More passing? Multiple stops? Rain? Only the winner seems not in doubt

2023 Spanish Grand Prix pre-race analysis

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After Red Bull’s rivals invested many hundreds of thousands of working hours developing their upgrades packages in pursuit of the RB19, Max Verstappen took little more than 72 seconds to destroy their hopes.

Verstappen’s untouchable pole lap in Barcelona was, by any metric, the most dominant of the six that Red Bull have taken in the 2023 season so far. Almost four-tenths of a second advantage for a car whose greatest strength lies in race pace rather than single lap performance is ominous, but knowing that Verstappen would likely have gone even quicker had he not been told to abandon his run to save his tyres means that margin could easily have been over half a second.

Now, Verstappen once again enters a race day knowing the one car in the field that could offer the greatest challenge to him starts much further back on the grid.

Last Sunday, around the unforgiving streets of Monaco, it was much easier to make a compelling case for Verstappen to face genuine competition for the race win that at the Circuit de Catalunya. The Red Bull remains the class of the field and Verstappen is in imperious form, so the prospects of him being beaten for pure race pace over 66 laps without a major mishap or stroke of misfortune seems smaller than it has since Bahrain.

“Overall, the whole weekend, it has been really enjoyable to drive the car,” Verstappen said after taking his fourth pole of the season. “It was really hooked up.”

Lance Stroll, Aston Martin, Circuit de Catalunya, 2023
Gallery: 2023 Spanish Grand Prix qualifying in pictures
Barcelona is the first race at a permanent circuit since the season-opener in Bahrain – a race where Verstappen took pole, held the lead into turn one and dominated the rest of the race, able to control his pace and stay well within his limits until the chequered flag. Assuming he successfully retains the lead over the longest run to turn one on the calendar on Sunday, it could be a simple afternoon for the world champion.

But behind Verstappen, the battle that threatens to erupt over the final podium places should give fans every reason for excitement.

Remarkably, the top seven places on the grid are all occupied by seven different teams. Less than half a second covered Carlos Sainz Jnr in second to Nico Hulkenberg, who will line up seventh for Sunday’s race courtesy of Pierre Gasly’s double penalty promoting him and five others. All six drivers lining up behind Verstappen have every reason to be targeting solid points at a minimum and even a podium at best – with second-placed Sainz expecting the competition to be fierce among that group in the race.

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“Now it looks like the midfield is really starting to close up with us,” Sainz said. “You have the likes of the Alpines, even the Haas, Lando [Norris] with the McLarens are appearing and joining us in that fight for second or third best. Obviously Red Bull are in a league of their own but then everyone else – it looks like it’s really, really tight out there.”

Carlos Sainz Jr, Ferrari, Circuit de Catalunya, 2023
Sainz grabbed a place on the front row at home
Norris has spent most of the early phase of the 2023 season fairly pessimistic about the performance of his McLaren and not even qualifying in the top three could seem to spark some optimism in him. Asked how confident he was heading into the race, he bluntly replied “not very”.

“You never know, the pace could be mega and I could catch Max and overtake him,” he continued. “We’ll do our best for tomorrow but the aim is just to get some good points for both myself and for Oscar [Piastri].”

With the field so close, the prospect of a DRS train becomes high. And that makes the revised final sector all the more critical as cars head onto the pit straight and its long DRS zone at much higher speeds than previously. Sixth place starter Esteban Ocon believes the increased speed in the final corner should not hamper overtaking too much.

“I don’t think it’s as bad as we thought,” he said. “I overtook Sergio [Perez] in FP2 in turn one – he’s usually very quick on the straights, so we will see.”

However, Lance Stroll – who will start directly ahead of Ocon – is less sure than the Alpine driver, feeling it could be more difficult to follow onto the main straight.

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“I think a little bit,” he said. “Naturally it’s more difficult to follow a car at high-speed corners. I think it’s going to be tricky to overtake, but I think tyre deg and strategy is going to be very important.”

Lando Norris, McLaren, Circuit de Catalunya, 2023
Norris claimed a surprise third on the grid for McLaren
The intense closeness of the cars in the top 10 was undoubtedly influenced by some major players not getting into the positions they would have been expecting towards the session. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was the most striking, eliminated in 19th with an apparent anomaly on his car, while Sergio Perez and George Russell also failed to reach the top ten.

Even Fernando Alonso, who did make the cut, will start only from eighth place after suffering what team principal Mike Krack called “significant floor damage” from a trip across the gravel early in Q1. Alonso suffered a “big loss of downforce” and reaching Q3 was “a remarkable achievement” under the circumstances, Krack stressed.

Perez needs to make progress through the field to limit the damage Verstappen can do further to his championship ambitions. And with the pace of the Red Bull, even Sainz and Norris expect Perez to easily catch them before the chequered flag.

“I think it will be still tough to get [a podium], especially Checo coming from P11 with a Red Bull,” Sainz said in the press conference after qualifying. “As soon as I get back to the engineers, I think they will tell me that the simulation suggests that the Red Bull should still finish ahead of us and then it will be a fight with Lando and Mercedes, the Astons.”

While Perez has work to do from 11th, Leclerc has far more as he qualified from the back row and will surely end up starting from the pits once Ferrari identify and fix whatever caused his SF-23 to become mysteriously incompatible with left-handers.

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As Hamilton showed last season, it is possible to fight through the field in Barcelona if you have the race pace to do it, but Leclerc knows he has a grind ahead of him. “It’s going to be an uphill weekend, to be honest,” Leclerc mused. “But on the other hand, it’s a track where I think we will see quite a few stops. Degradation is going to be a big thing tomorrow, so if we do a good job on that, we’ve got our chances.”

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Circuit de Catalunya, 2023
Expect Leclerc to line up in the pits
Leclerc is not alone in expecting tyre management to play a key role in the outcome of the race. Despite bringing their second-hardest combination of tyres to Spain for this weekend, Pirelli expect teams to opt for at least two stops over the course of the race as wear becomes more prominent than in recent races.

“I think the strategy will be towards the two stops, on the paper it’s the fastest one,” said Pirelli’s chief engineer. “Probably using the C3 at the start because it gives you an important extra grip. You’ve seen today quite a big gap, big delta with the C2, we are around one, 1.2 seconds per lap, and turn one is quite far from the start finish line so you can gain some position with extra grip. Then probably they will manage the first stint and they will try to do two stints with the hard compounds.”

But for the second weekend in a row, strategy could become entirely moot if rain comes into play. Once again, teams will be keeping one eye firmly on the clouds forming in the horizon as teams head back to the Catalunya circuit on Sunday with a 60% chance of stormy weather hitting the circuit in the lead up to the lights going out, with current forecasts showing the risk only subsides once the race is nearing its scheduled end. That said, forecasts can change – as they did for qualifying on Saturday.

If it does rain, then it will be the first time since the famed 1996 Spanish Grand Prix that a race at Barcelona has been wet. And with the field so tight at the front, many big names fighting to make their way up the order and teams lower down eager to take advantage of any opportunity that comes their way to score points, a little water could be the perfect ingredient to make this a particularly spicy Sunday in Spain.

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Qualifying times in full

PositionNumberDriverTeamQ1 timeQ2 time (vs Q1)Q3 time (vs Q2)
11Max VerstappenRed Bull-Honda RBPT1’13.6151’12.760 (-0.855s)1’12.272 (-0.488s)
255Carlos Sainz JnrFerrari1’13.4111’12.790 (-0.621s)1’12.734 (-0.056s)
34Lando NorrisMcLaren-Mercedes1’13.2951’12.776 (-0.519s)1’12.792 (+0.016s)
410Pierre GaslyAlpine-Renault1’13.4711’13.186 (-0.285s)1’12.816 (-0.370s)
544Lewis HamiltonMercedes1’12.9371’12.999 (+0.062s)1’12.818 (-0.181s)
618Lance StrollAston Martin-Mercedes1’13.7661’13.082 (-0.684s)1’12.994 (-0.088s)
731Esteban OconAlpine-Renault1’13.4331’13.001 (-0.432s)1’13.083 (+0.082s)
827Nico HulkenbergHaas-Ferrari1’13.4201’13.283 (-0.137s)1’13.229 (-0.054s)
914Fernando AlonsoAston Martin-Mercedes1’13.7471’13.098 (-0.649s)1’13.507 (+0.409s)
1081Oscar PiastriMcLaren-Mercedes1’13.6911’13.059 (-0.632s)1’13.682 (+0.623s)
1111Sergio PerezRed Bull-Honda RBPT1’13.8741’13.334 (-0.540s)Missed by 0.051s
1263George RussellMercedes1’13.3261’13.447 (+0.121s)Missed by 0.164s
1324Zhou GuanyuAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’13.6771’13.521 (-0.156s)Missed by 0.238s
1421Nyck de VriesAlphaTauri-Honda RBPT1’13.5811’14.083 (+0.502s)Missed by 0.800s
1522Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauri-Honda RBPT1’13.8621’14.477 (+0.615s)Missed by 1.194s
1677Valtteri BottasAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’13.977Missed by 0.103s
1720Kevin MagnussenHaas-Ferrari1’14.042Missed by 0.168s
1823Alexander AlbonWilliams-Mercedes1’14.063Missed by 0.189s
1916Charles LeclercFerrari1’14.079Missed by 0.205s
202Logan SargeantWilliams-Mercedes1’14.699Missed by 0.825s

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Sector times

PositionNumberDriverSector oneSector twoSector threeUltimate lapDeficit to ultimate lap
11Max Verstappen21.536 (1)28.903 (1)21.672 (2)1’12.1110.161
244Lewis Hamilton21.694 (3)29.154 (2)21.728 (4)1’12.5760.242
34Lando Norris21.72 (5)29.253 (5)21.644 (1)1’12.6170.159
455Carlos Sainz Jnr21.696 (4)29.257 (6)21.73 (5)1’12.6830.051
510Pierre Gasly21.748 (7)29.211 (3)21.857 (8)1’12.816
681Oscar Piastri21.754 (8)29.269 (8)21.804 (6)1’12.8270.232
714Fernando Alonso21.889 (14)29.244 (4)21.695 (3)1’12.8280.270
831Esteban Ocon21.737 (6)29.285 (9)21.909 (12)1’12.9310.070
918Lance Stroll21.806 (11)29.262 (7)21.887 (10)1’12.9550.039
1063George Russell21.647 (2)29.574 (13)21.876 (9)1’13.0970.229
1127Nico Hulkenberg21.79 (10)29.484 (10)21.895 (11)1’13.1690.060
1211Sergio Perez21.788 (9)29.578 (14)21.919 (13)1’13.2850.049
1322Yuki Tsunoda21.83 (12)29.486 (11)22 (14)1’13.3160.546
1424Zhou Guanyu21.945 (15)29.643 (15)21.84 (7)1’13.4280.093
1521Nyck de Vries21.886 (13)29.501 (12)22.103 (15)1’13.4900.091
1677Valtteri Bottas22.06 (19)29.679 (16)22.238 (17)1’13.977
1720Kevin Magnussen21.968 (17)29.732 (17)22.342 (19)1’14.042
1823Alexander Albon22.045 (18)29.815 (19)22.201 (16)1’14.0610.002
1916Charles Leclerc21.962 (16)29.746 (18)22.371 (20)1’14.079
202Logan Sargeant22.193 (20)30.209 (20)22.297 (18)1’14.699

Speed trap

PositionNumberDriverCarEngineModelMax kph (mph)
127Nico HulkenbergHaasFerrariVF-23333.7 (207.4)
21Max VerstappenRed BullHonda RBPTRB19333.1 (207.0)
355Carlos Sainz JnrFerrariFerrariSF-23332.3 (206.5)
463George RussellMercedesMercedesW14332.0 (206.3)
516Charles LeclercFerrariFerrariSF-23331.8 (206.2)
620Kevin MagnussenHaasFerrariVF-23331.5 (206.0)
723Alexander AlbonWilliamsMercedesFW45331.2 (205.8)
810Pierre GaslyAlpineRenaultA523331.2 (205.8)
911Sergio PerezRed BullHonda RBPTRB19330.4 (205.3)
1044Lewis HamiltonMercedesMercedesW14328.3 (204.0)
1131Esteban OconAlpineRenaultA523328.2 (203.9)
1224Zhou GuanyuAlfa RomeoFerrariC43327.6 (203.6)
1377Valtteri BottasAlfa RomeoFerrariC43327.0 (203.2)
144Lando NorrisMcLarenMercedesMCL60326.9 (203.1)
1522Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauriHonda RBPTAT04326.3 (202.8)
162Logan SargeantWilliamsMercedesFW45326.0 (202.6)
1781Oscar PiastriMcLarenMercedesMCL60325.8 (202.4)
1818Lance StrollAston MartinMercedesAMR23324.9 (201.9)
1921Nyck de VriesAlphaTauriHonda RBPTAT04324.1 (201.4)
2014Fernando AlonsoAston MartinMercedesAMR23324.0 (201.3)

Over to you

Is this one going to be all about the fight for second place? Share your views on the Spanish Grand Prix in the comments.

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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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    10 comments on “More passing? Multiple stops? Rain? Only the winner seems not in doubt”

    1. Is this one going to be all about the fight for second place? – Yes, under normal circumstances.

    2. Interesting so many didn’t find improvements in Q3. My feeling is that the conditions really threw a lot of drivers, hence the slightly mixed up grid. Usually they kind up two by two at Barcelona.

      I’m kind of pleased to see the top speeds are pretty even throughout the field – you know it’s going to be super dull if a couple of teams have a massive advantage. A DRS train is kind of fun, a bit like the old slipstreaming battles at Monza pre-chicanes. Ordinary DRS usage can do one, however.

    3. What a race for the win this would be without the red bulls. Depending on strategy up to 10 drivers could have won this. For the sake of the show, could the FIA not hinder red bulls performance somehow. We can’t have another dominance like the Mercedes era.

      1. At least the Mercedes era had many seasons with actual great racing, the dominant team meanwhile had a driver pairing where the WDC was close run every season, the cars weren’t absolute pigs yet (they were too big and heavy still) and it wasn’t until 2019/2020 that gravel and cars parked safely out of danger automatically began trigger. So, the Mercedes era is a fond memory compared to today’s F1.

      2. yeah; i agree. While we’re at it; can we kneecap ronaldo and messi; cut off some toes or something from Bolt, have Redbull ride with maximum of 3 tyres fitted?

        Then the world would be ‘for the sake of the show’.

        Fix your damn cars is what you should say to the other teams; not ‘for the sake of the show handicap them’.

        1. Both are true, and have been throughout F1’s history.

          Yes, other teams need to shape up. But it’s in the interest of everyone involved to prevent a repeat of the horrible Mercedes-era. The FIA and F1 don’t even have to go to the lengths that they did in the mid 2000s to stop Ferrari; some careful tweaks can be good enough.

    4. The latest weather report shows the likelihood of rain is extremely small. It’s 90% chance for dry most of the afternoon with a small window that’s still at 30%, but that percentage has been decreasing with every hour that passes.

    5. Turn 10 also played a part. What was it about that turn?

    6. Verstappen better be careful. Sainz is really gonna go for it from the start

      1. Verstappen was sanguine yesterday after quali: asked about the start, he had, no big deal if someone passes (i.e. easy to repass later). Further down the grid looks spicy, Stroll, Ocon, Hulk and Alonso for example.

    Comments are closed.