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Two reasons why Catalunya may not predict the championship – at least this year

2021 Spanish Grand Prix

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The Circuit de Catalunya has long been regarded as an ideal ‘reference track’ for Formula 1.

It offered a mix of cornering speeds ranging from its slow chicane to the dramatic, high-speed turns three and nine, interspersed once per lap with a long acceleration zone. The home of the Spanish Grand Prix was a classic ‘bit of everything’ venue where any weakness in a team’s package would be exposed.

It therefore set the tone for the championship. The quicker teams in Barcelona would tend to be quicker over the rest of the season, and vice-versa.

But some believe that’s no longer the case. Mercedes took pole and won last weekend and their trackside operations engineer Andrew Shovlin admitted “we’d probably like it if this was what it’s going to be for the rest of the year.”

However he believes two significant changes in recent years mean Barcelona is no longer the benchmark it once was. “I think you’ve got to be a bit careful with that read because,” he said.

New technical regulations introduced in 2017 have made the track considerable quicker. The Catalunya circuit was chosen as the reference for those changes, and F1 hit its target of cutting five seconds off its 2015 lap times at the circuit.

That has made more corners flat-out, meaning there are fewer opportunities to differentiate between car performance, Shovlin explained.

“When the cars had less less grip than this, when we didn’t have the wide cars and the wide tyres, it was a great circuit for having a really good mix of high and low speed.

“Whereas now the high speed, certainly in qualifying, you can go around it flat. It doesn’t differentiate between the teams. So as far as qualifying goes, it’s actually quite a slow circuit.”

Changes in the team’s development schedules also means that F1’s traditional May visit to the track no longer coincides with the introduction of significant upgrades to the cars, Shovlin added.

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“Barcelona was a race where everyone would bring big update kits. But these days, we’ve got a cost cap, we’ve got completely different regulations next year to think of, we’re heavily restricted on how much we can use the wind tunnel. No one’s going to bring a massive update to this race.

“So one of the reasons you’d say that was because actually this is where you start to see everyone’s cars after they put a chunk of development on that will see them through the whole middle period of the season.”

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Circuit de Catalunya, 2021
Analysis: Did ‘benchmark Barcelona’ reveal how close F1’s title fight will be?
The next two circuits on the calendar are very different to Catalunya, Shovlin added. “I don’t know that this is a sign of things to come because you look at what we’ve got in the next few races with Monaco, [and] will certainly be in Baku, they’re all really, really different tracks that throw up very peculiar challenges.”

He believes Mercedes are likely to be close in performance to their championship rivals Red Bull at most circuits this year.

“Red Bull are actually never that different to us. That’s one of the key things this year is that in qualifying it has been anyone’s pole every race so far, apart from Bahrain where we weren’t competitive. Whereas in previous years you could say ‘we’ll be quick at these tracks, they’ll be quicker at the others’, we’re just not seeing that.”

But if Barcelona’s time as F1’s benchmark circuit is over, it may not be that way forever. Once F1’s new rules arrive next year, teams may go back to more familiar development patterns, bringing significant upgrade packages around this time of the season.

Moreover, those new rules are also expected to cut downforce levels, which could push lap times at the circuit back up to the levels we saw pre-2017. Perhaps Catalunya will therefore become F1’s reference track once more?

One more thing will have to change for that to be the case: The Spanish circuit will have to extend its race deal, as it doesn’t currently have a place on the calendar for the 2022 F1 season.

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Car performance in Spain and all four races this year

2021 Spanish Grand Prix

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Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...
Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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29 comments on “Two reasons why Catalunya may not predict the championship – at least this year”

  1. Tbh I just read more Mercedes downplaying their advantage. Whatever angle they can find to downplay their speed compared Red Bull.

    1. Yep, as always…

    2. yes. I’m going to single out this statement

      That has made more corners flat-out, meaning there are fewer opportunities to differentiate between car performance, Shovlin explained.

      and more on the PU but that is beside the point I want to make, cars run 8s slower than pole time, they were surely not flat-out.

    3. Conspiracy theories are just that, theories.

      1. I don’t think it’s much of a theory at this point. It’s been 7 years running. They consistently downplay their advantage and hype up other teams. The narrative of “everyone is catching up, the field is closing” leading to keeping the same engine formula when it was due to be changed in 2021 is the prime example of how this has benefited Mercedes.

        1. Yes, agree, and for once I don’t find this article particular sandbagging, what he said is believable, after all it’s not wolff or hamilton, it’s shovlin.

        2. Ops, wasn’t meant to reply here, but to another comment down there.

  2. Ah, another Mercedes press release willingly written up.

    Apparently in Bahrain Mercedes weren’t competitive? The same track where they qualified p2 and p3 and won in the race.

    1. No one said they were uncompetitive. Do me people just said Red Bull had an advantage, which they did.

      1. Literal quote from Shovlin (in the article):

        “Red Bull are actually never that different to us. That’s one of the key things this year is that in qualifying it has been anyone’s pole every race so far, apart from Bahrain where we weren’t competitive.

        Again, in the “non-competitive” qualifying session they finished p2/p3 and won the race.

        1. @cduk_mugello He was talking specifically about qualifying. Mercedes were 0.4s off pole in Bahrain and Verstappen had a damaged car. For Mercedes, that’s not very competitive.

          1. Yes, agree, and for once I don’t find this article particular sandbagging, what he said is believable, after all it’s not wolff or hamilton, it’s shovlin.

        2. @cduk_mugello

          and won the race

          Because Verstappen was faster but failed to convert his chance to overtake.

  3. So across 4 races, Mercedes is quicker than Red Bull by a tenth! That puts the rest of the season into perspective :)

    In the end, I think this season will be like 2013. Mercedes (Red Bull in 2013) is only slightly ahead of the only competition they have – Red Bull (Ferrari in 2013). But, there are races where the 2nd placed team is faster but it ends up making mistakes (Alonso in Malaysia, Monaco in 2013). Because of an impending major rule change for next season (2014 rule change), in-season development stops and cars’ pecking order no longer changes.

    Eventually, the leading team will hit its stride, extend its advantage and we end up seeing Mercedes-Hamilton dominance until the end of 2021 (Red Bull-Vettel in 2013).

    1. Although in 2013 you also had the factor of the mid-season change in tyre compounds/construction, which undoubtedly favoured Red Bull. Never say never, but I think it is unlikely we will see anything similar this year.

      1. Hopefully not, in fact it’d be useful a change such as the mass damper ban in 2006, you can see a pattern where you can easily consider renault the best car before the ban and ferrari after, so it’d be useful a change favouring the 2nd team and reopening the title battle (which might not otherwise be open by midway).

    2. That was already clear to the ones looking more then their coloured glasses. Mercedes is just a tad faster 1 tenth but in race pace. In qualiflier mode is think Red Bull is 1-2 tenth faster. Now we hope that was the cold weather but i am not so sure about that.

  4. Red Bull are actually never that different to us. That’s one of the key things this year is that in qualifying it has been anyone’s pole every race so far, apart from Bahrain where we weren’t competitive.

    This reminds me of last year Mercedes saying the party mode ban will weaken them in quali but make them stronger in the race. I think that’s something we have definitely seen come into effect this year as they predicted.

    1. @skipgamer I think it’s more in the drivers working on tyre wear. Last year Ferrari said that Vettel’s handling of the tyres was why he performed so “well” in Spain (in the sense that he scored some points).

      This season they also said that their work on tyre management helped their drivers get their race pace pecking order more consistent to quali pace.

  5. Adam (@rocketpanda)
    14th May 2021, 12:25

    I’m so tired of reading Mercedes downplay their advantage. They’ve been doing it for so long does anyone actually believe them? The pack has caught us, we’re not quick, we were lucky, etc. Even on a ‘bad day’ they’re capable of winning fairly strongly while Red Bull, or Ferrari, needed to be over the limit just to keep up with them. The ‘advantage’ they’ve had from the start of this generation hasn’t gone anywhere and articles playing up Red Bull when what we see on track clearly isn’t correlating and the constant media saturation of Wolff, Shovlin, and Hamilton & Bottas downplaying themselves and then winning fairly robotically is becoming very, very tiresome. Just own it instead of manufacturing a struggle.

    I hope very much Catalunya isn’t representative of the rest of the year because if it is this year will be wrapped up fairly quickly.

    1. @rocketpanda It happens across all professional sport.

      When have you ever heard a top football manager fail to talk up the opposition, even if everyone knows his team is better and should win? Giants vs minnows in the FA Cup – manager of the giants says “They’re going to make it very difficult for us, it’s not going to be easy at all.

      If Mercedes turned up at every race and said, “Well this one should easily be a 1-2 for us.” everyone would complain about their arrogance!

      1. I wouldn’t call them arrogant for one, there would be races where there’s competition and a reasonable assessment from them would be interesting, it wouldn’t always be a 1-2 forecast.

        1. “don’t believe we can keep bottas ahead of verstappen, but hamilton should be able to win”!

    2. @rocketpanda Though I’m not yet tired of diehard Max fans in ‘denial’ phase, it’s still amusing.

  6. I agree that no single racetrack alone can predict reliably the actual packing order. And Mercedes have always been over proportionally strong in Spain.
    Even in the years they weren’t completely dominating the season (2017, 2018, 2021 and to a smaller extend just maybe 2019 as well) their advantage here was always quite considerable. In 2017 and 2021 only loosing the starts caused some tension.

    But on the other hand you can’t deny that being competitive in Spain boosts your percentage of winning the title significantly.

    2014
    Pole: Mercedes, Win: Mercedes, Champion: Mercedes

    2015:
    Pole: Mercedes, Win: Mercedes, Champion: Mercedes

    2016:
    Pole: Mercedes, Win: RedBull, Champion: Mercedes

    2017:
    Pole: Mercedes, Win: Mercedes, Champion: Mercedes

    2018:
    Pole: Mercedes, Win: Mercedes, Champion: Mercedes

    2019:
    Pole: Mercedes, Win: Mercedes, Champion: Mercedes

    2020:
    Pole: Mercedes, Win: Mercedes, Champion: Mercedes

    Coincidence? Maybe. Or maybe to a certain degree…

    1. @roadrunner
      It’s worth mentioning that RBR winning in 2016 was only possible due to Mercedes harakiri in the first lap.

  7. Rolando Tillit
    14th May 2021, 19:15

    It’s very close between them and really Hamilton just has an edge on Verstappen, much more experience, more trust in the team, less impulsive, more experience with the tires.

    Frankly Verstappen has the pace to beat Hamilton, but he doesn’t have the experience or trust in his team. He fills his head with doubt and becomes his own worst enemy. He chose to stay on the one stop because he figured he would either end up behind Hamilton or Bottas. He wasn’t thinking strategically, beating Hamilton was possible even if he had to sacrifice the win to get it.

    Bottas is too far behind for him to win the championship, and Bottas doesn’t even race to win any more. Forcing Bottas to win instead of Hamilton hurts Hamilton more than Verstappen if Verstappen still comes in second.

    I have full faith Verstappen and Red Bull can win this, the pace is there, he just needs to do more Brazil 2019, pure faith in himself and the team, and the results will come!

  8. These graphs are excellent but using seconds to measure laptime is kind of meaningless if you’re aggregating/averaging over multiple circuits. It has to be % difference.

  9. The sooner we all agree that Mercedes have not had the fastest car since the Rosberg championship win* the better.

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