Scrap form book for Catalunya

2013-05-09 09:31

CATALUNYA, Spain - Sunday’s 66-lap Spanish Formula 1 GP at the Circuit de Catalunya will see F1 1 cars racing for the first time in Europe since early September 2012 when the circus left Monza and headed first east, then west, for the final seven races of the longest (20-leg) season on record.
Yes, the teams thereafter tested here twice in February, but a difference of at least 15°C ambient makes all the difference to Formula 1 cars, plus the 11 teams have, of course, developed their cars since then to iron out the inevitable teething issues faced during pre-season testing.

So, the form book goes out of the window.

Since testing the series has visited Australia, Malaysia, China and Bahrain, with only one driver - three-times and reigning champion Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) - winning the second (through chicanery) and fourth rounds to consolidate his renewed lead in the championship.

Kimi Raikkonen took the season opener in Melbourne for Lotus; Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso celebrated Shanghai line honours with a sublime display.
2013's record seven winners from the seven opening races cannot be equalled but the season to date has been no less unpredictable than early 2012 with various drivers – including Mercedes Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, each with a pole position – leading races at some point or other.
In the process all the drivers again realised that tyre management is crucial – more so than 2012 – so it's is bound to be the case this weekend when drivers will have Pirelli’s Medium (white sidewall) and Hard (orange) compounds to choose from after a quick reshuffle by the Italian company from the original Hard/Soft combo after a raft of complaints in Bahrain. 
The 4.655km track (download track map) 30km north of Barcelona is a tyre-destroyer at the best of times; not only is the clockwise circuit’s mix of fast and slow corners plus long straights extremely punishing on rubber but Turn 3 loads sidewalls to almost 4g, while under braking for Turn 10 tyres are subjected to a grotesquely tyre-deforming five.

Slo-mo video of sidewall wrinkles is spectacular: here’s hoping Bernie’s TV Boys supply such on Sunday.
On paper the layout of the 16-turn (7L/9R) layout belies the stresses experienced by right front tyres while an extremely abrasive surface, complex set-up requirements (front hard/rear soft/high downforce) and traditionally high track temperatures test every aspect of tyre performance, resulting in notable degrees of wear and degradation.
Although no corners is taken at 250km/h, three are taken at less than 100km/h to deliver a lap average of around 190, most of which is from the long, 12-second foot-flat, blast down the 900m straight.
The 700m run from start to first corner is the longest on the trail while the straight also has one of two DRS zones, with detection ahead of the strenuous final turn (T16) in which g-forces keep building until the cars sling-shot at 260km/h ahead of hitting 325 before braking for T1. This zone is particularly interesting because the kers counters reset as drivers cross the line, giving them a full boost all the way down the straight if timed correctly: boost at the end of the completed lap and at the start of the new tour.
The other zone, more minor by nature, is between turns 9 and 10 and has its own detection point.
The circuit is regarded as the first “normal” track of the season and often provides solid indications of overall car performance – 16 of 22 winning teams there have taken the Constructors’ championship.
Current form is very much rewarded at this venue: only twice in the last 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 17 winners coming from pole, four from second on the grid. Consider last year: the race was sensationally won by Pastor Maldonado for Williams after the Venezuelan took an unexpected pole…
Thus qualifying is crucial to the outcome, made more so by the forecast weather: clear and 20C throughout, meaning teams cannot gamble on unpredictable conditions to provide an advantage on a circuit where overtaking is well-nigh impossible unless DRS used.
Expected track temperatures, though, should be cool enough to prevent premature thermal degradation, yet the more benign drivers could experience difficulty in heating Hards. Here Jenson Button/Sergio Perez McLaren) and Raikkonen could be hardest hit. Raikkonen's Lotus team has just lost technical director James Allison to pastures as yet unnamed, so the Finn could be doubly hit this weekend.
Going to Spain just 10 points (fifth place reward) separate Vettel (77) from 2007 champion Raikkonen second, with Hamilton a further 17 behind. Local hero Alonso is fourth, having crashed once (Malaysia, after his front wing broke in a collision) and suffered DRS issues in Bahrain – so remains very much in the hunt.
On the Constructors’ side Red Bull has 109 points to the 93 of Lotus, with Ferrari third on 77 – despite the F138 being what many believe is the fastest car in race trim. Alonso’s issues surely proved costly…
McLaren, down in sixth behind Mercedes (64) and Force India (26) with 23 points, has suffered arguably its worst start to a season in a decade. While the team is feverishly trying to claw back downforce – crucial on this circuit – drivers Button and “Checo” Perez are desperately trying to put a spin to their ding-dong battle in Bahrain which saw them touch a few times.

With team orders very much flavour of the year after the Malaysian debacles with Red Bull/Mercedes, this vendetta is worth keeping watching.
For its part Williams realises it has only a slim chance of victory with its Renault-powered FW34 but will surely go all-out to forget the ravaging effects of the pit garage fire it experienced after winning the race in 2012 - the highs and lows of F1 packed into 30 minutes.
As is traditional with European rounds, Sunday’s GP and Saturday qualifying will each start at 2pm CET.

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