Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Circuit de Catalunya, 2023

Even Red Bull can’t slow unstoppable Verstappen as his 40th win comes easily

2023 Spanish Grand Prix review

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When you’re the reigning two-times Formula 1 world champion, leading the current world championship following back-to-back wins and knocking on door of your 40th grand prix victory, you’re used to being the centre of attention in you sport.

Yet heading into the Spanish Grand Prix weekend, Max Verstappen seemed to be the last thing anyone wanted to talk about.

Whether it was the prospects of a stunning home victory for Fernando Alonso, how Mercedes’ upgrades would fare around a ‘real’ circuit or even the weather, the championship leader seemed almost a secondary interest – despite heading to Barcelona having averaged an astonishing 24 points per weekend over the first six rounds of the 2023 season.

But by the end of Sunday, Verstappen had once again forced the media, the fans watching around the Circuit de Catalunya and even rival drivers and teams to acknowledge his brilliance once more.

Race start, Circuit de Catalunya, 2023
Despite harder tyres, Verstappen kept the field contained
If teams’ strategists spent the first two days of the race weekend with one eye on the weather radar, they will have been glued to it in the final hour before the race began. The system showed two large splodges of colour slowly flowing from the north around Montmelo – each representing a collection of rainclouds gradually depositing their contents as they headed towards the Mediterranean. Crucially, however, both were doing so either side of the circuit, not over it, like planes obeying a no-fly zone placed over the venue.

Verstappen sat on pole position having clocked a lap so much quicker than anyone else’s at the start of Q3 he did not need to complete his final run of qualifying. With his team mate Sergio Perez starting only 11th on the grid and Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari confined to the pit lane for the start, Verstappen could be forgiven for feeling a little more relaxed about seeing his closest threats on the grid were Carlos Sainz Jnr and Lando Norris.

The longest run to the first corner of the season is always a challenge for the one leading the field away, no matter who it is alongside on the front row. But when the tyre blankets were whipped off the cars to reveal Verstappen’s would start on the medium compound tyres – the only one of the 18 lining up on the grid to do so, besides his team mate – Sainz and Norris suddenly looked like very real threats off the line on their softs.

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When the lights went out, Sainz appeared boosted by the roar of the tens of thousands of Spanish fans willing him to beat Verstappen to turn one. For one single micro-sector on the FIA’s timing system, Sainz technically led his home grand prix – a matter of metres. But with Verstappen on the inside and Sainz in the weaker position on the outside, Sainz decided he would not risk everything in a futile bid to win his home race at the first corner, backing out as the realised he would run out of road on the exit.

Lance Stroll, Aston Martin, Circuit de Catalunya, 2023
Stroll wasn’t ahead of Hamilton for long
“Obviously I knew he was on the medium tyres, so maybe I had a bit more grip, but he defended well,” Sainz explained after the race. “He ran me wide and did what he had to do. I could have taken the escape road – I decided to stay legal.”

Verstappen’s defence compromised his entry into turn two, which quickly turned into a problem for those behind. Norris had lost third place to Lewis Hamilton on the run down the straight and as he put the power down on the exit of turn one he ran into the rear of the Mercedes, causing instant damage to the front wing of his McLaren.

“I didn’t see in turn one that Max went off the track,” Norris said after the race. “So then he had to bounce over the kerb in turn two and then everyone just checked up and I was too close to Lewis to be able to react, to brake. So just unlucky in my opinion.”

Behind, George Russell had jumped Perez and Pierre Gasly before the braking zone to turn one and was on the outside of Oscar Piastri and Nico Hulkenberg turning into the right hander. Sensing the space in front of him was about to disappear, Russell bailed to the escape road. When he rejoined, he was ahead of Piastri but still behind Hulkenberg in ninth, and the stewards were satisfied he had fulfilled all his obligations under the rules by staying to the left of the bollard.

Meanwhile, Norris was paying for his misjudgement at turn two with a loss of front downforce, allowing Lance Stroll to move past him and pressure Hamilton for third. Stroll dived to the inside of the Mercedes into turn five to take third place, while Russell snuck by Hulkenberg to claim eighth – a gain of four places from his starting position in a single lap.

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At the end of the first lap, Verstappen led Sainz by just over a second, already outside DRS range from the Ferrari. Norris pitted his wounded McLaren at the end of the lap, swapping his broken front wing for a working one but being demoted to the back of the field in the process.

George Russell, Mercedes, Circuit de Catalunya, 2023
To Russell’s relief, passing proved possible on revised track
Despite leading on tyres that which offered less immediate performance than those of everyone following him, Verstappen immediately got into a rhythm, running in the low 1’20s while Sainz and Stroll behind lapped in the high 1’20s. By the start of lap seven, the Red Bull’s lead was almost three seconds as the thoughts of those chasing him on softs turned towards trying to preserve their tyres during their opening stint.

But Russell had no desire to pace himself, nor stay behind Alonso. Exiting the fast final corner onto the pit straight, Russell tucked into the Aston Martin’s slipstream before using DRS to pull alongside the outside of it. Alonso offered little resistance and Russell moved up to sixth.

Much of the discussion around the decision to remove the slow chicane from the final corner of the track had centred around whether deleting the chicane would help or hinder overtaking into turn one. But after Russell showed that it was indeed possible to follow through the fast final corner and make a move down the end of the straight, his team mate Hamilton emulated him by sweeping around Stroll on lap eight moving up to third place.

With Alonso dispatched, Esteban Ocon was next in Russell’s sights. Not wishing to be too predictable, Russell switched up his plan of attack and cut to the inside of the Alpine into turn one to take fifth.

Ahead, Hamilton was now putting pressure on Sainz for second after closing to withing DRS range of the Ferrari. Rather than leave Sainz vulnerable, Ferrari brought their driver in for mediums at the end of lap 15, despite Sainz appearing to be bemused at the decision. Sainz slotted in directly behind team mate Leclerc in ninth and was allowed through as he now had to push to ensure Hamilton could not overcut him when he was eventually brought in by Mercedes.

Race start, Circuit de Catalunya, 2023
Gallery: 2023 Spanish Grand Prix in pictures
Sainz used his fresh tyres to go fractionally quicker than Hamilton ahead. When Hamilton eventually pitted for mediums at the end of lap 24, Sainz had successfully retained track position and grown his advantage over the Mercedes to just under three seconds. Russell was the next to stop a lap later, only just emerging ahead of Ocon’s Alpine in sixth.

By now, with half distance in sight, the only two cars that hadn’t visited the pit lane were the two Red Bulls in first and second. But rather than see how hard they could push the race leader’s medium tyres, Red Bull pitted the leader as he finished the 26th lap, fitting the hard tyres and sending him out still in the lead ahead of Perez. The second Red Bull became the last car to head down the pit lane on the next lap, also taking the hard tyres and rejoining a handful of seconds behind Alonso in ninth.

On the medium tyres, Hamilton was comfortably quicker than Sainz ahead. He tore up the gap to the Ferrari ahead with his significantly newer rubber and slipped by Sainz into turn one, taking second place in the process. But even though his tyres were one grade softer than the leader’s, Hamilton could not match the pace of the Red Bull and Verstappen’s 10-second margin steadily began to grow larger still.

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Sainz quickly slipped back from Hamilton and into the clutches of the second Mercedes behind. Russell again opted to attack on the inside and Sainz could do little to stop him as the Mercedes slipped by into turn one. The Ferrari driver’s hopes of appearing on the podium in his home race appeared to be over, but the risk of losing more places was a more immediate concern to him.

Carlos Sainz Jr, Ferrari, Circuit de Catalunya, 2023
Sainz was powerless to keep Perez behind
“Find the best way to beat Checo,” Sainz requested of his team, recognising it was fruitless to try to get back ahead of the Mercedes somehow. Ferrari’s response to this was to bring him in for the hard compound tyres at the end of lap 41, dropping him to sixth between the two Aston Martins of Alonso and Stroll – the latter of which had already made his second stop five laps earlier.

Out front, Verstappen’s lead continued to slowly inflate. But for the first time all weekend he was not satisfied with the balance of his Red Bull. Eventually his lap times dropped out of the 1’18s to match Hamilton’s in the mid 1’19s, stabilising the gap slightly. But even though Hamilton was not getting any closer, Verstappen was not having much fun on his hard tyres.

“They just didn’t have a lot of grip and I was actually sliding around quite a bit,” he later explained. “The pace was still okay, but I couldn’t really create much more of a gap – not how I would have liked.”

Nonetheless Russell in third was the first of the leading trio to pit, making his final stop with 21 laps remaining. Mercedes chose to fit a used set of soft tyres for his final stint, allowing him to immediately become the quickest car on track. He began to close the 12 second margin that Perez had to him but did not need to push hard – the Red Bull was soon in for soft tyres. Hamilton’s stop for softs restored the trio to their original order.

Verstappen was the last of the field to make his second stop, taking the softs on for a short final stint of 14 laps. He returned to the track still with a comfortable lead. Further back, whatever plan Ferrari had for Sainz to try and keep him ahead of Perez did not seem to be working. With Perez on fresh softs, there was next-to-nothing Sainz and his 11-lap old hard tyres could do to keep the Red Bull from cruising up to him along the pit straight, opening his DRS and cruising by into fourth place.

On the softs, Verstappen was much happier than he had been on the hard tyres. However, with his third track limits violation of the day, Verstappen was also the first to receive a black-and-white warning flag by race control. Verstappen’s engineer Gianpiero Lambiase gave his driver strict instructions to drive within a margin, but the leader had other plans.

“What’s the fastest lap?,” he casually enquired. “It’s a 16.6,” replied Lambiase. “It was the first lap on a new soft for Checo, with DRS, so I wouldn’t worry about it, Max. You’ve been given a black-and-white flag, so we cannot afford anything.”

Verstappen’s response to this was predictable: He immediately set a personal best first sector. Then he went fastest of all in the middle sector. By the time he had crossed the line, he had shaved more than three tenths of a second off Perez’s previous best – leaving his engineer audibly irked.

“Mode seven, please Max,” a resigned Lambiase requested. “Okay – now – can you bring it home, within the white lines?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Verstappen responded, as irreverent as a teenager tasked with a particularly dull chore.

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The championship leader had finished quickest of all in all three practice sessions, secured pole position in qualifying, held his position at the start, led every single lap of the race and had just added the bonus point for fastest lap to that remarkable tally. All that was left to do was run down the remaining laps, which he duly did, crossing the line to secure his fifth win of the 2023 season and reassert his dominance over Formula 1 once more.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Circuit de Catalunya, 2023
Verstappen scored his 40th win at the scene of his first
“It’s a good period,” the winner said after the race, in what must rank as one of the greatest understatements of the sporting year so far. “I’m happy in the car and I think the last few race weekends have definitely been a lot more positive for me. But this is one weekend where I think it went really well.”

In a race with no Safety Cars or red flags to interrupt running, Verstappen led Hamilton home by just over 24 seconds, underlining how untouchable he had been across the weekend. But Hamilton could not have cared less about Verstappen’s winning margin when this race had been the best sign yet that Mercedes may finally have found some momentum with their upgraded W14.

“In the race today the car felt great,” a delighted Hamilton said. “But honestly I just couldn’t match the times that Max was doing. And for George to come from 12th to third is just remarkable – so, really awesome result for us as a team.”

Russell had successfully saved his weekend after failing to reach Q3 in qualifying and taken his first podium of the season in third. “This feels a bit more fun when the car’s fast, eh?” he joked on the radio as he returned to the pits. But Russell is hungry for even more.

“A little bit cooler today, which maybe played into our favour,” he pondered once out of the car. “We know our race pace is good but certainly we need to make a big step forward to catch-up the Red Bulls and we’re not solely satisfied with P2 and P3. Although it’s a good step forward, we’ve got our sights set right at the very top.”

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Perez rose seven places from his sub-par grid slot of 11th to take fourth at the line, but had dropped 14 points in his head-to-head championship battle against Verstappen. He accepted he had “ultimately paid the price for a bad qualifying” – an assessment which also applied to the previous race weekend.

Race start, Circuit de Catalunya, 2023
Poll: Vote for your 2023 Spanish Grand Prix Driver of the Weekend
Sainz took the honour of being the highest-placed Spanish driver for the first time this year at his home grand prix in fifth but had little answer for his rivals ahead with underwhelming race pace in his final two stints. The two Aston Martins of Stroll and Alonso finished sixth and seventh, Alonso having chosen not to attack his team mate in the closing stages to avoid any risk of the team losing the most points they were likely to have ever gotten out of that race.

Ocon claimed eighth for Alpine, while Zhou Guanyu and Pierre Gasly both benefitted from a contentious penalty for Yuki Tsunoda in the later laps for ‘forcing’ Zhou off the circuit to claim the final points. For the second time in three races, all 20 drivers reached the chequered flag.

But the driver who got there first had, by doing so, secured the 40th victory of his career – an astonishing statistic for a driver still just 25 years old. Seven years on from that famous first win at the same Spanish circuit back in 2016, Verstappen’s team principal Christian Horner could only praise how much his world champion driver had drown since that day.

“I think in 2016, he was very raw,” Horner said. “He was incredibly fast – hugely naturally talented. And he still has that that natural speed and tremendous ability.

“But I think what he has now is the experience and roundedness and the capacity that he has. He’s just got this added bandwidth and it’s put it at another level. And I think the exciting thing about him is he’s still getting better.”

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Author information

Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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17 comments on “Even Red Bull can’t slow unstoppable Verstappen as his 40th win comes easily”

  1. I think if Max started 14th he would be second at the end.

    1. Jimmy Cliff
      5th June 2023, 9:12

      Yeah makes you wonder about Red Bull simulations indicating Perez would finished 5th. Certainly taking into account that Russell wouldn’t have been factored in by those simulations.

      Would those simulations have given the same result for Max if he started 11th and Perez 1st.

      Given the speed of the Mercedes and them making the aggressive S-M-S strategy work Max would really had to push to catch Lewis but fairly sure Max would be 2nd and at least 3rd.

  2. Still not entirely sure why GP was so insistent. Like, Max was 20 seconds ahead, more by the end of the race, they could’ve easily swallowed a white line infraction penalty, maybe two, and still won. Let the guy have some fun in an otherwise boring race at the front.

    1. It would just need one SC deployment before the finish and you are screwed.

    2. Because an unnecessary penalty in case of a late SC could lose them the win. Why take the risk. Verstappen is incredibly lucky that his passion and hobby became his job, but that doesn’t mean that it’ll always be fun.

    3. TBH, in his case I would have seriously considered exceeding track limits on the final lap. By then, there was no chance a penalty would have cost him the win, and it’d have been funny to be able to say to the team “See, you didn’t need to worry so much!”

  3. Jimmy Cliff
    5th June 2023, 9:16

    Crazy that Max is just 25 years old and has 40 F1 victories only having a championship contender car since 2021.

    Looking at the other 5 drivers with 40 races of more, Vettel was 27, Lewis was 30 when winning their 40th race.
    At 25y and 247 days Senna had just 2 wins and Prost was still to win his 1st race.

    1. Max also entered F1 many years before the other drivers you cite and has been with a top flight team for many years. Also worth noting that Vettel had only 2 massively dominant years with Redbull and Hamilton didn’t enter a dominant team until Mercedes. Senna hadn’t even been in a dominant car by that time. Given how dominant the current Redbull is Max could have 55 wins by the end of the season.

      1. it’s true you can’t compare situations, but this is also his 2nd year in a dominant car.

        1. *only his 2nd year, just like Vettel

      2. Robert Henning
        5th June 2023, 11:27

        The others weren’t as good to enter that early unfortunately for them.

        Considering his teammate is not even on the podium every race, it is blatantly obvious that the difference is whatever the car + Max is able to do.

        1. So teammate+car makes wins a bit more difficult. Theory confirmed.

          Hamilton was extra special, considering his teammate was on podium equally but he still beat his teammate. More often than not.

          Case in point schumi era, Ayrton era, vettel era…

          1. Coventry Climax
            5th June 2023, 13:46

            Theory confirmed? I’m sure it confirms some sort of (mystic?) theory somewhere, somehow and probably about you yourself.
            Let’s learn some logic:

            Say, in year X, A has a big margin over B, that can mean A is particularly good, B is particularly bad, or there’s a bit of both.

            Now, in year Z (so, although irrelevant, not even consecutive), C has a smaller margin over D. That indeed means they seem more equally matched.

            Unfortunately for you, this says absolutely nothing about how A compares to C or to D, and -equally- nothing about how B compares to C or D.
            Alos, this says nothing about A, B, C and D when you compare their -likely asynchronous- entire careers, so over more than just the years Y and Z.

            Would have been another story had they all been in identical cars in the same year.

            Myth, theory and your logic busted, I’m afraid.

            Back in the days when Indy counted for the F1 championship, there was a driver that competed just once – and won. Perfect Indy score of 100%; won in every race he participated in, never even lost once! Noone ever got that close, margin or percentage wise. Huge difference to all of the others – ever.
            But does it make him the best? Nah, don’t think so.

      3. He’s certainly on track for the most successful first two seasons in a dominant car. He’s on a 69% win rate so far, compared to Lewis at 55% in the first 2 seasons of the hybrid era.

        That said, Lewis did have a stronger teammate. If Max was up against someone of Rosberg’s ability, I suspect the results would be much more similar. That’s not to take anything away from Max, he’s performing brilliantly.

    2. Nikos (@exeviolthor)
      7th June 2023, 8:20

      Nice statistics. We need to be aware, though, that when we compare modern F1 to previous eras then the statistics are not very relevant.
      For example Senna and Prost competed at a time when drivers had to be very strong to be able to handle the cars. This is why drivers like Mansel were very successful with them.
      A 17 year old (Verstappen’s age when he started driving in F1) would not be able to drive back then.

  4. Derek Edwards
    5th June 2023, 16:32

    Intrigued to see what Verstappen’s RaceFans rating will be. “Crossed white line enough to be flagged, disobeyed engineer, rarely challenged wheel to wheel, lost lead in a microsector at the start – 7”?

    1. Tommy Scragend
      6th June 2023, 12:57

      You weren’t far wrong!

      It baffles me how getting yourself so far ahead of everyone else that you aren’t under any pressure gets you marked down rather than up.

Comments are closed.