The Spanish Grand Prix has often been seen as a strong indicator for what the rest of the season has in store. The Circuit de Catalunya features several medium-to-high speed corners and a long straight which makes efficient aerodynamic performance – a key benchmark of a competitive F1 car – crucial.
For those teams which started the year on the back foot the three-week gap between the opening flyaway races and the return to Europe also gives them the chance to make upgrades and close the gap.
This year they’ve also had the benefit of three days’ testing in Mugello.
So we can expect further change in a competitive order which is far from clear at the moment. Three different teams have taken pole position so far and the top six teams were covered by 1.05% of lap time in the last race.
Catalunya circuit information
|Lap length||4.655km (2.892 miles)|
|Distance||66 laps (307.1km/190.8 miles)|
|Lap record*||1’21.670 (Kimi Raikkonen, 2008)|
|Fastest lap||1’19.954 (Rubens Barrichello, 2009)|
|Tyres||Hard and Soft|
*Fastest lap set during a Grand Prix
Pirelli are supplying their hard and soft tyres for this weekend’s race. They used the same combination at this race and six others last year, but this year’s compounds are softer.
Michael Schumacher’s criticism of their tyres after the previous race has provoked debate over whether the tyres are lasting long enough. Last year several drivers including four of the top five finishers made four pit stops during the race.
Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery said: “We’ve nominated the soft and hard tyre in order to highlight performance differences that will create a different challenge for the teams, showcasing both the speed and durability of our products.
“There is a whole step in between our two nominations for the first time this year and this should allow the teams to come up with a number of different tyre strategies that could make a big difference to the final outcome.”
Red Bull have set pole position and won the last two races here. After the surprise of seeing Sebastian Vettel knocked off his perch in the opening races, round four saw him back on top after set-up changes to the team’s exhaust system.
He’s now back on top of the drivers’ championship but isn’t expecting an easy ride from here on in. Nor should Mark Webber be discounted – he’s been on pole position here for the last two years.
McLaren’s car has been the most consistently competitive over the opening races but what’s really let the team down has been their pit stops. Both Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton have seen points and podiums go begging after losing time in the pits.
Expect them to be in the hunt for victory at the Circuit de Catalunya, where the MP4-27 looked good in testing. But all eyes will be on the silver cars when they make their way into the pits on race day.
A very important race for the team as they ready a substantial upgrade package for their F2012. They’ve been 1.5% off the pace on average over the first four races of the year and need to slash the gap here.
Part of the upgrade was tested on the final day of running at Mugello – unfortunately some time was lost after Fernando Alonso spun the car, damaging the front end. The remaining parts will come this weekend.
It’s Alonso’s home race and he often produces something special for the Spanish crowd – remember him hunting down Schumacher in 2003, and his electrifying start in last year’s race. If the revised car is good enough to give him the merest sniff of victory, he’ll snatch it.
Mercedes have been somewhat cool on their prospects for this weekend’s race. The W03’s strength is its straight-line speed, courtesy of that controversial Double DRS, but Catalunya’s single straight means it may not prove too great a benefit here.
“We know that its characteristics do not exactly play fully into our hands,” admitted Schumacher. Here is a driver who needs a change of luck: his car failed while he was running third in Melbourne, a botched pit stop ended his race in China and a DRS problem compromised his qualifying effort last time out.
After a breakthrough result in the last race, with Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean both finishing on the podium, the question now is whether Lotus can take another step forward and score a victory.
They return to the venue where their season threatened to go off the rails before it even began. They had to scrap a four-day test in February after a suspension failure. They’ve put that trouble behind them and Grosjean was quickest in testing at Mugello (Raikkonen did not run).
Team principal Eric Boullier reckons they can challenge for victory given the right conditions: “We?óÔé¼Ôäóve been able to look after our tyres quite well during the races so far but the Barcelona track is very abrasive, especially for the front left tyre. Maybe we?óÔé¼Ôäóll do a better job than our rivals in this area.
“The only question mark is our performance relative to the temperature. A pattern started to emerge over the first four races, where we seemed to be more and more competitive in hot conditions. We?óÔé¼Ôäóll see.”
Paul di Resta produced perhaps the best drive of his F1 career so far last time out.
The Mugello test did not go well for Force India as a technical problem cost them almost an entire day’s running. They should be in contention for points here but if the Ferraris do improve this is one of the teams that will find themselves under greater pressure.
Sauber are another team who have much to be concerned about if Ferrari take their anticipated step forward. But they have other problems to get on top of.
Not least the curious loss of race pace in their car since Sergio Perez’s superb drive to second place in Malaysia. A substantially revised C31 ran at Mugello which may help them progress.
“We tested a major upgrade to the car in Mugello, consisting of a new front wing and new bodywork, including a different exhaust exit and a new diffuser,” said head of track engineering Giampaolo Dall’Ara. “The results of the test were encouraging.
“However, all the teams had some upgrades, and only the next race weekend will give us confirmation whether we are able to strengthen our position compared to our competitors. Nevertheless I’m confident that we can have a strong performance in Barcelona.”
The contest between the two Red Bull rookies continues to fascinate. Daniel Ricciardo remains the quicker of the two in qualifying – brilliantly so in the last race – but Jean-Eric Vergne has held the upper hand in the races.
They’ve slipped to the rear of the midfield battle and are struggling to contend for points. But it’s doubtful how much of a concern that is at ‘Red Bull Junior’.
Like Schumacher, Pastor Maldonado is another driver who needs a change of luck. While he had only himself to blame for crashing out of sixth in Australia, problems not of his own making ended his races on two other occasions.
The team are in the thick of the midfield battle with Sauber and Force India and need every point they can lay their hands on.
Caterham have been close-but-not-quite-close-enough to battling with the midfield runners. Heikki Kovalainen made it into Q2 in the last race, partly thanks to Schumacher’s problems, but did out-qualify Vergne on merit.
Technical problems continue to hinder the team, however, and it’s because of that they find themselves behind Marussia in the championship at this early stage.
American Alexander Rossi will get his first run in an F1 practice session on Friday morning, taking over from Kovalainen.
HRT will give another driver his F1 race weekend debut: Dani Clos will partner Pedro de la Rosa in first practice, temporarily giving the team an all-Spanish driver line-up at home.
Narain Karthikeyan will return to the car for the second session. The team did not run at Mugello so don’t expect them to be any closer to Marussia.
From being 2.8% slower than Caterham in Melbourne, Marussia have been within 1% of them on pure pace in the last two races. Their MR01 finally got its first testing run in Mugello which may help their cause.
Just as interesting is the contest between their two drivers, where the experienced Timo Glock is coming under greater pressure from rookie Charles Pic.
2012 driver form
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