Verstappen, master of tyre strategy, Mercedes wants to blister again

Room five months after the winter test weeks, during which the new cars made their first appearance, Formula 1 is back in Catalonia. The sixth grand prix of the season is scheduled on a circuit that holds no secrets for any Formula 1 driver. And certainly not for Max Verstappen. “I think I’ve done about a million laps here.”

Verstappen booked his first Formula 1 victory in Catalonia in May 2016, but he doesn’t really have a special bond with the circuit. “It’s a nice track, but we drive a lot of nice circuits every season. There are great memories here, but it’s not like I keep thinking about that victory when I arrive here.”

The Formula 1 calendar thrown upside down by corona means that the Spanish grand prix is now being driven in the middle of summer. The burning heat can play into the hands of Verstappen – just like last week in England. “Every team suffers from the high temperature. Normally we race here in May. The tyres are getting tougher now and you have less grip.”

Four days after his sensational victory on the soaring hot Silverstone, the British grand prix for Verstappen is already a closed book. “I’m happy to be second in the World Championship standings, but I still have to go one step higher,” the 22-year-old driver says.

“Little has changed. We have to get even faster. Our car is getting better, but it’s small steps. The car is on the move in warm conditions, especially when Pirelli chooses the soft tyres. That helps us a lot.”

Thorough

Verstappen won at Silverstone because he kept tyre wear within limits. “Mercedes had a lot of blisters, I didn’t. That was decisive. You can’t push with blisters.”

The team management overloaded Max with compliments for ‘managing’ his tires. A matter of experience, says Verstappen. “I’ve been getting better at it. You have to know when to push and when not to push.”

Stepping out regards his victory as a team effort. “Great and unexpected. So you see what you can accomplish if you put your shoulders to it and continue endlessly. At first I thought Mercedes took it easy and didn’t show the back of its tongue”, reconstructs Verstappen.

“I was waiting for Mercedes to punch a hole, but it didn’t. They couldn’t drive at their normal pace. After that it was pretty easy to control the race.”

Hamilton on three wheels

“I hope that Hamilton and Bottas get blisters again here,” says Verstappen, who Mercedes still considers to be the team to beat. “Barcelona is very different from Silverstone. What’s more, we’re driving with the same, harder tyres as during the first race weekend in England.”

The first of the two races in England was won by Hamilton at the beginning of this month, but the world champion then crawled through the eye of the needle. A blowout in the last lap almost necked him. On three wheels Hamilton bumped over the finish line, just before the approaching Verstappen. Team mate Bottas wasn’t so lucky. A flat tire in the closing stages of the race ruined his race

Verstappen thinks those blowouts were a one-time thing for Hamilton and Bottas. “Silverstone is very heavy for the front left tire. You almost always see blow-outs there. I don’t expect Mercedes to see that again.”

This does not alter the fact that Verstappen will be back on the tick rope next weekend in Barcelona. “Just assume that Mercedes will start from the front row again. I have to keep the hole with Hamilton and Bottas as small as possible and take advantage if that’s not the case.”

FIA wants to ban party mode

By the way, there is a windfall in the air for Verstappen: the FIA motor sport federation wants to make the qualification (which determines the starting position) more exciting by banning the so-called ‘party mode’.

This means that teams are not allowed to increase their engine power during qualification. Mercedes has been making a furore for years with a virtually unbeatable engine setting that allows the pace to be temporarily and firmly increased.

“It won’t close the gap between us and Mercedes, but it might make a difference. It would be good for us. Nothing wrong with that, but we have to be faster ourselves”, Verstappen responds

The fact that the measure is implemented during the season is not strange, according to Verstappen. “We’ve been through it before. When Red Bull won almost everything years ago, the FIA also intervened to reduce dominance. I think it happened during the Schumacher years at Ferrari as well, only I was too small to understand that.”