Wednesday 7 May 2014

Barcelona Preview: Predictable to a point

Some tracks have a reputation for unpredictability. For the shock result. For dishing out the wild card.

Sadly though the Circuit de Cataluyna near Barcelona which hosts this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix is not one of them. I say sadly as the venue when it arrived in F1 in 1991 was the one that gave the Spanish Grand Prix a permanent home finally; that ended the event's nomadic and patchy presence on the calendar. Unlike Jarama and Jerez it attracted a crowd; unlike the previous Barcelona venues of Pedralbes and Montjuic it satisfied safety standards.

The start and opening corners at the
 Circuit de Cataluyna will likely be vital
Photo: Octane Photography
But I threaten to digress. The Montmelo venue whatever its virtues is the one arguably on the farthest end of the scale from the unpredictable. Instead it's been viewed as the sport's bellwether; F1's indicator of the pecking order all things being equal.

Why is this? Well as is usually the case it can be attributed to a few disparate things coming together.

With the track's layout featuring a succession of long medium-speed corners which require good aerodynamics it isn't one on which a car can be hauled around ahead of itself. If your machine isn't working you have little choice but to sit and wait on it. Inspired drives outperforming your wheels, at least in the absence of rain, are therefore unlikely. And while a horrid chicane was added to the end of the lap in 2007, which rather spoiled the circuit's character (to the point that the final sector is now considered a good indicator for Monaco pace) its status as a barometer of where your car really is at remains.

The circuit for much of its existence has been the default testing venue for the teams too, to the point that your average F1 driver would likely see the Montmelo turns every time they closed their eyes. And in F1 this familiarity has bred contempt; taking the wrong turn on set-up often becoming next to impossible thus taking away a further potential source of surprise.

Given this combination Noah's Ark grids at the Circuit de Cataluyna - the cars lining up two by two - were common, as were tepid races given it's not a track big on overtaking opportunities even with its fairly lengthy pit straight, as there isn't really a big braking zone plus cars would struggle to follow in each other's 'dirty air'. Panic after a Spanish Grand Prix over whether F1 had got 'too boring' (plus ca change...) once was an annual event.

Fernando Alonso can expect plenty of support this weekend
Photo: Octane Photography
Still, the Montmelo track has gone some way to shed its reputation for monotony in recent times. It helps that it's the scene of Alonso-mania, with his frenzied followers ensuring that - due to their presence even if nothing else - this can no longer be considered just another race.

It's also a Grand Prix that's, perhaps incongruously, rather spread the love in recent years with seven different winners in the last seven visits. Pastor Maldonado's triumph in 2012 without hyperbole has good claim as F1's most unexpected and unlikely win of all.

And this time it'll likely become eight from eight, as neither Lewis Hamilton (a fact that I find a little weird) nor Nico Rosberg have ever won here, and the chief theme of F1 in 2014 is that victory is a private matter for the two Mercedes men. It's hard to predict as ever who of the two is likely to emerge on top this time; on one hand Lewis is gathering incremental evidence of his establishing the whip hand, but on the other last year at this track was the scene of a clear intra-Merc win for Nico (albeit on a woeful race day for the silver cars - what a difference a year makes). Although he still leads the drivers' table, it feels a lot like Nico needs somehow to address his team mate's big mo this weekend.

Another association with the Spanish round these days is that it opens the European season, and with plenty to think about from the 'fly-aways' in addition to a three-week gap since the previous round as well as the teams being close to home for the first time major upgrade packages will be on show up and down the grid. There are reasons to think there's potential for a particular shift this time too given all still are wrestling with fairly new technology and regulations - learning curves likely will be cliff face-like.

What a difference a year makes - last year's
 Spanish race was a struggle for Mercedes
Photo: Octane Photography
While as James Allen noted a good aerodynamic upgrade could gain around three or four tenths per lap, and even though it's possible that everyone makes roughly the same progress thus leaving us roughly where we were such has been the tight pecking order in 2014 (behind the Mercs at least) there may still be some switches. As James Allen also noted however this time in particular gains in the power units could amount to much more than just a few tenths. Of course, technically we have power unit homogolation but it's more honoured in the breach, or rather more honoured in the creative exploitation of the loophole, than in the observance.

Ferrari and Renault appeared in the opening rounds to have a particular way to go on the horsepower front, and the evidence therein is that if the units can be got as good as Mercedes then it'll go a long way to getting Ferrari and Red Bull with the silver cars' breathless pace.

This time too, and for the first time anyone can remember, we enter a Spanish Grand Prix with the circuit having not been used for testing at all previously in the year. And this in a year wherein cars are, um, rather different to what we had before.

So there is cause for optimism that things will be a bit more variable than usual at Montmelo this time. But given the gap they have in their pocket, plus that aping the Merc's advantage won't be the work of a moment, it would still be a major shock if Lewis and Nico don't have the place to themselves this weekend when it comes to disputing first place.

Ferrari and Red Bull will also be pleased that this track, plus the next one around Monaco, places less of a premium on engine performance due to the relatively few straights and acceleration zones (unlike the next two after that, Montreal and then the Red Bull Ring). It also may mean on the flipside that the Mercedes-powered interlopers of the opening rounds such as Force India and Williams may be less competitive here.

But with this weekend's get-together marking the start of a slalom run all the way to the start of the summer break at the end of July, in addition to the track's bellwether characteristics already explained, there will be plenty of hearts in mouths in Friday practice as the revised machines are tried out on track.

Tyres were the big story of last year's race
Photo: Octane Photography
With the paucity of overtaking at the Circuit de Catalunya qualifying and starts are vital at this venue, and indeed eight of the last ten races here have been won from pole. Alonso won from fifth on the grid last year but it owed a lot to being up to third by turn four, as well as that pole man's Rosberg's Merc rather chewed its Pirellis.

You may also recall (perhaps with a shudder) the fallout from last year's race in terms of early 2013's major gripe of the gumball tyres. Pirelli seems keen to stop this happening again by the evidence of it bringing the two most durable available compounds of the hard and medium. But still such is the workout the tyres get through the long corners as well as a fairly abrasive surface three stops may yet be the norm, though some may try for two.

So, rather against the venues' reputation there may be some variations from what we've seen before on show this weekend. That's strictly behind the top two of course.

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