Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Circuit de Catalunya, 2021

Did ‘benchmark Barcelona’ reveal how close F1’s title fight will be?

Lap time watch: 2021 Spanish Grand Prix

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The Circuit de Catalunya has long been considered Formula 1’s “benchmark” track.

Go well here, the theory goes, and you can bank on being competitive pretty much everywhere. A look back at last year’s lap times indicates that is broadly true, though of course teams make different amounts of progress during a season.

Alpine will certainly be hoping the ‘benchmark Barcelona’ theory holds true. Last year (as Renault) they were seventh-quickest at this track, which was actually slightly below their average position last season. Today they were the fourth-quickest team, and Esteban Ocon reckons they were potentially third-quickest.

Having begun the season disappointingly in Bahrain and Imola, but rallied at Algarve, the team’s executive director Marcin Budkowski drew comfort from today’s result.

“Barcelona, not only it’s a benchmark in Formula 1 in terms of where your car is, it’s also a circuit that wasn’t really our favourite in the last few years,” he said. “And we were particularly poor here last year.

“So it’s a combination of happiness, of having confirmed and a bit of relief that actually the gains we’re seeing are actually there and we are making the progress we thought we were making.”

If Barcelona really is F1’s benchmark, then it bodes well for the title fight. For the second year running Red Bull were the closest threat to Mercedes, but they’ve slashed their deficit at this circuit to almost nothing. Lewis Hamilton beat Max Verstappen to pole position by just three hundredths of a second.

“Our first front row start in Barcelona for 10 years and Max was once again so close to pole,” CEO Christian Horner reflected. “Being on the front row is very encouraging and there are a lot of positives to take from today.

There’s little to choose between the top two teams
“Last year we were 0.7s off pole and this year Max has completed an almost identical lap time to Lewis, so it’s great progress.”

Not everyone, however, is persuaded that what we saw in qualifying today will be reflected over the rest of the season. Mercedes CEO Toto Wolff is “not sure this is still the case” that Barcelona is a benchmark track for the season ahead.

“You can say there is a straight, there’s chicanes, there are fast corners and slow corners… it’s pretty much everywhere,” he said. “So I don’t think this is the representative track for the season.”

If Barcelona alone doesn’t show the full picture, after four races we can begin to draw some broader conclusions about the pace of the cars. Here too, the figures are encouraging for those hoping to see a season-long scrap for the title.

While Mercedes have averaged 0.1% off the fastest pace, Red Bull are fractionally behind on 0.19%. Will this two-team title fight go all the way? The chances look better than at any previous point in F1’s V6 hybrid turbo era.

Quotes: Dieter Rencken

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2021 Spanish Grand Prix

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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12 comments on “Did ‘benchmark Barcelona’ reveal how close F1’s title fight will be?”

  1. I know Toto eenglish, he no so good.

    What he meant to say was: “not sure this is still the case, it doesn’t suit the whole “hunted” narrative we’ve been selling to you fools”.

  2. Race pace is the benchmark.
    Lewis and Mercedes are just playing with their prey.

    1. Agree race pace is more important at most tracks, maybe you can get away with better qualifying speed and less race pace in monaco and singapore, monaco 2019 was a good example because verstappen wasn’t able to get on the front raw, think 3 tenths behind or something, so couldn’t overtake anyone at start, then in the end tried to pass hamilton for the win after bottas’ puncture, but wasn’t able to despite superior race pace.

  3. Just my not-so-expert opinion: Barcelona used to be representative of the average track in the 1990s and early 2000s, but after the calendar has been almost completely changed, that is no longer the case. Most modern tracks are simply designed with different types of corners (i.e. mainly slow corners) than what can be found at Barcelona.

  4. Toto is telling us again that this is not an indication of mercedes pace. And they don’t think they have the fastest car.

    After 7 or 8 years at the front of F1 you have to admire his consistency. Maybe one day he’ll convince us that his team really are the underdogs.

    1. @napierrailton I can’t imagine how fast they would be if they someday will be the top dogs.

  5. Mercedes has the strongest car on Sunday. Even in Bahrain, after qualifying 3 tens off Verstappen’s pace, Lewis was as quick as Max during the race.
    At Imola, the last stint showed that Mercedes was the fastest car and in Portimao Lewis was clearly the fastest.
    Also, we cannot forget that on Sunday, it is always 1 Red Bull vs 2 Mercedes, which makes things even harder for Max. I also think that in over the course of the season, Red Bull will suffer in terms of reliability vs Mercedes.
    The fight for the title is an Everest’s hike for Max. Imho.

    1. No no, Mercedes has only been faster because of the superior drivers, and Red Bull slower because of their inferior drivers. This really becomes evident on the hard tyres in races. In reality Red Bull has the fastest car. You just have to look at select free practice times.

      About reliability it’s of course also a lot to with the drivers. There’s for example general agreement Hamilton would never have accidentally hit debris and ruin his race like Bottas in Imola last year, or go for a setup which risked overheating in any way. Same for strategy. One would think it had a lot to do with having both drivers in the front to be able to go for undercuts for example, but in reality it’s mostly to do with driver skill and here Verstappen is just lacking.

      1. would never have accidentally hit debris and ruin his race

        Yeah, he would never. In fact his race was not ruined, not a position lost in the end, 2nd to 2nd. An opportune red flag can work wonders, even when you are a lap down and your car is severely damaged.

      2. If it’s not sarcastic, this sounds like a silly comment, select practice times matter more than anything? Red bull having inferior drivers is also an imagined scenario, you can argue verstappen vs hamilton, you can’t argue bottas vs verstappen, I think perez and bottas are being equally bad this year, if red bull was such a superior car, maybe perez would be well clear of the midfield.

  6. The trend is your friend. I don’t think it’s possible to single out one circuit anymore (if it ever was).
    Too many variables, especially tyres and temperatures “odd” tracks to say that if you’re car is working here it’s working everywhere.

  7. petebaldwin (@)
    9th May 2021, 10:10

    I’d have to say “no” primarily because it hasn’t happened yet.

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