In the end, history was made. Not the history we thought, though. Before lights out, the Spanish crowd and watching world were all expecting Mercedes to equal McLaren Honda’s record of 11 consecutive race wins – a record that dates back to 1988.
But after 66 enthralling and acton packed laps around the Circuit de Catalunya, 18 year old Max Verstappen produced a masterclass drive on his Red Bull debut to become the youngest ever winner in Formula 1, as the two Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg came to blows and ended their races before Turn 4.
Even before the weekend, the drama started to unfold. After two incidents in two races, Danill Kvyat was relegated back to the Toro Rosso outfit, as Verstappen made the step up under the watchful eye of Helmut Marko. It proved to be a masterstroke, with the Dutchman beating team mate Daniel Ricciardo in every session except Qualifying 3.
On Saturday, Qualifying threw up surprises – albeit not as many as the race. All eyes were on Verstappen as he looked to impress on his senior team debut, and he did – missing out on a top 3 spot by four tenths to team mate Daniel Ricciardo, who provided the nearest threat to the indomitable Mercedes. Hamilton pulled out all the stops after ruining his first attempt by locking up at Turn 10 to blow Rosberg out of the water. Additionally, in a nice change of pace (pun intended), one of the home favourites, Fernando Alonso made it into Q3 – the first time a McLaren has managed that feat since the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix of 2014.
After the lights transformed to green, Rosberg immediately attacked Hamilton, sweeping round the outside of Turn 1 to inherit the lead. But, after struggling through Turn 3, the Briton closed the gap on the German, before trying an optimistic pass up the inside for Turn 4. Rosberg edged over, leaving Hamilton on the grass, and he lost control, spinning and clattering into Rosberg eliminating the both of them on the spot.
After a potentially heated and fractious meeting in-race, Toto Wolff refused to spread any blame on either driver, saying : “We’ve looked at the pictures and the data, and it’s not clear cut. Let’s wait see what the stewards say.”
Also, according to Wolff, Niki Lauda held nothing back and pointed his finger at Hamilton.
Not only did the incident blow Mercedes’ hopes of winning every race of 2016 (to the relief of many on the pit wall), but it also meant that there was effectively a Red Bull 1-2-3, with Ricciardo leading Verstappen and the other Spaniard, Carlos Sainz, who had made a blistering start.
After a sub par qualifying performance, the two Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen had a chance to make up ground on the German constructor. The two dispatched of Sainz, thanks to their 2016 Ferrari engine, compared to the 2015 spec power unit and the use of DRS.
However, no such problems for Ricciardo or Verstappen, who built up a comfortable lead before their first stops. Ricciardo rejoined the field in 3rd place, behind the Haas of Romain Grosjean, who hindered the Australian’s charge on fresh tyres. After waiting a lap longer, Verstappen rejoined in clear space.
Both the Red Bulls eased past Grosjean for 2nd and 3rd, as Vettel tried his best to scamper away at the front. But it was to no avail, he appeared in 3rd after his stop.
One of the biggest turning points (of many) in the race came just before the halfway mark. Red Bull and Ferrari decided to bring in Ricciardo and Vettel and put them on the quicker softer tyres. Both Verstappen and Raikkonen opted for the mediums. It proved to be vital, both of the latter drivers could stretch their tyres until the end,the former had too many miles to cover to make that a possibility.
Mercedes’ miserable afternoon was compounded by Nico Hulkenberg’s customer Mercedes engine in his Force India giving up and catching fire on lap 22.
After enduring a quiet but solid race, Alonso’s Honda power unit lost power on lap 47. He was running in the points and his frustration was clear for everyone to see, as he threw his gloves on the floor.
Back at the sharp end, the four way battle for the victory was getting closer. Calculations made on lap 59 showed that if Vettel and Ricciardo maintained their pace, they would be within touching distance of the scrapping Verstappen and Raikkonen. Ricciardo wasn’t content with speculation though, trying a lunging move up the inside of Vettel, but he was unable to make it stick, running wide and surrendering the place back to Vettel. The German was all but pleased, wondering what he’s done to spark the ire of the Red Bull clan.
With two laps to go, Ricciardo’s luck ran out. A puncture curtailed his charge for the lead. With his tyres running out of grip and rubber, Raikkonen dropped back and out of the DRS range to Verstappen, leaving the Dutchman to complete his near faultless drive – only locking up once into Turn 13 on the penultimate lap. He showed supreme confidence and maturity beyond his tender age to withstand the pressure over 66 laps, with millions of beady eyes watching his every turn of the wheel and stab of the brakes.
He becomes the youngest ever winner of a Grand Prix, at just 18 years and 227 days old – a record that may stand for quite some time, given the Super Licence changes, prompted by his entry to Formula 1 in 2015.
It will certainly be a race that no one will forget easily. Even if it’s for the wrong reasons for a few.
Driver of the Day: Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
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