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Spanish Grand Prix 2018 Preview: Time to upgrade and up your game

Credit: Wolfgang Wilhelm/Mercedes-Benz

Lewis Hamilton currently leads the 2018 Formula 1 World Championship is we head into Europe for the first time as this weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix should give us a much clearer idea of what to expect this year.

It’s a proper race track and although it has its own unique characteristics with high degradation on not just the rear tyres but the front tyres as well and a relatively abrasive circuit which has been resurfaced over the winter which will give us some unknowns this weekend. Each sector can be split into 3 sections which require different parts of the car to work strongly.

The very short first sector requires a good top end speed, especially since it’s one of the longest runs from the start to turn one of the year for the race. Turn three will be even mightier this year and it could even be flat-out in qualifying this year as the aerodynamics of the cars improve more and more (even with the halo). You then have sector 2 which has medium-high speed corners were you really want a good front end to get the car turned in and to stay flat-out through turn 8 in qualifying trim and to try and lift off as little as possible in the races. They say that the quickest car in sector 3 is the quickest car at Monaco. You want a stable rear end so that you don’t spin up the tyres and slide the car too much. A good change of direction is needed and a car that can ride the high kerbs in the mickey-mouse chicane at the end. The combination of low to high speed turns of the Circuit de Catalunya is why the teams go testing there in the pre-season because you can really get a good idea of where you’re at.

Spain traditionally sees some massive upgrades from all of the teams including B-spec cars (cars that are almost completely different to what they were the last time you saw them). It makes the practice sessions on Friday even more interesting as we see if the field has closed up and who has made leaps up the pecking order. A lot of eyes will be on McLaren as they have already said that the car they bring to Spain is the car they expected to start the season with. That means they’re 4 races behind, or nearly 2 months. Even a team like McLaren won’t catch that up this season. A brand new front wing is rumoured to be the biggest thing that we will notice from the human eye on the car but they really need to make the car work and find some speed.

It’s qualifying trim were the MCL33 is struggling. The race pace is okay but for some reason, it’s down in the speed traps compared to the Red Bull (which has the same Renault engine) and the chassis is not as good as they made out when they had the Honda engine. The Honda engine is the smallest on the grid and apparently the lightest as well. Perhaps this made McLaren think that their chassis was really good when the engine actually helped it in the corners. A longshot I know but they can only blame the aerodynamics of the car now for a lack of performance and they MUST beat Renault and start to get on the tails of the top 3 teams very soon or else patience will wear thin and changes at the top will be made. Fernando Alonso won’t be too patient as well having suffered 3 seasons with the Honda engine and not having an F1 win since Spain in 2013. His Toyota commitments in the WEC might be the only thing keeping him happy, especially after the win last weekend in Spa. It’s a massively important race for McLaren and their fans.

At the front it has been very close and it’s been quiet in terms of what to expect from Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull in terms of upgrades. I don’t see one of them pulling away and if anything, it should get closer and closer as the season goes on. One thing we will see as a new tyre tread not only for this race but Paul Ricard and Silverstone as well after Mercedes “highlighted” to Pirelli that there is a problem with lots of load on the tyres and overheating issues. Less tread means less movement in the rubber, thus less overheating. In 2013, Mercedes had huge tyre degradation and this story about special tyres for the three races mentioned above was revealed a month ago so perhaps they were worried that they would have similar problems this year.

Max Verstappen took his maiden win at Catalunya in 2016, he’ll hope to hit back with a strong result this round. (Credit: Mark Thompson/Getty/Red Bull Content Pool)

It doesn’t seem to be the case though as Bottas was able to close Vettel down in Bahrain and more evidently in China, he was able to stay with Vettel to get a big enough undercut. He didn’t exactly drop “off the cliff” as they say. Mercedes “highlighting” an issue, though must be to get a performance advantage because that’s what they do. While Pirelli being Pirelli meant that they were going to listen because if tyres failed, then Mercedes would tell the media that they told Pirelli that there might be an issue, resulting in further bad press for the tyre company. The Italian manufacturer can’t afford to take risks as they already don’t have the trust of F1 fans and are unlikely to ever truly make the fans happy. I do feel sorry for them though and as I said before the season, because whatever they do they can’t win.

Three of the last four races in Spain have been excellent in my opinion, with the last 2 being classics. You may not think that now but when we look back at them, I think you’ll change your opinion as people normally do as time passes. 2014 saw a mini Bahrain-esque fight between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg as Hamilton held off a charging Rosberg in a very tense race for both sets of fans as they pushed the limits again and were desperate to win. 2016 saw the infamous clash at turn 4 as Rosberg was in the wrong engine mode and Hamilton tried to go for a gap that was closing and he went onto the grass and took himself and his teammate out. Dramatic stuff and there was more drama as Max Verstappen held off Kimi Raikkonen to become the youngest ever F1 winner in his first ever race for Red Bull. An unforgettable day.

Last year was a pure motorsport fight for victory. Hamilton and Vettel were in their own league as they traded lap times and they pushed every single centimetre of the 307KM race that they could. No mistakes were made which I always find staggering when they’re pushing so hard, and an alternative strategy from Mercedes to go on the opposite tyre compound to what Vettel did, won them the race. Some help from the VSC did make things easier but we saw a fantastic duel as they touched wheels when Vettel came out of the pitlane with Hamilton later chasing the German down through lapped traffic. He swooped around the outside to take a hard-fought victory. For me, that was the race of the year as we had two of the best drivers of this generation go toe to toe in a heavyweight fight. I loved every second of it.

Fernando Alonso enters his seventeenth Spanish GP off the back of his maiden FIA WEC victory. (Credit: Steven Tee/McLaren)

People say that it’s a boring track that creates boring races yet for some reason, something always happens in Spain. If the high-speed corners and slow final sector should mean a procession but the long home straight with DRS means that you can overtake. The high tyre degradation does help as we usually see a 2 stop race which allows for different strategy plays from the teams. As long as we get something similar to the races from the last couple of years then I should be writing positively about F1 again.

A bit of housekeeping. I hardly mentioned Charles Leclerc’s wonderful performance in Baku but I will now. He looked on it all weekend and he says his driving style prior to the Azerbaijan GP wasn’t working but it’s good to see that he can adapt his technique and can now hopefully get the most out of the car. He drove Spain and Monaco in Formula 2 last year and he was excellent as he was all season long so I hope he can prove that Baku wasn’t an anomaly and can score points again. We mustn’t forget that his teammate Marcus Ericsson had a similarly brilliant performance in Bahrain so it’s about repeating and holding good form to show your consistency.

Leclerc may shine on Saturday with rain forecast in the late afternoon. The last wet qualifying session was Italy last year in September so it’s about time we had one and someone can shine. We also haven’t had a chance to see what the cars are like in the wet with the halo but more importantly are Ferrari as weak as they were last year in the rain. I know it’s not often we get a wet race or qualifying but you don’t want to be slow in any conditions. We’ll see, it probably won’t rain at all now!

Off the track, the big story is that it was confirmed last week that regulations to help overtaking will be pushed through to happen in 2019. It’s mainly the front wings that will see the most dramatic change. These are the confirmed changes:

– The front wing starts at 1225mm ahead of the front wheel center line instead of 1200mm, therefore longer

– The front wing is located between 75 and 300mm above the reference plane (currently between 75 and 275mm)

– The total width of the front wing increases by 100mm (currently 1800mm)

– The front wing is limited to 5 elements which cannot be placed on top of each other

– No slots or winglets in/at the endplates allowed

– Blown front axles are banned

– No winglets or turning vanes to be placed at the front brake ducts

– The rear wing can be 20mm higher and 100mm wider

– No bodywork between 175 and 450mm above the reference plane in the area around the rear wheels and behind

Ferrari worked together with Mercedes on the proposed 2019 rule changes. (Credit: Ferrari S.p.A.)

Sources say that Ferrari voted in favour of the 2019 regulation changes, along with Mercedes and other four teams, whereas Red Bull, Renault, McLaren and Toro Rosso voted against them. Are Ferrari and Mercedes working together in exchange for more stability on the power unit side for 2021?

But back to the on track action which I hope is as good as the season has been so far. I’d love to see Red Bull come back after having 2 results from the first 4 races with zero points. If any title challenge is to come their way they need to start winning on merit now.

Prior to last year the Spanish GP had 10 different winners from the last 10 races. Daniel Ricciardo win to make it 11 from 12? 🙂

For more of Nigel Chiu’s opinion on F1 look back on his latest articles

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