2018 Spanish GP Preview – By Bob Constanduros

Here we are, finally back in Europe at Formula One’s second home in Barcelona. No six hour flights (or longer) and the reappearance of the motorhomes, now required to last several years as the number of European races has reduced.

It is a blessed relief not to have to spend time at airports. This morning it took me 50 minutes to drive to Gatwick airport, then ten minutes to drop my car off, get upstairs to check in, despatch my suitcase and get through security. I knew what I was doing and where to go which certainly helped. But everything was mercifully brief including the flight, although actually getting my hire car was longer, mainly thanks to people in front of me in the queue who plainly didn’t have what it takes to hire a car.

So here we are at Barcelona, not as sunny as usual unfortunately and not as sunny as it’s been at home. But it’s still pretty pleasant and a lot better than it was during winter testing when – even though it was March – it really did behave like winter. Consequently, all the teams lost almost the whole of the first four day session without gathering any meaningful data, which puts them all on the back foot. However, those with more engineers will recover fastest… And they did, however, discover that the whole track had been resurfaced.

In the press conference just now, there were some quite interesting comments about the track which I will reproduce here. Sergio Perez, for instance, pointed out “it’s probably the circuit that we all know the most. We do all our winter testing here and I feel that this circuit is so much related to your car performance. It’s not like Monaco, Baku or other circuits where the driver can make something special. I think here’s it so much more down to what the car can do. If there is a circuit where the driver can influence the least I feel that it’s Barcelona.”

So it’s all down to the car, says Sergio. And if you thought that Brendon Hartley’s lack of F1 racing puts him at a disadvantage, don’t you believe it. “Yes, I’ve done a few miles here actually. A lot of winter testing here. During my time as a simulator driver nine times out of ten we were driving Barcelona so I think the whole grid knows this track so well which in a way also makes it very difficult to get any time or edge over your teammate or fellow competitors. In the end, we know the midfield can be extremely tight. It’s not only the drivers who know it very well, the teams know it well too.”

An interesting point from Brendon but in spite of that familiarity that all drivers will feel, there are certain other outside influences. Sure, that new track surface will tend to cancel out any data advantage because everyone will start virtually from zero. Teams already say that asphalt grip, downforce, tyre stress and lateral force are all pretty high and that finding the right balance is tricky. So tyre management is vital.

It is a circuit that has just about everything, hence the amount of testing here. There is a nice long straight of just over a kilometre. There’s the right-left first pair of corners, followed by that long long long right hander putting all the stress and weight on the front left tyre. More quick corners follow; hard on the brakes at the end of the back straight, from over 300 kph down to less than 90 in just 58m, one of two overtaking points. Finally there’s the technical section at the end, a forerunner – some argue – for Monaco in two weeks’ time.

Pirelli have brought the same combination of tyres as last year, except this time they are a stage softer. Drivers have chosen between two and four sets of mediums, the hardest of the range available. More interesting is the fact that both Williams drivers have gone for just one set of soft; the Renault pair have gone for two sets with nearly everyone else going for either three or four sets – although Mercedes’s drivers have gone for five. Which allows them just five sets of supersofts, the least number of anyone, so they will be very careful which one tyres they chose during practice as they will be needed for qualifying. Force India, McLaren and Red Bull have just six sets each, with Sirotkin at the other end of the scale with ten sets.

With the right car, then, Mercedes could well be on top but Mercedes seem to have difficulty trying to find that right car. Hamilton has been on pole three times and has won twice. Vettel has won once here, in 2011 and has never been on pole, but has qualified second four times. Verstappen is a winner here, of course, and so too are both Raikkonen (twice) and Alonso of course, his last win in 2013 from fifth on the grid. He won from pole in 2006.

So different teams and drivers have differing fortunes but one thing the drivers say is that the competitive nature of the individual cars will decide the hierarchy. The one thing that might change what might be perceived as the hierarchy is that this is the race to which all teams bring all their latest technical developments, what they’ve been working on since the season started in late March. So whatever we think is the hierarchy now – might not be by Sunday evening.

I was listening to some guy on the flying machine pontificating on who was going where in the drivers’ market. I loved it. It’s something that doesn’t really interest me, it’s for the newshounds or the web guys to fill up their pages. When everyone has made up their minds for whatever reasons, we shall find out. But the guy had his owns ideas and wanted to show how he knew what was going on. He had a 100 per cent chance of being wrong, so it was a waste of breath.

But, just like the unpredictability of competition and the mysterious nature of whole business, it is why we love Formula One. Whatever the result on Sunday, someone will have been predicting something else!