The Spanish Grand Prix is always a special Grand Prix for a number of reasons. It’s the first European race of the season, of course, but also one where the teams have tested and where every driver really starts on an even footing. It’s not the greatest circuit in the world and rather too many drivers have won from pole position, so don’t expect any fantastic racing – although we have had our fair share of surprises in the past – think Pastor Maldonado and Max Verstappen for a start.
This year, however, I feel there’s a bit more of a buzz. This is quite a late preview I’m afraid, but I’m glad I’ve waited until Thursday afternoon to write it. The weather’s cleared up, there are spectators sitting in the sunny stands and a large number in the pit lane and on the track where lots of local kids are going to demonstrate their karts watched by Formula One drivers who always fondly remember their roots and the fun they had in karts on their way to the summit of motor sport.
This is just one of a number of new incentives that has crept into this weekend. There are one or two other events taking place, to enhance the fans’ experience. We are really now beginning to see some of the smaller things that Liberty Media are trying to do to make a Grand Prix more of an event, an experience, enjoyable
It’s noticeable, for instance, that the Porsches have two races rather than one so that we have a total of three races on Saturday – for F2, GP3 and Porsches – and four on Sunday including the Grand Prix. I hear that Liberty are intent on expanding a weekend’s racing programme so that my claim that the Australian Grand Prix is always the best – because it has a full supporting programme and other events within the racetrack – is utter valid and being backed up by Liberty who clearly believe the same thing.
Sitting in this press room, I am particularly struck by the fact that it is virtually full – and this is Thursday. This might have something to do with the new regime at the head of the sport, but quite clearly the media are excited about this sport of ours and are voting with their feet. Of course lots of people try and get a media pass because it’s a good way of getting to see a race for free but the FIA – who accredit people – are playing along with Liberty and expanding the media access. However, it does look as though most of the media in here are working and it’s past six in the evening… And I’ve noticed one or two journalists who are here who one might only see at one or two Grands Prix a year or not at all! And being the first Grand Prix in Europe, all the Europeans who we haven’t seen at the expensive-to-attend races are flocking here – which is why it’s busy.
And what are they going to see on the race track? I always make the point that in testing, when asked how competitive they think they will be, teams say wait until the first race, and at the first race they then say wait until Spain. Why? Because being the first European Grand Prix, teams introduce all the development parts that they’ve been working on while the race cars have been travelling overseas. So there’s a certain element of pressing the reset button and for teams to start the development race.
That’s certainly the case with Red Bull, who are coming here with a major upgrade. The team has been a bit disappointing this year and there’s a suggestion that Adrian Newey has been thinking along those lines and has refocused from the America’s Cup to his other job. This would be the third element in the World Championship that Lewis Hamilton said he hoped would emerge but this is only wishful thinking at this stage; there’s quite a lot of ground to be caught up but Red Bull did it a few years ago after the summer break and there’s no reason to think they couldn’t do it again.
Meanwhile Lewis Hamilton’s lacklustre Russian Grand Prix has also attracted comment, the driver himself just saying that it was a whole host of small things not coming together, although the Mercedes team is concentrating on tyre performance and why it lost pace on one car but didn’t with the other.
Ferrari, on the other hand, are simply keeping tight-lipped and it will be up to an observant technical journalist – or another engineer – to see what the Scuderia have done to their cars. But these three teams will almost certainly maintain their advantage over the rest, however good a job independent teams such as Force India and Williams – celebrating their fortieth anniversary here – may be able to do. There’s no doubt that Scuderia Toro Rosso and Renault will be trying to get on terms as well but Sauber, McLaren and even Haas may well struggle to be up there – but all that may change with the development race. We shall see.
Of course, tyres have a strong influence on how the cars behave and that will certainly be a factor this weekend. This is an abrasive surface but the track temperature is still quite low at this time of year. For the first time this season, Pirelli are bringing hard, medium and soft compound tyres but the general feeling already is that they could have brought the supersoft rather than the hard which will largely be redundant.
So it’s a race that will be of major interest; it’s followed by Monaco of course which is such a one-off, and then the quick semi-street race in Canada and the street race in Baku, so in some ways it’s a one-off itself. By the time we’re back on a conventional circuit in Austria, things might well have changed again. But that’s what makes our sport so fascinating and demands constant attention. With new regulations, the course of competition could change quickly. First indications on Sunday.
By Bob Constanduros