Sergio Perez, Lando Norris, Circuit de Catalunya, 2024

If Catalunya is showing the shape of the season to come, it’s thrillingly close

2024 Spanish GP Friday practice analysis

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Throughout most of the Circuit de Catalunya’s three decades of gracing the Formula 1 calendar, the track has had a reputation for being the best indicator for relative car performance of any in the championship.

A track that more experienced drivers know better than any other, the Barcelona circuit used to see cars run thousands of laps annually around the 4.6km course in pre- and in-season testing prior to the Spanish Grand Prix.

With its generous main straight, several sustained mid-speed corners, a fiddly low-speed section or two and a pair of high speed sweepers to end the lap, Catalunya was believed to be the best ‘all-round’ circuit to test any F1 car’s fundamental performance. And when it came to the grand prix itself, teams would often run roughly in rank order of performance.

But as F1 cars evolve over the years, so too does the calendar. And now, the Barcelona circuit may not be the bellweather track it once was. As Fernando Alonso pointed out, that is partly due to the rising number of street circuits.

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin, Circuit de Catalunya, 2024
Aston Martin weren’t especially quick at Alonso’s home track
“I think now we have a lot of ‘Bakus’, ‘Miamis’, ‘Las Vegases’,” Alonso said of the current calendar to the official F1 channel after Friday practice. “So to come here, maybe there are six or seven venues the same as Barcelona and 18 that are different. So it’s always a trade-off that you need to make.” Sure enough, last year showed that Spain is no longer a litmus test for the rest of the season.

Yes, Red Bull and Ferrari were the quickest cars over the Spanish Grand Prix weekend in 2023, as they were on average over the season. But only they and the slowest team – Williams – ranked the same in terms of outright performances as they did over the season as a whole.

McLaren performed better here than on average and Alpine, ultimately sixth in the championship, were fourth. Mercedes, who went on to take the runner-up spot in the standings, were only fifth here.

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So whatever the outcome over the rest of this event, don’t assume that this weekend will give us a truly representative order for how the teams fare against one another and what to expect over the bulk of the season to come. Especially when there was so little to separate the field after the opening two practice sessions.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Circuit de Catalunya, 2024
Mercedes appear to have sustained their Canadian GP form
At the end of Friday, Lewis Hamilton’s advantage at the top of the times over Carlos Sainz Jnr’s Ferrari in second was just 0.022s. Eight drivers lapped within half a second of the Mercedes driver’s best time and the top 16 in the field within a full second. It followed a pattern of incredibly close competition across all categories in Barcelona, where the combined pole margins in qualifying across Formula 2, F3 and F1 Academy amounted to less than a tenth of a second.

While Hamilton was quickest in a practice session for the second consecutive weekend, Mercedes also appeared to be pleased with his high-fuel run late in the session on the soft compound. After taking the chequered flag and asking race engineer Peter Bonnington “how was the pace?”, Bonnington replied: “yeah, we are pretty happy with that pace”, suggesting the team’s Montreal form may not have been a false dawn.

“The car’s feeling really, really great today,” Hamilton said after the session. “It doesn’t feel like we’re too far off. I wouldn’t really take too much notice of lap times necessarily but I think the car’s definitely in a better place.”

Red Bull are, of course, the presumptive team to be every weekend unless otherwise. Although Sergio Perez struggled with the balance of his car in both sessions and was down in 13th by the end of the day and Max Verstappen sat fifth behind Pierre Gasly’s Alpine, Verstappen’s long run pace on both the softs and mediums looked encouraging for the championship leader. Only Lando Norris maintained a better pace than car number one in the high-fuel runs, but the McLaren driver only ran a handful of representative laps compared to most of his rivals who pushed for much longer.

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But perhaps the biggest story of the day was how tyre wear appeared to be at a higher level than many expected. Midway through his first run on mediums in the second session, Verstappen complained his tyres were “completely cooked” but was encouraged to continue by race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Circuit de Catalunya, 2024
But for a slow middle sector, Verstappen was right up there
“It’s still useful learning, Max,” he said. “This would only be lap 10 of the race.”

Pirelli pointed to the warm weather and track temperature sitting just shy of 50C for adding “further stress to tyres that are already subjected to some of the highest lateral forces of the whole season,” while insisting that they had not seen anything “particularly surprising” out of the data from the opening day.

But the softs were used so sparingly in the race here last year, and high degradation indicates the teams will again rely on the two harder compounds for the race once again.

Before that, however, they must first set the grid for Sunday. Although Hamilton ended Friday fastest, it’s hard not to consider as Verstappen as still the favourite for the top spot on Saturday. However Perez’s weekend hasn’t begun well, and he has a three-place grid penalty for Sunday, meaning Verstappen is likely to be fighting on his own at the front again.

Add to that the fastest Mercedes, Ferrari and McLaren being covered by just a few hundredths of a second, it seems that the top four teams could be extremely close to each other in Q3 on Saturday. With that, the pressure will only increase on the drivers as a small mistake or failure to extract the most out of a lap could be the difference between starting on the front row of the grid and the fourth.

Although it’s difficult to be sure who will end up on pole, the one thing that is likely is that it will be another incredibly close margin.

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Combined practice times

P. # Driver Team FP1 time FP2 time Gap Laps
1 44 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1’14.911 1’13.264 56
2 55 Carlos Sainz Jnr Ferrari 1’14.572 1’13.286 0.022 61
3 4 Lando Norris McLaren-Mercedes 1’14.228 1’13.319 0.055 58
4 10 Pierre Gasly Alpine-Renault 1’15.484 1’13.443 0.179 48
5 1 Max Verstappen Red Bull-Honda RBPT 1’14.252 1’13.504 0.240 56
6 16 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1’15.434 1’13.597 0.333 48
7 81 Oscar Piastri McLaren-Mercedes 1’14.867 1’13.622 0.358 57
8 63 George Russell Mercedes 1’14.614 1’13.722 0.458 59
9 31 Esteban Ocon Alpine-Renault 1’15.086 1’13.766 0.502 60
10 77 Valtteri Bottas Sauber-Ferrari 1’15.472 1’13.924 0.660 54
11 20 Kevin Magnussen Haas-Ferrari 1’15.644 1’14.021 0.757 62
12 27 Nico Hulkenberg Haas-Ferrari 1’14.053 0.789 29
13 11 Sergio Perez Red Bull-Honda RBPT 1’14.692 1’14.081 0.817 51
14 14 Fernando Alonso Aston Martin-Mercedes 1’15.222 1’14.091 0.827 54
15 22 Yuki Tsunoda RB-Honda RBPT 1’15.916 1’14.211 0.947 52
16 3 Daniel Ricciardo RB-Honda RBPT 1’15.580 1’14.257 0.993 59
17 24 Zhou Guanyu Sauber-Ferrari 1’15.616 1’14.345 1.081 45
18 18 Lance Stroll Aston Martin-Mercedes 1’15.512 1’14.402 1.138 56
19 23 Alexander Albon Williams-Mercedes 1’15.417 1’14.807 1.543 59
20 2 Logan Sargeant Williams-Mercedes 1’15.752 1’15.070 1.806 58
21 50 Oliver Bearman Haas-Ferrari 1’15.865 2.601 29

Teams’ progress vs 2023

2024 Spanish Grand Prix

Browse all 2024 Spanish Grand Prix articles

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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4 comments on “If Catalunya is showing the shape of the season to come, it’s thrillingly close”

  1. Circuit De Catalunya indeed hasn’t necessarily been the reference circuit for all-season average pecking order anymore, something I’ve also wondered about occasionally.

  2. Max dominates, absolutely closest season ever, Max dominates, absolutely closest season ever…..

    1. He keeps pulling it out of the bag

      It’s awesome to witness him edge those 50/50 moments again and again, but I wish one of his top-team rivals would pull a blinder once or twice and give us a joust for first across the race.

      Perhaps Sainz will light up again once he’s secured his place for next year

  3. When teams tested here so extensively, there may have been a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    There was loads of testing in Barca, and the teams thought it was the median track, so they all optimised to do well on it – so it became a bellwether.

    Now those things are less true.

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