Goodbye Barcelona? Why Madrid Grand Prix doesn’t spell a certain end

Thomas Maher
The start of the 2022 Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona.

Barcelona's F1 future is under intense scrutiny following the arrival of Madrid onto the calendar.

Madrid’s arrival onto the F1 calendar from 2026 brings Barcelona’s future into sharp focus, with the Catalunya circuit’s contract not yet expired.

For the first time since Jarama held its final race in 1981, Madrid will once again host a Formula 1 race in 2026 after the announcement that a new facility around the IFEMA Exhibition Centre will incorporate street and traditional circuit elements.

From 2026, this new facility will host the Spanish Grand Prix until at least 2035, having signed a 10-year deal with Formula 1 – an announcement that will understandably knock some of the stuffing out of authorities at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya and the Catalunya region.

Does Madrid’s Grand Prix spell the end for Barcelona?

Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya, as the Spanish Grand Prix, has been a mainstay on the calendar since 1991 and was widely used as a testing venue up until recent years.

Between the extensive testing and the circuit’s flowing layout, the races often ended up being processional and it led to a reputation for producing poor racing – meaning it’s never been a circuit that commands fan passion in the same way as some other circuits of similar vintage.

But last year’s move to revert the layout to remove the universally hated final chicane was a step in the right direction and generated some excitement once again.

The Catalan circuit currently has a contract keeping it on the calendar until 2026 inclusive – meaning two races in Spain that season for the first time since 2012, when Barcelona and Valencia both held races.

Spain might be a large country with two leading drivers on the grid in Carlos Sainz and Fernando Alonso – but the United States (with three races) it is not, meaning the justification for two races is much harder to make.

Italy currently holds two races, having had an unlikely return of Imola in 2020 due to the COVID-19 crisis, but both Imola and Monza’s recent contracts have been drib-drabs of a year or two at a time as F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali has made it clear circuits can’t get complacent.

“It’s a nice problem to have, to have multiple cities – some in the same country – wanting to host a Grand Prix,” Domenicali said at the announcement of Madrid.

“It shows the value of our proposition. But we need to keep focused on the reason for our success and make sure we aren’t complacent.”

Have Catalan authorities got complacent about their race? Well, a wander around the circuit and its facilities leaves you in no doubt as to its age and status as an old-school venue, but its capacity of 140,000 matches the aim for the Madrid circuit.

But a major blow for Barcelona is the fact the circuit is the antithesis of the direction F1 has gone with recent calendar additions and expansions. Rather than being a city-based semi-permanent facility that has become very much in vogue, Barcelona’s circuit is a permanent track some distance outside the city itself – located in an industrial estate in the small town of Montmelo.

If well-loved historic tracks like Spa and Monza have to continuously fight hard to stay on the calendar, it’s no surprise that Catalunya – the circuit equivalent of a functional pair of well-worn slippers – also has to fight.

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Is Barcelona off the F1 calendar once contract expires?

Well, officially, Barcelona does not have a race after 2026 as it stands, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be one.

PlanetF1.com understands that organisers for Barcelona are in active negotiations with F1 at the moment, and those negotiations aren’t coming to an end just because of Madrid’s arrival.

As has been made clear for every venue – whether new or old – it’ll come down to whether F1 feels it is in the sport’s interests to have two races in Spain once Catalunya’s contract expires, but the possibility of both venues holding races can’t be ruled out at the moment.

“For the avoidance of doubt and to clarify here, the fact we are in Madrid is not excluding the fact we could stay in Barcelona for the future,” Domenicali said.

“Looking ahead, there are discussions in place to see if we can really extend our collaboration with Barcelona, with whom we have a very good relationship, for the future.”

F1 was at pains to point out how F1’s booming popularity in Spain lends itself further to the argument for two races. In 2023, Spain’s TV audience of 77 million was an 84 percent increase on ’22.

“Spain was a market that just a couple of years ago, was not in the centre of our eyes,” Domenicali continued.

“Now it is very important. We signed a new deal with Spanish broadcaster DAZN until at least the end of 2026.”

Once upon a time, races used to represent the national interest of the host country but, in recent years, F1 has shown it’s willing to host Grands Prix at city or region-level.

Think how the Brazilian Grand Prix became the Sao Paolo Grand Prix, the Mexican GP became the Mexico City Grand Prix, the San Marino Grand Prix became the Emilia-Romagna GP – and the likes of Miami, Las Vegas, and Abu Dhabi.

Therefore, it’s not hard to imagine that, having lost the Spanish Grand Prix, Barcelona could host the Catalan/Catalunya Grand Prix to represent their region and put an end to the tricky political unease that has occasionally made itself felt at the Grand Prix itself.

But does the Catalan region care enough to invest further into their circuit and accept the situation of having lost the Spanish Grand Prix?

Pere Aragones, president of the Generalitat de Catalunya, has expressed confidence F1 will continue visiting Barcelona for a few more years as the discussions are “making progress and working positively.”

Indeed, he also confirmed that the arrival of Madrid doesn’t change anything about the Generalitat’s negotiations or actions.

“Sometimes from Catalonia we are a bit provincial because, when I don’t know who is sneezing, we all look that way,” he told Catalunya Radio.

“We don’t need to be looking in one direction all day long. We have many assets in this country and we have to vindicate them.

“If there can be Grands Prix in other places, that is a matter for F1. We are working with F1 at the Montmelo Circuit, there is a very good relationship, this 2024 will be a Grand Prix and from 2026 we are working to ensure the continuity of the Grand Prix held in Catalonia.”

Reiterating his confidence Barcelona will stay on the calendar, he said: “We will announce it when we have signed it, the rhythms will not be set by outsiders.

“We are making good progress, the work is positive, and the future of F1 in Montmelo will depend on the circuit and F1, it will not depend on anything else.”

But the pressure is now all on Barcelona, given that F1 has found another home in Spain regardless. With the Barcelona track liked rather than loved, F1 fans aren’t likely to clamour for its inclusion in quite the same way as the likes of Spa or Monza.

With Madrid given the chance to imprint itself on the calendar over the next 10 years, Domenicali couldn’t have made it clearer in his summation of the situation as he signed off from the Madrid announcement.

“I’m very pleased that it’s a deal that takes us to 2035 – it’s a long time,” he said.

“This is the objective as F1, with either new or more established promoters. It allows everyone involved to plan the future and invest in the future as it is a guarantee for the promoter, for our partners, for our teams and for our sport. It gives everyone long-term visibility.

“If you look at the past, the renewals were two years, three years or five years maximum. Now all our new deals are going in the direction of being very long. And if they are short, there is a reason.”

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