This weekend saw Formula 1 return to Europe for the first time this season with the Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya near Barcelona. It was a very highly anticipated race weekend because, being the first European race of the season, many teams promised to bring in major upgrades to their cars. Among those teams were BMW Sauber, Renault, Toro Rosso-Ferrari, Williams-Toyota and Scuderia Ferrari. Other teams like Brawn-Mercedes and Red Bull-Renault made some minor upgrades as well. Although the most noticeable increase in performance came from the scarlet-coloured cars, the two Ferraris of Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen. With the current in-season testing ban in place the two practice sessions on Friday were the first chance Ferrari had to test out the new parts, which include a new front wing, new sidepods, new rear wing and a new rear diffuser, in race configuration. Following the tests, Ferrari ran the third practice session on Saturday with the configurations set for qualifying, and the result was that they trumped every one else in the field as they snatched a one-two in final session of practice.
Going into the first part of Qualifying, the two Ferraris again started off well and were posting lap times that were in line with the Red Bulls and the Brawns. But a serious tactical error saw Kimi Raikkonen failing to get through to Q2. The reason for that was because Kimi had only done 5 flying laps in Q1 and thinking that his lap time would be enough to get him through, he and his engineers decided not to run again in that session. But some very quick runs late in the session by some of the other drivers saw Kimi slip down to 16th, which meant that Ferrari had made the same mistake for the second time this season, the first one being with Felipe in Malaysia.
So although Qualifying was over for Kimi Raikkonen, the other Ferrari of Felipe Massa was running very good indeed and comfortably went through to Q2. The only real shock of Qualifying apart from Kimi was McLaren's Heikki Kovalainen only managing 18th on the grid, while his team mate reigning World Champion Lewis Hamilton although getting through to Q2, but still only managed to qualify 14th. In fact over the whole weekend, the two McLaren-Mercedes' really struggled for pace as the cars seemed to lack a lot of downforce and grip.
In Q1, Felipe Massa managed to qualify in 4th position which gave Ferrari their best starting position on the grid so far this season. After a couple of disastrous races, BMW's Robert Kubica also managed to get through to Q1 where he eventually had to settle for 10th place. Barcelona being the home Grand Prix of double World Champion Fernando Alonso, the grand stands were understandly full of Alonso supporters. The Spaniard qualified 8th with the lightest car, in terms of fuel load, among the entire grid. That really showed how much that Renault R29 is lacking in terms of pace. Although Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel drove a brilliant flying lap to get provisional pole ahead of Brawn's Rubens Barrichello, the other Brawn of Jenson Button stole the pole from Vettel with a stunning lap at the dead of Q3. So this gave Brawn-Mercedes yet another pole position in a track which is notoriously difficult for overtaking, and where apart from Michael Schumacher in 1996 no other driver had to managed to win without starting on pole. So Button was very well set indeed, and history was backing him for victory. Although when the fuel loads were published at the end of Qualifying, it was clear that 2nd place Sebastian Vettel had a heavier car than Button. But in the post-qualifying press conference, both Button and Vettel seemed to be concerned about the KERS car of Felipe Massa overtaking them at the tricky turn 1 at the start of race.
The start of the race was very eventful indeed. Brawn's Barrichello had a tremendous start where he immediately overtook both Vettel and Button off the line and by the time they had arrived at turn 1, Barrichello was leading the race. Massa also had a great start and immediately overtook Vettel to take 3rd position behind Button. A few cars behind them though, the tricky turns 1 and 2 caused a havoc with bits of carbon fibre flying around the track as Force India's Adrian Sutil, Toyota's Jarno Trulli, and the two Toro Rossos had a massive crash resulting in all four of these cars retiring. The safety car came out straight away to slow down the field while the track was being cleared of debris near turns 1 and 2. At the re-start on lap 6, the two Brawns immediately started pulling away from the field. Although Massa had a much faster car than in the first four races of the season, Red Bull's Vettel still had was faster behind him and was constantly pushing him. It was only Massa's KERS and a defensive driving that saw Vettel follow the F60 for most of the afternoon.
Among all the havoc at the back of the field, the other Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen made up some good grounds and was already up in 10th place, fighting for 9th with BMW's Heidfeld ahead, by the end of the first lap. It was sheer misfortune that a hydraulics and throttle failure forced Raikkonen to retire on lap 17. World Champion Lewis Hamilton, who started from 14th, also took advantage of the crash in the first lap and was in 9th position by the end of the first lap as well.
At the re-start though, one interesting incident was Red Bull's Mark Webber and Renault's Fernando Alonso fighting for 5th and 6th place. Webber was in front when Alonso made an overtaking move at the inside of Webber on the start/finish straight. Alonso did get through but as he started to brake for turn 1, Webber went on the inside to brake later and harder and regained his 5th position. It was true wheel to wheel racing and the crowds loved it.
A few laps later, Rubens Barrichello was among the first of the front runners to pit, and he was on a three-stop strategy. His team mate pitted soon after him, but although Button started the race with a three-stop strategy in mind, team principle Ross Brawn decided to change Button to a two-stopper with a long middle stint. This meant that if Barrichello still wanted to win the race ahead of his team mate, he really had to push hard between his first and second pit stops. Soon after the Brawns pitted, Vettel and Massa came in on the same lap and went out of the pits with Vettel still following Massa. Over the next few laps, Jenson Button posted an impressive set of lap times despite being heavy fuelled, while his Brazilian team mate failed to keep up that performance. This meant that by the time Button had done his 2nd and last pit stop, he was already in a postition to overtake Barrichello when the Brazilian would come in for his 3rd pit stop, which is what exactly happened.
Another driver to watch during this time was Red Bull's Mark Webber. Though he started the race on three-stop strategy, he changed his strategy during his first pit stop and opted to go for a long middle stint instead. Meanwhile, his team mate Vettel stuck with his three-stop strategy while following Massa's Ferrari. The long middle stint meant that by the time Massa and Vettel had done their last round of pit stops, Webber was able to leapfrog them.
Coming up to the last 10 or so laps of the race, Ferrari's Massa was looking good for a 4th place finish. But it was not to be the case. This is time that Massa's race engineer Rob Smedley told on the radio that they had a problem with the fuel rig during his pit stops, and as a result of that Massa was running one lap short in fuel. So Rob Smedley told Massa to back off a bit to lower the fuel consumption and ensure that he can go the full distance. Massa, while constantly fighting off Vettel behind him refused to do so up until very late. By the time it was lap 62 of 66, Smedley told Massa to back off and let Vettel go, so that they can at least ensure 5th rather than having to run out of fuel before taking the Chequered Flag. This time Massa had to oblige, but having to make up 1 whole lap time within just 4 laps meant that Massa was now running almost 5 seconds a lap slower than all of the front runners. This meant that Renault's Alonso, who was 17 seconds behind Massa in 6th, quickly caught up with him and the grand stand of the Circuit de Catalunya erupted when the home hero overtook Massa at the end of the start/finish straight on lap 65. Massa's situation with the fuel was so bad, that although he crossed the finish line without having to concede any more positions, he finally did run out of fuel and was not able to bring the car back to the pits after taking the Chequered Flag.
So with a vastly improved car, where in terms of lap times, the Ferraris seemed to have made up almost 8/10ths of a second to the front running Brawns and Red Bulls, some unfortunate mechanical problems and some bad strategic calls meant the Scuderia could only manage 3 points from this race thanks to Massa's sixth place finish. But what is up-lifting for the Maranello based squad is that, the car is finally looking good in terms of raw pace and downforce, and with more upgrades to come over the next few races, current Championship leader BrawnGP and Button realise that Ferrari will be the ones to watch over the next couple of months. Behind them, the problems are far from over for McLaren and Lewis Hamilton, as the MP-4/24 continues to struggle for pace. It seemed like the great performance in Bahrain was just a blip, and Barcelona that always has been a high downforce demanding circuit, showed off the sheer lack of downforce and grip in the McLarens. As a result, defending World Champion Lewis Hamilton only managed to come home in 9th place and out of the points, while his Finnish team mate could not even finish the race due to a gearbox failure.
So from Barcelona we go off to Monte Carlo in just under two weeks' time for the glitz and glamour of the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix. Although before that, there is plenty happening in the world of Formula 1. Most of the manufacturer teams in the Formula One Teams' Association (FOTA) have been openly opposing the FIA's proposed budget cap for next season, and some of the teams including Toyota, Red Bull-Racing and Scuderia Ferrari have now threatened to leave Formula 1 at the end of the current season if the FIA does not change the rules for the next season. Other teams including BMW Sauber and Renault might possibly join them as well. FOTA also said that if the FIA does go through with the 2010 regulations as they stand now, then most of the current participants will have left Formula 1 with only BrawnGP, Williams and Force India remaining. Ferrari's President Luca di Montezemolo, who is also the chairman of FOTA, is supposed to meet with the FIA President Max Mosley sometime within the next week or so to discuss these issues on behalf of the FOTA. All this while, commerical rights holder Formula One Management (FOM) and its chief executive Bernie Ecclestone has constanly said that things will never get to the point where teams like Ferrari actually do leave the sport. So over the next few days it will be very interesting to watch what comes out of this. Not to forget as well that the FOTA members are supposed to meet among themselves within the next week to further discuss this issue. The last meeting among the FOTA members was held at the Toyota motorhome in Barcelona on Sunday just before the race. So until next time, drive safely everyone!