F1 drivers didn’t miss Catalunya’s chicane, but did they find overtaking easier?

2023 Spanish Grand Prix

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When the newly-built Circuit de Catalunya was added to the Formula 1 calendar in 1991 it was widely held to have one ingredient which could be relied upon to produce overtaking: A quick corner leading onto a long straight followed by a slow corner.

As it happened that inaugural race also benefitted from the other variable which usually produces action: rain. The race which followed produced one of the most memorable overtakes ever seen – championship contenders Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell racing to turn one, their cars separated by millimetres, sparks flying.

Over the years which followed F1 cars evolved and so did views about what kind of track layout was needed to create passes: specifically, even longer straights bookended by tight corners. These were duly created in a swathe of ‘Tilkedromes’ – new circuits designed by former F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone’s preferred track designer Hermann Tilke – through the noughties and onwards.

During this time Catalunya’s final corner was also overhauled and turned into a much tighter corner. However this 2007 change was principally done due to safety concerns. Now, 16 years later, it was reversed following improvements to the run-off at the corner plus years of safety enhancements made to the cars.

Mansell’s famed pass on Senna in Catalunya’s first grand prix
Drivers had been calling for the change for years. Unsurprisingly, they welcomed it from a pure driving point of view, as a 270kph sweep is a challenge they were always going to relish over a narrow, tight and slow chicane. But did it also make overtaking easier, or are F1’s latest generation of cars still too sensitive to high-speed air disturbance for that to be possible?

After the race, drivers offered a mix of views. This is partly to be expected, as many competing factors determine how much overtaking happens in a single race. A lively qualifying session produced a more varied grid for this year’s race, so with Sergio Perez, George Russell and Charles Leclerc all starting outside the top 10, more passing was always going to be likely.

The latter didn’t make it as far as the top ten after starting the race from the pits, suggesting overtaking was a challenge for him. He reported it was “very difficult” to pass, after spending the last laps staring at the Alpine of Pierre Gasly which was keeping him out of the points.

“The new layout I’m not sure helped that much, I feel like it’s more or less the same as last year,” he said.

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However Ferrari have found their car is particularly sensitive to the airflow of other cars. And as Leclerc’s team mate pointed out the midfield is more competitive than it was 12 months ago, making it harder to gain the necessary performance advantage to overtake a car.

Drivers could follow closely enough through fast final corner
Carlos Sainz Jnr did see some overtaking – though he admitted it was mostly other drivers going past him. “It didn’t feel that difficult out there, at least for the others on me it felt pretty easy,” he observed.

“It just shows probably last year we would have made it back to the top four, top five starting from the pit lane. It’s just the field is tighter and it’s more difficult to make your way through.”

Nico Hulkenberg believes the change in car design brought about by the technical regulations introduced last year has made it easier for cars to follow more closely through the restored, high-speed sweeps which conclude a lap of the Catalunya circuit.

“I did quite a lot of overtaking and got overtaken as well,” said the Haas driver, who returned to F1 this year as a full-time driver for the first time since 2019. “So it felt like it was very possible.

“I don’t know with these cars, with the old layout, if it would have been the same. Difficult to say. But following through to the last corner which is 240kph or something was pretty good. That’s the thing with these cars, in high speed actually it’s better to follow than the previous generation.”

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As the drivers were carrying significantly more speed onto the main straight, the slipstream potential was great. And with the DRS zone unchanged from last year, many drivers were able to pass well before the first corner – as happened with Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon.

The crowd at turn one saw plenty of action
That, plus the increased tyre degradation brought about by replacing three slow corners with two fast ones, appears to have ultimately proved beneficial for overtaking. Pirelli’s head of motorsport Mario Isola believes restoring the fast corners “probably” made passing easier.

“Especially at the end of the main straight, that was the purpose of the new layout.

“So I believe that in Barcelona – not looking at the leader that was dominating the race from lap one – we had quite a good number of overtakes on-track and that is exactly what we want.

“Clearly the ability to manage the degradation was probably reducing a little bit the overtaking. But if I look at the position behind the leader, we had quite a lot of deg, I’m happy with the result. And on the main straight it is now a position where you can overtake, probably it’s a bit easier because of the speed that you can carry on the main straight.”

Removing the chicane at the Circuit de Catalunya appears to have been a step forward for overtaking, and there’s no question the drivers prefer the final two corners in their original (and now reinstated) form.

“It’s a lot more enjoyable to drive,” said Max Verstappen. “I mean, going into that last corner brings a smile on my face because that’s where an F1 car really comes alive.”

Now, who’s up for bringing back the original, the ultra-fast Nissan chicane next?

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2023 Spanish Grand Prix

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    Author information

    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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    16 comments on “F1 drivers didn’t miss Catalunya’s chicane, but did they find overtaking easier?”

    1. I don’t really care if it improved overtaking. The fact that it’s a challenging corner in itself, that also makes the last corner even more challenging, is a major plus. The old chicane didn’t help overtaking anyway, it was too awkward, that series of corners didn’t allow a car to be right behind another coming into the last corner and the straight. So anything was going to be an improvement. I’m glad the alternative is this good.

      Plus it puts more stress on the car. The race in Spain is always a snorefest, but we’re not coming from eventul races either, and I think it blended with how the rest of the year is going pretty well this time.

      1. José Lopes da Silva
        6th June 2023, 22:08

        Totally agreed. The removal of the chicane brought back hope.
        But I had no expectations about overtaking because I remember the huge backlash after the 1999 race. This is about cars, not track layouts.

      2. Well said @fer-no65, and like Verstappen said about taking those final bends in the car, it also felt that way to me watching.

    2. Few things are more boring than the endless medium and high-speed corners strung one after another that the Circuito de Barcelona has now, again, been reduced to.

      Formula 1 needs proper deceleration zones. Otherwise, races are just an unending, blurry series of swooshes to left or right.

      1. @proesterchen I could not disagree more.

        It’s circuits that have a nice flow with medium and high speed corners that tend to be the best tracks that are the most fun to drive, Which drivers enjoy most and which are the most fun to watch from a spectators point of view both at the track and on TV.

        F1 cars…… Well race cars in general just don’t look that spectacular going through slow, tight, fiddly micky mouse corners like that awful chicane which never should have been built to begin with.

        The changes to make turn 10 more open/flowing and the removal have made Circuit de Catalunya a wonderful circuit again!

        1. I don’t mind sections that are flowy and “fun to drive”, I do mind if they make up the entirety of the lap.

          Circuito de Catalunya would benefit from tighter versions of T1/T2, changing T4 to be closer to T4 at the Red Bull Ring (though obviously, there isn’t as much change in elevation available without some major excavations), T10 (again) and even T14.

      2. +1
        This is a circuit of monotony – and is exactly why the events are too.
        We can count the number of memorable Spanish GP’s over the last 30 years on a couple of fingers – at most.

    3. This was the best race on this track in a long time.
      The chicane should have been eliminated when they introduced DRS.

    4. Needs to progress from “quite a good number of overtakes” to a number of quite good overtakes. Too many of the turn-1 position changes just looked like the guy was being lapped…

      1. Exactly. The quality of overtakes isn’t there, so really i don’t reallly care how many overtakes there are. F1 should adopt the PTP system they use in Indycar and bring back quality racing.

      2. That’s right – as many as there were, almost none of them were really fought for.

    5. No, or at least I’m unconvinced the fast penultimate corner’s return would’ve contributed to the relatively high overtaking amount.
      More realistically, that was largely down to car & tyre advantages caused by both out-of-position starting drivers (especially PER & LEC) & varying strategies, which led to big tyre deltas in many passing cases, not to mention Bottas’ general slowness.
      These three factors also led to some passes seeming relatively easy despite Circuit de Catalunya being among the least overtaking-friendly circuits as a whole, but certainly not DRS or activation zone length, something people should remember before making definitive conclusions.
      Impossible to judge for certain whether the total amount would’ve been the same with the same starting order if the chicane was still used.

    6. I don’t think we as fans are the ones who can comment on this myself will listen to the drivers input and they seems to like it.

      1. But you are a viewer…. What do you want to see?

    7. Anton Mercer
      7th June 2023, 11:11

      Peradalta back would be great. It wont happen because we have the ‘spectacle’ of 10s of 1000s of locals going crazy as cars trundle past as 50mph. Mansell on Berger was one of THE great moments of f1. It cant happen on that T junction

    8. [Leclerc] didn’t make it as far as the top ten after starting the race from the pits, suggesting overtaking was a challenge for him.

      For me, this was more down to Ferrari fumbling the strategy again. He started on hard tyres, yet changed them before most who started on the mediums or softs. He seemed to be making good progress through the field before that and didn’t look to be struggling when they pitted him and put him right at the back again. He looked to me like he could have made a one-stop work, or at least finished the race on softer tyres than the hards he was left with… I don’t know why he bothers trying when Ferrari seem incapable of doing anything but sabotage him.

      That said, all this was just my impression from watching the race. I may have missed something.

    Comments are closed.