It seems a little early to begin talking about the middle of the season – but whenever the first tranche of flyaway races are completed and F1 returns to Europe, that’s generally the sensation: the beginning has finished; we’re into the long middle now.
The European part of the season is different to the flyaway sections that bookend it. The crowds are bigger, the paddocks busier and, of course, the teams have their motorhomes, transporters and treehouses. After a couple of months in tents and temporary structures, F1 gets to flex its hospitality and logistics muscles. While things run smoothly at the flyaways, there’s always greater possibilities with the heavy loadout for a European race. That might mean something as simple as our hospitality crew being able to make their own ice-cream – or it could be something rather more complex like better capacity to machine components in a truck-mounted workshop.
For most people in the race team, this will be their second trip to Barcelona this year – though conditions are a little different in mid-May for the Spanish Grand Prix to the cold, occasionally foggy, circuit we visited for winter testing at the end of February. We could – and have – sought-out warmer testing venues but F1 likes Barcelona. The facilities are good, the logistics work out well, and the circuit provides everything a team needs to thoroughly examine the new and unfamiliar car they’ve recently bolted together for the first time.
The little-bit-of-everything circuit layout is important: the teams want to test everything the car will face and its more convenient to do that in one location rather than moving around to three or four different circuits. The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya ticks all the boxes: it has a long straight, it has fast, medium and slow speed corners, it has long corners and short corners. It has fast changes of direction and kerbs. The brakes get a thorough workout, and the tyres face high degradation. Resurfacing the circuit before last year’s race means that the tarmac isn’t quite the cheese-grater it used to be – but it’s still at the top end of the scale for abrasiveness and lateral energy. The big difference between testing and the grand prix is that during the winter you can hear those tyres squealing; for the race it’s drowned out by the noise of the crowd.
The corollary to this is that, if your car goes well at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, chances are it’s going to run well everywhere. While no-one discounts the first four races, relative performance this weekend is likely to be the best indicator of position in F1’s pecking order.
We’ve had some great days in Spain, the highlights of which are the three victories. Mark Webber won in 2010, at the race which probably confirmed the RB6 was very much the car to beat. While we’d had an earlier win in Malaysia, the sight of Mark taking pole position with the DRS open through the fast final corner confirmed the belief that the RB6 had downforce to spare.
Mark made it two poles in two years with another in 2011 – but it was Sebastian Vettel who took his fourth win of the season a day later. After that, we didn’t have particularly good luck in Spain until the two Mercedes contrived to take each other out in 2016, leaving the way clear for Max Verstappen to open his Red Bull Racing account with victory on debut. Having been in the team for less than a week, Max didn’t know what all the buttons on the steering wheel did – but he knew enough to take the opportunity that presented itself.
There have been other highlights in Spain: we’ve had five other podium finishes – all thirds, curiously never second – including in 2014 Daniel Ricciardo’s first visit to the rostrum (or at least, the first one from which he got to keep the trophy). That race also saw Seb take fastest lap, and last year Daniel did the same. His 1:18.441 means we currently hold the lap record – though given the pace at which F1 moves on, that may well fall on Sunday.