Spanish Grand Prix conclusions: Red Bull dominance over, Lando Norris transformed

Oliver Harden
Max Verstappen celebrates with his Red Bull team with a conclusions banner

Another win for Max Verstappen, but are Red Bull's golden days over?

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen claimed his seventh victory of the F1 2024 season at the Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

The reigning World Champion took advantage of a slow start by McLaren’s Lando Norris to lead from the front, with polesitter Norris forced to settle for second and Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton collecting his first podium of F1 2024 with third. Here are our conclusions from Spain…

Conclusions from the 2024 Spanish Grand Prix

The clearest indication yet that Red Bull’s dominance is over

Let’s get to Barcelona. Then we’ll see.

That’s what Red Bull have been telling themselves for weeks, confident their recent struggles over the bumps and kerbs would fade away – and their advantage of old would be re-established – once the season moved back to a more favourable circuit.

The logic was sound, for Barcelona has long been regarded as the greatest gauge of a car’s strengths and weaknesses, the place where the class of the field invariably comes to the fore.

It was here, after all, that an era of Mercedes dominance reached its peak in 2020, when Hamilton climbed out of his car and spoke lucidly of being “in the perfect zone” and “my highest form” over the course of 66 wondrous laps.

Such was his tranquility behind the wheel that Hamilton didn’t even realise it was the last lap when he came to cross the finish line. He wanted to keep going. On and on and on and on. Never wanting that feeling to end.

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His margin of victory that day? Twenty-four seconds. The same gap Verstappen enjoyed at this race in 2023.

How quickly the landscape has changed.

This time it was down to two seconds and, unusually for a Spanish Grand Prix, the winner wasn’t even in the fastest car.

Verstappen and Red Bull may have collected another victory here, because that is simply what they do, but the sheer tightness of the field was disturbing to Max, who commented after qualifying that he was “of course hoping to be ahead on this kind of track.”

Increasingly his success is hinging on the execution of big moments – calling the Safety Car right in Canada, emerging from the first-corner melee ahead of Norris in Spain and benefiting from George Russell holding the McLaren up for good measure – as opposed to an underlying performance advantage.

It should come as no great surprise – Max and Red Bull simply have more battle-hardened recent experience of competing at the front and are therefore better equipped to capitalise on such opportunities than Norris, with just a single victory to his name, and a young McLaren team with limited success over the last decade – but it is an unsustainable way of going motor racing.

And Max knows it, calling for improvements to the RB20 at almost every opportunity throughout this weekend.

Verstappen and Red Bull will keep winning races, regularly enough to win this year’s World Championship with some comfort, but no longer with the crushing control of the last couple of years.

For now they still hold the high ground, yet there is a growing urgency to respond as the sand shifts around them.

At this rate, even Max won’t be able to hold back the tide for much longer.

Another lost win, but Lando Norris’s first F1 victory has been transformative

It’s not the glory, but the validation. And the confidence.

That’s where the real value – the true power – of a first F1 victory is found.

It always felt like that day would be pivotal in the career of Lando Norris, a driver with all the talent in the world in his early days but without the belief, the conviction, the certainty to go with it.

Not anymore.

Seven weeks on, Norris continues to drive in the afterglow of his maiden triumph in Miami, the most important race he will ever win.

It has been transformative, elevating him – as these major career milestones tend to do – to a whole new level of confidence and, with it, performance.

Floodgates opened?

Not exactly – not yet anyway – but it really is amazing what that first win can do. This is a different, more self-assured Lando Norris we’re dealing with now.

Having pestered Verstappen all the way to the finish at Imola and scurried away into an eight-second lead in tricky conditions in Canada – that he and McLaren were undone by a Safety Car was a sign that they are yet to develop that Red Bull-esque sixth sense when the variables enter the equation – his performance across the Spanish Grand Prix weekend was among his most complete yet.

Whisper it gently, but there was even a touch of 2021 Max in the tenacious way he took the fight to Verstappen in qualifying – the only driver able to live with the dominant World Champion of recent times when it mattered most and striking at the very climax of Q3, just as Max appeared to have seen off the threat by hauling himself three tenths clear.

Where did that come from? It was, Norris said, “the perfect lap” – full of calculated risk and “balls-out” bravery and delivered with poise under the sort of pressure to which he had previously been susceptible.

It was a pole lap that had the feel of a statement.

The sort Verstappen would routinely deliver in 2021, warning Hamilton that he was growing in stature and strength all the while and becoming ever harder to contain.

The sort to suggest that Norris too has now begun the process of positioning himself as a serious candidate to become F1’s next World Champion if his and McLaren’s current trajectory can be sustained across the rest of this season and into next.

There was once a time – not too long ago – when he would sink without a trace after the start he had from pole, dropping to third behind Verstappen and Russell in the decisive moment of the race.

Yet there is a greater resilience – bordering on a restlessness, almost an anger – about him now too, turning that disappointment into motivation, even if he never quite could claw back those crucial seconds he lost in those opening laps.

That he was so frustrated with second place, ruing the launch that let Max to escape to victory, was a reflection of how wide-eyed hope has been replaced by a level of expectation and demand.

For so much of his career, Norris has carried the air of someone not quite sure that he belongs.

Where other drivers have always been certain of their place among the elite, plucky little Lando needed some convincing that he was worthy too.

The Norris we have witnessed this side of Miami?

He sure as hell knows it now.

A reassuring weekend for Lewis Hamilton

Is it the car or is it me?

Hamilton has admitted to wrestling with that conundrum once or twice over the last two-and-a-half years whenever self-doubt – that little voice inside one’s head, nagging away at all elite athletes regardless of their name and what they have achieved – has entered the room.

Am I the same driver I always was, just cruelly restricted by the limitations of my machinery? Or am I actually the problem here?

At this stage of his Mercedes career, the months ticking by before he begins his new life with Ferrari and with his 40th birthday slowly creeping up on the horizon, that question seems to hang over every session Hamilton enters these days.

A clue to the answer came back in sprint qualifying in China, where in the wet – that great F1 leveller, creating a contest based not so much on the quality of the car but a racing driver’s fundamental skills of touch, feel, judgement and nerve – Hamilton was a comfortable second, behind only Norris in a McLaren suited to the conditions.

But – wait – then came Canada, where having looked much like his old self throughout practice Hamilton was six places and almost three whole tenths behind his pole-setting team-mate Russell when it mattered most in qualifying.

“Over the weekend, just a really poor performance from myself,” Hamilton said the following day, having just been beaten by Russell to Mercedes’ first podium of F1 2024.

“Just one of the worst races that I’ve driven.”

Me? Or the car? Me? Or the car? You could almost hear the cogs turning inside his head as he uttered those words.

Montreal, having started so brightly before fading into standard post-2021 nothingness, was particularly tough to take.

It is why it was important for Hamilton to respond with a podium of his own in Barcelona, ahead of Russell in qualifying for only the second time this year – and by the satisfyingly fine margin of 0.02s – before driving a measured race to third as George performed his usual, ill-disciplined push-too-hard-too-soon-and-pay-for-it-later act.

Is it the car or is it me?

Days like Friday in China, and weekends like this, provide Hamilton with the reassurance that in the right car, the right conditions and the right circumstances, the old magic is still very much accessible.

That, in the end, is all he really needs to know as he heads towards 2025.

Has Carlos Sainz missed a trick?

With Red Bull struggling to hit the same heights as last season, trust Sergio Perez to bring the bottom down.

The good news this weekend?

He qualified inside the top 10 for the first time since Miami, ending his run of consecutive races without a Q3 appearance at three. An improvement, at least, on last summer’s five.

The bad news?

Into the gaping six-tenth void between himself and Verstappen this weekend jumped five cars (it would have been six had Oscar Piastri recorded a representative Q3 time), with Perez finishing 59 seconds behind his race-winning team-mate on Sunday.

What does it matter now, you might say, that Red Bull have already committed to him for next season?

Yet the chasm between their drivers is a constant reminder of the risk Red Bull have taken by retaining Perez at a time their inherent performance advantage is shrinking.

Verstappen, with those broad shoulders of his, should be able to handle it for now, but he could be being left brutally exposed by the absence of a reliable wingman next year and beyond.

Which brings us to Carlos Sainz.

It is widely expected that Sainz will be announced as a 2025 Williams driver ahead of this weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix, having tried and failed to force openings at Mercedes and Red Bull since being informed that he will be replaced at Ferrari by Hamilton at the end of this year.

But if his target is to return to a race-winning seat at the earliest convenience, and the main Red Bull team won’t take him right now, has Sainz potentially missed a trick by not pursuing a seat with RB for next season?

One of the reasons Christian Horner and Co. have been so forgiving of Perez’s performances is that there is no outstanding in-house candidate to replace him, with Yuki Tsunoda never to be trusted with a Red Bull and Daniel Ricciardo’s hopes of rediscovering his old self long since faded.

It is a situation crying out for a driver of Sainz’s calibre and experience to mark himself as a credible and appealing alternative, a ‘first reserve’ option to apply constant seat pressure on Perez in the way Red Bull hoped a returning Ricciardo would keep him on his toes this time last year.

It is obvious why RB is one of the few teams that Sainz has not been seriously linked with over the last few months, the former Toro Rosso outfit still – even with the presence of 34-year-old Ricciardo in the garage – unable to shake off its long-standing reputation as a junior team that exists only to train young drivers.

That, after all, is why Sainz – and more recently, Pierre Gasly – saw fit to leave in order to further his career in 2017 having been unable to break the glass ceiling.

Overlook the team’s second-rate status, however, and increasingly there is a lot to like here, from the tightening technical bond with Red Bull, which has already delivered some impressive results in 2024, to the appointment of Laurent Mekies, one of Sainz’s former bosses at Ferrari, as team principal.

It was never going to happen, of course, and Sainz and Williams will be good for each other.

But as his future edged closer to finally being resolved in Barcelona, and Perez continued to stumble on, the thought occurred this weekend that a chance has been missed to create a mouthwatering dog-eat-dog scenario within the Red Bull setup for 2025.

And one that would have left Checo, with Carlos pushing hard for a promotion to the senior team from the off, with zero margin for error.

Flavio Briatore returns: F1 sleaze is alive and well

If Flavio Briatore is the answer, has it not occurred to Renault that they just might be asking the wrong question?

It seemed unfortunate that Alpine’s strongest showing of the season to date should come on the weekend the team officially welcomed Briatore back since leaving the sport in disgrace in 2009, giving the impression that wily ol’ Flav has sprinkled Enstone with fairy dust.

The most alarming aspect of the return of Briatore – originally banned for life for his role in Crashgate, quite possibly the worst case of cheating in sporting history for its brazen preparedness to put the lives of drivers, spectators and marshals in the way of peril in the pursuit of personal gain – was the way it was met with little more than a shrug by some of F1’s leading figures.

You might have expected it from Bruno Famin, the latest in a long line of Alpine/Renault bosses, but Toto Wolff?

“I have known Flavio as an extremely smart businessman. He has a lot of know-how in Formula 1… there is a lot of experience and expertise.”

Fred Vasseur? “I think it’s probably a step forward for Alpine. And it’s good for F1 in the end if Alpine is coming back into the fight.”

The anonymous chap from Sauber? “We need clever people in Formula 1. And I think Flavio is a clever one.”

Why Flavio? Well, why not?

Damon Hill, a World Champion of substance and moral fibre, was pretty much a lone voice in expressing his “disappointment” in the reaction of the team principals and airing serious concerns that the return of the “fast and loose” Briatore risks marking a worrying shift back towards an era of “skullduggery.”

It’s a compelling point.

In an era of corporate kindness, and under the ownership of Liberty Media, Formula 1 has worked exceptionally hard on curating its image over recent years, presenting a visage of a very modern sport – one in which no cause is too small to be championed – cut adrift from the shady practices of the past.

Yet the return of Briatore, and the largely unmoved response to it, tells us that F1 sleaze is alive and well.

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