Monday 9 May 2016

Barcelona Preview: No alarms and no surprises

Some Grand Prix host countries, such as Italy, hardly have changed their venue throughout F1's extended history. Others, such as France and the USA, have had several come and go. And the Spanish Grand Prix belongs firmly in the latter camp.

The Montmelo track near Barcelona finally ended
the race's nomadic existence
Photo: Octane Photography
It's right up there in the hit-and-miss stakes. Six different circuits in Spain have hosted its Grand Prix - and you can add a seventh if you include Valencia which run under the 'European Grand Prix' moniker in fairly recent years. Moreover, again like France and the USA, for extended spells the country dropped off the calendar altogether.

In its nomadic existence first we had the attractive Pedralbes track, run through wide open avenues in Barcelona's suburbs, popping up twice in total in the 1950s before the Le Mans disaster and its safety fallout did for it. A couple of decades on there also, briefly, was the undulating, challenging and scenic Barcelona street track at Montjuic, but with its magic it also was fated and its safety arrangements were pitilessly, tragically, revealed as sub-standard in the final 1975 visit. Jarama near Madrid and Jerez in the south of the country came and went in a sporadic fashion too; both suffered from rather torturous layouts and often poor crowds.

While all of this was going on Barcelona still viewed itself as the Spanish Grand Prix's spiritual home, and as the 1980s drew to a close it set about doing something tangible about it by creating finally a permanent home. Money was put in place, as was a site, and come 1991 - although the preparations for the first visit were rather last gasp - Jerez was replaced on the F1 itinerary by a Montmelo track 12 miles up the road from the city.

Fernando Alonso can expect his usual massed following
Photo: Octane Photography
A quarter of a century on that's how matters stay, the Spanish Grand Prix's peripatetic ways at last ending. And, near as it is to the exciting conurbation as well as more latterly attracting a vast and passionate crowd of Fernando Alonso-worshippers, it's one of the more popular stop-offs in some senses.

In some senses. As appropriately given this venue ended the Spanish round's decades of nomadic existence, the on track fare it provides these days also could hardly be more settled.

This one is very much F1's bellwether. The indicator of the pecking order of the competing cars. Demonstrating this 16 of the 25 pole-sitters at this track have gone on to be that year's world champion (if it helps though, only two of the last 10 world champions have bagged pole here that same season).

Why is this? Well as is usually the case it can be attributed to a few things coming together. The circuit features a few long medium-speed corners which require good aerodynamic performance and therefore it isn't a circuit on which an under-performing car can readily be hustled around. If your machine isn't working you have little choice but to sit and wait on it. Underlining as much grids here often have a Noah's Ark two-by-two look; last year indeed the grid was in such formation from eleventh place back.

The Montmelo circuit also is a habitual test venue - it was used for all of the sport's pre-season testing this time - and therefore teams usually have a firm sense of the optimum set-up, which in turn takes away another potential variable.

It is a track associated with follow-my-leader
Photo: Octane Photography
The track more generally has a 'bit of everything' quality about it - to the point that the now-neutered final sector is considered a good indicator for Monaco pace - which again ensures that cars that perform well in the universal sense are rewarded.

But another common association with the Barcelona track is that its races often are on the tepid side as it's not a track big on overtaking. The sport's perennial 'dirty air' problem makes itself felt in a big way as the cars struggle to follow each other through those long lingering turns. Panic after a Spanish Grand Prix over whether F1 had got 'too boring' (plus ca change...) once was an annual event indeed.

Once again the numbers back this concept up. No fewer than three in every four Grands Prix here have been won by the pole-sitter while only twice has it been won from a start off the front row, and one of those was when it rained. Lewis Hamilton's victory chances were ended off the line last year when he sank behind Sebastian Vettel and stayed there for a long time, two stints indeed, stating repeatedly that he simply could get nowhere near the Ferrari ahead. Indeed he ended up switching from a two to a three-stop strategy in order to get by.

And cementing the sense that surprises can't be expected here, this one should really suit the Mercedes this time. It's the best car generally, particularly on quick-ish turns, and its advantage in qualifying tends to be particularly stark. And toting it all up last year the first non-Merc home in Barcelona (in third place, natch) finished 45 seconds after the victorious silver car, which only represented slight progress on the year before when P3 got home 49 seconds adrift. By this rate someone else will win at Montmelo by, ooh, 2028. And while in Sochi there still was some typical for 2016 obfuscation, qualifying and the race suggested that Mercedes has now got some air between it and Ferrari.

Mercedes has dominated here before and is likely to again
Photo: Octane Photography
In terms of which Merc pilot is likely to win out, it's hard to read much from form at this track. Nico Rosberg triumphed here last year, and while he was aided by Lewis's poor start as mentioned he also took a fine pole position with a lap a quarter of a second under his team mate's. The year before Lewis triumphed, but it was a close fight between him and Nico. It may come as a surprise too to hear that's his only F1 win at this circuit. For what it's worth Nico took the pole here in 2013 also.

But for all that the Montemelo venue is associated with predictability we have, rather incongruously, in fact had nine different winners here in the last nine visits. Combined with the afore-mentioned stat Barcelona may indeed be losing its bellwether touch... Even so, a tenth different winner this time doesn't look likely.

As for the rest, Red Bull may be worth keeping an eye on. Its fine-handling chassis will be well-suited to this circuit while its relative lack of Renault grunt should harm it less than usual, though even with this it's a bit of a pity that the upgraded Renault unit won't be debuted until the post-race test. While of course we'll have our first glimpse of the fascinating match-up of Daniel Ricciardo with the young whipper-snapper Max Verstappen.

Other teams whose chassis is thought to be better than their engines, such as McLaren and Toro Rosso, will also be optimistic of being budged a little further up from their usual place in the order this time. Indeed Alonso predicted in pre-season that come this round the Woking squad could have the best chassis out there...

Many eyes will be on Red Bull and Toro Rosso,
and for many reasons
Photo: Octane Photography
Strategy usually is a choice between two stops and three, with the latter tending to be quicker in theory but with an attendant risk of getting stuck in traffic, what with overtaking being so difficult.

The long turns, particularly turn 3, tax the tyres as indeed does the rather abrasive surface, and reflecting this we'll see the Pirelli hard compound for the first time in 2016. Few have selected many sets of it though - reflecting probably that there was a large pace drop off between it and the medium tyre here last year - instead preferring to go aggressive with plenty of sets of the medium and soft, even though the available compounds last year were the medium and hard. With the above conundrum in mind the softer compounds this year may edge competitors towards aiming for three stops.

This will give Ferrari encouragement at least, given its car is gentle on the tyres and the team is content to run it on softer compounds. The red car really didn't like the hard compound here last year.

But beyond that for Ferrari, and for everyone else, there are few sources of encouragement, for the first two places at least.

No comments:

Post a Comment