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2022 Spanish GP: The Red Bull controversy

The Formula 1 2022 Spanish GP was a major success for Red Bull. Max Verstappen regained the 1st position at the World Drivers’ Championship, while Sergio PĂ©rez managed to obtain a second position. The race had some major controversy for the Austrian team, so let’s take a look at what happened.

Disclaimer

Normally I stick 100% to the data without offering my opinion at all. The objective of this blog has always been to be a source of objective, unbiased data analysis. While this will continue to be the main goal of this blog, I am a person with an opinion too (yes, really!), so I’ve decided to write some data-based opinion articles. I will still do my best to be as objective as possible though, so if you’re looking for a big rant, then it may be a better idea to look for that somewhere else.

The situation

Red Bull used team orders to allow Max Verstappen to overtake Sergio PĂ©rez on different occasions. The final team order allowed Verstappen to take the leading position of the race and claim his 4th victory of the season.

I’ve decided to divide this analysis into 3 separate incidents. I believe these 3 situations will show why there was any controversy in the first place.

How to read the charts

This time the charts are quite easy to read

  1. The x-axis shows the lap.
  2. The y-axis shows the lap time of a driver during that lap.
  3. The number inside the dots shows the driver’s position at the time. A 1 means a driver was in first place, a 2 in second, and so on.
  4. The points are coloured depending on the driver.
    1. The stroke—or outline of the points—shows which tire was each driver using during that particular lap.

Incident #1

The situation was as follows:

  1. Verstappen was in second position until lap 9 when he spun out of control and regained the track behind George Russell and Checo PĂ©rez.
  2. Checo and Russell were in a battle for 3rd, and then 2nd place after Verstappen’s mistake.
  3. Red Bull instructed Checo to let Verstappen through during lap 11.

Let’s take a closer look at the data to visualize the situation.

Verstappen lost 2 positions after his spin, and by the end of lap 9 found himself being 8 tenths behind Sergio. The Mexican attempted to overtake George on two separate occasions—laps 10 and 11, both times at T1—but was unsuccessful in doing so. Red Bull gave the order to PĂ©rez to give the position to Max to see if he could overtake the Mercedes-Benz driver. Verstappen couldn’t get closer, and he and Russell both pitted at the end of lap 12 (beginning of lap 13).

After Verstappen spun out and rejoined the race behind his teammate, PĂ©rez had 2 opportunities to attack Russell before Red Bull allowed Verstappen to go through.

Incident #2

The situation was as follows:

  1. Checo stopped for new tires on lap 17, unlike Max and George who stopped on lap 13. All three drivers put on a set of medium tires.
  2. Verstappen had attempted to overtake Russell since lap 15 but was unable to.
    1. Verstappen had an intermittent DRS malfunction which prevented him from consistently activating the DRS at the main straight.
  3. Checo was quickly closing the gap to both Max and George, having a pace advantage of around 7 tenths per lap.
    1. Checo closed the gap and joined the back of the train by the end of lap 24.
  4. On lap 26, Checo asked the team to move Max out of the way to take advantage of the fresher tires. PĂ©rez insisted by the end of lap 26, asking why the team didn’t let him get by. He mentioned that he had “very fresh tires” and that he could overtake Russell quickly.
  5. Red Bull allowed Max to attack Russell until the end of lap 28 when Verstappen stopped for fresher tires.
  6. Checo overtook Russell at T1 during the beginning of lap 31.

Once again, let’s use a chart to visualize the situation.

It’s quite clear to see that PĂ©rez’s fresher tires allowed him to be faster than Max and George. After Verstappen left the battle, Checo needed 3 opportunities to overtake the Englishman (T1 on laps 29, 30, and the beginning of lap 31 when he got the job done).

By the time Checo joined the fight, at the end of lap 24/beginning of lap 25, Verstappen then was allowed to attack George 4 times—into T1 of laps 25, 26, 27 and 28—before stopping for new tires. Checo wasn’t that close by the end of lap 24, so perhaps it’s a better idea to say that the team allowed Max to attack 3 times while having his teammate a little bit over a second behind him.

The team did not instruct Max Verstappen to give the position to Checo.

Incident #3

The situation was as follows:

  1. Sergio was leading the race after stopping for a new set of medium tires at the 37th lap of the Grand Prix.
  2. Verstappen stopped for a set of medium tires several laps later, on lap 44.
  3. Verstappen was closing the gap to Checo and had a superior race pace. Before catching up to Checo, he was lapping around 1 second per lap faster than the Mexican.
  4. Red Bull instructed Checo to allow Verstappen to overtake during lap 49.

You guessed it. Let’s use a chart to visualize the situation.

I think this is the incident most people are talking about since PĂ©rez complained that the instruction was “very unfair”. In my opinion, this third incident is not necessarily the reason Checo was angry. It is clear that Verstappen was on a different strategy and that he was lapping much faster than the Mexican by the point he caught up to him. I believe that even without team instructions, Max had enough speed to overtake Sergio for the leading position fo the race.

So what was the issue?

As I’ve said, I don’t think that Sergio was necessarily that angry at allowing Verstappen to overtake during the 49th lap of the Grand Prix. I do think the main problem was that Checo was instructed twice to let Verstappen through—on laps 11 and 49—while the team didn’t instruct Verstappen to let Checo through when he was faster on laps 25 to 28.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner talked about the first and third incidents mentioned here but didn’t mention the second incident when RB didn’t allow Checo to overtake Max. For me, this is the reason for his discontent.

I am quite sure that Sergio wasn’t happy to lose the lead of the race, but it was clear that Max was faster at the time. I believe that his mention of the team instruction being “unfair” was actually referring to the lack of consistency of the team when giving team orders to the drivers. PĂ©rez was told to move out of the way 2 times when Max was faster, but Max wasn’t instructed to give the position to a faster Checo on lap 25.

My take

I believe that the team did the decision they thought was safer when they told Checo to give the position to Max on lap 49. I don’t think Max needed the team’s help to overtake Checo since he was on much faster tires, but the team clearly didn’t want to take any risks.

I also think that the team made the right decision to ask Checo to allow Verstappen to go by when they were fighting Russell during lap 11. Max was faster at the beginning of the race and was in 4th position only because he made a costly mistake during the 9th lap of the race. PĂ©rez had been attempting to overtake George for several laps, but it was clear that the Mercedes driver was not going to easily give the position to the Mexican. Giving Max an opportunity to attack seems like a logical decision to me.

I don’t think that Red Bull made the right decision during laps 25 to 28. Sergio was much faster than Max and lost several seconds waiting for his opportunity to attack Russell. Max was clearly struggling with the DRS malfunction, and his pace wasn’t as strong as Checo’s due to his older tires. Verstappen already had very damaged tires from following Russell for 13 laps at the time of the pit stop. Even if he had managed to overtake Russell, his pace would’ve been less than ideal, and most likely would’ve had to stop for new tires soon after. Not allowing Checo to overtake cost the Mexican, and didn’t give any advantage to Max.

Obviously, it is easy to make conclusions in retrospect, while the teams are making decisions in real-time, but that’s the way life works.

Final remarks

At the end of the day, Red Bull was highly successful during the 2022 Spanish GP. A 1-2 result, with Max regaining the first position of the World Drivers’ Championship and Checo taking valuable points home.

I do think, however, that Checo had every right to feel mistreated. Why? Not because of the decision to let Max overtake at the end of the race, but because of the lack of consistency when giving team orders to both drivers. I can only speculate, but I am of the opinion that Checo would’ve been OK with letting Max go on lap 49 if he had been allowed to overtake Max on lap 26.

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