ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 17 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   The Spanish GP Preview

Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona by Ewan Tytler, U.S.A.

Formula One moves to the spiritual home of motor racing in Spain: Barcelona.

Sunday's race will be the eleventh Spanish Grand Prix to be held at the Circuit de Catalunya - a track designed to suit motorbike racing, as well as F1 cars. In fact, motorbike racing is the most popular motorsport in Spain and Barcelona was the hub of the once thriving Spanish Motorcycle industry.

At 4.730 km, the Circuit de Catalunya is average in length and is one of the faster Grand Prix circuits on the calendar. The circuit is one of the best modern European circuits, with one of the longest straights in Formula One, several changes in elevation and a mixture of high, mid and low speed corners. The Circuit de Catalunya also uses the "Zandvoort Formula" to create an overtaking opportunity at the slow Elf corner that comes after the long pit straight and the fast turn 13. Nevertheless, many recent Spanish Grands Prix have been processional. It is quite clear that the aerodynamic changes introduced for the 2001 season has made overtaking easier so Formula One fans may be rewarded with some spectacular racing at Catalunya on Sunday.

Catalunya is a circuit where it isn't possible to make an uncompetitive car perform better than it should, but it is easy to make a competitive car perform worse than it can. BAR's Race Team Manager Ron Meadows explains: "Aerodynamic efficiency is particularly important here, and you also have to consider the surface undulations, which can upset a car's handling. It's a circuit where Formula One cars generally suffer with understeer problems because the left front corner is particularly heavily loaded, so the aim will be to neutralise that tendency as much as possible."

What kind of driver wins at Catalunya? This is one of the few circuits where Ayrton Senna never won a Grand Prix while his nemesis "Le Professor" Alain Prost won here and finished ahead of Senna in the two races when they both competed. It is not so much a question of who is fastest, it is more a question of who has the best race strategy. Ferrari's Michael Schumacher sums it up, saying: "When the racing gets very close, you have to be able to take advantage of any small opportunities that may arise in the race to gain an advantage. To make a pitstop a bit earlier or later than planned or even to change the pitstop strategy altogether."

Pitstops and Tyre Strategy

Attrition is generally low at this circuit. Seventeen cars were classified in last year's race; 15 cars finished at Catalunya in 1995, 1997 and 1998; 13 finished in 1999, while only six cars were running at the end of the wet 1996 race. Sunday's race is likely to be won or lost by tyre and pitstop strategy.

"Barcelona is one of the most severe tracks for tyres," Bridgestone Motorsport's Technical Manager, Hisao Suganuma, stated. "The surface is abrasive and the longer middle-to-high speed corners together with fairly consistent high speeds all increase the chance of wear. Overtaking is difficult so qualifying position will be important. We are taking a harder compound and a softer compound to Spain, both of which should suit the conditions well, especially since we can also expect the temperatures to be much higher than at Imola. It's likely that we will see most teams opting for a two-stop strategy.

"Although it is a tough track, the introduction of traction control should help prevent rear wheel sliding and therefore reduce degradation on the rear tyres. However, the limiting of power one gets with traction control may mean that lap times grow so drivers will not want to rely on it too much if they are to make the most of the extra grip. If wear levels improve then it is possible that softer tyres can be used, but at this stage it is difficult to say how much we can expect from the new system. Unfortunately, unstable weather at Silverstone last week, which even included snow, meant we could not complete as much work as we had hoped with our dry compounds. However, we were able to do some work on tyres designed to reduce understeer and this work will continue."

Michelin motorsport director, Pierre Dupasquier, cautioned: "People are expecting a lot of Michelin in Barcelona because it is the track at which we gained most experience during our pre-season test programme. We hadn't done anything much at Imola before the race, but does that mean Barcelona will be even better? Not at all! Sure, Michelin put in some excellent performances at the Catalan track while it was learning about grooved tyres and researching the best constructions to use. But since then both the cars and their tyres have moved on. For Michelin, Barcelona will be like everywhere else we have been this season - a fresh start with brand-new tyres."

In last year's race, all of the finishers opted for a two-stop strategy apart from the Minardi team and Arrows's Pedro de la Rosa, who each had three stops. The timing of the pitstops will be just as important for optimal tyre performance as the number of stops. Teams on a 2-stop strategy pitted between laps 18-27 and 37-41, while the Minardis also pitted between laps 38-39. On tyre choice, Bridgestone will again offer the teams a choice of soft or medium compound tyres but this year, Bridgestone expects that most teams will select the soft compound, which they believe is best suited to the hot track conditions at Catalunya.

Traction and Launch Control

The 2001 Spanish Grand Prix also sees the re-introduction of electronic driver aids, and everyone who is anyone in the F1 paddock has something to say about traction and launch control.

"Barcelona sees the new regulations that permit significantly more management of the engine, gearbox, differential and clutch and this will permit traction control, which will be conducted by different teams in different ways," explains Williams's Technical Director, Patrick Head. "They will be looking to reduce the power of the engine in response to sensed wheel spin. Some may be using ignition cutting, some may be using ignition retards, some may be using throttle closure, there are a number of different ways, or a combination of ways of achieving an end result. It would certainly be very significant if the qualifying or race are wet, or run on a damp track. Probably of less importance if the race and qualifying are dry, but certainly there will be many tracks this year where it will be a deciding factor.

"As far as the clutch is concerned people will be using automatic starts, although the trigger for the starts will need to come from the driver. He will need to respond to the lights going out and give a command through whatever mechanism to initiate the start. The diff control is probably not hugely significant, but it gives a little more freedom to control the differential to assist the handling of the car. Being able to fully automate the gearbox probably won't make a great deal of difference, but will just mean that instead of the driver responding to lights on the dashboard, telling him when to change gear, it will change up automatically and change down automatically."

BMW Motorsport Director, Dr. Mario Theissen, added: "As Patrick explains, different approaches can and will be taken and it remains to be seen which one is the best. We are all very busy at the moment and I am not sure if all the teams will have their optimised solutions ready for Barcelona."

Arrows Technical Director, Mike Coughlan, came to a slightly different conclusion. "Traction control is going to make very little difference to lap times," he said. "It is during the race where it will come into its own as the cars will be easier to drive, the tyres will last longer and the drivers will make less mistakes. This will impact on overtaking, making it harder, as it is usually when the driver in front makes a mistake that you get past. The biggest benefit is that we now have a level playing field as there are no question marks over who has these systems and who doesn't. Launch control is a little trickier to master and could throw up a few surprises. It will be an interesting weekend."

Down the Pitlane

Ferrari still lead the Constructors' Championship by 10 points. Shell's Motorsport Account Manager, Ian Galliard revealed, "We will be working with Ferrari on pitstop strategy to give us flexibility over the timing of our pitstops, which can mean the difference between winning a race and finishing second. At Imola, Ferrari was able to change Rubens's strategy mid-race without too much trouble and a lot of this was thanks to the flexibility Shell fuels gave the team, so at Barcelona we will offer the team the same options."

Ferrari have only won the Spanish Grand Prix once at Catalunya, in the wet race of 1996, but their cars have always finished in the points, scoring a total of 51 points. Ferrari also set the fastest times in the February and March test at Catalunya.

The World Championship joint-leader, Michael Schumacher, is the most successful and consistent driver at Catalunya. He has competed in every Spanish Grand Prix at Catalunya and he has always finished in the points. Michael won this Grand Prix twice, once for Benetton in 1995 and once for Ferrari in 1996. He was second in 1992 and in 1994, third in 1993, 1998 and 1999, fourth in 1997 and sixth in his Spanish GP debut in 1991. Schumacher set pole position in 1994, 1995 and 2000 and also set fastest lap in 1993, 1994, 1996 and 1999.

Rubens Barrichello has retained his 3rd position in the Drivers' Championship. The Brazilian was the fastest at the February test at Catalunya, setting a lap time of 1:18.606. He also finished 5th in 1998 for Stewart and qualified and finished 3rd in 2000 with Ferrari.

McLaren have cut Ferrari's lead in the Constructors' Championship to 10 points. Team principal Ron Dennis stated, "The team is in a strong position in both World Championships, heading into what will be an interesting race at Barcelona, with both the introduction of electronic driver aids and the race for the title, which - following Imola - is wide open. We have taken a number of positive steps forward over the last couple of races, which we aim to further in Spain."

McLaren have scored a total of 48 points at Catalunya and have won the last three Spanish Grands Prix. In fact, 7 of the 10 Spanish Grands Prix held at Catalunya have been won in cars designed by McLaren's Technical Director, Adrian Newey. Last year's race strategy worked well with both drivers on a two-stop strategy.

Mika Hakkinen is now seventh equal in the 2001 World Championship, after picking up three useful points at Imola. Hakkinen admitted, "the results so far this year have not been ideal for me, however the championship is still a very open situation. No one is too far ahead and there are still plenty of points to be scored. I have a successful record at Barcelona, having won the past three races, which I am hoping to extend this season."

Hakkinen has blown hot-and-cold so far this season but the Spanish Grand Prix is probably Hakkinen's best opportunity for his first Grand Prix victory of the season. A victory at Catalunya could give Hakkinen the momentum for the next round at Austria, another event that he has dominated in the past, but if he stumbles in Spain then it will be difficult for him to keep a foothold on the Drivers' Championship. Hakkinen has competed in every Grand Prix at Catalunya except the 1993 race. He dominated the last three Spanish Grands Prix, winning from pole position in 1998 and 1999, and setting fastest lap in 1998 and 2000. Hakkinen also finished 5th in 1996.

David Coulthard is equal-first in the Drivers' Championship, after finishing second at Imola. Coulthard is looking to consolidate his Championship position at the Spanish Grand Prix, stating: "I hope to build on the results achieved so far this season in order to maintain my position in the Drivers' World Championship. We test regularly at the circuit so we know it well, it's fairly technical with a good mix of corners and straights." Coulthard started his Formula One career at Catalunya and he has finished second in the last three Spanish Grands Prix. The Scot also finished sixth in 1997 after challenging for the lead in the first lap. His highest grid position was 2nd 1998. Before last year's race Coulthard was lucky to survive a plane crash and drove a brilliant race despite having broken ribs.

Williams have jumped to third in the Constructors' Championship. Furthermore, it's interesting to note that Ralf Schumacher's victory was the first victory for a Williams that had not been designed by Adrian Newey. Williams are also expected to be strong contenders with the introduction of electronic driver aids, and BMW Motorsport Director, Dr. Mario Theissen, stated: "Generally we are very satisfied with the introduction of traction and launch control. The reasons for this are first that all the rumours about different interpretation of the rules will stop, and second because BMW has always been a pioneer in automotive electronics. We are very happy to be able to demonstrate our competence in this field in Formula One as well."

Williams is the most successful team in the Catalunya races, winning 5 of the 10 Grands Prix held on this circuit, and scoring a total of 67 points. At least one Williams has always finished in the points.

Ralf Schumacher has jumped to fourth in the Drivers' Championship, following his textbook victory at Imola. Ralf's win was a first in many categories but this was also the first Formula One victory by a Formula Nippon Champion. Looking into the next Grand Prix, Ralf commented: "Barcelona is a combination of fast and slow corners so is quite interesting and demanding. Tyre wear can be a problem there. Last year I finished fourth and in '99 fifth, so this shows that normally it is a circuit that suits me. It is difficult to predict where we are standing, because we had some very good tests there and then others that were not so promising. We still have some work to do to improve our traction control. All-in-all we just have to wait and see what will happen."

Ralf finished 4th in 2000 and 5th in 1999 for Williams and his highest grid position was 5th in last year's race. Ralf would probably have finished in 3rd last year had his older brother not locked wheels with him, letting Rubens Barrichello through.

"Barcelona has been a good track for me so far," declares Juan Pablo Montaya. "I have raced there before in '98 in Formula 3000 and I won. We just have to see what happens now. I think it will be quite a tough race to be honest. During testing in the beginning in December and January we were really strong there, but for the last few tests we have done the car doesn't seem to have been working quite as well. I am sure when we get there we will figure it out and hopefully be competitive. It will be quite interesting. For me I am really looking forward to getting to the end of a race to score some points."

Benetton are still seventh in the Constructors' Championship. The team performed consistently well at Catalunya, scoring a total of 49 points and winning in 1995, but they have been outclassed in the last two Spanish Grands Prix and were uncompetitive in the February and March tests at Catalunya.

Giancarlo Fisichella has slipped to 10th-equal in the Drivers' Championship. Fisichella holds the race lap record (1:22.242s) at Catalunya, which he set in 1997 with Jordan. His highest finish was second in 1998, and his highest grid position was 4th in 1998. His teammate, Jenson Button, is in the mean time scrapping with Minardis. In last year's race, Button qualified 10th and was classified 17th after blowing his engine within 5 laps of the chequered flag.

BAR have slipped to 6th in the Constructors' Championship. Olivier Panis has slipped to 9th in the Drivers Championship. The Frenchman finished 2nd for Prost in 1997 and his highest grid position was 8th in 1996. His teammate, Jacques Villeneuve, holds the qualifying lap record (1:16.525s) for Catalunya, which he set on slick tyres in 1997 for Williams. Villeneuve finished 3rd in 1996, won in 1997 and finished 6th in 1998 for Williams. In the 1999 race, Villeneuve successfully fended off faster machinery, but unfortunately, he has yet to show this form in 2001.

Jordan have slipped to fourth in the Constructors' Championship. Jordan tested at two locations last week: Heinz-Harald Frentzen tested chassis set-up and electronics at Silverstone, while test driver Ricardo Zonta tested aerodynamic set-ups at the straight-line Lurcy Levis track in France. Jordan have scored only 4 points at Catalunya and have never gone consistently well at Catalunya.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen has slipped to 6th in the Drivers' Championship. Frentzen confessed, "I enjoy Barcelona but because we test here so often I know the track well and the racing is less of a challenge. It's a demanding circuit, though, and you need to be fit to race well. It's one of the faster tracks, with quick corners where aerodynamics play a key role. It's hard to find the optimum set-up as the conditions change a lot, so it's a technical challenge." Frentzen has not gone consistently well at Catalunya, his best finish was 4th in 1996 for Sauber and his highest grid position was 2nd in 1997 for Williams. In last year's race Frentzen finished 6th.

Jarno Trulli has climbed to 7th-equal in the Drivers' Championship. Trulli declared: "this is another circuit I like a lot. The car is well balanced and has performed very well so far this year, so we just hope we can prove our potential in this next race. The high speed corners require good physical fitness and makes the circuit quite technical, which is the main reason many teams test in Barcelona." Trulli has scored one point at Catalunya, finishing 6th in 1999 for Prost and his highest grid position was 7th, in 2000. Trulli held the testing record at Catalunya for the 2000 season.

Sauber have slipped to 5th in the Constructors' Championship. The Swiss-based team scored 5 points at Catalunya with 4th and 5th place finishes in 1996 and 1997 respectively. Nick Heidfeld has slipped to fifth in the Drivers' Championship. In last year's Spanish Grand Prix, Heidfeld finished 16th after qualifying 19th for Prost. Heidfeld swept the board in the 1999 F3000 race at Catalunya, winning from pole position and setting fastest lap, while in the 1998 F3000 race he qualified 3rd and finished 26th after setting the fastest lap. Kimi Raikkonen has slipped to 10th equal in the Drivers' Championship.

Jaguar are the one of four teams that have yet to score a point in the 2001 Constructors' Championship. After announcing that Luciano Burti would not be driving for Jaguar in 20002, Burti resigned and moved to Prost-Acer, displacing Gaston Mazzacane. Jaguar's test driver and ex-Arrows Spaniard, Pedro de la Rosa, will take the second seat for the team.

Team Principal Bobby Rahal stated: "We welcome Pedro on-board and look forward to seeing him race this weekend at his home Grand Prix. Pedro has done a commendable job for us in testing and I'm confident in his ability to deliver on the race track. He has applied himself very diligently and has generated a lot of respect from within the team in a relatively short space of time. His work up until now, however, has been with the test team and not the race team. He visited the factory in Milton Keynes on Friday to acquaint himself with the race team and I'm sure he'll settle into his new role very quickly. Qualifying should certainly make for interesting viewing!" Nevertheles, Jaguar's technical problems will not be solved by shuffling drivers. Remember that in 1998, Jan Magnusson was replaced by Jos Verstappen who subsequently had less success than Magnusson. And, ironically, Burti set Jaguar's fastest time at last week's Silverstone test.

Eddie Irvine reflected: "I was sorry to see Luciano go, as he brought a lot to the team. But I can understand his reasons for going. Usually, changing teammates in the middle of the season is not a good idea and can destabilise things, but in our case, Pedro has been with us for a while already and understands the task at hand so everything should go smoothly on that front." Irvine finished sixth in 1994 and fifth in 1995 for Jordan, and was fifth in 1996 and fourth in 1999 for Ferrari. Irvine's highest grid position was 2nd in 1999 for Ferrari.

Pedro de la Rosa, like Mika Salo, has found out that a 'pink-slip' from Arrows can be a blessing in disguise. De la Rosa commented on his promotion, saying: "This is a wonderful opportunity for me, and it lays to rest the speculation that has surrounded my recent moves in F1. I came to Jaguar Racing because the long term potential for the team is obvious and I believe that Bobby Rahal and the team are fully focused on the job in hand."

This is truly de la Rosa's home Grand Prix as this young Catalan was born in, and is still resident of Barcelona. De la Rosa revealed, "People assume that because I'm from Barcelona, I know the track better than anybody. I wish this were true. I know this track as well as any other F1 driver. I recently tested the Jaguar R2 at the Circuit de Catalunya and I don't expect us to be any higher on the grid this weekend than has been the case so far this season. Aerodynamics will play a crucial role and our efforts to find aerodynamic improvements are ongoing. I haven't driven the latest spec Michelin tyres, but I understand that they are an improvement. This circuit is one of the toughest on tyres and from what I've seen, I'm sure Michelin will be well-prepared for this race."

De la Rosa was classified 11th, after qualifying 19th, in the 1999 Spanish Grand Prix. Last year was a disaster as he was eliminated in a first lap collision after being forced to start from the back of the grid due to fuel irregularities during qualifying, after he posted the 9th fastest time.

Arrows, as Footwork, scored 2 points at Catalunya when Michele Alboreto finished 5th in 1992. Neither Arrows cars finished last year's race. Jos Verstappen has competed in four Spanish Grands Prix, his best finish was 11th for Tyrrell in 1997 and his highest grid position was 11th in 2000. Verstappen stated: "the Spanish Grand Prix should be very interesting as with the traction control coming back it's a bit like starting a new season. You don't know where you stand compared to all the other teams. Hopefully our system works well. We've been doing some work on it this week and we will see the results in Barcelona."

"For me this is a very good circuit," Enrique Bernoldi declared. "There is a good mixture of corners and lots of fast ones which I like. The return of traction control may bring the teams tighter together but all will be revealed at the weekend." Bernoldi set pole position in last year's F3000 race but was eliminated by a collision, while in the 1999 F3000 race he qualified and finished 15th.

Minardi missed the February and March testing at Catalunya but spent last week testing at Mugello and were 3-5 seconds slower than the Ferraris. Minardi's finest hour at Catalunya was when Pierluigi Martini finished fifth in 1994. The Spanish teenager from Oviedo, Fernando Alonso, finished 15th after qualifying 17th at last year's F3000 race, while Tarso Marques qualified and finished 3rd in the 1995 F3000 race and did not start the 1994 F3000 race.

Prost have scored seven points at Catalunya, with Olivier Panis finishing second in 1997 and Jarno Trulli finishing 6th in 1999. The Prost AP04 was competitive in testing at Catalunya during the winter, with Jean Alesi posting a very competitive time of 1:18.973.

Alesi himself has competed in every Spanish Grand Prix at Catalunya and finished in the points on six occasions: second in 1996 and third in 1997 for Benetton, third in 1992 and 1993, fourth in 1991 and fifth in 1994 for Ferrari. Alesi's highest grid position was 2nd in 1995. Gaston Mazzacane's Formula One career has ended after 21 Grand Prix. Also spare a thought for Prost's talented test driver, Stephane Sarrazin, who was passed over for the number 23 Prost AP04.

Luciano Burti joins Prost-Acer from Jaguar-Cosworth and brings his testing skills to the Guyancourt-based team. Burti made these gracious comments: "It was the best option for my future in F1. I have been talking to Alain [Prost] since the Brazilian GP but I didn't imagine that I would drive for the team this season as I had a full year contract with Jaguar Racing. But it was definitely the right thing to do as I can now be in a team that give me great perspectives for the future."

Burti added: "I am and always will be grateful to Jaguar Racing as they gave me a chance to show my skills in F1 in Austria last year as well as this season. But as Niki Lauda recently said, the team has already two drivers for 2002 and, even though I was assured that I would race this entire season, I'd prefer to go to a team that I can develop in long term. It is an honour to have a driver such as Alain, a four times world champion, recognizing my job,. That's very encouraging and I'm looking forward to reward him with good results in the next races." Burti concluded, "Prost is now in a level of competition very close to Jaguar Racing, and in the last couple of races Jean Alesi was close to me and Eddie during qualifying and race."

My Predictions:

Unless it rains, surprise results are unusual at the Circuit de Catalunya, since teams test here so much. The Febrauary and March testing times at Catalunya may not reflect the true potential of the teams, in particular McLaren and Williams, as we don't completely know what the teams were actually testing. If it is dry, because of the aerodynamic demands of the Barcelona circuit, I'm going to pick McLaren, Ferrari and Williams as the top three teams, with Jordan, BAR and Sauber filling up the top half of the grid.

Starting grid:

  1. Michael Schumacher
  2. Mika Hakkinen
  3. David Coulthard
  4. Rubens Barrichello
  5. Ralf Schumacher
  6. Juan Pablo Montoya
  7. Heinz-Harald Frentzen
  8. Jarno Trulli
  9. Jacques Villeneuve
  10. Olivier Panis
  11. Nick Heidfeld
  12. Kimi Raikkonen

The Spanish Grand Prix Preview in a Nutshell:

  • The Spanish Grand Prix is won or lost by tyre and pit-stop strategy. On Sunday, the result could hinge on who has the best tyres at the end of the 65 laps.

  • Who will have the best traction-control system?

  • Can Ferrari regain some momentum and reliability? Can Michael Schumacher hold onto the championship lead?

  • Can McLaren pull off a 4th one-two finish? In the dry, this could be Mika Hakkinen's best opportunity for his first Grand Prix victory of the season. 2nd place would be enough for David Coulthard to take the lead in the drivers' championship.

  • The Best of the Rest: Williams has jumped ahead of Sauber, Jordan and BAR. Is this the shape of things to come in 2001?

  • Always in the points at Catalunya: Michael Schumacher, Ferrari and Williams.

  • Ewan Tytler© 2007
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