Formula One heads back to Europe for the start of the European season at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona. It’s a circuit the drivers know very well as a result of the miles upon miles of Winter Testing which takes place here every year.
Torrential rain hit the circuit during the media day on Thursday and there is the threat of rain on both qualifying and race day. Should things stay dry, the tyre compounds available this weekend will be the Soft, Medium and Hard compounds. Daniel Ricciardo has been vocal in the past week about the choice of tyres by Pirelli for this weekend, saying that the hard compounds will be of no use to anyone:
“The tyres are already hard enough so the harder compounds are just way too hard. Hopefully for Barcelona’s sake it’s hot and therefore these harder tyres work, but if it’s cold then it’s going to be a struggle for everyone.”
Force India’s Sergio Perez doubts his team will use the hard compound at all in competitive running, saying that he would “definitely have gone for supersoft, at the very least. We could have gone even to the ultrasoft around here.” Either way, Pirelli needed new dry tyres delivering overnight on Thursday, “due to problems occurred during the transport which have been outside the control of the tyre supplier.”
Red Bull are likely to be a focal point this weekend, as the development race really begins at the start of the European season. Some suggest that the Red Bull will be so different this weekend that it will be at least a B-spec of the RB13, if not an RB14 in everything but name. Max Verstappen memorably took his maiden Grand Prix win on his first Red Bull appearance at this track last year. He won’t be getting too caught up in memories of last year, though. He has one goal for every race this year – to win:
“I think last year was more intense. It’s always good to come back here but it’s 2017 now, 2016 has gone. Of course it was a very positive weekend but now I just want to look ahead and do my race […] It was nice but I want to win more races than just that one. It’s nice but that’s not what I’m here for, for one single victory. I want more.”
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Mercedes’ car looks visibly different. Around the front, prominent new turning vanes had the paddock talking. Coupled with new bargeboards and a revised rear wing, it will be intriguing to see if the modifications are enough to get the Mercedes team clearly ahead of Ferrari on track. At Mercedes, Valtteri Bottas will have a renewed confidence after a near-perfect race in Sochi saw him take his maiden win. If he wins here, he’ll become the eleventh different winner at this track in as many years.
“I reckon this year in Formula One it’s never going to be easy to win, whether it’s your first one, your second one or later on. We have four drivers fighting for pole and for the win every single race, so you need everything absolutely perfect. That’s the excitement!”
Bottas’ drive to victory in Russia opens up the real possibility of a three-way battle for this year’s Drivers’ Title.
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Aside from the technical updates, there are revised liveries on all the cars this weekend as a result of the FIA’s call for more visible driver numbers and TLA (the three letter abbreviations of the drivers’ names which appear on the timing screens). Mercedes incorporate both driver number and TLA, along with the drivers national flag, on the fin of the car. Bottas’ 77 on the nose of the W08 is blue, while Hamilton’s 44 is red. Ferrari have opted for a more retro style, with each of their drivers’ numbers within a white box on the nose of the car.
Fresh from his first test at Indianapolis, McLaren’s Fernando Alonso heads to his home race -his last before he competes in the Indy 500 – hoping to be able to perform well in front of his home-crowd. His McLaren cap features a Spanish flag this weekend as the 2005 and 2006 champion partakes in his sixteenth home Grand Prix. After his disappointing pre-race retirement in Russia, Alonso arrives in Catalunya having taken his McLaren through to Q3 here twelve months ago. He’ll be looking for a strong result ahead of his one-race sabbatical.
“We didn’t finish any of the grands prix yet, in my case, so definitely, you know, the first step is to improve, which is what we’ve been doing so far, which is not difficult. The second is to find how competitive we can be here on this track, which is quite different compared with the last couple of races. Plus, with the upgrades that everyone brings here, normally, things may change, we need to find out where we are, in which positions we can move this weekend.”
Fernando made some interesting comments in the Drivers’ Press Conference today about his future in the sport. After calling McLaren’s current problems ‘completely unacceptable’, he made clear his intention of looking to drive elsewhere next year if he sees no chance of Honda improving in 2018.
“As I said at the beginning of the year, this is my last year with the contract I have now with McLaren. I will have to think a little bit after the summer, because now it is quite a busy period and now plus the Indy 500 thing, it will not be the time to think any further than this summer. But yeah, around September or October I will need to consider what I will do next year. If it’s time to find other challenges outside Formula One or if Formula One will be an opportunity to win the championship, which is my main goal. I’m very open to anything. I think with this year’s cars and the 2017 regulations, the cars are good to drive. I think Formula One is back in a way. We see this real power of efficiency, corner speed, things we were missing in the last couple of years. The cars look nice from the outside, with the big tyres, everything, so I like this Formula One. So my intention or my first priority is to race next year here and not only to race, I want to win. Now that I have not any more obligations with McLaren… I’m happy with the team, but we are not winning, so if from here to September or October we are in a position where I see clearly a possibility to win in 2018, I will be more than happy to stay with the team. If it’s not the case, I will be more than happy to talk to anyone.”
Carlos Sainz takes part in his third home Grand Prix with Toro Rosso this weekend. He ran as high as third here last year after the two Mercedes drivers took each other out of the race on the first lap. Sainz is impressed with the team’s performance in the early stages of the season, and remains confident that they can challenge for fifth in the Constructors’ Championship as the season moves forwards:
“I think as a target Toro Rosso was very clear at the beginning of the year that they wanted to finish P5 in the championship. I think it has been an interesting start to the season, having five teams fighting for probably P4 as a best result. In my opinion, at the moment it looks like Williams has the upper hand on every one of us, having a car that is closer to the Red Bull than to us. But we are definitely making steps, little by little we are taking our chances. We have 11 points from my side, 13 from the team. We are getting there and hopefully the upgrade this race help us to get closer to them because they are that tiny step ahead at the moment.”
Unfortunately for Sauber, the majority of their upgrades have been delayed until the next Grand Prix, in Monaco. For this round, the C36 will have a new rear wing, along with a revised front wing and brake package. Sauber made the announcement on race day in Sochi that they’d be switching to Honda engines from 2018 onwards. Marcus Ericsson believes it’ll be good for the team in the long run, but they have to keep focussed on developing this year’s car first:
“For the team, I think in the longer term it’s a good decision. Shorter term, I think we have to wait and see how Honda performs for the rest of the year, to be certain what Sauber gets for the beginning of next year. But yeah, for me, all my focus now is on this season. We have the Ferrari power unit that we need to make the most of and yeah, develop our car as good as we can and try and make as good results as possible.”
Meanwhile, at the head of the field, the battle between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton looks to resume once again in Catalunya. Vettel extended his championship lead in Sochi, while Hamilton struggled to keep on the pace of the leaders and ended up fourth. The Mercedes driver is confident of recovering this weekend:
“It was just a bunch of small things all added up in one pot. Nothing in particular, no single one thing that was bigger than another, that just led us in slightly the wrong direction. Should be better this weekend.”
Vettel hasn’t finished lower than the second step of the podium so far this season. He still sees Mercedes as the team to beat after their dominant streak for the past three seasons.
“I think we are obviously in a much better position this year than in previous years but it’s still fairly early. I think this will be an important race […] it’s usually the time people start to bring a couple more bits, but then again, if you look at the last, I don’t know, 10 years, it’s not any more that fixed date where you bring a new car. The top teams tend to bring stuff nearly every race. […] Mercedes obviously had a phenomenal run the last couple of years and they are still the ones to beat, not just race by race but overall they have been the dominant team and it’s difficult to break that but I think we are trying our best.”
When one British journalist asked Sebastian if he’d come out on top in a psychological battle with Lewis, he replied simply: “I don’t do psychological battles, so…” The journalist then suggested that the German ‘wasn’t expected to deliver’, to which Vettel replied: “It’s perfect for me then. If you don’t expect me to deliver anything, I can only win.”
It is, of course, twelve months since that now infamous on-track clash between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg here in Catalunya. There were plenty of questions asked to Lewis about last year’s situation in the Drivers’ Press Conference on Thursday. When asked if he’d seen Nico since the 2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the Briton shared an amusing story:
“The one time I’ve seen him I was running through the streets in London […] running from Covent Garden all the way down to the Thames and the Thames down to Battersea kind of area and back up near Parliament and I was just running on a random street and someone started running behind me and then there was a crowded sidewalk but someone started running behind me and I looked back and it’s… Nico’s obviously seen me on the road as he’s going through somewhere in London and he’s jumped out and run alongside me so we stopped and had a chat for a bit there. That’s the first time that I’ve seen him since.”
Saturday will be of the utmost importance as 23 of the 26 Grands Prix here have been won from the front row of the grid. As we’ve seen in 2017, though, Saturday doesn’t guarantee a victory on the Sunday. With so many sub-plots, it’s going to be an interesting weekend in Spain.