Monday 7 May 2018

Barcelona Preview: Moment of clarity?

F1 in 2018 has been as clear as mud. Four rounds in we still don't have a strong sense of the pecking order. All rounds have contained surprises and then have been shaken up by a safety car (actual or virtual) intervention.

The Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona -
F1's standard round?
Photo: Octane Photography
But if we want a normal dull stop-off that gives us a steer of which cars are hot and which not then the Spanish Grand Prix coming this weekend at Barcelona would be top of our list to provide it.

It has been known as F1's bellwether - the correlation between getting pole at Barcelona and going onto win that year's title was for a time near exact.

Three in every four Grands Prix at this track have been won by the pole-sitter; only on three occasions has it been won from a start off the front row, and all of that trio came in peculiar circumstances.

The circuit's many medium-to-fast speed long-ish turns reward a car that is working well - ill-handling machines can't be hustled around this place readily. That it's a default testing venue takes away another variable, as all have a firm sense of the optimum set-up. Grids here often have a Noah's Ark look. Also the modern aero-laden F1 car can't follow another very happily through this layout, and therefore overtaking often is rare.

Yet this track may be shedding its reputation for sterility. There have been 10 different winners here in the last 11 visits with some genuine turn-ups in that time - not least Pastor Maldonado's flash bang victory in 2012 and Max Verstappen triumphing on his Red Bull debut in 2016.

While last year's race was a thriller - a desperate strategic and on-track battle for the win between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, featuring actual overtakes. It was reckoned that the revised 2017 cars followed each other more easily through the last turn onto the main straight and the track's main (only?) passing opportunity at turn 1.

Last year's race was a tight battle between
Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton
Photo: Octane Photography
Another source of intrigue is that the Barcelona round is the start of 'the European season' where traditionally teams bring their first major technical upgrade of the year, learning the lessons of the opening rounds (or at least trying to). Twelve months ago indeed observers reckoned Mercedes turned up with a new car rather than a mere upgrade...

Ferrari in advance is the team to beat on pace at least. This includes particularly on a qualifying lap - it would have locked out the front row in each of the last three rounds but for Kimi Raikkonen's late error in Baku and as noted qualifying and track position mean a lot here. Then again Ferrari's lost the last three races on strategy and returns to a circuit where it lost on strategy last year. While in a slightly odd statistic Vettel has only won at this track once (in 2011).

Kimi will be worth watching though, as he looked set for pole in the previous three rounds only to lose out at the last of Q3 in each. The law of averages if nothing else says he'll get it right at some point.

Long fast-ish corners and harder tyre compounds usually are good news for Mercedes, and may go a way to resolve its tyre warm up problems on show this year particularly in qualifying. And while it has been tempting to view Hamilton and Mercedes as analogous Valtteri Bottas has been the lead Merc in the last three races. Some think super smooth Tilke dromes, like the last three, suit him peculiarly. But if he goes well at Barcelona too it'll be hard to discount him as readily as some have been doing.

Will Red Bull be strong at this track?
Photo: Octane Photography
A track that's all about cornering and aero should suit Red Bull down to the ground, and so far in 2018 the Bulls have usually been close enough to strike for the win when circumstances are good (you could even make a case that it should have won the first three races this season).

For all that though Red Bull's results here haven't lived up to the theory - it only won here twice in its pomp years plus its only other Barcelona win was an incongruous one for Verstappen two years ago on a day that the Mercedes pair wiped each other out.

Also it hasn't been able to live with Ferrari and Merc's qualifying modes this season and as noted following and overtaking isn't easy here. But there will be plenty of strategy options (more anon) and Red Bull tends to be sharp on that.

The midfield pack is an even tougher call than the front. Early rounds had Renault, Haas and McLaren the more convincing among them, but in Baku last time out Force India, Sauber and Williams put in improved showings. Completing the full set, Toro Rosso had an out of nowhere tour de force in Bahrain's round two.

Renault has been the closest to a consistent presence at the head of the midfield and Carlos Sainz has a good record at this track - he qualified fifth in 2015, finished sixth in 2016 and seventh last year. He looked in improved fettle in Baku.

Will McLaren's upgrade get it ahead of the midfield pack?
Photo: Octane Photography
Force India looked back to its habitual best of the rest form in Baku and Perez bagged one of his standard issue podiums. Last year it finished fourth and fifth at Barcelona.

McLaren meanwhile has had this weekend circled on its calendar for a while for one of those famous Barcelona technical upgrades. Cynics might point out however that it's hardly the first time McLaren has insisted its salvation is just around the corner.

And in any case as its boss Eric Boullier noted, "everybody is bringing parts, everybody is bringing a package, especially for the first European races."

The possibility is that all simply move forward in unison and we end up where we were.

The long turns, particularly turn 3, tax the tyres (especially the front left) and reflecting this strategy here historically has been a choice between two stops and three. The latter tends to be quicker in theory but has an attendant risk of getting stuck in traffic. This usually tilts people back to two stops, but in there's a large pace gap between tyre compounds it may tilt people back to three.

Last year though Sauber got its first points of the season when Pascal Wehrlein did a one-stopper, with the bonus that his single stop came under a virtual safety car. Safety car interventions are however fairly rare here.

Pirelli has gone "quite aggressive" in its compound selections by bringing the super-soft rather than the hard it brought 12 months ago - joining the soft and medium. Mercedes's tyre selections are more conservative than those of Ferrari and Red Bull, not surprising given its preference for harder tyres.

Adding to the confusion the track has been resurfaced for this year, and is smoother than before. And while the teams ran on it in pre-season testing temperatures then were much lower and as intimated cars have been much developed since. Pirelli also brings a tyre with thinner tread this weekend to try to avoid overheating on the new asphalt. Teams will be doing frantic reassessments.

Barcelona may lose its reputation for sterility yet. And it would be in keeping with this season if it did this time.

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