This weekend sees the return of F1 to Europe and the Spanish Grand Prix and it should also bring a return to the kind of high speed chess-game we enjoyed in the first three races of the season.
We have a new driver in a front running car, with Max Verstappen in the Red Bull, replacing Daniil Kvyat and plenty of taking points in terms of how the race may pan out, because there are many ways for the teams to approach this race.
Russia was a bit of an outlier because the strategy options were reduced, owing to the nature of the circuit. It meant that only two of the three Pirelli tyre compounds were effective in the race and that pushed people into running longer stints on soft tyres.
For Spain, we have a return to variability; the soft, medium and hard tyres are the choices, the latter two being what Pirelli brought in previous seasons. What makes the three tyre rule particularly intriguing this weekend is that the cars will all qualify on the soft, but its not a tyre you would choose to race on. The leading ten cars will have to start on those used soft tyres and they won’t last a long time in the opening stint before they need to be changed.
So we will see many different approaches to the race from there and for the cars starting outside the top ten, this is a great chance to start on a more durable tyre than the cars ahead and pick up positions early in the race. It should really mix things up. We could see a number of cars using all three compounds, while others may opt to make three stops and run fast. The performance difference between the compounds, based on testing in March was:
Soft to Medium – 0.9/1.0 sec
Medium to Hard – 0.5 sec
So you’re looking at 1.5s per lap between the soft and the hard, but the soft degrades more quickly. A pit stop takes 22 seconds, so the soft if you can get a car out into clear air on new softs there is time to be made. Mercedes may explore the possibility of setting their Q2 qualifying lap on the medium tyres in order to be able to start on those, as Rosberg did in China.
— Pirelli Motorsport (@pirellisport) May 4, 2016
It’s a 66 lap race and a new set of medium tyres should last around 22 laps, the hards 26 laps and the softs probably up to 15 laps by the end of the race, which means first pit stops for the top ten within eight to ten laps of the start.
At the front Mercedes will dominate, having finished on top of every timed track session in Barcelona for the past two seasons. Ferrari brought an extensive upgrade package to Russia, including engine tokens spent, but Mercedes kept the margin around the same, which was demoralising for Ferrari. That said we never really got to see what Sebastian Vettel might have done in the race as he was taken out on the opening lap.
The weather looks set to be unsettled in Barcelona this weekend. Although the race is expected to be dry, showers are predicted to hit the area in time for FP2 on Friday, which could disrupt the teams’ long-run preparations, and qualifying on the Saturday, so there is a chance of a mixed-up grid.
Upgrades to the fore
Although the development race can be considered pretty much constant in F1 these days, the teams still use the Barcelona track as a clear barometer to test the parts they have been working on since the start of the season due to its prominence in the sport’s annual testing programmes.
Several teams have announced that they will be bringing major upgrades to their cars for the Spanish race in an attempt to climb up the pecking order.
Renault is bringing a new rear wing and tweaks for the RS16’s front wing to Barcelona, but the full update package will not be brought into place until the post-race test. These include a B-spec power unit, which is expected to make its race debut in Canada.
Haas F1 will again try the upgraded front wing it brought to Russia, and will bring a new rear wing to the Spanish race.
We can expect to see big chassis changes at Force India after team principal Vijay Mallya described how the car would have a very different look in Barcelona.
He said: “It’s on schedule to be fitted to both cars ahead of Friday practice. It’s pretty comprehensive and the car will look quite different.”
Mercedes’ executive director (technical), Paddy Lowe, explained in a pre-Barcelona preview that solving the MGU-H problems that wrecked Lewis Hamilton’s qualifying chances in Shanghai and Sochi has been the team’s primary concern in recent weeks.
He said: “The highest priority is to come back with our MGU-H problem solved, having had a repeat fault over the past two race weekends.
“The team has been working day and night to understand it and we’re targeting a clean weekend all round.”
Pascal Wehrlein attended the first race of this year’s DTM, which he won for Mercedes in 2015, last weekend and told reporters that his Manor F1 squad was bringing a small development package to Barcelona, which he hopes will help them in their back-of-the-grid fight with Sauber.
He said: “We’ll have a few smaller updates for Barcelona [and] I really hope we can make a step there and make the tyres work better. In the last couple of races we battled with Sauber. It would be nice to now move ahead of them.”
Spanish Grand Prix – the key numbers
Qualifying has been the key to success at the Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona throughout the time it has been used for the Spanish Grand Prix, as 23 out of the 25 races to be held at the track have been won from the front row of the grid. That’s a ratio of 92 per cent, the highest of any circuit on the calendar that has held at least ten F1 races.
On the two occasions that a driver did win after starting lower than second at Barcelona, they were both Ferrari victories: Michael Schumacher’s famous first win for the Scuderia in torrential conditions from third on the grid in 1996 and Fernando Alonso’s triumph from fifth in 2013.
The Spanish Grand Prix has at least enjoyed a healthy variability in terms of winning drivers in recent years, as nine different racers have won the last nine events. Felipe Massa, Kimi Raikkonen, Jenson Button, Mark Webber, Sebastian Vettel, Pastor Maldonado, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg successful have won the race since 2007.
We also head to yet another race with Mercedes on the brink of breaking even more F1 records.
Rosberg can join Alberto Ascari and Sebastian Vettel as the only drivers to win eight consecutive F1 races and equal the record for most wins to start a season (jointly held by Nigel Mansell and Schumacher, who won five races at the start of 1992 and 2004 respectively), if he wins this weekend.
After taking the top two places in Sochi last time out, Rosberg and Hamilton have now notched up 25 1-2 finishes as teammates, one more than the previous record, which was 24 from Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello for Ferrari between 2000 and 2005.
If either of the Mercedes drivers wins in Barcelona, the team will equal the all-time record for most consecutive F1 wins, which is currently held by McLaren from its all-conquering 1988 season.
After Rosberg secured pole in Russia, cars using Mercedes power have now achieved that feat 140 times, one more than Ford, and the manufacturer is up to third on the all-time list as a result, 73 behind Renault’s ultimate total.
Additional reporting by Alex Kalinauckas
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