Is 'boring' Barcelona that bad? Five of F1's best Spanish GPs there


Are all F1 races at Circuit de Catalunya really that dull? We look back at five of Barcelona's best over three decades of racing

Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna Barcelona

Mansell and Senna provide the Barcelona fireworks

Grand Prix Photo / Dominique Leroy

Gaudi’s towering Sagrada Familia and beautiful Park Güell, the beguiling La Rambla and leafy Montjuïc Park are all part of Barcelona’s charm.

However, in sharp contrast to the Mediterranean metropolis is the Circuit de Catalunya complex 45 minutes away, a slightly anodyne early ’90s affair which has never inspired much passion in the fans that watch the race, the drivers who take it on or the team staff who work there. Few tears have been shed since F1 announced the Madrid street race would be muscling its way onto the calendar from 2026, putting the long-term Spanish GP venue at risk.

The Barcelona circuit, which has been used over the years to rack up millions of F1 testing miles due to its wide variety of corners, has a reputation for rarely turning up exciting races – but is it actually true?

Mika Häkkinen’s last-lap heartbreak in 2001, Michael Schumacher’s fifth gear miracle and Damon Hill’s emotional ’94 win all came in Spain – and none of these are even in our top selection.

We make the case for Barcelona via some Catalunyan thrillers below.


1991 – Mansell’s Spanish Masterclass

1991 Spanish GP Nigel Mansell Williams Ayrton Senna McLaren

Barcelona started its F1 tenure with a bang

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Image

On its debut as a brand-spanking new venue in 1991, Gerhard Berger took pole for McLaren by two tenths ahead of WilliamsNigel Mansell with the Austrian’s team-mate Ayrton Senna just behind – with a precocious Michael Schumacher qualifying his Benetton fifth in just his fourth F1 race.

The GP starting on a damp track under brooding skies meant both the circuit and conditions were relative unknowns – the first Barcelona race was set for an intriguing contest.

Senna slipped into second to follow Berger at the start, while a fearless Schumacher overtook Mansell at Turn 5. He very soon began attacking Senna too, showing little reverence for a pair of grand prix heavyweights.

From the archive

In a furious tussle Mansell then got Schumacher back round the outside of Turn 12 on lap two, before next honing in on Senna.

From there developed one of F1’s most iconic shots, as the Williams driver slingshotted out the final corner on lap four to run wheel-to-wheel with the McLaren down the straight, sparks flying, tyres just centimetres away from one another with Mansell on a less-than-dry line.

The Brit made the corner to pull off a brilliant pass, but then had it all to do again, running once more behind the two McLarens after a slow stop when the field changed to slicks.

Senna then fell off the track all by himself in the last turn, before Berger wilted from the ‘Red 5’ challenge, sliding wide as Mansell dived up the inside on lap 20.

From there the Williams man didn’t look back, coming home with over a 10sec margin on eventual runner-up Alain Prost.


1996 Spanish GP – Schumacher schools the field

Michael Schumacher Ferrari 1996 Spanish GP

Schumacher put in one of his greatest races at Barcelona ’96

Grand Prix Photo

In the intervening five years between his first Spanish GP and the ’96 race, Schumacher had become F1’s undisputed king after taking back-to-back titles with Benetton – before promptly leaving the team for Ferrari.

The Scuderia’s 1996 F310 was as slow as it was awkward-looking, but the German had still managed to wrestle the car to three podium finishes in the fight against the dominant Williams FW18 of Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve before Barcelona, the seventh race of the season.

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I was there when… 1996 Spanish GP

I was there when... 1996 Spanish GP

Circuit de Catalunya Spanish Grand Prix, June 2 1996 It had been a fairly quiet weekend, hitherto – if you discount serial backmarker Forti making a fuss about a new…

By Simon Arron

Rain is often a racing leveller, and the German had shown his true skill by qualifying on pole in wet conditions for Monaco that year by half a second before crashing out.

In Spain next time out though, the new Ferrari man had another chance to display what he was made of after starting third on the grid behind the Williams machines at a monsooned ’96 Barcelona event.

The Ferrari showed its troublesome side with a clutch issue flaring up at the start, a pile-up ensuing behind the slow Schumacher that took out three competitors. It was a race of high attrition from there, with only nine cars running by lap 21.

In the meantime the fightback was on for the double world champion. Sixth on lap one, by lap 9 he was up to second, right behind Villeneuve.

It took two laps for Schumacher to get past the Canadian, and from that point onwards there was no match.

While the rest of the field slithered and struggled in the appalling conditions, the imperious champ took a famous first win.

Only six cars finished, with nearest challenger Jean Alesi 45sec off – only the Frenchman and third-placed Villeneuve managed to stay on the lead lap.


2012 Spanish GP – Maldonado takes Williams’ most recent F1 win

Pastor Maldonado Williams Spanish GP 2012

A scintillating performance brought Maldonado his only F1 win in Barcelona

Everyone loves an underdog sporting story, and it doesn’t get much better than the exuberant Pastor Maldonado’s stunning Williams win at the 2012 Spanish GP.

Though the 2009 GP2 champ had a clear turn of speed, he also had trouble keeping it on the road – a single point in his debut year at Grove showed as much.

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Things didn’t improve much results-wise in early 2012, but there was clearly an underlying pace – the Venezuelan crashed out of the Australian GP when fighting for fifth with Fernando Alonso, and he scored points in China.

Still, the F1 world wasn’t prepared for the man from Maracay to put his updated car second on the grid in Spain, which became pole when Lewis Hamilton was disqualified for not having enough fuel to give a sample post-session.

Alonso lined up second, and beat Maldonado off the line, but the Williams remained in hot pursuit.

That carried on till the second round of pitstops, when a blistering set of laps from Maldonado meant he executed a masterful overcut on Alonso, who had also been held up by traffic.

The Williams driver stayed first until the end, claiming a sensational win – still the team’s most recent GP victory. “It was my time,” he told Motor Sport years later.


2016 Spanish GP – Verstappen stuns F1 on Red Bull debut

Max Verstappen Red Bull 2016 Spanish GP

Youthful Verstappen takes first F1 victory at Barcelona in 2016

By the moment of his shock move to Red Bull in the early stages of 2016, the sporting world was already aware that Max Verstappen was a racing wunderkind – but no one realised just how soon he would make his mark.

A clause in the young Dutchman’s contract meant he could leave the Red Bull fold if he wasn’t promoted to the senior team by 2017 (what would have been his third year with brand).

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This meant that after Daniil Kvyat’s indifferent start to the 2016 season, Christian Horner and Red Bull’s young driver guru Helmut Marko made the ruthless decision to demote the Russian in favour of Verstappen. The move instantly paid dividends with his first race at the 2016 Spanish GP.

The Dutchman qualified a solid fourth in his Red Bull, ahead of both of the Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen.

A decent points finish would have been expected by the Milton Keynes bosses of the new charge, but they got much more than that.

Through the opening corners, what should have been a Mercedes procession was thrown into disarray by a collision between the dominant pairing of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.

Both Silver Arrows were out, and so Ricciardo led from Verstappen until pitting at the end of lap 10. Both the Australian and Vettel decided to commit to what was believed to be the optimum three-stop strategy.

However, it gradually emerged that the Pirellis were more durable than first thought, so that for the last 22 laps the two-stopping Verstappen and Räikkönen (in that order) were left to fight it out at the front.

Despite the Finn’s best efforts, the youngster soaked up immense pressure to take an incredible debut win – in his very first race for Red Bull.


2022 Spanish GP – Verstappen prevails through drama

2022 Spanish GP startr

2022 Spanish GP: all action

Grand Prix Photo

Before eventually falling to Verstappen and Red Bull, the early stages of the 2022 season were highly entertaining, as demonstrated by that year’s Spanish GP.

Charles Leclerc started on pole for a rejuvenated Ferrari, looking to take a third win of the season, joined on the front row by Verstappen.

The Monegasque maintained his lead at the start, but there was drama behind as Lewis Hamilton collided with Haas‘s Kevin Magnussen.

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The winds of change then moved in as a gust caught out Carlos Sainz, who slid off at Turn 4 on lap six  – and then Verstappen did the same three laps later.

Rejoining in fourth, the Red Bull driver’s woes were compounded by the fact his rear wing DRS was malfunctioning, hampering his ability to overtake.

This didn’t stop him from then engaging in a titanic scrap with George Russell on the fightback, the Kings Lynn native seemingly making his Mercedes twice as wide as he held off both Red Bulls from lap 13 to lap 31, before finally succumbing to the faster cars.

Meanwhile Leclerc, who had been enjoying a 13sec lead out front, suddenly saw his race fall apart – he retired with engine failure, letting out a cry of anguish on the radio.

This left Perez in the lead, who looked like he might be on for a win until Red Bull ordered him to move over for Verstappen: “That’s very unfair,” he told them team, while still acquiescing.

Meanwhile behind, Hamilton was scything through the field following his Haas collision, at one point challenging for third with impressive race pace, before an overheating issue caused him to drop back to fifth.

Boring Barcelona indeed!