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In 2005, Carlos Sainz visited the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya for his first Spanish Grand Prix.

Sainz, the son of a rally car legend, always had connections to motorsport. But at age 10, his visit to the race laid the foundations for his future Formula One career.

He met Fernando Alonso, then F1’s new kid on the block on his way to a first world championship. He met Michael Schumacher and got close to the iconic red Ferrari F1 cars for the first time.

Fast forward to 2023, and Sainz finds himself back in Barcelona, behind the wheel of a Ferrari and braced to battle Alonso — his one-time idol — on-track.

“Eighteen years later, to be driving here as a Ferrari driver, with the option of at least trying to get a podium or a win, it’s really special,” said Sainz.

Sainz and Alonso have flown the flag for Spain in F1 since 2021 when Alonso returned from his two-year break from the series. The difference this year is that both have a genuine shot at a big result.

Victory may be a big ask during this current period of Red Bull domination. But to get at least one home hero onto the podium would be a major moment for a booming Spanish fandom — and for both Spanish drivers.

“Especially if one of us is on the top step,” Sainz said.

Familiar territory

The drive into the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is one the members of the paddock know better than most.

Located between nondescript industrial estates near the town of Montmelo, about 45 minutes outside of Barcelona, the track has hosted the Spanish Grand Prix since 1991. It has been one of the most regular circuits for pre-season testing. If there’s any track F1 drivers could attempt to drive with their eyes closed, it would be this one.

It might be one of F1’s most-visited tracks, but rarely is it one of the most-loved. Not until Alonso came on the scene in the early 2000s did fan interest in Spain begin to accelerate. But as he started fighting for championships, winning the title in 2005 and 2006 and sparking ‘Alonsomania,’ F1 came firmly on the radar in Spain.

“Since Fernando arrived with the world championships in 2005, F1 hasn’t stopped being one of the most-followed sports in the country,” said Sainz, whose F1 debut arrived 10 years after his first visit to the grand prix.

By then, the odds of seeing a Spaniard on the podium had diminished rapidly. Alonso had won the race in 2013 — still his most recent F1 victory — but the move to McLaren for 2015 proved ill-fated. While the 2018 scrap between Alonso and Sainz in Barcelona was a ripe narrative for the “Drive to Survive” season one episode titled “The King of Spain,” it was all over seventh place.

Following Liberty Media’s acquisition, Spain became one of the most threatened European events as F1 started looking further afield for new races. There was a need to modernize and keep up with the times of what other tracks were bringing to the table: facilities capable of hosting bumper crowds, as well as big events around the grand prix such as concerts.

Alonso’s absence from the F1 grid in 2019 meant Sainz was the sole Spaniard racing at home. Given the uncertain future of the race, for how much longer was anybody’s guess.

Booming fan interest

How quickly things can change. After securing a new long-term contract in 2021, last year’s Spanish Grand Prix was a sell-out, attracting a Sunday crowd of 130,000. This year, the support should grow more fervent.

That is in no small part thanks to Alonso and the success he has rekindled with Aston Martin. Five podiums in six races puts him third in the championship, only 12 points back from Sergio Perez, carrying Aston Martin’s form in the early part of the year. He’s a genuine podium contender in Spain for the first time in a decade. The number of caps and shirts colored in Aston Martin green around the track, even on Thursday, when fans are in for small events like the pit lane walk, is significantly larger than in previous years.

The support reminds Alonso of when he was with Renault and Ferrari at the very peak of his powers. “There is more expectation this year coming from the fans,” he said. “There is always a lot of good energy in Barcelona for me, and they have always been there; through good results or bad results, I have had a lot of support. I like this motivation to deliver something extra.”

Sainz also said the home fans’ warmth helps “put me in a better vibe” that can lift his on-track performance. “You know the fans are there cheering for you, giving that extra bit of push,” he said. “How much that is worth is impossible to know. But I know Spain is the circuit where I’ve got the most points in my career. It must do something good to me.”

Sainz’s fortunes have also improved through the years. With Ferrari, who he joined in 2021, he has become a grand prix winner and three-pole sitter, regularly in the hunt at the front of the pack. Although the start to this season has yielded no finish higher than fourth, he has outscored teammate Charles Leclerc and was in the fight for the podium in Monaco. His grandstand for this weekend’s race sold 3,000 tickets in under eight minutes.

“I do feel like in recent years, it doesn’t matter if it’s Netflix, me moving to Ferrari, Fernando being successful with Aston, there’s another bit of a boom,” said Sainz. “We need to maximize it.”

F1’s future in Spain

With the race secure until 2026, Barcelona circuit organizers made a commitment to improve the facilities at the track, while the track has instigated a new mobility plan after issues last year getting the sell-out crowd in and out of the circuit.

The track layout has also undergone a minor change for this year, removing the final chicane used since 2007 in favor of two fast right-hand corners in a bid to improve overtaking on the main straight.

“I hope that we’re able to follow with the cars we have a bit better through those last two corners rather than the little Mickey Mouse chicane,” said Lewis Hamilton.

But quite how much longer F1 will remain in Barcelona remains unclear. A rival bid for a race in Madrid has been in the works for a little while. It would be another street race, but potentially taking over from Barcelona is an appealing prospect.

“I’ve heard of the project,” said Sainz, a Madrid native. “I will do my maximum just to make sure there is still a Spanish Grand Prix, independently of where. I still need to go a bit more into the detail of what is going on in Madrid and what they’re planning to do there.”

The prospect of adding another street race to the schedule, particularly at the expense of a traditional track like Barcelona, isn’t something Hamilton felt keen on.

“I do think it’s really important we keep some of the classic circuits, at least the ones that provide great racing,” said Hamilton. “Budapest is spectacular, Silverstone is spectacular, this track (too). We’ve got to make sure we hold on to those, the pillars of what this sport is, in my opinion.”

The chance of home success

The potential for Alonso to end his win drought and score the 33rd victory of his F1 career has been one of the big themes in the early part of this season. For that breakthrough to come in Barcelona would only further serve the narrative.

Last week in Monaco, Alonso said he wasn’t putting any extra pressure on himself for the win to come in Spain. On Thursday, he said Aston Martin was no closer to Red Bull than before, even with the near-miss in Monaco. The battle, really, is to finish third as best of the rest.

But for Sainz, sharing the podium with Alonso would be a big moment. “If we finished P2 and P3, it would be cool,” he said. “The people would just go wild if one of us is on the top step of that podium.

“But even a podium, I would take it as a strong day for Spain on home soil. That would already be really, really good.”

Top photo of Carlos Sainz: Adam Pretty/Getty Images



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