Max Verstappen took the lead of the 2022 Formula 1 World Championship after claiming his third consecutive win in the Spanish Grand Prix, where Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc suffered his first retirement of the season.
Here are our conclusions from Barcelona…
The best and worst of Max Verstappen
If there was a criticism to be made of Verstappen during his maiden title-winning season in 2021, it was that he needed to pick his battles slightly better and recognise the days when it would be beneficial to settle for second.
After he rejoined from the Turn 4 gravel behind Sergio Perez and George Russell on Lap 9, Leclerc in the lead and already long gone, the Spanish GP felt for all the world like one of those days.
There are few things more frightening in modern F1 than Verstappen as the red mist descends, and as his frustration with Red Bull’s intermittent DRS threatened to boil over – Max spitting his words over the radio, his car flicking sideways on corner exits as he stamped on the throttle – there was an implicit danger that an already difficult race was about to be made much worse.
In such situations – Bahrain, where Verstappen was unleashed to race Leclerc to the point where he locked up heavily into Turn 1, also comes to mind – perhaps there should be a greater emphasis on Red Bull, specifically Verstappen’s race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase, to control his natural aggression.
As Verstappen became increasingly irate behind Russell, there was arguably a moment for them to tell him to take a breath, nurse his tyres and wait for the team to take care of Russell during the stops. Second, after all, was as good as it was going to get.
Then Leclerc stopped, the battle for second became the one for the lead, and just like the dark clouds evaporated.
It was very much a race of two halves for Verstappen, who from that moment was restored to the cool, calculating and mature driver we have come to expect since Red Bull reclaimed their position at the very front of the grid.
Verstappen’s third successive victory continued his trend of winning every race he has finished this season and has given him the lead of the Championship for the first time in 2022.
— Formula 1 (@F1) May 22, 2022
It was a satisfying end to an afternoon that had earlier threatened to be another frustrating one for Verstappen, whose patience with Red Bull’s technical niggles is wearing extremely thin.
Ferrari have wasted their strong start to the season
It was only a month ago, in the aftermath of his Australian GP victory, that some seemed ready to hand the 2022 title to Leclerc.
Two retirements in the first three races for Verstappen had allowed Leclerc to build an advantage of 46 points – almost the equivalent of two race wins – over his nearest rival.
While there was a long way to go, such a convincing early lead meant this was almost certainly Ferrari’s best chance of winning the Drivers’ Championship since their last triumph with Kimi Raikkonen in 2007.
Three races later, Leclerc now trails Verstappen by six points. Where did it all go wrong?
Everything was perfect until the loss of power. Disappointed but it happens over the course of a season and pace was really good before.
Next stop : Home ❤️
Forza @scuderiaferrari pic.twitter.com/YzcKyhSb8h
— Charles Leclerc (@Charles_Leclerc) May 22, 2022
Consecutive wins for Verstappen at Imola and Miami had allowed Red Bull to build a certain degree of momentum, yet Leclerc had been set to make a timely return to the top step of the podium in Barcelona.
His lap for pole position, under the most extreme pressure following the mistake at the end of his first Q3 attempt, was a reward for his relentlessly attacking approach and a measure of his resilience.
And as Verstappen and team-mate Carlos Sainz were blown off by gusts of wind at Turn 4, Leclerc looked well placed to extend his lead in the standings, only for a sudden loss of power on Lap 27 to see him lose it entirely.
Leclerc made the point of consoling his mechanics when he returned to the garage and preferred to focus on the positives – qualifying performance, race pace and tyre management – when he faced the media.
Ferrari’s standard-setting pace in Barcelona’s twisty third sector does at least bode well for Monaco, but the Scuderia are entering a critical period of the season for their chances of building a sustained title challenge.
It’s the hope that kills you…
Performative Perez knows where he stands at Red Bull
“That’s very unfair,” was Perez’s initial reaction to being instructed to move aside for Verstappen over team radio, before he presumably remembered that he doesn’t have a contract with Red Bull beyond this year. “But OK.”
When it comes to threatening to defy team orders, this wasn’t exactly Multi-21 and seemed all the more strange given most accept Perez was signed by Red Bull to act as Verstappen’s wingman.
If everyone else is aware of that, why isn’t Checo?
There was almost a performative element to Perez’s protestations – not only in his comments over the radio but in the way he sought out Christian Horner and Helmut Marko in parc ferme – as if to demonstrate that no driver, even those signed with that specific purpose, likes the wingman role.
— PlanetF1 (@Planet_F1) May 22, 2022
In bringing his displeasure into the public domain, Perez ensured the awkward questions about team orders were put to Horner – who, remember, broke Red Bull’s long-standing commitment to youth to offer Perez an F1 lifeline when he was released by Racing Point at the end of 2020 – after the race.
His words may have been in the heat of the moment, but it was almost disrespectful of Perez to make it a story.
And at this stage, with Verstappen clearly the point around which Red Bull’s world revolves, it is something Horner really shouldn’t need to defend or explain.
“I’m happy for the team,” Perez radioed again after the chequered flag as Red Bull celebrated their second one-two finish in three races. “But we need to speak later.”
Presumably, it was very much a one-way conversation that sounded something like: “Max is the number one, you’re the number two. But you already knew that, didn’t you? Now get on with it.”
Miami practice was the turning point for Mercedes
At times this season it has felt as though Mercedes were stumbling in the dark, lost for answers.
They weren’t exactly sure why their innovative no-sidepod concept was so unable to recreate its reportedly stunning simulation performance in the real world, and they were even more confused when they were fast – for one day only – in practice in Miami.
Their world briefly righted itself on that Friday – Russell fastest in the afternoon after being P2 in the morning session – yet come qualifying Mercedes were back in what has become their natural position in 2022, Lewis Hamilton a distant P6 and Russell not even making Q3.
Short-lived it may have been, but that upturn in performance acted as a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, at last giving Mercedes a sense of direction.
Questions were converted into answers during a filming day at Paul Ricard on Wednesday, and when they took to the track with a revised floor in Barcelona the porpoising problem that had blighted their season until that point was finally under some sort of control.
The sense that the team had made a significant breakthrough was evident in the body language of both drivers as well as team boss Toto Wolff, who provided the quote of the weekend in relaying Hamilton’s assessment that the W13 “finally drives like a Formula 1 car.”
There remains an air of vulnerability about the team, who in the blazing Catalonian heat suffered a repeat of the cooling problems experienced in Australia – another drawback of the W13’s unusual sidepod concept, maybe? – but this was a much-improved weekend for Mercedes.
With the firefighting over and done with, now to pursue performance.
Slowly but surely, the empire is striking back.
Russell’s reputation grows as Hamilton keeps running into misfortune
The opening lap in Barcelona pretty much summed up the very different seasons the Mercedes drivers are having in 2022.
As he swept around the outside of Turn 1 to take P3 from Sergio Perez, Russell took a hit to the right-rear of his Mercedes, but lived to fight another day.
Seconds later, meanwhile, Hamilton’s left-front was knocked by Kevin Magnussen as the Haas driver attempted an opportunistic move around the outside of Turn 4. The result? A puncture. Of course it was…
— Formula 1 (@F1) May 22, 2022
Without a Safety Car to bring him back into contention, Hamilton flirted with the possibility of retiring to save the engine as he circulated half a lap behind.
But his recovery to fifth (it would have been P4 were it not for the late reliability scare) underlined the potential of the revised Mercedes, with Wolff claiming Hamilton would have been in contention for victory had he avoided the first-lap collision.
It was left to Russell to be the first Mercedes driver across the finish line for the fifth race in succession, his reputation further enhanced by his robust defence against Verstappen’s faster if problematic Red Bull en route to his second podium of the season.
One of the great tragedies of Mercedes’ stuttering start to 2022 is that the rivalry between Russell and Hamilton has effectively been on hold, with an emphasis on unity at a time the team simply have more pressing problems to solve.
If it really is the case that the team are back in contention, and their performance can be further improved over the weeks to come, let battle commence at last…