Barcelona remains a jewel in the F1 crown - but there need to be changes

Drivers know the Circuit de Catalunya better than any other, but overtaking remains a problem

Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton celebrates on the podium after winning the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya in Montmelo in the outskirts of Barcelona on May 12, 2019. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)
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Circuit de Catalunya, in the parched hills above Gaudi’s Barcelona, is the circuit best known to the bejewelled cockpit superstars of F1.

It has been on the calendar since 1991 and the wide variety of corners also make it an ideal annual pre-season testing venue, as it was in February.

What there is to be learnt about the circuit was done so long ago by drivers pounding around it until sunset.

So this race, above all others, has always been an ultra-tight affair in which gigabytes of accumulated testing data can be bought to bear.

Since the onset of the hybrid era this has been a Mercedes track, Lewis Hamilton winning six times in the past eight years – five times from pole.

Fernando Alonso has triumphed (at his home race) twice and Sebastian Vettel once.

Then there is Max Verstappen’s victory on his Red Bull debut at 18 thanks to Hamilton and Nico Rosberg skidding into the kitty litter on the first lap while scrapping over the lead. But surprises are rare.

F1 arrives in Spain with the new ground-effect formula still very much on public trial.

The racing is definitely closer this year but there is no indication it has improved overtaking.

Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton celebrates on the podium after the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya in Montmelo near Barcelona, on August 16, 2020. / AFP / POOL / ALBERT GEA

Maybe then tracks need to change, too. Circuits like Barcelona, where one corner flows into the next, mean cars naturally criss-cross the tarmac, legitimately preventing overtaking bids from their pursuers on the shorter straights.

Lining up the everlasting bend that is T3 to overtake down to T4 doesn’t work, as Hamilton and Rosberg proved in 2012. Ditto T5, which dips to the apex. Dive down the inside and you’ll lose on the exit. T6 is effectively a straight. T7 is challenging but just too fast for an overtake.

The flow takes you to the inside of T8 and then immediately back to the outside for T9, Campsa, which is a very tricky, fast and bumpy uphill right-hander. The redesigned T10 is for Hail Mary lunges only. If you try to go around the outside you are out of the game for 11 & 12. Then 13, 14 & 15 are a technical and messy hustle requiring precision to fend off a challenge down the only real overtaking spot, the main straight that follows.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the layout. From the cockpit it is a real challenge. But it’s just not conducive to providing a spectacle for fans.

Is the answer, then, a wider circuit? Certainly wider entries and exits for the bends would allow momentum to be carried various different ways in and out of a corner.

Even so, it is encouraging that championship leader Charles Leclerc said all that lay between him and a real bid for victory in Miami was a set-up tweak to improve front tyre wear. That shows how close the fight is.

Max Verstappen celebrates his victory in the last race, the Miami GP, ahead of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz. AFP

Ferrari started the season fastest but after successive defeats suspect Red Bull are committing price-capped resources earlier than they planned to.

Even so, the Scuderia bring their biggest updates yet for Barcelona in a behind-the-scenes development war sure to be crucial.

Meanwhile, tempers are fraying at the besieged champions with Hamilton snapping at both his team boss and the strategy team in recent races.

So Barcelona is D-Day for Mercedes’ temperamental diva of a car design, which is taking longer to come together than the Sagrada Familia. The conundrum appears more like one for the catwalk than the pitlane. For the first time they can compare their ‘Size Zero’ diva without sidepod hips to the (let’s say) conventional Size 12 one with sidepods used in the February test. One has to go.

Talking of prima donnas, F1’s drivers have done a spectacular flounce over a reminder from the new race director Niels Wittich that jewellery is banned from the cockpit as a safety risk.

It turns out that diamonds are, apparently, not only a woman’s best friend but a drivers’ too and they are having none of it.

FIA President Mohammed Ben Salayem has stepped in and insisted diamonds are not forever, they are only until 2pm local time (when the race starts). Hamilton’s retort, among others, is that if the ban remains, Mercedes have a spare driver for Monaco, suggesting he will sit out the weekend if confronted.

The official FIA reminder that the fine is an eye-watering £213,000 ($264,000) will surely give even the richest driver pause for thought.

What surprises me most is that Mercedes were the ones leading calls for more consistent application of the rules after the Abu Dhabi debacle. Six races later they want to be able to pick and choose which ones they follow.

But then Catalunya has always had a reputation for revolution.

Updated: May 19, 2022, 3:37 AM