Questions for Spain
Will McLaren catch up with the frontrunners, just what sort of anniversary awaits Williams, and will we see a return of the 2012 Romain Grosjean after his Bahrain podium?
By James Galloway, Mike Wise, William Esler, and Pete Gill. Last Updated: 09/05/13 9:15am
What sort of step can McLaren make?
It's almost a tradition now that the start of the European season produces a raft of upgrades from the teams. A corollary is that, for some, it also represents a second chance: the opening flyaways might have been fluffed but there's still plenty of races left to run - plenty of chances to build some real momentum at last. What this means in terms of expectations depends on the team in question. For McLaren, the expectation is for race wins.
The Spanish Grand Prix is race five of 19 and, as far as McLaren are concerned, the matter of victories is one that remains a matter of 'when' rather than 'if'. But can they win this weekend? They were over a second off the pace in qualifying at Sakhir three weeks ago; Jenson Button's ecstatic reaction having reached the final session told its own story, as did his subsequent decision not to set a time in Q3. McLaren have, in the past around this time of year, found the sort of silver bullet they need: Kimi Raikkonen was suddenly on pole by a country mile at the 2005 San Marino GP having only been off the pace prior to that. But in-season testing was allowed back then and, anyway, the cause of McLaren's problems eight years ago - an inability to generate heat in the car's tyres over a flying lap - was resolved by a relatively simple tweak to the front suspension.
The problems with the MP4-28 are more fundamental. "The car would be a lot better with 25 or 35 more points of downforce. That's what we need," Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh bluntly stated in Bahrain, before rattling off the "matrix" of issues they have. "When we talk about 25 or 35 points of downforce, it's more complex than that, obviously: it's downforce at various ride-heights; pitch; roll; exhaust blowing." Whitmarsh added that downforce in low-speed corners has been a particular problem, so the tight final sector of the Circuit de Catalunya will serve as a barometer of progress this weekend.
McLaren say they're already making small steps forward but they need more: can they start implementing solutions to complex deficiencies that will have an immediate effect? And, more pertinently, what effect will they have where it matters most? Force India, currently fifth in the constructors' standings, might be there for the taking this weekend but, for a team of McLaren's standing, that's by the by: they're already 86 points behind Red Bull and one simply cannot imagine the World Champions dropping the ball. Fifteen races won't seem quite so many if their rivals have already jumped ahead in the development race. At the launch of their car, McLaren said they hoped to get more performance out of it than anybody in the long term. That's just as well, since the gains they'll need will only increase with each passing grand prix.
The start of European season might be a second chance, then, but in the context of the title it could also represent a last chance. Never mind 2005 - when McLaren went on to win ten races and challenge for the World Championship - the spectre of 2009 will be looming if things continue the way they are at present.
What sort of anniversary awaits Williams?
Marking the first anniversary of their long-awaited and very welcome return to the winner's enclosure after an eight-year absence, this weekend's trip to Barcelona is bound to be a bittersweet affair for the Williams outfit with the memories of last May's triumph soured by this year's sharp regression. A glittering triumph has faded into the depression of a false dawn.
A few green shoots of recovery were apparent in Bahrain as Pastor Maldonado progressed from 17th when the lights went out to 11th at the chequered flag, but the fact remains that a Williams car has been eliminated from Q1 in each of the four events thus far. Avoiding an early exit 12 months after Maldonado took pole at Barcelona will be the team's first objective this weekend, although any expectation of a giant leap forward is unrealistic: after losing their way with a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't Coanda exhaust, Williams are four months off the pace in an eight-month season. It's a long road back from here.
And what about Valtteri Bottas? The Finn has been an anonymous figure since his much-heralded entry into F1 and disappointment at his failure to make his presence felt so far in 2013 cannot be entirely mitigated by the FW35's inadequacies. But perhaps this weekend will be the occasion when Valtteri finally makes his F1 mark. Already familiar with the Barcelona circuit from winter testing and Formula 3 events, what better proof could there be of genuine talent than the head-to-head defeat of last year's victor at the Circuit de Catalunya?
How far can Heikki take Caterham?
It would be easy to overstate the role Heikki Kovalainen played in helping Caterham finish ahead of Marussia in Bahrain for the first time this season, given the team brought a substantial update package and the Finn had limited time to influence where they were heading ahead of the race.
However, his presence will certainly have been a shot across the bows of Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde and knowing your seat could be under threat almost certainly helped unlock extra performance.
The 31-year-old may have been six tenths slower than Pic in practice, but his car did not have any of the updates the Frenchman's carried in Sahkir, rendering a pace comparison impossible. However, what we can read into the results from Bahrain is that the car has a lot more potential than it has shown thus far.
With two relatively inexperienced race drivers, it is conceivable that development feedback had not been as good as Caterham were used to with Kovalainen, Vitaly Petrov and Jarno Trulli and certainly having had the chance to exploit the knowledge of a veteran of 110 grands prix for the last three weeks can only benefit the team. In Barcelona, Kovalainen will drive the new car, effectively back-to-back testing it against the hybrid version they started the season with, and it will be interesting to see how his times compare with not just Marussia, but Williams and Toro Rosso as well.
Are Lotus poised to launch a sustained two-pronged assault?
It would perhaps be rather harsh to describe Romain Grosjean's involvement in the 2013 season as anonymous prior to Bahrain, but the Frenchman had certainly run a little too far under the radar in the opening three rounds given the proven capabilities of the car at his disposal - slightly problematic chassis or otherwise - thus making his impressive surge to third place at Sakhir all the more timely.
Of course, that result still wasn't quite good enough for Grosjean to topple the in-form Kimi Raikkonen from the top of the Lotus intra-team tree but there was a far wider importance for the Enstone's prospects: the double podium pushed them ahead of Ferrari into second place in the Constructors' Championship. Such positions are always somewhat fluid in the early rounds of a campaign, and so consequently too much shouldn't be read into the standings as yet. However, if Grosjean's Bahrain form finally proves the rule rather than the exception then there's every reason to believe they could stay there - especially as there's a clear current disparity in the team-mate head-to-heads at both Red Bull and Mercedes, and a lesser extent Ferrari.
So what chance one, or both, Lotus drivers challenging for the team's first victory on European soil since the outfit's golden Renault owned era back in 2006? The E21 was certainly one of the most impressive around the Circuit de Catalunya during the winter and the fact that the acrobatic layout places a premium on rear wear should again play to the car's inherent tyre preservation strengths. A win would duly be impressive enough - but another double black and gold Sunday surge would really lay down an ominous gauntlet.