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Formula 1 Spanish GP

Is Barcelona still F1's best car performance litmus test track?

Some drivers have questioned whether the Spanish GP venue is still the best test of Formula 1 car performance. So, is it?

Race start - Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20 Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W15, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-24

Race start - Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20 Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W15, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-24

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Home Formula 1 heroes Carlos Sainz and Fernando Alonso sparked an intriguing debate at Barcelona last weekend around the context of Red Bull's near-defeat to McLaren: Does the venue still provide the ultimate test of car performance?

Thanks to its old position as a regular pre-season test venue, its place on the calendar consistently for the last 33 years, and regular hosting of non-F1 race events plus other categories, the teams and drivers know this place extremely well.

It's why Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton warned "You have to take it [the results] with a pinch of salt" after finishing on the podium last Sunday, evoking the Barcelona false dawns Mercedes' has endured here the last two seasons. The teams just have so much data for this circuit.

Plus, the track features lots of different corner types. This forces the teams to trade efficiencies in car handling around them, as well as severely testing the drivers on tyre management.

But there are significant differences these days. For a start, the much-derided low-speed chicane was removed ahead of the 2023 race here. Then, there's how there are now eight street - or semi-permanent - tracks on the F1 calendar, which require very different set-ups around the adoption of the new ground effect cars in 2022.

"Barcelona used to be a track where everyone used to say, 'if you're quick around Barcelona, then you're quick around everywhere'," Sainz said in last weekend's pre-event press conference.

"I think now Formula 1 has changed a lot because there's actually a lot more tracks like Monaco and Canada than there are like Barcelona.

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24

Photo by: Ferrari

"Because of how many street circuits they've added with the kerbs, bumpy layouts – the Monacos, the Singapores, the Canadas. Baku, Vegas, Mexico – there are so many tracks that are not like Barcelona anymore, while before, I think there used to be a lot of Barcelonas, a lot of European style of tracks.

"I don't think it's anymore the case that Barcelona is dictating the rest of the year.

"I do think if you have a good car around Barcelona, normally it means you have a good car around Silverstone, around maybe Hungary or Spa. But your good car in Barcelona for sure doesn't mean that you're going to be quick in Baku."

Alonso added: "As Carlos said, in Barcelona now is a track that can help to understand or to guess what is going to happen in another four or five tracks in the championship, but there are many other types of circuits that maybe Barcelona is not so interesting anymore."

In terms of the split between 'normal' aerodynamics-testing tracks, there are 14 on the 2024 calendar and 10 street-style courses (including the kerb-riding and maximum downforce oddities of Imola and Mexico).

This works out at a 60:40 split. In 2004, this was 80:20.

Stacked against the point raised by Sainz and Alonso is how Red Bull – the victor here for three years in a row now – has only really lost one race (Singapore 2023) to circumstances fully in its own control since last season began.

Its downforce-packed, excellent mechanically riding machines of the current era may not like the bumps and kerbs of street courses, but these simply move it closer to the opposition.

"Of course, more and more street circuits are coming but it does show that if you're quick here, your car in general is still good," Red Bull's Max Verstappen explained.

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR24, Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR24

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR24, Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR24

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

"But you always have these few odd tracks on the calendar where your car might not be good or whatever."

The suggestion that being good at Barcelona is a clear indication of success at the coming rounds in Austria, Britain, Hungary, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy is also not so clear cut. This too is an argument put forward by Red Bull – that actually, each of these venues has a certain extreme quality of its own.

"This place [is] relatively high speed, [requires] aerodynamic sensitivity," explained the team's chief engineer, Paul Monaghan.

"Then we go 1000m above sea level for three straights, three low speed, three high speed corners, or quickish corners [at the Red Bull Ring] and then with Silverstone, where large chunks of it are flat out.

"So, each track presents its own challenge. I think if we do our jobs diligently, and well, then we can have a competitive car.

"What other people do? We can't influence the car control, and we're judged relative to them.

"So, Hungary again, we're back up on maximum downforce. And a week later, we're in Spa [which requires] the skinniest rear wing will have run this year, other than perhaps somewhere like Jeddah.

"So [these are] normal races, [but] we're shuffling the downforce around, changing the cooling – going from minimum downforce prior to Monza to the maximum.

"Yeah, OK, if they're all similar tracks and maybe I'm naive, but we can have some fun."

There are background factors to consider in terms of Barcelona's previous status now being questioned – such as Madrid's looming presence on the F1 calendar from 2026 and sources saying Alonso does not get along with the Barcelona track's management, which is fighting hard to keep this circuit on the schedule post-2025.

But in one sense, Sainz and Alonso are completely correct in what they say.

By removing the last sector chicane, Barcelona's new/old configuration just doesn't provide as complete a test of F1 car performance.

It used to be that the team doing best in that complex was predicted to go on and dominate at Monaco – with the caveat that the race was later in the 2024 calendar and will be again next year.

This is no longer the case, but Barcelona still tests F1 cars considerably and the best of the season so far – consistently over all track types since McLaren updated the MCL38 – led the way.

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