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Formula 1 Spanish GP

Barcelona's F1 race is improving, but is it too little too late?

With the Spanish Grand Prix's move to Madrid looming on the horizon, Barcelona is leaving no stone unturned to save its often-criticised Formula 1 race

F1 Barcelona Road Show

As much as the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is a popular test venue with challenging layout drivers enjoy, its ageing facilities and historically poor accessibility have long been a thorn in the side of both people working in the F1 paddock and the fans who pay for the privilege to attend.

The circuit was built in 1991 as part of Barcelona's bid for the 1992 Olympic Games, which completely revitalised the port city and helped it become a major tourist destination.

And from the first race in 1991, Barcelona's custody of the Spanish Grand Prix has seen it become a yearly staple of the series, while also hosting a plethora of other two and four-wheel championships.

Like other European venues, the F1 race too struggled for attendance in recent years until Fernando Alonso returned from his hiatus to rejoin Carlos Sainz, and Netflix series Drive to Survive handed several poorly attended races an injection of fresh interest.

But that popularity boom also put increasing pressure on a facility that was largely left unchanged for decades. With weekend attendance creeping up towards 288,000 fans in 2024, traffic has long been a problem, with long queues clogging up the roads leading from Barcelona's city centre to the Montmelo outskirts and the industrial estates surrounding the venue.

The event reached its nadir in 2022, when unexpectedly large crowds were queuing in the heat for hours to get into the circuit or buy drinks at its concessions, with the circuit soon running out of water. Montmelo's small train station, a 30-minute walk to the track and served by a single commuter line, was also completely overwhelmed.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W15, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-24, Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W15, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-24, Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

That year's series of unfortunate events prompted an apology from the promoters and a demand from F1 to improve its fan experience. Dissatisfied with Barcelona's lack of urgency to bring its event up to modern standards, F1 began looking elsewhere and has since done a deal to take the Spanish Grand Prix to Madrid from 2026 onwards, the same year Barcelona's current contract expires.

But right as Madrid looks poised to become Spain's only F1 destination in the future, things now appear to be finally moving in the right direction in Barcelona.

In October 2022 the circuit and the regional government presented a 50m euro renovation plan, which included improved fan facilities, new hospitality structures and a more robust mobility plan.

The fruits of that labour were starting to be visible at this year's event, which by most accounts ran much smoother. A new traffic plan sorted pass holders from fans much more efficiently and additional train capacity and shuttle buses meant more fans were able to use public transport without too much disruption.

"Right after last year's grand prix we started working on a new mobility plan and changed the system to avoid traffic jams," circuit director Josep Lluis Santamaria told Motorsport.com.

"This year it's working very well. We are also working with the authorities on public transport, and we have more people coming by train. Then we have shuttles that bring down the people from Montmelo station to the circuit.

"For the future, we are working on having a train station close to the circuit and use it for races, concerts and other big events."

The circuit also invested heavily in new hospitality areas, headlined by a 35-metre-high rooftop terrace spanning the back straight, overlooking the third sector of the circuit. Most of the paddock buildings themselves still date back to 1991, although the pit building and main grandstand have now received over 5,000 square feet of solar panels that allow the event to run on 70 per cent sustainable energy, with the target to go up to 100 per cent.

George Russell, Mercedes F1 W15, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W15, Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24

George Russell, Mercedes F1 W15, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W15, Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

The organisers also hosted a popular fan event in the central Placa Catalunya that attracted around 120,000 fans, and a roadshow on Wednesday afternoon on the adjacent Passeig de Gracia featuring a Ferrari F1 demo from home hero Carlos Sainz, attended by 40,000 fans.

The event was a success, although it also drew criticism from environmentalists and from local residents who felt the popular tourist destination doesn't need any more disruptions and visitors that it already has to contend with.

On the eve of the race, the city announced a plan to ban short-term rental apartments by 2028 as a measure against it groaning under the weight of the nearly eight million tourists that visit the cosmopolitan city each year, with soaring housing prices driving many locals out of the centre.

But the authorities are still keen on the race's boost to the local economy and employment, and Santamaria revealed that it was actually the city council itself that pushed for a more ambitious plan to close a 600-metre stretch of one of Barcelona's main arteries, all the way up to Gaudi's iconic Casa Batllo.

If nothing else, it was a statement of intent of how keen the city and the regional government are to keep F1.

"The idea was to bring Formula 1 to the city and to the fans that cannot afford a ticket for a grand prix," Santamaria explained. "We were working with the city and when we started thinking about what to do, they told us to do it right in the middle of the city. F1 are very happy with it, this is what they were asking for."

But while it is undeniable that Barcelona's grand prix is making steps, there remains frustration up and down the paddock that it has taken this long to try and get on par with the rest of the traditional European races, and while vast progress has been made in some areas, there are still several other operational aspects where Barcelona is lagging behind.

The proposed train station behind the main grandstand is a good example. Not many F1 circuits can boast a train line to a major metropole a mere 200 metres from the start-finish straight. But frustratingly, the station is set to be completed after the final race of Barcelona's current F1 contract.

Fans invade the track to watch the Podium ceremony

Fans invade the track to watch the Podium ceremony

Photo by: Sam Bagnall / Motorsport Images

If there had been a more proactive approach to improving its infrastructure and heeding the warning signs, then maybe Barcelona would have remained an undisputed pillar of the European F1 season. Instead, it has lost the Spanish Grand Prix title to Madrid and - like Italy - it is thought unlikely that the country can hang on to both races.

But while Barcelona's position has been severely weakened by F1's enthusiasm over its Madrid project, and F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali told Spanish media that it would be difficult for both to co-exist, Santamaria doesn't feel the track's overdue overhaul has come too late to save the race.

"It's not too late," he said bullishly. "I think we are doing the things at the right moment. When we started with this plan four years ago, we decided to start working in a different way, invest a lot of money and put the circuit at the right level.

"We are now in a better position than two or three years ago and we keep working. What we said we would do, we have done, and we have done more things that were not planned at first.

"We contributed to Formula 1 for 34 years and I think we have enough experience to continue with Formula 1 here in Barcelona, as well as with MotoGP and World Superbikes. Our idea is to extend the contract for many years."

Barcelona seems to have gotten F1's message loud and clear, and it is now on course to host its most successful events yet in 2025 and 2026. In the short term, that is good news for fans who are planning to visit the city and the race but were put off by 2022's horror stories.

But long term, signs pointing towards its rescue operation being too little too late.

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