A midsummer night’s dream
that starts in Spain

A midsummer night’s dream that starts in Spain 01

This year, Barcelona (or rather Montmelò, to be strictly accurate) hosts Formula 1 for the 29th time. It’s an impressive track record. And it hosts its grand prix with the pride of being the spiritual capital of racing in Spain.

The love story between Spain and grand prix racing is a long one. And it has deep-seated roots. Until just a few years ago, when Formula 1 was somewhat less established than it is now, the parallel between the driver and the matador was not a purely abstract one. It all started with the Pedralbes circuit in the 1950s, which was desired by none other than Generalissimo Franco, who at the time held a vice-like grip on the nation. The race also subsequently took place on a street circuit on top of the hills of Montjuich Park, which offers a stunning view of Barcelona and its coast. What Montjuich wasn’t was a paragon of safety. In 1975 the drivers undertook what amounted to strike following free practice. The guardrails hadn’t been properly secured and plenty of overnight work was needed to fix them and ensure that the race went ahead as planned. But it was a fateful year: in the race, a rear wing from one of the cars ended up in the grandstands, claiming five victims. Those picturesque park roads overlooking Barcelona would never see Formula 1 again.

A midsummer night’s dream that starts in Spain 02

Another Spanish Grand Prix venue was close to Madrid, on the Jarama circuit that goes into the annals of history for celebrating Niki Lauda’s first win (in 1974, with Ferrari) as well as Gilles Villeneuve’s last win (1981, also with Ferrari) – nearly a year before the popular Canadian died in a freak accident in Belgium. Jerez, in the depths of Andalucia, was yet another place that played host to a race in Spain: sometimes as the Spanish Grand Prix and sometimes as the European Grand Prix.

And now the Catalunya circuit, north of Barcelona, has held the Spanish Grand Prix since 1991. Leaving aside the nationalist tendencies of Catalunya, which for years has tried to go it alone as an independent country, what really makes this circuit stand out is its technical characteristics. There are many corners, all of them quite different, including some with a great deal of technical and sporting significance.

There’s really only one place to take a breath throughout the whole lap and that is the pit straight, culminating in a braking area from well over 300kph. You then enter a tight right-left complex towards the most important corner of the track: a long right-hander that seemingly never ends; a place where champions have shone and there is maximum lateral energy acting on the driver and car. This is the famous Turn 3. It’s uphill and definitely not the place to try anything clever. But nobody told this to Fernando Alonso in 2013, who undertook an incredible overtaking manoeuvre around the outside: a place where no other car apart from the Ferrari of the time would dare to go. The end result was Alonso’s final win with the Scuderia. After the crest of Turn 3 the circuit provides a series of varied corners, which go up and down, until the final corner that launches the cars onto the pit straight once more.

A midsummer night’s dream that starts in Spain 03

But there’s a deeper meaning to the track than just this description. Barcelona has traditionally got the hot nights of the European summer season underway, setting the sporting and technical scene for the rest of year. Teams tend to bring their first significant upgrades of the year to Barcelona, so it’s logical to expect even higher levels of performance. The first few long-haul events already hinted at the potential, showcasing the speed and aggression that produced some spectacular on-track battles. Some you win, some you lose – but whoever goes quickest at Montmelo rarely suffers from technical difficulties over the rest of the year. The teams all know this, which is why Barcelona will be key to understanding how the bulk of the season goes. For the 2019 range of P Zero tyres, it will be another tough test.

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