Here’s what to look out for in Barcelona this afternoon as the 2021 Formula 1 season continues...

Two is better than one 

It was a case of deja vu at the front at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya as Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas were the top three in qualifying yet again.

Nearly 0.7s separated Bottas in third place and Charles Leclerc in fourth highlighting the significant gap that is still there between F1’s leading two teams and the midfield.

Like it has been since Daniel Ricciardo left Red Bull at the end of 2018, Verstappen will be left to fend off the two Mercedes drivers by himself. 

Sergio Perez could only manage eighth in qualifying, nearly a second shy of his Dutch teammate. The Mexican did reveal afterwards he had been suffering from a shoulder issue, but he never looked on the pace this weekend in Barcelona.

The ideal scenario off the start for Hamilton will be a clean getaway from pole while giving Bottas the slipstream and thus the potential advantage from third to get into second.

Given Hamilton’s superior race pace across the season so far, the reigning champion leading into Turn 1 should result in a likely victory. 

Hamilton has won the last four Spanish Grands Prix and in 2021, he often has had more to show on a Sunday than a Saturday.

Even if Bottas is unable to get ahead of Verstappen into Turn 1, though it might leave the Finn slightly unhappy, he can be used as a ploy with regards to strategy. Pit early to force Verstappen in early, or keep Bottas out to interfere in another way.

We saw in Bahrain how Mercedes used Hamilton and Bottas to come out on top, and with a two-stop strategy on the cards, we could see the same again in Barcelona.

No one-stoppers?

A combination of an abrasive track surface, as well as the leading drivers’ decision to start on softs, should mean a two-stop strategy is the way to go in this afternoon’s grand prix. 

Contrary to the norm, Hamilton, Verstappen and Bottas all progressed into Q3 on the red-marked soft tyre rather than the medium, so will be obliged to start on this tyre. 

Starting high on the grid is so important given that all but three races at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya have been won from the front row of the grid.

Explaining the decision to start on softs, Bottas said maintaining ground at the start was most important: "Here, the track position is pretty important, so just didn't want to lose any ground at the race start - that's the main thing," while teammate Hamilton explained: "Especially if you do happen to get the medium in position and the car behind is on a soft, for example, and they box – [your team will] pull you in anyway. So then you don't have the benefit [of the mediums being more durable] and you've just given up extra opportunity. So that's why."

Given the leading runners will be on the softs and the hards being significantly slower, the mediums are likely to be the favoured race tyre resulting in a two-stop race.

We aren’t ruling out some of the midfield drivers attempting a one-stopper in a bid to move up the order, although Pirelli’s head honcho Mario Isola even doubts it's possible.

Any race which involves two stops tends to be more exciting than ones with just a single stop, so be sure to tune in…

Ferrari’s turn to be ‘best of the rest’?

After trailing McLaren for pace in the opening three rounds of the season, it looks like it’s Ferrari’s time to lead F1’s midfield.

Even though the track was slower at the end of qualifying, Charles Leclerc managed to nick ahead of Esteban Ocon for fourth place, continuing his impressive streak of qualifying performances - Portimao aside. 

With Carlos Sainz backing him up in sixth place, it looks like it could be a great chance for Ferrari to claw back some of the advantage McLaren has as a result of Lando Norris’ impressive form in the opening races.

McLaren holds the advantage in the opening part of the lap, in particular on the start-finish straight, but Ferrari’s performance in the low-speed corners, especially the final sector, is proving decisive and bodes well for the Monaco Grand Prix which takes place in two weeks.

Tyre management will be decisive and Sainz is unsure Ferrari has got on top of it just yet.

“We are carrying a bit of a deficit in the race, in terms of tyre management, we’re still not where we want to be,” Sainz said after qualifying. “In Portimao we struggled a lot and we saw on Friday, again, we don’t have the best of race pace or tyre degradation. But, at the same time, if we get a good start and execute the strategy well, I still think we can finish in front of the rest.”

Ferrari will be hoping to be well clear of McLaren, but don’t rule out on Alpine on race day.

Alonso magic on home soil

It was another uninspiring qualifying performance from Fernando Alonso as traffic at the end of Q3 hampered his chances.

The Spaniard lost temperature in his soft tyres and had an oversteer moment as opened up for his final lap, only good enough for tenth on the grid.

Alonso will take heart from teammate Ocon’s qualifying performance, with the Frenchman set to start the race in Barcelona from fifth on the grid, narrowly beaten by Leclerc.

We saw in last weekend’s Portuguese Grand Prix that Alonso still has the race pace, consistency and racecraft to make his way through the field, but we expect this time to be a little more tricky.

Overtaking at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is notoriously difficult and the start will be his best chance of making progress.

Unlike at Portimao, Alonso will be forced to start on the same tyre as his midfield competitors given he qualified inside the top ten and thus will be unable to make the most of a fresh set of boots in the first stint.

Regardless, we’ve seen Alonso pull off some spectacular starts during his days with Ferrari - taking the lead in 2011 from fourth and going around the outside of a couple of cars in 2013 at Turn 2/3 on Lap 1, before going onto take the victory.

Alonso is likely to fare better in race trim than he did in qualifying so don’t rule him out of a decent points haul.

 

 

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