Formula 1’s visit to Spain for the fifth round of the 2016 season last weekend produced arguably the most exciting race of the year so far, despite the Circuit de Catalunya making it difficult for drivers to overtake each other.
There was drama from the start as the Mercedes pair threw a relatively simple-looking victory away, with Max Verstappen ultimately adding his name to the illustrious list of Grand Prix winners. However, apart from those two obvious storylines, there was a brilliant game of high-speed chess between the drivers unfolding on Sunday, resulting in plenty of talking points that merit further discussion…
To the Max
At the age of 18, Max Verstappen became the youngest driver ever to win a Grand Prix. More impressive than just securing the victory, however, was the manner in which he did so.
The Dutch youngster had to work hard all afternoon, first to stay in touch with team-mate Daniel Ricciardo during the first stint of the race and later to defend his lead from a hard-charging Kimi Räikkönen. Despite being in a car that was slightly slower than the Ferrari in terms of raw pace, Verstappen was unflappable even as the pressure mounted on him. There were no lock-ups, no running wide through the corners, no scary oversteer moments, only consistency, focus and good tyre management.
Furthermore, Formula 1’s youngest-ever winner was cunning enough to know where he had to push and where he could take it easy. He was consistently slower than Räikkönen through sector 1 (where it was near-impossible to overtake) while really pushing hard towards the end of the lap in order to defend his position down the main straight. Such clever management of the race and grace under pressure show that Verstappen is, in the words of Red Bull boss Christian Horner: the real deal.
Verstappen is the 106th driver to win a Formula 1 race. His performance in Spain was one that he, and all other drivers who have stood on the top of the podium, can be proud of.
Boiling point at Mercedes
With one Mercedes driver high on confidence after winning the first four races of the season and the other determined to reverse the trend, there was always likely to be simmering tension at the German team. On Sunday, that tension boiled over as Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton collided on the opening lap of the race, with both drivers failing to finish in the process.
Rosberg got the better start and smartly swept around the outside of his team-mate into the first corner, after which Hamilton attempted to retake the lead through turn three. In the end, neither driver had anything but heartache to show for their efforts in Spain. However, the result will suit Rosberg, as the German retains a 43-point advantage over Hamilton, who remains his biggest threat for the title, despite Kimi Räikkönen climbing to second place in the standings.
Of course, tension, drama, glory and disaster are all part of the high-speed circus that is Formula 1. Expect a few more interesting encounters between the two Silver Arrows over the remaining 16 races of the season.
No reduction in pressure at Ferrari
It has become obvious of late that the pressure to produce a race victory is mounting at Ferrari, with the team’s president, Sergio Marchionne, making it plain before last weekend’s race that nothing but a victory would suffice.
On Saturday, any such hopes took a major blow as Kimi Räikkönen and Sebastian Vettel could only manage P5 and P6 in qualifying, respectively. While both drivers recovered well to finish on the podium, the result, while good on paper, will do little to ease the internal pressure at the Italian team.
With both Mercedes drivers out of the picture after the first few corners, it seemed that Ferrari, who enjoyed a small but noticeable race pace advantage over Red Bull, would be able to capitalize and secure their first win of 2016. Unfortunately for the Scuderia, while Räikkönen managed to hunt down eventual winner Verstappen, there was simply no opportunity for him to pass the Dutch youngster as the Red Bull driver managed the race perfectly. That the team “did their best” and “scored good points” is unlikely to do much to raise Marchionne’s spirits.
Good times are coming for Red Bull
Red Bull were quietly optimistic of enjoying a good weekend in Spain and took a step in the right direction as Daniel Ricciardo (P3) and Max Verstappen (P4) out-qualified both Ferrari drivers fair and square on Saturday. While it is unlikely that Verstappen would have triumphed had the two Mercedes drivers not come to blows on the first lap, the result will boost morale at the Austrian squad.
After the euphoria of Spain, Christian Horner and his charges can look forward to Monaco, which has traditionally been a strong circuit for Red Bull due to the lower emphasis on raw engine power. Furthermore, after Monaco the F1 circus will be heading to Canada, and with Renault scheduled to introduce a much-anticipated engine update at that point, the Milton-Keynes-based squad have reason to look forward to a few more strong results coming their way. All of this will continue to raise the heat on a Ferrari team that are under both internal and external pressure to produce victories.
The end of the honeymoon for Haas
Haas got their debut season in Formula 1 off to a dream start at the opening two races of the year with a sixth-place finish in Australia and a fifth-place finish in Bahrain, both courtesy of Romain Grosjean. From there, the American team underwent a major slump in performance, failing to score points in China.
In Russia, Grosjean secured P8, which represented a welcome return to form for Formula 1’s newest entrant. However, the Frenchman undoubtedly benefited from a first-lap incident which took several of the frontrunners out of the race, which meant that we had to wait until Spain to see whether the team’s return to form was good fortune or genuine performance. In Barcelona, it appeared to be the former.
Grosjean and team-mate Esteban Gutierrez qualified 14th and 16th respectively, with the Mexican eventually bringing his VF-16 home in 11th place while Grosjean retired. It should be made clear at this point that consistently finishing in 10th – 15th place remains a remarkable effort for the fledgling team at this early stage of their stint in F1. However, the heady days of raking in points by the handful seem to have come to an end, at least for a while. On the whole, however, there remains reason for optimism concerning the American squad.
Daniil Kvyat may already be nothing but a memory
Daniil Kvyat, who found himself unceremoniously demoted from Red Bull down to the Toro Rosso junior team, vowed to give his answers on the circuit rather than in the media. However, the Russian endured a largely forgettable weekend in Spain. On Saturday, he failed to progress to Q3 and started the race in P13 while team-mate Carlos Sainz qualified eighth. Sunday brought slightly better fortunes as Kvyat finished in tenth place, earning a single championship point in the process.
However, in light of Sainz’ admirable drive to sixth place, coupled with Verstappen’s magnificent victory, one point will bring him little comfort. The Russian enjoyed a significant outpouring of sympathy after his demotion at the expense of Verstappen, but the young Dutchman’s performance over the course of the race weekend has led to stronger support for Red Bull’s actions.
Kvyat remains a talented driver who may go on to achieve success in Formula 1. In the minds of Red Bull, however, his career is likely to be a chapter that has just been closed.