Spanish GP conclusions: Mercedes’ upgrade uncertainty; time for Perez to refocus

Oliver Harden conclusions, 2023 Spanish GP. conclusions, 2023 Spanish Grand Prix.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen extended his F1 2023 winning run to three in Sunday’s Spanish GP at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

The reigning World Champion now has a massive lead of 53 points over team-mate Sergio Perez and was joined on the podium by Lewis Hamilton and George Russell, who put the upgraded Mercedes W14 to good use.

Here are our conclusions from Barcelona…

Red Bull really can win every race in 2023

George Russell? He was a believer straight after the opening race in Bahrain. Toto Wolff, his boss at Mercedes, was in agreement not long after.

Red Bull themselves were reticent to say it themselves, of course, because what was there to gain?

To acknowledge that it was possible to win every race this season would be to tempt fate; to set such wildly ambitious targets would needlessly invite pressure on a team determined to just go with the flow and see where it took them.

Spain, though, seemed to mark a significant change in Red Bull’s messaging about doing the impossible. Asked by Sky Sports F1 on Thursday in Barcelona if the team could win every race in 2023, Verstappen said: “How it looks like at the moment, I think we can.”

He went on to add that it remains “very unlikely to happen” – mistakes and misfortune could so easily and so suddenly take the dream away – but the implication was clear that this is an achievement slowly growing on Red Bull’s radar with each passing weekend.

In a sense, it is surprising that a perfect season in Formula 1 has never been done before and most readers will be aware that McLaren-Honda, with 15 victories from 16 rounds, came closest to ‘invincible’ status in 1988.

And in a sport in which the baton of dominance passes freely from one team to the next, in the last three decades alone Williams, Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes have all been in positions of such strength at various points to make an unbeaten season a serious possibility.

Red Bull’s current advantage is comparable to that enjoyed by some of those teams over the years, but the key difference this time?

The standard of opposition has seldom been in a weaker state.

With two cars on the podium for the first time in 2023, Mercedes will doubtless cling to the Spanish GP as a corner turned until their next major wake-up call comes along – probably in Canada – but the truth remains that this is a team taking their very first tentative steps in a new development direction having remained loyal to their previous concept for far too long.

And, likewise, Ferrari have only this weekend finally hauled themselves out of the bathtub sidepod design even though it is almost a full year since the car looked remotely capable of winning races.

With both of their traditional rivals compromised by vast changes to cars conceived around totally different concepts – and Spain potentially the first real sign of Aston Martin being unable to keep up in the development race in the week they began the transition to their new factory – the road is laid out for Red Bull to potentially win the lot in 2023.

Make no mistake: it can be done.

Jury remains out on Mercedes’ upgrades

More than a year after the first misleading flash of performance from the doomed zero-pod car, we are now very familiar with the protocol at Mercedes in the aftermath of a half-decent result.

Lewis Hamilton speaks passionately of a “mega job” over team radio and urges the team to “keep pushing” – sounding, if anything, a little too happy about a distant P2 for the only driver in history with more than a hundred grand prix victories to his name.

And Wolff, in full manager-speak mode, talks of the team needing “the shock” of a particularly bruising weekend – in this case Bahrain – to focus minds and force a re-evaluation of their direction of travel.

Much of the conversation between now and Canada will doubtlessly hone in on a breakthrough race and light at the end of the tunnel – are we still buying it? – yet buried beneath the platitudes Wolff’s remark that the cool conditions in Barcelona placed the W14 car in an “absolute mega window” was the key line from Mercedes’ weekend.

At a circuit where the team enjoyed one of their better performances of 2022, it became clear in qualifying – as a Red Bull and a Ferrari failed to even make Q3 – that this was no ordinary weekend, with the conditions placing an extreme emphasis on tyre temperature.

For all the fundamental limitations of the high-downforce Mercedes since the start of last season, generating tyre temperature has not been one of them, yet even so Russell could only qualify P12 and Hamilton was lost in the crowd in fifth, six tenths slower than Verstappen’s time for pole position.

With Aston Martin out of podium contention here and Sergio Perez and Charles Leclerc forced to recover through the field, the path to the podium was made considerably clearer than it otherwise may have been in normal circumstances.

In truth this weekend had a slightly similar feel to April’s Australian GP, effectively the zero-pod’s last hurrah, when after Russell and Hamilton unexpectedly qualified second and third Mercedes – following their usual strong showing on race day – briefly allowed themselves to think one last time that they had finally cracked it.

What happened next, you ask? Oh, yeah: they didn’t even finish in the top five at the next race in Baku.

A much greater sample size is required before it can be declared that Mercedes are indeed back. After all, they’ve made enough of us look silly enough times already over the last 12 months for everyone to urge a note of caution this time…

The debate over Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin seat is as pointless as it is tiresome

The normal rules do not apply at Aston Martin – but try telling that to those who’d really quite like to see Lawrence Stroll in the awkward position of having to sack his own son.

A couple of erratic performances by the younger Stroll in Miami and Monaco, where he qualified no higher than 14th in a car Fernando Alonso guided to the podium, had once again given way to the tired old debate over whether the team may be forced to consider dropping him for a faster alternative.

Yet blood is thicker than a few points and a position or two in the Constructors’ Championship and those hopeful of Lance Stroll being replaced seem to misunderstand that the whole point of this team’s existence in its current form is to serve him.

The only way Stroll will not play a part in Aston’s future is if he himself decides he doesn’t really want to do this F1 thing anymore – if, for instance, his motivation and commitment, frequently questioned throughout his career, is stretched to breaking point by Alonso, a driver renowned for rubbing the faces of his team-mates in the mud.

And even if he does find Alonso a little too hot to handle, Stroll can console himself with the idea of Honda – Aston’s newly announced engine partner from 2026 – elevating the team to potential title-winning contention in the years to come. Who would willingly walk away from that and all its promise? recommends

A renewed Hamilton v Verstappen rivalry may not be a million miles away

Lewis Hamilton reveals major new development in Mercedes contract talks

The criticism Stroll has faced in recent weeks made his return to form in Barcelona very timely, the younger man avoiding the floor-damaging mistake Alonso made in Q1 to outqualify his team-mate for the first time in 2023 before an effective drive to sixth – his best result since Melbourne – in the race.

Yet how to explain Aston’s least competitive performance of the season to date?

At a circuit regarded as the best barometer of car performance, was this simply an off weekend in tricky conditions for the AMR23 described by Alonso as “lovely to drive” back in Bahrain? With Fernando alarmed by the rate of development by Mercedes and Ferrari, are Aston in danger of falling behind in the competitive order?

Or could it be that, following his well-documented struggles in Miami and Monaco and in light of the rising pressure, the team sacrificed absolute performance in Barcelona in favour of effectively bringing the bottom up, giving Stroll something to work with, a glimmer of confidence and an opportunity to reset?

If there is even a hint of Alonso’s ultimate ceiling being artificially lowered for the good of his straggling team-mate, let’s see how much longer the Mr Nice Guy act lasts…

Perez has lost sight of his own strengths in blind determination to match Max

It was all going so well for Sergio Perez until he started talking about the title.

The precise point it went wrong came shortly after his victory at the Saudi Arabian GP, where he declared that he had “every single opportunity to win the Championship as much as [Max] does.”

Perez was referring to having the support of Red Bull to challenge Verstappen, yet seemed to ignore the fact that the team’s backing must be gained through the sheer strength and consistency of his performances on track.

If his pronouncement sounded bold on that March night in Jeddah, where the Red Bull drivers were separated by a single point after two races, it reads as ludicrous 11 weeks and five rounds later now the gap has ballooned to 53.

In hindsight, winning two of the opening four grands prix was potentially the worst thing to happen in Perez in 2023, skewing his expectations and encouraging him to focus on what Max was doing rather than his own strengths.

How else to explain that inelegant crash in Monaco last week as Checo tried to out-Max Max in Q1 at Ste Devote? Or that ungainly trip through the gravel prior to his Q2 exit in Spain?

Was that what Red Bull’s Helmut Marko was referring to, perhaps, when he told Sky Germany on Saturday night in Barcelona how Perez’s sudden series of incidents amounted to “a relatively hard wake-up call”?

It is often said that World Championships are won and lost on a driver’s bad days.

On Verstappen’s worst days of 2023 so far, he still finished a close second behind his team-mate in Jeddah and Baku. Perez’s bad days, meanwhile, read P5 (Australia), P16 (Monaco) and P4 (Spain).

The difference, some might say, between a good driver and a great one.

Time to see Sainz for what he is rather than what he’s not

Not for the first time in his Ferrari career on a qualifying day when tyre temperature was critical, Carlos Sainz showed Charles Leclerc the way home in Barcelona.

Add Spain 2023 to the collection including Portugal 2021, France 2021 and Australia 2023 – all sessions in the very recent past in which Sainz’s more abrupt technique and harsher inputs bought him more temp (and therefore grip) than his celebrated team-mate over a single lap.

Out in Q1 for the first time in four years Leclerc was convinced his car had developed a chronic handling issue, yet despite a complete change of rear end and a pit lane start he was only marginally improved en route to 11th in the race – begging the question that the treatment of the tyres may have been the difference between the Ferrari drivers here all along.

Like Stroll, Sainz entered this weekend under pressure after a messy race in Monaco characterised by a near-miss at the chicane with Esteban Ocon and a spin entering Mirabeau as the rain began to fall.

It has not been pretty at times, but after seven races there is an argument that this has been Sainz’s strongest start to a season in his three years as a Ferrari driver – his only non-score so far coming after that outrageous five-second penalty for an incident that technically did not happen with Alonso in Australia.

With two pole positions on a sprint weekend in Baku, it is undeniable that Leclerc has the higher ceiling of the two, but as he constantly shoots for the moon and sometimes doesn’t even achieve lift off Sainz is currently fulfilling a valuable role for Ferrari.

Time to embrace him for what he is rather than criticise him for what he’s not.