After what seemed like an endless string of street circuits and semi-permanent venues monopolising the opening part of the 2023 calendar, Formula 1 went back to basics at Barcelona.
Under its previous configuration, the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya had been extensively mined for data amid thousands of miles in testing down the years, but a reversion to the classic layout offered a slightly refreshed challenge for the 10 teams on the grid.
That's not to say that it didn't serve up an altogether familiar result and, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, Max Verstappen rocked up and blitzed the rest of the field with minimal competition over the 66-lap race distance.
But as frequent gig-goers will attest, it's not uncommon to see the support acts outclass the main headliner, and there were lots of battles up and down the order as recovery missions and surprise presences in the points pockmarked the unfolding narrative of the grand prix. If by some strange coincidence you were in the hunt for 10 of them, then you're in luck: here's the Spanish Grand Prix's key points of interest.
Verstappen took his 40th F1 grand prix victory at the weekend and is now just one behind Ayrton Senna career tally
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
When George Russell suggested at the start of the season that Red Bull could win every race in 2023, most probably expected it to be an exercise in melodrama and that a genuine second threat will out eventually. But, to paraphrase James Hunt's commentary from the 1982 Monaco Grand Prix: we're waiting for a different winner to come past, and we don't seem to be getting one.
Although Aston Martin's fortunes have rapidly improved this year, Fernando Alonso's best shot in the early season came and went in Monaco. Charles Leclerc couldn't convert pole into victory in Baku, and Mercedes has only now got its car at the baseline level it probably aimed for at the start of 2022.
That Verstappen could afford to make a few mistakes, skirt the lines of a track limits penalty, and still cruise to victory at Barcelona was a colossal hammer blow to every other team on the grid. The circuit was always going to expose Red Bull's advantage, as it's always been a circuit that prioritises car performance over driving prowess, but the difference between the drivers of the RB19 was laid even barer.
Sure, Sergio Perez was out of position on the grid, but a podium really should have been in the offing given the machinery he had at his disposal. Russell started one place behind the Mexican, but a rapid start lifted the Mercedes driver up into seventh by the end of the first lap - Perez was still languishing on the cusp of the points at that juncture. Would Verstappen have secured a podium - or even a win - from 11th on the grid? Probably.
The last two races have simply shown that Perez's title aspirations are nothing more than a pipe dream.
Mercedes recorded a double podium to confirm its resurgence
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
Every magician deals in misdirection. The sidepods drew the eye, but the real magic was happening underneath as changes to the floor and the suspension finally gave Mercedes some semblance of direction with the contemporary set of F1 regulations.
In of themselves, the new upgrades are not the silver bullet to suddenly spark a dramatic turnaround in Mercedes' fortunes. They're the first step on a road that the team hopes will deliver it back to the top of F1; there'll be more pain and more torment on the way, but there's now a clear and defined route to the team's goal.
Crucially, none of these changes have appeared to have stripped the team of the positives already embedded within the W14. Barcelona proved to be a study of which teams were struggling most with tyre degradation, and that Mercedes was able to make the soft tyres last without a comprehensive drop-off in performance was testament to its mastery in that particular area. In a season where it has vacillated wildly between being the second-fastest and the fourth-fastest team, it appears that now the updates are bedded in, it has stamped a clear advantage over Ferrari. Provisionally, it holds an advantage over Aston Martin as well, depending on how the green cars deal with the next array of circuits.
It remains to be seen where Mercedes can go from here, but it's an encouraging start to life after a change in concept.
F1 returned to its old layout in the final sector
Photo by: FIA
Anyone who claimed to like driving the final sector chicane at the Barcelona circuit is either lying, or in the pocket of Big Chicane. Either way, every fan tuned into the Spanish Grand Prix since 2007 has had to endure cars clumsily climbing over the slow and ponderous chicane. It's great for testing purposes, and offers a slightly unscientific method of determining which cars are likely to shine at the slow corners of a street circuit, but as a spectacle, it was ungainly at best.
It was even worse last year. The big, bulky ground effect cars of the common era looked particularly out of place in 2022's grand prix, losing all aero performance on the high kerbs, and so F1 saw fit to undo the damage done 15 years ago.
Of course, it didn't come consequence-free. The pole time was slashed by 6.5s as the corners were much faster, and offered a challenge much more befitting of the current cars - although its tendency to reward the potency of the underbody aero arguably created much larger gulfs in performance between the haves and have-nots.Read Also:Albon: losing chicane that “ruined” Spain will improve racing
As the left-hand tyres were clinging onto the furthest edges of the circuit, the faster turns were dumping plenty of energy through the Pirelli rubber to jack up the tyre degradation. Two-stop strategies were required at an absolute minimum, creating plenty of strategic variation up and down the field as 12 drivers ended up running all three compounds throughout the race. The Haas duo were the most afflicted by degradation, forcing them into a three-stopper to simply get to the end, while the Red Bulls and Mercedes cars coped admirably with the escalating loads.
With a closer field spread, future races have the potential to get very interesting indeed, particularly as varying degradation levels allowed for drivers to get close in those final two corners.
Ferrari is starting to slip behind in fourth in the F1 standings as its woes continued
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Carlos Sainz starred in qualifying at his home race to hurl his Ferrari SF-23 onto the front row alongside Verstappen. A nibble or two at the Dutchman at the start hinted that the Spaniard could give his ex-team-mate a run for his money, but the challenge soon faded as Sainz's descent through the order began.
The Ferrari was overcome by the two Mercedes and Perez by the end, with barely a whimper. Further down the order, Charles Leclerc endured a miserable qualifying and was mired in the midfield throughout, his progress stalling out through the first round of pitstops.
"The main issue is the consistency," reckoned team principal Fred Vasseur, who pointed at wildly varying stints through the grand prix as the key culprit. "Charles's car for example, between the first and third stint with the same compound, the first one the balance was out of the place, and the last one was okay-ish. And Carlos he did a decent first stint, a good last stint, and in the middle he lost 15 or 20 seconds on the competitors.
"It's very difficult to understand and to fix it, because it's not always the same, not always the same problem. I don't think that it was tyre deg. It could become tyre deg if you push more. But it's not the main issue."Read Also:Ferrari struggling to understand consistency issue with F1 car
Regardless, it mounts even more pressure on Ferrari to patch up its weak spots. The team's efforts in 2022, particularly at the start of the year when Leclerc was winning races, feels like a very long time ago.
Aston Martin's weaknesses exposed it to its rivals at the front in Spain
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"There's going to be a few weekends in the year that we will just be seventh and eighth, and we have to accept that," Fernando Alonso mused after finishing second in Monaco. A week later, his prediction was more or less proven right; Aston Martin simply didn't have the package to battle with the other three frontrunning teams at the Barcelona circuit, although Leclerc's omission from the points meant that things weren't as 'bad' as eighth.
Alonso's Turn 10 error in qualifying ensured that he only started eighth, three spots behind team-mate Lance Stroll, but the two had converged on sixth and seventh by the end. Stroll's lap in qualifying showed that, although the Aston showed its traditional advantage of mid-range acceleration and strong traction, there were few opportunities to exploit that around the Barcelona track with the removal of the chicane.
The team also seemed to struggle with the soft tyres; although it helped Stroll's excellent early launch that got him ahead of Lewis Hamilton at the start, the decision to go for two soft stints in a bid to try and clear traffic didn't pay off. The cars only really came alive on the respective hard-tyre stints at the end but, by then, the AMR23s were some way off making any further dent on the points.
“There is a small disappointment about our pace, especially in the first stint on the soft tyres," team principal Mike Krack reckoned. “Compared to some of our direct competitors, we didn't have the pace, honestly. And we need to really understand why, because the gap was quite substantial at the beginning. Some cars were just driving through us more or less. And we need to understand that.”
Russell was sweating over a rain shower during the Spanish GP...
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images
After reporting drops of rain at Turn 5 during the race, Russell inadvertently raised the hopes of everyone who hoped that inclement weather would inject excitement into proceedings as it had a week prior in Monaco. After all, the swirling clouds over the Montmelo region were looming large - surely, the rain was about to fall in dramatic fashion.
It wasn't quite on the same level as weather clairvoyant Michael Fish's misguided no-storm prediction in 1987, but Russell had to backtrack on his report a few laps later when it became apparent that raindrops were nothing more than mere droplets of sweat from his brow.Read Also:Russell explains Spanish GP sweat and rain confusion
It puts one in mind of the extent to which Nico Rosberg went to derive any advantage during his tempestuous battle for supremacy with Lewis Hamilton; the German took to wearing a sanitary towel under his balaclava to wick any sweat from his head, ensuring that he was under less discomfort and that his vision could not be impaired by perspiration. Perhaps it's a leaf that Russell could take out of Rosberg's book.
And if Russell starts to report snowfall during the race, a bottle of Head & Shoulders wouldn't go amiss...
After a tricky start to the season, Alpine has hit its stride
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images
In retrospect, it might have been fitting to award Esteban Ocon a 10 in last week's driver ratings, following his heroic drive to third place. Whichever way you slice it, he had a fantastic weekend in Monaco, but the jury was still out on the efficacy of the new Alpine upgrades given the unique nature of the circuit.
Thankfully, Barcelona offered a clearer picture - and the prognosis was good. Pierre Gasly's march to fourth in qualifying was impressive, although a penalty for impeding over the course of the Saturday session rather took the shine off. It probably did for him in the race as well, and a poor start forced him into having to recover the damage. Ocon had a great race once again; although he couldn't match the Monaco magic, and nor would one expect that to be the case at the Barcelona circuit, he battled hard for the best-of-the-rest honours and collected a hard-earned eighth-place finish.
After a messy and error-strewn opening to the season, Alpine has finally pulled clear of the bottom half of the field and looks to have already cemented its place as the fifth-best team of the season. There's a long way to go just yet, but three consecutive double-points finishes suggest that the team has now tapped into a vein of consistency, and it will hope that it continues to offer more over the coming rounds.
There's still a bit of a discrepancy between qualifying and race pace, and it's the latter that Alpine needs to iron out. The A523 car now appears to be a much more concerted step in the right direction - but does it have enough potential to bridge the gap to the top four teams?
Zhou starred in Spain for Alfa Rome to do his future prospects a world of good
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
"I think so. I would say that's definitely at one or two," Zhou Guanyu enthused when asked if the Spanish Grand Prix was his best F1 race to date. It's hard to disagree, as the Chinese driver's swashbuckling antics earned him a well-worked ninth place on a day where he made the most of the Alfa Romeo's turn of pace at the Catalonian circuit.
During the weekend, Zhou had made team-mate Valtteri Bottas look somewhat average. The Finn's travails come with the slight caveat that he was nursing floor damage, which he reckoned cost him a second a lap, but this takes none of the shine off Zhou's performance.
Zhou's battle with Yuki Tsunoda was one of the more interesting parts of the race, and the two coalesced at Turn 1 where Zhou took evasive action at the run-off. Tsunoda was right to feel slightly aggrieved by the five-second penalty that he copped for not quite leaving enough space, particularly as it cost him points, but it was certainly to Zhou's benefit as he tacked on another two points to Alfa Romeo's 2023 tally. This brings the team level with Haas in the constructors' standings.
Since joining Alfa Romeo, Zhou has had to contend with the consistent pressure of Sauber Academy driver Theo Pourchaire looming over him as a potential future driver - but the Shanghai-born driver has surely earned his stripes enough to secure a third year at the team, as Pourchaire continues to make heavy weather of a consistent F2 title challenge.
Norris couldn't profit from his stunning qualifying display
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Lando Norris was very surprised with the lap in Q3 that led him to third on the grid. "Everyone keeps saying, ‘Oh wow, the car is improving so much,’ but really it's not changed that much at all. It just suited these conditions," he mused afterwards, explaining that he didn't expect to be battling the Big Four when it came to the race.
Through circumstance, that was very quickly proven right. Norris reckoned that he had to check up slightly in Turn 2 when the cars ahead bunched up but, having barely offered much defence against Hamilton on the run to the first corner, found himself tagging his front wing against the Mercedes. The endplate was broken, lodged in his front suspension, and thus prompted Norris to retreat to the pits for a new one. His hopes of a sneaky point had effectively ended there and then.
Oscar Piastri made it into the top 10 too during qualifying but was quickly shuffled out of the points-paying positions and drawn into upper-midfield scraps for nothing more than pride. For want of a better term, McLaren was nothing more than a one-hit wonder in qualifying.Read Also:Norris didn't expect F1 points in Spain even before Hamilton clashNorris feared Q1 exit before "shock" third in Spanish GP qualifying
"The pace was as expected today which was bad. I don't think we expected anything else really. Our aim was to maybe finish in the points, but we weren't expecting anything like yesterday," Norris explained afterwards.
"Some good teams struggled a lot and some of the worse teams did a better job so [Saturday] was just an odd day, people making a lot of mistakes and we just capitalised on that. Apart from that, we've been off the pace all season, struggling to finish in the points in half the races. And today was just that again."
Steiner took an unwanted trip to the stewards for his comments in Monaco
Photo by: FIA Pool
When Guenther Steiner let rip at the Monaco Grand Prix stewards for lumbering Nico Hulkenberg with a penalty, following contact with Logan Sargeant at the start, he probably hadn't expected to receive a summons. It was hardly a Steiner-special expletive-laden tirade; the Italian stated that "every professional sport has got professionals being referees and stuff like this. F1 is one of the biggest sports in the world, and we still have laymen deciding on the fate of people who invest millions in their careers. And it's always a discussion because there's no consistency. I think we need to step it up."
Damning criticism, but it was at least largely constructive. The FIA took offence, however, and called Steiner to the stewards' room for a discussion. He escaped with a reprimand, arguing that he had referred to the stewards as "laymen" in its official dictionary term of someone not having specialised knowledge.
Following the reprimand, Steiner stood by his argument, feeling that Hulkenberg's punishment was unnecessarily harsh. However, he apologised for his language and stated that he had not meant to cause offence, and "that my use of certain words could have been open to misinterpretation or misunderstood by some people."
But perhaps it was Steiner's reputation as a put-upon, sweary team boss that saved him from any further punishment; the stewards noted that "Mr Steiner stated that if he had meant to insult or offend anyone, he would have used much different words. The Stewards do not dispute this."
Steiner apologised for his choice of words when criticising the stewards
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images2023-06-05T14:45:04Z dg43tfdfdgfd