What we learned from Friday practice at F1's 2023 Spanish GP
Formula 1 cars have logged countless testing laps around Barcelona over the years, but Friday practice was the first time they had sampled the circuit without the unpopular final chicane since 2006. While it was business as usual at the front for Max Verstappen and Red Bull, the revised layout is set to have a profound impact on the rest of the weekend
Max Verstappen and Red Bull did as they have for the rest of Formula 1 2023 so far and dominated the opening day of practice at Barcelona, quickest by a big margin over long runs and topping the times overall.
The field appears very close behind, however, and there is hope – quite a bit from Red Bull’s rivals and surely for neutral observers too – that forecast wet weather could shake-up the action over the rest of the weekend.
There was also the return of a major talking point from 2022, plus analysis on major upgrade packages at several squads.
Here’s everything we learned from Friday practice at the 2023 Spanish Grand Prix.
The story of the day
Friday’s F1 running got underway in glowing warmth and blue skies in the early afternoon, with Verstappen, rather familiarly, crushing his opposition on his way to topping FP1 – by a massive 0.768s over team-mate Sergio Perez. Esteban Ocon and Nyck de Vries finished third and fourth in the opening session, which was treated as a glorified test run by many squads.
Alonso, sixth in FP1, initially took to the track with two front-end-mounted aero rakes on his Aston Martin, which were being used to measure the airflow coming off the front wheels. Lance Stroll had small cameras pointed at his front tyres and sitting on his front floor edge, as Aston gathered in the data on its front wing, nose and rear wing upgrades.
Ferrari had attracted the most attention ahead of FP1 with its surprise sidepod updates here, but when it came to the early track action these were only fitted to home hero Carlos Sainz’s SF-23. The Italian team was splitting its car arrangement to get back-to-back measurements of the impact of the changes.
Ferrari is sporting revised sidepods in Spain
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
Perhaps the most notable part of FP1, which also featured the teams sampling the prototype Pirellis coming for full use from the British GP and were also available for FP2, was several drivers reporting a return of porpoising through Barcelona’s final corner.
This has gone back to being a high-speed turn and Verstappen, Perez and McLaren’s Lando Norris complained about their machines bottoming out in FP1, with George Russell doing likewise at the start of FP2.
In that second session, Ferrari upended the usual norms by heading out straight away on the soft tyres – Leclerc’s machine now redressed in the new sidepods too. Sainz led the way for the Scuderia, initially by a whopping 0.601s, before his team-mate closed in and then forged ahead when they completed the typical mid-FP2 qualifying simulation runs.
It's likely Hamilton will switch to the higher downforce Mercedes wing package come the sessions that matter here as the added downforce will better help preserve tyre life
Before this, Verstappen had gone quicker than both Ferraris using the mediums and when he came to run the softs halfway through FP2 he set a session-best 1m13.907s. This was eventually followed by Alonso, while Nico Hulkenberg produced a surprise with third for Haas, 0.270s off the pace, as the Ferrari pair were shuffled down to sixth and seventh by the end of the single lap work.
Mercedes had a quiet second session, other than Russell going off in the Turn 10 gravel early-on when he was unsettled by coming across Oscar Piastri going slowly on the racing line at the long left-hand Turn 10 hairpin. Russell finished eighth with Hamilton 11th in FP2 – but the seven-time world champion did at least finish the day with the quickest time in the track’s opening sector.
The difference between the Mercedes drivers came down to wing choices – with Hamilton running a slimmer rear wing and overall downforce package compared to Russell. This boosted him on the straights but cost so much in the corners Hamilton was having to lift in the long Turn 3 right and was losing time in Turn 10, as well as through the apexes of the final corners.
It's likely Hamilton will switch to the higher downforce Mercedes wing package come the sessions that matter here as the added downforce will better help preserve tyre life, again set to be the critical factor for the race outcome on Sunday.
Russell took to the gravel when he came across Piastri on the racing line at the Turn 10 hairpin
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images
Overall FP2 order
Wet weather Verstappen’s only likely threat for race victory
Based on what was logged in the long-run data-gathering that ended FP2, Verstappen is practically untouchable – even within Red Bull as his average pace on the soft tyres compared to Perez was 1.034s better each time. Although the Mexican driver ran for a lap longer (13 vs 12) on his soft-shod high-fuel stint, his tyres started to go off much earlier and his pace dropped as a result.
Verstappen’s advantage over the rest is just as impressive, with the long run averages for all the teams on the softs set out in the table below.
In fact, one paddock insider suggested the Dutchman has such pace in hand he could get away with one-stopping while the rest are almost certainly going to have to two-stop and still be quicker. The suggestion that he’s “on another planet” race-pace wise right now is borne out in the times logged.
Soft tyre averages
|1||Red Bull||1m19.296s||12 laps|
|3||Aston Martin||1m19.968s||9 laps|
|5||Alfa Romeo||1m20.586s||11 laps|
It is, however, very close behind. Mercedes reckons it’s actually better than it looks on its long-run pace as Russell’s softs stint was impacted by running in traffic and his pace improved once he had cleared it. The team feels it is right in the mix with Ferrari and Aston.
Verstappen was on convincing form all day and will take some stopping if weather isn't a factor
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Ferrari was also running in lower downforce trim compared to Red Bull today, which, again, comes at a tyre preservation cost. It may change its arrangement for the rest of the weekend, as data Autosport has seen suggests the red cars were losing significant chunks of time in the Turn 3 and Campsa (Turn 9) fast rights – as did Haas, in the spotlight thanks to Hulkenberg’s FP2 pace.
In the other VF-23, Kevin Magnussen produced a rather decent medium tyre long-run late in FP2, with Haas looking solid and competitive on that compound – where Verstappen was 0.111s quicker on average and Hamilton 0.192s slower – according to one rival team. Not all the teams tried the mediums on high fuel and this included Aston and Ferrari.
Although Hamilton fears he might not escape Q2 in qualifying, his squad believes the set-up work it will conduct overnight will bring it into the fight over a single lap with Mercedes’ typical 2023 rivals. The team feels it has improved the W14 with its long-awaited upgrade now it has seen it in action on a ‘normal’ circuit, but, as Hamilton explained on Thursday, it was never expected to close the gap to Red Bull.
Drivers may well be forced to not run closely behind rivals in order not to punish their left-side tyres even more than in the hammering they are already taking through the final corners
One thing that may help Mercedes and the rest here this weekend is the weather. As both FP1 and FP2 wore on, big clouds built up around the northern end of the track and dropped the temperature. Team weather predictions currently have both Saturday and Sunday sessions at a pretty reasonable chance of being wet.
With the corner types at Barcelona so demanding, wet weather could have a big impact on the pecking order as the drivers will be really challenged.
“I’ve definitely tested in the wet here and it’s tough because it’s all high [and] medium speed corners,” Hamilton said on this topic yesterday. “So, if it’s a wet race it will be really exciting.”
But if the rain holds off, there will be much analysis of the impact of the track layout changes for this year – with the clunky, low-speed chicane removed.
There is a consensus in the paddock that the final corner sequence is now brutally demanding on tyres – plus driver fitness, with Perez saying “it's quite tough on the neck” – and that this in fact may make overtaking harder. This will be for different reasons than previously, as it has made this venue much more front-limited.
Will the tyre wear penalty caused by carrying so much more speed through the final corner create extra headaches for teams?
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images
Therefore, drivers may well be forced to not run closely behind rivals in order not to punish their left-side tyres even more than in the hammering they are already taking through the final corners. Here and in Turn 3 the left front is under most pressure, while Turns 5 and 12 damage the left rears too. Such conservative pursuit tactics would inevitably reduce the likelihood of overtaking if they come to pass.
In FP2, even Verstappen was lifting through the final corner – but his RB19 is working so well he was still going through with 75% throttle. Next up, Alonso was briefly down to 50% throttle. It will be interesting to see if anyone is able to take the last corner flat in qualifying when engine modes are set to the maximum…
What they say
Max Verstappen: I'm positively surprised for the overtaking [with the changes to the final corners] and overall I think we had a very good day. The car was in a very good window. Of course, you try to finetune a few things here and there. But short run, long run, everything looked very good. From my side I felt very comfortable in the car and looking after the tyres. I still need to look at the laptimes of the others, but from my side it was a good day.
Fernando Alonso: It's so tight that I think one or two things will put you in a completely different spot on the classification. So don't pay too much attention on the times. We went through all the programmes that we had before free practice, which is the good thing – learning about the tyres. The track is a little bit slower maybe then what we predicted so there's still more time to find, more tweaks on the set-up. But it was a productive Friday.
Charles Leclerc: It has been an interesting day, as we had some new parts to try, so we ran very different programmes between the two cars. It was a productive day as we got through all the tests we wanted to do even if it’s difficult to read where we are in terms of performance right now. We will keep pushing to try and make the steps forward that we want in order to be more at ease with the car tomorrow and then we will be able to see where we are. For today, it’s clear that although Red Bull has the edge over everyone, the rest of the field is very, very tight.
Lewis Hamilton: I think from the pace that I have today it's a struggle for me currently to get into top 10 [in qualifying]. But hopefully, we'll do some changes overnight. It's very close between us and that like middle – of after P5 back to P10. It's not gonna be easy, that's for sure. Wet weather could always be a helping hand, given that we're not as quick as we'd like to be. I'm just going to try and do the best job again tonight to make the right set-up changes and there's definitely improvements I know I can make with this set-up.
Hamilton knows Mercedes need to make changes
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images
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