Spain in August can be stifling hot and, as Formula One arrives in Barcelona for round six of this year’s championship, the formerly-invincible Mercedes-AMG team is suddenly finding things a bit too hot.
Max Verstappen and Red Bull Racing applied the blow torch to end their winning streak at Silverstone and are looking to do it again.
As the Mercedes team’s Achilles Heel of heat was exposed in the past two races, with rising engine and gearbox temperatures and massive tyre degradation resulting in blow outs for both Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, Red Bull has continued to find pace.
Without a win until last Sunday and in spite of a retirement from the first round, Verstappen has somehow managed to split the Mercedes drivers by sitting second in the Championship after five rounds.
“If you consider Max had a DNF at the beginning of the season, that gap is not large. He would only be five points behind Lewis and not 30,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff admits.
“We were not the quickest last weekend, maybe not even the second quickest. We have seen in the past that the hot conditions don’t suit our car.”
Conversely, as Mercedes searches for answers, Red Bull’s design guru Adrian Newey has unlocked more potential in Verstappen and Alex Albon’s cars through medium and high-speed corners since Hungary.
There were plenty at Silverstone and there’s a few more in Barcelona, so the team is hoping to pester the Germans again this weekend.
Even so, as you would expect, Verstappen is playing down his championship chances.
“When we go back to using conservative tyres everywhere, because most of the tracks we go to will be one stoppers, I think it will be harder because nobody really has blistering and so you don’t need to manage tyres as much as we did last week,” Verstappen says.
With temps predicted to be in the 30s and humidity around 70 per cent, Pirelli is bringing its hardest-compound rubber to Spain in the hope of avoiding a repeat of Silverstone where poor tyre performance dominated both weekends.
“Barcelona is hard on tyres so I’m not sure how they will hold out. There will be a lot of unknowns as we usually race there earlier in the year,” Red Bull’s Christian Horner says.
Mercedes remains blindingly fast over one lap with only Racing Point’s super-sub, Nico Hulkenberg, able to challenge Bottas and Hamilton in qualifying at Silverstone2.
Admittedly, The Hulk did have the punch from Mercedes power.
The fairy-tale return for Hulkenberg though, is over, with Racing Point’s regular driver, Sergio Perez being cleared of COVID-19 after a two-week quarantine and is ready to resume driving duties.
Much of the off-track news still surrounds the team with the ‘pink Mercedes’ and with confirmation imminent that Perez’s seat will go to Sebastien Vettel next year, the prospect of both Perez and now Hulkenberg on the market has raised a few eyebrows.
Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi is suddenly feeling a little nervous as his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen is possibly announcing his retirement at the end of this year and the idea of a Perez-Hulkenberg pairing could be the tonic the ailing Alfa Romeo team needs.
Vettel meanwhile, grudgingly goes to Spain off the back of another average weekend with Ferrari which included qualifying outside the top 10, a self-induced spin on the opening lap, and describing the tactics over team radio post-race as one that “didn’t make any sense.”
The four-time world champ has collected just one point compared to team-mate Charles Leclerc’s 27 from the last two races but he will find small comfort with news that his team discovered a fracture in his chassis following Silverstone and he will race with a new tub in Spain.
Renault is hoping to continue the good form from Silverstone that netted a bag full of points for both Daniel Ricciardo and Esteban Ocon in the first race and a comfortable fifth place in qualifying for Ricciardo in the second GP.
“It’s probably the most familiar circuit for all of us with all the pre-season and in-season testing we do here, but I think it’s going to be interesting this time because it’s a lot warmer than in February or even May when we usually race here,” Ricciardo says.
“The car has changed a bit since then, so I’m looking forward to trying it out and I think if we can qualify well, there’s no reason we can’t have another strong result.”
This weekend marks the end of the second of F1’s triple headers with teams looking forward to a few days R&R next week before moving to Italy.