If Barcelona is the litmus test of how the cars are really going to stack up across the rest of the 2021 Formula 1 season, the early signs for Mercedes are good – just not quite as good as the timesheets make it appear.
Beneath the headline times of Spanish Grand Prix Friday practice lies a potentially fascinating struggle for Sunday.
As at Portimao last week, the black cars do look as if they have a small but vital edge over the blue ones.
There’s little to split them on peak pace – Max Verstappen was second-quickest to Valtteri Bottas in the morning even though adding his best sectors together would have made him marginally quickest – but the Mercedes running was less interrupted.
Verstappen twice damaged a front wing over the newly extended kerbing on the exit of Turn 7, once in the morning and again, less seriously, in the afternoon.
He was putting a Mercedes-challenging lap together on his first soft-tyre run of FP2 when he suffered a major moment exiting the newly-configured Turn 10. He was in and out the pits more frequently, not on the track for as long and his long runs were seemingly more interrupted by traffic. Such things are costly in the one-hour compressed practice sessions of 2021.
The running at Mercedes was by comparison serene. Lewis Hamilton set the fastest single lap time of the afternoon, around 0.15s faster than Bottas but running an engine setting worth around 0.1s over that of his team-mate.
On the race stint simulation on soft tyres they were virtually identical over their six-lap runs – with Hamilton averaging 1m23.325s, Bottas 1m23.358s.
“It was a good start to the weekend,” said Hamilton. “We’ve got the balance similar to where it was at the last race, which was good.
“It never comes easy, we always have to work away at it, but we understand the car and so made some tweaks along the way and hopefully that will give us a better set-up for tomorrow.”
Verstappen was playing down his various dramas and remained optimistic. For what it’s worth his disrupted long run on the soft averaged 0.5s off Hamilton for a run that was one lap longer. He didn’t make a long run on the mediums.
But it’s not Verstappen’s long run that’s the interesting one – it’s that of team-mate Sergio Perez. Over a seven-lap run on the softs, Perez’s average was almost identical to that of the Mercedes (see table below).
“It was a tricky day today,” Perez said. “We had a couple of delays in both sessions which meant we were rushing a little and running into some traffic, and with less practice time this year it’s important to get the laps in.”
Red Bull’s advantage of Bahrain and Imola seems to have evaporated but it’s clear that if it manages to piece the rest of its Barcelona weekend together more smoothly than Friday, it can absolutely take the fight to Mercedes. Verstappen’s sector times from FP1 suggested it and Perez’s long run stint simulation confirmed it.
Which potentially puts us in an intriguing strategy battle for Sunday, the dynamics of which may largely be determined by the outcome of a qualifying too close to call.
Just like last year, it’s likely to be a two-stop race, such is the thermal tyre degradation from the long corners. If Mercedes is leading the race and it does not have the pace advantage to open up an undercut gap over a chasing Red Bull, it could be in deep trouble, given that Red Bull has regularly been making pitstops up to 1s faster than Mercedes this season.
So even if Mercedes pits at the first opportunity – as in Bahrain – that potentially just puts it under even more pressure up to the second stops on older tyres.
This could be the race at which the second drivers play a decisive strategic role, in allowing (or not) the other driver to have the undercut gap. As such, Perez’s struggle with single lap pace in both Friday sessions was a little concerning – especially given the apparent threatening pace of Ferrari and Alpine.
That said, just as at Portimao, the Friday times of those two teams are almost certainly flattered by a chosen fuel level lower than those of Mercedes, Red Bull – or indeed McLaren and AlphaTauri.
Both Mercedes drivers had time to conduct stints on the mediums after their runs on the softs. Hamilton had a couple of tenths advantage over Bottas when they switched to this tyre for a half-dozen laps or so.
These averages were around 0.35s faster than those of the softs – but that’s with a fuel load lighter by arounds six laps. That weight would typically account for around 1s per lap. In other words, over six laps the soft was the faster tyre. But of course the first stint can be expected to be considerably longer than six laps and the longer they run, the better the medium will compare.
The way the numbers worked last year, there was actually very little difference between the two compounds over a stint – so there is not as big a motivation as usual to get through Q2 on the medium, especially given the traction advantage the soft will offer off the line. Last year even the Mercedes went through on the softs.
Reading between the lines Mercedes appears to have a small advantage from Red Bull, small enough that the outcome of the race could lie equally with the drivers, the strategists and the pit crews.
Some way behind – but not as far behind as it used to be – is an equally close fight between Ferrari, Alpine, McLaren and AlphaTauri, suggesting that Alpine’s form in Portugal wasn’t merely track specific. From that perspective, Fernando Alonso’s long run (which in the averages is disguised by how long a run it was) looks ominously good.
SOFT TYRE LONG RUN COMPARISON*
|1||Perez||1m23.322s||7 laps (from 10)|
|2||Hamilton||1m23.325s||6 laps (from 7)|
|3||Bottas||1m23.358s||6 laps (from 9)|
|4||Verstappen||1m23.771s||7 laps (from 9)|
|7||Sainz||1m24.227s||10 laps (from 11)|
* Taking out cool-off/traffic laps
Practice 2 Results
|Pos||Name||Car||Best Time||Gap Leader|
|8||Carlos Sainz Jr.||Ferrari||1m18.674s||+0.504s|
|9||Max Verstappen||Red Bull-Honda||1m18.785s||+0.615s|
|10||Sergio Pérez||Red Bull-Honda||1m18.918s||+0.748s|
|11||Sebastian Vettel||Aston Martin-Mercedes||1m18.947s||+0.777s|
|13||Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo-Ferrari||1m19.122s||+0.952s|
|14||Lance Stroll||Aston Martin-Mercedes||1m19.134s||+0.964s|
|16||Kimi Räikkönen||Alfa Romeo-Ferrari||1m19.213s||+1.043s|