After four races of the 2018 season, a pecking order has emerged, with Ferrari topping Mercedes, with Red Bull not too far behind. There’s then a gap to the rest, with Haas, Renault, McLaren, Force India and Toro Rosso well-matched.
However, Barcelona is arguably the best track to give an accurate picture as to where everyone stands, given the teams know it so well having spent two weeks clocking up thousands of kilometres testing on it each year before the season starts.
That makes this weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix one to watch. What’s more, the teams usually bring a big update to this race as the circuit is located handily close to their European bases – in the UK, Italy or Switzerland.
However, this year is a little different. Most teams have been bringing smaller updates to each race, rather than aiming to bring a big package to Spain, as they strive to get performance on the car earlier.
That means there’s quite a difference in the size of packages teams have brought to Barcelona. Some have brought reasonably big packages, others minor updates while some have very little if anything at all.
Just how big will McLaren’s update be?
In the build up to the race, McLaren’s Barcelona package was under the most scrutiny. The British team missed their targets with developments and didn’t bring the package they had aimed for to Melbourne.
Improvements were brought to the following races, but the complete package they wanted to bring to the season opener will finally make its appearance in Barcelona – race five of the season.
Fernando Alonso has moved to play down expectations, warning that “there is no magic bullet that will propel us to the front of the grid overnight” – but there is an expectation that the updates will deliver a step forward and help close the gap to the leading three.
The highlight of the latest McLaren package is a dramatically different-looking nose, that broke cover during pit stop practice on Thursday evening at Barcelona. The plan is to run it in Friday practice, along with a host of other tweaks.
The data garnered from those tests will determine how much of the new package will run for the remainder of the weekend and how much will be left off the car for further experimentation in next week’s two-day in-season test at the same venue.
Speaking about the updates, Stoffel Vandoorne said: “There’ll be quite a few things on the car that’ll obviously be visible from the outside the car will look quite a bit different. [This] is always a race where everyone brings updates to the car so that’s not a surprise.
“We’ll have to wait and see exactly what it’ll bring to the car, but it is definitely a good opportunity for us to bring a few parts. We will bring a few parts to the next couple of races as well so it’s not only here we’re bringing parts.
“Tomorrow will be a busy day figuring out what the best configurations are, what we have to learn about those parts, we’ll see.”
Ferrari to debut mirrors on the halo
Ferrari have brought updates, as they bid to retain the mantle of having the best car on the grid, with revisions to the front and rear wings and other areas of the bodywork. The most visual change, though, will be the attachment of the rear view mirrors to the halo.
The FIA issued a technical directive permitting the practice, with the Prancing Horse the first outfit to make the revision. They are due to trial the new configuration on Friday before deciding whether to commit to them for the remainder of the weekend.
Mercedes have brought updates to Barcelona, but they are one of the teams choosing to bring updates to each race, rather than aiming to bring a big package to the opening race of the European season.
Red Bull are believed to have brought a “reasonably” big update package to Barcelona, as has been the case in recent years. “I know we have updates,” said Daniel Ricciardo. “I know everyone does.
“You always hear big numbers, you are going to gain this amount, but it seems when you get closer and closer the realization is less optimistic. For sure the car will be quicker, but is it enough for the thing to challenge the others.
“It will look cool, you will see all the sidepods and that, it is going to look pretty crazy. So if it is not faster at least we will look cool!”
Nico Hulkenberg said Renault have brought updates to the car for Barcelona but “it’s not huge”. It’s believed the team will run a new front wing, updated rear suspension and a new fuel for this weekend.
Force India have struggled with correlation issues so far this season but have shown signs of getting on top of their new package in recent races. In Barcelona, they have a new floor and new bargeboards, as they look to build on their Baku podium.
Toro Rosso also have some new parts for this race, while Williams have brought several upgrades, some of which are experimental and will only run on the car on Friday and during the in-season test.
Not all teams opting for big packages
Sauber, which parted ways with Technical Director Jorg Zander ahead of the Barcelona weekend, have pretty much the same car that they had in Baku – with only very minor updates.
Haas, too, have opted against bringing a big package to Spain. In fact, Team Principal Guenther Steiner says they have brought “very little” as they want to spend more time on development before introducing their next updates.
“We’re not bringing a big update package here, we bring it a little bit later consciously,” said Steiner. “We decided we’d develop a little bit longer to get more in one hit. I think we were quite competitive here in testing, so there’s no point to rush it and be short of spares because Monte Carlo is coming after.
“The risk is high to have accidents there, so we thought maybe it’s better we go slower to go faster instead of panicking into something and tripping over.
“In the beginning of the season we said ‘how should we do this best’, and that was what was decided.” It is believed the team is targeting Canada for their next raft of developments.
Expect teams to be busy on Friday, as they gather data on their new updates before deciding how much of the package to leave on the car for the remainder of the weekend. Will anyone make a big step forward? Or will the pecking order remain the same? We wait with bated breath...