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Formula 1 Spanish GP

10 things we learned at the 2024 Spanish Grand Prix

Competition for pole and for the win at Barcelona was more hotly contested than expected, as Formula 1's latest trip to Spain yielded much in the way of tactical action and intriguing off-track sideplots. Here's the key stories from the Spanish GP

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Only tepid expectations preceded this year’s edition of the Spanish Grand Prix. Most expected the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya's painful adherence to conventional track design to suit the Red Bulls perfectly, given the team had laboured with literal and metaphorical bumps in the road.

Although the predictions were largely right as Max Verstappen chalked up another win to add to his impressive tally, it was by no means a trademark run-and-hide victory as McLaren and Lando Norris put the Dutchman under pressure. Sure, time ran out for Norris to get onto Verstappen’s gearbox, but it was nonetheless a statement that Red Bull’s previous advantage over the rest of the field has eroded away.

But wait, there’s more. Mercedes and Ferrari battled over the remaining top five positions, Alpine expected a difficult weekend and somehow ended up being the fifth-best team, after bringing back a previously disgraced old flame to advise on its future endeavours. The driver market is also reaching a tipping point, as the dominoes prepare to fall on the remaining seats.

You know the drill by now: 10 disparate things, with explanations for each. Let’s get started.

1. The field is closing up, but Red Bull’s still ahead

Verstappen's advantage has been eroded to give him more of a challenge, but he is proving more than a match for it

Verstappen's advantage has been eroded to give him more of a challenge, but he is proving more than a match for it

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

The recent tongue-wagging about Red Bull’s current disinclination for bumpy track surfaces and kerbs was always going to be quelled when it came to racing at Barcelona. Although the circuit is not usually associated with the descriptor of “billiard-table smooth”, it very much belongs to the oeuvre of ‘conventional’ circuits boasting high-speed, long-radius corners that permeated the F1 calendar in the 1980s and 1990s.

Those corners are of a brand that Red Bull happens to like. The underbody has, for the past couple of seasons, been very good at building and maintaining a consistent level of downforce throughout. But McLaren has also become pretty good at that in recent months and seems to have a bit more of an all-rounder on its hands; the Red Bull is much more tricky to handle by comparison when it comes to dumping downforce through slow, short-radius corners.

That Norris was just 2.2 seconds behind, rather than 20, indicates the progress that has been made behind Red Bull. But it’s often so much more than the car; the Red Bull-Verstappen dyad remains an all-conquering force and, when the car isn’t at its best, the Dutch driver’s quality will often make up for it. Strategically, the team exudes confidence as well; Verstappen took the front foot in the race with his first corner pass on Norris, and thus could make the strategy Red Bull opted for work.

There are now doubts that Red Bull has the ‘best’ car in F1 – but it certainly has the best harmony between car and driver. And that’s valuable.

2. McLaren has the pace, but needs to recapture race-winning know-how

Now its car's pace is proven, can McLaren become a ruthless operational machine capable of regular wins?

Now its car's pace is proven, can McLaren become a ruthless operational machine capable of regular wins?

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

“I think honestly, the most consistent car right now is a McLaren,” Carlos Sainz mused after the Spanish GP. “I think Red Bull are struggling in certain tracks. Same as us. McLaren is quick everywhere. They're quick in low speed. They're flat in turn three and nine. They were fastest in turn five. So I just don't see McLaren having any weakness right now.”

The growth of McLaren, from being at the back at the start of 2023 to competing for race victories, has been dramatic over the past 18 months. Its progress has been such that Sainz has now claimed it has the best car, which has been echoed by a couple of other voices in the paddock. It might be premature to say that the Woking squad has really taken the mantle from Red Bull, but it certainly finds itself in a positive position.

But there’s more to F1 than simply having the fastest car; give Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante a £10,000 vintage Stratocaster and he’ll make it sound amazing, but give it to this writer and it’ll make an ungodly din through the uncoordinated fretwork...

What McLaren is missing is that knowledge of how to win consistently. Doing it as a one-off in Miami is an achievement, certainly, but one that it needs to build upon. That comes down to strategy, and down to ensuring its drivers can perform in a way that gives it a bit more latitude. It’s a work in progress and it’s certain that McLaren will get there – and Red Bull went through the same thing in 2020, before turning up the dial a year later...

3. Mercedes has genuinely turned the corner...

A second-row lockout for Mercedes, with Hamilton taking his first podium of the year, shows things are looking up

A second-row lockout for Mercedes, with Hamilton taking his first podium of the year, shows things are looking up

Photo by: Sam Bagnall / Motorsport Images

After a couple of years spent waking up for false dawns, there’s something different about Mercedes’ current form. There seems to be a genuine optimism that it has managed to get its W15 into a place where it can perform a lot more consistently; it still misses a little bit of performance relative to the Red Bulls and McLarens, but there’s a feeling that entering victory contention isn’t too far away.

Mercedes felt that it had the fastest car at Montreal and, although its cars were 17 and 22s away from Verstappen by the end of the grand prix in Spain, that’s a deficit of around 0.2s-0.3s a lap to the front-running pace in race trim.

“If we're able to bridge that, bearing in mind they also put upgrades on the car, I think then we could be racing for victory, but that's not on the hands yet,” team principal and CEO Toto Wolff said. “Montreal with the conditions, we could have won, but probably we surprised ourselves that we could, and that's why we dropped the ball there.”

George Russell channelled Fernando Alonso’s 2011 start to make his own play for the lead in the opening lap, which worked out, although was gobbled up by Verstappen with DRS a couple of laps later. He reckoned that, as Mercedes has a surplus of wind tunnel time through sitting fourth in the constructors’ championship, more was to come from the team in the second half of the year.

4. ...but you can’t discount Ferrari, even if its strengths lie elsewhere

Ferrari faces a wait before the next street track where its car appears best-suited but shouldn't be written off

Ferrari faces a wait before the next street track where its car appears best-suited but shouldn't be written off

Photo by: Ferrari

After its Monaco win, Ferrari has taken a bit of a step back; the mixed conditions of Montreal rather threw a curveball at the Maranello squad, and it couldn’t quite hit back in Spain either. It seems to be quite circuit-specific, and Ferrari’s current strengths can be seen among the cast of traditional street circuits. And we’ve not got another one of those until we hit Singapore in September...

Regardless, it gave Mercedes a run for its money in the latter stages of the race. Russell was having a difficult time on hard tyres, and Charles Leclerc was sat on the Briton’s gearbox at the end without really having enough in reserve to mount an overtake. In the meantime, Carlos Sainz was stuck on that hard-tyre strategy at the end, which proved to be the less optimal run-plan.

Team boss Fred Vasseur reckoned that this was a function of the field spread being so close, stating that “The order is changing because in the last four weekends, you have four different teams doing pole position.

“We didn't change the car massively, which means it is more relative to the track layout, to the compound, to the temperature that you are in the window of plus or minus one-or-two tenths. As the group is mega close, it is making the order in qualifying...”

Aside from improving its performance on Saturdays, the creeping conflict between Leclerc and Sainz needs to be calmed down. Leclerc was unhappy about the move Sainz put on him early on into the grand prix, accusing his team-mate of trying to do “something spectacular” to impress the home fans and boost his position in the driver market. Perhaps Sainz was too aggressive, and the two might need to be read the riot act in anticipation of anything worse.

5. Alpine was surprised by double points as it didn’t expect to perform

Alpine got both cars into the points after a strong weekend that surpassed expectations

Alpine got both cars into the points after a strong weekend that surpassed expectations

Photo by: Andrew Ferraro

“The track is a reference track, let's say. And I don't expect yet to be back within the points, to be frank. We will push hard for that, for sure. But we need to work. We are working hard to recover performance. But it's going to be, I think, a bit difficult here.”

That was Bruno Famin’s pre-weekend assessment of Alpine’s chances at the Spanish Grand Prix. He’s no Nostradamus, or even Mystic Meg, as his expectations were confounded by a second double-points finish in a row. Both Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon broke into Q3 having looked impressive throughout practice, and the car seemed to play nicely with the higher-speed corners on show at Barcelona.

Perhaps Alpine’s car-lightening efforts have borne some fruit, as weight is often a big differentiator around the Spanish venue. Upgrades don’t explain the vein of form, given that the team hasn’t had many in recent rounds, and the drivers weren’t entirely sure why Alpine had suddenly been able to claim ninth and 10th at a conventional circuit either.

Gasly and Ocon stated that the team needed to try and understand its felicitous showing, having been pleasantly surprised by the A524’s pace all weekend. It helped that Aston Martin and RB were considerably off-the-boil, but Alpine also got to do battle with Sergio Perez in the meantime – so something’s clearly gone right.

“I think no one really saw that coming,” Gasly reckoned. “It's nicer when we get to explain why we over-perform rather than underperform. But it's important for us to find these answers because coming here, we definitely didn't expect to have a Q3 car.”

6. Briatore return risks digging up old bones

Briatore made a front-line F1 return at Alpine, but it has dragged up plenty of bad memories with it

Briatore made a front-line F1 return at Alpine, but it has dragged up plenty of bad memories with it

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

After his part in 2008’s Crashgate scandal, Flavio Briatore was banned from setting foot in the F1 paddock for life. It didn’t specify that it had to be his own lifespan, as it was overturned in early 2010; a life sentence for a fruit fly, perhaps.

Briatore has long been involved in F1 since leaving Renault, through his continued driver management stable, but this has been formalised as he returns to his old team in an advisory capacity. Renault Group CEO Luca de Meo installed Briatore to light a fire under the underwhelming Alpine squad, but it also brought back memories of the Italian’s role at the team – the good, the bad, and the horribly ugly.

For balance, let’s remember the good and the bad: Briatore had pretty much zero interest in F1 when he was installed at the Benetton team in 1990 as commercial manager. He oversaw the team’s rise to championship victories with Michael Schumacher in 1994 and 1995, and again in 2005-06 with Fernando Alonso after a spell out of the team in the late 1990s.

But he also brought F1 into disrepute by ordering Nelson Piquet Jr to crash, bringing out a safety car that thrust Alonso to the front of the field in the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix. He and Pat Symonds carried the can; Symonds found his way back into F1 with Marussia and then Williams, and then worked for FOM as a technical advisor. Now, Briatore has been granted his own return.

“I don't really mind about the past; I'm always looking about future on trying what we can do to get our team better. And that's really our goal,” said Alpine principal Bruno Famin. "And what I see with having Flavio as an advisor of the team is the opportunity to have his experience and to help us.”

7, Haas and Uralkali split reaches resolution

Dispute between the company of Mazepin's father and Haas was finally resolved over two years later

Dispute between the company of Mazepin's father and Haas was finally resolved over two years later

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Speaking of digging up the past, here’s something that we’d collectively buried in the vast recesses of our memories: Haas’s terminated sponsorship deal with Russian potash manufacturer Uralkali finally came to the end of a two-year-long arbitration. The deal was cancelled in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, which also resulted in the disposal of the rotationally gifted Nikita Mazepin as its driver.

Uralkali wanted its $13 million fee back from Haas as a result of the deal being terminated, plus damages. Haas believed that its hand was forced by geopolitical matters and thus could not be expected to do so, also claiming that it should receive €8m from Uralkali to cover loss of profits.

A resolution was finally hashed out in a Swiss arbitration court, stating that Haas could retain the sponsorship value up until the termination date of 4 March, refund the remaining balance, and not have to pay any compensation. It cited the “just cause” to terminate the deal following Russia’s invasion.

Uralkali also claimed victory here, stating that “Haas was in violation of the contract”, and “the tribunal also rejected all of the team's counterclaims toward the company". Either way, here’s the situation: Haas kept some money, will pay back most of the $13m to Uralkali, and go about its business. It’s a financial hit, so it’s lucky that Gene Haas has sold off most of a NASCAR Cup team...

8. Mercedes wants police involvement in sabotage claims

Wolff has promised to go 'full force' on finding the individual spreading sabotage claims

Wolff has promised to go 'full force' on finding the individual spreading sabotage claims

Photo by: Sam Bagnall / Motorsport Images

If the F1 circus hadn’t had enough of wild email chains, with a folder purporting to be Christian Horner’s WhatsApp history to the Red Bull claimant sent to nigh-on everybody among the media pack and team management fraternities, then there was another. This time, an email sent to the same mailing list suggested that Mercedes was wilfully sabotaging Lewis Hamilton’s car out of spite over his move to Ferrari next season.

It claimed that it was from a concerned team member, stating that Mercedes’ alleged actions could “ultimately be life-threatening to Lewis”. Mercedes denied that this had come from within the team, and that it was currently attempting to find the culprit with the help of the police.

Wolff did not wish to take the accusations lightly, stating that the team would go “full force” to ensure that it could find a resolution.

“When we are getting these kind of emails, and we're getting tons of them, it is upsetting, particularly when somebody is talking about death and all these things,” he said. “So, on this particular one, I have instructed to go in full force. We have the police enquiring it. We are researching the IP address. We are researching the phone, all of that, because online abuse in that way needs to stop.

“People can't hide behind their phones or their computers and abuse teams or drivers in a way like this. I don't know what some of the conspiracy theorists and lunatics think out there. Lewis was part of the team for 12 years. We have a friendship. We trust each other. We want to win this. We want to end this on a high. We want to celebrate the relationship.”

9. Sainz wants resolution on F1 future decision soon

With time running out on his time at Ferrari, Sainz needs to make his next move soon

With time running out on his time at Ferrari, Sainz needs to make his next move soon

Photo by: Ferrari

During Thursday’s driver press conference, Haas’ Kevin Magnussen pointed to Carlos Sainz as the ‘cork in the bottle’ as the flurry of action in 2025’s driver market has become a little stagnant. It has become a collected wait with bated breath to see what Sainz decides to do for next season.

It seemed for all the world that Sainz had two options: Sauber and Williams. The Swiss team’s transformation into Audi for 2026 is compelling as a manufacturer prospect, and a chance for Sainz to jump back into a well-paid works team after leaving Ferrari. That his father, two-time WRC champion Carlos Sainz Sr, has enjoyed great success with Audi at the Dakar Rally adds an extra familial tie.

Williams, on the other hand, offers Sainz the chance to be part of James Vowles’ regeneration project. Vowles wants a driver with race-winning pedigree to bolster the team’s line-up alongside Alex Albon as he continues to attract personnel that he believes will help Williams return to the front. It’s a matter of whether Sainz believes in Vowles’ project, or believes that Audi can become a genuine force in F1’s upcoming new era.

But Alpine has tabled a late bid for Sainz’s services. The addition of Briatore as an advisor has perhaps given the team the driving force it had lacked in the market, and it’s not inconceivable that Sainz will harbour a return to the team he raced for in late-2017 to 2018.

"The latest is that a decision will be taken very soon. I don't want to wait any longer," Sainz said on Thursday. "I think it's getting to a point where it's obviously taking space out of my head for quite a few weeks and months, and I think it's time to make a decision.”

10. Aston Martin now the front-runner to secure Newey’s services

Could Newey end up at Aston Martin after departing Red Bull?

Could Newey end up at Aston Martin after departing Red Bull?

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

A subplot of this year’s F1 soap opera that has taken a back seat in recent weeks pertains to Adrian Newey’s post-Red Bull career. Since it was announced that Newey - usually referred to interchangeably as design genius and technical guru - would leave the Milton Keynes outfit, there had been much speculation over his next port of call.

Would this be the long-awaited chance to work with Ferrari, a team that had courted his services for many years? Will he repeat his movements in late 2005 and link up with an ambitious project in Aston Martin? Or is there room for a last dance with Williams, the team he left in 1997 to join McLaren? Perhaps retirement beckoned, the magnetar-like pull of fluffy slippers by a cosy fireside...

But Newey doesn’t seem to be retirement material, if that makes sense; one imagines his attempts to switch off on the beach becoming derailed; should a less-than-optimal flow pattern from the ocean waves pass over his sand-sculpted car, his copy of Jilly Cooper’s ‘seminal’ publication Riders may be cast aside for tinkering...

Digressions aside, it appears that Newey has had tangible talks with Aston Martin about the next step to his storied career. It is understood that the team closed its factory to staff to issue Newey with a private tour of its new Silverstone premises, hoping to get the Briton on board. Money will be a stumbling block; Newey can ask for a premium, given his position in the market, but team owner Lawrence Stroll might believe that Newey’s price is the price of success.

Newey would be a welcome addition to Aston as it seeks to stem a disappointing run of results

Newey would be a welcome addition to Aston as it seeks to stem a disappointing run of results

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

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