Three weeks since its brush with controversy in the deserts of Bahrain, Formula One is back and ready to entertain yet again with the Spanish Grand Prix at the unfavoured Catalunya circuit.
Barcelona is traditionally the circuit where we see the pure performance of the season’s cars after what can be topsy-turvy and mixed-up races across the Far East. As the circuit where much of the pre-season testing is carried out, you’d expect the teams to have a fair idea of where they will be finishing once that chequered flag falls on Sunday; but no. Spain is also the race where the first major updates of the season arrive on the cars and with that taken into account, predictability is thrown out of the window.
Red Bull have stamped their authority on F1 2013 thus far, with two wins from four races marking out reigning World Champion Sebastian Vettel as the man to beat. Australian Mark Webber is desperate to get off the mark after victory was snatched from his grasp in Malaysia, while Fernando Alonso will be eager to thwart his 2012 nemesis Vettel and win his first race at the Catalunya circuit for Ferrari.
Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg will sail into battle for Mercedes, both equally ambitious in their expectations, while Lotus must overcome the departure on Wednesday of Technical Director and team guru James Allison. McLaren, for their part, have played down expectations that their upgrade package will revitalise the dismal MP4/28 any time soon.
With such a lot to cover going into the weekend, you’d be forgiven for forgetting the midfield and backmarking teams. Yet here too, there is action to behold and expectations to be met. Will Jules Bianchi maintain his status as the most impressive rookie? Can Williams drag themselves into points contention? Can Paul Di Resta get on that elusive podium?
One thing we can be sure of is more on-track action during Friday’s Free Practice Sessions; each team and driver has been allocated an extra set of Pirelli tyres to use during the day’s running.
“The first European race will be one where everyone is bringing upgrades and our progress will be measured against our competitors.” said McLaren managing director Jonathan Neale . “I think we’ll be cautious at this stage and say that a measure of our progress will be revealed on Saturday afternoon and Sunday when we get a chance to quantify what we’ve done. I’m pleased with the way things are working and I think we’ve done a lot of very diligent work. We’ve had a straight-line test as well to be able to validate some of the information, but we’ll be cautious at this stage until we know where we’re at. Some things will work, some things won’t.”
“There’s been a lot of talk about the importance of next weekend’s upgrades; but, as with every upgrade, they’re simply part of the series of continuous improvement that are made across the season.” added British number one Jenson Button. “As always, there’ll be elements of it that work, elements that perhaps work in a different way to what we’d anticipated, and elements that don’t work, or perhaps require further work. That’s life in modern Formula One.”
With all calm and well on the good ship Red Bull, Sebastian Vettel has more time to philosophise about the return of Formula One to a European environment.
“It’s good to be back in Europe, and in Spain in particular. The atmosphere is always very special at the European races and the weather is usually good too. It helps that the travelling time to and from events is shorter and there’s no need to adapt to a time difference.”
His sentiments were echoed for once by team-mate Webber.
“We all know the hotels well and the drill of how to get around. It’s much more straightforward than some of the new venues; it’s a nice time to be racing in Europe with the weather generally and it’s a good atmosphere.”
When asked if he thought Fernando Alonso would have a home advantage, Kimi Raikkonen merely answered ‘I don’t care.’ So what is Kimi caring about this weekend?
“All the teams have tested many times at this circuit, so to get an advantage there is not very easy. The set-up is crucial as the track changes with the wind and temperature so there’s plenty of work for the engineers too. I really like racing in Europe. We don’t have to travel that far so all your energy is saved for the weekend itself. Traditionally the real season starts when coming back to Europe. For me, it’s great.”
“We’ve been boosted by the results that we’ve had at the start of the season and to come away from the first four races with two third and two fifth places feels like a real achievement.” claims Lewis Hamilton. “I’m feeling very comfortable in the car now and we know the areas that we need to improve so a lot of effort is being put in to close that gap to the front-runners. Barcelona should be a good test as we know the circuit so well having completed most of the pre-season test programme there. The weekend should be a good benchmark of the progress we have made since then.”
Scot Paul Di Resta has remained defiant in the face of criticisms of his Bahrain performance that saw him fall three laps short of a maiden podium finish. His expectations for Barcelona are tempered, despite increased focus on his future in Formula One.
“We need to keep doing what we’re doing, but at the same time we know the return to Europe always sees every team bring more upgrades. Hopefully we can stay fighting with the big teams and keep picking up the points.” said the Scot. “I guess we have more data around Barcelona than anywhere else, but at the same time the temperatures will be much higher at this time of year. So I’d expect that to change things quite a lot and impact on the tyres. Also, it’s one of those tracks where you’re constantly chasing the right aero balance to cope with the long, high-speed corners, especially turn three. But when you come to the end of the lap you need the mechanical grip for the hairpins and chicanes.”