2019 Spanish F1 Grand Prix previewby Rob Ladbrook on 10th May 2019
Our preview of the Spanish Formula 1 Grand Prix, where teams are expecting to bring their first major upgrades of the season
Images: Motorsport Images
Formula 1’s return to Europe signals a key stage in the grand prix season, and this weekend’s race in Spain is one of the most important in the entire calendar, often setting the tone for the remainder of the year.
While Mercedes has dominated the opening four races in terms of results, Ferrari and Red Bull haven’t been too far behind on pace terms, and the order could well be jumbled by the flood of upgrades that Spain allows. The difficulty of producing and shipping upgrades to the different corners of the globe means things often remain static in performance terms before the Spanish Grand Prix. But when the cars rolled out for practice at the Circuit de Catalunya on Friday, there were sweeping changes up and down the grid, including many that weren't obvious.
The theory goes that if you have a car that goes well in Barcelona, then you’re most likely to have a car that goes well for the remainder of the season.
Catalunya has long straights that test power and punish drag; fast, medium and slow-speed corners; and both long and short corners and a few big stops thrown in, which all combine to test virtually every element of a grand prix car’s design and engineering. Plus, it’s the track F1 teams know inside-out, having already completed eight days of running around it.
As well as the flurry of tweaks to wings, sidepods, engine covers and bargeboards, Ferrari and Renault have introduced engine upgrades. While we won't truly know the effect that these will have on the running order until the end of the race, we do know which areas each squad will be keen to improve.
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Ever the master of playing things down, Toto Wolff says he’s “quite sceptical” heading into the fifth round of the world championship, despite returning to Catalunya off the back of four-straight 1-2 finishes.
“Nobody would have predicted four Mercedes 1-2s to start the year,” he says, and he’s largely right. All indications from pre-season testing suggested Ferrari had the faster car. In truth, it probably still does, but it just doesn’t work out of the box as well as the Mercedes, which seems strong in all areas, specifically reliability.
“Our points tally doesn’t reflect the competitive picture,” adds Wolff. “The truth is the results are too flattering. We had the fastest car in Australia and China, but we won in Bahrain thanks to our reliability and, while our race pace looked good in Azerbaijan, we couldn’t build a gap over our rivals.
“We’re not expecting an easy weekend in Spain. Our opponents were blisteringly quick at Catalunya in testing, so the Spanish GP will be anything but easy for us. Despite the good start, we remain sceptical of our own performance and know there are a number of areas in which we can improve. Everything is still firmly up for grabs and we will be keeping our foot firmly to the floor.”
With little separating five-time world champion Lewis Hamilton and the rejuvenated Valtteri Bottas – the championship leader, let’s not forget – Mercedes may have a fight on its hands to manage the two drivers. And let’s not forget Catalunya is where things imploded during a similar competitive situation back in 2016…
Safe to say the season hasn’t gone to plan so far, and Sebastian Vettel sheds some light on the reason why: “We need stronger pace,” he says. “It seems for us it’s more of a conscious effort to get the car in the right window, whereas maybe for them [Mercedes] it seems to click a bit easier.
“At a place like Baku, you need confidence in the car, and I’m not there yet. I can feel I’m not driving at my best because the car simply doesn’t respond in the way I like. And then I think it’s unnatural.”
The issue for the Scuderia seems to lie in the balance and tyre usage of the SF90. Over a single lap, it’s been properly rapid, but in race situations Ferrari has struggled to keep the car in its peak performance window. The car sprouted tweaked winglets, barge boards and turning vanes for Baku and Ferrari has also rushed its planned engine upgrade forward to make its debut in Spain.
Team boss Mattia Binotto says: “We will have a new power unit ahead of schedule, as the second spec was originally due for Canada. Shell has developed a new formulation of race lubricant that will also be introduced with the new power unit, delivering increased performance. It’s only down to a big team effort with everyone pushing to make up ground.”
If pre-season testing is anything to go by, Ferrari should have a slight edge on Mercedes at Catalunya… but haven’t we been saying that since February?
Average qualifying time over the first four races
“Fairly subtle, just an evolution…” is how Red Bull boss Christian Horner previews his team’s planned Catalunya upgrade package. “It will be just the usually front and rear wing upgrades. It’s evolution rather than revolution.”
The Milton Keynes team has made a habit of being a pain for both Mercedes and Ferrari, especially in Spain. Since the dawn of the turbo-hybrid era, Red Bull is the only team to beat Mercedes in Catalunya – Max Verstappen’s win in 2016 when both Mercedes came a cropper on the opening lap. You have to go back to 2013 to find Ferrari’s last win in Catalunya.
Honda’s ‘spec 2’ engine upgrade was brought forward to Baku, and showed promise, with Red Bull’s race pace comparing favourably with that of both Mercedes and Ferrari. Bahrain was a dip for the squad, but it has since then identified a setup glitch and cured the issue.
“I think we’ve closed the gap since the start of the year,” adds Horner. “Bahrain exposed some things we needed to work on, and we’ve improved since then. We’re looking forward to returning to Europe now and we have a few circuits coming up that should really suit us.”
McLaren’s most notable upgrade in Spain will likely be to its technical staff as Andreas Seidl finally joins in the role as managing director. Seidl moves to Woking off the back of running Porsche’s domination of the FIA World Endurance Championship in recent years. But he has a task on his hands to conjure similar results here.
Having only started on May 1, there won’t be an overnight impact, but he has promised to “build on the performance shown in the first few races” and “ensure strategy, operations and reliability are as strong as they can be.” With quotes like that he’ll fit right in.
From a performance point of view, McLaren has enjoyed a much more stable start to the season. It’s clearly learnt after the aerodynamic failings that held last year’s car back, and the team is finally looking like a regular points contender again.
If the newly flush Racing Point crew can match the engineering efficiency it showed during its Force India days with the increase in resource brought about by the megabucks of its new ownership, this upgrade package could be something special.
The start of the season hasn’t been fully straightforward, mostly hindered by the team only changing hands late in last year’s campaign, leading a few delays in the design and build of its 2019 car.
“I think Spain will be first impact of what we can be, and it will be an important weekend for us,” says Sergio Pérez. “You have to remember that the new administration came in very late in the year [during 2018], so we are a bit behind schedule and playing catch-up. If our upgrades work as planned, we should make a good step up.”
Judging by the team’s upswing in form in Baku, where Pérez finished a fine sixth, Racing Point could well emerge as the fourth-fastest team this weekend.
“Barcelona is when most teams bring big updates and we are no exception,” says team principal Otmar Szafnauer. “We’ll have a combination of mechanical and aerodynamic upgrades to try out on Friday. I’m not expecting any major surprises, but I’d certainly like to see us remain at the front of the midfield.”
Lance Stroll therefore has his best chance so far to make it out of Q1 this season.
The rest of the grid
Alfa Romeo’s C38 has started the year as a well-rounded car, so we’re not expecting wholesale changes for the squad. It has struggled with a few reliability issues – evidenced by Antonio Giovinazzi already suffering a grid penalty for using too many spares, and Kimi Räikkönen being disqualified from Baku qualifying for failing the front wing deflection test. Regardless, the car has shown solid pace in the midfield and the team has been working hard to make it more consistent on this year’s Pirelli tyres.
What Renault really needs is a confidence boost, and some luck. After a few moments that scarred morale, such as Daniel Ricciardo’s early troubles and eventual retirement in Australia and then both cars breaking within yards of each other in Bahrain, Renault faces a fight to get on top of its reliability issues. The French firm has struggled with its mguK since the introduction of the current rules, and still appears to be, even six years later. It has two very strong drivers on its roster, but a working engine, a tad more downforce and perhaps even a reverse sensor on Ricciardo’s car wouldn’t go amiss?
Much like its bigger sister Ferrari, Haas has struggled with tyre performance this year. The VF19 has been quick over a lap, but has a tendency to over-work its tyres and suffer graining as a result, making it difficult during the races. However, team boss turned Netflix superstar Günther Steiner has promised a hefty upgrade, including: “the front wing, a new floor and a lot of smaller parts, even the wing mirrors. We want to show people how good we can be if we get the tyres to work.”
Having also benefited from the Honda upgrade being moved forward for Baku, Toro Rosso’s changes are likely to be in the form of smaller tweaks made in search of extra aero efficiency.
Finally, what doesn’t Williams need? Having started the season late amid delays with the final build of its FW42, the team has been anchored to the back of the grid and even had to cope with a qualifying crash and a manhole cover assault in Baku, just to further drain its dwindling stock of spares. However, the team is adamant there are “exciting things in the pipeline” for the car, which has until now lacked downforce, driver feel and stability. Now that much of the original build backlog has been cleared, the team can get its head down to bring desperately needed performance upgrades. Don’t expect too many in Spain, but with nine of the next 10 races taking place in Europe, the next few months will be crucial for Williams to save its season.