Max Verstappens was lucky in Barcelona that Charles Leclerc dropped out. Sergio Perez was able to thank Kevin Magnussen. Without the crash with Lewis Hamilton, the Mercedes driver would have been a serious opponent.
The Spanish Grand Prix was a race of unanswered questions. Would Charles Leclerc have won without his engine failure? Wasn't Sergio Perez allowed or unable to win? Where would Lewis Hamilton have ended up if he hadn't had to make a forced pit stop after one lap? Would Valtteri Bottas have finished fourth with three pit stops? Did Sebastian Vettel and Mick Schumacher have realistic chances of World Cup points?
The first question is probably the easiest. Leclerc would have won the race with his left hand. The Ferrari driver pulled away from his pursuers on the fresh soft tires and lasted longer than them. With his pit stop on lap 21, he had come far enough to complete a two-stop race. That was still quicker than a three-stop race with the right portioning of stops.
Shortly before his retirement, Leclerc's lead was 12.6 seconds. Even a Max Verstappen with a working DRS would not have caught up with them. To close the gap he would have had to set a pace that would have ruined the tyres. With its upgrade, the Ferrari was the faster car again. And thanks to a set-up change on Friday evening, tire wear was also under control again. Red Bull will have to step up.
Red Bull's double pincer against Russell
Sergio Perez demanded explanations from his team. He was deprived of his chance of winning when he had to let Verstappen pass without a fight, but never got the place back. The team reassured Perez that he was on a different strategy than Verstappen. At the time, Perez was driving on medium rubber, Verstappen on Pirelli's softest compound.
George Russell had two Red Bulls in his rearview mirror for a long time. Verstappen despaired of his DRS. If it worked, he was too far away. When he got close enough, the rear wing stayed closed. It was therefore surprising that Verstappen unwound the first tire change at the same time as Russell and then, as expected, had to queue again behind the silver wall.
Perez was allowed to last four laps longer with the first set of tires and after only seven laps he caught up with the duo Russell and Verstappen again. This time with the fresher tires. Red Bull played a double chance. At that point, Perez's chances of winning were even better than his team captain's.
But only if Red Bull had consistently aligned the Mexican's strategy to two stops. Then the first two tire changes for Perez on laps 17 and 37 would have had to be delayed a bit in order to be able to finish comfortably with the third set.
But this time it was the team result and the best possible race for Verstappen that counted. The Dutchman was forced to make three stops because of his DRS problems. That took precedence. "He would never have passed George on the track," Mercedes is convinced.
Decision against an internal race
With the same strategy, Perez would never have had a chance against his teammate. He didn't have the speed for that. This is shown by the 13 seconds behind the finish line. And also the 12 seconds he lost to stable rivals between laps 28 and 37.
Even with one stop less, it would have been tight because Red Bull always had to keep an eye on George Russell. The Mercedes driver forced Red Bull to react to the undercut with his second pit stop on lap 36 with Perez.
With a lead of 5.3 seconds, you could have taken two more laps, which would have shortened Perez's last stint. Perez could have defended his interim lead against Verstappen until lap 42. The medium set would then easily have survived the remaining distance of 24 laps. And Verstappen would have fallen behind Perez again with his third stop.
But Red Bull had long since decided against an internal race. Three stops were the surest way to a double victory. "We would have done the same in their place," attested the Mercedes strategists. Perez was then allowed to take the fastest lap as a consolation.
Hamilton in front with late stops
The task would have been even more difficult for Red Bull if Lewis Hamilton hadn't been grazed by Kevin Magnussen on the first lap. The pit stop due threw the ex-champion 53.9 seconds behind Leclerc, 53.1 seconds behind Verstappen and 50.3 seconds behind Perez.
The mishap dictated the strategy for Mercedes. Anti-cyclical tire changes were the best way to save Hamilton traffic in his race to catch up. Hamilton stopped late on laps 22 and 48, effectively running a two-stop race.
The question of what would have been possible for the Mercedes driver is a bit academic, as he had to stop gas for the last ten laps due to a water leak. So Hamilton's race only lasted until lap 56. And up until then, since the unscheduled pit stop on the opening lap, he had gained 12.3 seconds on Verstappen and 32.6 seconds on Perez.
If the race had gone normally, he would have been a dangerous opponent for both Red Bulls. Not for Leclerc. He even took 16.6 seconds off Hamilton by lap 20.
Faster than the strategy forecast
Hamilton surprised Mercedes' strategy program. After the early pit stop, it gave him eighth place as the best possible result. In the end, the record winner finished fifth. "Lewis was much faster than we had calculated."
His alternative tire strategy could have turned out to be a joker. He was the only one in the field to start on medium tyres. The Mercedes command post was surprised that no one else had this idea. "We wanted the only ones in the top 6 - Be in the group with this starting tire. But it was funny that nobody tried further back. Even assuming we were going to be three tenths a lap slower than Ferrari and Red Bull, our tire choice at the start wasn't a big risk. Nobody could have made an undercut against us. The midfield was far too slow to get close to us."
Mercedes expected that the soft starters would pit from lap 14 and that Hamilton would drive much longer. Laps 24 or 25 were planned." If Lewis hadn't been hit on the first lap it would have really paid off. The second stint would have taken us to lap 50 and we could have chosen the tire type for the last stint depending on the race situation. But without the collision we would have been 45 seconds closer to the front. A podium would have been certain for Lewis. He probably would have beaten Perez too."
Botta's fourth with a third stop
Leclerc's retirement gave Hamilton a free position. Carlos Sainz only landed in front of the number 44 Mercedes because his opponent had to slow down to power the engine to save. The Spaniard had lost 14 seconds in a spin and was then driving unusually slowly. His apology: "The underbody was damaged when driving through the gravel bed."
Valtteri Bottas would have been a tough nut for Hamilton if Alfa Romeo would not have tried to bring the Finn over the distance with two stops, but the second stop was clearly too early for that on lap 34. Bottas lost one to two seconds per lap to his direct opponents in the last ten laps, up to the 54th lap. On the 1st lap, the Sauber driver was 3.4 seconds ahead of Sainz and 7.2 seconds ahead of Hamilton. If Bottas had done the same as his opponents, he would have finished fourth.
German drivers got nothing in Barcelona. Aston Martin was still learning its new car and had to slow down because it was getting too hot under the fairing. Sebastian Vettel tried his luck with a two-stop strategy, but in the end he was almost 16 seconds short of the last point place.
"We didn't have the speed to score points today," admitted team boss Mike Krack. Not yet. In the Aston Martin camp, rapid progress is expected with the B version. "The car is good for the top ten," says Technology Director Andy Green.
Mick Schumacher made it into the points in three phases of the race. From lap 1 to 12, in laps 28 to 29 and then again from lap 53 to 55. The mistake was in the strategy.A two-stop race with the second tire change on lap 30 could not go well.
The Haas driver was literally inhaled by the competition in the finale of the race. Schumacher dropped from ninth to 14th place. Someone at the Haas command post should have noticed that the tires degraded faster than the competition. So three stops are actually mandatory.