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Formula 1 Spanish GP

Why Spanish GP will tell us so much about F1 2024 title battle

Sunday's 66-lap race will tell us much more than qualifying about the change of trends in F1

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38

Lando Norris's pole position for Formula 1's Spanish Grand Prix, on a weekend when Red Bull had been expected to dominate, has triggered renewed hope of a super-close season.

With the aerodynamic demands of the Barcelona circuit appearing to be the perfect stomping ground for the Red Bull RB20 to stamp its authority on the rest of the field once again, that Max Verstappen did not take pole has surprised a few.

Even Verstappen himself admitted that this was a weekend where he had expected to be comfortably back on top following some recent more challenging times.

"OK, but not good enough, clearly," he said after being beaten to the top spot. "These kinds of tracks, I was hoping, of course, to be ahead. But the other teams are catching up.

"We've seen this already in the last few races, so it's definitely a lot harder. We need to do everything perfect to be first. We just need to bring more performance to the car."

But while Red Bull losing out to McLaren in qualifying has triggered some optimism that things are now super close at the front of the field, it would be wrong to jump to conclusions based on single-lap performance.

Instead, the final judgement about the state of play at the front of F1 can really only be properly made after the Spanish GP has played out, as it is on Sundays and not Saturdays that Red Bull has traditionally excelled anyway.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, pole man Lando Norris, McLaren F1 Team, talk after Qualifying

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, pole man Lando Norris, McLaren F1 Team, talk after Qualifying

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

In fact, it is McLaren's long-run pace in hot conditions and management of tyre degradation that has proven to be an Achilles Heel before – which means how Sunday's 66 laps play out will tell us much more about the change of trends in F1.

McLaren has certainly made a lot of progress in improving tyre life, but there have been times – like the first stint at Imola – where Norris was nowhere near able to match the level of consistency that Verstappen could manage.

Barcelona's challenging nature, the likely use of softer compounds and high temperature will thus provide a pretty good litmus test of where things really stack up.

McLaren CEO Zak Brown said on Saturday that he felt the squad's previous concerns about warmer places derailing its chance was a thing of the past.

"We used to really dislike heat," he told Sky. "We've never totally solved any problem, but we made a huge improvement in that area.

"So, weather conditions don't concern us too much. But I think a nice little breeze would certainly be preferred on the pitwall."

For Brown, while nothing is won yet, the situation is certainly a world away from how things looked at the start of the season when almost the entire paddock was anticipating Verstappen winning all the races.

Brown added: "I think we all thought it was game over, the first couple races of the year.

"You've got to say they're still favourites, and he's [Verstappen] got a nice lead. But we're slowly gnawing away at it. And there's a lot of racing to go. So, I think we'll be putting on a good Formula 1 show for the fans the rest of the year."

Layout impact

But beyond getting a clearer understanding of true performance from race pace, a factor that cannot be discounted is the impact of the track layout on how things have shaken out so far.

Barcelona's mix of high, medium and low-speed corners is one that was going to prove challenging for all of Red Bull's rivals – so there is an element of it being even more encouraging for McLaren that it has been so quick.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20

Photo by: Sam Bagnall / Motorsport Images

"We typically like the really fast tracks," said Brown. "So, if you went down the list and kind of picked category A, category B, this would be a little bit more in category B. So, it's obviously very encouraging."

McLaren will not be getting too carried away just yet though, and it's also important to remember that Ferrari's disappointing form in Barcelona, where Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz could only secure places on the third row, may well be more down to car characteristics than it falling behind in the upgrade battle.

The Prancing Horse has struggled with high-speed bouncing, and Sainz reckoned that the signs had been there earlier in the year that fast tracks with long corners were not a happy stomping ground for the SF-24.

"When we look at Suzuka, China - medium high-speed tracks, long corners, it reminds me of Barcelona - and there we were also quite a big step [behind]," he said.

It is something that Leclerc thinks explains more about where Ferrari is at, rather than Canada and Spain pointing to the Maranello squad having dropped off the fight at the front for the rest of the campaign. But he says there is no denying that McLaren is now a serious force to be reckoned with.

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-24

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-24

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

"If you look at the gap between McLaren and Mercedes, it's more or less what you would expect from the last few races," said Leclerc, reflecting on the trends seen in Barcelona.

"So, I think it's more that we didn't perform the way we should have had this weekend and we need to look into it.

"But there's definitely a clear trend that McLaren is getting better and better.

"And, especially on a track like this which is normally reputed to be a track that is quite representative of the performance of the cars throughout the whole season, we've got to work on that."

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