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Spanish Grand Prix Paddock Dairies: Sandbagging, halo controversies and politics make headlines

After media duties on Thursday, drivers are entrusted with driving duties on Friday. To many, the free practice sessions might not make much sense, but to the purists, there are enough indicators that could give away form for a particular weekend. At the media centre of this weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix, there are a number of journalists manually tracking lap times of each of the drivers with the intent of finding some indicator that could help predict this weekend’s performances.

But it isn’t just the journalists alone; teams keep a track of other teams’ times too. This is also why there is a good chance that some of the top teams ‘sandbag’ through these sessions, basically they don’t showcase their true pace. But sandbagging is an old Formula 1 practice.

Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen during a practice session on Friday. Reuters

Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen during a practice session on Friday. Reuters

However, such a luxury can’t be afforded by the midfield teams, the ones usually running on a budget who are out to complete their Friday programmes irrespective of the attention they might attract.

First free practice

The wind at the Circuit de Catalunya is known to be notorious — not just impacting lap times, but also catching drivers out while on track throwing them into spins. In the first free practice session, almost every driver was caught out — some of them oversteering and catching a spin while a lot of them spinning like it was mandatory — just like a pit-stop in the race.

However, the teams would have run through their programs to check car setup and other fine-tuning to ensure that their driver is comfortable and able to deliver peak performance when the business end of the weekend nears — qualifying on Saturday and race on Sunday.

The 1st free practice session in the 2018 Spanish Grand Prix saw Robert Kubica (of the Williams F1 team) make a heroic return to Formula 1 for the first time since 2010. He drove in an official session of a Grand Prix, almost two years after news broke out about his possible comeback to the sport. The Pole finished 19th, but crucially 1.3 seconds ahead of Williams’ regular driver, Lance Stroll.

The Mercedes drivers topped the session (Bottas ahead of Hamilton) followed by Vettel and Verstappen.

Second free practice

The afternoon session is always the most crucial one. Teams undertake tyre testing for the weekend with the objective to select the compound best suited for their car and to evaluate all the possible tyre strategies for Sunday. The key term in this session is the ‘long run pace’ — indicating how competitive a particular driver could be on a given tyre compound. The effective way to understand this would be to split a 60-lap race over three races of 20 laps each or the best mathematical combination (or a 15 + 15 + 30?) that would end up being the fastest way to go from the start line to chequered flag without stopping too often for tyres. Formula 1 strategy can be a mathematical headache for the teams’ strategists, but an agile pit-wall is the need of the hour in 2018 after smarter race strategy saw different winners emerge in the last three races. But of course, a Safety Car period or rain would mix things up furthermore.

In the second free practice session, Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari suffered a stoppage on track and Ferrari confirmed that they would replace the Finn’s power unit out of precaution. Luckily for Raikkonen, he is well within his number of allocated units to use for 2018 yet, but an unscheduled change could result in power unit related grid penalties later in the season.

Lewis Hamilton claimed top honours in his Mercedes in this session and was closely followed by Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.

Ferrari’s halo updates

In the pre-season, Formula 1’s halo received unexpected coverage and criticism. It made the cars look ugly, said almost everyone in unison. However, once the racing started and got interesting, complaints about the halo reduced drastically too. Basically, the fans had a lot to enjoy and fewer reasons to complain about the sport!

After McLaren was the first team to ‘commercialise’ the halo by selling space to a sponsor, Ferrari seem to be the first team on the grid to bring a controversial update to their halo device! Yes, such intense is the arms race in Formula 1. The Italian team tested halo mounted rear mirrors on their car — ones that make the Formula 1 cars even more uglier, but more importantly, raising suspicion in the paddock whether Ferrari were using the halo to improve their car’s aerodynamics.

Ferrari’s innovative solution is under scrutiny and has raised eyebrows among rival teams. The general belief in the paddock is that Ferrari would be asked to revert to their non-mirror halo design on Saturday. Let’s see how things unfold.

Red Bull Renault or Red Bull Honda?

It is no surprise that Red Bull Racing are contemplating a switch to Honda power for 2019. The two parties held talks last week and followed it up at the Spanish Grand Prix. At the moment, it might seem that Honda might not have too much to offer Red Bull Racing and a lot of hope to formalise this relationship would rest on Honda’s next upgrades and on whether they are able to deliver what is expected.

In this mix, Renault have said that they are happy to offer a 15-day extension to their earlier deadline of mid-May to Red Bull Racing to confirm their engine supply deal for 2019. This means that Red Bull Racing have till the end of May to confirm their interest in Renault. However, the Milton Keynes-based squad has made it clear that they won’t be able to make a decision till June. While these squabbles seem childish, in Red Bull Racing’s case, it is about securing a power unit supplier who can change their fortunes in Formula 1 — for better or for the worse.

Mercedes’ interest in Force India and Mercedes

Mercedes has enjoyed a healthy relationship with their customer teams — Force India and Williams. In the hybrid turbo era, Force India and Williams have had one less thing to worry about when it came to fending off competition — they had the championship winning engines in their cars, after all. However, Mercedes recently expressed interest in further integrating their relationship with Force India and Williams — a la Ferrari with Sauber and Haas.

But is this necessarily good for Formula 1? Well, such a relationship would definitely benefit Force India and Williams — financially and technically (via the knowledge transfer). However, with six out of 10 teams being under the (heavy) influence of Ferrari and Mercedes, would such a move tilt the balance of power in the hands of the two global manufacturers when it comes to negotiating their future terms with Liberty Media?

Updated Date: May 12, 2018 14:10 PM

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