Against All Odds, The Spanish Grand Prix Wasn’t Boring
3:37 PM EDT on May 23, 2022
I do occasionally consume discourse on publicly aired morality plays, which means that this Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix was made for my engagement, if not enjoyment. The Spanish GP is usually boring for a lot of reasons, but the extremely hot weather and dramatics preceding the race fed into a recurring question, at least for the feral-raccoon-type watchers out there: Who is the bad car friend? Is it Aston Martin for plagiarizing? Magnussen or Hamilton for colliding? Red Bull for team-ordering Sergio Peréz into submission?
Solid entertainment! Considering that the past four races in Barcelona have merely shuffled around the same top-three finishers—Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas, and Max Verstappen—ever since I became reasonably self-actualized, this was a veritable coup.
Aston Martin (the car team formerly known as Racing Point) kicked off the weekend with its second plagiarism scandal in three years, this time shunning the Pink Mercedes in favor of a Green Bull. The B-version of the AMR22 was unveiled on Friday, and Red Bull was immediately unhappy. Aston Martin said that the car had already been in development before the Red Bull car reveal, and that they were surprised to see the Red Bull look so similar. (The FIA conducted an investigation, wherein Aston Martin was able to prove that the B-version was in the wind tunnels back in November.)
Former head Red Bull aerodynamicist Dan Fallows officially started at Aston Martin on April 2, as one of a few Red Bull staffers who switched over. Red Bull team boss Christian Horner didn't seem too pleased about the overlap, though he should be familiar with the concept as the new in-house engine development program, Red Bull Powertrains, is overflowing with former Mercedes engineers. In more delightfully snipey news, Red Bull also pulled up on Friday with a green edition of Red Bull sitting on their pit wall.
Does it help or damn Aston Martin more that their performance this weekend was glaringly lackluster, with both drivers out in Q1 and failing to make it into the points? Probably both. On one hand, it doesn't bode well for their understanding of the car if they rolled out upgrades that did very little for them. Plagiarism never wins. On the other hand, the whole scandal becomes more forgettable if the upgrades didn't actually do anything, in spite of Sebastian Vettel's efforts to dodge the psychoanalytical “old man has lost his will, passion” accusations by nearly dragging the car into the points.
Vettel spent a decent portion of the race holding hands with Lewis Hamilton in the middle of the pack, despite Vettel starting 16th on the grid and Hamilton starting sixth. Hamilton was down there thanks to a first-lap kerfuffle with Kevin Magnussen that gave both drivers punctures, and put them about half a minute behind the rest of the pack.
Magnussen said over the radio immediately following the collision that Hamilton "knew what he was doing." From the onboards, Magnussen is never fully alongside Hamilton, which tends to be the FIA's first judgment in situations like these. Regardless, Magnussen has half a track's width of space on the outside, and Hamilton might to have enough room as long as he makes the apex. It does not happen. Hamilton understeers the barest bit and they touch. The angle Magnussen takes is over-optimistic enough that they may have touched even if Hamilton hadn't understeered into him, but we will never know. The insinuation that Hamilton bumped Magnussen intentionally when he and the fancy new Mercedes package had no reason to collide with a Haas is definitely incorrect, particularly as Hamilton enters the corner on the racing line. (Magnussen later admitted that his radio message was said in the heat of the moment.) First-lap racing incident but also mostly Magnussen's fault, is probably the correct verdict here.
Hamilton had a stellar recovery drive and would have finished fourth. Unfortunately, as Hamilton cannot buy a piece of good luck this season, cooling issues in the Mercedes car required both drivers to lift and coast or else risk a DNF, and Hamilton was easily passed by Sainz in the closing laps of the race.
But one of the greatest driver vs. car rivalries these past few seasons has to be Charles Leclerc vs. the Ferrari. There was a very speedy 2019 car that became embroiled in an illegal engine scandal, then a rather awful 2020 and middling 2021 in the wake of the undisclosed illegal engine punishment. Thanks to pole position, a great start, a windy Turn 4, and George Russell giving Max Verstappen conniptions over his broken DRS for many laps on end, Leclerc had a race win tidily laid out for him before the power unit suddenly gave.
Fortunately for Leclerc, next week's race will be a return home to Monaco, which is allegedly a country. And if we check Leclerc's historical results in Monaco—oh no. The poor man.
As soon as Leclerc left, there was nothing except Red Bull reliability that could keep either Verstappen or Sergio Peréz from a race victory, despite Russell's best efforts. That left room for only one last drama: teammate drama, the best kind of drama.
It's no Hamilton-Rosberg or, to use a Red Bull example, Vettel-Webber, but while Verstappen was trapped behind Russell and smashing the DRS button 50 times out of frustration, Peréz finished a pit stop and radioed for the team to order Verstappen to let him through so he, armed with a functioning DRS, could easily pass by Russell. At this point, the team had already ordered Peréz to let Verstappen pass once, and being let through was probably Peréz's opportunity for receiving some karmic justice. Red Bull told Peréz that they were on different strategies, and did not pull the trigger.
However, after both drivers made it past the great George Russell wall and had a 1-2 locked up, bar the unspeakable (Red Bull reliability), Red Bull did pull the trigger on having Peréz let Verstappen by yet again. Verstappen would likely have passed Peréz eventually, and Red Bull saved themselves having the drivers risk their cars and engines by racing one another. Unfortunately, that is also the boring decision, especially as Peréz did not pull a Delightfully Evil 2013 Sebastian Vettel and actually listened to the instructions. Peréz was also unhappy, hitting Red Bull with the "I'm happy for the team, but we need to speak later." Being a "great teammate" is probably the F1 equivalent of being a "great locker room guy" in terms of compliments that you're not sure you're actually happy receiving.
The fun thing about Barcelona and morality plays in general is that the by-the-book legality of the situation is irrelevant to the question. So who is the bad car friend? Lawrence Stroll, Kevin Magnussen, and the Ferrari engine, probably. And Helmut Marko. It's always Helmut Marko, somehow.