After a three-week break F1 heads to Spain for the fifth round of the 2010 championship.
At this race we will learn a lot about how the rest of the season is likely to pan out for two main reasons:
Firstly the Catalunya circuit is the ultimate test of a Formula 1 car. It’s for this reason this track has been the most popular venue for testing for a long time now. Hence why most drivers could probably drive the track with their eyes closed.
The car needs to have very good aerodynamic efficiency to cope with the track’s high speed and long corners. Also Catalunya is one of the most punishing tracks on tyres. The tyres have to withstand heavy load in those long corners. Therefore having a car that is kind to its tyres is critical here.
Cars which lack in either of these key areas will be fully exposed. On the other hand if a car goes well around here then a team has plenty of reason to celebrate, as the likelihood is that the car will go well everywhere else too. Recent history has proved this, as eight of the last 10 cars to win here have gone on to win the constructors championship.
Secondly as it’s the first European round of the season all the teams will be bringing significant upgrades to this race. Some of the teams will be bringing virtually different cars. With the field being so competitive in 2010 we could see quite a bit of movement in the pecking order up and down the field.
In the past we have seen Spanish GPs where there has been a lot of movement in the order. Although in other years we have seen a similar rate of development from all the teams and not much change.
Recently the 2005 Spanish GP was when we saw a very significant change. Renault had dominated the early part of the season, winning the first four. However in Spain McLaren brought major upgrades and completely turned the screw on Renault, with Fernando Alonso being able to do nothing to halt Kimi Raikkonen’s dominance of that race.
Last year’s Spanish GP saw Brawn GP’s advantage over its rivals being significantly reduced. Furthermore Toyota were the biggest losers as they slipped away from being front runners in the early races, back to their customary position in the midfield.
Despite the intrigue that the shake-up in the pecking order often provides at this race, Catalunya has had a reputation of processional races. Some say that it is even more important to have pole position at this track than even the streets of Monte Carlo. When the last nine races have been won from pole position (a Formula 1 record) it’s very hard to argue with that opinion.
In 2007 a chicane was inserted before the pit straight but even that has made no difference to overtaking. With less opportunity to overtake rivals in the pit stops, thanks to the re-fuelling ban, qualifying will be absolutely crucial this weekend.
Looking at the current form book (which could change this weekend) it should be Red Bull’s race to lose once again. They are regarded as having the most downforce of all the teams, and around Catalunya, that should give them a bigger advantage than at any other track we have visited so far. On the other hand the RB6 is very hard on its tyres, and that could be a big issue for them. However as long as they stay in front it will be hard for their rivals to overtake even with heavy wear on the tyres.
One thing you can guarantee this weekend is a feverish atmosphere at the track. The last two years the queues heading into the track haven’t been as long as normal, as Alonso’s chances of victory have been minimal thanks to an uncompetitive Renault.
This year it’s all different with his first year in a Ferrari, and once again a car that could win him the race. A large crowd to see Alonso’s first run in a Ferrari at Valencia over the winter months suggests the Spanish fans’ passion for Alonso has never been higher.
Mclaren will be ones to watch in Spain. No doubt Mclaren will have taken a big step forward at this race as is their quick rate of development these days in F1. The question will be whether they can take a big enough step forward to win a race on merit in normal dry conditions.
Jenson Button in particular will be a huge threat once again. His ability to look after the tyres should put him in very good stead around the hardest track on tyres.
Much was expected from Mercedes and Michael Schumacher preseason but it just hasn’t materialised yet. If Mercedes want to win the championship then they simply have to make a big impression at this race otherwise it will be too late.
There is no doubt that Schumacher is going to be the man with the biggest pressure on him this weekend. He has driven on the Catalunya circuit in each season of his career and been very successful there, winning six times. He will also be getting an upgraded Mercedes car more suited to his driving style. If he still doesn’t improve this weekend despite that then you really do wonder whether it will happen at all. Just a solid points finish ahead of Rosberg would be enough to help his confidence and keep the doubters silent.
The next question is whether any of the midfield teams can turn the big four into the big five. Renault have perhaps been the story of the year so far after very respectable results following their nightmare 2009 season. They would certainly be the most likely team to get in amongst the big four.
The new teams will also provide a fascinating talking point in Spain. Many fans will be as interested in the progress they make as the teams at the front. After four flyaway races, this weekend represents their first real opportunity to improve their cars.
Lotus in particular are targeting a big gain in excess of a second. Could they challenge to sneak into the second part of qualifying?
Overall it probably won’t be a thrilling race. It never is in Spain but there are number of big questions that we will get the answers to this weekend, and fans will be highly anticipating those answers.
• What will the pecking order in F1 be after the race?
• Can Mercedes make a big enough improvement to challenge for victories?
• Can Alonso win at home for Ferrari?
• Can Schumacher turn the screw on Rosberg and make an impression?
• Can one of the midfield teams cause a surprise?
• How close can Lotus get to the established teams?
This weekend’s race is very difficult to predict. It’s almost like we are starting the season from scratch again at Bahrain.
Red Bull have had the most raw pace since the season started but in Spain I think McLaren and Ferrari will be much closer to them, maybe even creep ahead.
I would still put money on a Red Bull on pole position, but McLaren and Ferrari will be much stronger in the race. It will be a case of whether they can get past Red Bull through the pit stops or in a daring move on the track.
I have a feeling Button will continue his dream start to his McLaren career. The characteristics of the track suit his driving style, and it’s hard to imagine the McLaren not being more competitive in Spain.
My Top 10 Prediction
1. Jenson Button
2. Sebastien Vettel
3. Mark Webber
4. Fernando Alonso
5. Lewis Hamilton
6. Robert Kubica
7. Felipe Massa
8. Michael Schumacher
9. Nico Rosberg
10. Adrian Sutil