Verstappen comfortable in Barcelona as Sainz hopes to showcase his talent in home F1 race

MONTMELO, Spain (AP) — The Spanish Grand Prix is where Max Verstappen broke through as a teenager and has gone on to win the past two years. It's the perfect place to suppress any hopes his Red Bull could be beatable.

The race just north of Barcelona this weekend kicks off a run of three grand prix in as many weeks and five in a six-week span. Given that tight schedule, Formula 1 teams have less time to tweak their cars. So the upgrades they are bringing to Spain could be key to determining who has the edge as the summer heats up.

Verstappen has won six of the nine races this season and recorded his 60th career win in Montreal two weeks ago. Overall, the Dutchman has won 50 of the last 75 races and holds a 56-point lead over Ferrari's Charles Leclerc going into Sunday’s race.

Some races have been practically over once Verstappen sped off the starting line, but there have been signs that his chasers could at least make this season a bit more interesting.

Mercedes and McLaren led the pace for some of the Canadian GP before Verstappen steered clear. And two of the last four races have gone to other drivers: McLaren’s Lando Norris won in Miami after Verstappen clipped a chicane and had to pit, and Leclerc won his home race in Monaco.

Spain, however, usually lets the flat-out fastest cars dominate. Twenty-four of 33 races here have been won by pole-sitters, and no driver has won from starting farther back than fifth. It is also well known to drivers because preseason testing used to be held here.

The 4.6-kilometer Barcelona-Catalunya Circuit was made even more fit for speed last year when a chicane that was unpopular among drivers was replaced by two fast turns ahead of the main straightaway.

“This is normally a track that is a bit more straightforward," Verstappen said on Friday. "People have a bit more information about a track like this, it’s been on the calendar for a while."

Verstappen has fond memories of the track where he showed the stuff of a future champion by winning the 2016 Spanish GP on his Red Bull debut. That made him F1’s youngest race winner at age 18. He added wins here in 2022 and 2023.

In Canada, Norris lamented not taking his chance to get a second win. He hopes McLaren can match the Red Bulls for pure speed.

“The whole season we’ve been strong, at every race,” Norris said. “If we can get the car performing like it has done in the past on high-speed circuits, then I’ll be confident. We should be able to fight.”

For Mercedes’ George Russell, who finished third in Montreal, a good result here should translate into better things to come.

“This is going to be a real test, and if we can be fast this weekend that bodes really well for the season,” Russell said.

Ferrari seeks to bounce back from a frustrating weekend in Canada, where Leclerc and Carlos Sainz struggled in qualifying and neither finished the race.

Sainz's showcase

With Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin so far unable to reproduce their fine 2023 season, the home fans will likely place their faith in Sainz. He is trying to claim his second win of the season after the Australian GP in March, when an engine fire knocked out Verstappen.

Sainz is the best driver who does not have a seat guaranteed for next season, after seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton agreed to switch Mercedes for Ferrari in 2025. So Sainz is in need of strong performances, especially ahead of teammate Leclerc, to showcase his talent.

Montmeló's future

This is the first race in Barcelona since it was announced that Madrid will be getting a new F1 race in 2026. That sparked questions about the future of the Spanish GP that has been held at Montmeló since 1991.

F1 president Stefano Domenicali has said the race in Catalonia could stay on the calendar beyond 2026, when its current contract expires. Even so, the Catalan regional government, which holds an 83% stake in the Barcelona track, has moved to spruce up the permanent track.

Some 50 million euros have been invested to upgrade areas for teams and for fans, including changes to the control tower and pitlane, as well as hospitality and the installation of solar panels.

“We are not worried about Madrid, our competition is the entire world,” Roger Torrent, the leading government official in charge of the track, told The Associated Press.


Hamilton clocked the best time in Friday's second practice, ahead of Sainz, Norris, Pierre Gasly and Verstappen.

F2 driver Oliver Bearman drove the first session for Haas. The 19-year-old impressed in March when he drove for Ferrari at the Saudi Arabia GP after Sainz fell ill.


AP auto racing:

Joseph Wilson, The Associated Press