Formula 1 Insight

Waiting for Barcelona

On to Barcelona and the Spanish GP, ignoring politics for the weekend at least! As the first race back in Europe this year and the place where all the teams will be fitting at least some improvements to the cars, this could be a highly significant event, giving us some idea of how the rest of the season will pan out.

Mark Webber
Mark Webber and Red Bull RB5

This year, the new regulations have made predicting the various fortunes and performances of the cars much more of a guessing game than usual. Until this weekend, it has been fairly safe to expect the double diffuser gang to be at the front, although the Red Bull has been good enough to enter the frame too. Barcelona will tell us whether we need to adjust that perception as more of the teams introduce their version of the tweak.

KERS too has been an imponderable, sometimes assisting slower cars to stay in front of quicker ones, at others being more of a headache than anything else. As Ferrari return to their system of dubious reliability, the previously enthusiastic BMW drop theirs this time. The only team that seem quite happy with KERS is McLaren, understandably since it has kept Lewis Hamilton in the game up till now.

Perhaps the most unpredictable factor in this guessing game, however, is the absence of testing in between races. In previous years we have been aware that testing is an unreliable indicator of form, yet it has given us some idea of the progress made by each team. Without testing, things become a hit and miss affair, no amount of computer simulation and wind tunnel time compensating for assessment of the car in reality.

F1 history is littered with designs that should have worked, that promised so much on paper, but failed to deliver when the crunch came. With testing, such anomalies can be sorted out but now everything has to be done in a couple of days before the race. Literally anything can happen.

BMW, for instance, find themselves in an unenviable position. With the F1.09 having slipped backwards during the early races, upgrades to the car have become urgently necessary. But Dr Theissen reckons that simulations show that their double diffuser design makes very little difference to the performance of the car. It will have to wait to be perfected and introduced at a later date, the team using other improvements in their struggle to be competitive again in Barcelona.

The German/Swiss team have spent a lot of money on computer technology in the last couple of years and so I suppose they have to retain faith in it. Yet I am sure they would appreciate having a test or two to see whether the simulations are actually correct!

The point is really that it is impossible to predict which improvements will make a real difference on the track. Some teams will find only a few tenths while others get lucky and make considerable progress. This is particularly so when we consider how competitive this season has been so far. With only a second between the best and slowest times in qualifying in Bahrain, we can be sure that very small improvements can make big differences to the grid order.

Even with all this change and upgrading, it is likely that the Brawn GP, Red Bull and Toyota cars will remain at or near the front. A good car does not suddenly become bad and these three will almost certainly be the ones to beat in Spain. The big question is which teams will join them in the struggle for supremacy.

Williams, as one of the double diffuser three, should really have been included amongst those leading teams but they have disappointed so far and, as we have seen in previous seasons, things may only get worse for them. The team that threatens most obviously to accelerate into the leading bunch is McLaren - they have made gains at every race thus far. But I would not discount Ferrari as yet, even with their suspect KERS system; the car is better than its results would indicate and the team will not always make a mess of the chances that come their way.

With the others, the guessing game really begins. Renault seem very confident of the improvements due on the car and they have been developing their double diffuser in the last two races; they ought really to be up there punching but I think that will continue to be a one-man effort in the shape of Alonso. Toro Rosso, too, have a lot of upgrades due but their driver pairing may not be able to get the best from the car. And Force India have been plugging away, introducing new tweaks with more to come; it will take a major breakthrough (otherwise known as luck) for them to leapfrog other teams however.

And so to my bunch, the Beemer boys. I have to believe that their aerodynamic improvements will make a big difference but, to be honest, I fear that it may take a few more races before they start challenging for the lead again. It seems to me that the F1.09 is similar to the Red Bull/Toro Rosso in that a double diffuser will not make a huge difference to the performance of the car and their main hope must be in swift development of the original concept. That would appear to be the direction BMW is heading in Barcelona and it only remains to be seen how much of an improvement they have made.

Tomorrow the practice sessions will answer some of these questions. No doubt there will be some shuffling of the order but I would expect the lap times to be very close still. Probably the safest bet for the race itself is Brawn GP again but I'll not predict a win for Jenson - that would be asking to be proved wrong, after all...


I agree with much you've said, Clive. I think this weekend will provide the pattern for much of the rest of the season.
Date Added: 07/05/2009

With one exception, Don - it's supposed to be a Ferrari circuit but this time I don't think so somehow.
Date Added: 07/05/2009

Steven Roy
What happened to that lovely black Honda? Someone nicked and left that BMW with green stripes on the tyres?
Date Added: 07/05/2009

Someone made me change it Steven...
Date Added: 07/05/2009

It was getting a bit outdated, Steven, and people were beginning to notice. Since I backed Heidfeld for the championship this year, I thought the Beemer would be more appropriate. It was a lovely Honda, however, even if it it didn't perform when it hit the tracks.
Date Added: 07/05/2009

Steven Roy
I saw a clip in Italian earlier today showing that Ferrari have a new diffuser for this race.

I am not expecting much difference in the order in Barcelona and I think Brawn will still be fastest. I have a feeling however that the Red Bull pullrod rear suspension and lower centre of gravity will be a big advantage in Monaco
Date Added: 07/05/2009

Yes, I'd say that's a fair bet, that the Red Bull will be good at Monaco. If it rains, they should have an even bigger advantage.

Ferrari have been saying they would have a new diffuser for Barcelona, as well as other updates, so I guess it's true.
Date Added: 07/05/2009

BMW are supposed to have a host of updates this weekend - and 3rd and 4th in the first practice session should give them heart. I wonder how genuine their pace really is, though. Are they doing a bit of low-fuel showboating?

As for Monaco and Red Bull, they seem to have oodles of mechanical grip, as pointed out by Steven. Hopefully Webber, who seems to do well at Monaco, can put one over his upstart young team-mate :)
Date Added: 08/05/2009

Timbo: BMW don't normally do showboating so I think we can take it that the times in the first session are vaguely representative of a real improvement. The car has been so altered that it really ought to be better anyway. Times from the second session are less promising but I think BMW went back to its usual strategy of preparing for the race on Friday afternoon.

Red Bull should be very good at Monaco and I wouldn't be surprised if either Webber or Vettel win there. If only Webber's luck would get a little better...
Date Added: 08/05/2009

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