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Preview: Still neck and neck at the front as F1 teams head for Spanish Grand Prix?

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Preview: Still neck and neck at the front as F1 teams head for Spanish Grand Prix?
May 10, 2017, 12:37 PM

This should be one of the most interesting weekends in F1 for some time, as the teams present their upgraded cars for the start of the European sea...

This should be one of the most interesting weekends in F1 for some time, as the teams present their upgraded cars for the start of the European season in Barcelona, Spain.

With the new regulations coming in this season, the technology is quite immature, so the steps teams will take on development will be more significant than in recent years and so we could see a change of order in the various battles throughout the field, including at the front.

Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari lead the world drivers' standings from the Mercedes duo of Lewis Hamilton and Valterri Bottas, with all three having won races this season. Only Kimi Raikkonen of the top four cars has yet to win.

Ferrari performed well at the pre-season tests in Barcelona, when the conditions were cooler. With warm conditions anticipated this weekend, that also plays to their strengths. Against that, the soft tyre looks like the most likely to be dominant this weekend in strategy terms and that is the tyre on which Mercedes did the bulk of its winter testing and on which it has performed well so far.

Ferrari's edge has been on the softer tyres in the range, particularly the ultra soft and supersoft, which will not appear this weekend.

All eyes will be on the technical updates, but Mercedes' two most significant potential updates will not be visible; a step on the engine, if they go ahead with a fresh unit for this race and also a weight loss in the chassis, which will translate directly into lap time.

Friday FP2 practice will be very interesting and a good indicator, but the engine step will not be visible there, only once qualifying comes around.

Elsewhere, the Red Bull will look a lot different but will not have the extra horsepower they were hoping for, so it will be interesting to see whether they gain on the leaders, stay the same or drop back. Last year they were over a second a lap closer in Spain than they had been at the previous event in Sochi.

It's been a strong track for Force India in recent years and they have been doing very well with both cars in the points at races to date this year, while Renault will also be worth keeping an eye on as they were up and down in testing with some strong days and some less so. Recent showings have been strong, especially in qualifying, so expect an intense battle with Force India this weekend.

Pirelli's reasons for nominating a hard tyre compound

This will be the last race in which Pirelli nominates the tyre choices – the yellow soft, white medium and orange-walled hard compounds in play this weekend – as drivers will choose their own allocation in coming races. This should improve things in race strategy terms.

For the first time in a 2017 race, the hard compound will be available for use. So far the third option has been largely redundant in the races to date, as drivers chose to race the two softest options to hand. Pirelli's reasoning for bringing the hard stems from the high-downforce set-ups that teams will be running in Spain, which put higher loads on the slicks. But the tyre will be slow.

Additional aerodynamic upgrades, which are customary for teams to implement before the Spanish Grand Prix, will increase performance and therefore degradation, goes the thinking. We will know more after FP2.

To emphasise the fact that tyre degradation could be high this year, the pole position times in every race this season have been the fastest ever laps at their respective circuits, so wear will increase through the long, fast corners in Spain with on an already abrasive surface.

Higher temperatures than previous tests, projected around 25 Celsius, will further increase the strain on tyres – there is a small hint of rainfall for the weekend, however.

The Spanish GP in numbers

The fifth different Spanish venue to host a Formula 1 grand prix, Circuit de Catalunya, held its first race in 1991 having taken over from Jerez. 23 of its last 26 races have been won by a front-row starter and the last 10 races have had 10 different winners.

Max Verstappen became the youngest race leader, podium finisher and winner as he took victory in the 2016 iteration aged 18 years and 227 days, also adding to the Netherlands to the list of countries who have produced a race winner in F1 (now 22, with Pastor Maldonado adding Venezuela to it in 2012).

Those statistics hint that anybody has a chance at Catalunya, but Mercedes has dominated qualifying in recent years, with one-twos on the grid for the past four races, having finished the race in the same way in 2014 and 2015.

Last year's race was anomalous as Nico Rosberg's collision as Lewis Hamilton triggered the only safety car period in the last decade, which of course led Verstappen to victory and two Ferraris on the podium for the first time since Singapore 2015.

Ferrari will be looking to loosen Mercedes' strong grip on qualifying in Spain but it hasn't taken consecutive poles since the British and German Grands Prix in 2012.

Sebastian Vettel could score his third pole for Ferrari but team-mate Raikkonen, who missed out by just 0.059s at Sochi, will be looking for his sixth. If Raikkonen qualifies at the the top this weekend, it would be the 50th ever pole for a Finnish driver and an ending to his 127-race pole-less streak.

Lewis Hamilton

The drivers' standings leader has only finished outside the top-four once since 2008, with sixth in 2012. Notably, Vettel has never lost a championship when he has led it.

Another Finn, Valtteri Bottas, will be buoyed by the fact that he's finished in the top-five here for the last three years for Williams, the only circuit where he can boast that record.

Bottas has never been out-qualified by a team-mate in Spain either, so if Hamilton's issues continue, this precedent could well stand.

Daniil Kvyat's return to Toro Rosso took place here in 2016, when he finished 10th after his demotion from Red Bull.

Kvyat has been out-qualified 13-8 and out-scored 53-6 by team-mate Carlos Sainz Jr so far. Sainz finished sixth here last year and has never finished lower than ninth on his home circuit.

Fernando Alonso

Fernando Alonso remains the only Spaniard to have won a F1 race and has taken two victories here, but with consecutive failures to start a race for McLaren, it'd be a tough ask. This will be his 50th race without a podium, barring a stunning turnaround from his struggling team.

Both Force Indias have scored a point in every grand prix this season – only Ferrari and Mercedes matching that – but Esteban Ocon is yet to beat team-mate Sergio Perez, the Mexican holding the longest-active scoring streak, having gained points in 14 consecutive races.

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