The opening four races of the 2012 season have seen four different winners from four different teams and showed just how competitive Formula 1 has become in recent years.
The Pirelli tyres have played a crucial role in developing this level of competition throughout the last year but while some within the paddock, notably Michael Schumacher, have been critical of the role of the Italian rubber in races fans are genuinely excited about each race weekend.
Last year in Spain Sebastian Vettel held off Lewis Hamilton in a thrilling battle for the win. Vettel’s ability to make overtaking moves on his outlaps gave him a key edge and put him in position to win the race.
With tyre wear playing a key role in last year’s race it seems almost certain that tyre degradation and management will be a major factor in deciding the outcome of this weekend’s race.
Circuit de Catalunya
Having hosted Formula 1 since 1991 the Circuit de Catalunya has been a stable on the Formula 1 calendar for over two decades. The financial crisis however has struck Spain exceptionally hard and it now seems that in future it will alternate with Valencia as host of the Spanish Grand Prix.
With Barcelona also a very popular winter testing venue for the teams there is little that they do not know about the track. This was a point that Sebastian Vettel was keen to stress as he talked about the challenges of this weekend:
“Of all the current GP tracks, Barcelona is the one that we know the most because we have done so much testing there in recent years,” commented the reigning World Champion. “That said, the knowledge that you gain at the tests doesn’t always help due to the changing wind direction that occurs there, which can sometimes give you a nasty surprise, especially into Turn 1.”
Can Lotus make it five different winners?
Following a double podium in Bahrain and topping the timesheets at the Mugello test the Lotus team are now under pressure to challenge for race wins.
The Enstone based squad has been very consistent thus far in 2012 and with Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean driving at a very high level it is clear that there is the potential for the former Renault team to spring a surprise.
The team will bring a host of upgrades to Spain in the hope of capitalising on their new found status as a potential race winner.
The strength of Lotus has been their tyre management but, as China showed, they are still lacking tactically. At Shanghai Raikkonen was in line for a potential podium finish but a refusal to pit left him trailing in the midfield.
With the Pirelli rubber making races such a lottery it is crucial that teams are adaptable and can think on their feet. If Lotus have the confidence to adjust their strategy “on the fly” they could be very well placed to finish on the podium once again and challenge for the victory.
Ferrari looking to bounce back
The opening quartet of races have been miserable for Ferrari. Even with Fernando Alonso winning in Malaysia the team has been off the pace throughout and challenging for the title seems all but impossible.
The Scudderia will bring a major upgrade to Barcelona and will pin their title hopes on the new parts. Fernando Alonso knows the importance of the upgrades and the Spaniard is hoping for a strong showing at his home Grand Prix:
“In Montmelo, we will be counting on making a step forward,” said the double world champion. “We won’t know until Saturday if we have and if so, how big a step it is. We have updates on the F2012, some of which we tested in Mugello last week and others which we will try out on Friday in free practice. Clearly, having limited the damage in the first four races this year, we must turn things around.”
The team has been racing with one hand tied behind it’s back for much of the last year with Felipe Massa floundering alongside Alonso. The Brazilian showed some signs of progress in Bahrain but Barcelona will be an acid test for him. If he can show good speed in qualifying and the race the unrelenting pressure of the last 18 months might let up onMassaand he will be able to relax.
The struggles of Felipe have not been easy to watch but until he starts to show that he can challenge Alonso there is already an air of inevitability that he is simply closing out his time as a Ferrari Formula 1 driver.
McLaren bring upgrades
Having seen their early season speed advantage eroded McLaren will bring a host of upgrades to Barcelona. The most obvious of these is a new front wing which sees theWokingbased squad fall more into line with the stepped nose of the rest of the field.
The Mercedes engined MP4-27 has started on the front row of the grid each race but with only Jenson Button’s season opening Australian GP victory it is clear that they haven’t been able to take advantage of their potential performance.
Barcelonahas always been seen as an acid test of a car with, generally, the most aerodynamic car making its way to the front of the field. The McLaren is a very stable car that has shown clear flashes of its speed, now it needs to get back to the front and win races again.
The most interesting part of McLaren’s decision to introduce the new wing is that with both Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button having sat out the Mugello test neither driver has used the new front wing.
Challenges facing engineers at Barcelona
Even though the teams know theBarcelonatrack intimately from endless laps during winter testing it still provides a challenge for the engineers to find the right setup.
Sauber’s Giampaolo Dall’Ara, the team’s head of track engineering, spoke about the contrasts ofBarcelona.
“It has all kinds of features – low speed, medium speed and high speed corners as well as changes of direction,” said the Italian. “In some places the circuit is quite bumpy, and the tarmac is abrasive. Although we know this track well from testing it’s always a challenging one.”
McLaren’s team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, stressed how difficult it is to find the perfect setup atBarcelona.
“I think the drivers and the engineers enjoy the tricky technical challenge ofBarcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya,” said the Englishman. “You really operate your set-up on fine limits around here: every team’s balance is so refined that even the slightest imperfections become highlighted. Get it right and you tend to have a serene afternoon, get it wrong and you’ll be hitting trouble, and traffic, throughout the race.
Formula 1 revolves around Pirelli tyres
Formula 1 has been dominated by Pirelli tyres over the course of the last year with last year’sBarcelonarace was one of the most exciting since the introduction of the Italian rubber.
Barcelonais one of the toughest tracks of the season on tyres with the never ending turn three placing a tremendous load on the left hand tyres. The Pirelli rubber makes its grip using mechanical rather than chemical means-in effect it is now the tyre interacts with the track surface rather than a molecular level within in the compounds-and this means that an abrasive track surface, such asBarcelonawill always provide an exceptionally tough race for these tyres.
During last year’s race the softer compound saw degradation of approximately one tenth of a second per lap. With the harder rubber also available this weekend, and an expected performance difference of over 0.5s per lap, it will be crucial to be able to stay on the option tyres for as long as possible.
Pirelli’s motorspot czar, Paul Hembery, knows that this race will be the toughest test of his companies rubber for much of the season.
“The Spanish Grand Prix weekend should present something of a contrast to the last pre-season test in Barcelona, where low ambient temperatures meant that it was difficult to get heat into the tyres!” said the Englishman. “This time we’re expecting warmer weather, which only adds to the many challenges that the tyres will face here. We’ve nominated the soft and hard tyre in order to highlight performance differences that will create a different challenge for the teams, showcasing both the speed and durability of our products.
“There is a whole step in between our two nominations for the first time this year and this should allow the teams to come up with a number of different tyre strategies that could make a big difference to the final outcome. With many teams having expanded their knowledge of our tyre range and tested new components at Mugello, we’re expecting a closely-fought Spanish Grand Prix – and maybe even the fifth different winner in five races…”
Potential for rain this weekend
While sunshine and warm weather is the expected norm inBarcelonaat this time of year there is a potential for rain on Sunday. The weekend is expected to start with a cloudy Friday before clearing on Friday but Sunday will see a 60% chance of rain affecting the 66 lap race.