Start, Circuit de Catalunya, 2013

Will Red Bull close on Mercedes at downforce track?

2014 Spanish Grand Prix previewPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

Start, Circuit de Catalunya, 2013The possibility that one team might win all the races in a season isn’t an appealing one for those who value healthy competition in Formula One. But Mercedes’ impressively strong start to the season, for which they deserve full credit, has given them a realistic chance of doing just that.

One of the teams most likely to stand in their way is Red Bull. That might have seemed unlikely before the season began, as the RB10 endured a difficult gestation in testing, but they have gained ground at a rapid rate since then.

The next two races – Spain this weekend at Monaco two weeks after – are at tracks where downforce matters more than engine grunt. That should play to Red Bull’s traditional strength – certainly more so than the following two races on the long straights of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and, ironically, the Red Bull Ring.

Red Bull have come close to wresting pole position from Mercedes twice already – Daniel Ricciardo pushed Lewis Hamilton hard in Australia, and Sebastian Vettel was less than a tenth of a second behind in Malaysia.

And there has been some needle between the two teams this year, particularly after Mercedes showed up at Red Bull’s FIA appeal to lobby for a stronger penalty following their Australian Grand Prix disqualification.

As usual Spain plays host to the beginning of the ‘European season’. With teams now operating closer to their bases, and having taken advantage of the opportunity to accelerate development on their cars in the three-week break since the last race, expect to see a lot of upgrades this weekend.

Circuit de 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 Medium

*Fastest lap set during a Grand Prix

Circuit de Catalunya track data in full

The speed of Red Bull’s in-season development has been a cornerstone of their competitiveness in recent seasons. That fact will have Mercedes casting a rearward glance in the direction of their rivals.

And while the biggest weakness of the RB10 has been its Renault Energy F1 power unit, further updates for it are expected this weekend.

Unusually, teams arrive at the Circuit de Catalunya having not previously tested their current cars at the venue. The track was not part of the pre-season testing schedule, though there will be two days’ testing at the circuit following Sunday’s grand prix.

Last year Fernando Alonso pitted four times on his way to victory but Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery doesn’t expect a repeat of that kind of strategy. “With the changes we have made to the tyres this year, we would now hope to see no more than three for the majority of drivers,” he said.

Spanish Grand Prix team-by-team preview

Red Bull

Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull, Shanghai International Circuit, 2014Curiously, Vettel has never started the Spanish Grand Prix from pole position. And Red Bull have only had two pole positions at a track which, on paper, you would expect to suit them.

They haven’t won or set pole at the track in the last two years: at the beginning of 2012 they were still getting to grips with the restrictions on exhaust-blowing, and this time 12 months ago they were unable to make Pirelli’s very soft tyre compounds last as well as their rivals could.

Mercedes

Last year Mercedes locked out the front row of the grid for the Spanish Grand Prix, but slumped to sixth and twelfth at the chequered flag. Expect to see a similar first half of the story this year but a different conclusion.

However executive director (technical) Paddy Lowe is wary of the threat from the likes of Red Bull. “There has been no sense of complacency or backing off just because our car has shown strong performance in the opening few races,” he said.

“The objective is to not only match, but to better the development rate of our rivals and to build on our lead in both championships.”

Ferrari

This race weekend marks 12 months since Ferrari’s last race win. But the Chinese Grand Prix showed the team are on the right track, and that Alonso can be counted on to wring a podium out of the car if one is possible in front of his home crowd.

Lotus

Romain Grosjean, Lotus, Bahrain International Circuit, 2014Lotus only improve following their dismal start to the season, but the rate of progress they have made since then has been impressive. Had Romain Grosjean’s car got to the chequered flag in China he would surely have been in a points-paying position.

“On paper we made a big relative improvement in China but it wasn’t just one thing,” he said. “We took the Renault updates and our own updates as well and moved forward.”

“Altogether we made a big step, even though there were no massive changes on the car – we’re just trying to make everything work together better. There is more to come for Barcelona.”

McLaren

McLaren are another team who promise to have some “interesting” (in Eric Boullier’s words) updates for their car this weekend. But Jenson Button says they also have plenty to gain by making better use of what they’ve already got.

“It’s not simply about bringing new parts to the circuit: it’s about understanding and unlocking the car’s secrets, and using that understanding to take bigger steps with performance,” he said.

“We’re still at the early stages with our car, and, for us, it’s less about the components that we fit to it, and more about the bigger picture – finding a useful direction, gaining trust in our measurements and pushing ahead.”

Force India

Sergio Perez, Force India, Shanghai International Circuit, 2014A new sponsor will appear on Force India’s sidepods this weekend as they look to build on their best-ever start to a Formula One season.

Consistent points scores have helped Nico Hulkenberg to fourth in the drivers’ championship.

Team mate Sergio Perez is hoping to improve on his one-off high from two races ago: Perez: “Bahrain has been the only weekend where everything has worked out perfectly. If we can have more weekends like that I think we can get some more great results.”

Sauber

A lighter version of the C33 will appear this weekend with several other improvements as the team try to finish in the points for the first time this year. Giedo van der Garde will drive during practice again.

Toro Rosso

Toro Rosso have been picking up what they can in the lower reaches of the points but are going to find themselves under greater pressure as the likes of Lotus make more rapid inroads on the frontrunners.

However Daniil Kvyat has some confidence about their performance this weekend: “I have no idea how the track will suit the STR9, except that so far this year, we have been okay in the high speed corners.”

Williams

Felipe Massa, Williams, Shanghai International Circuit, 2014Under-performance has been the theme of Williams’ season so far, whether due to driver errors, mistakes by the team or the FW35’s shortcomings in wet conditions.

Felipe Massa made terrific starts in Bahrain and China and will be one to watch on the long run to turn one on Sunday – he could spring a surprise if he qualifies anywhere near the front.

Marussia

The competition at the front of the field may not be close but it’s fierce between F1’s two smallest teams – more so than last year, when Marussia and Caterham were separated by a lap.

Caterham

Caterham were classified behind Marussia in China but only because Kamui Kobayashi’s last-lap pass was discounted due to a mistake by the race organisers. It wouldn’t have been enough to move Caterham ahead in the championship, but they may get the chance to do that this weekend.

2014 driver form

Driver G avg R avg R best R worst Classified Form guide
Sebastian Vettel 6.75 4.67 3 6 3/4 Form guide
Daniel Ricciardo 5.50 4.00 4 4 2/4 Form guide
Lewis Hamilton 1.25 1.00 1 1 3/4 Form guide
Nico Rosberg 2.75 1.75 1 2 4/4 Form guide
Fernando Alonso 5.75 5.00 3 9 4/4 Form guide
Kimi Raikkonen 8.25 9.25 7 12 4/4 Form guide
Romain Grosjean 15.25 11.50 11 12 2/4 Form guide
Pastor Maldonado 19.00 14.00 14 14 2/4 Form guide
Jenson Button 9.50 9.25 3 17 4/4 Form guide
Kevin Magnussen 8.75 8.00 2 13 3/4 Form guide
Nico Hulkenberg 8.25 5.50 5 6 4/4 Form guide
Sergio Perez 12.50 7.33 3 10 3/3 Form guide
Adrian Sutil 16.50 11.00 11 11 1/4 Form guide
Esteban Gutierrez 16.50 14.00 12 16 2/4 Form guide
Jean-Eric Vergne 9.50 10.00 8 12 2/4 Form guide
Daniil Kvyat 11.00 10.00 9 11 4/4 Form guide
Felipe Massa 8.75 9.67 7 15 3/4 Form guide
Valtteri Bottas 10.75 7.00 5 8 4/4 Form guide
Jules Bianchi 18.75 16.50 16 17 2/4 Form guide
Max Chilton 20.00 15.00 13 19 4/4 Form guide
Kamui Kobayashi 17.50 15.33 13 18 3/4 Form guide
Marcus Ericsson 20.25 17.00 14 20 2/4 Form guide

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Images © Daimler/Hoch Zwei, Red Bull/Getty, Force India, Lotus/LAT, Williams/LAT