- Spanish Grand Prix Preview
Back to BarcelonaLaurence Edmondson May 9, 2013
The Circuit de Catalunya is where Formula One teams come to get answers. It's a favourite venue for testing and the engineers have reams of historical data, not least the two weeks-worth they gathered during pre-season testing earlier this year. Red Bull arrives as favourite for victory but there are signs that Ferrari, Lotus and Mercedes could give them a run for their money and all four teams will have updates to try to shuffle their way up the order. Sunday's result, therefore, should give one of the clearest pictures yet of how the cars stack up.
On FormSebastian Vettel's victory in Bahrain looked an awful lot like a return to his dominant form of 2011 and the end of 2012. However, we shouldn't be handing him the championship trophy just yet, as his main rivals were slightly hobbled over the weekend - Fernando Alonso with a sticking DRS and Kimi Raikkonen with a poor qualifying lap. What we can say with some certainty is that the Red Bull likes harder compound tyres, which backs up its early-season complaints that it was creating too much load for the softer Pirellis to handle. The medium and (new) hard compounds on offer this weekend should suit Red Bull, therefore, and the Circuit de Catalunya has long been a happy hunting ground for the team. But while Vettel looks capable of extending his lead in the championship this weekend, the next two races in Monaco and Canada will offer a very different challenge.
Out of FormFerrari chief designer Nikolas Tombazis gave his team just six out of ten for its performances at the opening rounds of the season. Considering the first four races have included a win in China, it goes to show just how disappointed Ferrari is with itself after Fernando Alonso's DNF in Malaysia and DRS problem in Bahrain. The team knows that to compete with Red Bull it needs to be consistently near the top, and compared to last year, Ferrari's race tactics have fallen short. On the plus side the car's performance is much more competitive than last year so making up the deficit will not seem as daunting. However, its recovery must start in Barcelona.
One to watchAt this track a year ago it looked as though Williams had announced its return to the front end of the grid with Pastor Maldonado's well-deserved victory. By contrast, getting both cars into Q2 this weekend will be seen as an achievement after a terrible start to the season. On the plus side, the team is coming to Spain off the back of a successful straight-line test and has had three weeks to go back to the drawing board and modify the troublesome FW35. In testing the car ran well at the Circuit de Catalunya so the team will also be hoping to draw on some of its pre-season data to set things straight.
Talking PointsTyres (again)
Pirelli has tweaked its hard compound for the Spanish Grand Prix and brought an extra set of super-hard tyres for use in FP1. The result should be more action on Friday morning and more strategy options on Sunday, but both changes have come with a little controversy. Red Bull thinks Pirelli should have gone further and modified more of its compounds, while there is still vocal support for limiting the extra set of FP1 tyres to rookie drivers only. No doubt both topics will be discussed up and down the paddock this weekend, while Pirelli will be hoping for a slightly easier time on track after the numerous tyre failures it experienced in Bahrain.
News that Lotus has lost its technical director James Allison to a rival team is still a nasty blow to the outfit's title aspirations, not to mention its long-term plans. Allison has been instrumental in Lotus' success over the last two seasons and in doing so has caught the eye of the rest of the paddock. Ahead of the season there were rumours he was on the move, especially after Paddy Lowe left McLaren for Mercedes, but he said he would respect his contract. Now Lotus has announced that Nick Chester will take his place, leaving the big question of where Allison will end up. Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes appear to top the list but none of them are letting on. On the face of it Mercedes would make little sense due to its top-heavy engineering structure, but the same could have been said when Lowe decided to join. Perhaps McLaren makes the most sense as the team is searching for someone to look after some of its longer-term projects while Tim Goss focuses on the more immediate issues of 2013 and 2014. Meanwhile, Lotus must prove it can continue to win post-Allison if it wants to keep Kimi Raikkonen on board next season.
All teams will bring updates to the Spanish Grand Prix as they look to turn the lessons they learned in the opening four races into improvements in lap time. Extra attention will be on the struggling teams such as McLaren and Williams, but their progress could be masked if the rest of the grid makes a step forward too. The extra tyres supplied by Pirelli will be especially useful during FP1 as the teams set out to gather as much data as possible on Friday in order to decide which new parts will stay on the car for qualifying and the race.
A return to in-season testing is on the cards and has been gathering support beyond just Ferrari. With new engines and drivetrains next year there is a strong argument for more track time ahead of the season, but 2014 is already looking like an expensive proposition for the teams and in-season testing would only add to costs. Inevitably, Ferrari, which has its own test track, will lead the case for a return while McLaren, which has invested heavily in off-track simulation, is likely to defend the current ban on in-season tests. The big question is whether the issue can be resolved amicably or whether it will turn into a messy row that divides the teams at a time when F1 politics are slightly on edge. A lack of Concorde Agreement means the process for making such decisions is cloudy and that could only add to the friction.
- The Circuit de Catalunya is the fifth venue to host a World Championship Spanish Grand Prix, following on from Pedralbes, Jarama, Montjuic and Jerez
- Sebastian Vettel's victory two years ago was the first time in 11 years that winner had not started from pole
- Drivers are subjected to 3.2G for five seconds through the long turn three right-hander
- The 1986 Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez was the closest ever finish, with just 0.014 separating race-winner Ayrton Senna from second-place Nigel Mansell after 72 laps
- The Circuit de Catalunya was first used in F1 in 1991, a race remembered for Nigel Mansell's bold overtaking manoeuvre into turn one on Ayrton Senna
- Barcelona hosted the Spanish Grand Prix four times between 1969 and 1975 in Montjuich Park. It was a tight and dangerous track that was eventually dropped in 1975 when five spectators were killed after Rolf Stommelen crashed over the barriers
- The park was later extensively re-developed for the 1992 Olympic Games
- The very first race to run under the title of the "Spanish Grand Prix" was held in 1913, although it was actually run to touring car regulations rather than the grand prix formula of the day
CircuitThere is a very good reason why F1 returns to the Circuit de Catalunya year after year to test. Its sweeping corners are a good test for downforce while the long straight requires a low level of drag. Put simply, if you're quick here you can be quick almost anywhere. Unfortunately all those fast corners come at the cost of reducing the chances of overtaking. Turn one remains a favourite place to try a move, while the big stop into turn 10 can be a possibility if the leading car makes a mistake through the tricky turn nine. DRS zones on the preceding straights should add to the fun at both these corners this year and could see one of the most fluid races at the circuit in several seasons.
WeatherA 50% chance of rain on Friday could scupper the teams' plans to gain a decent understanding of their updates and means the extra set of tyres supplied by Pirelli could go to waste. The rest of the weekend looks dry, but temperatures will be at least 10C lower than in Bahrain. The new hard compound has been designed to cope with the cooler conditions and will likely be the tyre of choice in the race.
FIA driver stewardAlan Jones makes his fourth appearance in the stewards' room, having made his debut at the 2010 Korean Grand Prix, and returned in 2011 to adjudicate at Suzuka and in 2012 for the Indian Grand Prix. Best known as the 1980 Formula One World Champion, the Australian raced far and wide, competing everywhere from Can-Am and Formula 5000 to Le Mans and Australian Touring Cars.
BettingSebastian Vettel is the favourite this weekend with odds of 2/1 ahead of Fernando Alonso at 11/4 and Kimi Raikkonen at 9/2. Mark Webber, who has often found form at the Circuit de Catalunya, is very tempting at 9/1 and those with confidence in McLaren's upgrades might fancy a flutter on Sergio Perez to finish on the podium at 12/1. Last year's winner Pastor Maldonado is 250/1 to win this weekend and 9/2 to score a point, reflecting Williams' dismal start to the season.
ESPN PredictionESPN's tradition of throwing caution to the wind and backing the underdog continues as we put our confidence in Mark Webber to bounce back from a tough couple of races. The Red Bull is likely to be the class of the field at the Circuit de Catalunya and Webber has often turned his fortunes around at this track. Don't forget that he should have won in Malaysia so has already shown form this season.
Laurence Edmondson is deputy editor of ESPNF1