8 May 2014
The Spanish Grand Prix usually marks the start of the European F1 season and this year is no exception. It’s a relief to see the circus back in Europe for the first time since September 2013 and racing at a proper F1 circuit after the monotony of Sepang, Sakhir and Shanghai. The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya has not always produced great racing, but in recent years it has been interesting to watch the event’s profile gather strength as Fernando Alonso rose in Spain’s national consciousness. In the last few seasons, the stands have been rammed to the rafters with eager españoles urging on their talisman. Alonso’s podium at the Chinese Grand Prix three weeks ago will hopefully give the faithful cause to return this weekend.
Downforce, downforce, downforce
Every inch of the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is well-known to the F1 fraternity such is the extent of pre-season track testing that takes place here. However, in spite of their intimate knowledge of the place, the circuit still retains the ability to confound the teams and drivers: a well-setup car can easily be thrown off-balance due to the rapidly changing wind conditions. Moreover, Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya’s abrasive asphalt and its combination of slow, medium and fast corners will show up any cars that lack aerodynamic downforce or are tough on tyres.
The approach to Turn 1 offers the best overtaking chance on the track due to the hard braking zone leading into the first corner, which is preceded by the main DRS zone on the start/finish straight. We’ll see plenty of wheel-to-wheel action here. The exit of Turn 1 is also significant because as the cars power out of the corner and into Turns 2 and 3, the rear can start sliding. This is likely to be even more the case in 2014 given the big reduction in rear-end downforce. Any cars with unpredictable power delivery will be more susceptible to oversteer here, which will in turn increase surface tyre temperature. The rest of Sector 1 is characterised by medium-speed corners that reward cars with good downforce. Sector 2 is notable for the secondary DRS zone. This offers a further overtaking opportunity into the hard braking zone for Turn 10 at the beginning of Sector 3. The final sector of the lap demands a car with driveability and good traction in order to best contend with the succession of low-speed turns. Cars that are kinder on their left rear tyre in particular will be better-placed to manage the constant pattern of acceleration and deceleration that goes with the stop-start nature of Sector 3. Having said that, Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is primarily a front left tyre-limited track due to the long, fast right-hander at Turn 3 and the medium-fast right-handers of Turns 4 and 9, which place extreme loads on this tyre. The front left tyre will therefore give up its grip first.
A blast from the past: The Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona
Who can forget that iconic image of Nigel Mansell wheel-to-wheel with Ayrton Senna on the start/finish straight in the 1991 Spanish Grand Prix? Sparks flew as these great drivers raced only inches apart down the straight before Mansell claimed the inside line at Turn 1. Three years later, Michael Schumacher managed to claim second place in spite of a gearbox failure that meant he was stuck in 5th gear by brilliantly driving around the problem. Two years later, in 1996, Schumacher produced one of his all-time great drives in the torrential rain in Spain, finishing 45 seconds ahead of his nearest competitor. In the process, he pulled off some bold overtaking moves and stormed into the lead after a poor start.
All change to the competitive order in Spain?
What to expect in 2014? Unusually, this season the teams arrive at Barcelona without the aid of the mountain of real-world testing data that they usually have available as pre-season testing this year took place in Jerez and Bahrain. This will probably mean more running than usual in the early practice sessions as the teams hunt for their car’s sweetspot. Many teams will also be seeking to validate the first major new parts and upgrades to their cars since the start of the season. However, while the raft of upgrades is likely to alter relative performance, it is unlikely to significantly change the competitive order as many teams are bringing upgrades. Having said that, Lotus and Sauber are probably best-placed to move up the order because they are bringing major upgrades to recover from their poor starts to the season. Sauber will rollout a new lightweight chassis while Lotus will have engine-mapping improvements and a new bodywork and cooling package. Toro Rosso, on the other hand, are not bringing any major upgrades, so are vulnerable to falling down the order.
Track layout means that aerodynamic downforce and tyre preservation are more important factors for success than power output. Mercedes will surely retain no.1 status, but the question is that given their power advantage will count for less, how close can the chasing pack get to Hamilton and Rosberg? My thinking is that there’s a good chance that the lead Red Bull will snap at the heels of the second-place Mercedes in the race, especially if Mercedes endure more severe rear tyre degradation in Sector 3. Red Bull will struggle to overtake though given their short gear ratios and straight-line speed deficit. They may also struggle in Sector 3 if Renault has not sufficiently improved powertrain driveability. Nevertheless, I expect Red Bull to be highly competitive in the first half of the lap given the RB10’s strong chassis. Expect them to strengthen their position at the head of the chasing pack. Like Red Bull, Ferrari is likely to find itself struggling in Sector 3, albeit due to the F14-T being somewhat tough on its rear tyres. Yet, given that Alonso went so well in Shanghai – another front tyre-limited track – that surely bodes well for Barcelona. I expect Ferrari, especially Alonso, to mix it with Red Bull.
The Mercedes customer teams, Williams, Force India and McLaren, are likely to find themselves running behind the leading Red Bull and Ferrari as their major advantage – power – is a less-important performance variable this weekend. However, Williams are planning a major upgrade, which will probably keep them near the front of that fight. Force India’s VJM07 is well-known to be kind on its tyres, which will give them strategic flexibility, perhaps even pushing them towards a two-stop race. McLaren’s aerodynamic downforce deficit, however, is likely to mean that they will be at the back of the battle between the Mercedes-powered customer teams.