It’s time for the first European race of the season as the Formula One circus heads to Barcelona for the third time this year for the Spanish Grand Prix from May 20-22.
The Circuit de Catalunya has already hosted two stints of preseason testing, one more than usual, on account of the political unrest in Bahrain earlier this year.
Because of the huge amounts of testing done here over the years, Formula One drivers and mechanics are extremely familiar with the venue. This has often led to criticism as it has significantly reduced the amount of on-track action.
The circuit also has a history of radio-related problems. During one of the practice sessions in 2009, Mark Webber claimed that he overheard Spanish truck drivers talking to one another over CB radios.
Imagine traveling at speeds of over 300 kmph in sweltering conditions with nothing but hot cocas on your mind!
So what can we expect to see at Barcelona this year? Except, of course, Fernando Alonso’s red brigade!
Track and Conditions
The Circuit de Catalunya measures 4.6 kms and consists of 66 laps amounting to a total of 307 kms. It is one of the most advanced circuits on the grid and is constantly upgraded due to the amount of testing done.
It has everything—a short straight, a long high-speed pit straight and a variety of corners including some demanding fast corners as well as a few slow corners and sweeping bends.
The sweeping corners are very dependent on downforce, while the long straights require a low level of drag.
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. It is one of the very few natural overtaking points on the circuit.
The wind direction at the circuit can change drastically during the day, a factor which highlights the importance of aerodynamics in the cars. However, it is hard to find the ideal setup as the cars can have massive aerodynamic drag and understeer on one part of the circuit in the morning, but suffer oversteer at the same part in the afternoon.
Messrs. Adrian Newey and Co. are, thus, bound to be kept busy.
These characteristics are made even more challenging by changing gradients as the circuit runs up and down the hillside overlooking the massive pit and paddock complex.
The cars are at full throttle for about 60 percent of the lap which is not too hard on the engine. However, front-left tyre graining has been pointed out in the past. It will be interesting to see how the Pirellis handle this.
This all-rounder of a circuit is, thus, quite challenging from a technical viewpoint. With the new overtaking add-ons, you can’t quite rule out the possibility of a humdinger of a race!
Last Year's Strategy
In its last 10 editions, the Spanish Grand Prix has been won by the pole-sitter.
Last year’s race saw Red Bull’s Mark Webber lead from pole and eventually take the chequered flag ahead of local favourite Fernando Alonso. Webber’s teammate Sebastian Vettel, who started from P2, took third after an absolute disaster of a race.
Vettel struggled early on with the balance of his car and made his pitstop on Lap 16, expecting Lewis Hamilton, who was third, to make his on the same lap. But the Brit stayed out for another lap and eventually took second place from Vettel after the German was delayed in the pits by the outgoing Alonso and the incoming Jenson Button. Vettel came out of the pitlane shoulder-to-shoulder with Hamilton and had to steer wide to avoid contact.
Things got worse for Vettel on Lap 54 when he went wide with a suspected front-brake failure and headed into the gravel. Vettel dropped in for a new set of tyres—a move that dropped him behind Alonso. Vettel did well to nurse his brakes for the remainder of the race and took the last place on the podium.
Vettel’s podium finish was helped by a left-front tyre puncture on Hamilton’s MP4-25 which lobbed the second-placed Englishman into the wall, gifting second to Alonso.
Ironically enough, Mark Webber was seen nowhere near any of these incidents.
This Year's Strategy
The Spanish Grand Prix has, more or less, always been a one-stop Grand Prix. However, with Pirelli’s extra-sensitive rubber, you could expect a norm of two stops this year.
Get P1 in qualifying, get P1 on the podium. This has been the winning formula at Barcelona.
However, recent results show that qualifying on pole position is no longer key to winning at certain circuits. A combination of new tyres and overtaking aids has made it easier to pass for position this season and has put an onus on pit strategy.
At the recent Chinese Grand Prix, Mark Webber failed to make it out of the first round of qualifying, but raced from 18th to third on Raceday. He was helped by the fresh sets of soft tyres he saved by not taking part in the final two stages of qualifying.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner has admitted that Webber’s performance has made his team rethink their strategy.
Each driver has three sets of primes and three sets of option tyres available to them for qualifying and the race. Popular approach has been to use all three sets of soft tyres in qualifying, carrying the final set in to the race before stopping once for hard tyres.
However, with this year's Pirellis degrading more quickly, Horner believes that drivers would be better off saving fresh sets of soft tyres for the race, even if it compromises grid position.
This approach, however, could not necessarily work at Barcelona given the non-overtaking nature of the track. A pole-sitter will always have that extra advantage.
The DRS zone at Barcelona is reportedly going to be one of the longest seen so far—all of 830 metres—and is, thus, most likely to be situated on the start-finish straight. The DRS and KERS have produced quite a few exciting spells and results in the season so far, and it will be interesting to see what they throw into the mix at Barcelona.
Last year, Ferrari were fined $20,000 following an incident involving Fernando Alonso and Nico Rosberg in qualifying. After pulling out of the Ferrari garage on his first run in Q3, Alonso cut Rosberg as the Mercedes driver made his way down the pit lane.
The German was forced to brake sharply and was understandably infuriated. After much deliberation over the incident, the race stewards issued a fine on the Scuderia.
Ferrari were also involved in a controversy over one of their decals which sported the Marlboro “barcode” pattern that subliminally promoted the brand’s cigarettes. Ferrari eventually changed the livery of the F10.
In 2008, McLaren driver Heikki Kovalainen suffered a large crash at Turn 9 of the circuit. After the race, Mark Webber, the then director of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association, said that standards at the track should have been better.
Webber said the run-off area at Turn 9 was too tight, which could cause an even more serious accident in the future without improvements. In response to this, the FiA made modifications to the track, which would minimize the chances of such a severe accident happening again.
The event also took place under the shadow of incidents that had taken place at the same circuit during preseason testing earlier that year. At one of the sessions, Hamilton was subjected to racist taunting by some of the spectators.
In response, the FiA launched a "Racing Against Racism" programme, and placed the Spanish and European Grands Prix on probation. Hamilton is highly unpopular in Spain due to his acrimonious relationship with Spaniard Alonso during their partnership at McLaren the year before.
The 2007 edition witnessed a barrage of retirements right from the start when Toyota’s Jarno Trulli stalled on the grid. However, the highlight of the event was when Felipe Massa’s Ferrari avoided disaster by a whisker while he was leaving the pits after some fuel fell on the exhausts resulting in a flash of flame.
There were doubts as to whether Massa had taken the intended amount of fuel on board but the Brazilian managed to preserve his lead and go on to win the race.
The 2004 edition of the race is best known for the antics of the notorious Jimmy Jump—an infamous pitch-intruder of major sporting events.
Jimmy Jump ran across the starting grid sporting his popular red barretina during the warm-up lap and was criticized for risking the lives of the drivers, even though the cars were still traveling at low speeds at this point.
In 10 attempts in front of his adoring fans—eight Spanish Grands Prix at Barcelona and two European Grands Prix in Valencia—Fernando Alonso has managed just one victory back in 2006 with Renault.
Red Bull has been so dominant on Saturdays this season that it is very difficult to bet against them. Sebastian Vettel has never won the Spanish Grand Prix and will be looking to set that record straight.
However, the German defending champion will have to combat 120,000 vociferous Spaniards around the circuit and one alongside him on the track as Fernando Alonso arrives at his home Grand Prix.
Alonso will want to reciprocate his fans’ support and win his first Spanish Grand Prix in Ferrari colours. He will, however, be hoping for some miracle from his garage as the F150° Italia has really struggled for pace so far.
However, the Scuderia can draw courage from how Alonso drove at Istanbul and grabbed his first podium finish of the season.
Going by numbers, Alonso is a whopping 52 points behind Championship leader Vettel. But statistics also tell you that the Spaniard has notched up 13 more points in the four races completed so far than the same ones last year.
The numbers game also points out that Alonso was 47 points off the top after Silverstone last year with eight races to go and still managed to take the fight right down to the wire in Abu Dhabi.
Alonso has 15 races left this season.
Over to Barcelona!