Another grand prix down, another weekend of Max Verstappen dominance. It’s become the ongoing story of the season so much so that Verstappen is essentially ruled out when discussing race weekends as he’s more than likely a pitstop ahead of his closest competitor, whether that’s a rival team or his own teammate. I think we’ve all come to accept that the closest battles we’ll see this year will be from P2 to P20 as once the lights go out on a Sunday, Verstappen takes off without looking back. It sounds silly to say that he was particularly dominant in Spain, as he’s been head and shoulders above the rest for the entirety of the season, but to really drive the point home he topped every single session this weekend and essentially confirmed our race winner before Friday had come to an end. However, Spain did bring some surprises and variety to a newly designed circuit that saw the long-awaited removal of the final chicane, so here’s my small round up of the Spanish Grand Prix.
Hometown heroes couldn’t save the day
Heading into Barcelona you couldn’t look anywhere without some sort of superstition justifying why this weekend would mark Alonso’s return to the top step. After a 10-year victory drought, Alonso’s performances in 2023 continued to bolster the hype that was mounting, leading a lot of us to believe that a potential challenge for the race win could be on at the Spanish GP, spoiler – it was not. Instead, Sainz shot out of nowhere to claim P2 in qualifying after convincingly outperforming Leclerc from Friday through to Sunday, the stage was set for the Spaniard to take a race win at his home Grand Prix but then reality set in and Verstappen flew off into the distance, Ferrari then returned to being Ferrari with their more than questionable strategies and slowing pace which saw Sainz drop out of the podium positions into P5. Alonso didn’t do much better, in fact he ended up worse in P7. If we go back to the Saturday this is where we can see exactly where Alonso threw away his chance of a potential podium let alone a win at his home grand prix, Alonso made a small mistake on his final flying lap in Q3 which only secured him a disappointing P9, which would then be advanced to P8 with Gasly’s penalty. When you consider the downgrade in Aston Martin’s pace this weekend, Alonso’s final lap in qualifying effectively sealed his fate for the race as it would have been nigh on impossible to catch up to the front runners and almost certainly impossible to challenge Verstappen at all.
The silver arrows are living up to their name?
Saying that Mercedes have taken a dip in form over the past 18 months would be an understatement and a half, they’ve taken an uncharacteristic tumble down the order as their distinctive sidepod design, or lack thereof, ironically seemed to slow them down so significantly that they’ve found themselves in amongst the midfield, well that was until this weekend. With most teams desperately chasing after the missing time that will bring them closer to Redbull, it looks as though Mercedes have trumped everyone when it comes to the success of the first round of major upgrades that we saw this past weekend at the Spanish GP. Although their upgrades debuted at Monaco, no one could get a genuine read on exactly how much time there was to be gained from these first updates but at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, which has traditionally been hailed at the best testing ground for teams to run their new upgrades, they seemingly left their midfield competitors behind and took a step closer to bridging the gap to Redbull. To be clear there was still a 24 second gap between Verstappen and Hamilton by the time they reached the chequered flag on Sunday, but they were able to comfortably sweep past their rivals to take up the remaining podium positions. Usually, a team that does well at Spain does well anywhere, so could this be the start of Mercedes’ fight back to the top, and will they be able to challenge for another title in the next couple of years as the ATR penalty is set to hit Redbull later this year?
When reality hits
Heading out of Monaco, the feel-good story of Ocon’s podium finish was a welcomed surprise as no one really expected a midfield team to make it to the podium when you take into account the performance of the Redbull’s and Aston Martin’s, but during qualifying this past weekend the Spanish GP looked to repeat the success of the midfield. Norris went on to secure P3 ahead of the race on Sunday and when you consider that McLaren has had one of the most significant drop offs that we’ve seen since these new regulations have been introduced, this uptick in performance caught everyone off guard. Their unforeseen fall off has left everyone scratching their heads as it was only a few years ago in 2020 that they were beating Ferrari to a P3 finish in the Constructors’ Standings but now find themselves all the way down in P6 with no hope of redemption, at least for the next couple of years. As Sunday rolled around there was no expectation that McLaren would hold onto P3 for the duration of the race but there was a strong possibility that points were on the table, well up until turn 2 of the first lap in which Hamilton and Norris made contact ruining McLaren’s dreams of a possible points finish. Zak Brown looks as though he’s beginning to build up a new foundation at the team with the recruitment of senior F1 figures such as Sanchez and Marshall, but how long will it be before we see these improvements of a new invigorated team on track and will their drivers hold on long enough?
Speaking of reality, it wouldn’t be an F1 weekend without inconsistent stewarding, from a bizarre red flag in FP3 to a debatable 5 second penalty for Tsunoda, we have to wonder will we ever see reliable stewarding in F1? Gunether Steiner kicked off his weekend by being called to the FIA following comments that he made criticising the stewards’ decision to give Hulkenberg a penalty in Monaco, and whilst he obviously made this comment with his driver in mind it symbolises a much wider problem that has been ongoing for years. FP3 saw plenty of drivers sliding off the damp track but after Sargeant to a trip to the gravel a red flag was thrown up for no recognisable reason bewildering everyone that was watching, only for it to be revealed that the red flag was thrown up because of the gravel on track. That decision alone should’ve let us know what type of weekend we would be in for as once race day arrived the questionable stewarding calls continued. Tsunoda received a 5 second penalty for his battle with Zhou during the race, and upon looking at the altercation again I think the general consensus if that 5 seconds was quite harsh considering the battle that they had, this is definitely not one of the most egregious decisions that we’ve seen the stewards make in recent years, but it doesn’t help the sport in anyway when decisions are so unclear for fans watching and drivers battling for positions.
It’s fair to say that Spain offered some optimism and intrigue for the remaining two thirds of the season as the midfield is as close as ever and the battle is on to see which team can outdevelop the others and climb up as many places as possible in the Constructors’ standings. We already know that we won’t be seeing any type of battle at the top as Redbull themselves have acknowledged that at this point their only competition is turbulent weather or reliability problems, but there is still plenty to look forward to amongst the rest of the grid.