2008 Spanish Grand Prix notes

Fernando Alonso and fans, Barcelona, 2008, 470313

The Spanish Grand Prix was hardly a riot of excitement but it did leave us with a couple of major talking points.

I want to have a look at two of them in detail: how significant is Renault’s apparent return to form, and how far ahead of the chasing pack are Ferrari?

The Renault revival

Fernando Alonso, Renault, Barcelona, qualifying, 2008, 470313

P2 on merit or on fumes?

It was clear from the times in practice that the Renault team had been rejuvenated. Even so when Fernando Alonso stuck his R28 alongside Kimi Raikkonen on the front row there were few people who expected the car to have a comparable fuel load to its rivals.

Here’s how the top six qualified and how much fuel they had on board compared to Raikkonen:

Position Driver Time Time difference Fuel load difference
1 Kimi Raikkonen 1’21.813
2 Fernando Alonso 1’21.904 +0.091 -4
3 Felipe Massa 1’22.058 +0.245 -1
4 Robert Kubica 1’22.065 +0.252 +1
5 Lewis Hamilton 1’22.096 +0.283 +1
6 Heikki Kovalainen 1’22.231 +0.418 +2*

*According to Autosport, Kovalainen was on his in-lap when he crashed on lap 22.

Alonso was three laps lighter than Felipe Massa behind him (not two as he said after the race) and five laps lighter than Robert Kubica and Lewis Hamilton.

Race pace

It’s not likely that Alonso’s off-track excursion on the formation lap did him any greater damage than dirtying his tyres and costing him second place to Massa at the start.

As the first stint unfolded Alonso was unable to shake his pursuers – as his car got lighter and faster so they improved their times with him. These are the lap times for Alonso (third) and Hamilton (fourth) after the safety car pulled in on lap three:

Lap Fernando Alonso Lewis Hamilton
5 1’23.471 1’23.353
6 1’23.666 1’23.607
7 1’23.192 1’23.263
8 1’23.219 1’23.335
9 1’23.092 1’23.275
10 1’23.024 1’23.229

Kubica’s pace was slightly slower than this. But he and Hamilton easily jumped past Alonso in the first set of pit stops.

Alonso’s engine blew on lap 34, at which point he had set the eighth fastest lap of the race:

Driver Time Lap
Kimi Raikkonen 1’21.827 17
Felipe Massa 1’22.033 16
Lewis Hamilton 1’22.017 20
Robert Kubica 1’22.106 20
Heikki Kovalainen 1’22.453 19
Nick Heidfeld 1’22.519 21
Mark Webber 1’22.564 19
Fernando Alonso 1’22.683 15

By the end of the race only Jenson Button had joined those ahead of Alonso. Weighed against this we must remember that, as Alonso had started light, he had more, heavier and slower laps to follow later in the race.

This builds a fairly accurate picture of where Renault are relative to the opposition on raw pace – slightly behind the McLarens and BMWs, fairly evenly matched with the Red Bulls.

Where did they get the extra pace from?

Renault’s innovations for the Spanish Grand Prix included a Red Bull-style elongated engine cover and a revised bridge on the front wing:

Renault aero modifications, Barcelona 2008

They also had new turning vanes mounted to the brake duct by the front wheels. Inside the car a new ‘J-damper’ which mimics the actions of their famous banned mass damper of 2006 made its first appearance.

Pat Symonds said the revisions cut the R28’s lap time by 0.3s at the Circuit de Catalunya, which seems realistic given the step forward they took relative to the opposition.

How fast are Ferrari?

Kimi Raikkonen, Felipe Massa, Ferrari, Barcelona, 2008, 470313

Winner Raikkonen led third-placed Hamilton by just 4.1s at the finishing line so surely the top teams are quite close? I don’t think so.

Ferrari played their usual game of letting their drivers ‘race’ for the first two stints and then calming everything down. In practice this meant than because the safety car eradicated Raikkonen’s advantage of over 10 seconds on Hamilton, the gap between the two at the end was less than what it should be (although Hamilton spent the first stint delayed by Alonso).

The state of the aerodynamics on modern Formula 1 cars has made it easier than ever for a leading car to stay ahead while controlling the pace of the race, which Ferrari appeared to be doing in order to preserve their engines for Istanbul.

They were once again kings of the speed traps, with McLaren conspicuously low down the order:

Driver Speed
1 Kimi Raikkonen 314.6kph
2 Felipe Massa 313.8kph
3 Nick Heidfeld 312.8kph
8 Lewis Hamilton 311.6kph

Despite his lower speed before braking for turn one, Hamilton set the fastest sector time of the race for the first sector. He was only seventh fastest in the final sector despite setting the third fastest lap of the race.

The third sector at Catalunya includes the tight La Caixa and the new chicane. McLaren suggested slow corners like these were the MP4/23s weakness, which fits in with the general impression that the car is harder on its tyres than the F2008.

Ferrari, then, can run quicker in a straight line without compromising their cornering speed, and are easier on their tyres. They may not be much quicker than McLaren than the 0.3s difference between Raikkonen and Hamilton’s fastest race laps, but their 2008 car does not seem to be deficient in any one area that McLaren or BMW might exploit.

It’s going to be a long summer for those not in red overalls.

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7 comments on 2008 Spanish Grand Prix notes

  1. Michael Counsell said on 4th May 2008, 9:53

    I think everyone has been focussing on the pace of the fuel load of Alonso but I think a big factor was that he did an extremely good lap in qualifying whereas others perhaps did not perform as well. He was second but others were within a couple of tenths and maybe on another day he would have qualified sixth.

    0.3 seconds is a decent gap but if a McLaren or BMW gets on pole they could control the pace of the race and still win. On top of that there are races coming up such as Monaco, Canada and Britain where setup and driver performance can cause differences of more than 0.3 seconds.

  2. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 4th May 2008, 11:11

    Maybe, but I look at that table and I see five guys (P2-6) ranked in order of how little fuel they had on board – and Alonso had the least by a decent margin. This is why I hate race fuel qualifying – Alonso might have driven a corking lap but the fuel makes it hard to tell and open to interpretation.

  3. I agree Keith, it’s impossible to know for sure just how good people are on a Saturday – some are unfairly criticised when they have in fact heavier on fuel, while others receive unwarranted adulation when they are in fact running artificially light.

    I’m with you on having this changed so that we know for sure who is the best driver over a single lap with minimal fuel.

  4. frecon said on 4th May 2008, 21:16

    Here in Spain some F1 analysts have talked about the renault improvements. Most of them agrees about one fact:
    Renault is fast with low loads of fuel. In this cases they have a pace similar to the top teams. The problem came after the pit stop. A heavy R28 was slower than its rivals.

    So probably, in the future, we could see a good qualifying car (and first stint also), but after the pit stops, R28 is going to have a lot of problems.

  5. Nico Savidge said on 5th May 2008, 7:45

    You talked about the new aero on the Renault, but I noticed something on the Ferraris as well. This year (and for about half of last year) they ran with a small hole in the very tip of the front wing, and I noticed that hole is gone now. I’m guessing this is beccause of the new piece in the front wing they ran last week?

  6. Toncho said on 5th May 2008, 20:13

    Pity that Piquet DNF, we would be more sure what part was fuel and what part skill. REN improvement may not seem very important but taking into account that most of the teams were introducing new pieces in Montmelo is actualy quite remarkable. Still I reckon they won’t be able to make the next step and get close to the podium (in normal race conditions).
    After the race I thought MCL was not that far but looking at the data, taking into accoount SC,etc it seems like FER was just doing the minimum effort to secure P1 and P2.

  7. I agree with Michael.
    Renault hasn’t improved as much as it is percieved to be. Do not compare him with Massa, who made a rare mistake on Saturday, otherwise a very fine qualifier. Also, The Renault engine was particularly stressed (as proved by the engine failure). Which means, that the Renault timings would be slower when they look to make their car last the race-distance
    That means, Alonso was atleast 4 laps lighter than everyone, which is quite a lot.
    I suspect that Toyota are still faster than Renault over race-pace.
    Williams, RedBull, Renault are fairly similar

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