Postcards from... Barcelona
MAX ON THE HUNT FOR RECORDS
If the season carries on like this, it's going to be easy to run out of superlatives to describe Max Verstappen. In the first seven races of 2023 alone, he's already racked up five wins (without even counting his Sprint victory in Baku), seven podiums, four poles, three fastest laps, 170 points (out of a total 190 available) and 288 laps in the lead (from the 417 that have been run). If he keeps this up, the reigning world champion is on track to break new season records, but if you look at his career statistics as a whole – and consider the fact that Max isn't even 26 years old yet – it's easy to imagine how he might be destined to break some all-time records as well. With his 40th career win in Barcelona, he's now just one win away from equalling the total number of victories claimed by the legendary Ayrton Senna, and in the 15 races that remain of 2023, he could yet overhaul the victory tally of two other greats: Alain Prost on 51, and Sebastian Vettel on 53. From what we've seen so far, it's hard to imagine Max losing five times this year, so there could be yet more scalps to claim for the Dutchman.
Only Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton have more wins – 91 and 103 respectively – but Hamilton, of course, still has the chance to add to his tally. Yet when Lewis overtook Michael Schumacher's record of outright wins less than three years ago, nobody ever imagined that someone else could come along capable of overhauling that total.
BACK TO FRONT
Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes sent out a clear message in Barcelona: nobody in Brackley is simply resigned to an era of domination from Max Verstappen and Red Bull. The Mercedes double podium in Spain – with the seven-time world champion leading home his team mate and heir apparent George Russell – came at the end of an increasingly strong weekend for the team, and confirmed not only that Toto Wolff's squad is Red Bull's strongest rival, but also that the change in technical direction is beginning to pay off. The way that both Mercedes drivers were able to stretch their opening stints on the soft was particularly impressive: Russell went to lap 25, and Hamilton managed only one less. Yes, Red Bull was still a long way off: especially in qualifying. But it's significant that in a race without safety cars or other anomalies, both Mercedes drivers managed to hold off Sergio Perez: who was armed with exactly the same lethal weapon as the all-conquering Verstappen. Not only that, but Russell actually started behind the Mexican.
THE PAIN IN SPAIN
The Spanish Grand Prix generated the sort of enthusiasm from the local crowd that hadn't been seen for years. The strong start to this season from Fernando Alonso and the keen support for Carlos Sainz attracted more than 286,000 people to the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.
But their hopes of celebrating a podium for at least one of the local heroes turned out to be in vain. Saturday's qualifying session more or less put Alonso out of the running, despite a green army of Aston Martin fans urging him on from the grandstands, his off in Q1, with subsequent damage to the floor of the car, dropped him to ninth on the grid. There would be no miracle on Sunday either and Alonso took the chequered flag in seventh place, finishing behind his team mate Lance Stroll for the first time this season.
But things were even worse for Ferrari's Spaniard, who earlier had seemed to be a realistic threat for the podium after qualifying in an excellent second place. His getaway, attacking Verstappen so hard that the Dutchman was forced to push his braking to the limit, also suggested that this could be an attacking drive – rather than a gentle slide towards the back, which was the reality. In the end, Carlos finished fifth, a good 45 seconds behind the winner. The only real satisfaction for Sainz was one he probably couldn't admit to; that of soundly beating his team mate Charles Leclerc, both in qualifying and the race. But this was scant consolation, given that Ferrari seems yet to find the sweet spot with its SF-23.
WHEN THE LABEL DOESN'T FIT
He arrived in Formula 1 at the start of 2022 with the label of being the driver who was there just to tick the China box in the landscape of contemporary elite sport. Yet Guanyou Zhou is now showing everything it takes to have reached the top on pure merit. The Spanish Grand Prix weekend provided further proof of this, when he fought his way to a resilient ninth place at a race where all 20 competitors reached the end. It was the second points finish of the season for the Alfa Romeo driver, and the fifth of his career (which has taken in 29 races so far, netting 10 points in total). Throughout the start of a somewhat complex season for the Swiss team, which has embarked on its transformation into Audi's works team, Zhou has so far scored the same number of points as his exalted team mate Valtteri Bottas. Next up is the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, where Zhou claimed the best result of his career so far last year, with eighth place.
For the second time this season, all 20 cars at the start also crossed the finish line. This happened once before, in Miami, and in total there have been 123 finishes so far this year from all the drivers combined: a sign of the incredible level of reliability that the sport has achieved, despite the technical complexity of the current cars. Of the 17 occasions when a driver failed to see the chequered flag more than 50% of the time this has been down to incidents or battle scars, with Australia (featuring seven retirements unrelated to technical problems) quite literally doing the most damage .