Max Verstappen was narrowly trumped by Lewis Hamilton in qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix on Saturday.
Still, there was satisfaction at Red Bull.
The 0.039 second that the Dutchman was short for pole, says a lot about his chances in the race and in the title fight in 2021.
Formula 1 landed in Barcelona this week with a big question mark. With three races on completely different circuits, a picture of the battle order for 2021 is emerging, but there is no certainty. Is Mercedes Red Bull really over? Are they just as fast? Or is Red Bull secretly faster?
The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya has a reputation for being a good indicator. And thus a kind of interim test in the championship. The track near Barcelona is not only a good measuring moment because the drivers know the track as well as their own living room, but also because everything is in it: fast corners, slow corners, 'medium' corners and a chicane.
No wonder that Mercedes has proven to have the best car here for years.
The cold numbers: From 2013 every Spanish race on pole;
in those years only in 2017 not the entire first row.
And won every time except for 2013 and 2016.
It should be noted that Hamilton and Nico Rosberg eliminated each other in 2016 and thus gave Verstappen his first, memorable victory.
That was not due to the speed.
Dominant, with that word Mercedes can be summarized in Barcelona.
That is why Verstappen himself, Red Bull and all fans of the Dutchman have to give a lot of good courage that the Limburger came so close to pole on Saturday.
Take a look at this list:
Fastest non-Mercedes behind fastest Mercedes in qualifying Spain
2014: +1.053 (Ricciardo over Hamilton)
2015: +, 0777 (Vettel on Rosberg)
2016: +0.680 (Ricciardo on Hamilton)
2017: +0.051 (Vettel on Hamilton)
2018: +0.132 (Vettel on Hamilton)
2019: +0.866 (Vettel on Bottas)
2020: +0.708 (Verstappen on Hamilton)
2021: +0.039 (Verstappen on Hamilton)
Overtaking in Barcelona usually takes place in the pit lane
Saturday's qualifying answers the main question posed earlier: The Red Bull and Mercedes are equal.
And so a strategic chess game takes shape before the race.
Barcelona still has an important reputation: overtaking is very difficult. For two reasons: First, the chicane before start-finish. There, the car in front can always accelerate earlier, so that despite the drs zone on the straight, it can usually take just enough distance.
Second, the break-out point in turn ten has disappeared, now that the track there has been adjusted to MotoGP wishes. The only way similar cars can really pass each other in Barcelona is through strategy or at the start. With a few exceptions, the Spanish Grand Prix is usually won by a driver who starts from the front row.
The start in particular is therefore crucial.
No wonder that all drivers in the top ten chose to start on the red soft band.
There is quite a way to go to turn 1 and the small bit of traction loss due to the medium tire can already be disastrous.
Verstappen can rely on the fact that his recent starts were all good.
Satisfaction with Max Verstappen after qualifying.
Satisfaction with Max Verstappen after qualifying.
Photo: Getty Images
Comparisons racepace on Friday less reliable
Assuming the start is normal, the strategic game arises.
Here's a new question mark.
Because a total of one hour less is trained on Friday, fewer
long runs are
done at all.
It can still be calculated who has the best
, but it is based on less data and circumstances such as busy on the track or small technical problems play a greater role.
In any case, the less reliable data shows that Mercedes and Red Bull hardly differ at race pace on the soft and medium tires.
Chances are that the hard tire will not be used in the battle at the front.
The pit lane is relatively short in Spain, which makes it more attractive to make a stop.
It is expected that the top players will do this twice, especially because the soft band appears to last quite a long time, unlike last week.
Barcelona is on the whole tough on the tires, which makes a two-stopper all the more attractive.
Qualifying GP Spain
1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes): 1.16.741
2. Max Verstappen (Red Bull): +0.036
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes): +0.132
4. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari): +0.769
5. Esteban Ocon (Alpine): +0.839
6. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari): +0.879
7. Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren): +0.881
8. Sergio Pérez (Red Bull): +0.960
9. Lando Norris (McLaren): +1.269
10. Fernando Alonso (Alpine): +1.406
Verstappen is on his own again
This is where the vulnerability of Red Bull comes into play again. And his name is Sergio Pérez. The Mexican could not keep up with Verstappen in qualifying, which means that as usual the Dutchman is on his own again against probably two Mercedes. In the game with the
pit stop windows
, this is a disadvantage anyway. Certainly because Bottas normally has the speed to stay close to the front and the chance that Pérez will play a role is really nil.
There are really only two realistic scenarios in which this will not cause any problems for Verstappen.
He takes Hamilton off the lead at the start and drives away from the World Cup leader.
Or Bottas is overtaken at the start by one or more members of the eager group behind him and loses a lot of time.
Charles Leclerc in the Ferrari, starting from fourth place, seems to be the biggest candidate for this.
Then it is Verstappen against Hamilton at the front and there is an honest answer to the question of who gets the highest mark in the interim test.
See also: Verstappen satisfied with minimal difference with Mercedes in qualifying