Could a combination of new parts and guts from Fernando Alonso in front of his home crowd possibly bring home a maiden 2009 grand prix win for Renault?
Or will Brawn GP hang on to their dominance and improve their lead at the top of both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships, fighting off Red Bull and Toyota to do it?
This week’s Spanish Grand Prix is the fifth race of the 2009 F1 season and the start of its European stint – both of which mean that we are already nearly a quarter of the way through the calendar.
Apart from Fernando Alonso, what are the stories to watch out for? Well, some expect a levelling of the playing field after a number of teams developed new parts in answer to the ‘flyaway’ dominance of Brawn GP, Red Bull and Toyota.
So once again we’ll be watching to see if anyone can rein in Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel, whether Lewis Hamilton can continue to build on his slow but steady improvement (he and the team are playing this one down) and whether BMW Sauber in particular can improve on their abysmal performance in Bahrain.
Also Nelson A Piquet needs to do something notable for Renault, given that he’s reportedly got this race and the next, in Monaco, to prove that he’s worth keeping on.
And with Alonso potentially on top form for his home fans, that could be an even taller order than usual.
The Circuit de Catalunya is located north of Barcelona and is just short of three miles long. It comes in for criticism as a race circuit because of the amount of testing hours drivers and teams put in there – this and a lack of overtaking opportunities lead it to be accused of dull racing.
Wind is also a big issue with variations in strength and direction meaning that it is hard for teams to find a good setup and stick to it. The weather forecast is sunny – until Sunday, when heavy rain is forecast, playing even more strongly into Fernando Alonso’s hands.
In last year’s Spanish Grand Prix Heikki Kovalainen suffered a horrendous crash from which he fortunately walked away almost unharmed.
Brawn quietly confident on familiar circuit
In its team preview, Brawn GP reminds fans that the Circuit de Catalunya has “a demanding and varied layout which makes it a renowned testing venue and well known to the teams and drivers.
“The combination of high and low speed corners still provides a technical and physical challenge for the cars and drivers.”
It points out that “Brawn GP completed a four-day test at the Circuit de Catalunya prior to the start of season with the new Brawn-Mercedes car” – implying that we can hope for great things from Jenson Button this weekend.
The driver said: “You need to have a car with good downforce for a really quick lap there and we are fortunate that our car behaves so predictably which enables you to feel completely confident when committing to high speed corners.
“This can be a very difficult circuit for overtaking so you have to make the most of the run down to the first corner to capitalise on any opportunities at the start of the race.
“I visited the factory last week to join the team for a small celebration of our successes to date and catch up on the progress with our latest developments.
“We know that we have a real fight on our hands from here to maintain our lead in the championships but I am confident that we are well prepared for the challenges ahead.”
Team boss Ross Brawn added: “The Circuit de Catalunya feels like a home circuit for the drivers with so much of our pre-season testing taking place here over the winter. Although the track has lost some of the high-speed challenge that it once had, it is still an interesting and physical lap to drive.
“You need to find a good rhythm to make the most of the combination of the high speed corners, particularly at turn three which is very fast and demanding, and the slow corners in the final sector of the lap.
“The long pit straight requires good aerodynamic efficiency and we will be thankful for the power of our Mercedes-Benz engine there. The Spanish Grand Prix is always one of my favourite races on the calendar as it feels like this is where the season really begins.”
Honour for Hamilton aims to dispel last year’s problems
The Circuit de Catalunya is still working to live down its reputation as the place where racist abuse was shouted at Lewis Hamilton during 2008 winter testing.
The reigning World Champion has been presented with a plaque that will be displayed in its Champions’ Avenue alongside those of Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell, Fernando Alonso and Nelson Piquet.
Ramon Praderas, the circuit’s boss, said: “We are pleased to have the opportunity to show you that you are a driver always welcome to Catalunya.
“Passion means Formula 1, and you are a part of this passion for motor sport. Keep like this for us. We need people like you. Today your name is written on a permanent page in Champions’ Avenue.”
Formula One promoter Bernie Ecclestone had a few nice things to say too: “Up until now he’s had a terrible year through no fault of his own, and I’m sure he’s going to remedy that very, very quickly.
“The good thing about Lewis is that he hasn’t forgotten his roots. He supports go-karting, and he supports all forms of motor sport, so it’s not just one Formula 1.
“This is what we need guys to do, not to forget where they come from. Anyway, I’m very happy he’s going to get this award.”
In accepting the plaque, Hamilton said that the Circuit de Catalunya was one of his favourite circuits, and that it was “kind of emotional” to be receiving the award.
“To have heard the speech, and know I am welcome here is a great thing for me, and to be recognised as world champion is something very, very special to me. I will always carry with that me.
“So I want to say thank you to the people here at Catalunya for having me, and for their continued support, and thank you for Bernie’s kind words as well.
“I will continue to do the best job I can, and I hope to continue making my country and my team proud.”
Speaking about what he would take from the race, he was keen to play down expectations: “The schedule for the first four races was very tough for everyone, so going back to Europe almost feels like a fresh start.
“After such a positive performance in Bahrain, we’re fully aware that the characteristics of the Barcelona track won’t suit our car so well.
“In addition, we won’t have the bigger upgrades of some of the other teams as we already introduced several new parts during the opening flyaways, so it will be interesting to see where we sit in the order.
“Nevertheless, the engineers are optimistic that our new diffuser and front wing will once again help us to make progress towards the front of the grid.”
But of all the quotes coming out of the McLaren camp, Mercedes motorsport boss Norbert Haug’s were the scariest: “Unfortunately, we are still not competing in the right position and the beginning of the European Formula 1 season in Barcelona will be a true test for the future balance of power. ”