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
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|
*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.
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|
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:
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:
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?
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:
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.