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Qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix may not have produced a surprising pole sitter, but the rest of the grid saw a shakeup that left some stunned.

Who had Lando Norris at P3 on their bingo card? Or Charles Leclerc out in Q1 for the first time since 2019? What about a Mercedes and Red Bull knocked out after Q2 (or Lewis Hamilton and George Russell being involved in a pit straight incident)? Or Fernando Alonso making a critical mistake that impacted the remainder of his qualifying, slating him at his worst start of the season?

Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya may be familiar territory for the grid, but between a mixed up grid, car upgrades and a track with high tire degradation, there’s plenty to keep your eye on come Sunday. Here are the top questions we’re asking ahead of the 2023 Spanish Grand Prix.

Can Verstappen capitalize on another Pérez setback?

Sergio Pérez said after his disappointing run to 16th in Monaco, where he was lapped twice by Verstappen, that he could afford no more zero-scores to stand any chance of winning this year’s championship.

Spain isn’t quite looking like a zero-score, but after a qualifying that puts him 11th on the grid, Checo’s chances of beating Verstappen to the title appeared to grow slimmer. The momentum that had been built through the opening four races, ending in his brilliant Baku win, has fizzled.

After his off at Turn 5, Pérez couldn’t get his tires back into the right temperature window for the final lap in Q2, leading to his early exit. But he wasn’t as downbeat as he was last week when his Q1 crash left him last on the grid. “It is frustrating, but it’s not Monaco,” Pérez said. “It’s a race where we can race and get a lot of points tomorrow.”

Pérez can certainly fight his way back up the order, given the pace of the Red Bull car. Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz tipped the Mexican to make it back to second and still give Red Bull a 1-2 finish. But even in that case, it would be another swing of points toward Verstappen, who already has a 39-point buffer at the head of the standings.

Verstappen has been looking forward to this run of races for some time. Spain marks the start of a sequence — excluding Canada — of more “traditional” tracks that are more to his and the Red Bull car’s liking. Pérez must translate his street track prowess to tracks like Spain if he wants to revive his title hopes.

Tire degradation is high in Spain, opening up more strategy options and perhaps different threats to Verstappen at the front. But the fashion in which the Dutchman looks after his tires is one of his most underrated talents. Even if Sainz were to get the jump on the run to Turn 1, with Pérez so far back, it’s hard to see Verstappen not pulling out more of a lead at the top.

Will Sainz or Alonso lead Spain’s home podium hopes?

It’s truly a toss up.

While Carlos Sainz has better track position with a P2 start for Sunday’s home grand prix, Fernando Alonso reckons the Aston Martin has “a lot of pace” and appeared competitive despite damage to the floor of his car.

Ferrari brought upgrades this weekend, but Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya doesn’t suit the car given the high-speed corners, something the Prancing Horse is struggling with this season. Sainz expects Sergio Pérez to finish ahead of him: “I think as soon as I get back to the engineers, they will tell me that the simulation suggests that the Red Bulls should still finish ahead of us. And then it will be a fight with Lando, the Mercedes, the Astons. I don’t know exactly what happened to them today, but they normally have really, really good race pace.”

Alonso sees himself moving up the grid, but kept his predictions modest when talking with Sky Sports, saying, “Maybe the podium is too far away… Top five I think is something we should target.”

Will upgrades change the competitive order?

Spain marked the arrival of a handful of F1 car upgrades, most notably on the Ferrari, which has abandoned its “bathtub” sidepods in favor of a more Red Bull-style design. Aston Martin also brought a handful of upgrades, while Mercedes has a first proper chance to get a read of the package it debuted at Monaco.

These updates have all been long-awaited for the chasing teams as they attempt to cut the gap to Red Bull at the head of the pack. But it’s never the work of a moment, particularly when the deficit is as large as it is right now. Both Mercedes and Ferrari made clear it was more about getting a better baseline for car development rather than taking an immediate leap forward.

It was clear in qualifying the updates hadn’t dramatically changed the competitive outlook. Verstappen didn’t even need to complete his final Q3 lap to take pole. But Sainz reveled in his best qualifying of the season so far in P2, saying it showed the updates are a “first step” for Ferrari.

“It’s been a bit of a tough weekend, getting used to the new upgrades, getting them to work on the sweet spot of the car,” said Sainz. “Finally to have hooked it up through qualifying felt like good progress.”

The race should give us a clearer read on what the upgrades mean for the competitive order behind Red Bull, and how they may impact the battle for second in the championship which (without wishing to play party pooper) looks set to be the fight that sustains this season. Ferrari will want to try and dial out some of the inconsistency its drivers find with the SF-23 car, while Aston Martin and Mercedes will aim to build on their already-solid Sunday pace.

Can McLaren capitalize on Norris’s unexpected P3?

Lando Norris was shocked after he clinched third place in qualifying and quickly tamped down expectations for race day. When Sky Sports asked the McLaren driver what his target would be on Sunday, the British driver said, “Hold on for dear life.” Sky followed it up by asking if it was in regards to the P3 position, to which he responded “top 10” — with a smile.

The 2023 season didn’t start off according to plan for the Woking-based crew, but in the span of two races, Norris jumped from being out in Miami’s Q1 to top 3 in Spain. It may have seemed like an improvement on Saturday, but Norris said the car hasn’t “changed much at all,” simply that it “suited the conditions.” He felt more confident with the rears and said “things started to come alive” in qualifying. But determining what that’ll look like on race day is a challenge.

Norris will have a Red Bull, two Mercedes and two Aston Martins not far behind him, and said Saturday that McLaren often is the fifth or sixth best team on the grid.

“I’m not really expecting a huge amount better than that tomorrow, but I think we have a chance of racing Alpines and maybe some of the other cars,” Norris added. “I don’t think we’re necessarily racing Astons. Ferraris will be tough I think…We weren’t expecting to be P3 today, and we were. But at the same time, (if) I made a one-tenth mistake and I’m five positions back, you probably wouldn’t be here wanting to talk to us.”

What can Pérez and Leclerc realistically achieve?

The impact of those upgrades will also play into what’s possible for Pérez and Leclerc, the two drivers most out of their usual position on Sunday’s grid.

Even from P11, Pérez will be targeting the podium, although overtaking in Barcelona is traditionally quite difficult. The challenge for him will be to clear the slower cars as quickly as possible before Verstappen pulls out too big a gap at the front of the field. “There are a lot of cars out of position,” said Pérez. “So it can be an interesting race.”

As for Leclerc? The setback in Spain only added to the run of frustrations he has faced so far this season. Leclerc said there was “definitely something strange” about his car in qualifying, indicating the issue could go beyond the tires. Ferrari will work to understand what exactly happened.

Leclerc admitted it would be an “uphill” challenge for him from 19th on the grid, only ahead of Williams rookie Logan Sargeant. But he noted the high tire degradation could help things. “If we do a good job on that, we are going to improve our chances,” he said.

The bad news for Leclerc? It’s not been a particular strength of the Ferrari car this year at all. It typically falls from being the second-quickest car in qualifying to fourth-quickest in the races. Clawing back to get some points would be a decent Sunday for him.

Who will capitalize on the shook-up top 10?

Lance Stroll and Esteban Ocon are two names to keep in mind during Sunday’s grand prix.

Compared to teammate Alonso, Stroll has struggled more this season, reaching a high point of fourth at the chaotic Australian Grand Prix. But he hasn’t recorded a points finish since Azerbaijan in April. Aston Martin made setup changes to Stroll’s cars overnight, and the Canadian said Saturday that he found a solid rhythm as he out-qualified Alonso for the first time this season.

Stroll pointed out how much opportunity is available for Sunday’s race, particularly given how some of the regular top dogs are out of place. The margins to P2 were fairly close Saturday with Stroll, who qualified P6, recording a 1:12.994 while Sainz set a 1:12.734.

Ocon qualified seventh with a 1:13.083, but don’t count him out of these mid-pack points finishes just yet. Alpine is looking to build off of its Monaco magic.

What started as a rough season has started to turn for the better as Ocon recorded his third F1 podium last weekend. Alpine is arguably the fifth fastest car, which logically places eight drivers ahead of Ocon and Pierre Gasly, but with a mixed up grid, Ocon could capitalize on this track position for a second consecutive week.

Ultimately, strategy will be key on Sunday, particularly given how drivers will manage their tires.

Will the track changes improve overtaking?

Everybody has been talking about Sector 3 in Spain. The decision to remove the final chicane in favor of two fast right-handers — which was actually the old layout before 2007 — was fueled by a hope to make overtaking better at the end of the main straight.

The drivers have been lukewarm about whether it will have the desired effect. Although the chicane did make it tricky to get a run on the car in front heading onto the main straight, following through fast corners is also difficult. If a driver loses ground on the car in front through the two right handers, by the time DRS is activated on the main straight, the gap may already be too large to get back ahead.

One way the final two corners could improve overtaking is by increasing the levels of tire degradation. The stresses of putting the tires, particularly the front-left, through those corners lap after lap will take a toll and cause more wear. It is for that reason drivers are still expecting quite a bit of overtaking tomorrow.

“You’re going to get overtaking I think, because the (tire degradation) is so high,” said Williams’s Alex Albon. “You’re going to see people on two stops. Maybe some if they’re really good at it on a one-stop.”

“Degradation is going to be key, (and) tire management,” added AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda. “If you do good management, I think it will be different.”

But as Lance Stroll put it, the new corners are at least “more exciting to drive in qualifying with the last corner being on the edge of flat.”

Asked if he’d tried to keep it flat, Stroll said: “Close, but I had a little ass nerve that was pulling my right foot back off the pedal a little bit.”

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(Lead photo of Charles Leclerc: Andrea Diodato/NurPhoto via Getty Images)



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