x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Vroom for improvement

Red Bull seem to have the edge on speed at a track where passing opportunities are few and far between, says Johnny Herbert.

Fernando Alonso with members of the Ferrari team during a testing session in Spain.
Fernando Alonso with members of the Ferrari team during a testing session in Spain.

When the action starts today with practice in Barcelona it will have been almost three weeks since the last round of the championship in China. While it is a bit longer than the usual two-week period between races it will not be too much of a change for the drivers. They will still be doing their usual fitness regimes, but what the extra time will allow them to do is go to the factory and see the guys who work there. They do not come to the races.

There will be a number of technical updates to the cars arriving for Spain and you can be pretty sure that 99.9 per cent of them will have new developments for Sunday's race. It is important for the drivers to not only understand what the new parts are, but also what they are going to do to improve the car and how they are going to make it quicker. That is why the drivers will have spent time at the factories during this quiet period between races.

For many people this is traditionally the time when the season really comes alive and I agree with that view. All the cars will be very different from what was seen in the opening four long haul races, and all the teams will have planned improvements which they will hope will add to their speed. I know Lotus are planning to bring a package to Barcelona which they are confident is going to give them a big improvement.

The only problem in Formula One is that it never stands still and while you may come up with a big step forward in performance, the other teams will be doing exactly the same, and it is going to be a case of who has done the best job and achieved the most progress when the cars take to the track for practice. Barcelona is not known for producing great racing, with the last eight races being won by the driver who took pole position.

If you look at why that is the case it is difficult to look beyond the layout of the track, which is fast and flowing. The problem is that it is very hard to get close enough to pass on the sections of the track where there are the opportunities to overtake. There is a tight right-hander at turn three after a short straight, but before that is a long flowing right- hander, which lasts for around 500 yards, and it is virtually impossible to follow another car through there and stay close enough out of the bend to try to out-brake them at the next turn.

Passing is possible at the end of the back straight and they have made overtaking more likely on the main straight by making the exit slower with the introduction of a chicane, but it is still very tough to get by and tends to make for a processional affair. So what we can expect this weekend? Barcelona normally favours the best overall package of raw speed and aerodynamics and that, on paper, has to be Red Bull-Renault who on pure pace are the fastest car out there so I would expect to see Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber up at the top of the timesheets.

I would expect McLaren-Mercedes to be right up there as well as I do not think they are that far behind Red Bull. Jenson Button is leading the championship and though both his wins have come in mixed conditions I do think he is a genuine contender to retain his world title. He won both those races on merit rather than them being handed to him and even though he has not been the fastest driver in the first four rounds, the wins in Australia and China will have increased his confidence and I think he is right up there in contention.

One driver who needs to have a good weekend is Felipe Massa, who will be looking for a strong result against his teammate Fernando Alonso. Felipe struggled in China and was well beaten by Fernando. Felipe's usually response to things like that is to come back strongly and that is something he is going have to try to do again. I do not think he is a million miles away from Fernando; there is just something in the car's handling or set-up that suits his teammate better.

He has been really good in the past at setting up a car to suit him and that is something, whether it is on track or in a simulator, that he just needs to get right to give himself a chance to battle with Fernando. Johnny Herbert is a former Formula One driver who competed in 161 races, winning three times. sports@thenational.ae