A Ferrari on pole is now a familiar sight. For the fourth time this year, Charles Leclerc has secured the best starting position. It fits seamlessly into the pattern that has emerged over the past few race weekends: Ferrari is over a lap faster, Red Bull has guns for the race. More specifically, those weapons consisted of higher top speed, better race pace and, not unimportantly, that pace coupled with good tire wear. Actually, Max Verstappen should have good papers, even if the race in Catalonia can’t quite be compared to what’s behind us for several reasons.
How important are start and first lap?
First of all, the Circuit de Barcelona-Cataluyna is known as a track where overtaking is difficult. Pole is usually worth its weight in gold and overtaking is only possible with a big difference at the end of the start/finish line. At least that was the picture in recent years and the key question is whether the new regulations will change anything. “Well, I think it will still be difficult,” Carlos Sainz replies when asked. “It’s kind of a scale where we’ve taken a step up. Overtaking in Barcelona was very difficult and will probably be difficult with the new cars. In Monaco it was impossible and now it’s going to be very difficult. It’s all shifting slightly. “
Sainz’s words suggest that overtaking will continue to be no easy task. It also means that the first round will be very important. Those who take matters into their own hands have the privilege of controlling the race and, above all, driving in the open air. Exactly what you want in the extremely high temperatures of this weekend. Verstappen took a lot of risks last year by launching a daring but successful attack on Lewis Hamilton in the first corner. Then as now, the Dutchman came from the dirty side of the grid, raising the question of whether he’s alluding to a similar move this time? “If you can make it into Turn 1 then of course try, but if that doesn’t work you have to hope that you have decent race pace, although I think Ferrari will be very strong in that area too.”
This means that Verstappen is very keen to strike as quickly as possible, at least if that doesn’t entail major risks in the title fight. This is all the more true as the exit of the first corner can affect tire wear. “Absolutely, that’s always the case with dirty air. When you’re driving close behind someone, your tires wear out faster.” With these words from Verstappen, it’s worth noting that this was more the case last year than under the new regulations. For example, he was able to drive behind Leclerc for a long time in Imola and Miami without killing his own tires. Tire degradation has traditionally been high in Barcelona, but the examples given suggest that it need not be the law of the Medes and Persians.
Race pace: Red Bull seemed superior but Ferrari made a move
Red Bull also had excess race pace in the examples given, but what about here? Judging by the long runs on Friday, Red Bull can go into the race with confidence. The long-term analysis of our German colleagues shows that Verstappen was in a class of its own when it came to the media at the time. His average lap time on this tire compound was four tenths faster than the Leclerc average. However, these numbers are somewhat misleading. Ferrari themselves have hinted that they found “something” in FP3 that greatly improved the long runs. That became clear on Saturday afternoon when Leclerc made a big impression with a long run on softs, as Verstappen also saw: “You can just see that they have found additional speed. Friday looked good for us but when I look at their long runs on Saturday, look, I don’t think we have an advantage anymore.” That’s entirely down to Ferrari and not because Verstappen was focusing the set-up more on that Qualifying: “No, because what works in one lap often works in the long term.”
That means Red Bull doesn’t have to have an irrevocable advantage in terms of race pace, or at least not to the extent that they have over the past few weekends. If it comes to a head-to-head race and Verstappen fails in the first corner, another aspect also plays a role: the top speed. How about that this weekend? The nuanced answer is that the differences at the measurement points on this high downforce track are less than in the previous weeks, but the pattern still persists. In other words: Ferrari wins against Red Bull in (fast) corners and traction, the latter team running faster at the end of the straights. That’s according to the following tweets, which compare Leclerc’s and Verstappen’s fastest qualifying laps.
Finally, the tweet below shows another interesting aspect: If you also include the fastest Mercedes lap in this comparison, George Russell’s car proves to be even faster on the straight than Red Bull and Ferrari. Coupled with good fast corners, this confirms what the team themselves said: suggest is finally understood, eliminating the need to compromise on ride height. It means Mercedes have something to build on and the race preview for the upcoming Grand Prix may need to include three teams…