x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Spanish Grand Prix is a true test of time

The race in Barcelona has, for nine of the past 11 years, been an indicator as to which team will win the Formula One Constructor's Cup.

Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso says his team have had a number of complications this season.
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso says his team have had a number of complications this season.

Formula One is so often a victim to hyperbole that few eyes will blink at the billing of this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix as the most important race of the season.

For nine of the past 11 years, whichever team is atop the podium on the Sunday has gone on to win the Constructors' Championship. For the next three days, the unblinking eyes will be fixed on Barcelona's Circuit de Catalunya as the lay of the land is analysed.

Yet arguably this year, the season's most important race is not about to start because it has been going on for the past three weeks.

Since the chequered flag fell in Bahrain last month and the teams headed quickly for an airplane bound for base, an exorbitant development race has been underway. Following a week of work at their factories, many of the F1 fraternity headed for Italy where the sport's first in-season test for four years took place at Mugello.

Romain Grosjean, the Lotus driver, posted the fastest lap time of the week, but few analysts are claiming to be any more clued-up as to where each team stands in terms of performance.

The first four races of this enthralling F1 season has thrown up four different race winners from four different teams; eight different drivers on the podium from six different marques. Eighteen drivers have scored points.

When Sebastian Vettel arrived in Spain last season he led the world championship by 34 points; this week, while he arrives leading once more, 31 points cover the top nine drivers. The German, however, feels it is not clear cut enough to start declaring that whoever wins this weekend has made the biggest step and will go on to secure the championship.

"As a rule of thumb, this circuit probably does give you an idea [where everybody stands] because simply you have all the corners you find somewhere else, you have tight chicanes like in the last sector, hard braking for the hairpin, fast corners like in the first sector," said Vettel, who won in Bahrain following a close-fought battle with Lotus's Kimi Raikkonen.

He added: "But it doesn't mean if you are competitive here you are competitive everywhere. Equally, if you are not competitive here it doesn't mean you will never be competitive."

After two winter testing sessions in Barcelona, the teams are arguably more familiar with the Montmelo circuit than any other track on the calendar. It could be perceived then that drivers require less time to get to grips with the track and the teams less time to sort out car set-up. Such presumptions would be wrong, Vettel feels.

"We have a lot of data to compare against, to see if we did a step forward compared to the winter and how big the step was," the two-time world champion said. "But it's difficult to compare black and white."

It is not only Vettel who knows that with the field so closely packed, three fruitful weeks may well have turned also-rans into championship challengers. Ferrari were expected to make the biggest surge after a disappointing start to the new season, but Fernando Alonso spoke of the complications his team have faced.

"We didn't have any big improvements in the car, so what we tested were different set-ups and things we missed from winter testing," said Alonso. "It's been quite difficult for us with a lot of problems on the car and not many laps. The Mugello test was to complete what we had left from winter, but in terms of improvements, we had minimum changes on the car."

Jenson Button, the 2009 world champion, said that in 12 previous seasons in F1, he has never been involved in a championship fight as tight as the one he finds himself competing in. After winning the opening race of the season in Australia, the McLaren-Mercedes driver finished 14th in Malaysia and 2nd in China. In Bahrain he finished 18th. He now sits fourth in the driver standings.

"It is very difficult to understand at the moment who is quick," Button said. "You would say at Melbourne and China it was us and Mercedes and at the last race it was Lotus and Red Bull. I have never been in a situation where there are so many teams fighting for victories at different circuits. We say that you are only as good as your last race and you would say now that the Lotus and the Red Bull are the cars to beat."

Yet if you consider the development race has been ongoing for the past three weeks, a lot could be about to change - even rain is being forecast. Essentially, this weekend promises unpredictability, which can prove only positive for a sport built on drama and excitement. And at times hyperbole.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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