The three-week gap between the Chinese and the Spanish grands prix gives each of Formula One’s 11 teams an opportunity to sit back, take stock and assess their season so far.
It is easy to forget, given the excitement that surrounded the start of the new season, that hundreds upon hundreds of team employees have travelled in little over a month to four different countries for four different races.
A return to Europe, where the vast majority of those members are based, represents a well-earned chance to take a breather from the intensity of battle, with this break the second longest of the season behind the four-week summer gap between the races in Hungary and Belgium.
Well, we refer to it as a “break,” but—in true F1 style—the work that goes on behind the scenes over the next three weeks will arguably be just as hectic and relentless as what we see occur on the track over a grand prix weekend.
And in 2014, that is truer than in any season in recent memory.
The Spanish Grand Prix, as the first European event of the season, has traditionally been the weekend which sees the introduction of major technical upgrades. With the Circuit de Catalunya known to be a thorough test of a car’s aerodynamic efficiency, due to its mixture of high, medium and low speed corners, the Barcelona weekend is where hopes and dreams will either be realised or crushed.
With Mercedes having dominated the first handful of races of the year, allowing Nico Rosberg and then Lewis Hamilton to blow the opposition away, the emphasis is now on the remaining 10 teams to quickly eradicate the performance deficit and ensure that this season does not become a waste.
Worryingly, however, you could only pinpoint Force India, Toro Rosso and perhaps Marussia as teams—apart from Mercedes—that could declare themselves content with their starts to the season.
And with the greatest of respect to each of those outfits, you would hardly expect them to take the fight to the Silver Arrows for the remainder of the season due to their sheer lack of resources and historical failure to challenge at the very front of the grid.
Mercedes’ traditional rivals and the most likely teams to challenge for the title, Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren, have all encountered inconsistencies and dropped easy points so far this season. This, despite securing at least one podium each, which are common sporting symptoms of a desperation to recover ground before it’s too late.
The early struggles of all three teams in getting a firm grip of the 2014 regulations could mean that they have more scope to improve as the season progresses in contrast to Mercedes, which began the season with a much higher baseline.
This, coupled with Mercedes’ historically patchy rate of development even in the days when the team were known as BAR, Honda and Brawn GP, could see a shift in power as the season progresses.
After all, Jenson Button only managed two further podiums for Brawn after winning six of the first seven races in 2009 as he came under severe pressure from teammate Rubens Barrichello and the Red Bull pair of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber as the campaign reached its climax.
Both McLaren and Red Bull have recently implied that 2014 could take a similar path, with Eric Boullier, the former’s racing director, telling Jonathan Noble of Autosport:
Definitely (McLaren can return to the level of performance which saw the team claim a double podium finish in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix).
This is 100 per cent sure because we know already back in the factory what is going to happen in the next three or four races.
I know what is going on, so I know we are on a very good development rate.
What we picked up now since a few weeks is good. Very good.
I hope it is going to come sooner than later. In the windtunnel already we have picked up a lot of performance.
Back in the factory it is fine. It is just a question of preparing everything and shipping it to the track.
In the article, Noble claimed that “the rate of downforce improvement unlocked in Woking in recent weeks has been greater than it has achieved at any point over the winter,” backing the view that the potential for rapid improvement is vast.
Boullier’s comments came only weeks after Vettel, the reigning world champion, told Sky Sports F1 following the Malaysian Grand Prix that his Red Bull team were “making bigger steps” in terms of development than the current world championship leaders.
But for all the talk surrounding the development of the predators, you would be forgiven for assuming that the prey, Mercedes, are allowed to improve their car too—but might decide not to.
That was the claim of Mark Hutcheson, the former race engineer of David Coulthard at Red Bull, who appeared on Sky Sports’ Midweek Report programme. Hutcheson suggested that because Mercedes currently have so much pace in hand over the rest of the field, having not been forced into pushing their cars to the limit so far this season, they have no urgency to improve the W05 car.
If that was not ominous enough, consider this statistic, courtesy of F1 journalist Ian Parkes:
Come across interesting stat in writing a story - no team to have won opening 4 GPs has never had one of its drivers then fail to take title— Ian Parkes (@ianparkesf1) April 23, 2014
The Spanish Grand Prix is looking increasingly like the resumption of normal service rather than a potential defining point of the Formula One season.
Rarely has something so important been so meaningless.