Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Circuit de Catalunya, 2023

No room for error behind flying Verstappen but threat of rain-hit qualifying rises

2023 Spanish Grand Prix Friday practice analysis

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Considering it was the 19th official day of track action in the 2023 Formula 1 season, Friday at the Spanish Grand Prix felt a lot like a pre-season test day in many respects.

Whether it was the countless new parts on the cars, the sight of Fernando Alonso lining up at the end of the pit lane sporting large aero rakes either side of his Aston Martin, the prototype Pirelli tyres drivers ran in both sessions or the revised final sector to get familiar with, it was a day of discovery for teams and drivers around a track they otherwise know better than any other.

But despite what teams learned about both the circuit and their cars from the two hours of running, there is one thing Friday revealed which would have surprised no one – that Red Bull and Max Verstappen remain the car-driver combination to beat this weekend.

The world champion was not just the only driver in the field to creep under the 1’14 barrier, he now holds the honour of setting the fastest ever lap of the Circuit de Catalunya with an average speed of 226.841km/h. While that is ultimately a meaningless statistic given how many iterations of the Barcelona circuit there have been over the years, it does mean that Spanish Grand Prix has gone from an average circuit in terms of lap speed to being firmly in the top half of the fastest tracks on the calendar.

Lance Stroll, Aston Martin, Circuit de Catalunya, 2023
Gallery: 2023 Spanish Grand Prix practice in pictures
That difference can be seen in the data. On his fastest lap of the day, Verstappen crossed the timing line at 296kph and touched 324kph before hitting the brakes for turn one. To compare that to Charles Leclerc’s pole-winning lap in Barcelona last season, Verstappen was 10kph faster at the start of the lap and 6kph faster before lifting off at the end of the straight. And that margin will likely grow tomorrow if conditions allow – but more on that later.

The removal of the chicane also suits Red Bull down to a tee. It’s telling that Verstappen and Red Bull team mate Sergio Perez set the second and third-fastest final sector times of the second practice session, showing the speed that the RB19 has through the final two right-handers. And with both also in the top three positions through the speed trap just before the braking zone for turn one, it’s little surprise the championship leader was happy.

“Overall, I think we had a very good day,” said Verstappen after practice. “The car was in a good window. Of course you try to fine tune a few things here and there, but short-run, long-run, everything looked quite good.”

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After a miserable Monaco, Perez knows he needs a good weekend in Spain to avoid falling into hole in his drivers’ championship bid. However, Perez ended Friday having been beaten on the stopwatch by not only Verstappen, but also by Alonso and even the Haas of Nico Hulkenberg too. But Perez said his focus had been on the team’s shiny new parts for their all-conquering RB19, rather than on out-pacing Verstappen.

“Today was a good day, there is plenty of information for us to look at overnight,” he insisted. “All-in-all, I think there were lots of positives to take but we have to turn up a gear for qualifying.”

And he will have to make sure he picks up the pace on Saturday as the competition behind Verstappen and the Red Bull looks especially fierce. On ultimate pace, the gap between Alonso in second and Pierre Gasly’s tenth-fastest time was just 0.493 with an average separation of just six-hundredths of a second between those positions.

Ferrari made the smallest year-on-year gain – more to come?
While Alonso was closest to Verstappen, his Aston Martin team mate Lance Stroll was 16 places and nearly a full second slower in 18th. Stroll was clearly not as comfortable with his car’s balance around his quickest push lap of the second session, braking momentarily to keep the car steady around the fast kink of turn nine and then again into the final corner – something Alonso did not need to do at either turn on his best lap. Stroll admitted his car “wasn’t quite where I wanted it” and will need to find a solution to avoid having a third poor Saturday in succession.

Although Hulkenberg was an impressive third for Haas, he was cautious about his chances of being near the top five in qualifying, assessing that it was more a case of the bigger teams under-performing than of him and Haas over-achieving.

One of those teams was likely Mercedes, who finally got to discover how their major revisions to their W14 from the Monaco Grand Prix last weekend performed around a ‘proper’ race track. The result was eighth for George Russell and 11th for Lewis Hamilton – and a performance that team trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin described as “quite familiar” to the team.

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“Single-lap [pace] needs a bit of work and long run looks okay,” Shovlin concluded. “We’ve got a good idea of what the limitations are in terms of balance and hopefully by the morning, we’ll have come up with a few solutions to those.”

Another team which is likely yet to show its hand is Ferrari. Qualifying pace has been the SF-23’s strength, and tomorrow may reveal whether any of that has been sacrificed through their major car update which is aimed at making it more benign over a race distance.

Changes at the end of the lap may cause traffic problems
For years, Barcelona has had an earned reputation for being a ‘Noah’s ark’ circuit, where the grid often sorts itself roughly into the performance order of the ten teams with rows of team mates lining up alongside each other. That may not be the case this Saturday with the field so close, but there are other factors that could come into play.

First is the typical issue of traffic. Last year, the slow speed chicane offered more opportunity for drivers to get out of the way of rivals as they prepared for their push laps. But now closing speeds will be dramatically higher. That could lead to some nervous moments not too dissimilar to those regularly seen at the Red Bull Ring which shares similarities at the end of the lap to Catalunya. Expect penalties to be handed out to any offenders.

The second area of concern is track limits – especially out of the final corner. In Formula 2, pole winner Oliver Bearman came within just centimetres of falling outside the white lines on the exit of the final corner on his pole lap and losing his position. With cars rounding that final corner faster than ever before, keeping momentum onto the straight will be crucial and that will likely lead to close calls with the white lines.

Finally, the risk of rain is growing. The latest forecasts have revised the chance of rain during the qualifying upwards, from 40% to 60%. If it does come, that will only offer more opportunities for drivers in midfield teams to get in the mix with those typically ahead of them in the order. And if that happens, that would throw the grid and likely the race itself wide open.

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Combined practice times

PositionNumberDriverTeamFP1 timeFP2 timeGapLaps
11Max VerstappenRed Bull-Honda RBPT1’14.6061’13.90764
214Fernando AlonsoAston Martin-Mercedes1’15.5471’14.0770.17053
327Nico HulkenbergHaas-Ferrari1’16.4611’14.1770.27059
411Sergio PerezRed Bull-Honda RBPT1’15.3741’14.2190.31261
531Esteban OconAlpine-Renault1’15.4181’14.2420.33557
616Charles LeclercFerrari1’15.6941’14.2460.33959
755Carlos Sainz JnrFerrari1’15.7261’14.2740.36758
863George RussellMercedes1’15.7531’14.3920.48562
977Valtteri BottasAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’15.9781’14.4480.54155
1010Pierre GaslyAlpine-Renault1’15.5451’14.4570.55055
1144Lewis HamiltonMercedes1’15.8451’14.5490.64259
1281Oscar PiastriMcLaren-Mercedes1’16.3531’14.5830.67655
1324Zhou GuanyuAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’15.9061’14.5850.67852
144Lando NorrisMcLaren-Mercedes1’15.7831’14.6940.78754
1520Kevin MagnussenHaas-Ferrari1’15.6891’14.7130.80645
1621Nyck de VriesAlphaTauri-Honda RBPT1’15.5041’14.7850.87860
1722Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauri-Honda RBPT1’15.9151’14.8400.93361
1818Lance StrollAston Martin-Mercedes1’15.9391’15.0101.10355
1923Alexander AlbonWilliams-Mercedes1’16.6301’15.0561.14959
202Logan SargeantWilliams-Mercedes1’16.5061’15.4151.50862

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Teams’ progress vs 2022

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2023 Spanish Grand Prix

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    Author information

    Will Wood
    Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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    2 comments on “No room for error behind flying Verstappen but threat of rain-hit qualifying rises”

    1. A year ago we had the same problem… where is the ‘burger’ menu for this weekend’s race? Usually we have a drop down menu and all the info for the particular race weekend. Annoying needing to sift through pages to find relevant articles @keithcollantine

    2. Max mightn’t have been the only driver getting below 1m14s, but he’s the only one below 1m13s, which is even more note-worthy, but a few others will get there too.
      As for the lap-end, yes, traffic indeed could be a similar issue to Red Bull Ring, but track limit-wise, the penultimate corner exit more so than the last because most corner exits, including the last, have gravel beside curbing or otherwise close to the edge, while the penultimate corner exit has a bigger gap between gravel & track edges, so that part could prove track limits issues, which I noted in the FRECA races two weeks ago.

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