Can anyone stop Vettel in Spain?

Barcelona plays host to the Spanish Grand Prix this weekend and this will be the acid test of the new regulations which have provided exciting racing thus far in 2011.

The Circuit de Catalunya

Originally built as a host venue for the Olympic Games in 1992 the Circuit de Cataluyna has been a permanent fixture on the Formula 1 calendar since ’91 when Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna diced wheel to wheel towards the first corner. Mansell would eventually win the race ahead of Alain Prost.

Barcelona is one of the most aero-dependant tracks of the year and as a result races have tended to be quite processional with an average margin of victory is 20 seconds. This will therefore be one of the biggest tests of 2011 for the new regulations which have provided thrilling races so far in 2011.

The track features a terrific mix of corners and as a result Barcelona is quite popular with the drivers even though the final section has been neutered in recent years. Mark Webber sums it up well:

“The circuit is great, the surface and layout are both very good for driving an F1 car on the limit. The last sector used to be very, very quick and now, for the last few years, we’ve had a slow chicane which breaks the rhythm of the lap up a little bit, but all in all I enjoy driving the car on this track”.

The main overtaking position is into turn one where drivers will have the DRS enabled this weekend along the 1km long start/finish straight. It is unlikely that the DRS will be as effective this weekend as it was in Turkey, Charlie Whiting will ensure that, but there should still be potential for drivers to make a successful move.

F1 2011 revolves on tyres

Pirelli will bring a new tyre compound to Barcelona after the manufacturer felt that their offerings for the opening races had made pitstops too prevalent.

Paul Hembrey said: “We said from the start of the year that we would introduce evolutions of the tyres if we believed that they would benefit the sport and Barcelona marks the first occasion that we have done this. The new tyre – which we have tested extensively – reduces degradation and improves tyre wear.

“It’s not a huge step over the original hard tyre but it does mean that there is a bigger gap between the soft and the hard tyre, which will definitely make things even more interesting on race day and give teams the opportunity to use more creative strategies.

During testing at Barcelona during the winter teams were badly affected by exceptional tyre wear that made it all but impossible to contemplate anything less than four stops. It will be interesting to see how the new compounds last during the race on Sunday.

What to expect this weekend

As ever the focus of the paddock is on Red Bull. Sebastian Vettel has been dominant throughout 2011 and there is little to suggest that he will have any issues this weekend. The Red Bull is ideally suited to this circuit with a series of fast, aerodynamic dependant corners playing perfectly to the strengths of an Adrian Newey designed car.

Cars penned by Newey have won ten times in Barcelona and with Mark Webber having dominated last season, winning by a margin of over 24 seconds, there is little to suggest that Red Bull will not have the fastest car on track.

Vettel is driving beautifully this season and the pressure will be on Webber to kick start his season with a repeat of last year’s success. The Australian has had some strong race performances this season but his inability to maximise the car in qualifying has meant that, even at this early stage of the season, he is falling out of championship contention.

It seems that Webber is struggling to get the best out of the Pirelli tyres on his low fuel qualifying runs. The new tyres clearly do not suit him as much as last year’s Bridgestones. As a result he has found himself qualifying further adrift of Vettel than we have become accustomed to in recent years. The German clearly loves the balance of the new tyres and in each qualifying session he has looked to be in perfect unison with the car. It is early days of the season and last season we saw how quickly things can turn around with the new scoring but the clock is ticking on Webber.

Ferrari look to be the most logical challenger to Red Bull. The Italian’s have looked very fast in race trim throughout 2011 and Fernando Alonso allows performs well in front of his home crowd, taking one win in 2006.

While tyres have been key in 2011 and teams have done their best to minimise their laps in qualifying the Prancing Horse has been forced into consistently taking an extra run in the Q1 session. Their car is clearly still off the ultimate pace of Red Bull but modern Formula 1 is not about ultimate pace anymore; it is about sustained pace.

The Ferrari seems to have the consistency needed and as a result it should not be underestimated this weekend. Encouragingly for the team Felipe Massa has shown signs of returning to form. The Brazilian has struggled since returning from his Hungarian crash but he will be buoyed to return to the scene of his 2007 race win.

It seems unlikely that we will see Massa return to his pre-Hungaroring form on a consistent basis but if he can keep Alonso honest throughout this weekend it will be another step in the right direction for him.

McLaren failed to capitalise on their superb Chinese victory last time out in Turkey and they will travel to Barcelona as a wild card. In testing they struggled at the venue after going down a developmental blind alley. This is one of the few venues that Lewis Hamilton has not won at in the past and the former champion will be keen to put that right this weekend but much will depend on how quickly the team can get their car sorted in practice.

If Hamilton can get the car to his liking he could be very strong during the race. In winter testing he was adamant that the new regulations would remove the challenge of racing but the opening four races have opened his eyes to the fact that there is much more to being a racing driver than driving flat out and he now confesses to enjoying the new found challenges of the Pirelli tyres.

Hamilton, and teammate Jenson Button, will test McLaren’s first major upgrade package of the season on Friday and it is crucial for the team to hit the ground running with this package. Too often in recent years, including their winter exhaust issues, the team has failed to convert their developments into on track gains immediately. It has clearly taken time to correlate the wind tunnel results with on track performance and it is now crucial for the team to start moving past this.

The challenge for McLaren, and the rest of the grid, is that Red Bull consistently manage to minimise issues with new parts. This is clearly yet another element of what makes Newey such a fantastic engineer but it also shows that it is possible to make major upgrades and test them on Friday with the confidence of using the, straight away. It will be an interesting story to follow during practice to see if McLaren can find the solution to their correlation issues.

Another interesting story to follow this weekend is Adrian Sutil. The German has been at the centre of a story relating to assaulting Eric Lux from GenII, the company that owns the Renault team. If Sutil comes in close proximity to either Nick Heidfeld or Vitaly Petrov there can expect to be some anxious looking people on the Renault pit wall!

In all seriousness this will be a very important race for Force India. The team has performed slightly below expections this year. Their pace is not too far off what would have been expected of the squad but they have consistently trailled Sauber and in Turkey Williams made a stride towards understanding their new cars and Rubens Barrichello looked much more competitive.

Sutil and Paul di Resta will know this is a very important race for the team and for both drivers. For the team it is crucial that they are more competitive relative to Sauber and that they get at least one car into Q3. For Sutil it is pivotal that he moves forward from his Chinese fracas and for di Resta it is important to heap more pressure on his teammate by having yet another strong performance.

The battle in the midfield is very competitive with Sauber enjoying a slender advantage over the rest of the competition. The Swiss car is clearly the kindest to its tyres on the grid and this has allowed Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez to race well in the opening races. It is now important that the team develop the car while maintaining this characteristic.

Force India, Williams and Toro Rosso are all itching to improve on their fortunes in 2011 and with each bring major upgrades in the next three weeks Barcelona could be seen as a turning point in the opening half of the season.

Renault started the season with a brace of podiums but the Enstone squad has gradually fallen back from the lead group and into the clutches of the midfield. The black and gold car is still the fastest of this group but it will be interesting to see how they develop the car. Without the forceful style of Robert Kubica the onus on improving the car will fall on Heidfeld.

The German is an experienced development driver but there will be question marks over how well he has integrated with the team and how happy they are to have “Quick Nick” leading the development of the car.

At the back of the field Lotus clearly still need to find some performance from their car but the team are looking in much better form and with their power steering woes now clearly behind them they should be able to focus on getting the most out of what appears to be a tidy car which will also have an extensive aerodynamic upgrade this weekend.

The same cannot be said for Virgin who are clearly struggling and looking out of their depth. With news that the team will use a wind tunnel determine what the problem is with their CFD designed car it is clear that the squad are all at sea. Things are actually so bad that it would be of only somewhat surprise if the new upgrades on the Hispania were to push the HRT squad ahead of Virgin at the tail end of the field.

Interesting stats ahead of this weekend’s race

Grid position in vital at Barcelona with the pole sitter winning for the last ten years and with just three races not won from pole. Only Michael Schumacher, in the torrential rain of 1996, has emerged victorious from off the front row. The German started third en route to his first victory for Ferrari.

With the fastest driver in qualifying consistently winning the race it comes as little surprise that the average margin of victory is 20s.

In the 20 races held in Barcelona the average finishing rate is 62%

Weather for Barcelona

There has been just three wet weather Spanish Grand Prix held in Barcelona, the last in 1996, and there is little chance of rain affecting this weekend’s race. Temperatures should be in the mid to high twenties.

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