Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, the home of the Spanish GP, has been a regular feature on the F1 calendar. The circuit returned to its original hosting date in May ( 1st week ) in 2021. It completed the first of double-headers of the European leg, the track hosting an F1 race just a weekend after entertaining bikes from the Moto GP world.
The Hamilton-Verstappen and Mercedes-Red Bull tussles promised to be a feature throughout 2021, and fans hoped to see these giants exchange blows in Spain again. It was Red Bull who struck the first blow before the start of the race weekend. Honda, the engine supplier for Red Bull, leaves the sport at the end of 2021. Red Bull has taken steps since the winter break to become a full-works team, adding powertrain manufacturing and development besides chassis designing. Their quest to strengthen the powertrain department led them to poach another five senior members from the Mercedes HPP team in the week leading into the Spanish GP. It will be interesting to see how big a difference these moves would make.
Ferrari and McLaren, like the leaders, also had a strong start in the battle for 3rd in the Constructors. The two most iconic teams in F1 hoped to continue their journey of returning to the sharp end of the grid, bringing back the glory years of the 1990s and the 2000s.
Circuit de Catalunya is a track that can amplify weaknesses in a car if any. Overtaking opportunities aren't many, which meant that strategies would play a part in the race.
The circuit organisers had revamped the off-camber turn 10 for a more streamlined one for 2021, so there were reservations about grip levels on the new asphalt. The FIA also introduced a new procedure of rejoining the track ( after passing two bollards ) for those who exceeded track limits at turns one and two.
So who took the Chequered Flag and victory on Sunday in Catalunya?
Time for a quick recap!
Robert Kubica got the opportunity to participate in FP1 for Alfa Romeo. This time, it was Kimi Raikkonen who sat out of FP1. Williams did the same with George Russell, reserve driver Roy Nissany stepping in for FP1 duty. Nikita Mazepin suffered a spin and had a trip through the gravel early on in the session, while Vettel lost a piece of his front wing while going over the kerbs at turn seven. The new turn 10 claimed its first victim in Kubica, who got spun around and beached in the gravel. The Polish driver didn't take further part in the session and brought out the red flags.
Bottas topped the timesheets at the end of FP1 and could have gone faster had it not been for a Ferrari getting in the crosshairs on his flying lap ( with soft tyres ). Verstappen was three-hundredths shy of Bottas' time with Hamilton a further tenth adrift. Only half a second separated the top 6, with Norris setting the 4th quickest time, followed by the Ferraris of Leclerc and Sainz. Gasly was 7th in his Alpha Tauri while Perez separated the Aston Martins of Vettel and Stroll in 9th.
Tsunoda set the 11th quickest time in the other Alpha Tauri while Ocon was the faster of the two Alpines in P12. Giovinazzi continued to impress in the Alfa Romeo with 13th, while Ricciardo and Alonso managed 14th and 15th. Four-tenths separated Nissany from Latifi in P17, while Kubica split the Haas cars of Schumacher and Mazepin.
The kerbs at the circuit are unforgiving, as experienced by Sainz, Tsunoda and Verstappen, who suffered bodywork damage or electronic hiccups during FP2. Meanwhile, in the pits, Raikkonen averted Mazepin, who got released out of the garage into his path. The Finn overtook the Russian at the pit exit, not too pleased with the incident. It was Hamilton who set the quickest time of FP2 from Bottas and Leclerc. The Alpine cars had a productive FP2, with Ocon and Alonso going 4th and 5th fastest, followed by the Alpha Tauris of Gasly and Tsunoda. Sainz was 8th in the other Ferrari, followed by the Red Bulls of Verstappen and Perez.
Vettel managed 11th in the Aston Martin, while Norris and Giovinazzi led the team-mate battle at McLaren and Alfa Romeo in 12th and 13th. Stroll was 14th in the other Aston Martin, followed by Ricciardo and Raikkonen, who were more than a second slower than Hamilton's time. The Williams of Russell and Latifi 17th and 18th, followed by the Haas cars of Schumacher and Mazepin.
Mercedes ruled the roost at the end of Friday, but Red Bull wasn't far behind in race simulation pace. Perez was struggling to find his feet, and that remained a cause for concern at Red Bull. Ferrari and Alpine also had a productive Friday. Aston Martin had brought in upgrades, and they were bullish about their chances of making it into Q3 on Saturday. The presence of support races meant that track would evolve as more rubber got laid, making Qualifying a closely contested affair.
The Alpine drivers opted for new exhaust units ( out of the allocation of eight ) on Saturday. FP3 got underway with the Ferraris topping the timesheets early on in the session. Norris had a trip across the gravel at turn ten while Raikkonen suffered a rear right puncture after a kerb camera got undone from its housing.
Verstappen went the quickest, more than two-tenths clear of Hamilton at the end of FP3. The Ferraris of Leclerc and Sainz managed to bag 3rd and 4th ahead of Bottas. Gasly split the McLarens of Norris and Ricciardo in 7th while Raikkonen jumped into the top 10 ( 9th ) in his Alfa Romeo, ahead of Perez.
The Alpines of Alonso and Ocon were P11 and P13, with Tsunoda splitting the duo in his Alpha Tauri. Stroll was 14th for Aston Martin, followed by Russell, Giovinazzi and Stroll's teammate Vettel. Latifi, Schumacher and Mazepin completed the rear of the field.
Less than a second separated the top 13 drivers at the end of FP3. Clean air and a clear track would prove pivotal come Qualifying.
Qualifying got delayed by 10 minutes due to barrier work repair at turn nine caused by a crash from one of the support races.
The lights went green for the start of Q1, and the Williams and Haas cars were the first ones out on track. The others followed suit a few minutes later. Everyone barring the Mercedes drivers ( on mediums ), chose the soft tyres. Bottas, Verstappen, Gasly, Sainz, Hamilton and Ricciardo were the top 6 at the end of the first runs, with Raikkonen, Stroll, Schumacher, Latifi and Mazepin being in the drop zone. The left rearview mirror on Latifi's car cracked when his Williams went over the kerbs at turn nine, while Norris, who was on a quick lap, got held up by Mazepin and other cars in the final sector. The incident got flagged for investigation post-session.
Perez improved to 4th in the final minutes of Q1. The top 8 eight drivers, except for Hamilton, decided to stay put in the pits while the rest sparred for a place in Q2. The lap times improved with the track getting rubbered in, and the top 6 changed to Norris, Bottas, Leclerc, Verstappen, Gasly and Perez. Less than eight-tenths of a second separated the top 16 as Tsunoda, Raikkonen, Schumacher, Latifi and Mazepin got eliminated at the end of Q1.
The Ferraris, Alpines, Ricciardo and Russell decided to stay put, while Giovinazzi and the rest exited the pits at the start of Q2. Giovinazzi chose the medium tyres to set a banker lap, while the other drivers opted for the softs. Russell decided to stay longer, going out of sync with the rest.
Verstappen, Bottas, Hamilton, Norris, Sainz and Leclerc were the top 6 with Ocon, Perez, Vettel, Giovinazzi and Russell facing elimination after the first runs. Verstappen was half a second clear at the front while two-tenths separated P5 from P13. Ocon reported about understeer on his car and asked the team for changes in car balance.
Russell finally emerged from the pits for his one run of Q2 and set the 14th quickest time.
While Verstappen stayed in the pits for the final minutes of Q2, others emerged with a set of soft tyres. Hamilton was on scrubbed tyres while Bottas on new ones. The duo went faster and reduced the deficit to Verstappen to only two-tenths. Sainz, Perez, Norris, Leclerc, Ricciardo, Ocon and Alonso went through to Q3 with Stroll, Gasly, Vettel, Giovinazzi and Russell getting eliminated.
It was time for the battle for pole position, and the final ten drivers came out to set their banker laps of Q3. Perez, unfortunately, suffered a spin at turn 13, which briefly brought out the yellow flags and left the Red Bull driver with a compromised session. He limped back to the pits, unable to set a lap time on his first run.
Hamilton was on a flying lap when the incident occurred but avoided the yellow flags in the final sector. He was on provisional pole, three-hundredths clear of Verstappen with Bottas another tenth adrift. Ocon, Sainz, Ricciardo, Leclerc and Norris were separated by four-tenths with Alonso down in 9th and Perez yet to post a time.
The final minutes of Q3 were frenetic as Verstappen jostled for clear air and track position, overtaking Perez, Ocon and the Ferrari cars on his out-lap. Ricciardo got held up, missed the flag and was unable to do his final run of Q3.
Hamilton went quicker in sector one but failed to improve in sectors two and three. Bottas and Verstappen didn't improve on their final runs either. Perez, in the other Red Bull, could only manage 8th.
Hamilton took pole position for the race on Sunday from Verstappen and Bottas. Leclerc produced yet another stellar lap to put his Ferrari on the 2nd row of the grid in 4th. Row 3 got taken up by Ocon and Sainz, while Ricciardo and Perez occupied row 4. Norris and Alonso completed the top 10.
Hamilton had achieved a century of pole positions, a feat unthinkable for anyone in the sport. The Briton produced a stonking lap when it mattered and eyed his 98th win on Sunday. Verstappen and Red Bull weren't far behind in 2nd, but like in the past, they had only one car on the sharp end of the grid to fight the two Mercedes. Perez had a long Sunday afternoon in front of him, while Bottas, in 3rd, hoped to make the most from starting on the cleaner side of the grid. Ferrari's pace from the practice sessions was genuine, and the team had the opportunity for a possible podium or a good haul of points on Sunday. Ocon produced a stellar lap in his Alpine and would lead the charge for them on Sunday. McLaren's tactical error with Ricciardo cost them dearly on Saturday, but Sunday was what counted, and they hoped to turn things around for both Ricciardo and Norris.
Aston Martin had hopes of making it into Q3 with the upgrades they brought in for the weekend. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Alpha Tauri failed to impress as well, with Tsunoda being the big casualty from Q1. While Giovinazzi continued to be the leader on Saturday for Alfa Romeo, Raikkonen couldn't break out of Q1, the dirty air from Latifi's car unsettling him on his final run. Russell, meanwhile, continued to extract the maximum out of Williams while Schumacher got better with each passing weekend.
The skies were overcast, and drivers spotted drops of rain on their way to the grid. The clouds slowly pushed away, and the risk of rain dropped to 20%. A two-stops strategy was optimal, but the paddock was abuzz with talks that some drivers would attempt a one-stopper.
C1, C2 and C3 were the dry tyre compounds available for the race, and Raikkonen was the only driver to start on the mediums.
The drivers pulled into their grid slots for the race start, but Gasly overshot his spot, getting flagged for investigation four laps later. The Frenchman would then get a five seconds time penalty for this infringement.
The race got underway, and Hamilton and Verstappen had great starts off the line. However, Verstappen hit the apex at turn one, taking the lead and compromising Hamilton's corner exit, who got had to take avoiding action from hitting the Dutchman. Bottas, who had followed Hamilton into the first couple of turns, got overtaken by Leclerc on the outside. Further down the field, Perez, Ricciardo and Schumacher made up two positions each, while Raikkonen was up by three. Verstappen, meanwhile, had extended his lead to 1.5 seconds at the end of the opening lap.
Verstappen and Hamilton were setting blistering lap times, and the duo was pulling away from the rest of the field. Tsunoda, who had a disappointing Qualifying, began his recovery drive by overtakes on Russell and Schumacher, moving up to P16 by lap 5. However, disaster struck the rookie on lap 8 when his Alpa Tauri ground to a halt at turn 10. It turned out to be an engine issue, and the stewards had to deploy a Safety Car for the safe extrication of the vehicle. Meanwhile, Russell had overtaken Schumacher for P16.
The Safety Car got deployed, and Giovinazzi pitted for a fresh set of medium tyres. The Italian was stationary for 35 seconds, which is an eternity in the world of F1, before rejoining the race in P19. He had a big gap to bridge to the other cars. The stop looked like a disaster with mechanics running around with multiple tyres. However, replays showed that on timely inspection by a mechanic, there was a puncture on the front left, resulting in the entire set getting changed as per the FIA directive. Williams decided to do a double stack, switching both its drivers to the medium tyres. Russell had issues on his right rear tyre, and it was a slower stop for the Briton. The Safety Car period didn't last long, and racing resumed on lap 11.
Verstappen had a clean getaway, but a wobble for Hamilton on the final turn denied him the opportunity of contesting for the lead. Russell and Latifi relegated Mazepin to P18, while Stroll got past Alonso for 10th. Russell then got past Schumacher for P15, and Alonso got a track limits violation at turn 2 ( lap 12 ).
DRS got enabled at lap 13, and Latifi dispatched Schumacher for 15th, two laps later. Sainz pressured Ocon for P7, but the Frenchman held on. Mazepin lost another position to Giovinazzi ( P18 ), while Ferrari told Sainz that they were switching to "Plan C". Meanwhile, his teammate Leclerc got shifted to "Plan B".
Verstappen and Hamilton were lapping a lot quicker than the rest of the field, and blisters started appearing on the rear right tyres of both their cars. Gasly pitted for the medium tyres on lap 19, serving his time penalty during the stop, and rejoining in 19th and last.
Verstappen, Hamilton, Leclerc, Bottas, Ricciardo, Perez, Ocon, Sainz, Norris and Stroll were the top 10 at the end of lap 21.
Alonso and Vettel pitted for medium tyres on lap 22, rejoining in 17th and 19th, respectively. Vettel's slower stop of 4 seconds costed the German track position to Gasly. The German got past him a lap later, though. While Sainz and Stroll pitted for the medium tyres on lap 23, Alonso overtook Mazepin for P16. The first round of pit stops continued for the teams, with Bottas, Norris and Ocon pitting for the medium tyres on lap 24. Bottas rejoined in 6th, having seen that the undercut was working for others in the race. Schumacher pitted for the medium tyres on lap 25, rejoining in 18th.
The battle at the front was hotting up with Hamilton catching Verstappen and now only half a second behind the Dutchman. A miscommunication between Verstappen and his race engineer led him to stop for new tyres, sooner than he was supposed to. The crew got delayed on putting the front and rear left tyres, and it was a 4.2 seconds stop. Verstappen rejoined in 5th but quickly got past Perez, who made way without any hesitation. Ironically, Mercedes and Hamilton didn't follow suit and decided to go longer. Ricciardo pitted for the medium tyres, rejoining in 8th ( lap 26 ).
Sainz got past Giovinazzi for P10, while Hamilton, who had caught up to backmarker Mazepin, couldn't get past. The Haas driver's antics frustrated Toto Wolff, Mercedes Team Principal, and he contacted the FIA to make his displeasure known. Ricciardo got past Russell for P7, while Perez and Latifi pitted for medium tyres, rejoining in 7th and 17th, respectively. Alonso reported power loss, and Alpine acknowledged that they were managing an issue. Raikkonen, who had taken the alternate strategy and yet to make a stop, got relegated to 6th by Ricciardo.
Hamilton finally pitted on lap 29, switching to the mediums and rejoining in 2nd, 6 seconds adrift of Verstappen. Leclerc and Russell also followed suit on the same lap, rejoining in P4 and P16, respectively. Both Alfa Romeo drivers were going backwards, with Giovinazzi losing two places to Alonso and Vettel, falling back to P14, and Raikkonen getting overtaken by Perez for P6. The duo then lost a position each to Sainz and Gasly on lap 31.
At the front, Hamilton was the fastest man on track, eating into Verstappen's lead and bringing the gap down to 2.5 seconds. The Briton was back in DRS range on lap 34, and the battle for victory was well and truly alive! Meanwhile, Raikkonen, who was in a tyre management phase, fell back to 10th after getting overtaken by Ocon and Norris. The Finn finally pitted on lap 39 for soft tyres, rejoining in 17th. He was on a one-stop strategy. Vettel, in his Aston Martin, followed suit on lap 40, rejoining in 17th behind Raikkonen.
On the track, Perez was pressuring Ricciardo for P5, but the latter held the fort. The pit stop window for those on a two-stop strategy was now open, and Stroll and Giovinazzi were the first to switch to soft tyres, rejoining in 14th and 18th, respectively ( lap 41 ). Race Control issued a warning to Ricciardo for weaving on the pit straight, while Perez, who was chasing him down, ran wide and fell back by 1.5 seconds.
Hamilton had closed up on Verstappen but was unable to get side-by-side and challenge for the lead. Mercedes made a bold decision and called Hamilton into the pits on lap 42, switching him to another set of medium tyres! Hamilton rejoined the race in 3rd, behind Bottas, and had to reduce the deficit to Verstappen, who decided to nurse his tyres to the end. And so the charge began for Hamilton and Mercedes, their quest for victory!
Hamilton went about setting blistering lap times again while Perez got past Ricciardo for P5. Ricciardo and Sainz pitted for the soft tyres on lap 47, rejoining in P8 and P9. A slow switch on the right rear tyres cost Gasly time in his pit stop, the Frenchman rejoining in 16th on lap 49. Ex-teammates Sainz and Norris got reunited on track, with the former bagging P8 on lap 51. Norris, trying to defend his position, got caught weaving, and Race Control served him a Black and White flag. The McLaren switched to a new set of soft tyres, rejoining in 11th, a lap later.
Meanwhile, Hamilton had caught up to Bottas, and the team informed Bottas not to hold Hamilton up since he was on a different strategy. The Finn didn't seem too keen on relinquishing track position but left a gap big enough for Hamilton to complete an overtake on him at turn 10 ( lap 53 ). Further down the field, Ricciardo got past Ocon for P6, with Sainz relegating the Frenchman by another position. Mercedes decided to pit Bottas on lap 54, switching him to the soft tyres. He rejoined in 4th, behind Leclerc.
Gasly got past Vettel for P14, while Hamilton and Bottas traded fastest laps on their new soft tyres. Bottas was back into P3 with a move on Leclerc on lap 57, the Monegasque putting up a weak fight. Meanwhile, Norris got past Alonso for P9. The gap at the front kept reducing, and Hamilton said that he might run out of grip towards the end. The team responded by saying that Verstappen was in a worse situation than him. Perez and Leclerc pitted for soft tyres on lap 59, rejoining in 3rd and 4th, respectively.
Hamilton was now within DRS deployment of Verstappen and was closing in on the pit straight. Verstappen took to the right, trying to break the tow and spewing pieces of discarded rubber onto Hamilton. The Briton had more traction and grip and took the lead on lap 60, overtaking Verstappen on the outside into turn one.
Further down the field, Rusell lost three positions to Stroll, Raikkonen and Gasly while pressuring Alonso for P10. There was a train of cars forming up behind Alonso, whose tyres were on last legs.
Meanwhile, Red Bull knew that their chances of victory were done and dusted. The team pitted Verstappen for soft tyres to grab the extra point for the fastest lap of the race ( lap 61 ). Bottas, who was also closing in on Verstappen before his stop, was still 5 seconds adrift when the latter rejoined the track in 2nd. Bottas also got stuck in the train of cars behind Alonso as he tried to lap the quintet of Alonso, Stroll, Raikkonen, Gasly and Vettel.
Stroll attempted a pass on Alonso on lap 62 but was unable to brake in time, going wide into the run-off area and not rejoining as per the protocol set by the FIA. The Canadian backed off to let Alonso through, followed by Bottas, who was lapping him, only to have Raikkonen pressure him a couple of corners later. Raikkonen himself was under pressure from Gasly, who relegated him to 13th in the latter half of the lap. The incident between Stroll and Alonso got flagged for investigation, but the stewards deemed it a racing incident post-race. It was job done for Stroll a lap later, and Alonso's tyres fell off the cliff as he rapidly lost two more positions to Gasly and Raikkonen. Alonso finally pitted for new soft tyres, rejoining in P17.
Verstappen set the fastest lap of the race on lap 63, thus bagging the extra point on offer. The battle for the final point-scoring position wasn't over yet. Gasly got the better of Stroll on lap 64 and had Ocon, who was 12 seconds ahead, in his sights. Ocon, like Raikkonen, had adopted a one-stop strategy.
Hamilton took the Chequered Flag and the Win at the Spanish GP. Verstappen came home in 2nd, having tried his best, followed by Bottas in 3rd in the other Mercedes. Another strong performance saw Leclerc finish in 4th for Ferrari, followed by Perez and Ricciardo. Sainz was 7th in the other Ferrari, followed by Norris in 8th. The cushion of 12 seconds disappeared for Ocon, who just managed to hold off Gasly in the race to the line for 9th. Gasly completed the top 10, scoring a point for Alpha Tauri.
Stroll was 11th for Aston Martin, followed by Raikkonen in his Alfa Romeo. P13 was the best that Vettel could achieve, followed by Russell and Giovinazzi, who was unlucky at the start of the race. Latifi was 16th in the other Williams, fending off a late challenge by Alonso in 17th. The Haas cars of Schumacher and Mazepin completed the classified finishers.
It was Win Number 98 for Hamilton and the 50th Podium for Bottas in his time at Mercedes. The trio of Hamilton, Verstappen and Bottas shared the podium at the Spanish GP for the 4th consecutive season. Mercedes was able to outsmart Red Bull once again. It was a repeat of the 2019 Hungarian GP. Should Red Bull have pitted Verstappen a lap after Hamilton? Could he have kept the lead on rejoining? It was a hard nut to crack. Spain wasn't the easiest of tracks to overtake on, considering its aero sensitive characteristics. Track position was more important for Red Bull, but tyre life caused their undoing. The absence of the second car in the battle at the top left Red Bull with a handicap again. These issues need addressing. The curse of poor results from the 2nd car at Red Bull never seems to go away, even with a Perez at the wheel. It is back to the drawing board for the Milton Keynes outfit. Bottas has scored half of Hamilton's tally in 2021 to date. The Finn needs to step up his game if he wants to stake a claim on the title. The Drivers' Title is quickly becoming a two-horse race between Hamilton and Verstappen.
Ferrari outscored McLaren with stellar drives from Leclerc and Sainz. Only 5 points separate McLaren from Ferrari, and this battle also promises to go down to the wire. Ocon holding off Gasly at the end was pivotal in the Constructors' battle for Alpine. Stopping only once was a bold call to make, and it paid dividends ( for Ocon ). Alonso wasn't as fortunate in the other Alpine, with reliability issues costing him positions in the race. Alpha Tauri had another breakdown with Tsunoda but was able to salvage a point through Gasly. Every point matters.
Aston Martin came close to scoring a point with Stroll, only to be pipped by Gasly with three laps left. Vettel, too, failed to impress. The new regulations are wrecking the team's chances, and some desperate steps are needed for fortunes to change. Raikkonen was the last driver to pit in the first round of pit stops and spent most of his race in tyre management. If the team had adopted a more aggressive approach, they could have scored their first points of 2021. Giovinazzi, on the other hand, got undone by poor strategic calls, something that Alfa Romeo need to iron out. He has been delivering the goods on Saturday, but unfortunate incidents are costing him and the team on race day. Williams has been strong on Saturdays but keeps falling backwards on Sundays with both its drivers. The chances of the team scoring a point seem bleak. While Schumacher continues to grow as an F1 racer, Mazepin remains the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons, finding new drivers and personnel to displease every weekend. The Russian had a clean race, so that is a positive, but the pace deficit to Schumacher remains. Haas' performances don't augur well for their future.
While Hamilton completed a century of Poles in Spain, Verstappen completed 100 race starts with Red Bull! In the Clash of these Centurions, Race Strategy chose the Victor!
The drivers will lock horns again, in two weeks, at the most glamorous race on the calendar! It is time for the Monaco GP in the Principality!
Track position will be paramount, considering the narrow nature of the oldest street circuit on the calendar. The honour of winning at Monaco is unmatched, something which few have experienced from the current grid.