puncture to fifth place (having briefly held fourth before a water leak and concerns about overheating forced him to back off). Hamilton was sometimes the fastest driver on track. Mercedes modified his strategy to allow Hamilton to return to the track after every pit stop with a clear track in front of him. If you minus the 40 seconds he lost on the opening lap from his race time, he would have been in the running for second place alongside Perez and ahead of teammate Russell.

Toto Wolff stated that the car looked like a champion after the race, but he took the opportunity to clarify his remarks to the media when he spoke to them later in the evening.

“What I meant to say is that I’ve seen a race car today that reminded me of the race cars of previous seasons, where you’re 30 plus seconds behind the whole field, and you come all the way to the front and near the podium,” Wolff said. “And that’s very encouraging and shows us that we have taken another step.

” Can we compete for a world title? We think so. We just need a car capable of finishing first and second. We have good reasons to believe we can do it, but the odds are against us.

“Motor-racing is a completely different game. Today we saw that Ferrari didn’t score as many points as they should have. We are working hard to get back in the game. “

Now Mercedes is able to focus on performance, now that it has a better understanding of the bouncing issues. According to team sources, 0.3s is possible in the wind tunnel. The trick will be to transfer that information to the track without triggering the bouncing once again.

” I think we are learning as we go along,” Wolff stated. “These regulations have caught our attention in a way, but step by step we are learning what we need in order to bring back the performance in the car.

” We’ve made another significant step this weekend. It is likely that we have reduced the disadvantage to the front runners by half. There is still a lot to do to get to the top of the race. With Lewis, we had the fastest race car today. He was 50 seconds behind at the end, and he caught all the way up, and at stages in the race he was the quickest, and that shows the potential that the car has. Having Russell and Hamilton in the race for wins will force Verstappen and Leclerc to step up their game significantly. What’s more, Russell’s gap of 36 points to Verstappen will start to look much smaller if the reliability issues on the Red Bull and Ferrari persist and Russell can challenge for wins.

At 64 points, Hamilton’s gap looks much harder to close than his teammates, but spread across 16 races it only equates to four points per race. The 2022 championship is only just getting started.

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