Red Bull has been left scratching its head, wondering if there was, once again, anything that could have been done to prevent the loss.
Meanwhile, Daniel Ricciardo has enjoyed his best weekend of the year with one of his favourite stretches of the F1 calendar next up.
Here’s what we learnt from the Spanish Grand Prix.
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RICCIARDO MAY HAVE JUST TURNED THE CORNER
Daniel Ricciardo won’t be getting carried away with a sixth-place finish, but it may be just the thing to jump-start his 2021 season.
It’s been a slow start to life at McLaren for the Australian, who hasn’t felt at home in his MCL35M on his way to finishes of seventh, sixth and ninth at the first three races.
His teammate Lando Norris finished higher at each of the first three events, including at Imola where McLaren ordered Ricciardo to let him past.
But the Circuit de Catalunya — where pre-season testing occurs — gave Ricciardo a timely sense of familiarity, which he took full advantage of.
With a more level playing field, given he has already driven for McLaren at the track, Ricciardo comfortably outqualified Norris by nearly four-tenths, before finishing two spots ahead on Sunday.
Capping off the turnaround was the fact McLaren issued team orders to Norris to allow Ricciardo to pass.
HAMILTON’S CRYPTIC JAB PROVES MAX JUST GAVE AWAY MORE THAN HE BARGAINED FOR
RICCIARDO FLIPS THE SCRIPT ON TEAMMATE BEFORE MAKING ‘CRAZY’ ADMISSION
BIG RICCIARDO LEAP AS CRYPTIC HAMILTON MESSAGE LEAVES MAX GUESSING AFTER HUGE GAMBLE
While it’s far too early to suggest that Ricciardo has gained the upper hand in the McLaren garage, Norris is entering a challenging month against his teammate with races at Monaco and Azerbaijan next.
There’s plenty of good feeling for Ricciardo at the two street circuits, where he claimed wins for Red Bull in 2018 and 2017 respectively.
Norris, meanwhile, has only raced one Grand Prix at each track, both coming back in 2019 due to cancellations last year.
Ricciardo is understandably champing at the bit to get back to Monaco to build on the forward momentum he created in Spain.
“Firstly I’m excited to go there. It’s been two years,” Ricciardo said. “It’s a track that you don’t get the privilege of driving, first of all, and to miss it for a year, I just can’t wait to go there.”
It’s likely to too premature to expect podium finishes at the next two races but, suddenly, the world is looking brighter for Ricciardo.
BOTTAS UNDER PRESSURE DESPITE ‘BULLSH*T’ RUMOUR
Valtteri Bottas rubbished last week’s reports that Mercedes is growing impatient with his performances, and could be set to replace him mid-season with George Russell.
“I know that I’m not going to be replaced in the middle of the season,” Bottas said before the Spanish Grand Prix in response to the report. “As a team, we don’t do that.
“I have a contract for this year and I believe there’s only one team that does that kind of thing in F1 and we’re not that.
“So no pressure from my side. I know how things are and there’s always bullsh*t around. That’s part of the sport.”
His confidence aside, there’s no ignoring that Bottas is well off the pace in 2021 — perhaps the furthest off the pace he has ever been to Hamilton.
The Finn hasn’t beaten Verstappen or Hamilton in a race once this year, but what’s most alarming is just how far behind he has finished.
Outside of his DNF at Imola, Bottas hasn’t come within 25 seconds of the race-winner this season.
He’s already 47 points behind Hamilton after just four races.
Bottas may be certain he will be able to drive out the rest of his contract — which ends this year — but the likelihood of Mercedes renewing it is becoming slim.
RED BULL ITS OWN WORST ENEMY
Hamilton said before the Spanish Grand Prix that Red Bull was “making a lot of mistakes” to give him the upper hand in the drivers’ championship.
Those comments were reinforced over the weekend when Mercedes was simply too clever for its rivals once again.
Hamilton was beaten off the line and trailed Verstappen for the majority of the race.
That was until a slick Mercedes outfit gave its lead driver the best chance of taking the spot back by pitting him twice for fresh tyres.
The second stop came on Lap 43 when Hamilton was just half a second off the lead.
Had Red Bull pitted Verstappen on Lap 44, he may have still come out narrowly ahead of Hamilton, and the pair could have both duelled on fresh tyres until the end.
But Red Bull froze and chose to keep out the Dutchman, who said he became a “sitting duck” as he was powerless to stop Hamilton from passing him with six laps to spare.
Team boss Christian Horner said after the race that he doesn’t “think” there was anything Red Bull could have done to stop Hamilton.
In hindsight, however, it’s hard to argue against that at least attempting to cover off the second stop immediately would have given Verstappen a better chance.
Another option — if Red Bull felt it was struggling for pace — would have been to give up track position and stop Verstappen first, forcing Mercedes to weigh up staying out on a one-stop.
Not helping Red Bull’s case was the fact that Verstappen’s first stop was slow by a couple of seconds, which may have been the difference between comfortably covering off a second Hamilton pit stop and feeling the need to risk a one-stop strategy.
Earlier in the season, Verstappen was on course for victory in Bahrain but breached track limits to effectively hand Hamilton the race.
In Portugal, he had a pole lap, and fastest lap of the race — worth a championship point — both rubbed out for the same violation.
Once everything is added together, it becomes clear that Verstappen isn’t just competing against Hamilton this year.
FERRARI QUIETLY IMPROVING
Ferrari is still miles away from where a team of its resources should be, but it appears set to seize control of the midfield battle.
Charles Leclerc was miles ahead of Ferrari’s direct rivals in 2021, McLaren, whose drivers came home in sixth and eighth.
Leclerc was fourth, nearly 20 seconds ahead of Ricciardo, who managed to hold up Ferrari’s faster Carlos Sainz in seventh.
The result pulled Ferrari to just five points shy of McLaren in the constructors’ championship — but there’s little doubt who had the faster package in Spain.
Understandably, Leclerc, who has finished fourth twice and sixth twice this season, was ecstatic after the race.
“We were incredibly competitive compared to our main competitors,” Leclerc told Sky Sports F1.
“I think we were the standout for the race today so it was good, the feeling of the car was amazing.”
In a major warning to Ferrari’s rivals, Leclerc said the team’s overall package is improving.
“We have more power, we have more downforce and grip. Especially in the race it seems to help a lot because last year the balance during the race was very difficult, whenever you put high fuel you feel the weaknesses of the car a lot more,” he said.
“Last year we were struggling with that. This year it just feels a lot better.”