Last year the Barcelona round set up the championship battle as Kimi Raikkonen won from Fernando Alonso. Raikkonen will need a similar result this year if he is to have any hope of joining the title race with Alonso and Michael Schumacher.
Alonso and Schumacher have their own extra motivations towards victory: Schumacher has Alonso’s 13-point championship lead in his sight, and champion Alonso wants to be the first Spaniard to win his home Grand Prix.
With the teams knowing the circuit intimately from thousands of kilometres of testing, and overtaking being virtually impossible at Barcelona, the strategy and the start are crucial to winning the race.
Renault made phenomenal use of the renowned startline advantage in 2004, when Jarno Trulli leapt from fourth on the grid to lead. Alonso made a similarly great start in 2003, but Ferrari’s first corner tactics kept him behind.
Expect more of the same this weekend: Renault may even be bold enough to run a slightly heavier car in the expectation that they can qualify third and out-drag Schumacher and Felipe Massa at the start.
On strategy, Ferrari’s superior tyres at the Nurburgring gave them a definite edge. McLaren lamented the fact that they went too hard on tyre compounds, suggesting there is more performance yet in the car.
But their tendency towards fuel-heavy strategies is clearly hurting them, especially behind the Hondas that qualify light and run slow in the race. Expect Raikkonen and Montoya to be pushing for more aggressive strategies. Montoya will get the new specification Mercedes engine that Raikkonen wielded at the Nurburgring.
The role of the leading drivers’ team mates is crucial. In Montoya, Raikkonen simply has another rival. Alonso can hope that Fisichella will not have a third ‘off’ day in succession and can help him trouble the Ferraris.
Massa, paradoxically, can only expect to be able to help Schumacher if Schumacher isn’t leading at the start. At the Nurburgring Massa kept pace with Schumacher when the German was bundled up behind Alonso; in clean air, in the same car, Massa was a whole second slower.
Away from the battle for supremacy Honda will probably endure another tortuous weekend of high expectations dashed by poor race pace. It will be more interesting to see if Williams can achieve a reliable race for both cars and finish ahead of Honda.
BMW have shown good form this year and in particular Jacques Villeneuve who drove his best race of the year so far at the Nurburgring. Sadly he will suffer a ten-place grid penalty due to an engine change for Spain as, unusually, his engine was damaged in transit from the Nurburgring. Sabotage by Fisichella?
Red Bull and Toyota may be able to pick up a few points if there are Nurburgring levels of attrition, for Toro Rosso and Midland it looks like more of a long shot. Super Aguri have been forced to can Yuji Ide permanently and will field Franck Montagny again – it will be interesting to see how he stacks up against Takuma Sato.
Hopefully we’ll get an epic intra-Super Aguri battle as there was between the Midland drivers at the Nurburgring. Not that the television viewers saw much of it. There being little racing action usually at Barcelona, it would be appreciated!