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Spain - What to Watch for...

11 May 2014

From Vettel in damage limitation mode to a potentially titanic Mercedes intra-team battle, and from worries about tyre wear to the possibility of Williams’ first podium this season, we preview the key themes to watch out for in Sunday’s Formula 1 Gran Premio de Espana Pirelli 2014 in Barcelona…

Mercedes can only beat themselves

Last season in Barcelona Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton locked out the front row of the grid only to see their races fall spectacularly apart as they ran into major tyre degradation issues. Friday’s long runs suggested that the silver cars will have no such problems this year and with the massive timesheet advantage they’ve enjoyed all weekend, it seems Mercedes can now only beat themselves. The team have enjoyed rock-solid reliability in the last three races, but with the complicated nature of the 2014 machines, the spectre of unforeseen technical malady still hangs over not just them, but all of the teams. And lest we forget, in Bahrain Mercedes were similarly dominant, only for Rosberg and Hamilton to come dangerously close to catastrophic collision while dicing for the lead. Will they be allowed to race as hard as that on Sunday? Time will tell, but one thing is for sure: Rosberg is determined to end Hamilton’s winning streak. All the signs are pointing towards another classic duel.

Tyres expected to play a very big role…

At a high-energy circuit like Barcelona, tyre wear and degradation are always an issue, but this year the drivers have been particularly vocal about grip problems, particularly in hotter conditions. Whilst several have struggled to get enough heat into the front rubber, more still have complained about the rears going away. For that reason - and the fact that it’s notoriously difficult to pass here - strategy is likely to be even more important than usual in determining the finishing order. Keeping enough life in the tyres for a whole stint will be critical, but equally important will be pitting at the right moment. Stay out one lap too long on a set of tyres and the ensuing time penalty will probably cost you several places. According to Pirelli, the medium tyre is about eight-tenths of a second per lap faster than the hard and is also the tyre that the drivers should ideally look to spend the longest on. Theoretically the fastest way to approach the 66-lap race is with three stops, starting on the medium tyre, taking on new mediums on lap 20, another set of mediums on lap 38, and then finally a set of hards on lap 54. A two-stop strategy could also be possible by extending the medium tyre stints.

…so a high chance of seeing more driver errors

Of course, it’s all very well coming up with a perfect tyre strategy, but to execute it the driver has to keep the car on the road - and that’s looked far from easy this weekend. Throughout practice and qualifying we’ve seen cars sliding about, dipping tyres on the grass and skipping through gravel traps as they’ve struggled with both low grip and the high torque characteristics of the 2014 power units. Don’t be surprised if the trend for errors continues on race day. As Lewis Hamilton warned after qualifying: “We'll just have to be a lot more cautious, I think, because today there were massive oversteer moments.”

Maldonado in need of a clean race

After a miserable start to the season, Lotus have worked flat out to try to add both performance and reliability to the E22. But while Romain Grosjean vindicated the team’s efforts by taking a superb fifth place in qualifying, Maldonado threw a great opportunity into the wall. It’s not the first time this season that the Venezuelan has let himself down with a driving error, and some would argue that if it wasn’t for the backing he brings to the team he would likely be under enormous pressure at this point. Maldonado’s mistake means that he starts Sunday’s race not from inside the top ten like his team mate but from last, and thus there’s a good chance that he’ll get held up behind slower cars for at least part of the race. If he does, it’s critical he doesn’t get frustrated or impetuous and instead shows the kind of composure that helped him win - and withstand enormous pressure from Fernando Alonso - at the same venue two years ago.

Williams’ podium shot

Williams have already missed opportunities to score a first podium in two years this season, most notably in Australia where Valtteri Bottas clipped the wall and was still able to finish fifth. But the Finn’s outstanding lap in qualifying has given the team their best chance of a rostrum yet. For starters, both he and Felipe Massa have been electric away from the line in recent Grands Prix and if Bottas can slip by Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo at the start, his superior straight-line speed allied to the relatively scant places to overtake could just be enough for him to stay ahead for the rest of the race. Long run simulations during FP2 suggested that while Bottas isn’t a bona fide match for Ricciardo, he could pose a serious headache for the Australian if he is able to get his nose ahead in the early stages.

Pressure on Vergne

Less than 12 months ago, Vergne was in a tight race with Daniel Ricciardo for the second Red Bull seat. After missing out, the Frenchman vowed to come out fighting in 2014, but lady luck has not smiled on him so far and he is under pressure to reassert himself over impressive rookie team mate Daniil Kvyat. After first lap damage in Malaysia and Bahrain, this weekend Vergne has to contend with starting from the back of the field following his unsafe release in FP3, for which Toro Rosso were fined $30,000. A clean opening lap is imperative, but Vergne will also need to balance prudence with aggression if he is to progress through the field and prevent Kvyat from finishing ahead of him again.

Raikkonen looking to finally get the upper hand on Alonso

Raikkonen’s early season struggles at Ferrari are well documented - he has usually been out-qualified by team mate Fernando Alonso, and is yet to beat the Spaniard over a Grand Prix distance. The situation was particularly bad in China where he trailed Alonso by almost a minute at the flag, leading some to question his motivation (an accusation rightly dismissed with typical aplomb by the Finn). In Barcelona, the situation has been measurably better - Raikkonen was right with Alonso in first and second practice, and then out-paced him in every qualifying session to eventually seal sixth on the grid, directly ahead of the second F14 T. The challenge will now be to capitalise on that momentum by finishing ahead of Alonso for the first time this year. Doing so on the Spaniard’s home soil would be an ideal way for Raikkonen to reassert himself in the intra-team battle.

Vettel making the most of a bad weekend

Vettel has been on the back foot in Barcelona ever since an electrical issue struck just four laps into FP1, ruling him out for the rest of Friday. Forced to use team mate Daniel Ricciardo’s set-up, the four-time world champion made it to the fringes of the top 10 in FP3, and looked to be back on song when he claimed third in Q1 and fifth in Q2. A gearbox issue struck at the start of Q3 however, leaving Vettel stranded out on circuit, and the subsequent transmission change consigned him to 15th on the grid - his worst qualifying spot in Barcelona since 2008, when he competed with Toro Rosso. The good news for Vettel is that Ricciardo has shown the RB10 to be the second-fastest car in the field, over both short and long runs. But starting so low down means that rather than reigniting his title defence, Vettel will be firmly in damage limitation mode when the red lights go out in Catalunya.