The first European leg of the 2015 Formula One world championship will begin in earnest at the traditional “opener”, Circuit de Catalunya this coming weekend. It will be interesting to see what, Europe, the spiritual home of Formula One has to offer in 2015 after some very good opening races.
Despite the circuit having a reputation as being traditional yet not a classic, this race is very much anticipated. Traditionally, this circuit, at this stage of the season can throw up some surprises after the teams have scrambled to develop their cars since the opening salvoes were exchanged in Australia, Asia and the Middle East.
Many of the teams have had time to analyse their strengths, weaknesses and how they compare to other teams. The drivers will by now have a very good understanding of their cars and should be more confident with how far they can push them after the first four races. There is the definite feeling of a fresh start every time we come back to Europe for it’s first race.
2015 Spanish GP statistics
Track length: 4.655 km.
Tyre allocation: Hard (orange) and Medium (white).
DRS Zones: Two with separate detection points (Pit Straight and between Turns Nine and 10).
2014 pole: Lewis Hamilton – 1:25.232 (Mercedes).
2014 race winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes).
2014 podium positions: Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes (1st) Nico Rosberg – Mercedes (2nd) Daniel Ricciardo – Red Bull Renault (3rd)
The Circuit de Catalunya is traditionally hard on tyres. The circuit is fast with big sweeping corners that, along with fairly high track temperatures, usually destroy ill-managed tyres. Interestingly, Pirelli have brought along the same set of tyres that they used for the Malaysian Grand Prix, Hard and Medium compounds. Europe is currently in mid to late spring and should see much lower temperatures at this circuit than in Malaysia. The tyres will certainly behave differently but it’s doubtful that they will give Ferrari the advantage that they enjoyed in Malaysia.
The fast pit straight coupled with turns 1,2 and 3 are exciting to watch and this race has really benefitted in recent years from DRS (drag reduction system) technology. Cars approach turn one at up to 190MPH, shifting from 7/8th gear down to 3rd before turning into a tight right hander before hooking the car left and accelerating up the left hander towards the long sweeping right hander that is turn three. Turn three has been one of the trickiest to get right historically but the danger aspect of it has been tamed now a little with the removal of the giant gravel trap to the left hand side of it. Many a driver has accelerated up turn three too hard and has been literally “sucked” of the track and into the wall at speeds in excess of 160MPH.
The last few corners have unfortunately tamed the track significantly from it’s former ferocity but safety is understandably the absolute priority. Due to the amount of pre season testing done here year on year, the drivers know this circuit well but the key for them is to adapt to their cars three months on from their previous visit.
75% of pole sitters have won this grand prix since it’s addition to the calendar in the early 1990’s which gives it the reputation as being “a bit of a dud” – but brilliant drivers who have bucked that trend in recent years have been Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher.
Upgrades and developments
The First European race of the season signals the beginning of the development race in Formula one. During the first four flyaways, teams have been making subtle changes here and there but now, owed to the fact that teams are working far closer to home we can expect car developments to come thick and fast. Many of these developments won’t be realised until P1 on Friday but what we do know is that each team will have spent the past three weeks working as hard as they can to squeeze even more speed and better reliability out of their cars.
Red Bull are reputed to have spent £3 million on a dynamic new front wing design that is very close to being outside of the regulations…so close in fact that it only passed the crash test at the 60th (ok, slight exaggeration..it was the 4th) time of asking. This example of excessive expenditure on a front wing in an engine dominant era proves that Red Bull, even without the hands on guidance of Adrian Newey, still have that aggressive aero design ethic that was essential to their 4 in a row championships of recent years. This does also perhaps indicate Red Bulls frustration in recent times considering that only a few weeks ago, Red Bull claimed that they may pull out of F1 due to regulations and expense. Red Bull will also hope that Renault have improved reliability. Although the Renault lacks power, a reliable car with excellent aerodynamics will help to gain Red Bull precious points and move them away from the clutches of Lotus and the such like.
Ron Dennis announced that McLaren will sport a new livery and it looks phenomenal. He claimed that with the inclusion of more night races, the chrome paintwork on the McLaren caused too much glare and so the car has taken on a matt graphite look. The fact that sponsor names and brand logos were difficult to see on the car probably had some influence on this change also but sadly for McLaren fans it won’t enhance the performance! Honda have targeted progress in reliability and with the chassis for this race and going by their continued improvements each race so far, it’ll be interesting to see if both cars could finish with one even finishing in the points.
Each team will have developed and hopefully improved different aspects of their cars. It is unlikely that we will see significant aesthetic changes like “winglets”, “vanes” and “arms” sprouting out all over the place as we did in 2007 and 2008 (the regulations won’t allow it) but the changes will be there but much more subtle. P1 will be fascinating to watch for this reason.
Drivers: Who to watch
Fernando Alonso will begin this weekend with mixed emotions. It’s his home race and one where his fan base will be out in force waving the blue and yellow flag of his home village. This race is the scene of his last victory two years ago and also the scene of the mysterious crash in testing that left him in hospital in February and forced him out of the opening race in Australia the following March. He’ll be hoping that McLaren and Honda have made a significant step forward in development and perhaps even enough to score a point but that may be out of reach for the moment.
Kimi Raikkonen was resurgent in Bahrain and outclassed his team mate. Sebastien Vettel was hailed as returning to form after his win at the Malaysian grand prix but since Mercedes went on to win the two races after that, it now seems that Ferrari only won that race due to Mercedes’ mistake of using tyres up when they didn’t need to. Vettel was out of character, frustrated and messy in Bahrain whilst Raikkonen was predatory, racey but also calm and collected. If Kimi can rattle his team mate again it will be interesting to see how Vettel reacts. We all remember the Vettel v Webber saga of years gone by but I have the feeling that if Vettel has number one status (which it has been claimed) then Raikkonen will not care to honour it and that is an exciting prospect.
Can Kvyat and Maldonado up their game? The short answer is, they need to. For Danil Kvyat, Red Bull are currently at a cross roads in Formula one but regardless of that they need the best drivers they can get to steer them forwards. The trouble for Kvyat is that he appeared to peak too soon during last season, his team mate is getting on with the job and driving well but more worryingly for him is that superstar Max Verstappen who is excelling himself, is next in line for a Red Bull race seat. Perhaps for Kvyat, this is the blunt edge of the sword that is the Red Bull young driver programme.
Pastor Maldonado has come under further scrutiny this season for a lack of consistency and poor decision making that has led to bumps, scrapes and accidents. It’s probably justified. On a positive note, Maldonado came into F1 a GP2 champion and he’s also only one of eight grand prix winners currently on the grid. At times his racecraft has been exciting to watch and although he’s unpredictable he can really get it together at times which proves he has talent. The other side of the coin is much less impressive. In the last 80 races that he’s contested, he’s only scored eight points. It’s no secret that he has huge financial backing from PDVSA which is essential to the financing of his drive and the Lotus team and in fact this sponsorship has divided opinion amongst the Venuzuelan government who many expect to see better results. Maldonado has admitted that this weight of expectation is piling on the pressure but sponsors need air time so that their brand can be seen and unfortunately, cars at the back of the field aren’t often shown on TV for long and wrecked cars swept into the corner of the garage get absolutely no live coverage at all. It does feel as though Maldonado is on borrowed time already.
Hamilton V Rosberg
Hamilton has totally outclassed Rosberg in 2015. Despite Ferrari being in touching distance, Lewis Hamilton has remained unfazed and has just got on with his job. Rosberg in contrast has lost his head on track and spoken negatively in the media about his champion team mate. All of this has played into Hamiltons hands. Cast your mind back to last year and you’ll remember that after the duel in the desert where Hamilton pipped Rosberg for the win, he did the same here in Spain. Hamilton will be looking to build upon his momentum whilst Rosberg will be looking to respond.
Rosberg must be running out of ideas. He managed to halt Hamiltons supremacy last season by beating him for much of the European leg of the season but it has to be said that Rosberg did it under controversial circumstances (“crashing” at Monaco during qualifying) and Hamilton’s run of horrendous bad luck in terms of reliability played a big part in Rosbergs resurgence as a title contender in that phase of the season. If Hamilton wins here this weekend then perhaps this result coupled with the outcome of what happens at Monaco, will define the outcome of the early part of the season for Hamilton and set the tone for the rest of it.
To his credit Nico Rosberg looked a lot better in Bahrain but if he loses to Hamilton this weekend and in Monaco then it’s going to be increasingly difficult for Rosberg to mount a significant challenge against Hamilton, particularly if Ferrari continue to threaten Mercedes. At some point, Mercedes may have to do the sensible thing and cover off Ferrari’s threat by allowing their title contending driver and biggest point scorer number one status.
Although Hamilton has remained unfazed by Rosberg since Spa 2014, the disasters of last years European campaign will surely be playing on his mind. The only way that Rosberg will pose a serious threat to Hamilton’s dominance is if he can beat him on track on race day…. much, much easier said than done.
An open race?
2015 results so far, coupled with the reputation of the Circuit de Catalunya as being a processional foregone conclusion would suggest that this race will be decided by who gets pole and who has the most reliable car. It will be between Mercedes and Ferrari predominantly with Williams, Red Bull and Toro Rosso further behind them but I do feel that unless Ferrari have made more progress against Mercedes then they will have to rely on the grit of their drivers and hope that the undercut during the pit stops works for them.
If Lewis Hamilton achieves pole then I sense he will control the race to the chequered flag as long as the tyres last.