Max Verstappen won his fourth win in the season’s first six races, and climbed into the F1 driver’s points lead after capturing Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix. Photo: John David Mercer / USA Today Sports.
Hot temps, engine issues and tire miscues caused a number of problems, but Verstappen makes it almost look easy on his way to victory lane.
With air temperatures at nearly 100 degrees and a racetrack designed to treat tires like bubble-gum on a cheese grater, the 2022 Grand Prix of Spain became a battle of race strategy overcoming attrition, more so than of flat-out speed.
Throw in a recovery drive from Lewis Hamilton following a first-lap collision, and the normally hum-drum event at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya turned into a through-the-field battle that had an abundance of passing both on and off the track.
In previous years, 74% of pole-sitters have won this event at Barcelona, the highest percentage of any circuit currently on the F1 schedule. And for 26 laps, it seems like Sunday would stay true to form, as top qualifier Charles Leclerc took off in front of the field at lights out and looked to be in line for a wire-to-wire victory.
Max Verstappen initially was within challenging distance and Carolos Sainz not far back in third, but Sainz would spin off the track on Lap 6, followed by Verstappen on Lap 8. Both cars would be able to continue, but Leclerc now had a comfortable lead over George Russell, who had inherited second position, and while basically running on his own private section of track, Leclerc was able to choose his racing lines and minimize his tire wear.
What appeared to be perhaps the easiest win of Leclerc’s young career fell apart on Lap 26, when his Ferrari engine decided it had done enough work for the day and shut down, leaving a despondent Leclerc to coast into the pits and out of the race.
This handed the lead to Russell, who despite being warned early on of an engine temperature issue, kept the two Red Bull drivers behind him, assisted by a malfunctioning Verstappen rear wing which limited his use of DRS to pass.
Meanwhile, every team was closely watching their tire wear to determine the quickest path to the finish. For the majority, this meant some variation of breaking the race into quarters and making three stops, switching between combinations of soft and medium tires.
Ultimately this proved the correct formula, as Valtteri Bottas, the only top 10 driver to try to reach the end on only three sets, ended up being passed near the finish by the recovering Sainz as well as Hamilton, who had fallen all the way to 19th after a first lap collision with Kevin Magnussen.
After returning to the track, Hamilton was heard on the radio suggesting to his team that they abandon the race to conserve mileage on the engine, a proposal quickly discarded by Mercedes.
After Russell surrendered the lead to the Red Bulls following a pit stop, the remainder of the day turned into a one team race for the win. A dejected Sergio Perez followed team orders allowing Verstappen back to the front on lap 49, which ended the day’s drama as far as the podium positions went.
Russell was able to keep his engine cool enough to bring home third, while Sainz and Hamilton overcame their early explorations off-track to finish fourth and fifth respectively.
Verstappen now has won all four races this year in which he has avoided mechanical failure. Leclerc, meanhile, recorded his first DNF of the season and yielded the lead in the drivers’ championship, which he has held since winning the season opener, and now trails Verstappen by six points.
Through the Field
Hometown hero Fernando Alonso had one of the best performances of the afternoon, after starting in last place on the grid following poor qualifying compounded by a penalty for a new engine. Alonso and teammate Esteban Ocon’s Alpines both had a strong day, as Alonso sliced his way through the back half of the field to finish ninth, while Ocon came home in seventh.
Ocon was beaten out for “best of the rest” by Bottas, who while lamenting a strategy that he felt prevented him from defending against Hamilton and Sainz, still finished in sixth place. Following his finish, Bottas now trails Lando Norris (who finished eighth) for seventh in the driver standings, a strong step forward for the long-suffering Alfa Romeo team and the Mercedes-discarded driver.
Bottas teammate, Zhou Guanyu, exited the race early, as his Ferrari-produced engine failed shortly after Leclerc’s, giving the engineers at Maranello much to consider ahead of the next week’s race.
If F1 drivers had insurance policies that covered collisions, Lance Stroll’s premium would certainly be among the highest, although after an on-track incident with Pierre Gasly Sunday he could submit the FIA decision stating Gasly was at fault.
Kevin Magnussen, involved in the first lap incident with Lewis Hamilton, took a swing at getting back into the race by being the only driver to try the hard tire compound, but could only finish 17th.
Following a two-year absence, the May motorsports maxout returns, as we’re back to having a Sunday with the Monaco Grand Prix followed by the Indy 500, with a nightcap of the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600.
Gregg Fielding has followed all forms of motorsports since watching the ABC nighttime broadcasts of the Indy 500 in the late 1970s. He lives in New York, is particularly keen on F1 and IndyCar, and has attended the Brooklyn Formula E events since their first running in 2017. Follow Gregg on Twitter @GreggFielding