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Formula 1 Spanish GP

Did the Spanish GP's faster final sector help or hurt F1's racing?

Restoring Barcelona's fast final sector was universally applauded by Formula 1 drivers, but did it also improve the Spanish Grand Prix's spectacle as hoped?

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19

F1 decided to bypass the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya tight chicane and instead restore its original final sector, with two fast right-handers leading onto the main straight, in a bid to improve the show.

It was a popular decision among the drivers, with Mercedes' George Russell saying it "turned one of the worst corners in F1 into one of the best", but the jury was still out on whether or not it would spice up the race.

As it happened, the race was far from a thriller, with Max Verstappen cruising to a leisurely 24-second victory over Lewis Hamilton. But the event still saw plenty of action that kept famished F1 fans moderately entertained, resigned to finding their joy elsewhere in a season crushed by Red Bull.

PLUS: Why Verstappen's 2023 Spanish GP win wasn't as simple as it looked

Last Sunday's race featured a reported 107 overtakes for position, up from 75 last year and 51 in 2021, the last edition before the ground-effect machinery.

So, on the surface returning to the original lay-out paid off, but opinions are still divided on whether or not following through Turn 14 was actually that much easier.

McLaren team boss Andrea Stella, whose driver Oscar Piastri was involved in a tight midfield battle, thought it was still difficult for drivers to follow others.

"As soon as [Alpine's Pierre] Gasly was able to pass Oscar he just flies away, meaning that actually [he] couldn't pass him before because it was also very difficult to follow," said Stella.

When asked if that was down to aerodynamics or tyre wear, he said: "I think it's a combination of both, your tyres more easily get hotter in these conditions, on a track that generates so much energy on the tyres.

"And also, it's the pure aerodynamic disturbance. Even if this generation of cars is better than it was in the past, still this year in particular it looks like you have a significant loss while following."

Kevin Magnussen, Haas VF-23, Pierre Gasly, Alpine A523, Nyck de Vries, AlphaTauri AT04

Kevin Magnussen, Haas VF-23, Pierre Gasly, Alpine A523, Nyck de Vries, AlphaTauri AT04

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

But while the final turn may not have aided overtaking directly, it indirectly made the teams' tyre headache more severe. Barcelona has always been a track that devours Pirelli's rubber, with the front left suffering through the long radius Turn 3 and the more instantaneous, high-speed Turn 9.

Add the reinstated Turns 13 and 14 and now you get not two but four right-handed corners that punish the front-left corner, which forced the teams to re-think their tyre strategies.

For while the 2022 edition saw plenty of pitstops, teams all converged on similar three-stop strategies starting on softs and then going to the mediums. Only Haas' Kevin Magnussen went in a different direction, unsuccessfully using the unpopular 2022-spec C1 hard tyre.

For 2023 Pirelli made the understeer-inducing C1 softer and much closer to the C2, and that made all of Pirelli's Barcelona compounds - the C1, C2 and C3 - viable for the race.

Fred Vasseur, whose Ferrari team again struggled with tyre management and with inconsistent car behaviour, remarked "it was the first time that we have so many different strategies" up and down the grid.

It is this variance in tyre strategy, something which has been sorely lacking in 2023, that allowed drivers to pass and re-pass each other depending on how fresh their tyres were.

"Here the tyres every lap they lose almost one and a half tenth," said Stella. "That's why everyone pitting [for] new tyres could overtake somebody else."

Pirelli's Mario Isola explained: "The reason that we have three compounds is to have tyre compounds that are all possible for the race. That is exactly what happened, because we saw a mix of strategies using the hard, the medium and the soft.

"With the three compounds each team could select the compounds that were more suitable for their car, so if a car is stressing the tyres more, you should go towards the hard compounds.

"That is why we decided to move from two to three compounds many years ago. I believe that is more exciting to give them the possibility to choose and to plan the race for different approaches."

Barcelona's tweaked layout has further altered the wear rate between the front and rears, making it more front-limited, and Isola thought it achieved its desired effect.

Tyres outside of the Pirelli motorhome

Tyres outside of the Pirelli motorhome

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

“Sector three was famous for stressing the tyres in traction, but you [now] stress the tyres more in lateral [movement], so it’s a different balance," he said.

“In Barcelona, the front-left tyre is the most stressed, so the wear is the limiting factor. Clearly, with this last corner that is much quicker, you wear it a bit more.

"As you saw we had quite a good number of overtakes on track and that is exactly what we want."

Midfield teams, who would otherwise have been perennially stuck in a DRS train, were relishing the opportunities provided by the added variance in tyre strategy.

"It was good to see any type of combination that you can imagine and people discussing if it was two, three pitstops," said Alfa Romeo's head of trackside engineering Xevi Pujolar.

"To have a bit of uncertainty is good for racing. It was giving us opportunities to make progress, even if we were starting outside of the points, on a track that in theory is difficult to overtake on.

"But then with tyre advantages it was actually possible to overtake, so that I think has worked reasonably well.

"Now if we come next year, and everyone goes with the same strategies and tyres, I think the show probably will not be as good anymore."

The key to replicating Spain's tyre conundrum, then, is ensuring all three selected compounds are in the right window for that particular weekend if Pirelli and F1 want to avoid boring one-stoppers with a clear, optimal strategy.

But as Isola explains, that is easier said than done when more and more street tracks are added to the calendar where lateral load is much lower.

A prime example was Baku's Azerbaijan Grand Prix, where an early safety car forced almost the entire field onto the same, easy one-stop strategy that starved the race of any action.

"Usually, on a street circuit, you need softer compounds because the type of tarmac is smoother than on a circuit, but because of the regulations, we have to work around the range of homologated compounds," Isola said.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

"Not all the street circuits are the same. Monte Carlo is a very severe circuit. Baku is stressing the tyre because of the high speed but you don’t have very long, very fast corners.

“I am also thinking about Montreal and Abu Dhabi; you have 90-degree corners and it’s a layout that is stop and go, so you put a lot of energy into the rear tyres but not the front tyres."

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So, while Barcelona offered a glimpse of how exciting the battle in F1's tightest ever midfield could be, don't hold your breath on a repeat in Montreal.

But perhaps July's run of traditional circuits Spielberg, Silverstone and Spa-Francorchamps can inject some more life into this 2023 season.

Additional reporting by Matt Kew and Alex Kalinauckas

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