By: Sergio Álvarez (additional F2/GP3 notes by Cyril Nikitenko; photography by Diego Merino).
There was a time when the Circuit de Catalunya was considered a scale where overtaking was almost impossible and we all would be sentenced to watch a processional race. But that was before the invasion of Tilkedromes to the calendar, which has enabled the public to appreciate every classic fast corner that still remains out there.
In fact, it is a pleasure to sit in the plethora of pelouses positioned at many points of sectors 1 and 2. Entry and exit of Campsa (Turn 9) are two of those jewels. There is no better place at Barcelona to appreciate the challenge that the strong and unpredictable wind poses to the drivers, than the back straight between turns 9 and 10: drivers go wide over the kerb while they try to accelerate as soon as possible, and then maybe they manage to avoid the occasional lock-up at the hairpin. As Lewis Hamilton put it after taking pole position: “I didn’t lock up or go wide or anything like that. I did the corner perfectly, but it’s very gusty out there, so from corner to corner… sometimes you arrive in the corner and you brake in the same spot and understeer off because you have a tail wind or a head wind and you stop quicker.”
But before the cars were put to test on Friday, the world already marvelled at the latest aero evolutions brought to race 5 by the teams. If development war was measured by the scale of the changes, Mercedes would have won by a length: massive updates included a new nose with long deflectors at both sides, accompanied by a new shark fin, a lighter gearbox (weight-saving has been a problem for Mercedes since pre-season testing) and new front and rear suspensions. All eyes were on Red Bull as the team of the energy drink attempted to get closer to the front of the grid, but free practices proved that the ideas of Hamilton’s team enjoyed the most success. Truth is, trackside it didn’t look like an easy beast to control, as Bottas evidenced when he went wide at the chicane of Turns 7-8 (best known as ‘La Moreneta’), but at least they had found a good way. The useless character of Pirelli’s hard compound was another topic of conversation, with drivers and teams already having talks about how to fix this matter (in theory, and according to the rules, they should have to wait for next year).
At certain moments during the weekend, it looked as if Honda had decided to save their season with a few highlights in Spain. Yes, Fernando Alonso gifted his local crowd with a seventh place on the grid that may prove the quality of McLaren’s chassis when the power unit is not capital enough to make it look mediocre; yes, he did so after hiding on Friday because he endured a problem described by the team as “a hole in the engine (!)”. But the uncovered Honda man with much more to celebrate was the F2 sprint race winner, Nobuharu Matsushita, who benefited from the lost mirror that distracted Nicholas Latifi at the braking zone of Turn 5. The Canadian had looked to be in control until then: “I’m just very disappointed: I know it was my race to win. There’s a lot of frustration but I can’t do anything about it.”
Nor did the Spaniards have any luck in the support series, with an electrical DNF for Sergio Canamasas in the feature race (no surprise with Leclerc taking victory) and another retirement for the new, ex-F1 Campos driver, Roberto Merhi; and both missing out on a top ten result on Sunday.
For once, Formula 1 managed to beat its supporting series, GP3 and F2, in the spectacle department – hard to remember when it was the case last time (I mostly discard 2014-2016 F1 seasons, sorry, they never happened for me personally, there was no real excitement in the Lewis vs Nico “fight” and an occasional Ferrari or Red Bull win after former Mercedes team-mates would self eliminate themselves every once in a while). Leclerc (Prema Racing), Ghiotto (RUSSIAN TIME), Rowland (DAMS) occupied the podium spots in race one, with Matsushita (ART), Rowland (DAMS) and Latifi (DAMS) comprising the top three in the second F2 race of the weekend. The Leclerc roadshow continues and he’s certainly a young man going places fast. F1 on the horizon?
GP3 had to keep up the pace with Formula 2 and the drivers had the DRS to play with this time, the “evil” device drew praise from most competitors, the spicing up really did work. Renault’s junior Aitken suffered the Hülkenberg syndrome (a rare sensor failure) handing the win to (Honda junior) Fukuzumi in race one; a Maini brother (Arjun to be exact) stood on the top step of the podium at the end of race two. Different winners – we like. Liberty must definitely consult F2/GP3 technical team before drawing up new rules for F1. Domination must become a thing of the past.
Come Sunday mid-day, you could feel the yankee atmosphere that Liberty is attempting to create in the most European of paddocks. They seem not to have read that quote made by David Richards, who compared F1 with French cooking and NASCAR with a hamburger. A sort of Terminator robot would start to splash water on any paddock guest or worker who got close to him; somehow funny, but one could be forgiven for thinking what it had to do with the purpose of a racing event. And it’s a shame that Mario Theissen is no longer in F1, because we could have told lots of jokes to him about T-shirt shooting to the public and the death of Flanders’ wife…
There was even an American taste pres(id)ent in the treatment of the first corner incident between Bottas, Räikkönen and Verstappen. A little crying tifosi was assisted by FOM and Ferrari personnel, in order to allow him to meet his fallen hero at the Scuderia’s hospitality.
Knowing Hamilton and Mercedes as I know them, I had the feeling that they would get caught by second-placed Vettel at the start. It happened, and then the team had to invent a different strategy to beat that strong race pace of Ferrari in 2017 mode. They stayed longer than most before putting their first stint to an end, this time not paying attention to Lewis’s moaning on the radio about the awful state of his set of softs.
But the medium tyre didn’t play any significant trick, so they had to get a little help from: a) his team-mate, Valtteri Bottas, acting as a wall with worn-out tyres to Vettel; and b) Stoffel Vandoorne, who caused a Virtual Safety Car when he ended his race by colliding with Massa, the Brazilian placed on the inside of Turn 1. Mercedes put a new set of softs and made the most of the opportunity, catching the Ferrari and overtaking him on track with a move that proves that F1 2017 has made overtakes more difficult, but clearly possible, even at Barcelona.
They ended up separated by a few seconds, as anticipated since the qualifying session produced the shortest margin between 1st and 2nd of those first five races. Meanwhile, the local hero might have suffered from the lack of track time on Friday but, once he made contact with Massa (yes, on this given day he had a McLaren magnetism) in the first lap, the team made a huge mistake when they pitted him too early. Alonso got caught in the train of cars that had made their first stop after a series of incidents at the start… and there is no prize for guessing that the Honda PU is not ready to get rid of anyone at any track as long as we’re talking about wheel-to-wheel racing… well, maybe a couple of Williams cars who had fallen behind in the final laps.
One last mention – but not least – to Pascal Wehrlein’s race, the best result for the Sauber team in the past two years, despite an unnecessary mistake that resulted in a stupid penalty: “I got the call [to pit] when I was already there on the last corner, but I knew that when they called me so late it was important to come in,” he said. “I missed the bollard but if I hadn’t have stopped that lap, everyone behind would have overtaken me, so this was my last chance to score points.” Four points that make McLaren look even more ridiculous than they looked before that P7 miracle.