🇪🇸 F1'24: R10: In the papaya corner...

Is the next big rivalry here, or is it still too early?

The Spanish Grand Prix proved that F1 is at its best when drivers and teams are being pushed. Sometimes that pressure comes from inside the garage, while at other times - when it really peaks mainstream interest - you’re being tested by another driver or another team.

The Barcelona circuit is a more cerebral race than most, with high track temperatures and sweeping right-hand corners meaning your left side tyres take a beating, leaving the best part of the Pirelli rubber in turns 1 and 3.

It means multiple pit stops for the drivers, giving more potential for errors, both in execution in the heat of the moment, and in strategy. The decisions to go on which particular set of tyres.

There were two good examples at the front of the race, with Lando Norris vs Max Verstappen, and the intra-Mercedes battle between Lewis Hamilton and George Russell.

Norris and Verstappen was a fun race within a race, with a short cameo from Russell, slingshotting his way from fourth on the grid to first. It didn’t last, as the Mercedes faded away, but Norris attempting to use a tyre offset and catch the Red Bull at the end didn’t quite work. The British driver was taking chunks out of the Dutchman, but the lead Verstappen had established over the majority of the race was just too much.

It showed thoughtfulness and calmness in strategy and execution from Red Bull, a 1.9 second pit stop being their fastest of the season as Verstappen carried a 2.5 second lead into the final lap. To add some more numbers to this paragraph, Norris had a 3.6 second stop. If they’d matched Red Bull, and then not have to worry about Russell, who knows what would have happened?

Other than that stop, and the start of the race, McLaren did little wrong with Norris or his strategy, but it seemed like it was executed on the fly, with the driver asking the team whether they were there to finish first or third halfway through the race.

Eventually, Norris finished in-between those places for a(nother) second. Being disappointed with second is a new level for Norris. After taking his fourth runners-up place of the season, he’s already over it. Norris wants to win, and arguably had the fastest car on the track - even it was by 0.02 seconds in qualifying, and maybe had a bit more during the race. Maybe.

But it’s Verstappen’s skill in being able to build a gap and maintain just what he needed that brought the Red Bull home first. As for McLaren, it will be interesting to see their mentality in the high-speed tracks of Austria and Great Britain and whether they are able to change their expectations to match their leading driver.

For the first time in his career, Lando Norris is second in the drivers’ championship, and yet he is disappointed with a second - even if he says “he should have won” it’s important to keep some perspective. There’s no shame in finishing second to Verstappen in the form he’s in, and it’s not like Norris won’t have a chance.

We’re still not sure whether the McLaren or the Red Bull is the quicker car, and there are little clues from Oscar Piastri or a three-stopping Sergio Perez, who both finished in the points, for the latter, his first finish in three races after not finishing in Monaco and Montreal. There were no clues offered in qualifying, with Norris taking pole position by a few turns of the tyres, and this mystery is what the sport needs to focus on. 

Sidenote: the people trying to sell tickets for Silverstone blamed their slower than usual sales on Red Bull winning races. Casual fans might see the result in Spain and not see the process behind it, but it doesn’t matter who is doing well or anything else. If you are attempting to sell one (1) Sunday ticket for £300+, and then choose to increase this because of a “dynamic pricing” system that says more about your choices as a business than the general health of the sport. That’s £300 without transport, food, drink, accommodation, parking or any other costs that might arise on the day. 

Rudimental? From £309? Are you sure?

Then there’s the Mercedes battle between Russell and Hamilton. Hamilton took his first podium of the season, which in entering Round 10, is unfathomable territory for him. Russell was brilliant at the start, flying around Norris, Hamilton and Verstappen to take the lead, but it was short-lived, eventually moving back to his starting position.

A slow stop for Russell, combined with putting him on hard tyres, meant Hamilton was able to overtake him for third. And rumours going into the weekend that Mercedes were favouring Russell over Hamilton was the focus of the media as the race weekend began. Pushing each other - even with Hamilton about to enter his last half-season with the team - is bringing benefits to Mercedes overall, with their results slowly improving with consecutive podiums gained.

Spielberg and Silverstone will be fun tests for Mercedes. They are a clear fourth in the Teams’ championship, and this is unlikely to change with Ferrari more consistent (Canada excepted) and Aston Martin falling fast and no clear fifth-placed team emerging from the pack (Alpine claimed 3 points for the second race running).

There’s no room to rest for anyone in Formula 1 as the middle leg of the triple-header means F1 moves from Spain to Austria and the Red Bull Ring. One of the shortest laps on the calendar, it will amplify every mistake, even more so with the Sprint format returning for the weekend. F1 knows that to grow the sport, it needs to show personalities, but to keep those fans interested, it needs to sell rivalries. Norris vs Verstappen might be the next great one, but for McLaren to answer the bell consistently, it has to be consistently perfect.

Join the conversation

or to participate.