Rolling into Montmeló it seems like we only left yesterday...
We’re back at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya – but really it feels like we never left. The calendar says its two months since we packed down here at the end of winter testing though since then, the start of the season has been a blur.
If F1 could be said to have a home circuit, then this is it: for the past decade, with testing strictly limited, this has been the sport’s test track of choice. It’s in the right place for logistics and weather but most importantly, it’s the right circuit.
It’s difficult to imagine a layout that would provide a better all-round test of a Formula One car: there’s a decent length of straight; there are a couple of properly quick long corners; there’s a section of mid-speed corners; and the lap closes with some intricate low-speed chicanery. The track demands a good change of direction; the car has to ride a few kerbs; there’s some heavy stops; traction is important but so too is turn-in. It’s a maximum downforce circuit where the more you’ve got, the fastest the car goes – but not to the extent the car can’t deliver its full potential, as can be the case at low-speed circuits. Basically, if it goes well in Barcelona, it’s going to go well pretty much everywhere.
While this is a definite bonus for testing, it hasn’t always been quite so useful for racing. One criticism that used to be levelled at the circuit was that it produced processional grands prix. Familiarity didn’t breed contempt but it did induce comfort: teams knew the track so well the setup largely took care of itself, leading to a grid that would often line-up two by two in team order, without the usual wildcards of a team getting its setup wrong. The same applied to drivers who could lay down a near-perfect lap without needing the usual level of focus. David Coulthard managed to rack-up an impressive 33,000km of testing on this circuit – but even young whippersnappers like Daniel Ricciardo have gone through the 10,000km milestone.
While nothing particularly has changed, this hasn’t been a problem in recent years. We’ve witnessed some excellent races on the Circuit de Catalunya. As is often the case, the circuit simply comes into the right window for the performance of the cars: the corner that was easy-flat in fourth gear becomes fifth with a feather; the solid two-stop race becomes borderline three etc.
On that last point, this year there is something of a gamechanger in play. Barcelona has always been one of the sternest challenges for tyres. It’s a high-energy circuit with big lateral loads – but also very abrasive tarmac. Bluntly, it was a tyre-killer. Even with Pirelli bringing their hardest compounds we’ve been greeted with the unusual sight of the successful four-stop race strategy in recent times.
That won’t be the case this year. While the loads haven’t changed, the tarmac has. The circuit has a completely new surface for this year and it’s very, very smooth. Everyone got a decent read on the new asphalt during the two weeks of winter testing – but it’s worth remembering track temperature plays a huge role in tyre performance, and back in February and early March when we were last here there was snow on the ground. It’s quite a bit warmer now!
In many ways, this weekend dictates the shape of the season to come. Trying to judge the relative performance of the teams is difficult during testing, and only a little easier during the first sequence of flyaways. It’s not the distance as much as the circumstances: teams are still trying to find their best setup options, and they’re doing it on decidedly atypical circuits: Albert Park and Baku have very low grip; Bahrain is very hot; nowhere has straights like the ones in China, etc. It’s different this weekend: unless it rains (and it might) you’ll get to see the cars delivering their true performance with no ifs or buts.
The other side of that equation is that this tends to be the race for a big upgrade. The relevance of that has been diluted by the fact most teams are throwing new parts on the car at every race – but Spain tends to be where there’s a big push. Happily, we have our main sequence facilities on hand to help with that transition, this being the first race of the year with our trucks, treehouses and all the associated workshop kit that those bring.
It also means we are reunited with the Energy Station for the first time in six months. That’s not so much of a big deal for the crew in the garage but it makes a massive impact on other parts of the team. However good the flyaway facilities are, there’s only so much you can do from a team building or tent. With the Energy Station back, complete with its kitchens, bars, offices and dining rooms, the team gets to properly perform off-track, doing everything from media parties to silver service dining for VIPs, to hosting events for sponsors. We’re suddenly a much bigger, busier, noisier organisation in Spain.
We’ve got happy memories of this track, with three victories for three different drivers. Mark won in 2010, Seb in 2011 and Max had a sensational debut for the team in 2016. It’s not often you have a driver win a race without really knowing how to get anything like the maximum performance out of the car – but that was basically Max’s experience a couple of years ago – not that he showed the slightest hesitation behind the wheel. We’ve had four other podiums here, two of which are Daniel’s, including his first in F1 (or, at least, the first he was allowed to keep).
That alone would be worth celebrating, and Barcelona is a truly magnificent place for a celebration, as many of the fans who flock to the race can attest. Sadly, we can’t speak of it from personal experience. Like all the teams, we tend to stay up in the hills, in the towns that surround the circuit. All the better for the early mornings and late evenings in the garage.