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The Spanish Grand Prix Preview - a voyage into the unknown 24 Apr 2008

Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Ferrari F2007 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 4, Spanish Grand Prix, Race, Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, 13 May 2007 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Bahrain Grand Prix, Race, Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain, Sunday, 6 April 2008 Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari F2008 with a newnose with an aero hole in the top. Formula One Testing, Day Two, Barcelona, Spain, 15 April 2008. World © Hartley/Sutton Jenson Button (GBR) Honda RA108. Formula One Testing, Day Four, Barcelona, Spain, 17 April 2008. World © Hartley/Sutton Grid girl with Spanish flag.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 4, Spanish Grand Prix, Race, Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, 13 May 2007

If you were hoping that the times set during the recent test session at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya were going to provide a meaningful index to performance in this weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix, you no doubt you came away disappointed.

Felipe Massa was fastest for Ferrari on the first day, but ran on 2009-specification slicks. Fernando Alonso and Rubens Barrichello each had a day atop the timesheets, for Renault and Honda respectively, and Mark Webber dominated the wet final day for Red Bull.

What did it all mean in the end? Only that everyone had a chance to do what they wanted, and in some cases that was not to set fast lap times.

Ferrari had a ‘new’ nose, with an air release slot not dissimilar to that pioneered on Formula One cars in 1968 as designers sought to exhaust hot air from front-mounted radiators, and very close to the purely aerodynamic function of the 1980 Lotus 80. Whether it will make a dramatic difference is currently open to debate, but the team’s aerodynamicist Nicholas Tombazis was careful not to let people get over-excited about it.

“The influence on car performance of the slotted nose has been greatly over emphasised,” Tombazis told reporters. “You cannot measure the effect of one component in isolation and the nose is just one part of a bigger package and in fact, its effect is not that big. Overall, we expect the new aero package to produce some improvement in performance, but it would be wrong to call it a race-winning item.”

Everyone nevertheless hopes that their upgraded mechanical and aerodynamic packages will make them more competitive here. McLaren were cautious, after what appeared to be an inconclusive test. Lewis Hamilton did not set particularly quick lap times, but said he remains buoyant ahead of the start of the European season despite the errors that made Bahrain his worst-ever showing in Formula One racing and cost him his lead in the world championship as he failed to score.

“For sure, you learn something in every race, even if you win,” he said as he prepares to bounce back. “I think we have come a long way and looking into the next race I feel very confident that we can do a better job.”

Referring to the updates on his McLaren MP4-23, he said: “There were a few but not a lot, but we definitely made some steps forward and I think at this test everyone is doing something different. Some people are running slick tyres and some people are running grooves. We just focused on our job and I think the car feels a little better and I feel a little bit more comfortable in it. We feel quite strong here.”

BMW Sauber are riding the crest of a wave of unexpected success right now, and lead the constructors’ championship, but boss Mario Theissen isn’t getting carried away just yet.

"The next race in Barcelona will be pretty interesting for two reasons,” he explained. "The track is very relevant to what we see for the rest of the year, and on the other hand, every team will have a development package for Barcelona. So after Barcelona we will be able to say where we really are.”

Honda and Williams made encouraging noises about their performance, as did Red Bull, Toyota look quietly effective yet again, but Renault frankly admitted that the performance of the updated R28 disappointed, Alonso’s fastest time notwithstanding.

Ferrari may be the current pacesetters, but they say they are expecting a tough fight. “We come to Spain with every reason to be optimistic, after wins in Malaysia and Bahrain,” said team principal Stefano Domenicali. “Testing here went well and we hope to keep our momentum moving forward. However, our rivals have not been twiddling their thumbs either, so we can expect a tough fight which we will tackle as usual with maximum concentration at every stage of the weekend.”

Kimi Raikkonen relishes coming to Europe as championship leader for the first time in his career, and is keen to repeat is 2005 victory. “We have all the components in place to be very competitive,” he says but, echoing his team boss, he adds: “It will be a very tough weekend.”

Back in Australia, and again in Malaysia, McLaren boss Ron Dennis stressed that the true picture of the 2008 world championship would not become apparent until the start of the European leg. “We don't really know what our pace is at the moment,” he said in Melbourne. “We won't really know how competitive our car is until after Barcelona. Australia, Malaysia and Bahrain are very different circuits and do not reflect the true pace of the car. Barcelona will be where it is all at.”

Welcome to the latest showdown.