A rare error, but the answer is blowin’ in the wind
Bright sun, strong wind. A classic combination for Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, a place where everyone has recently completed multiple hundreds of miles. But there’s something unfamiliar on this Friday morning with the body language of most of the cars, an over-eagerness to respond to the steering on the slower corners that’s taking the drivers by surprise in their early, exploratory laps.
Watch as Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen attack Turns One-Two for the first time and there it is: the nose turns instantly, almost like there is a quicker steering rack, too quickly for the rear of the car, which shows its disapproval with a menacing little wiggle. Fernando Alonso’s McLaren looks much the same and only the cars that are struggling with understeer at this stage – the Mercs, Toro Rossos, Renaults – don’t display some variation on this theme.
It’s all happening at low speeds and low grip levels and maybe some of it is explainable by the gusty side winds, but it’s more than just that; there’s something within the cars, some ghost in the machine. Post-session discussion will reveal the answer: the debut of the thinner-gauge tyres, a new development this year to contain blistering of the outer shoulders on the long, fast-corner tracks. The drivers’ muscle memory is of tyres with more rubber, more bend and delay, and it’s a subconscious thing. So that automatic meshing of driver input and car response has suddenly been jarred.
It smooths out as the session progresses but never entirely goes away and then, 45 minutes in, Ricciardo approaches Turn Four, turns, the car points, loads up and the rear twitches out of line. He gets on the opposite lock almost instantly but it takes up more width of track than he has available and into the gravel he goes, coming to rest with soft contact against the tyre wall. A rarity, but for a very specific reason.