The Spanish Grand Prix is one of the season’s most important weekends in terms of setting the competitive order, and the 2022 edition did not disappoint despite the order at the front appearing unchanged.
Ferrari and Red Bull Racing remain locked in a tight fight at the front – which is at least encouraging for Ferrari after it seemed to fall behind in recent races – but it’s the suddenly closer Mercedes that caught the most attention.
The team’s list of upgrades appeared subtle but has added up to something significant. The team is optimistic it’s finally understood something about its car and how it works, and both drivers are confident of being in the mix on Saturday.
Could this be the start of the recovery?
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Further into the midfield, some disrupted afternoons from some expected key players have shrouded the competitive order in mystery – but not as much mystery as surrounds the new Aston Martin car, which while not all that quick, is proving so good at impersonating the Red Bull Racing car that it attracted potential legal action.
Here’s what you need to know from a busy day in Spain.
THE FRONTRUNNERS ARE FINELY BALANCED, TIRES YOU KEY TO RACE
Despite Ferrari’s substantial upgrade package and Red Bull Racing bringing its own updates, the form guide at the front has not changed substantially between races.
Charles Leclerc led the way in both practice sessions for Ferrari on single-lap pace, the SF-75 ideally suited to the aero-sensitive layout of the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.
But in the race simulations during FP2 the complexion of the battle changed. Tire degradation was high for all cars, but Ferrari seemed to suffer particularly badly, at least in comparison to Red Bull Racing.
Leclerc was on the medium tire and Sainz on the soft, but neither reported healthy degradation, and that problem was demonstrated in the average lap times, where they were several tenths off the pace over a stint – though F1’s official analysis places the gap at just 0.1 seconds.
It’s a familiar story, with the SF-75 having struggled with tires at the last two rounds, costing Leclerc victory in Imola and arguably Miami too.
“We have some work to do, in particular on our race pace and on tire management,” Leclerc said. “The stints we did on the soft compound felt better than those on the mediums.
“Tonight, we will analyze our latest data to find where we can improve on this track.”
But with Ferrari still dialing in its upgrades, Ferrari fans should not be too despondent about Sunday, with gains likely.
Red Bull Racing has the opposite problem. Qualifying is always important in Spain given the difficult overtaking, and so Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez can simply rely on better race management to get the job done for them.
“It has been a bit tricky to find the right balance with the heat, and we still have a lot of work to do over one lap,” Verstappen said. “It’s tough on the tires around here – we are not on top of that just yet, but at least we know the weather will be consistent tomorrow.”
NEW DAY OR FALSE DAWN FOR MERCEDES?
Contrary to the old adage, lap times do lie – at least when it’s still free practice.
It’s why the team was mystified after topping second practice at the Miami Grand Prix two weeks ago. It had been experimenting with set-up but nonetheless could not understand the apparent step forward – and its lack of confidence was justified on Saturday when the car reverted to type.
Another race weekend, another competitive practice showing, with George Russell and Lewis Hamilton splitting the Ferrari cars in second and third at around a tenth and two tenths off the pace respectively.
Except this time the team’s response has been completely different, and the body language of the drivers betrays genuine optimism that they’ve cracked part of the code.
“Positive!” is how Hamilton described the day. “I’m super happy with the progress.
We are not the quickest yet, but I think we’re on our way.
“I’m really grateful for those upgrades; we now need to finetune them into the next session.
“I think we can get it into an even better place for tomorrow, so hopefully we can tackle the heel of the guys up ahead.”
Russell likewise suggested there could be more to come from Mercedes despite admitting it had been running in a higher engine mode.
“The car’s definitely reacting differently,” he said. We’ve got different limitations this time.
“I see no reason why we can not be as far away from the front as we showed, if not a little bit closer, but there are differences to power modes and stuff.”
A lot of the gain has come from eliminating the violent bouncing down the straights, which has seen a massive boost to the car’s top speed. Previously one of the slowest in a straight line, on Friday it was fastest in the speed trap.
If we take qualifying pace for granted – though one would still expect Red Bull Racing to finesse it way at least into the mix by Saturday afternoon – on race pace Mercedes still seemed third quickest, albeit comfortably ahead of the midfield.
However, given tire degradation was so high, overnight set-up compromises will likely shuffle the order around by Sunday, making it difficult to be confident about race-pace projections.
Mercedes still isn’t in the frontrunning fight, but it appears to have taken a genuine step forward.
ASTON MARTIN UNLEASHES THE GREEN BULL
Of all the upgrades unveiled on Friday at the Spanish Grand Prix, none was as extensive or as eye-catching as that applied to the Aston Martin AMR22.
As the FIA itself noted, it looked an awful lot like the Red Bull Racing RB18, particularly around the sidepods.
It’s a fascinating development because it’s very early in the season for a team to extensively copy another car – the RB18 broke cover only two months ago, and Aston Martin would have already had developments of its own in the pipeline.
Indeed the scale of the car’s reworking confirms this is no quick change – some of the internals beneath the skin have been rearranged to fit within the new bodywork, which is never the work of a moment.
Suspicions were raised immediately by RBR principal Christian Horner.
“A few people have moved over the winter period, and what you can not control is what they take in their heads,” Horner told the BBC ahead of practice.
“But what would be of grave concern to us would be if any IP had in any way changed hands.”
Red Bull motorsport adviser Helmut Marko told Sky Sport Germany “there is evidence that data was downloaded”.
“Can you copy without documents and then make such a detailed copy of our car?” he asked rhetorically.
Aston Martin has denied any wrongdoing, and the FIA confirmed it had investigated the AMR22 more deeply after routine pre-event scrutineering, including for breaches of the ‘reverse engineering’ provisions in the rules as well as an IP transfer.
No evidence of irregularity was found.
But Horner suggested after practice that the issue was not yet closed and refused to rule out protesting the FIA to force a deeper dive into the provenance of the green machine.
“I’m not going to disclose exactly where we are with certain individuals, but it would be an offense,” he said. “It would be a criminal offense.”
Aston Martin has form in this area. Back in 2020 it unveiled a car that looked remarkably similar to the previous season’s championship-winning Mercedes car.
The familiar design came under intense scrutiny from rivals when it turned out to be quick, but the FIA was unable to find any evidence of illegally shared intellectual property on the scale alleged – though the team was caught out in the gray area of some off- season rule changes regarding the sharing of brake ducts, for which it was fined € 400,000 and docked 15 points.
The controversy spawned a clampdown on reverse engineering using 3D cameras and photogrammetry, with all teams now required to show their design working to prove ownership of their intellectual property.
Sebastian Vettel was eighth in FP2, 0.6 seconds slower than the quickest Red Bull Racing machine and more than a second off the pace.
MIDFIELD REMAINS UNCLEAR AFTER UPDATES
Most teams have brought substantial updates to this weekend, and the one thing engineers want when they are evaluating a new package is nice, clean, uninterrupted running.
Unfortunately that was not the case for McLaren, which went one car down early in second practice after Lando Norris broke his car running wide over some kerbs.
The Briton was the only driver running the weekend’s updates – Daniel Ricciardo was acting as a control with the old configuration – and thus the team ended the most representative session with limited data collected.
“I think there are positives with the new bits on the car,” Norris said despite the lack of running.
“Some things were working well, and I think the team are happy with some of the improvements.”
Ricciardo said the team’s lowly place on the time sheet – he was 15th and Norris last – was not representative, with the team focused on set-up work rather than pure pace, though he was not certain of a top-10 grid spot .
“We clearly aren’t where we want to be on the timesheets, but there’s a lot to dive into tonight,” he said. “I think we’ll find some things and find the optimal set-up for tomorrow, and hopefully that puts us inside the top 10.”
Alpine took advantage of McLaren’s struggles, with home hero Fernando Alonso leading the way on pure pace – he was sixth, just behind Verstappen – and the team looking competitive in fourth over long runs.
However, it’s a little unlike Alpine to carry qualifying pace over to race pace this season, and the French team will be wary that not only did McLaren do little long running, but it did not complete a meaningful stint on the medium compound, which will be key to the race given the scale of degradation this weekend.
The rest of the midfield is similarly unclear. Alfa Romeo must be suffering PTSD symptoms after Valtteri Bottas’s day ended after just three laps with a technical problem – it was the story of the team’s preseason here despite decent reliability in the season proper – which means understanding where the Swiss team is with its heavily upgraded car is difficult.
A raw analysis of the times puts Alfa Romeo behind AlphaTauri, which had a relatively low-key day, with Aston Martin somewhere in the mix.
Haas and Williams showed the least at the back of the field, but the former seemed confident of unlocking pace on Saturday, while the latter was busy evaluating new parts.