For once, the Formula One teams have not covered thousands of kilometres of testing at the Circuit de Catalunya prior to the Spanish Grand Prix.
This year’s pre-season testing was in Jerez and Bahrain, so with these new lower-downforce, hybrid turbo cars they will be tackling blind this enigmatic circuit, which always changes with temperature and wind conditions. A car that flies in the morning can be uncompetitive in the afternoon without anything being changed on the car itself.
There is, then, plenty of scope for teams to go the wrong way on set-up this weekend and that could cost them.
As is traditional after the initial flyaway races, we can expect to see significant upgrades on all cars this weekend. The power units from Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari have become significantly more reliable since the opening race two months ago and we will see some large steps in performance, up to 10-15bhp (even though development of engines is not allowed) due to manufacturers making fixes to mapping and other areas such as torque delivery in order to optimise performance.
Aerodynamically, updates on cars will be part of a package that has typically taken 10-12 weeks of wind tunnel time. Expectations inside teams will be high and unlike previous years we could see some changes to the pecking order as a result. It’s unlikely that any team will have caught Mercedes, which has a significant advantage, but behind them there may be new contenders for podiums and points.
The Circuit de Catalunya has a bit of everything in terms of corner types and is a very good test of a car’s aerodynamic efficiency. The most important sector of the lap is the final one, which features low-speed corners. The most lap time gain and loss is here. Performance in the final sector is often taken as an indicator of how well a car will go at the next race in Monaco.
The Pirelli medium and hard tyres will be used this year. Last year saw the winner Fernando Alonso do four stops, due to high tyre degradation. This year three stops is more likely with some two stoppers.
Circuit de Catalunya; 4.65 kilometres. Race distance: 66 laps = 307 kilometres, 16 corners in total, considered the best test of an F1 car’s aerodynamic efficiency due to combination of variety of corner speeds.
Aerodynamic setup – High downforce. Top speed 317km/h (with Drag Reduction System active on rear wing) – 305km/h without.
Full throttle – 60% of the lap (2013).
Time spent braking: 13% of the lap (quite low). 8 braking zones. Brake wear: Medium/low.
Total time needed for pit stop: 21 seconds.
The Spanish Grand Prix is the fifth round of the 2014 FIA F1 World Championship.
So far the season has been dominated by the Mercedes drivers, with Lewis Hamilton winning the last three races and Nico Rosberg still leading the championship due to a win and three podiums.
However Spain always sees significant upgrades and development parts on the cars; the pursuing pack, led by Red Bull and Ferrari, appear to be making progress and this weekend will be a crucial test to determine whether either is on track to mount a serious challenge. The Constructors’ Championship already looks a forlorn hope, with Mercedes almost 100 points clear of Red Bull, but the Drivers’ championship is still attainable if Red Bull or Ferrari make a step change in performance here.
Qualifying has historically been critical in Barcelona. Eight of the past 10 grands prix here have been won from pole position. However in 2011 the race was won by Sebastian Vettel from second on the grid and in 2013 Alonso won having started fifth.
The arrival of DRS rear wings has meant a significant improvement in overtaking, which was always a problem at this circuit.
Normally a good Barcelona update should be worth around three to four tenths of a second per lap, but with large advances possible on the power unit side as manufacturers fix problems with this immature technology and allow teams to exploit more of the potential, we could see bigger gains than that; over half a second in some cases.
As far as driver form is concerned at Barcelona, Felipe Massa (2007), Jenson Button (2009), Pastor Maldonado (2012), Kimi Raikkonen (’05 and ’08), Alonso (’06 and ’13) and Vettel (2011) are all previous winners. Lewis Hamilton has never won the event.
Nico Rosberg was on pole for the Spanish Grand Prix last year.
The forecast looks good, with temperatures around 20 to 21 degrees , sunshine and a low chance of rain.
The wind is often a significant factor at this track, sudden gusts and crosswinds can upset the balance of the cars, particularly in the final sector.
Likely tyre performance and other considerations
Pirelli tyre choice for Spain: Hard and Medium.
Catalunya is a tough track on tyres, with the long Turn 3 the most difficult corner. It is taken at 240km/h and the corner lasts for four seconds, which puts a heavy load on the left-front tyre. The surface generally is also quite abrasive.
Last year there were changes to the Pirelli tyres at this race after problems in the opening races and higher than expected degradation here meant that many teams did four stops.
This year’s tyres are more stable and more durable, so we are likely to mainly see three-stop strategies. Practice running on Friday will determine the relative pace of the medium and hard tyres and the likely pattern of usage of the two compounds for the race. It’s likely that most will start the race on the faster medium tyres.
With some high energy right-hand corners, the limitation will be with the tyres on the left side of the car, particularly the front; when their performance starts to drop off it will be time to pit.
Number and likely timing of pit stops
Although last year high degradation pushed teams into doing four stops, this year we are likely to see three-stop strategies and perhaps some teams doing just two.
The first two stint lengths are vital for setting the strategy. If a car is not able to run the desired stint length at the target pace then a Plan B comes into operation.
To make a two-stop work a team needs to be able to get to lap 14 or 15, while a three-stopping driver will come in for the first time around lap 10.
Three stops is likely to be the preferred route, with stops around laps 10, 26 and 44 one possible strategy.
Chance of a safety car
There have been five Safety Car periods in this race since 2003, and four of those were for first lap incidents.
Recent start performance
At 730 metres, the run from the grid to the first corner at Barcelona is the longest of the season. This leads to quite a few changes of order on the opening lap and represents a significant opportunity for cars which have qualified lower than expected to make ground.
Starts are crucial for race strategy and can make or compromise a race. The table below is intended as an indicator of trends. Where a car has a problem on the opening lap it is noted below, while other cars will clearly benefit from its absence on the opening lap.
As far as 2014 start performance is concerned drivers have gained (+) or lost
(-) places off the start line this season, on aggregate, as follows:
11 – Ericsson
9 – Maldonado
8 – Massa
7 – Bottas, Hulkenberg
5 – Kobayashi, Gutierrez
4 – Sutil [See notes], Chilton
3 – Bianchi, Perez [See notes]
2 – Alonso
1 – Ricciardo, Grosjean
Net Held position
13 – Vergne
2 – Button, Kvyat, Hamilton, Magnussen
Melbourne Notes: Kobayashi, Massa eliminated in a first corner accident; Perez, Gutierrez pitted at the end of Lap 1; Bianchi, Grosjean started from pit lane.
Malaysia Notes: Perez started from pit lane, Bianchi pitted at the end of lap 1
Bahrain notes: Vergne pitted at the end of lap 1 after contact
China Notes: Sutil lost power at start and dropped 8 places, retiring soon after.
Pit Stop League Table
Of course good strategy planning also requires good pit stop execution and we have seen tyre stops carried out in under two seconds by F1 teams. However this season teams are more concerned with consistency than outright speed, so times have dropped off by half a second or so.
The league table below shows the order of the pit crews based on their fastest time in the UBS Chinese Grand Prix, from the car entering the pit lane to leaving it. Worth noting is how close it has become with just over a second separating the top seven teams.
1. Red Bull 22.246 seconds
2. McLaren 22.408
3. Sauber 22.734s
4. Force India 22.764
5. Ferrari 22.776
6. Mercedes 22.968
7. Lotus 23.022
8. Toro Rosso 23.521
9. Williams 23.639
10. Caterham 23.677
11. Marussia 23.781
For a useful at a glance info graphic with all the key considerations for the race, click here Infographic