BARCELONA, Spain -- The Spanish Grand Prix hit the reset button on Formula One's 2022 championship. After six rounds, just six points separate Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc at the top of the championship and there is next to no margin between the performance of the Red Bull and Ferrari on track. Meanwhile, Mercedes has finally started to unlock the potential of its car, introducing the prospect of three teams fighting for wins in the coming races.
The reliability issues that cost Verstappen 36 points earlier in the season were partly cancelled out by Leclerc losing 25 points to his own issues on Sunday. Ferrari, which has enjoyed strong reliability up until this point of the season, finally showed some mechanical weakness, although it should be noted that Verstappen's Red Bull remains a temperamental beast, with the Drag Reduction System (DRS) on the rear wing refusing to obey his commands while fighting for position with George Russell's Mercedes.
Leclerc's shortened race leaves unanswered questions hanging over the true performance difference between Ferrari and Red Bull, but up until lap 27 he looked like he had the race firmly in control as Verstappen had to battle back from an uncharacteristic mistake. The upshot is a championship that is incredibly difficult to call between the top two, combined with the added spice of Russell and teammate Lewis Hamilton entering the battle.
A new championship leader but still no clear favourite
Verstappen's victory in Spain means he has won every race he's finished this season. The two times he hasn't secured victory -- in Bahrain and Australia -- his car's reliability let him down, making it easy to draw the assumption that he's verging on being unbeatable this year.
But as impressive as Verstappen's win record in 2022 is, it only tells a fraction of the story. At the two events where Verstappen retired, he did so from second place after being outperformed by Leclerc. What's more, his most recent win in Barcelona was anything but easy and would have been a second place finish had Leclerc's car not failed him on lap 27.
After lagging behind Red Bull in Imola and Miami, Ferrari brought a significant upgrade to its car in Barcelona. The new package, which is based around an upgraded floor design, was Ferrari's first major attempt at extracting more performance from the car since the start of preseason testing.
Rivals Red Bull have been adding new parts since the start of the season, but Ferrari have taken a more staggered approach to upgrades hoping to extract a big step in performance from each one. In Friday practice it looked as though Ferrari may have not made have found the performance it had hoped for, with both drivers struggling with excessive tyre degradation, but by Saturday the team had honed its car setup to the new parts and unlocked a small but significant edge over Red Bull.
Reflecting on the race on Sunday evening, Leclerc was convinced he would have won the race had he not encountered reliability issues.
"With the laps I have done, honestly everything was going really, really well," he said. "I think it would have been difficult for them to catch back up because there would have been quite a bit of a gap and we had very good degradation on the soft tyres and we could do quite a few more laps compared to them. So, overall, I think we had this race under control."
However, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner believes it may have been closer had the race played out, owing to the tyre degradation experienced on Carlos Sainz's Ferrari towards the end of the race and the fact Leclerc looked committed to a two-stop strategy whereas Verstappen found an advantage over teammate Sergio Perez from his three-stop approach.
"I think if you look at the degradation that Carlos has in the second half of the race, I think we actually faired very well," Horner said. "I think it's a shame we didn't get to see that race between Charles and Max today, because I think it would have been very close.
"And maybe the three-stop would have worked better versus the two that they adopted. I think the cars are still very closely matched."
But that ignores the fact that Sainz was struggling with car damage after his mistake earlier in the race, which will not have helped his tyre management or his performance. It also ignores the more significant fact that Verstappen was struggling to overtake rival cars due to a problem with his DRS, which kept him bottled behind Russell's Mercedes for 18 laps and meant Red Bull had to ask teammate Perez to let him by to win the race.
Despite the obvious disappointment of going home without any points after securing pole position and leading the first 27 laps of the race, Leclerc was upbeat about the overall progress Ferrari made in Spain.
"Let's say that I feel better after this weekend than after the last two weekends," he said. "Of course there is this issue on the car and I am very disappointed, but on the other hand I think there are plenty of positive signs throughout the whole weekend. "Our qualifying pace, the new package worked as expected, which is not always a given, and everything was working well with our race pace and tyre management. On tyre management at the last two races we have been struggling quite a bit compared to Red Bull and today it was strong.
"So in those situations I think it is good to also look at the positives and there are plenty today."
In theory, Ferrari should also hold an advantage at the next round in Monaco. Ever since the first test, the Italian team has held an edge over its rivals in slow-speed corners and the lack of long straights, on which Verstappen has often benefitted from the lower-drag aero package of his Red Bull, means Ferrari should stretch its advantage over its rivals.
Has Mercedes joined the battle at the front?
Complicating the battle between Ferrari and Red Bull is a resurgent Mercedes. From the start of the season the world champions were confident they had a car with the potential to fight for victories, but the W13's tendency to bounce on its suspension when the floor of the car was forced into the track surface - a phenomenon dubbed 'porpoising' as it made cars replicate the motion of a porpoise moving through water -- at high speed meant that potential remained locked away.
In order to stop the bouncing, which in extreme cases was damaging the car and in any case was making it incredibly difficult to drive, Mercedes had to lift the ride height at the rear. In doing so it traded off downforce and performance, and for the first five races the potential the team had seen in its simulations back at the factory remained unobtainable.
In Spain, updates to the floor were introduced to help ease the bouncing and Mercedes was able to hit upon a setup that allowed it to tap into the true performance of the car. Russell qualified 0.6 off Charles Leclerc on Saturday, but Mercedes' engineers believe there is just a 0.3s deficit per lap in race performance.
Hamilton's performance was particularly impressive as he fought back from 19th after an early puncture to fifth place (having briefly held fourth before a water leak and concerns about overheating forced him to back off). At times, Hamilton was the fastest driver on track as Mercedes adapted his strategy to allow him to return to the track after each pit stop with a clear road in front of him. If you minus the 40 seconds he lost on the opening lap from his race time, he would have been in the running for second place alongside Perez and ahead of teammate Russell.
After the race Toto Wolff said the car looked like a championship winner, but took the opportunity to clarify those remarks when he spoke to the media later in the evening.
"What I meant to say is that I've seen a race car today that reminded me of the race cars of previous seasons, where you're 30 plus seconds behind the whole field, and you come all the way to the front and near the podium," Wolff said. "And that is very encouraging and shows that we've made another step.
"Can we fight for a world championship? Well, we bet we can. But we just need to have a car that is able to finish first and second. And I think we have reasons to believe that we can get there, but also if you look at the odds they are against us.
"Motor racing is a different ballgame. We've seen today that Ferrari didn't score a lot of points although they should have. We are absolutely pushing flat out in order to bring us back into the game."
Now that the bouncing issues are better understood, Mercedes hopes it can focus on adding performance. Finding 0.3s in the wind tunnel is a very achievable objective according to sources within the team, but the tricky thing will be transferring that to the track without triggering the bouncing again.
"I think we are literally learning as we go along," Wolff said. "These regulations have caught us off guard in a way, and step by step we are understanding what we need to do in order to bring the performance back into the car.
"We've seen another big step this weekend, probably we have halved the disadvantage to the front runners. But still there is there is a long way to go in order to be right up there in the fight.
"With Lewis we had probably the fastest race car today. He was 50 seconds behind at the end, and he caught all the way up, and at stages in the race he was the quickest, and that shows the potential that the car has."
Having a situation where Russell and Hamilton are both in the fight for victories will force both Leclerc and Verstappen to up their games significantly. What's more, Russell's gap of 36 points to Verstappen will start to look much smaller if the reliability issues on the Red Bull and Ferrari persist and Russell can challenge for wins.
At 64 points, Hamilton's gap looks much harder to close than his teammates, but spread across 16 races it only equates to four points per race. The 2022 championship is only just getting started.