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RENCKEN: Is Spain ready for No.5?

2012-05-11 07:19

SPANISH SCORCHER ON THE CARDS: Given the electric start to the 2012 F1 season, Sunday's race at the Circuit de Catalunya is shaping up to be another surprise package where anyone could win.


This weekend’s 66-lap Spanish Formula 1 GP will prove how efficiently the 12 teams have applied the three-week gap since the contentious Bahrain race, the last of two sets of back-to-back events which took the circus to Australia, Malaysia, China and the Middle East in the process delivered four different winners representing four different teams and three engine manufacturers.

It is not unprecedented - only the sixth race in 1983 saw that season’s first repeat winner - but is certainly unparalleled in recent years and can be primarily attributed to the mixture of Pirelli’s compound choices and the ‘press-to-pass’ kers units found in all front-running cars.

Midway through the break most teams headed for the Ferrari-owned Mugello circuit in Apennines foothills  in the heart of Tuscany for the sport’s first in-season test in four years. The first (wet) day saw Fernando Alonso place the Scuderia on top; Romain Grosjean starred in the black/gold Lotus on the remaining two (dry) days.


Circuit de Catalunya traditionally opens the European portion of the season and is the closest F1 comes to a home circuit, for not only is it a perennial test venue – for example, two of this season’s three pre-season being conducted here – but Catalunya has hosted grands prix for 21 years straight now, with only five current circuits having longer runs.

For the first time in 2012 the tyre company is taking a double step, supplying Hard (silver sidewalls) and Soft (yellow) compounds with no Medium option – which should play havoc with strategies, for not only is the clockwise circuit’s mix of fast and slow corners plus a long straight extremely punishing, but Turn 3 loads sidewalls up to almost 4g, while under braking for Turn 10 tyres are subjected to a searing 5g.

Its layout of 16 (7L/9R) curves belies the stresses placed on the right front tyre, while the abrasive surface, set-up requirements (front hard/rear soft/high downforce) and high track temperatures test every aspect of tyre performance, leading to notable degrees of both wear and degradation.

Although no corner is taken faster than 250 km/h, three are taken below 100 to deliver a lap average of around 190km/h, most of which is derived from the 12-second foot-flat blast down the 900m straight.

A feature of Catalunya, situated 3030 north of Barcelona and 20 from the Mediterranean Sea, is its degree of overtaking difficulty and the circuit’s susceptibility to abrupt changes of wind direction – which affects top speed and therefore gearing.

Current form is very much rewarded: only once in the past decade has the winner failed to win either the preceding or subsequent race (or both), and only once has the race been won from beyond the front row - then only in wet weather - with 16 winners coming from the pole position and four from second on the grid. Thus qualifying will surely prove absolutely crucial to the eventual outcome.


Interestingly, eight of the current crop of drivers have won here, with Michael Schumacher (1995/6, 2001-4) and Kimi Raikkonen (2005/8) being the only repeat winners, and Alonso (2006), Felipe Massa (2007), Jenson Button (2009), Mark Webber (2010) and Sebastian Vettel (last year) all being singleton winners. Of the six champions on the current grid, only Lewis Hamilton has yet to win here, so McLaren’s 2008 champion has additional motivation to go all out…

With the event being the first European race, the sponsors and pretty people are generally out in force, and fortunately the weather is expected to play ball, with 25-27C clear skies predicted for all three days - although the circuit’s proximity to the sea means forecasts are subject to change. Partisan support for Alonso means the stands are sure to be packed despite the struggling Spanish economy, adding further to the fiesta atmosphere for which the country is renowned.  

Going to Spain, only 10 points (equal to a fifth place) separate Red Bull’s reigning double champion Vettel (53 points) from Button (McLaren)/Alonso tied in fourth, with the trio sandwiching Hamilton (49) and Mark Webber (Red Bull) on 48.

China winner Nico Rosberg is next up on 35 and so still within striking distance, so the winner in Spain is likely to come from any of these six, although Lotus twins Raikkonen and Grosjean, who took the black/gold cars to second and third respectively behind Vettel in Bahrain, are certainly threatening the established order.

However, more than the rest, Ferrari and Alonso are under enormous pressure to perform, for not only is the season slipping away, but the company’s bossman is believed to be eyeing a presidential role in Italy and a struggling Ferrari hardly provides the ideal springboard for Luca di Montezemolo’s political aspirations. Plus, Alonso is performing on home soil, which brings out the bull-fighting instincts in his countrymen.


Also under pressure is Massa in the second Ferreari, with paddock rumours in Mugello suggesting the Brazilian has been put on a two-race probation after a series of lacklustre performances in the wake of his Hungary 2009 accident.

On the Constructors’ side, Red Bull has 101 points to the 92 of McLaren, with Lotus on 57 and Ferrari fourth on 45 – with all the Italian teams points scored by Alonso, explaining the Brazilian’s dilemma.

All the building blocks are in place for the fifth winner in as many races... Sunday’s GP will start at 14 00 CET (and SAST), with qualifying at the same hour  Saturday.

Stay with Wheels24 for the Spanish Grand Prix weekend


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