Don't let Mercedes' qualifying pace put you off the Spanish Grand Prix

The grid for the Spanish Grand Prix looks very familiar at the front, with two Mercedes cars starting alongside each other.

But with another two-stop race in store on Sunday, as we had a week ago at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix, and Max Verstappen waiting on the second row ready to pounce on any opportunities, the race might not be as predictable as a cursory glance at qualifying results might suggest.

A race worth tuning in to

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As was the case a week ago at Silverstone, the Red Bull appears to have much better race pace than single-lap pace. During Friday practice in Barcelona, Verstappen's average lap times on heavy fuel were faster than Lewis Hamilton on both the soft and medium compounds.

The margins were pretty small (0.05 seconds on the softs and 0.2 seconds on the medium) and Mercedes often hides its pace by running very conservative engine modes, but if Verstappen can put pressure on the Mercedes on Sunday, he might just force an error.

Unfortunately for Red Bull, there are no signs that Mercedes will suffer from the blistering tyres that ruined their chances of victory in Silverstone. But tyre wear is once again a concern, especially on the front left, meaning anybody attempting a one-stop will have to do some careful tyre management.

The other problem with a one-stop is that it requires a long stint on the hard tyre, which is over a second per lap slower than the medium compound. That could open up the opportunity for an aggressive two-stop race for anyone looking to mix things up, and Red Bull have never been shy about trying something different.

Speaking on Saturday evening, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff went as far as saying Verstappen is the favourite for victory.

"We don't expect the blistering issues that we saw at Silverstone, but nevertheless there will be more degradation and overheating," Wolff said. "I believe that Red Bull masters those conditions very well. Nevertheless, the work that has been done during the week and yesterday was good and I think we have improved, which is most important and I hope we can give Max a run for his money. But definitely Max needs to be seen as the favourite based on yesterday's long runs."

More pit stops leaves more potential for mistakes, undercuts and overtaking as drivers end up on different ages and compounds of tyres. So while Saturday's timesheets looked all-too-familiar, the race could still be something special.

Vettel still searching for answers

Ferrari fitted a new chassis to Sebastian Vettel's car ahead of this weekend in a bid to find an answer to his struggle for form at Silverstone. That search looks set to continue after the German driver was eliminated from Q2 for the third time in six attempts this year.

He was just 0.003 seconds off a spot in Q3, with McLaren's Lando Norris just edging him out to 10th position in the middle session, so you could argue there are signs of improvement, but the four-time world champion admitted he is still struggling to get a handle on his car.

Speaking after the session, he said: "It's up and down to be honest, there's still some things I can't really put an answer to, but I'm trying to do everything I can and ignore all the things that might not be right and do the best that I can -- that's all I can do at the moment."

A small consolation for Vettel is that the gap to Ferrari teammate Charles Leclerc does not look so big this week, with the Monaco native set to line up two places higher on the grid, in ninth.

Perez back on form

It must have felt like a long few weeks for Sergio Perez, who was forced to miss the two Silverstone races due to positive COVID-19 tests. The Mexican driver came back with a bang on Saturday, putting his Racing Point on the second row of the grid for Sunday and outqualifying teammate Lance Stroll in the process.

Perez might be wondering if he might have had a shot at a podium at one of the two races he missed, but he's not convinced he will be in that fight unless he can move past Verstappen or either Mercedes early on.

"In terms of pace we don't quite have the pace to beat the Red Bull, especially the Mercedes," he said after qualifying. "Who knows if we're able to get ahead on Lap 1, who will know?"

What's with all the traffic?

Anyone who watched qualifying will have seen how slowly drivers were going at the end of their "warm-up" lap, the one from the pit lane to the start-finish line ahead of a qualifying attempt. This process saw a lot of slow-moving cars in the final sector, waiting for their turn to hit the throttle and power away.

Red Bull's Alex Albon, who overtook some slow-moving rivals through the final corner to get the gap he wanted, explained what the mindset is behind that tactic.

"It's just trying to get some clear space," he said. "Everyone wants tries to slow up because everyone wants to try and get a 5-second gap when you start the lap, but you've heard of this whirlpool effect, because you don't want to be the first car because there's this circulation of air going through.

"So you always gain about a tenth of two-tenths down straight just because you're in that stream of air. So you don't want to be first, but at the same time you don't want to be stuck. ... I was watching, it looked crazy, some of the stopping at the end. I didn't want to do the same thing as Hungary basically. I thought, 'If it comes to it, I'm going to overtake these cars in front,' it's important to."

On the moment he overtook other cars, he said: "We have this kind of gentleman's agreement where we don't try to overtake each other just before we start a lap, so I kind of wanted to do it early. Some guys were overtaking right into the final corner, which looked a bit sketchy! On another night, we all have these tyre blanket rules now and just the way the tyres are, we have to drive so slowly on an out lap. In two ways, we have to drive so slowly and our cool-down laps are insanely slow, it just creates issues.

"If we had a more forgiving tyre where we could just go out and push and not worry so much about not being in the one or two degrees of the operating window, you wouldn't have these issues."