Fernando Alonso will be keen to take on the Bulls and get his championship challenge back on track as Formula One’s European season kicks off starting with the Ferrari driver’s native Spanish Grand Prix.
Alonso heads into his home race fourth in the standings, 30 points behind championship leader Sebastian Vettel, after having experienced mixed fortunes in the opening series of ‘flyaway’ races.
A strong second place in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix and a commanding win in China have shown that, in contrast to last year, the 2013 Ferrari has been quick straight out of the box but the Maranello-based squad has hampered its own title challenge thanks to some costly mistakes.
In Malaysia, for instance, Ferrari and Alonso opted not to pit despite the Spaniard having damaged his front wing, a decision that proved to be catastrophic as the damaged wing wedged itself beneath Alonso’s car and caused him to spear off the track into retirement.
In Bahrain, a week on from his dominant win in China, Alonso suffered a DRS wing failure with the flap on the rear wing stuck in the open position. Ferrari brought him in and shut the flap manually but didn’t warn Alonso against using his DRS again, resulting in the problem recurring and requiring an extra pitstop.
“ … If you look at the actual results, even if it’s true we’ve had a win, which naturally we can be very pleased about, we have also had two very bad results where we scored very few points,” Ferrari chief designer Nikolas Tombazis said, giving his squad a six out of ten score following the opening leg of the season.
In contrast, rival Vettel has been one of the most consistent drivers this year. The German has two wins to his name and has finished all but one of the first four races on the podium.
The Red Bull driver’s worst result so far has been a fourth-place finish in China, and Alonso will be banking on his home advantage and the enthusiasm of his fans to help him stop the reigning world champion stretching his legs further at the top of the standings.
“From the first laps on the track on Friday and Saturday morning you can immediately feel the passion of the fans in the grandstands and that sparks off extra motivation because you want to do that little bit extra to make sure they can celebrate,” Alonso, who won the race in 2006 on his way to his second world title, said in a team preview ahead of the race.
“That’s how the search begins for that elusive tenth of a second of performance that you are always seeking when you’re in a Formula 1 car.”
But fan power may not be all Alonso needs to rely on as with Formula One returning to Europe the race around the Circuit de Catalunya will be the first chance for teams to introduce significant upgrade packages to their cars which could shake up the pecking order.
The first flyaway races usually take place in Australia and Asia, and generally tend to be back-to-back, with a three week break in the middle, making it logistically difficult for teams to bring any major upgrades to their cars.
As a result, the teams generally spend the first four races understanding their new cars and for many outfits – especially those that have underperformed — Barcelona is a chance to hit the reboot button on their seasons.
Given the fact that the layout of the Circuit de Catalunya is a stern test of how a car’s aerodynamics are performing, with the rule of thumb being any car that can perform well here can perform well on other tracks, it will be all the more crucial for teams to get their Barcelona upgrades right.
In that sense, this weekend’s race will be an important one for McLaren. The Woking-based squad has endured a dismal season so far after having ended last year with the fastest car thanks to a decision to completely overhaul its 2013 machine rather than refine an already competitive 2012 design.
The team have generally failed to match the pace of the frontrunners and head to Spain sixth in the standings, 86 points behind championship leaders Red Bull and outscored by the likes of Force India, a midfield squad.
But, despite the significant number of upgrades McLaren plan on introducing in Spain, the team have been careful to play down the benefit they may bring.
“There’s been a lot of talk about the importance of next weekend’s upgrades; but, as with every upgrade, they’re simply part of the series of continuous improvement that are made across the season,” Jenson Button said ahead of the race.
“As always, there’ll be elements of it that work, elements that perhaps work in a different way to what we’d anticipated, and elements that don’t work, or perhaps require further work.”
“So I’m pragmatic about what we’ll discover next weekend. Of course, I’m hopeful that it’ll move us a step closer towards the destination,” the 2009 world champion said.
The fast-wearing Pirelli tyres have given us four unpredictable Grands Prix so far and it’s unlikely to be any different in Spain.
The races in Barcelona used to be one of the most processional of the season, with the circuit’s long corners and emphasis on aerodynamic efficiency making it very difficult for drivers to get close to the car in front and overtake.
But judging by the last two Spanish Grands Prix, Pirelli seem to have succeeded in their brief to spice up the racing. 2011 was the first time in a decade that a driver who wasn’t on pole won the race while last year Pastor Maldonado took a surprise win for Williams after finding the ‘sweet spot’ that allowed him to make the best use of his tyres.
The Italian company will be bringing their most durable tyres to Spain – the medium and a slightly tweaked hard compound – to cope with the demands of the abrasive track, particularly the long turn three which puts a lot of energy through the rubber, especially the front left.
Highlighting just how much the Circuit de Catalunya asks of Pirelli’s fast-fading rubber, Mercedes put out an interesting stat in the build up to the race. The 2011 and 2012 races together featured a total of 140 pitstops, more than in the previous four years combined.
All said and done, this weekend will probably be one of the most crucial of the year and teams will have to get their upgraded car-tyre package working well as the Spanish Grand Prix will most likely set the formbook for the next few races.
Add to that the fact that this will be the only major upgrade of the season for many teams as they begin to increasingly shift their focus to making the most of next year’s radical rule changes, and this weekend’s race could well set the tone for the rest of the season.
“It will be an interesting weekend and once we see how everyone performs in Barcelona, it should give a good idea of how the rest of the season will look,” Nico Rosberg said.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic.