Spanish GP - Preview

Spanish Grand Prix

Circuit de Catalunya (Barcelona)
Track length: 2.892 miles (4.655 km)
Number of laps: 66 (190.825 miles/307.104 km)
Race lap record: Felipe Massa (Ferrari) 1 min 22.680sec (2007)
2007 winner: Felipe Massa (Ferrari)

Three races into the 2008 season and, with Formula One heading back to Europe for Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix, world champion Kimi Raikkonen holds a three-point lead in the drivers' championship.

Little in the way of a shock there, perhaps, although the identity of the second-placed driver, Nick Heidfeld, points to the early-season surprise package: BMW Sauber, whose form is reflected in their lead of the constructors' championship.

The German-Swiss outfit may only hold a one-point lead over Ferrari - the defending champions in turn holding the same advantage over McLaren-Mercedes - but it's a deserved lead. And, let's face it, the table never lies.

The way in which the Swiss-German team have risen to the top of the standings fully reflects the unobtrusive manner in which they go about their business. However, assuming BMW Sauber can continue the form which brought both themselves and Robert Kubica a maiden pole position at Sakhir, then expect that to change.

The three weeks that have passed since Bahrain have, of course, seen headlines largely concerned with matters off-track; hopefully, this weekend's outing at the Circuit de Catalunya will bring the type of raciness more normally associated with Formula One, the teams once more getting in the swing during last week's test - at the same venue - of car upgrades.

However, trying to make sense of the four-day outing - a difficult task at the best of times - was complicated, not only by bad weather but also by the occasional use of grippier slick tyres and less efficient aerodynamic packages approximating those to be seen next year.

Bahrain winner Felipe Massa set a stunning pace on the opening day, the Brazilian lapping two-and-a-half seconds quicker than the next quickest car; however, his Ferrari's performance was aided by running both 2009 slicks and higher 2008 downforce levels.

However, Massa then switched to grooved tyres the following day and emerged only third quickest behind Giancarlo Fisichella's Force India - the latter boosting his performance by running on slicks.

New nose

Much excitement surrounded the appearance of Ferrari's new nose, which now has two holes (nostrils?) poking out the top in an attempt to better control the airflow over the F2008's front wing and to the rear wing and diffuser - increased aerodynamic load being the objective.

However, chief designer Nikolas Tombazis claimed other updates were just as important, saying: "The influence on car performance of the slotted nose has been greatly over emphasised.

"You cannot measure the effect of one component in isolation and the nose is just one part of a bigger package and in fact, its effect is not that big. Overall, we expect the new aero package to produce some improvement in performance, but it would be wrong to call it a race-winning item."

McLaren also introduce upgrades in Barcelona, with the team doubtless hoping that the weekend will bring an improvement upon their poor performance last time out in the Middle East - BMW Sauber comprehensively outperforming them for the first time.

Lewis Hamilton will certainly be looking to improve upon the horror show that was Sakhir. Besides his dominant showing in Australia, the young Englishman's career seems to have regressed during recent races: the types of mistakes which ended his 2007 title campaign surfacing once again three weeks ago.

In a style becoming typical of British sportsman in the 21st century, Hamilton said he had "let the team down" in the aftermath of his 13th-place finish in Bahrain - McLaren having subsequently responded by giving their prized asset plenty of psychological mollycoddling in the press.

Support has also come from other quarters, with 1996 world champion Damon Hill saying that recent less-than-stellar performances simply contrast with those offered during the balance of the 23-year-old's amazing rookie year.

Hill also believes that Hamilton's recent showings represent the flipside of a talent that could well place him among the sport's all-time greats. "Sometimes with a driver who is extremely ambitious, they can overextend," Hill told The Times. "You see that in nearly all the great drivers - Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher overdid it occasionally.

"Lewis is the sort of person who has got to where he is by pushing himself beyond his limits and continually extending those limits, and sometimes that will show up and even appear to be slightly desperate. But I don't think that is a bad sign. It's much better to have that than it is to have a driver who never puts a foot wrong but never does anything brilliant."

It's a hypothesis that makes sense. If nothing else, Hamilton can ignore the talk of him needing to get his "faltering title bid back on track" - after all, the facts speak for themselves: with no fewer than 15(!) races remaining, Hamilton lies third in the drivers' championship - five points behind Raikkonen. Crisis? What crisis?

A driver with more to worry about ahead of his home grand prix is Fernando Alonso who, of course, was rear-ended by Hamilton on lap two of the Bahrain Grand Prix - an outcome that reflected, but hardly conspired towards, his 10th-place finish.

Ungainly addition

Renault were certainly prominent at last week's Barcelona test, a new engine cover fin being a rather ungainly addition to their R28's aerodynamic get-up - a new front wing and suspension updates also bolted on in an attempt to find grip in both high and low speed corners.

The team's technical director, Bob Bell, believes a big step forward has been taken, meaning "multiple tenths of a second", while team boss Flavio Briatore is convinced they will be able to jump ahead of the likes of Williams, Toyota and Red Bull this weekend.

However, in a week when Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo said that lining up the Spaniard alongside Raikkonen at the Scuderia "would mean wanting to damage yourself", the man himself seems ambivalent on the subject of any improvement - Alonso saying the test was "encouraging", yet also reckoning that a podium finish remains out of the question.

At least Renault will be racing on Sunday; at the time of writing it remains unclear whether Super Aguri will take to the grid, the team having arrived in Barcelona despite a proposed takeover deal falling through last week.

According to team boss Aguri Suzuki, "discussions regarding investment" are ongoing and, although the team "look forward to our weekend at the Spanish Grand Prix", there was no explicit confirmation as to whether they will actually compete.