History backs Nico Rosberg or Lewis Hamilton to win in Spain
It is hard to believe that one of the traditionally most processional races can prove, on paper, to be the most telling over the course of a season.
But that is the role the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona so often plays in the Formula One calendar.
Fernando Alonso’s pass of Nico Rosberg at the first turn in last season’s race was the first overtake in the dry for the lead by two healthy cars since Alain Prost, who had pole but was slow off the grid and, headed by Williams teammate Damon Hill, slipstreamed his way past Hill at the same corner in the 1993 race.
In the past 23 stagings of the race, only twice (Michael Schumacher in 1996 and Alonso last year) has the race been won by someone not starting from pole position.
The last two years have been more unpredictable in terms of action, with then-Williams driver Pastor Maldonado winning his first grand prix in 2012 and Alonso coming through from fifth 12 months ago, but both those races were aided by the fast-degrading Pirelli tyres.
There are a lot of processional races in F1 at other tracks, so this should not be perceived as a slight against Barcelona, but, in normal conditions, they happen a lot around this 4.6-kilometre venue.
Putting aside the fact that – even with the advent of the drag reduction system – it is not especially easy to overtake, the track’s main characteristic is that it rewards the best cars on the grid.
The essential requirements for going well in Barcelona are a good engine for the two long straights, good aerodynamic grip for the several sweeping corners and good traction, which is needed on the exit of a few other corners.
So the typical prerequisites for a good car are highlighted by a venue such as the Circuit de Catalunya.
The general ethos in F1 is that if you are fast in Barcelona then you are quick everywhere else, which is supported by results.
Fifteen times the man who has stood on the top step of the podium in Barcelona has been the world champion that year, while 18 times the car in which the race has been won has won the constructors’ championship.
Given what has happened so far this season, the prospect of the Mercedes-GP cars disappearing down the road away from the field is high.
Four wins out of four have come the way of the German manufacturers, and such has been the dominance of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg that no one other than them has led any of the 224 laps raced this year.
It has been three weeks since Hamilton won in China, a break between the end of the first leg of Asia-based races and the start of the European season that is traditionally seen as a chance for teams to put new parts on their car to try to step up their performance.
Given that the Mercedes cars were often lapping more than 1.5 seconds a lap faster than anyone else in Bahrain and China, it would have to be a remarkable step forward in performance from nearest rivals Red Bull Racing and Ferrari for either of them to be challenging for victory in the 66-lap race on Sunday.
The fight for victory should be between Hamilton and Rosberg at a circuit where neither man has won.
Their inter-team battle should be interesting. Rosberg was beaten in Bahrain by his teammate despite being quicker and his poor start in China ensured that, by the time he did get up to second, Hamilton was out of sight at the front.
History favours the man who wins this race in view of the championship, and that should make this weekend’s tussle even more intriguing.
While Rosberg holds a four-point lead over Hamilton, it is the Briton who has consistently had the upper hand on track, winning three times to his teammate’s once.
Rosberg took pole last year as he out-qualified Hamilton, but neither was a contender in the race as high tyre wear did for their chances.
Tyres have been much less of a factor this season, at least for Mercedes, and there is no reason why that should change on Sunday.
The large crowd will be hoping for a second successive win on home soil for Alonso but, barring misfortune striking the two Mercedes men, the best the double world champion can hope for is the bottom step of the podium.
He did that in China but faces a fierce battle with the Red Bulls of Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo, who will be striving for considerably better then they have experienced thus far in the campaign.
Red Bull’s biggest issue has not been the RB10 chassis, but rather the Renault power-train they use, which has been unreliable and less powerful than the Mercedes. The French engine manufacturer has been bullish since China that they will improve their performance and, if they can give Vettel and Ricciardo a little more power, that should strengthen the Austrian team’s position as the second-quickest car on the grid.
It has been a miserable start to the season for Vettel after four successive world titles, 46 points off the pace is not what he expected or has been accustomed to, but the bigger issue has been the fact he is not even the fastest man in his team.
Ricciardo has outperformed him at the past two outings and Vettel will be desperate to prevent that becoming a hat-trick.
There will be plenty of interesting narratives on show on Sunday and, while overtaking may not be easy, the race should be fascinating in confirming or confounding expectations on who will be champion.
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Published: May 8, 2014 04:00 AM