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Race Day : May 25th 1997

27th Spanish Grand Prix: a headache for the drivers.

Ferrari welcome wet weather, Williams won’t...

Michael Schumacher dislikes it, most drivers find it difficult and it takes it’s toll on machinery of all kinds. Importantly, it has been the epicentre of testing both in and out of season for the majority of teams. Being in the deep south of Europe does not guarantee constant fine weather as last year revealed when most unexpectedly Schumacher driving what everyone thought to be a rather recalcitrant Ferrari through heavy rain, literally cruised to his first definitive victory for the Scuderia, a minute ahead of another great ‘wet’ racer Jean Alesi. "I wouldn’t have put a penny that I would win the race after qualifying and my results in Brazil (3rd after qualifying 4th) and Monaco (spun off on the first lap)." He said after the race. "The beginning of the race was a disaster but later I started to relax and feel comfortable and was overtaking my rivals by trying different lines. I was freezing cold in the car but we held on for that first win".

One of the most advanced circuits that the Formula 1 circus visit, It is the curves and corners that set the Circuit de Catalunya apart from the others. With the exception of the new, remodelled Osterreichring, renamed as the A-1 Ring in Austria, the venue for the Spanish Grand Prix remains the most recent circuit to be added to the Formula 1 calendar. The track is extremely undulating, the curves are long, and sweep at a constant radius, which means that high levels of G-force are exerted on the drivers pushing their physical strength and stamina to the limit. More than half the corners are greater than 90 degrees.

Technical Director Gary Anderson of the Jordan Peugeot team says of Catalunya, "At a normal 90 degree corner balance is not crucial, as, by the time the driver is half way through the turn, he can see the exit and he is not trying to drive the car through the middle of the corner. The number of corners greater than 90 degrees at Barcelona means balance is extremely important and specifically the need to keep the front end of the car pointing into the bend for a longer period. Cars have to have a very different set-up to that of the other circuits." He continued "To get a good balance in these low speed corners, you are compromising traction and the driver is having to work with the car which would be a little ‘pointy’ in fast 90 degree corners."

(Which could of course explain why Schumacher breezed it in the wet last year. With nothing to lose on the wet track, they decided to run with maximum downforce and extremely soft spring settings. The relatively slow speeds in the sharp corners was ideal, whilst not compromising an exceptional configuration for the fast 90 degree bends).

Catalunya is the latest in a string of tracks that have at one time hosted the Spanish race, the first, held in 1913 over 3 laps of a 90 Km circuit at Guadarrama was won by Carlos de Salamanca, driving a Rolls Royce. Various sites hosted the event. Alberto Divo won in 1923 in a Sunbeam, at the Sitges-Terramar Autodrome on the coast south of Barcelona and a year later another Sunbeam, driven by one Harry Segrave won on the Lasarte circuit near San Sebastion. The first World Championship event was held in 1951 on the Pedralbes street circuit on the outskirts of Barcelona. Montjuich Park in the centre of the city then followed, interspersed with races at Jarama. Finally Jerez succumbed to the new purpose built arena circuit of Montmelo-Catalunya in 1991, the stadium of which, was to become the centre piece of the Spanish Olympics the following year. Five Spanish drivers have competed in their own Grands Prix, none of whom really made a mark in the annals of F1. Last year, run-off areas were enlarged and the Nissan Corner slightly altered on the 4.72 Km circuit.

Irrespective of weather conditions, qualifying should pose little problem for all the teams that have tested in Barcelona over the past five months. It would be naive to assume that time hasn’t been spent in fine tuning both wet and dry set-ups for the circuit and most of the cars should be on the pace straight away.

Either of the Williams should be a stone cold cert for pole with fastest times in the low 1.18’s but, whilst there are several drivers still getting to grips with this unforgiving track, hungry new boys Giancarlo Fisichella ("I am working on the last two right hand corners, as I find these difficult.") and Ralf Schumacher ("The track is bumpy and we have had to work very hard to get the right set-up."), are looking to make their mark. Rubens Barichello flushed with success from his second place at Monaco for Family Stewart, may be flying on the wings of invincability (and also the new Zetec Project 6 version Ford engine). Benetton Drivers Alesi and Gerhard Berger will be desperate to qualify in the top ten as will the McLarens of David Coulthard and Mika Hakinnen. Last year 2.4 seconds separated the first 10 places but with so many competitive teams looking to impress, one can expect this gap to be significantly narrower.

With the new spec Yamaha engine which has shown to produce less power than the old and being ditched in favour of the devil they know, TWR Arrows driver Damon Hill will be glad if he can equal his 1.20.65 pole position from 1996 and, if that puts him in the top 10 then he will have done well. But to complete a race for the first time this season, would be for him, a personal triumph.

It seems that everyone is praying for rain, again. Martin Whitaker, Ford Director of European Motorsport commented, "The performance of the Stewart Ford in the wet is exceptional so I don’t suppose anyone in the team will be too upset if the conditions of last years race were repeated."

Even Schumacher senior wishes he was somewhere else. "To be honest I would prefer to cancel Spain because it is not a circuit that suits our car but now that I have opened a small gap, I suppose I can afford to go for a finish in the points. It definitely will be tough." Poor old Michael, resigned to having to go for a points finish. Ho Hum, but finish in the points, he surely will, probably just behind Jacques Villeneuve.

It seems that Goodyear’s asymmetrical tyres are almost a match for the Bridgestone wets that have still to be tested in anger (Intermediates were used in Monaco) so don’t expect surprises. The top four will probably not change, but inclement weather could benefit the teams that are prepared for all conditions and, to look at the sky rather than their crystal ball.


Chris Richardson


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