If proof was ever needed that Formula 1 can claim to be a truly global sport these days, then consider the fact that we have had to wait until the fifth race of the 2011 season to arrive at the first race to be held in the sport’s “home” continent of Europe and if Bahrain had staged the opening round as originally planned, the Old Continent would not have hosted a race until the sixth round on the calendar. In the past, the bright red Scuderia Ferrari transporters faced a very short journey from the Maranello factory to tackle the first European race at the Dino e Enzo Ferrari circuit in Imola. Kicking off the European season on home turf in Italy was always enjoyable, however this weekend’s venue, the Catalunya circuit is equally familiar, not just for Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro, but for all the teams, given that the Spanish track has been the preferred venue for winter testing for many years and this past winter, it hosted two of the four pre-season tests so this will be the third trip of the year to Barcelona. “All the drivers know the circuit very well and as far as set-up is concerned you more or less have a baseline from all the testing data,” says Fernando Alonso. “However, there is a big difference in that the ambient and track temperatures were very cold when we were here in February and now in May, it should be much warmer. This means there are little tweaks you can do to the car and set-up adjustments to deal with this change in temperature. As it is a track that all teams and drivers know very well, it will be a very good reference point for the championship.”
Our Spanish driver can claim to have single-handedly created interest in a sport that was not so popular with his fellow countrymen, who preferred their motor sport on two wheels. Having a two time world champion has seen F1’s popularity increase to the point where Spain now hosts two Grands Prix per year and one side effect has been an increase in the number of Ferrari flags waved at the Barcelona track. “It is a unique feeling here in Barcelona for my home grand prix,” reckons Fernando. “There is a huge motivation for me to do well in front of my people but also there is some extra pressure as everyone is expecting a lot from you, and you have to deliver but it is a nice pressure to have.” The Spanish Prancing Horse fans will get an early opportunity to meet their hero and his team-mate Felipe Massa when both men attend the opening of Spain’s first ever Ferrari Store, to be held on Thursday at 12 a.m.: the shop is located in one of the most beautiful and commercial streets of the Catalan city, the Paseo de Gracia.
Both Fernando and Felipe have stood on the top step of the podium here, in consecutive years: the Spaniard in 2006 and the Brazilian the following year. Apart from the 2007 victory, Ferrari has a further ten wins on its Spanish palmares, and a big part of the credit for that must go to Michael Schumacher who was responsible for five of them, with four in a row from 2001 to 2004. A win is what Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro will be looking for here, as indeed is always the case and this weekend, the team will be hoping to build on the progress seen in Istanbul, where Alonso secured his and the team’s first 2011 podium. Continuing with the car development, the 150° Italia will be fitted with new floor configurations in Spain, along with modifications to the front and rear wings. Much of the development work has centred on improving the car’s performance over a single lap in qualifying, a phrase that maybe sounds like a mantra now, as it has been the case since the start of the season and actually during previous years too. Being quicker on Sunday than Saturday can be described as something of a Ferrari tradition, with the exception of years such as 2008 when the car was at least on a par with the very best in the pack. In fact, in the days of refuelling, when cars ran with minimum fuel in the Q2 session on Saturday afternoon and then race fuel loads in Q3, the Ferrari was invariably more competitive in the final third. Explaining why this is the case is virtually impossible in absolute terms although there are various theories that make sense: if a car is downforce deficient, it will run better with a heavy fuel load; if its engine is more fuel efficient it will need to carry less fuel than its rivals at the start of a race and this lack of weight will override any other performance considerations; some suspension configurations will deliver aerodynamic benefits while others will result in the car being kinder to its tyres, thus delivering a performance edge towards the end of a race stint. One must also take into consideration that performance is relative, so that the 150° Italia’s performance change from Saturday to Sunday should be seen in the context of what our rivals are doing: in other words the gap between their Qualifying and Race performance can be artificially large if they run more aggressive settings on Saturday. One can be sure they are working on solving the opposite problem to ours, namely how to bring their race showing more into line with qualifying. Somewhere in among all these theories lies the answer, but it is impossible to quantify.
The Turkish event produced a record number of pit stops for a Grand Prix and the law of averages states that not all of them were perfectly executed. “I think you need to train as much as possible, practicing the pit stop procedure,” reckons Felipe Massa, who had some difficult pit stop moments in Istanbul. “It is important for every member of the crew to be a bit more precise, with everyone doing a perfect job consistently, because it’s no good having one good stop followed by a bad one. Everyone in the team is involved, including driver, with every procedure going into making it perfect.”
Pirelli is bringing its Hard and Soft compounds, as it has done at all preceding races this year, except that the Hard has now been modified to produce more consistency and effectively create a bigger performance gap between the two compounds. This could lead to some more aggressive strategies, even if it seems that most drivers will again be making three stops on a track that puts a severe strain on tyres. Felipe again: “In the past there was never much overtaking at this circuit and yes I think the new rules mean there will be more overtaking than usual, which is good for the fans as there is plenty going on for them to watch from the start to the finish of the race.” For all the fans in the grandstands, mixing the red Ferrari flags with the blue of Alonso’s Asturias home region, the fervent hope is that the finish of the race will involve the Ferrari drivers standing on the podium.