The championship may have got off to a sparkling start with three different winners, three different championship leaders, and the magnificent debut performances of Lewis Hamilton, but all that momentum has dissipated in the grinding four-week gap between the third and fourth rounds.
F1 needs to come back with a bang at the next race. A pity then, that it’s at the Circuit de Catalunya, which has produced as many excellent races as Mongolia has fine wines.
But let’s not write the race off before it’s started. After all, there is a crucial new addition to the Catalunya circuit that might revolutionise its reputation as an overtaking-free zone.
The penultimate corner (with the evocative name ‘Eurocar’) has been tightened into a chicane. This might be enough to allow the drivers to race closely with each other as they come onto the main straight. Or, at least, get a little closer together.
Sadly the drivers aren’t convinced – and they’re the ones who should know. Apparently cornering speeds for the final bend are within six miles per hour of what they were before.
McLaren know they can take the championship fight to Ferrari if they can pursue an aggressive development programme with the MP4-22. There are already signs they are doing this – the car featured a new ‘bridge’ front wing in testing which they will take to Catalunya.
It’s Fernando Alonso’s home race and the track’s capacity has been increased yet again to pack in more Spaniards to scream for their hero. Alonso is gunning for back-to-back home wins which would move him back ahead in the drivers’ title race.
But Lewis Hamilton is going to be as much a thorn in his side as an ally. Hamilton was superior last time out and Alonso has had four long weeks to think about it. Will the young charge prevail again?
There has been no evidence of progress at Renault during the break and Giancarlo Fisichella has already warned the press not to expect any sudden progress from the reigning champions.
But at this rate they’re going to be win-less in their post-championship year. Echoes of 1996 when the team was Benetton…
The inter-team rivalry at Ferrari is just as delicate and fascinating as it is in McLaren. Old habits die hard and Ferrari are used to focussing their efforts around a single driver. Raikkonen and Felipe Massa are each striving to outdo the other and bring the team to their own cause.
Don’t bet against a Ferrari win in Spain. The 2007 car appears to have inherited its predecessor’s strength of excellent aerodynamic efficiency while maintaining a high straightline speed – a difficult combination to live with at Barcelona.
The RA107 may be a dog, but at least Honda are willing to entertain radical solutions. A heavily revised car is due for Canada and the team has tested some outrageous aerodynamic appendages ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix.
Whether they run with them or not remains to be seen. The drivers might prefer not to and avoid yet more attention being drawn to their plight. Getting past the first stage of qualifying will be a result.
It’s fair to say that if few people are surprised by the gap between the BMW drivers, many are surprised that it’s Nick Heidfeld ahead and not Robert Kubica. Heidfeld has been a minor hero in the opening races, notching up three fourth places by scalping one of the McFerraris in each event.
Can he go one better and get a podium? Probably not without one of the front four retiring. But the car’s early reliability problems appear to have been sorted and the team have apparently reacted by wising up and dropping their questionable plan to run test driver Sebastian Vettel.
Nothing against Vettel – but when it puts a racing driver on the sidelines it’s not the done thing.
There’s a fair gap between the two Toyota drivers as well – but here it’s the German driver that’s struggling. Ralf Schumacher’s fastest lap in Bahrain was 0.7s down on Jarno Trulli’s. That’s a big problem for four reasons:
1. He earns several millions more than his team mate
2. His contract is up for renewal
3. Willi Weber, the managerial wizard that got him such a cosy deal in the first place, has left
4. And so has Tsumito Tomita, the Toyota team boss who coughed up millions for him in to begin with.
The man they call ‘Ralf’ (never ‘Schumacher’ – that’s his brother) is under pressure.
Surprisingly the Toyota has proven capable of getting into the top ten in qualifying. Ralf’s job is to get it there and put in the kind of performance that elevates him above the tight midfield and justifies him being paid more than Fernando Alonso.
David Coulthard may have made his Grand Prix debut at this track and notched up 200 starts here last year, but on the basis of his stellar drive at Bahrain you’d think he was a young hotshoe throwing caution to the wind. He backed it up by topping the times for one day in testing last week.
Coulthard seems to have accepted that qualifying is not his strength and that, up against the likes of Mark Webber, it’s not an area where he’s likely to have much success this year.
But with a finely-honed race set up, a Renault engine and well over a decade of experience, he could be the first man to find out whether you really can overtake on the revised Circuit de Catalunya.
The car is looking much more reliable now and as the team improve their understanding of it with every race. Both drivers can score solid points in Spain and perhaps even give the factory Renault squad some headaches.
Williams are slap-bang in the middle of an extremely congested midfield. A slip-up in qualifying could see them fail to get into the second session and write-off their weekend at a stroke.
Their two drivers have put in some excellent performances this year but rather got in each others’ way at Bahrain. The team shunned pre-race testing at Bahrain to stay at Barcelona so they’ve got no excuse for not being on the pace this weekend. It’s a valuable opportunity to pick up some vital points.
Scuderia Toro Rosso-Ferrari
In an unusual development, Toro Rosso are to stop using stickers on their cars and instead achieve their detailed bull artwork with paint. This is in a bid to improve the car’s aerodynamic efficiency.
It’s not unheard of – Jaguar rejected using a darker green for their cars in the early ’00s because the paint was heavier. You have to wonder if Honda’s sticker-laden car is just one more of their problems…
Toro Rosso need more than just incremental improvements. Scott Speed continues to languish over half a second slower than Vitantonio Liuzzi on race pace. The Toro Rossos are typically around half a second slower than the Red Bulls but they must expect to reduce that gap as the chassis are essentially the same.
The car does share the RBR3’s aerodynamic efficiency so Catalunya should be a good venue for them. Both drivers should set their sights on getting through the first phase of qualifying – in reality only Liuzzi looks likely to do it.
The pressure is on Christijan Albers who is seriously struggling with rookie team mate Adrian Sutil. The German’s race in Bahrain was spoiled by the first-lap contact with Speed – but he outqualified Albers and his best race lap was 0.4s quicker.
But with the Super Aguris racing in the midfield these days it’s doubtful Spyker can realistically hope for anything better than to get both cars to the finish, and mark time until the ‘B’ version of the car arrives later in the season.
It was strange to see both Super Aguris retire in Bahrain as they are essentially running last year’s Honda chassis and last year’s Honda engine.
Although many have been quick to remark on how quick they are compared to the factory Hondas it’s important not to get carried away. Anthony Davidson and Takuma Sato’s fastest race lap times were ranked 17th and 18th in Bahrain.
Davidson may be able to turn in ultra-rapid laps in third practice but it would be more helpful if he could do it in qualifying.
Super Aguri are another team in the very close midfield battle whose fortunes could be decided be the slightest change in fortune. Against expectations, Sato has been slightly quicker than Davidson so far – but the true picture will emerge during the European season.