Despite solid long run pace, Red Bull say beating Mercedes would be “unbelievable”

2021 Spanish Grand Prix Friday practice analysis

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Having had three weekends to get used to Formula 1’s new, shorter Friday practice sessions, it seems teams are increasingly prioritising their long-run pace – even at a circuit like Circuit de Catalunya, where overtaking is difficult and qualifying well is therefore critical.

First practice for the Spanish Grand Prix saw almost every team avoid using the medium compound tyres, to save them for the afternoon session when conditions would be similar to those that would be raced in.

Once all three compounds had been run, teams discovered significant difference in lap times between them. “We have a delta between hard and medium that is quite big, as much as one second, maybe a bit more than one second,” explained Mario Isola, Pirelli’s head of F1. “Between medium and soft, we are talking about 0.7, 0.8.”

These are bigger gaps than was seen last weekend in Portugal, a much less demanding track for the rubber, where the C1, C2 and C3 compounds were also used. “We are talking about a complete difference here with a circuit with this the level of grip that is not comparable to what we had in Portimao,” Isola said.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Circuit de Catalunya, 2021
Hamilton and Mercedes looked quick on Friday
Red Bull showed strong pace in first practice, with Max Verstappen splitting the Mercedes’ times on soft tyres. Significantly, that time stood as his best of the day.

Whatever their pace might have been in the second session remains unclear. Neither Verstappen nor Sergio Perez did a qualifying simulation lap and both seemed to be focused on tyre wear for the race.

On the radios, Verstappen was told to preserve his front-left tyre, which always takes a hammering at this track. More tellingly, Perez was advised at the end of the session that his pace looked ideal, given Mercedes’ race simulation laps, which settled at around the 1’23 mark.

Red Bull CEO Christian Horner suggested after the session that Mercedes are the team to beat. “Qualifying’s crucial,” he said. “It’s important that we’re close to Mercedes this weekend.”

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“I think that it would be unbelievable if we could beat Mercedes at this kind of circuit,” he added. “We just need not to be conceding too many points at the moment, with an eye on the long game.”

This looks like the usual game of bluff and counter-bluff. Lewis Hamilton, after leading the session, certainly thought there was more time to find in the Mercedes’ laps.

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren, Circuit de Catalunya, 2021
Ricciardo found modest gains at McLaren
McLaren may also have been concealing their pace in the afternoon session. Teams seemed to, generally, opt to focus on race pace runs rather than qualifying and it certainly appears that’s what the papaya cars were doing.

If so Daniel Ricciardo woes don’t appear to be over just yet, at least compared to his team mate: If Red Bull’s message to Perez about Mercedes lapping around 1’23 for a race lap was correct, then Norris was on their pace in his simulations this afternoon.

However, Ricciardo was more in the 1’24 window. Granted, he was testing new front wings and changing set-up elements on the car, but he indicated he needs much more of a step forward than what he found.

“I don’t think it was the aero package or anything, I think this morning I struggled just getting kind of comfortable or confident,” he explained. “So I was always a bit off and just chasing some rear grip, essentially. Kind of finding the car and not really having the confidence to push it.

“I think we addressed it this afternoon, I do think the car was better and we made a step. [But] clearly a step is not enough, we’ve got to make another one.”

After a tough weekend in Portugal, AlphaTauri looked in better shape. At least in the second practice session, where they finished sixth and seventh fastest, with Yuki Tsunoda close to Pierre Gasly’s pace. Although it’s reasonable to assume that Red Bull would have been ahead of them in any other circumstances, Gasly had not expected their car to suit this track and the two were separated by a considerable distance in the times during the first session.

Alpine are much more where they would be expected to be, especially given the changeable wind conditions of the second session. They showed strong pace under the gusty conditions of Portimao and seem to benefit from situations where other teams suffer instability. Fernando Alonso’s race runs in the afternoon session also looked to be on a good pace, suggesting they are not hitting above their weight on the low-fuel simulations.

Marcin Budkowski was optimistic after second practice, saying he felt a places Q3 were possible, “It’s going to be very, very close,” he said. “It’s always difficult to know what fuel loads people are running, what engine setting they are running on a Friday.

“But certainly last year we struggled here all weekend so we look better better than last year for sure and that’s already good news.”

Ferrari’s Friday seemed to start consistently, with both Carlos Sainz Jnr and Charles Leclerc placing themselves in the top six of first practice. However, it then seemed to become less consistent – an opportunistically-timed fast lap for Leclerc put him third fastest in the afternoon session, while Sainz did not seem to get a qualifying run in, placing him eighth. Mirroring the situation at close rivals McLaren, Sainz’s race runs were around 1’24, Leclerc’s 1’23.

At the back of the grid, Haas remain firmly behind Williams and with both drivers clearly struggling for pace. Their qualifying laps were in excess of 1’21 and their race runs over 1’27 per lap, indicating their rookie drivers can expect another lonely Sunday.

Quotes: Dieter Rencken

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Combined practice times

PosDriverCarFP1FP2Total laps
1Lewis HamiltonMercedes1’18.6271’18.17054
2Valtteri BottasMercedes1’18.5041’18.30956
3Charles LeclercFerrari1’18.9961’18.33553
4Esteban OconAlpine-Renault1’19.6811’18.46654
5Fernando AlonsoAlpine-Renault1’19.9501’18.51855
6Max VerstappenRed Bull-Honda1’18.5371’18.78545
7Pierre GaslyAlphaTauri-Honda1’19.0621’18.59358
8Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauri-Honda1’19.6691’18.61952
9Carlos Sainz JnrFerrari1’19.0201’18.67452
10Sergio PerezRed Bull-Honda1’19.3491’18.91840
11Lando NorrisMcLaren-Mercedes1’18.9441’19.09252
12Sebastian VettelAston Martin-Mercedes1’19.2341’18.94754
13Antonio GiovinazziAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’19.6941’19.12252
14Lance StrollAston Martin-Mercedes1’19.4291’19.13454
15Daniel RicciardoMcLaren-Mercedes1’19.7321’19.19552
16Kimi RaikkonenAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’19.21330
17George RussellWilliams-Mercedes1’19.95729
18Nicholas LatifiWilliams-Mercedes1’20.2701’20.04651
19Mick SchumacherHaas-Ferrari1’20.7661’20.32653
20Roy NissanyWilliams-Mercedes1’20.70023
21Nikita MazepinHaas-Ferrari1’21.9761’20.75349
22Robert KubicaAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’21.88713

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2021 Spanish Grand Prix

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Author information

Hazel Southwell
Hazel is a freelance journalist who roams the paddocks of Formula E, covering the technical and emotional elements of electric racing. Usually found at...

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6 comments on “Despite solid long run pace, Red Bull say beating Mercedes would be “unbelievable””

  1. Red Bull better play the long game because it’s the only game Mercedes play.

  2. Verstappen was fast but oddly scrappy, going over the curbs and picking up damage. I’ve long thought that some of his (very fast) speed comes at the cost of a slight imprecision in his driving. I suspect it’s ‘inbuilt’ now and he can’t really correct it, but who knows.

    Leclerc/Ferrari seem to slowly picking up steam. Alonso and Ocon looking good. Presuming McLaren are sandbagging a bit, the top 12 all seem to be snapping at each other’s heels. Aside from Mercedes, and probably Red Bull, being ahead, it looks very difficult to predict their order.

    1. He said he wasn’t going to change, so it should come as no surprise that he’s had laps deleted and damaged his car on the kerbs.

  3. Riccardo really needs to find confidence in the McLaren and sooner rather than later. It’s very unusual that he’s still so far behind Norris and appears to be the worst performing of the drivers who switched to new teams this year (sadly).

  4. I think, and hope, it will be closer than Red Bull are hinting at. There looked to be a lot more time available on Max’s fastest lap in the morning – a lot.

  5. I guess we will resume to business as usual now. Mercedes will not be beaten again. Well done to the team and nice try from regulatory side, unfortunately for the sake of the spectacle the new rules didnt work in shaking up the top. It seems as though the midfield has become even more close. Like last year, I will watch the season pretending Mercedes drive in another class (maybe adding VER this year who will either be 3rd or sometimes 2nd). Some races were really fun to watch if you take the Mercedes out of the equation. Lando for the semi-wdc!

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