By Tom Keeble, U.S.A.
Spaniards will flock to Barcelona in their thousands this weekend in the hope of seeing local hero Fernando Alonso stretch his winning streak. With Renault's rivals closing in, the task will not be easy. Tom Keeble previews the race and rates the teams' chances of success ahead of the fifth round of the 2005 season
The Spanish Grand Prix is hosted at Circuit de Catalunya, near Barcelona. The weekend is not expected to see inclement weather, and track temperature should be moderate. Overtaking is difficult - especially as all the teams have tested exhaustively here - so tactical acumen will be important. The circuit particularly emphasises aerodynamics, and benefits from a strong engine.
Barcelona is a challenging, technical circuit that is popular with the drivers, whilst the teams generally enjoy the excellent facilities.
Track: A long straight and fast, fifth gear curves dominate this circuit, placing a premium on efficient aerodynamics and a powerful engine to drive the car down the straight. The mix of fast and slower corners - without chicanes - makes the circuit technically challenging. Riding kerbs does little for performance: indeed, the recent resurfacing ensures a relatively smooth ride. Precision and consistency from the drivers is rewarded - missing an apex is an expensive mistake - whilst gusts or changes to wind direction can play havoc with car balance, unsettling it in the corners. There are limited overtaking opportunities, and the teams all test a lot here, so there are rarely surprises.
Tyres: Despite being resurfaced, Barcelona is hard wearing on tyres and brakes - a consequence of the high speed corners. High downforce levels will ensure lots of work for the sidewalls, though cars with insufficient aerodynamic grip or poor balance will slide a lot, too. Overly aggressive traction control settings will cause excessive rear tyre wear, compromising performance at the end of the race: most cars will be set up with considering understeer at the start of the race in order to compensate for this uneven wear.
Weather: Sunny throughout, with low wind, consistent speeds and moderate humidity.
Strategy: Fuel loads are expensive - with 10kg costing about four tenths of a second - so there is a big cost associated with a full tank; however, passing is difficult so the extra fuel for a single stop would be prohibitive in qualifying even if the pitlane was not so long. Two stops are expected for most of the field, though the top performers on tyre and brake wear have the option of single stopping to get out of sequence, if they have a poor first qualifying.
Surprises: Raikkonen could win for McLaren if he makes the finish; BAR could make the podium; Ferrari may struggle in qualifying.
Conclusions: With overtaking very tough on this circuit, despite the high wear rates that ought to benefit the teams that look after their tyres, pitstops will play an important part in the race win. McLaren and Ferrari both look to have the pace to challenge Renault on merit here, and all three teams will be shooting for the race win. Toyota ought to bounce back, and BAR should also be strong, but their race pace is suspect.
Team by Team
Barcelona is a circuit where Michael Schumacher has always shone - and Ferrari are looking to this outing for their return to winning ways. The San Marino performance, whilst impressive, was boosted by Ferrari's particular knowledge of the circuit and some Bridgestone tyres that were a considerably step forward in a low wear race. Had the World Champion not overcooked second qualifying, the outfit are widely believed to have had the pace to win.
Package: Relentless testing has continued, working on improving the Bridgestone tyres and dialling the car in to the rubber, in addition to aerodynamic updates that will stand the car in good stead in Barcelona. Ferrari will not have the track knowledge advantage they were able to exploit at Imola, but the relentless development effort going in to the car is leading to continuous and significant progress at every event. On current progress, Ferrari could have the measure of Renault, but McLaren could still have an edge. However, considering Ferrari's tactical strength, this team are now showing the potential to win races again.
Drivers: Michael Schumacher has clearly come back on song as the performance of his car has improved; despite being unable to pass Alonso in Italy, the World Champion looked very strong in the race, clearly having no trouble looking after his tyres over the race distance, or turning on the performance as the track cleared in front of him. Rubens Barrichello continues to struggle with reliability, and will again be penalised with an early run in qualifying as a consequence. When on the track, the Brazilian has been consistent and very quick this year; with a change of fortune regarding reliability, he should do very well in Spain.
Objectives: podium finish, looking for race win.
Despite the cloud hanging over the team from their 'fuel reserve' and speculation over a capacity to cheat from the San Marino Grand Prix, the team are going to Spain in optimistic mode. The Imola performance illustrated a considerable step forward in the package: whilst the biggest gains were to driver confidence, it also confirmed the basis of the car is right, so new developments are being brought forward.
Package: The BAR package has seen further enhancements since the last race, including revisions to the aerodynamics designed to reduce drag - vital for Barcelona. Despite waiting on the FIA's potential censor of their results (and anticipating a rule clarification) the team have a car that should be very quick in Spain. Qualifying on the front row is a possibility, though the car is less kind to tyres than either McLaren or Renault, so race performance is likely to drop off, relative to these rivals.
Drivers: Both Takuma Sato and Jenson Button have a good history in Spain, so they can be expected to have a strong weekend. Last year saw Button come close to pole until a wind gust caught him out and destroyed the lap, whilst Sato actually qualified third.
Objectives: qualify strongly and finish with both cars in the points; aiming for a podium finish. First race win is possible but quite unlikely.
Four consecutive wins have brought Renault a dream start to their season, but it is one that could unravel unless they work on maintaining progress in the car. Raikkonen's early exit led to a thrilling finish as Schumacher pushed Alonso all the way to the line - but the Spaniard was nursing a damaged engine, so the true performance of the car has still not been revealed. Furthermore, three retirements from Fisichella is costing Constructors' Championship points that could be important at the end of the season.
Package: since the last outing, Renault have been testing - and though apparently eclipsed by McLaren's impressive pace, they have been making progress. Unfortunately, that does not include the engine: the B-spec unit has not been 100% reliable, with confidence dampened when Montagny had a spectacular blow up in testing at Jerez. The team now have to consider the option of running the more reliable A-spec engine and sacrificing performance. Overall, the package looks like it will struggle to contain at least McLaren over a single lap, so qualifying is going to be tricky.
Drivers: Fernando Alonso is on a roll and leading the Championship heading to his home Grand Prix: needless to say, the proverbial half second of a home advantage is expected to come in very useful with Renault's rivals finding more performance all the time. Giancarlo Fisichella has been struggling with reliability recently, and overshadowed by his younger teammate; however, the Italian is no slouch and should be close to Alonso's pace - though retiring at Imola means he will have an early slot in qualifying, which could cost a few places on the grid.
Objectives: winning - though getting both cars on the podium would be a challenge.
The Williams showing in San Marino was far from impressive, with both drivers struggling to qualify well, then failing to maintain pace as race wore on. Spain is not traditionally a good circuit for the team, either, though Montoya qualified on the front row last season, before excessive brake wear forced his retirement.
Package: Although the team have tested some new aerodynamic parts, they are not expected to show much improvement in Barcelona. The car is capable of qualifying relatively well, but tyre wear and engine longevity issues are expected to take a toll over the race distance. The drivers are able to use maximum revs only for qualifying and under tactical circumstances in the race; this means that under pressure, the team's drivers could be forced to run without the top 10bhp of their engine available on the main straight, which might just leave them vulnerable to a pass.
Drivers: Mark Webber's ability to wring a solid performance out of the car in qualifying should stand him in good stead. Nick Heidfeld will probably not qualify as well, but should have another decent race that at last matches Webber. It seems the pressure is starting to tell on the Australian, though, after Webber's commented that Heidfeld's race day performance are a result of taking the 'easy option' rather than pushing hard and taking risks: though the German is the man with the podium finish to his name this season.
Objectives: finish with both cars in the points. Podium finishes are unlikely: could struggle to beat Sauber.
Imola demonstrated McLaren's performance has been restored - though reliability issues continue to raise question marks over their ability to compete. Lighter fuel loads certainly did no harm, but Kimi Raikkonen retired early from the lead with a broken driveshaft. Alex Wurz brought his car home fourth in a solid, if unremarkable drive. Considering the traditional aero strength of the McLaren, it is surprising that their history in Spain is not better, but the outfit look well set to perform strongly.
Package: Despite the performance McLaren put on in San Marino, the real update to their aerodynamics is supposed to be coming through in Spain this weekend: the changes to date there were simply aimed at ensuring the car uses tyres more effectively. Considering the trouble the team have had getting heat in to their rubber, it made a lot of sense to separate this update from the aero step in order to ensure the car performed as expected in race trim. And until Raikkonen's retirement, it looked like everything was on target. Arriving in Spain with aero update makes the team a favourite to challenge Renault for the race win.
Drivers: Juan Pablo Montoya's return seems unlikely to put Raikkonen off his stride: the Columbian simply doesn't have the track time that his Finnish teammate has been enjoying, on top of reduced fitness due to reduced training whilst his fractured shoulder recovered. However, considering his outstanding performance in qualifying last season (he put his unfavoured Williams on the front row), a return in Spain with a performant McLaren should only improve the team's strength. Raikkonen, meanwhile, is doing what he does best when the car is quick - driving to the limit. If the aero package works out, the Finn is a favourite for pole position, and from there he has every chance of winning, if the car makes the line.
Objectives: strong qualifying and podium finish - aiming for a race win.
The privateer outfit often take valuable points from the manufacturer-backed teams, and frequently do so at the circuits where the major teams are expected to be strong. Last year, Fisichella put together a strong race in Barcelona to finish in the points; following the last outing in San Marino, there is optimism that the team have an opportunity to score points before the big players move the goal-posts again.
Package: Since the respectable showing in San Marino, Sauber have been able to test again, offering Villeneuve a chance to continue working on finding a set-up that works for him. This is vital as Barcelona rewards an attacking drive, so confidence is important. The changes brought in for San Marino should also work well at Barcelona - this ought to be a chance to score points again, potentially with both cars.
Drivers: The team are starting to believe in Jacques Villeneuve after his fighting performance in Italy: Felipe Massa is still quicker and will probably retain an advantage in qualifying, but there is little doubt that both drivers are now expected to be effective come race day. With the improved stability from the revised aero package, both drivers should be confident, and ought to perform well if the tyres hold up.
Objectives: qualify in the top ten; score points - beat Williams.
A lack of development is starting to show at Red Bull, with their Imola performance showing the price of failing to maintain the level of performance: from being able to compete and take points of the likes of Ferrari, the team have dropped out of contention for points. Perhaps changing their second driver did not help, and certainly Massa's poor treatment of Coulthard in the race (the Sauber driver twice ran into the Scot) did not help; nevertheless, the relative drop in performance was clear.
Package: a solid test at Jerez saw the team trying new aero components ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix; other changes to improve the balance of the car should help the team with tyre longevity in the race. The improvements are not staggering, but ought to defray some of the progress the manufacturer backed teams have been making. The changes could be enough to continue frustrating Sauber.
Drivers: Vitantonio Liuzzi gets his second shot at racing. The rookie performed commendably in Imola, roughly on a par with Coulthard, but he has had a troubled test session since then, including a big incident that damaged his chassis. David Coulthard's performance this season has raised some eyebrows and done the Scot no disservice: an attacking circuit like Barcelona should offer him another chance to confound his critics. Given a reasonable qualifying, Coulthard might be able to fight for another point.
Objectives: qualify in the top ten, score points. Beat Sauber.
Despite the team's bravado concerning their newly improved kerb riding capability, it was little surprise that despite a good step forward in that department, Toyota were still a little off the pace of the front runners. Then again, this was expected to be one of their toughest circuits, so Ferrari's suddenly impressive performance gain provided a useful distraction. Barcelona, on the other hand, plays towards the strengths of this car.
Package: Although the package appeared a little off the pace in San Marino, the basic fact is that the car's weakest points were on display. Barcelona, on the other hand, plays to the strengths, so they should be more competitive there - though the recently improved performances from Ferrari, BAR and McLaren imply that competing for the podium is going to be tough, though BAR should be vulnerable over a race distance. The car should appear with some new aero components - revisions to the wings and potentially the engine cover have been announced - but the step is likely to be relatively moderate.
Drivers: Jarno Trulli tends to outperform here, so this should offer him another chance to exceed expectations: a solid qualifying session is quite likely, perhaps showing a top six result. Considering the difficulty of passing on track, this could set up a strong run in the race. Ralf Schumacher's performance has not really set the world alight so far, but the German ought to be getting to grips with the car: he certainly can't afford to continue playing second fiddle to Trulli for much longer. Schumacher has a solid record in Spain, so this is a good chance to close the gap to his teammate.
Objectives: two points finishes, podium difficult.
Jordan's San Marino performance was pretty much as expected: the car had some small aerodynamic evolutions that maintained their advantage over even the new Minardi, but they were a long way off the pace of the rest of the grid.
Package: A test at Silverstone means that Jordan have some more small changes coming through, and a better understanding of how to make the most of their Bridgestone tyres. Nevertheless, the improved performance is not expected to make a significant difference to their prospects.
Drivers: Both Narain Karthikeyan and Tiago Monteiro have run a lot at Barcelona in testing, so they should be well on top of the technical aspects of the track. However, all the teams have extensive knowledge of the circuit, so the limiting factor is likely to be the chassis, which should leave the drivers filling the ninth row on the grid as usual, and racing each other on Sunday. If they have an exceptional weekend, then they could upset a Red Bull.
Objectives: make a showing, beat Minardi.
After a weak debut with their new car in San Marino, Minardi have spent some time testing and improved both the reliability and their understanding of the new chassis - at least when their drivers were not driving each other off the circuit. Whilst still clearly well off the pace, this chassis brings a significant update to their aerodynamics, so they anticipate being less far off the pace in Barcelona.
Realistically, the team must be looking to get their cars to the finish - reliability is not even close to bullet-proof, so that could be a tall order. Having said which, their stated aim of beating a Jordan to the finish line is still ambitious; this revised chassis may be newer than Jordan's, but it has not had the same facilities available during development.
Objectives: complete race distance - beat a Jordan.
As the Formula One circus arrived at Spain last season, Ferrari were dominating the season, so few expected any challengers for the race.
A compelling pole position for Michael Schumacher eliminated any question of stopping Ferrari from dominating again, with the World Champion half a second ahead of Juan Montoya on the front row, despite a mid-grid pre-qualifying run. Takuma Sato, meanwhile, showed BAR's pace was no accident, collecting a solid third spot ahead of Trulli's Renault.
Rubens Barrichello's fifth spot was partially explained by a heavier fuel load - he was the only leading driver to opt for two stops - as Ralf Schumacher put his Williams sixth, over half a second off the pace of Montoya. Panis showed that Toyota were still making progress with a solid seventh, ahead of Alonso in the second Renault.
Webber brought is Jaguar in ninth, comfortably ahead of Coulthard's McLaren. Raikkonen qualified thirteenth after struggling with the handling of the car, whilst Button's lap was wind impacted, bringing his BAR in fourteenth.
Race day dawned cooler than expected, but without the forecast rain, so the start was fairly normal. Trulli made a blinding start, beating Schumacher in to turn one, whilst Sato passed Montoya for third as the Columbian made a relatively ordinary start. Barrichello slotted in to fifth ahead of Alonso, Panis and Coulthard.
Trulli and Schumacher soon pulled away from the rest of the field, the German patiently holding stations to the pitstops. The first set of stops started took place from laps ten through thirteen, with Schumacher duly passing Trulli for the lead, effectively sealing the race at that point. Barrichello's two stop race saw him stopping on lap seventeen, rejoining in third, whilst Montoya started to struggle under braking - a consequence of gambling on smaller brake ducts that proved too small.
The second round of stops came around lap 23, and although excellent pitwork from Renault could do nothing to close Trulli back up on Schumacher, it did allow Alonso to pass Sato for fourth. Barrichello made the most of the two stop strategy to run in second, whilst Fisichella - also two stopping for Sauber - was working hard, too.
The final round of stops saw little change, except Montoya retiring with cooked brakes, though Ralf worked his way past Fisichella for sixth and Button finally made it in to the points.
Point Paying Positions
Pos Driver Team Time 1. M.Schumacher Ferrari (B) 1h 27:32.841 2. Barrichello Ferrari (B) + 13.290 3. Trulli Renault (M) + 32.294 4. Alonso Renault (M) + 32.952 5. Sato BAR-Honda (M) + 42.327 6. R.Schumacher Williams-BMW (M) + 1:13.804 7. Fisichella Sauber-Petronas (B) + 1:17.108 8. Button BAR-Honda (M) + 1 lap Fastest Lap: M.Schumacher, 1:17.450, lap 12 Classified: 13 from 20 starters