Friday 11 May 2012

Barcelona Preview: That nagging sense of familiarity

Do you ever get that nagging sense of familiarity? No doubt F1 drivers heading into a Barcelona race weekend do.

Have I seen you somewhere before?
Credit: Jose Ma Izquierdo Galiot / CC
The popularity of the Montmelo facility as a test venue means that the pilots probably see the track in their sleep. And other familiar aspects of today's Barcelona running, familiar that is for 2012, is that the competitive order looks tight and management of tyres, perhaps more so than ever, will be critical for who comes out on top on Sunday.

Another time-honoured characteristic of the Barcelona track is that it is traditionally where we get some clarity over who's hot and who's not for the season. It has tended to mark the start of the European rounds, and there are usually new car updates aplenty as teams try to incorporate what they have garnered from the opening 'phoney war' fly-away rounds. And the races follow thick and fast from here, meaning that if you haven't got it right by now your season can run away from you very quickly.

And given the track has a number of long medium-speed corners it tends to show how cars are working warts and all - it's not a track amenable to hustling a poor-handling machine around.

A lot of this holds for this Barcelona meeting. But, such are the way of things in 2012's F1, clarity over what will be the year's usual run of things may yet be elusive this weekend. The competitive order remains close, and preponderance in qualifying and preponderance in the race may not necessarily be the same thing.

Jenson Buttton topped the practice times today
Credit: Morio / CC
Over a lap McLaren and Red Bull are up there. Jenson Button topped the times in the second practice session today, despite spending the early part of it bemoaning the 'incredible understeer' of his machine. Lewis Hamilton, curiously, didn't appear on the same one-lap pace (though looked better over a longer run). And all the while the Red Bulls looked pretty well nailed to the road, and Sebastian Vettel ended up closest to Jenson's best time.

But while these two teams may be in a private battle for pole, they may have a couple of dark horses to think about come race day. The horses are literally dark, as the black and gold Lotuses looked in today's practice, if not there on a single lap, to be seriously good on race pace. It's early days of course, but just as in Bahrain the race here could be a matter of how quickly Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean can come through the pack to have a crack at the leaders. But a problem they have is that overtaking opportunities at Barcelona, even with DRS, are known for being limited.

Lotus - the quickest come the race?
Credit: Gil Abrantes / CC
Then there is the chief theme of the season it seems: the Pirelli tyres. They continue to baffle and will be vital in determining Sunday's victor, perhaps even more acutely than previously in 2012. The Montmelo circuit is tough on tyres at the best of times, and track temperatures remained resolutely high today thus punishing the rubber even more than usual. Moreover, for the first time this year, the compounds available are two 'steps' apart (the soft and hard are those selected), and it seems that there is about 1.5 seconds per lap difference between the two when new. This has many implications, such as competitors will have less leeway to rely on getting through qualifying sessions on the hard tyres, as well as having to consider exactly when they'll run them in the race. But it seems new soft tyres are the things to have on Sunday, so to what extent will qualifying be 'sacrificed' across the pack to improve race chances? And who'll get the balance right? After all, Kimi Raikkonen's strong race performance in Bahrain owed at least something to sitting out of the last qualifying session and thus saving new tyres for use in the race. Here in Barcelona the utility of this sort of thing appears even greater. Qualifying tomorrow may be quiet.

And of course, if Lotus can pull off a victory on Sunday it'll make it five different teams winning from this year's five rounds. It could be that not everything about F1 in Barcelona is familiar.

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