ANALYSIS: Formula 1 Spanish Grand Prix
By Mat Coch
Tuesday 6th June, 2023 - 7:31am
Speedcafe Formula 1 Editor Mat Coch provides his analysis on a Spanish Grand Prix that offered a better look at the sport beyond the ongoing Red Bull domination.
The domination of Max Verstappen and Red Bull continued at the Spanish Grand Prix, and can be viewed in one of two ways.
The first is that it is detrimental to the sport and makes it boring for fans, knowing every weekend that the Dutchman will likely run away with it at the front of the race.
The second is to admire the performance of what is clearly the best driver-team combination currently in F1 – a less popular view and one that won’t come easy to Lewis Hamilton fans, for instance, but it puts a new perspective on what we are witnessing.
It is probably the best way to think about it for now, however as based on what we saw in Spain, there is no end in sight for Red Bull’s current form.
Verstappen on course for third title
Verstappen dominated, winning the race with absolute ease – one could make a case for it being his most devastating performance of the season so far.
It was an important one, too, as in many ways it broke the back of Sergio Perez when it comes to the championship battle.
Perez’s hopes of the title took a sizeable blow when he crashed in qualifying for Monaco, an event from which he took no points.
Heading into Spain his points deficit was already 39. Following Sunday’s race, it now stands at 53; more than two race wins with the fastest lap bonus point.
There is a long way to go in the season, but to overhaul that advantage would require a level we have only rarely seen from Perez, coupled with some extraordinarily bad luck for his team-mate.
If we are honest, that is no secret or surprise. Verstappen has long been favourite for the championship and while it was an entertaining thought that he might face some competition from across the garage, it was more in hope than expectation.
It is because Verstappen, like Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher, is a generational talent who makes extremely good racing drivers – and Perez is extremely good – look ordinary.
Analysis needed but Mercedes making progress
As for Hamilton, he drove a fine race to secure second place in a Mercedes that showed signs of improvement.
The team introduced updates for Monaco, though Spain was the first time they had an impact given the nature of the Monte Carlo streets.
On the surface, and from a sample set of one, it has taken the car forward but it’s not perfect and George Russell, in particular, offered some interesting insights.
The changes are most obvious around the sidepods, with the ‘zeropod’ concept abandoned in favour of a downwash solution like Red Bull or Aston Martin.
It is a fundamental change in philosophy, one that will take time to fully develop and exploit, but the early signs are positive.
However, there are still obstacles to overcome.
In Spain, porpoising returned, but not in the same way as it was evident a year ago.
Back then, the car would bounce down the straight as the pressure underneath sucked it to the track surface, only to stall and release it – a process it repeated rapidly and repeatedly.
That was largely ironed out with changes to the floor regulations for this year, with an increase in height specifically designed to limit that suction effect.
And while it has worked (there was some porpoising in Spain triggered by a bump entering the final corner), it has not entirely solved the issue.
For Mercedes, the problem is now different. While no longer of great concern down the straights, through the corners it is hampering the drivers.
As the car rolls on its centreline while cornering, the outside edge of the floor gets closer to the track surface.
Eventually, the gap reduces to such an extent that the floor is sucked to the ground which, according to Russell, triggers porpoising around corners.
The fact it appears to be linked to body roll suggests a mechanical issue with the Mercedes, which is curious given Aston Martin uses the same rear end but does not have the issue.
Perhaps it is a question of set-up and understanding of the aero platform Mercedes now has, and is something that can be dialled out quite quickly.
Whatever it is, the underlying message is that Mercedes has made a small but important step forward.
Ferrari still struggling for race pace
The same cannot be said of Ferrari which remains in a development fog.
Carlos Sainz proved the car is rapid over a single lap, but again in the race, we saw it eats its tyres.
Worse than that, the car still has unpredictable balance issues; Charles Leclerc complained that his car felt wildly different from one set of hard compound tyres to the next.
That is a concern because it makes identifying the underlying issue difficult.
What Leclerc experienced in Spain was eerily similar to what the team had in Miami where the general feedback from the Monégasque and Sainz was the same – the car was unpredictable and “peaky”, but the specifics were different.
For Leclerc, getting on top of the tyres is of paramount importance. Once the car can switch on and not overheat the rubber consistently it will have a better baseline to work from.
That is the focus of Ferrari’s efforts now, roughly a third of the way into the season.
Reality check for McLaren
It is similar to what McLaren is working on, too.
Lando Norris showed well in qualifying as he, and Oscar Piastri for that matter, were able to switch on their tyres to bank a strong single lap.
Team boss Andrea Stella, however, was “realistic” on Saturday night – McLaren speak for “we’re going to burn up our tyres and go backwards in the race”.
That is exactly what happened.
The positive is that McLaren seems to be aware of and understands the issue. Stella offered some fascinating insights into it which suggests a team on the road to dialling out some of those difficulties.
There is a B-spec car coming for Silverstone, as Speedcafe revealed over the Monaco Grand Prix weekend, and one gets the feeling that it cannot arrive soon enough.
Takeaways from the Spanish Grand Prix
Roll all of that into a ball and it explains how and why the Spanish Grand Prix played out as it did.
Red Bull remains fast and it was, therefore, no surprise Verstappen won.
But analysis of the race suggests that Mercedes has found something, it just needs more time to understand and exploit it fully; Ferrari is still battling the same issues it has had all year, while McLaren was given a reality check.
Of course, throw into the mix an unusually off-the-pace Aston Martin, a strong performance from Alfa Romeo and Zhou Guanyu, and behind Red Bull there is an exciting and enticing melting pot.
As the teams themselves say, if they can execute well on any given weekend, a strong result is a possibility.
Roll on Canada.