For once, Formula 1’s Spanish Grand Prix provided an engaging contest up and down the grid and just like last year it included developments that could be key to the outcome of the world titles.
Max Verstappen led a Red Bull 1-2 ahead of Sergio Perez, but that summary barely scratches the surface of an event that looked set to go to Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc before his unfortunate engine issue and after Verstappen had gone off in the gravel.
There were also eye-catching performances from the Mercedes drivers, another strong showing from one of the stars of the season so far and a brave drive through illness from McLaren driver Lando Norris.
Here are 10 things we learned from the Barcelona weekend.
1. We still don’t know if Ferrari has reversed Red Bull’s recent superiority
Ferrari’s defeats at Imola and in Miami were put down to its top speed deficit to Red Bull, but worse tyre degradation on the softer tyre compounds also left Charles Leclerc horribly exposed against Max Verstappen’s key straight-line advantage. The Italian team’s work in this area ahead of the Spanish race, allied to its Barcelona upgrades, would be a key factor in the victory fight.
After FP2, things looked bleak, with Leclerc’s practice race run far from Verstappen’s pace and showing an alarming drop off as the tyres wore. But overnight work ahead of FP3 and time dedicated in that session to more long-run work suggested things were converging with Red Bull.
Driver ratings: 2022 Spanish Grand Prix
After Leclerc impressively took pole after his first Q3 run spin, a race showdown was set up. And it was one Ferrari appeared to be winning even before Verstappen’s Turn 4 off.
Leclerc had by then edged to a 2-second lead and showed what he called “very good degradation” that he meant stayed out until lap 21 before pitting to get rid of the fragile softs. That they were a brand-new set versus Verstappen’s used softs no doubt played a part (and aided Leclerc’s defence at the start), but that was an impressive turnaround from Imola and Miami.
However, Leclerc’s retirement and Verstappen’s absence from the lead fight by that stage means F1 lacks the data to know if Ferrari has really reversed the form book in the key area of tyre management.
2. Ferrari also has reliability worries this season
Verstappen left Melbourne with a 46-point deficit to Leclerc after his early 2022 campaign featured a second retirement in three races. Red Bull’s reliability worries continued in Miami with its practice overheating issues, which Verstappen sharply addressed in public even after his win there. This reflected his concern at both Ferrari’s close pace and its essentially faultless run on the reliability front to that point.
But Leclerc’s retirement from a Barcelona race he was leading commandingly last Sunday showed that Ferrari’s reliability prowess was something of a mirage – especially considering Alfa Romeo driver Zhou Guanyu also stopped with a cooling problem on his customer Ferrari power unit.
Perhaps the most shocking element of Leclerc’s retirement, which also applied to Verstappen’s DNFs earlier in the year, is that it is now so rare for a leading car to stop so suddenly. What was once commonplace in F1 has been overturned by some of the world’s best engineers working to make things even better – reflecting the adage that the championship is simply better than it once was, while also helping keep costs down and encouraging sustainability.
While race-altering reliability retirements are dramatic, cars breaking down of their own accord is not a good thing. In 2022, Ferrari has learned that it is not immune from a sudden stoppage wrecking proceedings with the latest car packages. Now Leclerc is six points behind the standings, it cannot afford another one.
3. Red Bull is as ruthless with team orders in 2022 as you’d expect
Red Bull is one of F1’s greatest ever teams. Considering how quickly it went from turning the former Jaguar squad from no-hoper to title winner, it really doesn’t get the credit it deserves from F1 observers and fans alike.
A likely reason for this is the repeated PR gaffes/incendiaries (delete as per your opinion) the team delivers, combined with its reputation for ruthlessness. This generally refers to its repeated dropping of drivers from its F1 squads or young driver programme that it deems not worthy to make the grade. But in Spain it was its in-race driver management that was under scrutiny.
Red Bull’s handling of Verstappen’s aggressive driving – and Sebastian Vettel’s occasional waywardness before him – has been questioned in the past and it has previous form regarding team orders controversy after the “Multi 21” saga of Malaysia 2013. At Barcelona in 2022, it twice asked Perez to get out of Verstappen’s way – on the first instance as he ran behind George Russell early on and promising “we’ll pay you back later”.
Only it never did. In fact, Perez was denied the chance to attack Russell when Verstappen was stymied by his malfunctioning DRS and then as the leader was told to let his team-mate by again when Verstappen roared back late in the race. Perez said this was "very unfair” before he acquiesced.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner insisted afterwards the situation was more to do with Verstappen ending up on a different strategy compared to Perez and not wanting to risk the former having to make a pass on the latter with his DRS struggles, rather than with the title battle in mind.
But that’s not how it appeared on the outside and given team orders are controversial in F1 and unpopular with fans, even at a later point in a season than this very early one, it invited intense attention.
The decision is in keeping with Red Bull’s reputation, but it remains to be seen if the team will somehow pay for upsetting Perez if it doesn’t soon give him back what he feels he’s owed.
4. Red Bull and Verstappen still susceptible to small errors
Verstappen is unafraid to publicly call out Red Bull for what he perceives as the team not getting small details right that can cost him in races. Although things worked out last Sunday in Spain, he did so again when frustrated by the DRS issues thwarting his attacks on Russell through the middle part of the race, stating on his radio “we can’t even make the f****** DRS work”.
The problem, which also prevented him doing a final Q3 run and so losing his shot at Leclerc’s pole, centred on the actuator and flap pivot pins in Spain – given these were replaced ahead of the race. But at the same time, it’s not clear if they were just failing or leading to added stress problems elsewhere in the system – possibly exacerbated by Red Bull being “too ambitious” on weight saving, per Horner.
Red Bull must find a quick solution to keep Verstappen happy, but he also cannot afford to let the small errors in his game – on display throughout the start of his championship-winning campaign in 2021 – return fully.
His trip through the gravel at Turn 4, caught out by a gust of wind, should’ve been more costly and Verstappen would do well to reflect on his good fortune given how things panned out for Leclerc, especially if Ferrari’s improved tyre management is indeed a real gain that is subsequently maintained. At the same time, his around-the-outside pass on Valtteri Bottas at Turn 12 is a reminder of just how devastatingly good the world champion is in a race-winning charge situation.
5. Cool fuel could be the latest technical argument to flare up in 2022
Verstappen’s late departure from his Red Bull garage on Sunday led to fears he might not start the race, but it later transpired his team were having trouble complying with the same technical rule that caught out Aston Martin in Miami.
The cars must be running fuel that is no more than 10 degrees cooler than the ambient temperature at the track when leaving the garage, which Red Bull is understood to have been at risk of not doing had it not kept Verstappen’s car back with its engine running for nearly 10 extra minutes after the pitlane opened for the laps to grid.
It so avoided the pitlane start that Aston had for both Lance Stroll and Vettel last time out, but when Mattia Binotto said afterwards that his Ferrari squad believes the rule to be "10 degrees below the ambient... at all times during the event", that leaves the potential for the situation to become a bigger flashpoint later on in the year if the FIA doesn’t further clarify what is and isn’t allowed.
6. Mercedes can be a victory threat in 2022
The eight words above would’ve been pretty unthinkable leaving the first two races of the season in the Middle East, such was the scale of the porpoising problem plaguing Mercedes from the off this year. That F1’s previously dominant squad was in such a situation seemed equally unlikely over the winter…
Mercedes ultimately left Barcelona with a third and fifth-place haul, which is in line with its previous achievements with the W13. But the team is insistent the car’s upgraded front wing endplate, floor edge, body and rear corner have worked so well that it not only had the potential to fight the Red Bulls, as Russell did so valiantly, but that it could’ve been a victory threat in Spain.
This is based on Lewis Hamilton’s recovery from a lap one left-front puncture after his clash with Haas driver Kevin Magnussen, as he closed a 38s gap to the field from there, then climbed to near the podium with unrelenting and searing pace, particular after the mid-way point. He would’ve deprived home hero Carlos Sainz of fourth had he not had to back off to avoid retiring with a water leak (that also occurred on Russell’s car) spiking engine temperatures.
“If I hadn’t had that [puncture], I’d have been fighting with the Red Bulls,” Hamilton said afterwards.
That is highly likely given what Russell produced and Mercedes is right to be hopeful it now has “a world championship-winning race car”, per team boss Toto Wolff. But caution is still required for two key reasons.
First, the scorching temperatures in Spain allied to the Barcelona track’s tyre-torturing nature made this as much a test of rubber management as anything else – and here Mercedes, particularly Hamilton, excels.
Plus, the track is F1’s laboratory circuit, where the teams have so much accrued data to rely on – including from the first pre-season test this year. How the transformed W13 performs on the bumpier ground to come will be a key factor in the Silver Arrows true potential for the rest of 2022.
7. Russell can race wheel to wheel with the best
For rather inexplicable reasons, plenty of (usually cowardly, anonymous) social media users insist Russell doesn’t deserve his burgeoning reputation as an F1 superstar – despite him shining in the lower formulas and with sub-par machinery at Williams. In some quarters this assessment has been advanced because of Alex Albon’s strong showings for Williams, which also misses the point that he is an impressive talent too…
Back to Barcelona – where Russell showed he can take on the best when the pressure is on, with his sterling defence against Verstappen after the world champion had been allowed past Perez for the first time. Time and again Russell defied the Dutchman with firm but fair moves at Turn 1 – treading the line of covering off the inside before moving to take the racing entry for the right-hander in a manner reminiscent of Verstappen himself.
But the way he re-attacked when Verstappen sent a lunge to the inside on lap 24 was stunning and embodies the hard racing F1 drivers want to be allowed – which was why suggestions he didn’t leave a car’s width at Turn 3 gained little traction (even though Red Bull making such a call was understandable).
Russell’s speed and potential has long been clear. But he did have something to prove in terms of wheel-to-wheel racing given his struggles in the pack early in 2020 and his incredible Sakhir GP performance took place largely in clear air. Yes, he passed Valtteri Bottas there, but did have a clear tyre advantage at the time and was up against a rival who doesn’t have a strong reputation for hard defence.
Leaving Spain, it’s surely unavoidably clear Russell has the necessary skills to survive where he always believed he belonged – thriving at the front of the grid. Mercedes just must get him there more often.
8. Norris has an inner-toughness only tonsillitis fully exposed
Race temperatures in Spain hit 37°C air and 49°C on track – high enough to put even the super-fit F1 field in trouble with dehydration after 191 miles pounding around a demanding circuit. Add in the tyre management requirement and the factor passes could be pulled off for a change at Barcelona (more on that later) and this was a severe test for any driver. Let alone one suffering through tonsillitis.
That was the challenge facing Lando Norris, who had been ill all weekend in Spain and now faces the need to recover fully before taking on an even more demanding track in Monaco later this week.
No doubt a factor in his small misjudgement to go over track limits and miss Q3, Norris’s illness – he spotted was retching on the grid – cannot be understated what considering what was a very impressive drive forwards to finish eighth from 11th on the grid.
The McLaren star has a jovial reputation that belies his inner steel as a top-line driver, but delivering as he did in such difficult circumstances underlines again that in the cockpit Norris is as tough as they come. However, the situation does raises important questions about when someone outside a team may need to intervene to ensure a driver isn’t exposed to unnecessary danger by their fierce will to succeed through any circumstances.
9. Bottas’s strong start at Alfa still shows little sign of slowing
Bottas has been one of the stars of the season so far – seemingly revitalised at Alfa Romeo and delivering with the nifty package the team has produced for 2022 with the improved Ferrari engine. With sixth in Spain from seventh on the grid, Bottas put the disappointing and very poor ending to his otherwise excellent weekend in Miami firmly in the rear-view mirror.
And things might’ve been even better for Bottas given he was running fourth with nine laps to go. But the two-stopper proved not to be best as Sainz and Hamilton (on an effective two stopper after his lap one service, it should be noted) blasted by in successive corners ahead of the final tours.
Tyre management has been a weakness for the Finn in the past, but given he was trying to do what no one else in the points managed this was still a creditable effort in trying circumstances – enhanced by the fact he missed practice miles with another reliability stoppage (an engine failure early in FP2).
“When you are up those positions and things are going smoothly and you see things happening to other cars, you are thinking ‘ok, could be my day’,” he reflected afterwards. “But I think strategy-wise, we took a bit of a risk. We left the last stint to be very long, but in the end it was too long. The tyres died towards the end. But we tried.”
10. Barcelona’s passing problem eased by new cars, but the congestion problems rightfully imperil its F1 future
The Barcelona race has generally been one of the worst of the season for on-track action given its tight and technical nature. But the move to ground effect cars for 2022 seems to have cured the problem to a certain extent.
There were battles and passes throughout the field this year, and there is no doubt that F1’s racing spectacle is much improved with the new machines. But at the same time, circumstances were such that a lively event was probable ahead of the start, with drivers such as Fernando Alonso and Norris out of position. Plus, Verstappen’s DRS issues meant his battle with Russell was in a sense artificial and F1 never got to see if the Red Bull could’ve battled Leclerc’s Ferrari once again.
But while that is overall a positive story for the Barcelona event, reports of horrific traffic queues to and from the circuit, inadequate and poorly marshalled parking – plus inexcusable refreshment queues and lack of services in high heat – completely overshadowed things for many spectators.
Given F1 has put ‘traditional’ tracks on notice if they do not live up to its requirement on having a good racing and overall spectacle, proper track infrastructure and event, then the Barcelona promoter must be put under serious pressure to keep the race’s place on the calendar. What happened it 2022 was just not good enough for fans who deserve much better treatment.