Max Verstappen’s third victory of the Formula 1 season and 24th win of his career propelled him to Formula 1’s title lead for the first time in 2022 at the expense of Charles Leclerc. Autoweek breaks down the main points from the Spanish Grand Prix.
Verstappen Takes the Lead
Verstappen’s 24th career victory, six years removed from his maiden victory at the same venue, was not the most straightforward one.
A rare mistake during the first stint relegated Verstappen from fourth to second before an erratic (Drag Reduction System) DRS thwarted his efforts to overhaul Mercedes’ George Russell. The device, which had malfunctioned during qualifying, kept either not opening or only briefly opening before slamming shut. That frustrated Verstappen, leading to a series of angry exchanges with the pit wall, as remedies were sought.
Leclerc’s demise and a switch to a three-stop strategy in the searing Spanish heat—with air temperature nearing 100 degrees—meant the outlook became swiftly rosier. Verstappen used his sizeable tire advantage to pass Russell while his path to the lead was facilitated by team orders to teammate Sergio Perez. Verstappen had quipped after his early exit in Australia that he could not even think about the championship.
Just three rounds and six weeks later he has erased a 45-point deficit and now leads the way.
“It was a difficult beginning but a good end,” said Verstappen. “I went off in turn four, I completely lost the rear. I lost a few positions through that and as soon as I wanted to attack, my DRS stopped working. It was upsetting at the time but then I calmed myself down and focused on the bigger picture. We are on a good trajectory and we can be proud of that as a team, but as you can see, some things are fragile and we need to keep on working hard, we have to be on top of everything.”
It was a Red Bull 1-2 for the second time in three races but in the immediacy Perez was a little miffed. Having been compliant in not battling Verstappen he was irritated at not being given track position during the moments when he had a tire advantage.
“I think the problem for any driver is that if they don’t have the clear overview of a strategy or race plan in front of them, it is always going to be emotive to give up a lead,” said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. “But he played very much a team game, I think he understood clearly that it wasn’t a like for like fight because the pace delta between the strategies was so great that from a team point of view it just didn’t make any sense, which is why we didn’t let the drivers get into a fight today.”
It means Red Bull now leads the Constructors’ Championship for the first time in 2022, 26 clear of Ferrari.
“The competitors are very strong,” warned Horner. “We’ve had our moments, but every race that we’ve won, bar this one, has been on the absolute limit. I think that Max is driving extremely well, Checo is doing a great job, but I expect it to be a very tight competition throughout the season.”
So Much for Ferrari’s Championship Lead
The picture for Leclerc was looking very rosy one-third of the way into Formula 1’s Spanish Grand Prix.
Leclerc mastered the start from pole positions, kept his tires operating effectively, and built a strong lead as his main rival made a mistake. Then, as he accelerated up the hill on lap 27… clonk. An instant power unit failure robbed Leclerc’s Ferrari of speed and he was forced to tour around to the pits to retire.
It was reminiscent of years gone by—the TV camera suddenly cutting to a slowing race leader. Leclerc had been on course to triumph and it was a failure that robbed him not only of victory but also the title lead for the first time in 2022. After taking 71 points across the opening three events, Leclerc has added only 33 points in the three events since, due to a combination of errors, reliability setbacks and Red Bull’s pace.
“So far this year, the team has been doing an incredible job in terms of reliability,” said Leclerc. “Of course this one hurts, because we were in front all weekend and worked really well. I know that things like this can happen sometimes and in moments like these, it is important to look at the positives. Our pace was very strong in qualifying and in the race and the feeling in the car was really good.
"We made progress in terms of tire management, which is something that has been a weakness in the past few races. So it’s a shame and I’m disappointed that we lost the opportunity to score a lot of points, but the season is still long and we know we have the potential.”
It was a doubly bad day for Ferrari given the travails of Carlos Sainz. Running third, Sainz made an unforced error early on into turn 4 and spun through the gravel, which caused damage to his floor. Sainz recovered from 11th to fourth but more points went begging for the Spaniard, and for Ferrari, with another mistake.
Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto was nonetheless eager to point to the positives rather than dwell on the setbacks.
“I said that after the first six races, we would be able to assess the performance levels and hierarchy among the teams and today, we can say that we have built a good car and we have done a fine job of developing it,” he said. “The Barcelona track is demanding in many ways and it has usually been something of a bogey circuit for us, but the F1-75 was the quickest car on track yesterday and today, Charles was comfortably in the lead, running at a very good race pace.”
'Green Red Bull' Can't Save Aston Martin
Aston Martin rattled a few cages early in the weekend when its heavily revised AMR22 was introduced. Very quickly it had the nickname ‘the green Red Bull’ based off its striking similarities to Red Bull’s RB18.
Formula 1 rules prohibit the transfer of Intellectual Property and also outlaw reverse engineering based off photos. The FIA noted how similar the updated AMR22 was to the RB18 and undertook an investigation before swiftly clearing Aston Martin of any wrongdoing. The subtext to the situation is the aggressive recruitment undertaken last year by Aston Martin, including a handful of Red Bull personnel, notably head of aero Dan Fallows, who joined as Aston Martin’s new technical director last month.
For 2020, as Racing Point, it openly copied Mercedes’ 2019 design, as was allowed under the regulations—though it did get penalized for a brake ducts anomaly. This case is clearly very different but perceptions die hard in Formula 1.
“The FIA came in and did a thorough investigation, examined all the data leading up, in the history of this car, they interviewed all the people involved and concluded that it was completely independent development,” said Aston Martin’s chief technical officer Andrew Green. He outlined that “this car was conceived in the middle of the last year, as a dual route with the launch car” and that “it came as a shock that Red Bull came out with a similar concept.”
Green added that Aston Martin had always given itself the capacity to introduce its new concept at round six and pressed ahead when “the weaknesses of the launch car were quite apparent, even before we'd launched it” and that they went down a lot of dead-ends early in the season with the initial concept.
But the new-spec AMR22 did not have a transformative effect on Aston Martin’s prospects. The car was second-slowest in qualifying, limiting Sebastian Vettel to 16th and Lance Stroll to 18th.
“We knew that it’s not going to be a massive performance straight away,” said Vettel. “But we do believe in the concept and are confident there’s more to come. It’s basically a new car, we’re still figuring it out. I’m confident this is the way to go.”
Stroll quipped that “if it was a copy (of Red Bull’s car) then we’d be two seconds faster” and that “we have to figure out why the last race we were Q3 and now we’re out in Q1.”
Aston Martin believes it will enhance its long-term prospects with its new-spec car compared to its launch version. But its performance in Spain underlined that it isn’t quite as simple as flicking a switch.
Missed Opportunity for Haas
Haas’ Saturday was sublime but its Sunday was squandered. From eighth place on the grid Kevin Magnussen was overly combative in a bold attempt to pass Hamilton through turn 4 and the contact sent him tumbling down the order, wrecking his points prospect. Mick Schumacher had a strong first lap but Haas’ two-stop strategy wilted in the heat against three-stopping midfield runners. Schumacher was powerless to prevent rivals on fresher tires from cruising past in the final stint as he slipped from ninth to 14th.
“Obviously, we knew it was going to be tight with the two-stop and it didn’t quite pay off to stay out so it’s something to learn, something to understand and move on from here,” said Schumacher. “It was a great Saturday, and we had a very clean Friday too which is very beneficial. We had a good start, a good first lap and that’s all you want. Maybe the pace just wasn’t there today but hopefully it will next week, so we’ll keep pushing.”
The encouraging element for Haas is that its VF-22 remained firmly in the midfield despite rivals bringing a raft of updates, but in recent events it has fallen on the wrong side of 50-50 calls and incidents.
F1 Spanish Grand Prix
Max Verstappen, Red Bull, 66 laps
Sergio Perez, Red Bull, +13 seconds
George Russell, Mercedes, +32.9
Carlos Sainz, Ferrari, +45.2
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, +54.5
Valtteri Bottas, Alfa Romeo, +59.9
Esteban Ocon, Alpine, +1:15.3
Lando Norris, McLaren, +1:23.2
Fernando Alonso, Alpine, +1 lap
Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri, +1 lap
Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin, +1 lap
Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren, +1 lap
Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri, +1 lap
Michael Schumacher, Haas, +1 lap
Lance Stroll, Aston Martin, +1 lap
Nicholas Latifi, Williams, +2 laps
Kevin Magnussen, Haas, +2 laps
Alex Albon, Williams, +2 laps
Guanyu Zhou, Alfa Romeo, +38 laps
Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, +38 laps
Updated Drivers' Standings
Max Verstappen 110
Charles Leclerc 104
Sergio Perez 85
George Russell 74
Carlos Sainz 65
Lewis Hamilton 46
Lando Norris 39
Valtteri Bottas 38
Esteban Ocon 30
Kevin Magnussen 15
Yuki Tsunoda 11
Daniel Ricciardo 11
Pierre Gasly 6
Sebastian Vettel 4
Fernando Alonso 4
Alex Albon 3
Lance Stroll 2
Zhou Guanyo 1
Mick Schumacher 0
Nico Hulkenberg 0
Nicholas Latifi 0
Updated Constructors' Standings
Red Bull 195
Alfa Romeo 39
Aston Martin 6