F1’s ‘El Clasico’: why a race in Madrid is a safer bet than Barcelona

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Formula One has recently announced that it will be racing in Madrid from 2026, signing a ten-year deal with IFEMA MADRID. The introduction of this new circuit, which will use a mixture of public streets and permanent racetrack, puts the current Spanish Grand Prix, held in Barcelona since 1992, in jeopardy.

It represents the latest chapter in the battle between these two major cities, with Barcelona the epicentre in the push for Catalan independence. The movement of F1 from Barcelona to Madrid signifies a major coup in the eyes of the Spanish government. The struggle between the two cities for the right to host races could turn into F1’s own version of ‘El Clasico’.

It is safe to say that initial reception is mixed. Fans are disappointed about the growing number of street tracks on the calendar, as they tend to produce less interesting racing. Furthermore, initial looks at the layout have left many questioning where drivers can make overtaking moves.

On the other hand, it does make financial sense to the organisers. The circuit is close to Madrid’s city centre, and is excellently linked to public transport, improving both the fan experience and sustainability. On top of this, Barcelona was hardly a thrilling racetrack, which exposed F1’s growing problem with ‘dirty air’ more than any other circuit.

The case for Barcelona

The Circuit de Barcelona Catalunya has been on the calendar every year since 1992. It never fails to fill the grandstands, especially with two highly popular Spaniards on the grid, and its combination of low, medium and high-speed corners provides an all-round test for both drivers and engineers in getting the car set-up right. 

The last two races in Barcelona have been decent, with the track largely suiting the new generation of cars, especially since the removal of the much-maligned final chicane. Cars can follow better, make moves down the pit straight, and sustain wheel-to-wheel battles from turns one to four. The nature of the corners allows for different racing lines, letting drivers both defend and attack.

Barcelona has the fourth-longest consecutive streak on the calendar

Moreover, it is undeniable that the cars look good on track in Barcelona. The corners are flowing, not fiddly chicanes and 90 degree turns typical of a street track, enabling cars to unleash their full aerodynamic potential. When a driver and a car are working to the limit in tandem, it is a glorious sight in Barcelona as the car dances round the corners. 

These characteristics also help rookies adjust to the track more easily compared to street tracks, where the barriers are forever looming. Combined with the fact that Barcelona is a staple of the F2 calendar, it makes the step up much less intimidating, levelling the playing field within F1.

One must also consider history. Barcelona has the fourth-longest consecutive streak on the calendar and has also been used for testing in the past. It is very much a classic, old-school track – something that traditional F1 fans adore. At a time when the sport continues to move away from permanent racing facilities, the potential loss of Barcelona from the calendar feels like a slap in the face to these fans.

The case for Madrid

Whilst Barcelona offers tradition, Madrid perhaps provides a more realistic platform for F1 to build on for the future. Street tracks are cheaper to organise, and are better suited to fans, who can commute to the circuit more easily. The Circuit de Barcelona Catalunya is located outside of the city, whereas the Madrid track will be easily accessible via public transport. It is only 15 kilometres from the centre, so a long walk or cycle isn’t out of the picture either.

Madrid is more suitable city to host F1. As previously mentioned, the push for Catalan independence means that there is more certainty and control surrounding a race in Madrid, at least in the eyes of the Spanish government. For them, this is a no-brainer, especially as Madrid is located right in the centre of Spain, with numerous high-speed rail links to other major cities in all directions. 

Madrid provides a more realistic platform for F1 to build on

This ease of transport not only improves the fan experience, but is environmentally friendly, aiding F1’s push for sustainability. Permanent circuits are rarely used beyond racing, but street circuits see daily usage by the general public.

It will also help that Carlos Sainz is from Madrid, which will help with marketing. Fernando Alonso is loved all around the country, but will probably not be racing in 2026. Sainz lives and breathes Madrid, being a passionate Real Madrid supporter. This, combined with the fact that Sainz is one of the most popular drivers on the grid and expected to stay there for several years, enables Madrid to build a platform to ensure that Spain remains a mainstay on the calendar, even after Alonso and Sainz decide to retire.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it; the layout of the Madrid track looks awful on paper. Whilst some corners look like providing a good challenge for drivers, fans have been left wondering where one can overtake. There are no long straights, and even if there is a straight long enough for a driver to consider a divebomb, they are not met with a heavy braking zone, which is a necessity for overtaking and close racing.

However, the initial designs of tracks in Baku and Las Vegas attracted similar criticism but, once cars hit the track, it was clear that they could produce chaotic, nail-biting races. One must not judge a track until we see a chequered flag thrown. Even if the track ends up producing boring racing, the fact that it is a ‘hybrid track’, means that the layout is not set in stone and can be fine-tuned to maximise its potential.

In conclusion, as much as fans might complain about it, the introduction of F1 to Madrid is a necessary move and signifies the direction that F1 is moving in. Those who believe that this is the first step in the removal of old-school track such as Silverstone and Suzuka need not worry. Barcelona rarely produced memorable moments, unlike other classic circuits.

If Madrid can produce quality races, then it will quickly become a fan favourite. It is accessible, in a place that will attract sell-out fans and will continue to grow F1 in Spain. However, good races are essential, and fans and promotors will keep an eagle-eye on this. If not, it risks being tossed aside and turned into a wasteland like the last Spanish track to challenge Barcelona – Valencia. Only time will tell…

Image: Ank Kumar via Wikimedia Commons

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