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The Spanish Grand Prix Evolved From A Procession Into A Spectacle

George Russell of Mercedes defends against Lando Norris of McLaren during the F1 Grand Prix of Spain.
Peter Fox/Getty Images

Forget the actual race. Look at the top six qualifiers at the Spanish Grand Prix, look at the top six finishers, and then draw some conclusions without the benefit of any race context. Lando Norris beat out Max Verstappen for his first pole position since 2021, yes, but then couldn't quite convert that into a win. Putting that swap aside, P3 to P6 lay exactly in the same order it had after qualifying: Lewis Hamilton and George Russell, Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr. Considering the historically processional nature of the Spanish GP, Max Verstappen must have gotten a better start than Norris and coasted his way to the win.

That would be half correct. After the start, Verstappen was already ahead of Norris—only, George Russell got ahead of him. Even on second viewing, Russell comes out of absolutely nowhere. Hamilton gets swarmed by Ferraris, and as Norris attempts to cling to the race lead around the outside of Verstappen, Russell darts through the narrow window left between Norris's McLaren and Leclerc's Ferrari, and goes around the outside of Norris.

The race lead didn't last for very long. Mercedes has improved on pace, at least with a grand sample size of two: a rainy Canada showing and Spain. That Hamilton has overcome his fast-lap issues this weekend—right after Mercedes received an anonymous email accusing the team of sabotaging him—only helps solidify their case. But even with Sergio Pérez and his soon-to-be extension languishing right at the bottom of the points, Verstappen in his Red Bull is the guy to beat, and he passed Russell on the third lap, coming out of the DRS zone into turn one.

Here's a good time to re-familiarize oneself with the layout of the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, or at least the first corners. The drivers come down the main straight, a DRS zone, into a sweeping right-handed turn that follows immediately into a left-handed one. In his breakdown of why the Spanish GP was often boring, Formula 1 YouTuber Chain Bear noted that while there was a hard braking zone before the initial turns, the nature of the turns meant that it was still unpleasant for overtaking—cars often drift into one another when going through them side by side.

A few things have changed to make Barcelona more overtake-friendly since that video, most notably the ways in which F1 cars generate downforce, but the reputation reigns strong enough that when there are a plethora of overtakes it is still a pleasant surprise, and turn one, no matter how scrappy, was the site of most of them. Early in the race, Sainz overtook Leclerc around the outside of turn one and was lightly bumped for his troubles; on lap 19, Sainz was lightly bumped again, this time as the overtakee, as Hamilton passed him by taking the inside line.

So on lap 35, when Norris failed to come wheel-to-wheel to his former rookie classmate, Russell, the overtake might've waited for lap 36. All of the notable overtaking in the race was done either in that corner or on the straight immediately preceding; if Norris, undoubtedly in the faster car, waited another lap, he would be able to pass Russell easily. Instead, Norris stuck to the back of Russell and managed to get on the inside at turn two. They entered a game of tug-of-war. As they made the broad right-handed arc back into turn three, Norris was firmly stuck around the outside of Russell and made it ahead in the short runway down to turn four. As they swept through turn four, Russell took the outside line and came out ahead into the sharp left of turn five. Norris held back; as they came back around turn five, Norris went down the inside line and left Russell behind.

To call back to roughly 20 laps before, Norris's race engineer had asked him, "Lando, it's possible we could cover Russell this lap. What do you think?" Norris responded, "No. I think we need to go and get Max." The chosen tire strategy didn't work out in either direction, seeing as Norris ended up running sixth after his initial pit stop, but the sentiment was clear. As good a fight as Russell put up in second place, Norris had already picked his target. Russell was merely a temporary block between Norris and Verstappen, and that fact proved itself later, when Hamilton, en route to stretching his podium season streak to 18 years, passed Russell easily around turn one.

But we've already talked about Norris, who has been pushing Max Verstappen so much this season that Red Bull's grip on the Constructors' Championship is slipping away. The turning point for Norris happened long ago. This race goes out to the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, which no one would ever have predicted for enabling one of the most exciting wheel-to-wheel sequences in recent memory. Norris picked his peers, and in turn, Barcelona picked its own.

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