The three week-long wait is over. The Mugello test is done and dusted, and we’re back to racing with the European leg of the 2012 season getting underway this weekend at Catalunya, Spain, the 22nd running of the Spanish Grand Prix at the venue. As is the character of most European race tracks, the circuit de Catalunya has a nice free-flowing layout with plenty of high-speed sequences, and my favourite bit – Corners with Names! The elevation changes on this track are subtle, but at crucial places on the track, and enough to test a car’s balance under braking as well as a driver’s commitment and skill. The abundance of fast corners leading into faster corners means aerodynamics matter more than they have so far this season, and tyre loading will show its effects towards the later stages of the stint. Let’s now take a little tour of the circuit.
Sector 1: Fortune favours the brave, or does it?!
The first sector comprises of a long start-finish straight, a daunting right left chicane at turns – 1,2 “Elf” and “Renault”, followed by a never-ending right-hand turn-3, with the sector marker falling in the braking zone for turn-4. The DRS zone is expected to lie along the start-finish straight. Elf also makes for an excellent vantage point for spectators, and its where the “action” is, on the track.
The chicane at Elf has traditionally been a natural overtaking point, with cars braking from over 300 kph to just around 120 kph. First corner incidents are very common, and one can reap huge rewards for bravery on the brakes coupled with a keen sense of positioning. However due to exactly this, the brakes take a lot of pounding at Elf. We may very well see a couple of brake failures towards the closing stages of the race. Tailgating is a very real possibility throughout.
For a quick lap time, it is important to get the braking just right. Too quick into turn 1, means you’ll be slow getting on the power for the gradually climbing long right curve at turn-3, whereas braking too early will compromise the momentum anyway. Getting a good exit out of the chicane is vital to build up speed along the curve at turn 3. The track here looks invitingly wide, but in reality there is a very narrow optimal racing line along the circumference of the curve. The drivers endure sideways force of around 3.8G here which means, this is where a car’s aero package and the left rear tyre loading will get severely tested.
Sector 2: Over the hills and over the vales.
Sector 1 ends in the braking zone for the right handed 180 degree corner at turn-4, at the top of the hill. The road drops away as we enter the braking zone for the left handed hairpin turn-5. Mechanical grip is important as the car is constantly trying to slip away further into the corner.
The elevation drops further as the cars shoot through the left handed kink at turn-6, bottoming out just as they brake for the 90 degree entry into the turn 7-8 chicane, made up of “TV3″ and “Placo-Saint Gobain”. Getting the car slowed down precisely can be tricky here as the cars need to go from 6th gear to 3rd gear while braking in a downhill zone.
This is the lowest point of the first valley. Engine power and rear-end grip will play an important part in getting a quick exit through turn-8 as the cars climb again through the right handed turn-9 “Campsa”. The apex here is almost at the peak, and the road goes downhill again into sector -3. This is another fast corner on the track, taken in 5th gear at about 230kph.
Sector 3: So that’s how you ride a sled!
The cars are at their fastest in sector 3 when they just enter the sector, flying in 7th gear. The twisting, winding complex that starts at turn-10 can really test the patience of mere mortals. The elevation drops a little more subtly through the left at turn-10 “La Caixia”, and is more or less settled through to the end.
But that’s the least of the drivers’ worries. The run through “Sabadell” turn-12 to “Europcar” turn-13 is a tight-rope walk at best, going up and down the gears from 2nd through 4th and back into 3rd for the new complex starting at “Europcar”. You’re skidding along or trying to balance power and braking to minimize slip for so much of the time here, that it must feel like riding a snow-sled at times!
The end of the lap is a revised complex added in 2008. Previously, the track used to be a series of right handed turns after turn-10. The drivers could put their foot down, tilt the steering right and cruise to the finish line. Not any more. Now, the exit of the 180 degree turn-12 leads into a sharp right at turn-13, and a dead slow chicane – “Chicane Racc”. It is vital to get a good exit through the chicane as that puts us on to the run through the last corner “New Holland”. Getting a good slingshot out of here can make or break a lap time, and a position defense. Along with Elf, this is the only practical overtaking opportunity on the track.
The Circuit de Catalunya has been host to many memorable races over the years. The duel between Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell in the first race here in 1991 which saw them race side by side down the entire length of the start-finish straight, Micahel Schumacher’s first win for Ferrari in 1996, and Mika Hakkinen‘s heartbreaking last lap retirement in the 2001 race are a few of the stand-out moments.
This year’s race will be run for 66 laps along this 4.65 km long circuit. Catalunya is a fairly heavily used race track, so there will be an air of familiarity for the teams and drivers. However, it will be the first race where many of the teams up and down the grid will be bringing some notable updates. Ferrari will field the most changed car with a revamped back end and possibly a changed front end as well to accommodate a Mercedes-style double DRS. Lotus are also rumoured to be trying out a similar approach. Red Bull have been getting back up to pace, and with updates coming in more frequently, will surely be challenging more often for top honours.
Of the midfield, Sauber will look to continue their good form. Their rear-end design has inspired the changes to Ferrari’s car, which means they have been doing some things right. Force India need to recuperate from on-and-off track events and get their act together before the season slips too far out of hand. They still haven’t fulfilled their pre-season testing promise. Further down, team Caterham will also be looking to give Toro Rosso a good run for their money after having snuck into Q2 in the last race.
All in all, expect a race of attrition. Qualifying speed will come with aerodynamic efficiency, but the race will be won by a car-driver combine that manages the brakes and tyres better than anyone else. My money is on Jenson Button this weekend, due to these very reasons. It’s going to be a fascinating race.