10 things we learned from F1's 2021 Spanish GP

Amid echoes of the 2019 Hungarian Grand Prix, Mercedes snookered Red Bull on strategy to deliver Lewis Hamilton victory in the 2021 Spanish Grand Prix. Autosport assesses the weekend's major talking points, as a 2020 heavy-hitter endured another weekend to forget and a much-hyped rookie had a lesson in humility

10 things we learned from F1's 2021 Spanish GP

The Spanish Grand Prix has hardly cemented itself as a must-watch in Formula 1 through recent history, yet Sunday’s race had plenty going for it to entertain hardcore fans.

Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen went wheel-to-wheel for the fourth race in a row, only for their tussle to ultimately be settled by their respective pit walls.

It was a fascinating strategic battle that made this one of the better F1 races seen at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, with the weekend as a whole helping solidify a number of our perceptions for the 2021 season.

Here are 10 things we learned from the Spanish Grand Prix.

1. Mercedes won F1’s battle of the wits

Verstappen looks on as Hamilton hoists his trophy

Verstappen looks on as Hamilton hoists his trophy

Photo by: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

When Verstappen muscled his way past Hamilton at Turn 1, you would have been forgiven for thinking that the race had been settled there and then, such is the difficulty of passing in Barcelona.

Yet the pattern we have seen through the early part of this season - Red Bull stronger early in the soft stint; Mercedes then coming back into play towards the end of each stint - set up a tantalising strategic battle.

Mercedes appeared to have dropped the ball by not pitting Hamilton before Verstappen in the first stint, yet the tyre offset gained by keeping the seven-time champion out meant he could easily trim the Dutchman's lead again.

But the masterstroke came in not overtaking Verstappen, even when it looked inevitable on the mediums. Mercedes instead brought Hamilton in for a second time, fitting him with a fresh set of mediums that, crucially, Red Bull lacked. The 23-second gap seemed big, but when he started running over two seconds per lap faster than Verstappen, it was clear that it was the right call.

The moment Hamilton came in, it was clear it was checkmate. Red Bull could not have done a lot more to win the race, proving how clinical Mercedes can be.

2. Verstappen’s aggression could cause fireworks

Max Verstappen takes the lead at the start

Max Verstappen takes the lead at the start

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Just as he did at Imola last month, Verstappen was feeling punchy on the opening lap when he entered battle with Hamilton, showing an aggression that is exciting - and could cause fireworks.

Verstappen made a good start, but was hardly side-by-side with Hamilton before chucking his Red Bull up the inside at Turn 1. Just as he did at Imola, he let the car drift to the exit of the corner, squeezing Hamilton. Unlike at Imola, Hamilton backed out this time, conscious “it's always a marathon not a sprint” and settled down into second place.

The fact Verstappen can pull such a move speaks volumes about both drivers. It’s an aggression that is exciting and good for the title fight - but also one that may not be possible with every driver on the grid. The trust is there with Hamilton.

But how long will that last? Will Verstappen try to get away with a little bit more the next time he senses a chance to throw a move on Hamilton? And will Hamilton shut the door more forcefully to put his precocious rival back in his place? It’s an exciting subplot against the context of their championship fight.

3. Hamilton’s century of poles is unlikely to be seen again

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, celebrates with his team in Parc Ferme after securing his 100th pole position F1

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, celebrates with his team in Parc Ferme after securing his 100th pole position F1

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

We’ve been edging ever closer to it for some time, but Hamilton finally hit the 100 mark for F1 pole positions on Saturday in Spain - and it clearly meant a lot to him.

The nature of his radio celebrations and reaction afterwards in parc ferme proved how much he cares, and how astounded and enthused he is by the success he has shared with Mercedes en route to such mind-blowing figures.

"The 100-mark is something that I don't think anybody and particularly me never thought that I would ever get to that number," Hamilton said. "It's crazy that it is 100 and it felt like one of the first.”

Even considering his mastery in qualifying, nobody would have expected Hamilton to get to such a number a few years ago. Realistically, as F1 moves towards a more equitable and level-playing field in the cost-cap era, periods of dominance like Mercedes has enjoyed may become increasingly rare. It means another driver getting to the century mark is very, very unlikely.

4. Bottas’s slow switch could have been costly

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

It wasn’t quite a “Valtteri, it’s James” moment, but the use of team orders by Mercedes to Valtteri Bottas to aid Hamilton’s race would have been unwelcome for the Finn.

The gap to Hamilton was again huge in Spain, this time resulting from his first stint stuck behind Charles Leclerc's Ferrari, and meant Bottas had to move aside after his team-mate’s second pit stop.

The switch happened at Turn 10, with Bottas initially keeping his car hung around the outside and not making it too easy for Hamilton to get ahead. Bottas admitted after the race that he could have let Hamilton by sooner, but that he also had his own race to think about.

“I was trying to get Charles off the pit window so I could stop again and try and go for an extra point [for fastest lap],” Bottas said. “The main thing in my mind was my own race.”

It was understandable, as he couldn’t afford to lose too much time to open up that window - yet he also couldn’t cost Hamilton time, particularly when the margins against Verstappen were so fine. Had Mercedes’ initial prediction of a last-lap showdown been true, then a second or two lost could have been damaging.

As Hamilton’s pace was so strong, though, it didn’t really matter - nor was he expecting to be waved through: “In my mind, I was like, we’re racing, and that’s totally fine for me, particularly early on in this part of the season.”

Toto Wolff was relaxed about it after the race, given the end result wasn’t impacted. But had the margins been finer, then Bottas’s approach may have been looked on a bit more dimly.

5. Perez’s absence hurt Red Bull at the front

Sergio Perez, Christian Horner confer before the start

Sergio Perez, Christian Horner confer before the start

Photo by: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Sergio Perez’s yo-yoing start to life with Red Bull continued in Spain last weekend. A painful shoulder caused him to struggle in qualifying, but he was unable to recover in the race, only clawing back to fifth place.

It marked a continuation of the struggles faced by the ‘second Red Bull’, with the parallels to Hungary 2019 in Verstappen’s defeat set to surely lead to more scrutiny of how Perez is doing. The big saving grace is that he is only four races into his time with the team.

PLUS: How Red Bull’s deja vu set Hamilton on the winning path in Spain 

But just as Pierre Gasly was far behind in Hungary two years ago, leaving a gap for Hamilton to drop into, Perez was in a similar position here. Had he been with the leading cars, then Mercedes would have had a bigger strategic knot to untie - instead, it was easy, simply beating the one car it was fighting, as Red Bull team boss Christian Horner was keenly aware.

“We desperately need him to be in that gap, so that Mercedes don't have the strategic options that they had,” Horner said after the race. “I'm convinced that that will come for Checo as he finds more confidence, and time in the car.”

Particularly with Verstappen well in the title fight this year, the support from Perez really does need to come sooner rather than later.

6. Ferrari versus McLaren is set to rage on all year

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M, Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M, Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

It’s time to party like it’s 2008, because we’re looking set for a season-long slugging match between Ferrari and McLaren in Formula 1 this year - even if just to be best of the rest.

Ferrari managed to confirm the good feeling it had about the SF21 car from the early races as its qualifying pace carried over to the race. Leclerc was supreme at the head of the midfield, pulling off a brilliant move around the outside of Bottas at Turn 3 to nab third on the opening lap, and then staying there throughout the first stint.

McLaren had a quieter day, but Daniel Ricciardo looked to have found more confidence with the car on his run to sixth place, narrowly defeating Carlos Sainz Jr. Lando Norris was a little off-colour compared to his recent displays, not helped by his qualifying being compromised by Nikita Mazepin, but still sits fourth in the championship.

With AlphaTauri slipping back and Alpine not looking so hot in the races, the battle for third is shaping up to be a straight fight between Ferrari and McLaren. It’s an exciting prospect, even if both teams would wish the stakes were higher.

7. 2021 increasingly looks like a write-off for Aston Martin

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Sebastian Vettel said on Thursday that it would be a “wasted opportunity” for Aston Martin if it abandoned this year and put full focus on 2022. But going on Sunday’s race, it does not seem like there is a lot it will be able to gain from this year.

Vettel and team-mate Lance Stroll flirted with the fringes of the top 10 but came away without points, with Aston Martin looking a big step behind midfield leaders Ferrari and McLaren. Even Alpine and AlphaTauri appear to have the edge on pace right now.

Aston Martin knows it has work to do, but the updates that ran on both cars in Spain haven’t heralded a huge step forward that would have been hoped for. The AMR21 car is still lacking downforce, with Vettel in particular lacking confidence as a result.

“I’m lacking really a bit of pace to fight for points,” Vettel said after finishing a lap down in 13th. “Overall, it’s probably a fair estimate of where we stand at the moment.”

A fight for P6 in the constructors' is not what Aston Martin would have entered 2021 hoping for after coming close to finishing third last year and winning in Sakhir, but that's where it is pitching right now.

8. Tsunoda learned some harsh rookie lessons in Spain

Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT02

Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT02

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

The hype surrounding Yuki Tsunoda after his impressive pre-season showing and strong debut in Bahrain has fizzled out somewhat, especially after a rough weekend in Spain.

His race was brought to an early end by a fuel pressure issue, but the hardest part of the weekend came on Saturday when he was knocked out in Q1 after a difficult session.

In the TV pen after qualifying, Tsunoda said he had a “question mark” about his car, saying the characteristics seemed different to those on Gasly’s car on the other side of the garage. It was a surprising thing to say, even if not meant with full intent, and later prompted an apology from Tsunoda over his frustration.

Tsunoda did a lot of good in Bahrain, both across testing and the race, drawing favourable comments from Ross Brawn that he was the "best rookie F1 has had for years". He unquestionably has the raw pace to be in F1, but perhaps needs to calm things down a bit. His sweary radio calls were funny at first, but aren’t something he should foster a reputation for.

They’re important rookie lessons to learn, so it is good that he is getting them out of the way nice and early. Hopefully Spain will mark a turning point for him.

9. Fans back in the grandstands was a welcome sight

Fans in a grandstand

Fans in a grandstand

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

Only 1,000 fans may have been able to attend the Spanish Grand Prix, yet the sight of fans and flags back in the main grandstand was a really good boost for the whole F1 paddock.

The COVID-19 pandemic remains fluid going from country to country, but Spain gave us a nice flavour of what it will be like once we have fans back at Europe’s heartland races. It will hopefully set the tone for what we see at more events heading into the summer.

Hamilton was quick to note the returning fans after his victory (no “best fans” speech, thankfully!) and local favourite Fernando Alonso also spoke about how there was a little extra buzz of atmosphere thanks to them.

“You feel a little bit of adrenaline when you see the fans, and with the speaker saying your name and into the race,” Alonso said. “It was more special this race than the other three, for sure.”

Roll on the British summer and a bouncing Silverstone.

10. The Turn 10 change did little to help Barcelona’s layout

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

The reprofiling of Turn 10 was heralded as a major change for the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya ahead of this year’s race, long maligned for its lack of overtaking areas.

And while the change helped to make the corner faster and a bit more enjoyable for the drivers, it did nothing at all to improve overtaking, with the real issue still being the final sector.

It’s a drum that we bang every single year F1 comes to Spain (and shall continue to do so), but any gains drivers make through the run to Turn 10 are undone by the uninspiring, clunky last chicane that neuters any real chance for an overtake.

PLUS: The changes Barcelona needs to provide a modern-day F1 spectacle

We saw as much in Hamilton’s pursuit of Verstappen. Every time he’d make gains with DRS, the final sector would undo all of it and break any momentum he was building up.

If Barcelona is to be livened up, then more changes are needed, even if the task is “difficult”, according to Alonso. “Maybe a little bit extra DRS, right after the last chicane, maybe being able to open the DRS is a possibility for the future,” he said. “I don’t know. Barcelona is always going to be tough for overtaking.”

At least the strategy battles helped save this race. And if this is considered one of F1’s duller events this year, it bodes really well for the rest of the season.

Esteban Ocon, Alpine A521, Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21

Esteban Ocon, Alpine A521, Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

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