Revised circuit, revised cars - but a revised pecking order?
This weekends Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya, just outside Barcelona, kicks off the first European leg of the 2007 FIA Formula One World Championship. And it follows hard on the heels of prolonged testing by all of the teams there last week.
Generally, the view is that Ferrari made progress in the test, with Kimi Raikkonen setting the fastest time. However, circuit conditions at the race weekend are usually quite different to those during tests, with the amount of rubber that goes down from all of the F1 activity plus the GP2 and other support races, and also wind and weather patterns exerting their effect. Testing times can thus sometimes be misleading, the more so because it is not always clear in what configuration teams were running their cars.
Last year Fernando Alonso took pole for Renault with 1m 14.648s and won the race from Michael Schumacher (who is expected to attend this weekend) and Giancarlo Fisichella. Felipe Massa set fastest lap for Ferrari in 1m 16.648s. Times last week were six to seven seconds slower than Alonsos pole. However, modifications to the penultimate corner of the track have now turned the two final high-speed corners into a chicane. The final corner is now a flat-out run on to the long pit straight. While the lap times have been slowed, overtaking down the pit straight may be better.
Tyre performance will be less of an issue than it has been in recent years, with everybody running the same two choices of Bridgestone tyre. This particular weekend the options are the Japanese companys hard and medium compounds. The latter will be distinguished by the white groove.
Kees van de Grint, who oversees Bridgestones track engineering, had some interesting observations on the tests. In the past, the nature of this circuit has resulted in high degradation and graining, particularly on the front left tyres. However, this has become less of an issue now as the construction of the 2007 tyres provides a good balance for the cars and that, in combination with the track layout changes and the introduction of the chicane, which make speeds lower through the final turns, has resulted in a less severe circuit from a tyre manufacturers point of view.
The testing indicated that the medium compound is the more competitive, but van der Grint added: We should keep in mind that track temperatures last week and in February were on the low side and we also had rain which meant we had quite a green track at times. Should we experience higher temperatures during the race weekend the hard compound tyre could well come into play. Last weeks test also enabled the teams to run both the wet and extreme wet weather tyres and, in our opinion, both performed well in each of their respective windows.
The Circuit de Catalunya places a premium on aerodynamic efficiency, and tends to highlight which teams have spent their wind tunnel time most effectively. All of the teams have spent the weeks since Bahrain working on revised aero packages. Ferrari seem to be in the pound seats thus far, and believe they have made further progress, but McLaren came away quietly satisfied with the runs by local heroes Fernando Alonso and Pedro de la Rosa. Renault believe they have made some much-needed progress with new parts on their R27s, and Red Bull also had their tail up after David Coulthard went quite quickly. The RB3s will have quickshift gearbox technology this weekend, but it remains to be seen if the Toro Rossos are similarly equipped.
Toyota seem quietly confident that changes to the TF107 will help raise their game, particularly for Ralf Schumacher, who has not found the car much to his liking thus far. And at Japanese rivals Honda, the pressure is on to finally get some 2007 points in the bag this weekend. Poor stability under braking has been among the RA107s weaknesses to date and the team trialled a number of aero mods at the Barcelona test, among them the rather unusual-looking elephant ear wings on the cars nose.
With so many pre-race variables coming into play, it would be a brave person who tried to predict Sundays winner in Spain. One thing is almost certain, though - with three men - Alonso, Raikkonen and Hamilton - currently level at the top of the driver standings, we should come away with a new championship leader.