This season’s title challengers could be defined in Spain this weekend with all eyes on major upgrades – because with 2014 so vital it could just decide who will go for it and who will give up on 2013 already.
It’s hard to believe that come Sunday evening more than one quarter of this year’s 19-race season will have already been completed.
After Australia, Malaysia, China and Bahrain, the teams will finally start the European season in Barcelona for a race that in recent years has become the first opportunity to get a genuine benchmark on early season form and to then take a major step forward.
The Circuit de Catalunya is the perfect place to do that for several different reasons.
Although the teams have all made progress by bringing in new parts through the opening races, the ability to introduce more major full-package developments in the fly-away races is limited by tight timeframes, long distances and high transport costs.
In Barcelona however, the track is finally within driveable distance for race trucks, opening up the capacity and capability to transport a bulk load of new parts in very easily.
Barcelona is of the best circuits to deliver a balanced indication relative of car performance as it has a combination of all the different kinds of track elements teams will find at all the other tracks on the calendar.
It is a very demanding circuit on aerodynamics, with the first two sectors comprising a series of very fast corners, while it also presents a very challenging complex in the final sector that demands good traction and mechanical grip at speeds where aerodynamic performance has less effect.
This is the track that teams and drivers probably know better than any other on the calendar.
Central to pre-season testing for many seasons, it has already seen the teams’ 2013 machinery in action in two tests across two weeks earlier this year.
That means that unlike any other circuit, they already have significant amounts of data on how their 2013 cars will performs on that track as well as how the 2013 tyres perform and react to the track surface. The only thing teams do have to consider is the variation in track conditions – because as the temperatures rise in May the track has a very different feel to the track here in the cooler winter months.
That’s a relatively basic calculation that can be answered by the teams’ computer simulations and, combined with the baseline data from the first four races, it will make it much quicker to get a baseline set-up on ride heights, weight distributions, aero balance or roll stiffness. And that is extremely helpful when bringing in a series of updates because it takes lots of unknowns out of the equation.
The teams will be given an extra set of prototype hard compound tyres for free practice – which will be a bonus for those looking to get in maximum laps to prove their upgrades.
And so, when all the new parts are thrown on the cars, Barcelona should give the engineers a good chance to quickly determine whether the numbers coming back into the pits show what they were expecting.
To that end, there are several teams who will be worth watching.
McLaren is the most interesting. We already know their new car does not perform well but Barcelona will reveal just how far off it is on a more ‘standard’ F1 circuit. That evaluation, coupled with the performance of a major upgrade – on which their hopes are pinned despite Jenson Button downplaying such a suggestion - will almost certainly determine their approach to the rest of the season.
Lotus did one of the best pre-season race simulation runs at the final Barcelona test and will be hoping that form translates to the summer conditions. They have also been pushing hard to introduce new parts and will bring new front and rear wings, a new rear drum design and a change to the diffuser. If they work, it could show they can truly mix it at the top end all season.
Mercedes also showed good form here in pre-season testing but will need to get their tyre management right, particularly given that the high speeds in the first two sectors can hurt the tyres for the final part of the lap. They are also expected to bring in a significant car upgrade package, and if they can get their race performance right here it could be a good sign for a championship challenge.
So the practice sessions will take on a new importance this weekend.
Development for 2014 is so crucial the more manpower that can be released to next year’s car early the better.
No matter how things have gone so far this season, if the baseline in Barcelona does not perform and if new developments don’t show the pace expected, then that is an ominous sign.
And if it’s going to be fruitless pushing on in 2013, now is the time to make that decision.
On Sunday night, we will know the winner of the Spanish Grand Prix, but by Saturday morning we should know exactly whose baseline cars and upgrades are working and who will be committed to a crack at the title.
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