Five storylines unfolding as Formula One returns to Spain this weekend

Verstappen is on happy hunting ground at this circuit, the scene of his first win as a teenager. Picture: David Ramos / Getty Images via Red Bull Content Pool.

Verstappen is on happy hunting ground at this circuit, the scene of his first win as a teenager. Picture: David Ramos / Getty Images via Red Bull Content Pool.

Published Jun 20, 2024


Formula One returns to Europe this weekend with the Spanish Grand Prix. Here AFP Sport assesses five storylines as F1 prepares for the battle of Barcelona:

Max to shine in Spain again?

What a difference a year makes. Max Versappen turned up in Barcelona 12 months ago with his third title already virtually wrapped up, the Red Bull invincible, the rest of the grid floundering in their wake.

Twelve months on the pack has mercifully closed in, with Ferrari winning in Australia and Monaco, and McLaren's Lando Norris claiming a hugely popular maiden win in Miami. Verstappen bounced back to reassert his authority last time out, shading Norris in Montreal to lift the Belgian-born Dutchman 56 points clear of Leclerc in the drivers' standings.

Verstappen is on happy hunting ground at this circuit, the scene of his first win as a teenager for Red Bull back in 2016. With the aerodynamic nature of this more traditional circuit tailormade for Red Bull he will be eyeing a hat-trick of successes and fourth in all to get the perfect start to this first of a hectic triple header, with Austria and Silverstone coming up over the next two weekends.

But Red Bull will be looking to his teammate Sergio Perez, recently handed a two-year contract extension, to start performing after the number two driver's recent dismal form. To compound the Mexican's plight, he carries a three-place grid penalty over from Montreal.

Ferrari's Montreal blip

After Charles Leclerc's emotional first triumph in Monaco Ferrari fell back to earth with a bump in Montreal with two DNFs.

But fresh from last weekend's Le Mans 24 Hours triumph watched by a bleary-eyed team principal Fred Vasseur, the Scuderia, with Spaniard Carlos Sainz in front of his home fans, will be anxious to draw a line under that Canadian catastrophe and prove they are legitimate title contenders at a track where Fernando Alonso grabbed the last of their 12 wins back in 2013.

Leclerc called for cool heads to prevail after Csnada. "As much as we didn't overreact after Monaco, we shouldn't over-react after this one, but this one hurts."

Buoyant McLaren

Miami-winner Norris and Oscar Piastri have plenty to smile about. McLaren have beaten Ferrari in four of the past five races.

Less than four seconds separated Norris and Verstappen on the line in Montreal, and less than a second in Emilia Romagna. That's catapulted the Briton into third, eight points adrift of Leclerc, in the title race.

"The track has its challenges with a real mix of slow and high-speed corners, but I think we're in a good position to maximise our performance and get the most out of the car. We've got our eyes on the prize, let's go!" an eager to get on with the show Norris said this week.

'Dumb' Mercedes winging it

Pole for George Russell in Montreal, followed by third place in the race ahead of teammate Lewis Hamilton, a record-equalling six time winner in Catalonia, gave hope that Mercedes are back in business.

Technical director James Allison put the uptick down to a new front wing. "The thing that has bedevilled us from the start of the year, we couldn't get the car good in both fast and slow corners. What has changed in the last two or three races is that we've modified the car to give crucial balance to the driver," he told F1 Nation podcast.

"This is more of an 'oh god how could we have been so dumb' type moment where you see the path forward and you should have seen it sooner. It is becoming a car we can fight with and that's a real positive, going into the next part of the season," reflected Hamilton, who was kicking himself after what he described as "one of the worst races I've driven. Lots of mistakes".

Allison added: "I think we can definitely get the car this season to be properly competitive and to fear no tracks. But I'd be surprised if we're on pole in Barcelona."

Spotlight on Bearman, Antonelli

Ferrari-backed teenager Oliver Bearman enjoyed a starring role as super-sub for the unwell Carlos Sainz in Saudi Arabia, the Briton jettisoned into the scarlet cockpit hotseat at the last minute and taking seventh place.

His journey to a possible F1 seat next season will take another step this weekend with Haas calling him up for first practice in place of Nico Hulkenberg on Friday. And it is only a matter of time before Mercedes' 17-year-old prodigy Kimi Antonelli gets his chance in a practice session after the FIA tweaked the age rules which previously barred anyone under 18 from obtaining an F1 Super Licence.

Reports suggest the young Italian is in the running to replace the Ferrari-bound Hamilton next season.


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