The four week break between Bahrain and Barcelona is finally over and everyone is raring to go at this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix. Now F1 is back in Europe the upgraded aero packages come out and the race to see who can develop fastest is as important as the on-track action. We saw some odd appendages on cars during testing at the Circuit de Catalunya but how much has anyone really improved, if at all?
The Spanish track is a popular test venue so there's no excuse for not knowing the quirks and characteristics. One difference this year is that the two fast corners towards the end of the 4.6km circuit have been changed to a slow chicane. This is for safety reasons and also to hopefully encourage overtaking, although it has been met with mixed reactions from the drivers.
"I have to say from the point of view of just driving pleasure, the new version is worse than the old, because there are more slow corners and slow chicanes," said Ferrari's Felipe Massa. "That is not what we racing drivers like. But from the point of view of making the racing exciting, for making a spectacle, it is a good idea, as there will be more overtaking opportunities at the end of the straight as you no longer have a very quick corner."
Reportedly there have been discontent mutterings amongst the teams about the novel front wing McLaren ran in testing at Barcelona, although Honda's funny little winglets on the nose seemed to cause amusement more than anything. However, it's not expected that either team will use the additions for the race. That aside, everyone has been rushing out their new bodywork bits and pieces and talking up their progress.
"Most teams will have inevitably got a reasonable update package for this race, but I'm sure we are second to no one in the amount of effort that has gone into the design and manufacture of many new parts for this race," said Red Bull technical director Mark Smith. "It is a fairly serious list of components. We have been flat out to improve our performance."
As the Spanish GP is the home race of the current world champion Fernando Alonso can expect attention to be on him, but there's no getting away from the fact that McLaren teammate Lewis Hamilton is making just as many headlines. Some are waiting for Hamilton's maiden win while others are waiting to see how long it will take before he makes a mistake -- if he ever does.
After three races the rookie is on the same points as Alonso and Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen. "Going into your first season you don't expect to be joint leading the drivers' championship," Hamilton conceded. "It was only last year I was watching the Grands Prix, it is unreal. It is also very cool and I am enjoying it, it shows our true pace and I hope that I can continue to score points and build on the start to the season."
After a problematic start to the season Massa edged himself back into the title fight with his win in Bahrain, now five points adrift of the leaders, and only two points behind the Brazilian is Nick Heidfeld. Fourth place in each of the first three events for the German shows BMW Sauber has made a step forward but BMW motorsport director Mario Theissen is aware that the development race is under way.
"Our performances in the first three rounds of the World Championship have given us a very good start to the season and we have used the time since the Bahrain Grand Prix to fit in some intensive development work," he commented. "Our rivals will certainly have been doing much the same, though, and the burning question is whether the balance of power has shifted as a result."
Renault has been working hard on solving its problems as much as developing the car and the same could be said of Toyota and Honda. All three teams have been rather disappointing so far and challenging for points is all they could manage. Heikki Kovalainen has had a difficult debut with the reluctant Renault R27, a shadow of its title-winning predecessors, and expects another tough race at Barcelona.
"When we tested at the track last week, the car seemed to be working quite well," he said. "The new parts have helped us make a small step, so hopefully it will be enough compared to our immediate competitors. Clearly, it is going to be another hard-fought weekend at such a demanding track, but we will be pushing to the maximum -- and trying to get everything out of the car during qualifying and the race."
Williams has only scored a couple of points but compared to last year it's been quite encouraging. However, Nico Rosberg and test driver Kazuki Nakajima both suffered heavy crashes during testing last week which curtailed the team's track time. Despite that Rosberg, who was unharmed after his shunt, as was Nakajima, is ready to return to the fray and hopefully add to Williams' scorecard.
"It's good to be back in Europe, especially Barcelona," he enthused. "It is always a great place to race because of the amazing atmosphere there. It will be interesting to see how the new track layout works as this year will be the first time that we have raced on it. I'm looking forward to fighting hard again to get us to the top of the middle pack and get some points for the team."
Radical -- or call them what you will -- wings and sculpted sidepods may be the more obvious alterations to a chassis but Toro Rosso has taken an even closer look at its aero components. The Italian squad has worked on the parts in regard to smoothness and flexibility as much as sticking them on the car the right way round, with the result that the STR2 was stripped of some of its gaudier additions.
"We have worked hard on the quality of the surface of our aero parts to get more performance out of them and to this end, we have now removed all the stickers from the bodywork and replaced them with paint," explained chief engineer Laurent Mekies. "This not only makes for a smoother less resistant surface, it also brings with it a weight saving benefit. From an aesthetic point of view, the car also looks much nicer!"
Until the cars get on track this weekend we won't know who has actually improved and whose upgrades were more like downgrades, but it's difficult to imagine anyone being able to challenge McLaren and Ferrari yet. With the drivers' standings so close at the top there's plenty of potential for friction and excitement just with those two teams but it would be even better if someone else joined in as well.