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Featured Image by Ank Kumar on Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY SA 4.0)

The Portuguese Grand Prix, held a week ago, saw Lewis Hamilton & Mercedes emerge victorious once more, extending their leads in the Drivers’ & Constructors’ championship. Max Verstappen finished 2nd, with Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas rounding out the podium.

This weekend, we find ourselves at the Circuit De Barcelona-Catalunya. Coming into Spain, the top 3 in the Drivers’ Standings are: Lewis Hamilton (69 Points), Max Verstappen (61 Points) and Lando Norris (37 Points). The top 3 in the Constructors’ are Mercedes (101 Points), Red Bull (83 Points) and McLaren (53 Points).

Ahead of today’s race, the first 3 rows of the starting grid looks like this: Lewis Hamilton starts from Pole, with Max Verstappen alongside him. On the second row sits Valtteri Bottas in 3rd, and Charles Leclerc in 4th. On the third row sits Esteban Ocon in 5th, and Carlos Sainz Jr in 6th.

The Circuit – Circuit De Barcelona-Catalunya

Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya Map. Based off the wonderful work of
Track Map. Based off the excellent work of GabrielStella on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, simply referred to as Catalunya, serves as the venue for this weekend’s race. Located in Montmel√≥, Catalonia, the track opened in 1991, hosting it’s first Spanish Grand Prix in the same year.

The track features a total of 5 major layouts, of varying lengths. These include the Grand Prix Circuit, Motorcycle Grand Prix Circuit, National Circuit, Motorcycle National Circuit, and the Club Circuit. Formula One will use the Grand Prix circuit for this weekend.

With a mixture of straights and fast corners, the Grand Prix Circuit is considered to be a balanced circuit, placing emphasis on several key aspects of the car. Across the years, the Grand Prix Circuit has undergone several layout changes. The first came in 1995, with the bypassing of the high-speed Nissan Chicane, following the introduction of the back straight. The layout would see no changes for nearly a decade, until 2004 saw Turn 10 (La Caixa) tightened from a sweeping corner, into a hairpin. The next change came in 2007, with the installation of a clumsy chicane ahead of the penultimate corner.

For the 2021 racing season, La Caixa has been reprofiled again, restored into a fast left-hander, extending the circuit by 18 metres. As Formula One has never run on the reprofiled circuit, the lap record stands at 1:35.797, set by Roman Rusinov in the Aurus 01 LMP2.

Things to Watch:

Overtaking

How will changes to the circuit affect overtaking? If anything, it’s a hard question to answer.

The reason for the reprofiling of Turn 10 in 2004, was to create an overtaking opportunity. This time, the reprofiling was done for safety reasons. Ahead of the weekend, drivers had mixed viewpoints on the topic of overtaking after the changes.

Some drivers, in particular, Lando Norris and Charles Leclerc expressed concerns that the track had lost an overtaking point. Others approached the topic with caution, remaining neutral on the topic, with Carlos Sainz Jr and Valtteri Bottas falling into the category.

In contrast, Pierre Gasly was more positive, stating that more racing lines were available for drivers, which could create overtaking opportunities. Whereas Fernando Alonso expressed doubt there would be any impact on overtaking at the track.

Ahead of qualifying, there continues to be a lack of agreement on the changes, with drivers continuing to have a variety of opinions on the subject.

Mercedes v Red Bull

Barring any exceptional circumstances, no other team apart from Mercedes & Red Bull appear likely to win at Portimao. As of the Portuguese Grand Prix, Mercedes has taken 2 wins, while Red Bull has taken 1. Between the two teams, both appear to be equally matched, with . Despite this, Red Bull trail Mercedes in the standings by nearly 20 points.

At this juncture, Red Bull has still failed to pull off a clean weekend, and there is rightfully growing concern that it could cost them both championships moving forward. Prior to the Portuguese Grand Prix, the gap between Red Bull & Mercedes stood at 7 points. Following the Portuguese Grand Prix, this gap has widened to 18 points.

Before this gap begins growing into a chasm, Red Bull need to maximise the points scored on every race weekend. Both cars will need to deliver on both Saturday and Sunday. Last weekend was a perfect demonstration of how a front-row lockout is vital to either team, after Verstappen made a good start, only to be cut-off by Hamilton, preventing him from battling Bottas for the lead.

For today’s race, Verstappen denied Mercedes a front-row lockout, taking 2nd on the grid. However, Verstappen still has Bottas sitting in third, while teammate Sergio Perez starts further down the grid in 7th, effectively leaving Verstappen vulnerable to attack from Bottas. A lightning start will be crucial for Verstappen, to fend off Bottas, and to snatch P1 early on. Especially at a track like Catalunya, where overtaking is notoriously difficult.

The Battle for Third in the Constructors

Behind Mercedes and Red Bull, Ferrari and Red Bull sit in the background, locked in a battle for third. . As of the Portuguese Grand Prix, McLaren has 53 points, while Ferrari trails closely with 42 points.

Based on performances shown in testing, and at the rounds so far, both teams look to be definite contenders for the “best of the rest”. Both teams have carved out a significant gap to the rest of the midfield, with Ferrari having a 29 point lead over Alpine.

McLaren’s strong form showed that the car had seemingly lost no pace despite the numerous changes necessitated by switching to Mercedes power. At Ferrari, the engine team appears to have successfully clawed back the power losses that led to the 2020 struggles at power tracks. On the chassis side, the SF21 also appears to be a step forward compared to its predecessor.

For today’s race, the starting order is as follows, with both Ferraris start ahead of the McLarens.
P4 – Charles Leclerc (Ferrari)
P6 – Carlos Sainz Jr (Ferrari)
P7 – Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren)
P9 – Lando Norris (McLaren)

With this grid order, we expect to see a close fight between Sainz and Ricciardo, along with a podium challenge from Leclerc, in the opening segments of the race.

The Battle for Fifth in the Constructors

Further behind Ferrari and McLaren, are 3 teams who are locked in a fight for 5th. Alpine, AlphaTauri and Aston Martin. Between the 3 teams, their season storylines so far couldn’t be any different.

First up is Alpine, who leads the way in the three-way scrap. The team had a slow start to the season in Bahrain, but an update package was introduced at Imola. At Imola, the package had limited effect, but in Portimao, both Alpines shined. With a double points finish, it was sufficient to leapfrog AlphaTauri to take 5th in the standings. With its wind-tunnel issues recently resolved, there is renewed hope that Alpine can continue to improve and potentially bring the fight to Ferrari and McLaren.

On the opposite spectrum of Alpine, is AlphaTauri. A team that started the season strong, but have seemingly struggled to produce results. In both Qualifying and the race, AlphaTauri has demonstrated strong pace. Especially in Qualifying. However, come race day, AlphaTauri has seen trouble each weekend thus far. Mirroring the struggles faced by sister team Red Bull, but to a greater magnitude. Such is the struggle the team faces, that the team is in no position to be fighting for 3rd, despite having a car that is capable of doing so.

And lastly, we come to Aston Martin. A team that had much optimism coming into the season. On short runs in pre-season testing, they averaged 4th. While on long runs, they averaged 3rd. Certainly a very encouraging sign coming into the season. But thus far, the team’s performance has been a disappointment. On Saturday, the highest the team has ever qualified so far is 10th from both drivers. On Sunday, the picture is no better. The team has never brought more than 1 car home carrying points. Four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel has failed to score any points up to this point. It’s clear to say that Aston Martin is underperforming at this stage, and the team should be performing at a much higher level than 7th in the standings.

For yesterday’s qualifying session, there couldn’t be more difference between the 3 teams. Alpine had a strong qualifying session yesterday, with both cars reaching Q3. Esteban Ocon starts in 5th, between the Ferraris, while Fernando Alonso starts in 10th. AlphaTauri on the other hand, had a session to forget. While Pierre Gasly reached Q2 and starts from 12th, Yuki Tsunoda failed to reach Q2, and will start from 16th. Aston Martin, meanwhile, had a quiet qualifying, with both cars reaching Q2, Stroll just missing out on Q3 in 11th.

With that said, here is how the drivers for both teams line up on the grid for today’s race:
P5 – Esteban Ocon (Alpine)
P10 – Fernando Alonso (Alpine)
P11 – Lance Stroll (Aston Martin)
P12 – Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri)
P13 – Sebastian Vettel (Aston Martin)
P16 – Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri)

With the huge improvement in form for Alpine on recent weekends, it is clear that AlphaTauri need to step up their efforts. If Alpine can keep up this form, there is little doubt that they could well be on their way to catching up with Ferrari and McLaren soon….

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