Monday 8 May 2017

Barcelona Preview: Intrigue rather than invigoration

'Is F1 too boring?' Time was that such shrieks were an annual event, after every Spanish Grand Prix at the Montmelo track near Barcelona it seemed. There may be more of it this time.

The Montmelo track near Barcelona has long been
associated with follow-my-leader
Photo: Octane Photography
For all of the feelgood about this year's F1, on-track racing - or lack of it - remains an elephant in the otherwise pristine room. We also have just gone through a race in Russia with zero overtakes. And now we have one at Montmelo, long associated with passing being theoretical only.

The numbers back this up. No fewer than three in every four Grands Prix here have been won by the pole-sitter while on only three occasions since the race debuted in 1991 has it been won from a start off the front row. All of that trio too had peculiar circumstances (not least last year when the two front row starters helpfully wiped each other out before turn four...).

The theory backs it up also. It's a circuit with plenty of medium-to-fast long-ish turns that the modern aero-laden F1 car can't follow another through very happily. That it's a default testing venue takes away another variable, as all have a firm sense of the optimum set-up.

So in this sense this may be a Sunday afternoon to be got through. But still, it's not a total write off. No, really. Stay with me.

If Ferrari can get ahead of Mercedes
this time it will be a validation
Photo: Octane Photography
There will at least be sources of intrigue. Not least on the subject of Ferrari. This season we've got almost entirely uninterrupted accumulative evidence that the resurgent red car goes well on all circuits. And if it goes well this time it'll be something like final confirmation of that status.

This one is F1's bellwether. Those long corners require good aerodynamic performance and therefore it isn't a circuit on which a poor car can readily be hustled around. If your machine isn't working you have little choice but to wait on it.

Underlining as much grids here often have a Noah's Ark two-by-two look. Also 16 of the 26 pole-sitters at this track have gone on to be that year's world champion (in an odd statistic though, only two of the last 10 world champions have bagged pole here that same season).

The track more generally has a 'bit of everything' 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.

We can recall how well the Ferrari went in pre-season testing here too.

In recent years Mercedes has often led in Barcelona
Photo: Octane Photography
Then we have Mercedes. In its recent years of pomp it's tended to be even further ahead at Barcelona than anywhere else, related likely to the mentioned corner type letting the Merc show its wares. At the very least those long turns should mean Merc won't have the problems getting its tyres in temperature range for a qualifying lap that it did in Sochi. And as outlined quali means a lot here.

There's intrigue with the Merc pilots too. To what extent is Valtteri Bottas boosted by his freshman F1 win last time out? Or, as some ultra-cynics may have it, is he just peculiarly good at the Sochi track? And what of Lewis Hamilton, and whether he can stride back from his Sochi woes? He certainly was bombastic after that race that he knew what his problems were and that he'd solve them for this one.

Yet for all that the Montmelo venue is associated with predictability we have, rather incongruously, had ten different winners here in the last ten visits. Over to you Valtteri to make it 11...

Adding to the intrigue, Barcelona tends to be where teams bring major technical upgrades, and Red Bull will be hanging more than most on its own new package. Figures in the team have been talking in almost awed tones of it; in effect that it'll make or break its season. Time was the Bulls had Montmelo to itself but so far in 2017 the car's been short on downforce. This track will give its upgrades a heck of an acid test.

Carlos Sainz has a good record at this track
Photo: Octane Photography
As for the rest, as ever they're likely not to give the front-runners much to think about (other than when they're lapping them), but Toro Rosso will be worth watching. Its chassis is thought excellent plus home-boy Carlos Sainz has a good record here - he qualified fifth in 2015 and finished sixth last year.

The long turns, particularly turn 3, tax the tyres as indeed does the abrasive surface, and reflecting this the Pirelli hard compound is available for the first time in 2017. Strategy here historically has been 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 (and as outlined, in Barcelona when you get stuck you tend to stay stuck). This should force everyone's hands to go with two. And even if that doesn't then they may think back to the race here last year, when Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel let matters slip from their grasps by trying to get funky with a three-stopper.

One wonders though with the more durable compounds this year whether some may try even for a one-stopper, which is almost unheard of here in the Pirelli era. After all in China, a track with similar characteristics, although early rain slightly muddied matters effective (and actual in Sainz's case) one-stoppers were undertaken.

This will give Ferrari encouragement, given its car is gentle on the tyres. But then again if Mercedes's qualifying talisman prevails then as outlined it's not clear how Ferrari will get ahead on race day. Plus a rule of thumb in recent years is the harder the compounds the better the Merc does relatively.

There won't be thrills most likely. Nor even surprises. But there will be intrigue.

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