Preview of the Spanish Grand Prix
Round Five of the 2012 Formula One season sees the teams heading to their first race of the year on European soil. The Circuit de Catalunya is a venue the teams know very well from winter testing. After eight days there earlier in the year, the teams will have a head start in preparing for this weekend’s race although they will still have to consider the higher track temperatures. There’s also the added intrigue of last week’s in-season test in Italy – Mugello may not be representative of the challenges posed by Catalunya but it was an opportunity for teams to try out some new ideas and further mix up this already hard to predict season.
So what should you expect in Spain this weekend?
Track and Conditions
With long straights and a variety of corners, the Circuit de Catalunya is seen as an ‘all-rounder’ circuit ideally suited to testing, and because of this many drivers are said to be able to drive around it blindfolded. The familiarity of Barcelona has probably contributed to it seldom producing thrilling races in recent years, and the track has become renowned as being dominated from pole. Last year, Mark Webber slipped back to fourth but you have to go back to 2000 for the previous non-pole winner. It’s also a tough circuit with above average levels of both mechanical retirements (3rd highest on calendar) and retirements due to accidents (5th).
The lap starts with a straight, dipping down to Turns 1 and 2 – an ‘S’ bend which often sees cars overshoot at the start, as they get squeezed by the pack. Indeed, only Melbourne and Suzuka have produced more first lap retirements over the last five years.
Turn 5 is tricky, because the left-front wheel wants to lock under braking, resulting in mid-corner understeer. Then the corner falls away and the car will oversteer. The track then rises sharply from Turn 7 to Campsa, the highest point of the circuit, which has a blind entry at high speed. The corner at the bottom end of the back straight is tight and it’s very important to judge the car’s braking carefully. The exit is slow and uphill, often resulting in some wheelspin.
The weather in Barcelona at this time of year is almost always warm and dry, although the long range forecast currently suggests that showers may yet be a possibility this coming weekend.
The circuit presents one of the biggest technical challenges of the season – every aspect of set-up needs to be right in order to be quick and there’s no hiding from a poor car. The first half of the lap is dominated by high-speed corners requiring a well-balanced car. However, the second half is about slow-corners and strong braking stability is also important.
While the circuit is not too demanding on engines, and only around 60% of the lap is spent at full throttle, those low-speed corners demand good driveability from the engine and a responsive gearbox.
Barcelona is tough on tyres with an abrasive surface and reasonably high track temperatures – the front left endures a particular heavy load through Turn 3 while several corners leave drivers prone to locking the front tyres, most notably Turn 5. The two tests are of limited benefit in this case as track temperatures were so much lower in March.
For the first time this year, Pirelli have provided non-consecutive tyre compounds: the hard and soft tyres in their range. While the compounds have changed since last year, it was the same allocation allotted last year. That resulted in most of the front runners four-stopping, although Jenson Button made a three-stop strategy work in order to finish third having dropped to 10th after a poor start. However, with the greater durability of this year’s tyres, the balance is possibly tipped more towards three-stops being the optimal strategy.
The Spanish Grand Prix has been on and off the calendar since 1951 when Fangio won both the race and the drivers’ title. However, one of Formula One’s most memorable finishes came in 1986 as Jerez hosted the event for the first time. Ayrton Senna’s Lotus and Nigel Mansell’s Williams battled into the closing stages: A late pit stop had delayed Mansell but with fresh rubber he made up 19 seconds in the space of ten laps. In the last hundred yards of the race, Mansell pulled out to pass and the cars crossed the finishing line side-by-side. Senna just held on by 0.014 seconds, one of the closest finishes in the history of Formula One.
Ones To Watch
They may have their own team now but all the local fans will be cheering on Fernando Alonso although the circuit has produced a mixed bag of results for the Ferrari driver. More interesting will be to see if Ferrari have been able to close the gap to their rivals after last week’s test in Italy. Meanwhile, on the back of their performance in Bahrain, Lotus will be looking to enjoy their turn on the top step of the podium.
Food for Thought
Who do you think will win in Spain? Will Red Bull domination return or will Ferrari turn their season around? Can Lotus really win or will McLaren be back on top form?
Circuit Profile – Circuit de Catalunya
2011 Spanish Grand Prix – Vettel Holds off Hamilton to Win
Photos: Pirelli Tyres, Lotus F1 Team/Charles Coates/LAT Photographic, Force India F1/Sutton Images, Sauber Motorsport AG