By Bob Constanduros
Formula One is back in Europe and boy, don’t we know it. I’m writing this in the media centre at the Circuit de Catalunya and it is packed. After a host of no-shows in Russia, including some regulars, everyone – but everyone – from the media is here and it’s the start of a pretty hectic two weeks for Formula One, the teams and drivers as well.
Not only do we start off with this race but then we follow it up with two days testing here afterwards. Then for some it’s straight up the Mediterranean coast to Monaco because that race virtually begins a week later on the Saturday, at least for those building team pits and motor homes when the trucks are first allowed into the pit lane.
But it is busy for other reasons. The cars have finally made it home for a new paint job and a thorough overhaul after the first four Grands Prix, and the engineers are able to give them a comprehensive going over. But those same engineers have been looking for improvements to the cars throughout the first four races, and now is the time that those improvements come on song, as teams have been producing new parts from the wind tunnel.
And that is what the first two days of this race – and subsequent testing – is all about: working on those new parts and optimising them, not just for this race but for future events as well. It’s a busy, complex time as all these parts are fine tuned and compared with the results that came out of pre-season testing, the eight days which of course were held at this circuit in late February, early March.
So in a way, Formula One is back home again, because if any circuit can be called the home of Formula One, this is it. The 16 mainly fast corners and the abrasive surface of the Circuit de Catalunya are ideal for developing a Formula One car and getting the best out of it. There’s the attitude ‘if it works in Barcelona, it will work anywhere.’ That used to apply to just about anything at Jacarepagua in Brazil: if your cooling system/suspension/tyres/laptop/communications/cooking equipment/anything worked there you were OK for the season.
Well, it’s not quite so comprehensive here in Spain. Teams were here in early spring of course, when the weather was somewhat cooler. Even if the ambient might be roughly the same in the early twenties, the track temperature is going to be a lot warmer. Looking at the temperatures at midday on Thursday, it is 21 ambient, but 36 track temperature.
Which is why Pirelli have broken the habit of the first four races of bringing soft, medium and supersoft tyres and instead have brought the orange hard, white medium and soft yellow. It has to be said that no one has more than two sets of the hard tyre. Quite a few have only four sets of the white medium, just Kvyat, Ericsson and Nasr have six sets of that tyre. The two Sauber drivers have only five sets of the softs; Rosberg, Vettel, Grosjean and Gutierrez have eight sets.
Last year this race was a two stopper for the winner, but Hamilton in second made three stops and Pirelli are certainly not ruling out even more than that, although it would be unusual. It is a race that is particularly tough on the front left tyre which is hard worked around the long long turn three and elsewhere. Of course there’s also the tight little section at the end of the lap which gives people a taste of a Monaco set-up.
In spite of two DRS sections and two heavy braking points, it is also a circuit on which it is notoriously difficult to overtake; last year there were only about 22 overtaking manoeuvres – normal or DRS – but there were also 46 pit stops. So it can be a pretty lively race and that’s what we have to look forward to on Sunday.
But in the meantime, we shall be searching for indications of one team stealing a march over another with new developments. The teams and their engine suppliers will have been working hard to bring new parts here and that will apply in particularly to Mercedes and Ferrari at the head of the field, and also to Red Bull. Ferrari have to improve their reliability, of course, while Mercedes have had a fantastic run of success thanks to Nico Rosberg but they have had their scares and their worries with Lewis Hamilton’s car.
And all eyes will be on Red Bull where Daniel Ricciardo will be watching his tail from the threat of new teammate Max Verstappen. Carlos Sainz will be making his own statement at his home circuit while Daniel Kvyat probably has a message too.
So it’s going to be a great if busy weekend; for those of us involved with support races, it is the start of the GP2, GP3 and Porsche SuperCup championships. But there is a lot riding on this weekend. The message in testing is always ‘wait until Melbourne’ and the message in Melbourne is always ‘wait until Barcelona.’ So here we are, we’re ready and longing for it. Keep a close eye on it, there might well be a shake-up of the old order.