Meanwhile, Renault still strong, Toyota still improving
A victory for McLaren was no surprise after the speed the MP4-20 has been showing all season. Initially it came not in qualifying but late in races, but as Kimi Raikkonen proved in Imola, the car is now the class of the field as far as speed is concerned. In Barcelona it had the reliability to match and it proves to be unbeatable.
Raikkonens sole technical problem came as he pulled away from his pit after his first stop on lap 25; momentarily the engine coughed before picking up. By the time he made his second call on lap 49 he was advised to be gentle pulling away and the problem did not recur.
The other close call came on lap 45 as Schumacher exited the pits after his first puncture, just as Raikkonen was preparing to lap team mate Juan Pablo Montoya. With the inside line Schumacher was well placed to resist both, while Montoya was initially pincering over on Raikkonen from the outside. However the Finn sliced cleanly through the middle and drama was averted.
Apart from a 360 degree spin exiting Turn 8 on lap 7 (nicely gathered up before Schumacher could take away his seventh place), Montoyas main technical problem concerned his refuelling rig, which short-changed him in lap 29 and obliged him to stop again a lap later.
Otherwise, McLaren were operating the way they used to in the good old days, the effect of this win will be incalculable in terms of morale in a factory where everyone has been working flat-out to make the cars quicker and more reliable. With 37 points they are now only three behind Toyota, and have set their sights on Renault.
For the blue team, second and fifth was hardly a disaster, but once again there was a technical issue on one of the cars. This concerned Giancarlo Fisichellas, on which he suddenly reported loss of frontal downforce on the 40th lap. This time the problem was almost certainly caused by debris, however, as the so-called tea tray area of the floor that acts as a shadow plate was damaged. As a precaution the team fitted a replacement nose and did what they could to repair the tea tray, and thereafter the unlucky Italian proved that there isnt much wrong with the R25, setting fastest lap of 1m 15.641s on the final lap.
Alonso blistered his tyres during his first stint, which took the edge off his Renaults handling, but after that he described the car as perfect.
Toyota expected to do better in Barcelona than they had in Imola, and their optimism was not misplaced. Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher were fast all weekend, one suggestion being that the TF105s slightly more aggressive appetite for tyres worked in their favour now that the track has been so smoothly resurfaced. The two drivers fought one another throughout, without making the contact that could have been disastrous. Trullis set-up made his car faster with more fuel than without, which obliged him to push hard throughout. Later he described it as one of the best races of his career because of that. Only Renault and McLaren with 12 points apiece, took home more than Toyotas 11. Without question this is the most improved team of the season.
The Williams FW27 continued to disappoint in Spain. While the car is reasonably well balanced, there are suggestions that it is falling back in the horsepower stakes. Webber lost out to Schumacher Jnr on the drag race to the first corner. As soon as the team saw that they changed what had been intended as a three-stop strategy to two, and though later he gave a place away to Schumacher Snr with a small mistake exiting Turn 8, the Australian otherwise did what he could and only lost out to Fisichella when the Renault driver got a superior run out of the final corner with three laps left to run. Heidfeld suffered as one might have expected by starting at the back and having to fight throughout in traffic.
Yet again, Red Bull continued their point-scoring habit. Granted, they are not garnering as many as they did at the start of the season, but others are developing faster. There was disappointment when a traction control problem, allied to generally poor handling balance that had plagued him for much of the weekend, helped Vitantonio Liuzzi off the road in Turn 7 after only nine laps (and which means he will be the first qualifier to go out in Monaco on the Thursday), while a heavy lockup flat-spotted one of Coulthards tyres and gave the Scot a vibrating ride for the rest of the race. But a point is a point, and Red Bull have 14.
For Sauber, Barcelona was a disappointment. The C24 had run so well in Imola that they went to Spain hoping to turn around an unhappy test there weeks before. The car did go better with the new aero package from Imola, but not well enough. Felipe Massa fought hard but was never a real points contender, eventually stopping with three laps to run when the left rear wheel rim cracked and let the air out of the tyre. Jacques Villeneuve opted for a high fuel load but slipped back with rising engine temperatures. Just when his car was at its lightest and he should have been able to attack, he hit traffic and lost any advantage his strategy might have granted. Eventually he retired with engine failure after 51 laps, because of water leakage.
Both Jordans made it home reliably, after Monteiros morning Toyota engine failure. The team expected this to be a tough race and were not disappointed, as Monteiro and Narain Karthikeyan were lapped three times on their way to 12th and 13th respectively.
The most disappointed team in Spain were Ferrari. Like Jordan they expected the race to be hard, but nothing like the gruelling grind they encountered. Fundamentally there does not seem to be anything wrong with their new F2005 that cannot be cured and Bridgestone will continue to hone their tyre design to suit hotter temperatures. Melbourne and Imola showed that their tyres are fine in relatively cool conditions, but in Spain the race was run in 24 degrees Celsius ambient temperature, and that hurt.
Both Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello opted to run with high initial fuel loads, and for a while it seemed to be working for the world champion as he climbed to second place behind Raikkonen prior to his first refuelling stop on lap 32. Ultimately, however, the race took its toll on the tyres just as a podium finish seemed likely. First the left rear tyre deflated, for reasons that were not disclosed (Ross Brawn hypothesised that it might have been the debris that Fisichella ran over), then, two laps later, the left front. The German pulled into the pits to retire. Running with such a high fuel load in opening race traffic, Barrichello was probably doomed. Ferrari cleverly switched him to a single stop strategy, but was struggling on his way to ninth.
It seems unthinkable, but Schumacher has not won a Grand Prix for seven months, since Japan last October! While Renault have 58 championship points, Toyota 40, McLaren Mercedes 37 and Williams 21, Ferrari still have only 18.
Minardi had a torrid time at the beginning of the race, as neither Christijan Albers nor Patrick Friesacher moved off the startline. Nick Heidfeld in particular made a stunning avoidance of Friesacher. The problem lay in the electronic control systems; when the drivers let out their clutches the engines shut down. While the safety car came out the two stricken PS05s were removed from the grid, restarted in the pit lane, and sent on their way two laps down. Both drivers then ended their day in the gravel after spinning, Friesacher on lap 12, Albers on 20.
Five races into the season, Renault remain strong, but in Spain they were not the strongest. Toyota continue to impress, with their speed and reliability, but Williams need to find more speed and Ferrari to develop their tyres. As the battle continues, particular in the tight weeks ahead when back-to-back races abound, the pressure will only get greater.