Venue: Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona
Circuit Length: 4.655 km
Lap Record: 1:21.670 = 205.191 km/h • Kimi Raïkkönen (Ferrari), 2008
“It’s a circuit where you have to get everything exactly right to be at the top,” says lap record-holder Raïkkönen. Familiar from endless testing, it starts with a quick sector from Turns 1-4; there’s a decent uphill challenge through Turns 7 and 8, with Turn 10 the slowest of all; and what Mark Webber calls “a weird little right-hander, downhill, blind” at Turn 13 is a favourite. Pirelli have announced two new developments for Barcelona. One is a revision of their P Zero Orange tyres: “This latest version of the hard compound is much closer to the 2012 tyre, with the aim of giving the teams more opportunity to run a wider range of strategies in combination with the other compounds, which remain unchanged,” says Pirelli’s Paul Hembery. In addition all teams will enjoy an extra set of prototype hard tyres, unmarked, to encourage more running in Friday’s opening free practice.
It’s not so much what’s unusual as what’s absolutely usual that makes Barcelona an important staging-post. It’s what Marussia have called “a barometer track” – in other words, if you get it right at the Circuit de Catalunya you should be well placed to handle anything the rest of the season can throw at you. The lay-out contains a bit of everything, though it is different in one sense: the 730-metre run from the start line to Turn 1 is the longest on the calendar.
As the only two-time winner of 2013 and the championship leader Sebastian Vettel is clearly the man in the hot seat right now. The German rates his 2011 Barcelona victory in a KERS-less Red Bull, under mounting pressure from Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren Mercedes, as one of his best moments in F1.
Right up there with him is Raïkkönen, second in the current standings but already concerned about the 10-point margin Vettel enjoys. “It’s going to be hard to catch Sebastian if he keeps taking good results so we need to start taking more points from him,” says the Finn, who has won here twice, in 2005 for McLaren and 2008 for Ferrari. “To catch the leaders, we have to work twice as hard as they are,” he adds. “It’s no secret that we want more speed from the car in qualifying; it’s so tight up there at the front and we really need to be on the first two rows to fight for victories every time.”
Also attracting attention is Force India’s Paul di Resta. The 27-year-old Scot has still not been on a Grand Prix podium but fourth in Bahrain last time out was a top-notch effort. “We took a very sensible approach to the winter and focused on understanding the key areas that drive performance, which seems to have paid off,” says Di Resta, who is having his best start in eighth position overall on 20 points. “To be ahead of McLaren after four races is a credit to the team and a nice feeling. Of course we want to be on the podium and it was very close in Bahrain, but I’m sure it will come soon enough.”
There’s a keen sense of anticipation about McLaren Mercedes and the start to the European season, traditionally the time for major new upgrades to the machinery. They languish in sixth place, already 86 points adrift of Red Bull, but star driver Jenson Button isn’t expecting Barcelona miracles. “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. That’s life in modern Formula 1,” says the sport’s most experienced current racer ahead of his 233rd start. “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.”
Sauber are also among the early-season strugglers. Eighth and 10th for Nico Hülkenberg are all the Ferrari-powered Swiss outfit has achieved so far, while rookie Esteban Gutiérrez continues to struggle with F1 racing. Sauber will bring a new rear wing to try out, and at least the young Mexican will be familiar with his surroundings: “The first time I raced in Barcelona was in 2008. I know the track and during the winter tests I was also able to experience driving a Formula One car there. As the first of a series of European races, I think it is going to be an exciting event and I’m looking forward to that,” he says.
After an underwhelming start to his season Nico Rosberg finds himself 36 points behind Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton, a situation that could strain their long-standing friendship if the German allows it to continue. “We know that the car went very well at the Circuit de Catalunya in pre-season testing so I am hopeful that we can have a strong weekend,” he insists. “We will have to wait and see how our pace compares however. I’ve been in the factory for a couple of days this week, on the simulator and meeting with the team, and everyone has been working hard to make progress on our race day performance.”
Pole Position: Pastor Maldonado (Williams Renault), 1:22.285 = 203.658 km/h
1st: Pastor Maldonado (Williams Renault), 1:39.09.145
2nd: Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), gap 3.195s
3rd: Kimi Raïkkönen (Lotus Renault,) gap 3.884s
Fastest Lap: Romain Grosjean (Lotus Renault), 1:26.250 = 194.295 km/h on lap 53
Dan Ricciardo qualified 15th last year and moved up two places to 13th at the end; Mark Webber has raced 11 times in Barcelona in F1, though his record started badly when the Minardis had to be withdrawn in 2002 because of rear wing failures. But he qualified on pole in 2010 for Red Bull and went on to win in fine style. He was also on pole in 2011 and on the front row in a Williams back in 2005.