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The new rules' biggest test

Laurence Edmondson
May 19, 2011
Lewis Hamilton

When Formula One last turned up at the gates of the Circuit de Catalunya 12 months ago, Sebastian Vettel was lying fifth in the drivers' championship and Red Bull was third in the constructors'. There was no doubt that Vettel had the fastest car - a Red Bull had qualified on pole at every race up to that point - but a faulty spark plug in Bahrain, a loose wheel nut in Australia and rain in China had stopped the eventual champion turning the car's potential into points. This year it's a very different story, with Vettel among the most consistent drivers in the field and by far the most successful, holding a 34 point lead in the championship. It would be a brave person who bets against him extending that lead at this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix, which takes place on a circuit where overtaking is difficult and the man on pole has won the last 10 races.

But while the result of the 2011 championship is looking ever more predictable, the racing has been anything but - mainly thanks to Pirelli's tyres and the Drag Reduction System (DRS). However, this weekend will be the new rules' toughest test as the Circuit de Catalunya has seen just 16 overtaking moves in the last three years (in comparison, this year's Turkish Grand Prix saw 79 in one afternoon). The outcome of the Spanish Grand Prix will tell us a lot about what we can expect from the rest of the season, both from a competition and entertainment point of view.

On Form

Sebastian Vettel's victory at the Turkish Grand Prix was his most dominant of the season so far. The gap to second place at the chequered flag wasn't as large as it was in Australia, but it could have been if he hadn't made his final precautionary tyre change at the end of the race. What's more, none of his rivals had problems as serious as Lewis Hamilton's flapping floor at Albert Park. China aside, his rivals simply haven't had an answer for his relentless pace and metronomic consistency.

Out of Form

A lot has been read into Michael Schumacher's post-race comments following the Turkish Grand Prix. After finishing a disappointing 12th he admitted "the big joy is not there right now", fuelling speculation he might retire at the end of the season or even sooner. Since then he has clarified that he is more motivated now than he was at the start of the season, although there is no doubt that he is not driving at his best - his performance in Turkey was evidence of that. It may seem disrespectful to say it of a seven time world champion, but perhaps the question should not be whether he wants to be in F1, but whether, based on his current performances, he deserves to be in F1? If any other driver had started with Mercedes in 2010 and performed to the same standard then questions would almost certainly have been asked. But Schumacher is not any other driver and his glorious past means Mercedes is unlikely to push him into a second retirement any time soon.

Sergio Perez is hoping to score his first points of the season in Spain © Sutton Images
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One to watch

It's something of a surprise that Sergio Perez still hasn't scored any points in Formula One. His brilliant debut in Australia was not rewarded due to a minor technical infringement, and ever since the Mexican has been pushing hard to win back the points he lost. Unfortunately rookie mistakes have crept in at recent races, but this weekend he is turning up at a track he knows well and he will have a heavily updated Sauber to boot. He may not trouble the top six, but points are definitely on the cards.

Talking Points

Overtaking
As mentioned above, overtaking is a rare sight at the Circuit de Catalunya and the dull races in recent years are exactly what this year's regulations are designed to prevent. The tyres will spice things up and the news that Pirelli is bringing a harder compound means the difference in grip between the prime and option tyres, a key factor for overtaking, will be even greater. The DRS is unlikely to be as effective as it has been in recent races as the corner at the end of the activation zone - turn one - is the first part of a sweeping chicane rather than a heavy braking zone.

A breakaway
The speculation about Formula One's future ownership is unlikely to go away anytime soon. News Corporation and Exor continue to be talked about despite not making an offer and last week Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo hinted at a future without current owners CVC Capital Partners. A breakaway series has been mentioned, as it was in 2009, although it's likely that team bosses will spend most of Friday and Saturday in Spain playing down the idea but not ruling it out completely (in truth it is nearly impossible for them to organise a rival series as our recent feature points out). By maintaining the threat they give themselves ammunition to fire at Bernie Ecclestone when it comes to negotiating better terms in the next Concorde Agreement. Unfortunately for the teams, however, Ecclestone is something of an expert on breakaway series having used the same threat against FISA back in 1981 and stopping a handful since.

Off-throttle exhaust
The FIA is looking into regulating the way teams are using exhaust gases to generate downforce from their car's diffusers. All the teams use hot exhaust gases to accelerate the airflow through the diffusers at the rear of the car, although some get much better results than others. To perfect the system many teams have been playing with their engine mapping so that gas continues to be pumped out of the exhaust even when the driver is off the throttle. This gives the car the benefit of the blown diffuser both under acceleration and deceleration. However the FIA has deemed this to be an aerodynamic aid controlled by the driver and intends to put a stop to the practice at some point after the Spanish Grand Prix. It will have an effect on all the top teams' performance, although some will lose out more than others.

Updates
The teams traditionally target large update packages for the Spanish Grand Prix and this year is no different. The engineers and drivers know every corner of the circuit inside out from the miles of testing they have completed there over the years and can therefore gauge the success of a new part pretty quickly. This year Lotus, Sauber, Williams and McLaren are just four of the teams that have talked up their Barcelona packages, while many others will also make changes to their cars in the pursuit of shaving off a bit more lap time.

Weekend Timings

  • Free practice 1 0800 GMT / 1000 Local
    Free practice 2 1200 GMT / 1400 Local
    Free practice 3 0900 GMT / 1100 Local
    Qualifying 1200 GMT / 1400 Local
    Race 1200 GMT / 1400 Local

Fast facts

  • The last nine Spanish Grands Prix (since 2001) have been won from pole
  • This year's race will be the 40th Spanish Grand Prix since the inaugural Formula One event in 1951
  • The 1986 Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez was the closest ever finish, with just 0.014 separating race-winner Ayrton Senna from second-place Nigel Mansell after 72 laps
  • Kimi Raikkonen holds the lap record with a time of 1:21.670 set in 2008.

Trivia

  • The Circuit de Catalunya was first used in F1 in 1991, a race remembered for Nigel Mansell's bold overtaking manoeuvre into turn one on Ayrton Senna
  • Barcelona hosted the Spanish Grand Prix four times between 1969 and 1975 in Montjuich Park. It was a tight and dangerous track that was eventually dropped in 1975 when five spectators were killed after Rolf Stommelen crashed over the barriers
  • The park was later extensively re-developed for the 1992 Olympic Games Fernando Alonso is Spain's only Formula One race winner
  • The very first race to run under the title of the "Spanish Grand Prix" was held in 1913, although it was actually run to touring car regulations rather than the grand prix formula of the day

Circuit

There is a very good reason why the cars return to the Circuit de Catalunya year-after-year to test. Its sweeping corners are very dependent on downforce, while the long straight requires a low level of drag. Put simply, if you're quick here you can be quick almost anywhere. Unfortunately all those fast corners come at the cost of reducing the chances of overtaking. Turn one remains a favourite place to try a move, while the big stop into turn 10 can be a possibility if the leading car makes a mistake through the tricky turn nine. The cars are at full throttle for 60% of the lap, meaning it is not the hardest track on engines, but still enough to cause concerns for the likes of Ferrari and Sauber who are very quickly working their way through their season-long allocation. Pirelli is bringing its hard and soft compounds this weekend to combat front-left tyre graining, which will almost certainly result in three-stop strategies for every team if it is a dry race.

FIA driver steward

Mark Blundell will make his first appearance as an FIA steward

Spain weather © ESPNF1
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Weather


While the 2011 rules might make for a more exciting Spanish Grand Prix this year, there is little chance of rain mixing things up. Bright Spanish sunshine is expected over all three days of the grand prix weekend with temperatures hovering around 25C. It should provide the perfect operating conditions for the Pirelli tyres, meaning three pit stops will be the strategy of choice on Sunday afternoon.

Betting

Sebastian Vettel is the clear favourite at 4/6, but anybody looking for a decent return on their money will be more interested in Mark Webber at 11/2. The No. 2 Red Bull may not have had the best start to the season but Barcelona is the same circuit where Webber turned around his bad start last year. Lewis Hamilton is 11/2, but if for him to win the race on outright pace would be asking a lot of McLaren's update.

ESPN prediction

In his current form and on a circuit tailored to the strengths of the Red Bull RB7, Sebastian Vettel is in the perfect position to make it four wins out of five. Only a retirement or a botched strategy seems capable of knocking Vettel off his perch right now.

Laurence Edmondson is an assistant editor on ESPNF1

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