The fifth round of the 2019 Formula 1 World Championship sees the European leg of the season kick off at one of the sport’s most regularly visited venues – perhaps for the last time – at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, the home of the Spanish Grand Prix.
|Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya|
|Location||Montmeló, Spain||Circuit Length||4.655 km / 2.892 mi|
|Opened||1991||First Grand Prix||1991|
|Lap Record||1:18.441 – Daniel Ricciardo – 2018||2018 winner||Lewis Hamilton|
What was then known as the Circuit de Catalunya made its inaugural appearance on the Formula 1 calendar in 1991, one year before Barcelona held the 1992 Olympic Games.
It’s impressive to see how the venue – once regarded as one of the worst-attended and most depressing venues on the calendar – has transformed into a track that exudes all of the hallmarks of national patriotism.
Spanish fans used to steer well clear of the circuit when it debuted back in 1991. Motorsport culture was confined to the heroics of Spanish drivers in motorbikes and rallying, and the country hadn’t delivered a top-shelf F1 driver in decades.
But along came a certain Fernando Alonso, whose successes have transformed the venue into a heaving mass of flag-waving, chanting – and occasionally over-the-top – spectators. His win in 2006 took the fervour to new heights, and this was heightened further when he joined Ferrari in 2011 and claimed a second win in 2013.
And while the spectators came to see one man strut his stuff, the future of the event looks decidedly rocky in the wake of Alonso’s exit from F1 at the end of last year and continued political tensions between the Spanish and rebel Catalan governments.
While it would obviously be a blow to lose an event that has been a part of the calendar for over 30 years, many bulk of fans have cursed the circuit’s presence in F1 given its ability to provide races that are the equivalent to watching paint dry.
Before the advent of DRS – which brought the level of passing to a remotely acceptable standard – the circuit averaged just two overtaking moves per race. That record gave it a worse reputation than Monaco and Hungary, two tracks which were positively passing-friendly in comparison.
The fundamental design of a long straight, a mix of corners and an abrasive track surface are all essential ingredients that should make a track conducive to overtaking, but the layout clearly doesn’t work and the final corner that feeds onto the main straight was too quick to allow the chasing driver to get enough of a tow.
The last corner was subsequently slowed by a badly designed chicane which is an absolute eyesore on the circuit, and has only served to emasculate the track’s final sector, which was a particularly challenging section of the track.
|Formula 1 Emirates Gran Premio de España – Schedule|
|Event Dates||10-12 May 2019||Free Practice Session 1||Fri 11:00-12:30|
|Free Practice Session 2||Fri 15:00-16:30||Free Practice Session 3||Sat 12:00-13:00|
|Qualifying||Sat 15:00-16:00||Race (66 laps)||Sun 15:10-17:10|
Session times quoted in Central European Summer Time (GMT + 02:00)
Rewind to 2018
Having inherited victory at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix’s final laps, Lewis Hamilton needed to prove to himself – perhaps more so than his doubters – that he and Mercedes are true championship contenders for the 2018 Formula 1 World Championship season.
Sunday’s Grand Prix in Spain was a battle of strategy. Pirelli’s tyre compounds showed little variance in performance or speed, but proved difficult to warm up. Being on the right tyres at the right time would prove critical, particularly given the Mercedes cars in particular had struggled with tyre warm-up over the first four flyaway races.
The silver cars seemed to show little of this trait in qualifying when Hamilton and teammate Valtteri Bottas locked out the front row in qualifying. Their 1-2 finish of the season was equally flawless in its execution – an outcome the team has craved all season – while their rivals Ferrari were wrong-footed by a poor strategy and unreliability. Hamilton’s chief rival Sebastian Vettel could manage no better than fourth place, dropping him 17 points behind the Englishman in the Drivers’ Championship fight.
Starting from the cleaner side of the grid allowed Vettel to jump Bottas into second on the long run to Turn 1, but Hamilton’s getaway proved too good and it allowed him to convert his pole position into the lead.
The race was almost immediately neutralised by a Safety Car following a multi-car crash at Turn 3. The chief culprit was Haas’ Romain Grosjean, who reacted to teammate Kevin Magnussen’s twitchy car through Turn 3 and ran wide. The Frenchman lost the rear of his own car and in his efforts to catch the slide he planted the throttle and was spun backwards across the track and into the path of the rest of the cars behind him.
Unsighted among the tyre smoke, Renault’s Nico Hülkenberg and Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly were left with nowhere to go and ploughed into the Frenchman. All three drivers were out on the spot with damage strewn across the width of the track.
Once the clean-up was finished, the race resumed on Lap 7 with Hamilton immediately gapping the field and extending his lead to over seven seconds by the time Vettel made his first pit stop.
Vettel struggled to get his Medium tyres up to temperature and had a slow out-lap, and with second-placed Bottas pumping out fast sector times it looked like the Finn might get the jump once his pit stop was complete. That didn’t pan out, however, as the Mercedes team had a slow pit stop which allowed Vettel to keep an effective second place.
On Lap 25, Kimi Räikkonen retired his Ferrari from fourth place with a suspected engine issue. Worryingly this came after Ferrari had fitted a new power unit to the Finn’s car after Friday practice.
By this stage Hamilton had pitted and switched to the Medium compound tyres. Given Mercedes’ outstanding pre-season testing had shown they could run long distances on the rubber, it looked for all intents and purposes that Hamilton had no need to visit the pits for the rest of the 66-lap race.
On Lap 40, Esteban Ocon parked his smoking Force India on the side of the track, prompting a Virtual Safety Car. Ferrari reacted by pitting Vettel for a second time in the hope it could gain track position as it had managed to do in Australia, but its strategy call proved to be in error as the German emerged in fourth place behind Bottas and Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen who did not stop.
Vettel’s fresh Medium tyres allowed him to quickly catch and close up on Verstappen – who was running with a missing front wing endplate after tagging a Williams at the VSC restart – but Verstappen managed to keep Vettel at bay over the remainder of the race to claim a confidence-boosting first podium of the season.
Up front, Hamilton cruised serenely to victory, finishing over 20 seconds clear of his teammate. Vettel chased Verstappen over the finish line in fourth, while fifth-placed Daniel Ricciardo was the last of the runners on the lead lap following a spin during the VSC restart.
Magnussen won ‘best of the rest’ honours behind the big three teams with a flawless drive to sixth place. The Dane finished ahead of local driver Carlos Sainz Jr., who nursed his Renault over the finish line after it suffered a fuel problem in the closing laps. Crowd favourite Fernando Alonso was predictably dogged, recovering from being forced off-track on the opening lap at Turn 1 to finish eighth ahead of Force India’s Sergio Pérez. Sauber rookie Charles Leclerc was again impressive, claiming back-to-back points finishes in tenth after a fine drive.
Tyre Compound Selections
Of all the Formula 1 circuits, Barcelona is probably the best known to all the teams as it is a familiar testing venue – including for eight days at the start of this year. But that doesn’t make it any less challenging. Pirelli is bringing the three hardest tyres in the range for the second time this year after Bahrain – C1 as the White hard compound, C2 as the Yellow medium compound, and C3 as the Red soft compound. These should be well-suited to the high-energy demands and warm weather of the Barcelona circuit as the European season gets underway.
Speaking ahead of the Grand Prix, Pirelli’s Head of F1 Mario Isola spoke of the challenge that the Circuit de Barcelona brings to tyre management.
“There are very few mysteries about Barcelona for the teams, especially this year as the pre-season tests were held in quite good weather conditions that should be more representative of the season. However, a number of teams are planning on bringing some car upgrades, so it will be interesting to see the effect of those on tyre behaviour, together with the continued evolution of the new track surface, which we already noted earlier this year. Even in pre-season testing, the cars were incredibly quick out of the box here, so this could be yet another race like last year in Spain where more lap records fall.”
The top three teams have all made different tyre nominations, suggesting a varied tactical approach. Fastest here in pre-season testing and desperate to get back to winning form, Ferrari has made the most aggressive selection in choosing more soft tyres, but both their drivers and those of Mercedes have made slightly different selections to their teammates.
The Spain Form Guide
It’s been ten weeks since the cars rolled out at the circuit, located in the hills above Barcelona, for pre-season testing. Warmer temperatures will create characteristics far different from those encountered when the teams launched their 2019 cars in February. The cars have also changed significantly from the initial launch specifications and, for the majority of teams, this weekend’s event is when the first major upgrades are introduced to their cars. Put together, this means that both the pre-season form guide and the results of the first four flyaway races should not necessarily be a barometer of form this weekend.
Mercedes-AMG has opened its 2019 campaign with a record four successive one-two finishes, with Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton claiming two wins apiece – only Bottas’ bonus point earned for the fastest lap in Australia is the difference between the two in the Drivers’ Championship standings.
The silver cars have – with the exception of the Bahrain Grand Prix, where a mechanical failure cost Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc a victory – deserved their results and now sit a whopping 74 points clear of the Scuderia in the Constructors’ Championship standings.
Yet the reigning champions remain cautious coming into this weekend, worried that Ferrari could return to the frontrunning pace it showed during pre-season testing at this very circuit. The red cars were estimated to be some three-tenths of a second quicker than everyone else, but have largely failed to carry that speed into the races where the points are handed out.
Ferrari is desperate to replicate its pre-season form in Saturday’s all-important qualifying session that will be the platform for Sunday’s 66-lap race. Its aerodynamic upgrades brought for the previous Grand Prix in Azerbaijan yielded some improvements but not enough to get its cars between the Mercedes’, and Leclerc’s crash in qualifying didn’t help matters either.
An engine upgrade slated for the Canadian Grand Prix is being brought forward to this weekend, which is a clear admission by the Scuderia of the urgency of their situation. Ferrari’s problem doesn’t appear to be a lack of horsepower, but rather a battle in getting the 2019-spec Pirelli tyres to work consistently. As Leclerc was able to demonstrate in Bahrain, when they can get their tyres working then they are a force to be reckoned with. Mercedes, however, is hardly going to stand still in its development race…
Red Bull Racing will be another team to watch as it too is expected to introduce further evolutionary upgrades on the back of it showing improved pace, particularly in the Chinese and Azerbaijan Grands Prix. The upgrades to its Honda engines moved it a few-tenths of a second closer, and a few more could see it genuinely threaten the ‘big two’ teams.
In the midfield, Racing Point – which will bring major upgrades to its cars now that it has a proper budget – and McLaren are expected to lead the midfield charge. Both teams have so far managed to outscore the factory Renault squad, which languishes in seventh place in the Constructors’ standings as it struggles for both pace and reliability.
At the bottom of the pile, Williams will be hoping it can make further progress after a disastrous start to its 2019 campaign where its cars – which were built late and had limited pre-season running – handle poorly and have been well off the pace. It remains the only team to score a point so far, and perhaps that could change with Deputy Team Principal Claire Williams confirming that a manufacturing backlog has been cleared and that it is now able to bring development parts to its cars.
|2019 Spanish Grand Prix Weather Forecast|
|Friday||14°C – 23°C||Saturday||13°C – 21°C||Sunday||12°C – 21°C|
Images via FIA, Pirelli Motorsport, Red Bull Racing