This weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona will almost feel like the start of the season again, with so many teams bringing substantially updated cars. In most cases this is a response to the ruling that double diffusers, as used on the Brawn car, are legal. It will be fascinating to see who goes up and who goes down. Here’s my take on the things to look out for.
The reigning constructors’ champions have had a disastrous start to the 2009 campaign in terms of results and the car has not shown strong performance at any track, really. They started the season ahead of McLaren, but were overhauled by them. So for Spain, they badly need a major boost. One is due to come from the revised car which was straight-line tested at Vairano last week.
It is a lighter chassis, better to accommodate the extra weight of KERS and it has a double diffuser and other modifications to give the car extra downforce, the vital commodity it has been lacking. Reliability aside, there hasn’t been anything particularly wrong with the Ferrari so far, it’s just that it has lacked downforce. It’s too strong to say that this weekend will define Ferrari’s season, they have until November to win races, but if they don’t move up to the pace of the front runners with this update, then it is going to be tough for them to think about winning either world title.
They introduced the twin diffuser in China on Alonso’s car and both drivers had it in Bahrain.
Pat Symonds says it has helped a lot, not just in terms of lap time but also in setting up and balancing the car, “Because the car was quite sensitive and difficult to set-up with the more conventional diffuser. The car used to have a very small sweet spot in terms of set-up, which made it difficult for Fernando and Nelson to get the most from the car.”
They opted not to bring new parts to the car on a race by race basis during the early fly-away races, something team boss Mario Theissen now accepts was a mistake. They have been working on a big step for Spain, hoping to reverse their alarming decline in performance. An updated car which is built lighter to accommodate both the heavier driver, Robert Kubica and the KERS system, is in the pipeline. For Spain neither car will run KERS and they will not use the double diffuser either, as they don’t feel that there has been sufficient development on it.
“There is no time limit set for when we will introduce the double diffuser in our car,” says Theissen.
“We will have an substantial update in Barcelona, from the front to the rear wing, affecting also the sidepods, there will be improvements in every detail.”
“There is no time limit set for when we will introduce the double diffuser in our car.”
The Brawn team started the season with a car which has had over a year of development and was optimised around the double diffuser and other aerodynamic refinements. The downside is that they had a very late switch to the Mercedes engine, so that was not the best it could be and they suffered a bit from that in Bahrain where the car ran very hot, due to problems adapting the radiators.
Barcelona always rewards the best car aerodynamically so the Brawn will be in great shape and at the pre-season test they were mind-blowingly fast on the long runs, on the cars’ first proper run out.
They have not really updated their car since Melbourne but always planned a major upgrade for Spain, I’m told they expect between two and three tenths of a second from the package. Certainly Button and Barrichello will need it if they are to keep their noses in front. “We know that we have a real fight on our hands from here to maintain our lead in the championships, ” says Jenson. “But I am confident that we are well prepared.” With Ross Brawn in charge of planning and allocating resources, you can be sure that is the case.
Williams have reason to feel pretty upset with the first four races. One of the three teams with a double diffuser, they are the one which has managed to profit least from it. Nico Rosberg has certainly not made the most of his opportunities in the first four races, failing to turn a competitive car into tangible results.
He led impressively in Kuala Lumpur, but there hasn’t been much else and in Bahrain he did not make the most of a package of upgrades the team had worked hard to produce on his car only, qualifying barely a couple of tenths up on his team mate who did not have the same equipment. The team will have more new pieces in Barcelona, but the fear is that they will be outdeveloped by the likes of McLaren, Ferrari and Renault, now that the playing field has been levelled. As the only team with the revolutionary flywheel KERS system, it’s a shame they haven’t got it race ready yet.
The McLaren team has taken a different approach from many of the others in that they have been updating their car on a constant basis, the idea behind that being psychological as much as anything else. Martin Whitmarsh believes that it’s important for the drivers and everyone in the team to see progress on a regular basis as this adds to the motivation to push harder and find more. It seems to have worked as the car has been steadily marching closer to the front of the grid.
In Spain they are due to run the double diffuser, so expect a big step, but Whitmarsh argues that this in itself is not a silver bullet. There are other areas which can yield a lot and McLaren is quietly confident it has some big steps in the pipeline.
Red Bull/Toro Rosso
Red Bull have a chance of fighting for the world championship this year and they know it. The fastest by far of the cars without double diffusers, they have been forced to develop one and technical boss Adrian Newey has been flat out on it in recent weeks. It’s not likely to appear in Spain, it could be Monaco and will probably be Turkey when we see it. They will have upgrades for Spain, though and as the car is the best performer on high speed corners, Spain is likely to be quite a strong track for them as it features some critical high speed turns, not least the endless turn three, which the cars spend 8 seconds negotiating.
The Toro Rosso package has not been as strong as the main team this season, the opposite of last year. That said, Sebastian Buemi has pushed it up the field on a couple of occasions. They have some updates on the car this weekend and Buemi believes that they will be closer to a Red Bull level of performance from now on.
It’s been an odd start to the season, where in three races, three different teams have dominated the time sheets, Brawn in Melbourne, Red Bull in China and Toyota in Bahrain. The Toyota team should have won Bahrain, but messed it up on race strategy. One of the teams to benefit from a double diffuser at the start of the season, they have a package of aero upgrades coming for Barcelona.
When I saw the car in testing there before the season I was very impressed with its performance on the Montmelo track. They did lose the ‘flexi’ rear wing at the first race, of course, but it doesn’t seem to have slowed them down much and I think they will be very strong this weekend.
Force India also ran with a new diffuser in Bahrain, quite an achievement for a small team and in Barcelona they will have an update to the front wing. They will also introduce the driver adjustable front wing for the first time, something other teams have been using since the start of the season. They are not quite ready yet with KERS.