Spanish Grand Prix 2005 Preview

Fernando Alonso may be on a three-win hot streak, but Michael Schumacher in the rejuvenated Ferrari is bearing down on him hard. Alonso faces a major battle if he is to take his first home win this weekend.

The teams

In Imola Ferrari, with Schumacher at least, were right back on the pace. The controversial testing regime that has brought them this newfound performance is discussed elsewhere (see Testing times) and in Spain the F2005 will feature a substantially revised aerodynamics package. With Schumacher running second-to-last in first qualifying, there seems to be little Alonso can do to stop him if the Ferrari again exhibits the massive performance advantage it had in Imola, where Schumacher set 17 of the 20 fastest laps during the race.

What may count in Alonso’s favour is that he was clearly nursing his engine through a difficult second weekend in Imola. He will have a new one in Spain, of the same new specification that team mate Giancarlo Fisichella ran with last week. Meanwhile Schumacher will be running his engine for a second weekend – if this staggering of Alonso and Schumacher’s engine changes persists throughout the season it may cause interesting variances in their relative competitiveness. Both, too, will have reliability concerns as neither team has managed to get both of their cars to the flag in either of the last two races. Curiously, Rubens Barrichello blamed rubber debris for causing his Imola retirement, exactly as he did in Malaysia??????

McLaren will lead the chasing pack and, as we saw in Imola, may have the pace to lead. A massive new package for the MP4-20 featuring improved aerodynamics, suspension and engine should be a further boost to them. Kimi Raikkonen’s qualifying will be compromised by his retirement last time out causing him to run early. It is not yet clear whether Juan Pablo Montoya’s shoulder injury will have eased to the point that he is able to drive again, especially as the Catalunya circuit is one of the more physically demanding tracks. If he does not, expect super-sub Alex Wurz to take the wheel again, and running 17th in first qualifying will give the Austrian the opportunity of a great result.

Also benefiting from a strong finish in San Marino – albeit under protest – are BAR. Both Jenson Button and Takuma Sato should run in the final group of five in first qualifying, giving both a shot at the podium, though a win seems unlikely.

Expect Toyota and Williams to have a better weekend than at Imola, where neither team seemed to get the most from their cars at the unusual circuit. In Spain, expect Williams to still be hurt by their lack of aerodynamic efficiency. At Toyota, Ralf Schumacher will be desperate to finally put one over team mate Jarno Trulli, but it hasn’t looked like happening so far. It will be interesting to see how close these two teams are to BAR.

Among the smaller teams, it would be a delight to see Jacques Villeneuve build upon the solid sixth place he scored at San Marino and continue to turn around his season at Sauber. Felipe Massa seemed to still have extra speed over his Canadian team mate, but lacked the temperament to keep from ramming David Coulthard in Imola. Keep an eye on both Saubers at the start though, as Villeneuve made an impressive getaway in Imola, apparently thanks to revised aerodynamics. Red Bull are obviously hurting from their lack of development and the improvements of other teams, and don’t look the likely points-scorers they did earlier in the year.

The track

The Spanish Grand Prix has been held at the Catalunya circuit near Barcelona since 1991. It replaced Jerez de la Frontera as the regular venue for the Spanish Grand Prix after Martin Donnelly’s horrific practice crash in 1990, though Jerez is still a popular testing venue and twice held the European Grand Prix, in 1994 in 1997. The latter being the notorious race when Villeneuve won the World Championship after Michael Schumacher tried to ram him off the road at Curva Dry Sack.

The Circuit de Catalunya is the fifth track to host the Spainsh Grand Prix after Pedralbes (1951 and 1954), Jarama (1968, ’70, ’72, ’74, ’76-79 and ’81) Montjuich Park (1969, ’71, ’73 and ’75) and Jerez (1986-90). Of these four, Montjuich Park was the most fondly remembered: a fast, challenging but highly dangerous street circuit.

The final race, in 1975, was tragic, for the drivers at first refused to race on account of the obvious danger, and when they finally did, four spectators were killed. Jarama, though largely slow and unloved, saw one of the greatest drives of all time when Gilles Villeneuve won in 1981 (see issue 3).

The configuration of the Catalunya track has remained largely unchanged since it was introduced. In 1994, during the safety panic following the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger, a temporary tyre chicane was introduced at Campsa to slow the cars before Nissan.

The following year the fast Nissan chicane was gone altogether. Minor revisions were made in 1997 and 2000, then in 2004 La Caixa was tightened in an attempt to create an overtaking opportunity that seemed to be met with no success.

Catalunya, though, is a rotten track for overtaking. The problem is that two of the biggest braking zones on the track (Elf and La Caixa) are preceded by fast corners (New Holland and Campsa, respectively), meaning that two cars cannot follow one another closely enough going into them to make a pass. The 2005 rules changes to the cars’ aerodynamics have worsened this effect, further reducing the likelihood of us seeing much overtaking this weekend. The circuit has also been resurfaced this year and caused massive problems during winter testing when the surface initially had very little grip.

Prediction

Ferrari will be right back on the pace and even a fired-up Alonso at his home event will not be enough to keep Schumacher from the top step of the podium. If Wurz is running instead of Montoya he is an excellent tip for a good result, and Raikkonen and perhaps also Button will be in the mix for a podium result. It will also be interesting to see if Fisichella and Barrichello can finally get their respective seasons back on the rails.

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