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Ferrari failure masks progress as Mercedes joins the fight in Spain

Ferrari failure masks progress as Mercedes joins the fight in Spain

FORMULA ONE: Red Bull Racing’s (RBR) one-two finish at the Spanish Grand Prix on Sunday (May 22) belied concerns that Ferrari has taken a step forward in the battle at the front, but both teams are wary of a resurgent Mercedes entering the title fray.

Formula-One
By Michael Lamonato

Wednesday 25 May 2022, 09:00AM


Mercedes, having wallowed in the midfield with a difficult-to-tame car, came roaring back to life at the Spanish Grand Prix last Sunday (May 22). Photo: AFP.

Mercedes, having wallowed in the midfield with a difficult-to-tame car, came roaring back to life at the Spanish Grand Prix last Sunday (May 22). Photo: AFP.

The Spanish Grand Prix promised answers, but instead we got more questions.

The unseasonably sweltering Barcelona was the scene of the first round of the development war among the frontrunners. Ferrari, bringing its first major upgrades of the year, was set to wrest the ascendency back from RBR, who’d energetically brought a stream of new parts to its car over previous races.

You’d be tempted to believe the Italian team’s efforts flopped based on the classification sheet. Max Verstappen led Sergio Perez to a one-two finish. Carlos Sainz finished fourth. Charles Leclerc retired with a power unit failure.

Verstappen now leads the title standings by six points, and RBR heads Ferrari by 26 points - quite the turnaround after Ferrari’s domination in Australia just three rounds earlier.

But was it a disaster for Ferrari? Not according to erstwhile championship leader Leclerc.

The Monegasque had taken pole with a breathtaking last-gasp lap and led the race comfortably. The tyre wear concerns he’s had for the last two grands prix and in Friday practice in Spain had been cured by some work on Saturday morning, and he was slowly eking out a gap over the field when his turbocharger blew and forced him out of the race.

With a little less than two-thirds of the season still to go, Leclerc was upbeat.

“Let’s say that I feel better after this weekend than I felt after the last two weekends,” he said. “Of course there’s this issue that we’ve had on the car and I’m very disappointed, but on the other hand I think there’s plenty of positive signs other than that.

“The new package works as expected, which is not always a given, and everything was working well.

“We’ve been struggling quite a bit (with tyre management) compared to Red Bull, and today it was strong.

“In those situations I think it’s good to also look at the positives, and there are plenty today.”

On the other side of the ledger is Max Verstappen, whose fourth win of the season came despite yet more reliability issues, this time in the form of a broken DRS flap that risked costing him the race to a superbly defensive George Russell.

The Dutchman had watched Leclerc edge away from him early, and it was clear to him Ferrari had rebuilt its early-season advantage.

Fastship Phuket

“For sure they had a really strong weekend, and we definitely need to improve,” he said. “We need to be better over one-lap performance especially.

“Now it’s up to us of course to try and close that gap down again.”

Spain is just one race, and the baking-hot weather that forced most drivers to make three stops was an outlier, but the signs are strong for the Italian team.

But the realignment of power at the front didn’t stop there.

Mercedes, having wallowed in the midfield with a difficult-to-tame car, has come roaring back to life.

Upgrades at the last two rounds have helped widen the W13’s operating window, and the team has finally figured out how to run the car low to the ground without suffering the extreme and unsettling bouncing that’s held it back so far this year.

George Russell took a meritorious podium, but Lewis Hamilton’s charge from 19th after a first-lap crash all the way up to fourth strongly underlined the car’s newfound pace, even if he had to drop to fifth with cooling issues in the final laps.

“I have seen a car that reminded me of the race cars of previous (championship-winning) seasons,” Toto Wolff said ominously, promising that his team could now focus on performance rather than problem-solving.

The team is just 75 points behind RBR, and though Lewis Hamilton is 64 points behind Verstappen, Russell is only 36 points adrift.

Mercedes is within sniping distance, albeit not on the frontrunning pace yet, and Spain is just one track among many. But the reigning championship-winning team’s body language said it all in Spain.

“Can we fight for another world championship? We bet we can,” Wolff said.

Rather than clarifying the balance of power in the 2022 championship, the Spanish Grand Prix has only blown the season more widely open.

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