There were no easy rides at a dramatic, incident-packed Spanish Grand Prix but perseverance was most certainly rewarded. Indeed, for Mercedes the tide turned in Barcelona with Lewis Hamilton finishing fifth having dropped to 19th and his teammate George Russell taking third. Proof positive that their car is on track to once more challenge at the front. Max Verstappen’s win was a struggle against the odds through technical problems that enabled him to leap into an unexpected championship lead.
The celebratory atmosphere at Red Bull stood in stark contrast to the heartbreak at Ferrari. Charles Leclerc had been dominant from pole until his race fell apart with a power unit failure just short of the midway point. Leclerc’s 19-point lead in the drivers’ championship has switched to a six‑point advantage in Verstappen’s favour after six meetings with 16 races remaining.
The title remains a distant dream for Mercedes but Hamilton acknowledged the significance of his comeback drive, claiming Mercedes could yet be in the mix for victories.
“A race like that is like a win, and feels better more often than a win when you have come from so far back,” Hamilton said. “It is a great sign we are going in the right direction and that gives me great hope that at some stage we will be fighting for a win.”
Equally Russell’s third-place finish was superb and thoroughly deserved – earned on pace and merit, it too represented the potential in both car and driver.
“As a team I feel like we have turned a page, I feel like this is the start of our season,” Russell said. “We have finally solved our issue and now we can focus on bringing more performance. We are six races behind but there is no reason we can’t claw this back.”
This was the weekend Mercedes had identified as make or break in terms of assessing whether their car concept for this year was sound enough to continue to pursue in next year’s model or whether – as the team principal, Toto Wolff, noted – it was time to admit they had got it wrong. There will be huge sighs of relief audible from Barcelona back to Brackley that their performance indicates the design does indeed have legs and potentially some fearsome pace in them in future.
Mercedes had brought a raft of upgrades to Barcelona, the latest steps in addressing their car’s problem with porpoising and they have now largely eliminated the issue. The car’s bouncing has been dramatically reduced, now a problem only through the fast corners and they demonstrated better pace in Barcelona than at any of the previous five meetings. Russell vying brilliantly with Verstappen, and Hamilton coming through the field would have been unthinkable with the car that opened the season.
Hamilton had endured a disastrous opening. Starting in sixth he was clipped by Kevin Magnussen at turn four on the opening lap. Hamilton pitted with a puncture and emerged in 19th. He felt he had damage and suggested retiring the car but was encouraged to race on by the team. Duly putting his head down, the seven-times world champion delivered some superb laps to take fourth near the end, only to have to ease off the pace because of a water leak, allowing Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz back past for the place.
Wolff’s reaction to his performance reflected how far the team felt they had come. “With Lewis we had probably the fastest race car today,” he said. “He was at stages in the race the quickest and that shows the potential the car has. That looked like a world championship car he was driving.”
For Verstappen the win was also a turnaround that had seemed unthinkable for much of the race with Leclerc enjoying a dominant lead. Verstappen and Red Bull, however, stuck at their task and delivered an adaptive strategy to secure an impressive victory.
It had not looked to be his day at all. Verstappen had taken to the gravel after an uncharacteristic error, prompted by high tail winds into turn four as he lost the rear, dropping him to fourth early on. Then a malfunctioning DRS unit meant Verstappen was unable to pass Russell with ease. Their wheel-to-wheel battle through turns one to three was as grand a scrap as we have seen this year; feisty but fair, it was a thriller.
With Russell defending so stoutly, Red Bull adapted their strategy, pitting Verstappen to attack on fresh tyres and he took to it with gusto. He was rewarded, finally emerging in front of Russell and behind his teammate Sergio Pérez. The Mexican driver was unsurprisingly informed by the team that he had to let Verstappen through if he was quicker.
Pérez was not happy, describing it as “unfair”. But he played the game, allowing Verstappen past on lap 48, and settling for second place.
It is early in the year for team orders but it was understandable. Red Bull, anticipating a season-long battle for the title with Ferrari – and now with Mercedes announcing their intent to join the fray – were backing the driver at the sharp end of what may yet be a three-way fight.
Valtteri Bottas was sixth for Alfa Romeo with Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso in seventh and ninth for Alpine. Lando Norris was eighth for McLaren and Yuki Tsunoda in 10th for AlphaTauri.