Venue: Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona
Lap record: 1m 21.670s – Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari (2008)
The Circuit de Catalunya hosts the Spanish Grand Prix for the 23rd time, one of the longest-running venues in the sport. It is a track which is well-known to drivers up and down the grid, for not only do they race here in most of the junior formulae, but F1 visits the circuit for two four-day tests prior to the season getting under way. The track, located approximately 20km outside Barcelona, is regarded as a great proving ground for the team’s cars. Fast times here will translate into strong speed across most of the calendar’s tracks as it contains corners which are similar to those found throughout the season.
Tuning the car into this circuit requires stability in the high-speed corners, in particular Turns 3 and 9, while the last sector, characterised by repeated direction changes through Turns 13-16 needs a responsive front end and smooth power delivery to maximise speed down the straight and across the start/finish straight. Barcelona’s track surface is known to be quite abrasive and so Pirelli are bringing the two toughest compounds in their range, the medium and hard, in order to cope with the demands of the track.
Race strategy highlights from last year
Last year’s race was a textbook three-stopper for nine out the top 10 finishers, with the only exception being Lewis Hamilton who stopped twice on his way to eighth place after being demoted from pole position to last place for a fuel irregularity. Hamilton’s penalty opened the way for Pastor Maldonado, who shone in qualifying to take second place but found himself elevated when it became clear the McLaren didn’t have enough fuel on board to supply the mandatory FIA post-qualifying sample.
Maldonado lost the lead to hometown favourite Fernando Alonso at the start, but the Ferrari was unable to shake off the Williams and the two ran together for the first and second stints, never more than four seconds apart. Maldonado forced the issue at the second stops, pitting on lap 24 and nailing the out lap to undercut Alonso and grab the lead when Ferrari pitted Fernando two laps later.
Maldonado’s last stop came on lap 41, Alonso’s on 44, Ferrari planning to give Fernando fresher tyres with which to attack in the last stint, however it became clear that Williams had enough in reserve to hold the lead and Ferrari’s attentions were soon switched to Kimi Raikkonen, the Lotus driver tracking down Alonso at a huge rate of knots. Kimi had been able to run to lap 48 before taking his final set of tyres, and on newer rubber sliced Alonso’s lead from 22 seconds to just 0.7s at the chequered flag.
What to look out for in 2013
The more abrasive track surface will tend to make things more conservative on the strategy front, so most teams at the front are expected to opt for a three-stop strategy as the quickest overall way to the flag. However, although a two-stop strategy was possible last year with the soft and hard tyres, it only worked if you kept enough new hard tyres available and were able to make the softs last for as long as possible in the opening stint.
This approach laid the foundation for Hamilton’s climb from the back of the field to eighth last year, and with the medium tyre likely to be closer to the hard in overall performance this time round, you might well see teams like Lotus and McLaren opt for two-stoppers, the former because it utilises their car’s tyre wear advantage, and the latter because it brings them into contention for points they might not otherwise achieve by running in unison with their immediate rivals. Holding pole position is a huge factor in success here – 17 times from the 22 races held the pole man has won the race.
Who has the best record in Spain?
With two wins (2005 and 2008) and a podium finish (3rd in 2012) Kimi Raikkonen is statistically the most successful driver in the current field on Spanish tarmac, but you have to recognise Alonso’s achievements in his home grand prix. The Ferrari man may have only won once here (in 2006 whilst driving for Renault), but he has an astonishing five second places (2003, 2005, 2008, 2010 and 2012) and a third place (2007) under his belt. In other words, he has finished on the podium in seven of the 11 races contested, a podium strike-rate of 64 per cent. No other driver of comparable career length comes close, with Raikkonen at 30 per cent, Webber 18 per cent and Button 17 per cent.
Tyre wear: 8/10 - An abrasive surface and temperatures expected to be in the mid-20s have forced Pirelli to nominate their two most durable compounds, the medium and hard, for Barcelona.
Downforce: 6/10 - Slightly higher than average settings owing to the fast Turns 3 and 9, while straight-line speed is essential for overtaking opportunities into Turn 1.
Average speed: 7/10 - The fiddly chicane in the final sector blights what is otherwise a fast and flowing lap. It was brought in to try and increase overtaking opportunities, but proved less than succes8sful in this aim.
Track difficulty: 4/10 - Gets a low rating because drivers are intimately acquainted with every centimetre of track, having racked up several thousand testing miles here before the season. That familiarity breeds close grids, so it is important to nail your lap in qualifying.
Overtaking: 3/10 - Last year saw just 30 overtakes, less than one every two laps, but for what it lacked in passing, it made up for in strategic drama with the battle between Maldonado and Alonso, with Raikkonen coming into play in the closing stages.
Spectacle: 6/10 - If you’re a fan of ‘old-school F1’, where strategy takes the place of an overtaking-fest, then Barcelona can deliver just such an event. While the polesitter has won 77% of all races here, he rarely does it at a canter.
Driver’s eye view: Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes
“It feels like a long time since Bahrain so we’re all looking forward to getting to Barcelona next weekend and starting to get into the routine of the European season. The short break has been good however, and I’ve had the chance to catch up with family and friends, and also spend some time at the factory with the guys, working on our efforts to improve. We’ve been boosted by the results that we’ve had at the start of the season and to come away from the first four races with two third and two fifth places feels like a real achievement. I’m feeling very comfortable in the car now and we know the areas that we need to improve so a lot of effort is being put in to close that gap to the front-runners. Barcelona should be a good test as we know the circuit so well having completed most of the pre-season test programme there. The weekend should be a good benchmark of the progress we have made since then.”
Paul Hembery, Pirelli Motorsport Director
“We’re introducing a revised version of our hard tyre in Spain, which is closer in characteristics to the 2012 tyre. This new tyre gives us a wider working temperature window – although it delivers a little bit less in terms of pure performance – but it should allow the teams to envisage an even wider variety of race strategies than before in combination with the other compounds, which remain unchanged this year. This is a decision that we’ve come to having looked at the data from the first four races, with the aim of further improving the spectacle of Formula One. In fact this is almost a tradition with us now, as we also introduced a revised version of the hard tyre for the Spanish Grand Prix in 2011, which was our first year in the sport.
"We’d expect the medium tyre to still be significantly faster and this is the one that the teams are likely to qualify on, whereas the hard is likely to be the preferred race tyre. As permitted by the current regulations, we’ll be supplying an extra set of prototype hard compound tyres for free practice, which will hopefully ensure that all the cars run throughout these sessions. It’s something we wanted to do to encourage all the teams to run as much as possible right from the start, especially with the rookie drivers, to give fans the spectacle they deserve to see.”