Will test speed be translated into race pace?
Can BAR score their maiden victory, in Spain, or will it be business as usual for Ferrari in Barcelona this weekend?
Going into this fifth round of the 2004 FIA Formula One World Championship the auguries remain positive for Ferraris chances of a fifth straight win. The Circuit de Catalunya is the most popular venue for Formula One testing, and that means that most of the teams already know how to get the best out of their technical packages there. Its one reason why the cars tend to line up marque-by-marque on the grid after qualifying. Ferrari havent tested there an awful lot during the winter, preferring to stay on home soil, but they were quick and the track has such a combination of very fast, medium and slow corners that it is renowned as a means of determining just how good the overall package is. In Ferraris case, as we have already seen in the previous four races, this is very good indeed.
There isnt much wrong with the Bridgestone rubber, either. It has been competitive regardless of temperature in Australia, Malaysia, Bahrain and Imola, and last year only Renault got anywhere close to challenging the red cars as Fernando Alonso beat Rubens Barrichello for second place in front of his delirious countrymen.
Many of the teams have been testing again since Imola, but though they will all have some small aerodynamic revisions few are likely to have the major upgrades that they had ready for Imola after the first three races of the season.
Ferrari have been running at Fiorano and Mugello, Sauber joining them at their home track for three days. BAR are nevertheless feeling very confident, with a further evolution of their Imola aerodynamics and another step on the Honda V10 engine, and in their Michelins. In Barcelona in 2001 Jacques Villeneuve scored the teams first podium, but after Jenson Buttons second place in Imola the team are hoping that their 8500 kilometres of winter testing in Spain will pay off with their first victory.
Renault, Williams and McLaren all focused on running at Silverstone. Renault believe that the latest version of the RS24B engine introduced at Imola, allied to further aerodynamic changes, will make them very competitive, while Williams have likewise been hard at work aerodynamically and mechanically. McLaren, too, put in a lot of effort in their tests as they continued to sort out their MP4-19.
Jaguar are also confident that the aerodynamic properties of their R5 will pay off, while Jordan tested briefly at Vairano with Timo Glock to conduct aerodynamic straight-line running. There were signs in Imola that the team have made some progress setting up the EJ14 after their pre-race test at Silverstone.
Unlike, say, Albert Park or Imola, Barcelona is a track that places relatively few demands on traction and brake stability. Speed there is down to the fundamental characteristics and efficiency of the car, and the tyres. You need aerodynamic efficiency more than anything else, as Renault proved so conclusively last year when its wide-angle engine lacked the power of its rivals yet Alonso still finished runner-up, and teams will run close to their maximum 2004 level of downforce.
The other major factor will be tyre degradation. The track surface is very abrasive, and even though the track is famous for its long main straight, you need as much downforce as possible to prevent the car sliding around on other parts of the track and exacerbating the tyre wear. Interestingly, the left rear tyre does the majority of the work, while the left front does 150% more than the right, according to Renaults Pat Symonds.
The other big problem in Barcelona is that the nature of the track changes very much with ambient temperature. This influences the balance of the car and of course the lap time. When the track temperature goes up the grip generally goes down and the tyre degradation increases as the cars slide. These factors, together with poor weather in the last Barcelona test, mean that several teams have more work than usual to do on tyre evaluation and selection on Friday, in order to find the right compromise for qualifying and the race.
Even with the small change to Turn 8 for this years race, overtaking is always very, very difficult on this track, so a good qualifying performance and race strategy is critical.