This weekend Formula 1 enters what is traditionally known as its European season.
Traditionally, the calendar is arranged so that, after a few flyaway races, the sport tours Europe for the summer (albeit with one weekend in Canada), and then heads further afield for the final few events.
But while five years ago, ten of the eighteen races were at European circuits – this year there is one more race, but just seven are in Europe.
Some would argue that this is progress, and that a global sport should not have the majority of its races in one continent. Others argue that, by introducing new races in Asia and the Middle East at the expense of traditional European circuits, the sport is turning its back on its roots and alienating its most enthusiastic fan base.
Whatever your view, it seems unlikely that this trend will reverse. According to Bernie Ecclestone, a lot of countries are queuing up to host races, and many are willing to pay a lot of money for the privilege. That inevitably means all but the most established European races (like Monaco and Monza) are likely to come under threat when their current contracts are up for renewal.
If it was decided that another European race had to go to make way for a race up a mountain somewhere, or in Antarctica, or even on the moon (who knows what Bernie has planned), what would be the next race to go?
More importantly, if fans were given the chance to vote which race would go (which will never happen), it would be interesting to see which race would get the boot.
Obviously, if a large number of Spanish people voted, then the race in Barcelona would be safe. However, if their votes were discounted, one wonders how popular the Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya would prove.
Barring the memorable events of last season’s race (more on which later), one struggles to recall any particularly exciting races in Barcelona. Michael Schumacher’s first win for Ferrari in torrential rain in 1996 will live long in the memory of those who saw it, but there has been little else since.
And why is there this lack of excitement? Many point to the fact that the Circuit de Catalunya is used as a winter testing venue, and so teams and drivers have to much knowledge of how their cars, and the tyres, will perform, and already have a good idea of the optimal set-up they will need for the weekend.
Another contributing factor is the general lack of rain – there have been no wet grand prix at Barcelona in the last ten seasons – but rain is not necessary for an exciting F1 race, it just helps sometimes.
Nevertheless, while the Spanish Grand Prix may not be famous for wheel-to-wheel racing, loads of overtaking, or huge championship upsets, there are plenty of reasons to be watching this weekend.
The return to Europe allows teams to get a lot of new bits on their car. Of course, they can get a number of parts out to the start-of-season flyaway races, but the development race will really start to kick off in Spain, given that the teams have had time to think about their performance in the opening races, consider and diagnose any problems, and develop their solutions.
This rush to get new parts on the car can shake up the order slightly – not that we have a clear hierarchy of cars established yet in 2013 – and may see other teams (McLaren perhaps?) join the fight at the front of the field.
The championship is nicely poised after the first four races of the season. Sebastian Vettel has just a ten-point lead after his win at the last race in Bahrain, with Kimi Raikkonen in second. The others, Lewis Hamilton who is 27 points behind the leader and Alonso who is three points further back, will be right back in contention should Vettel have a tricky race, but will need a decent result in Barcelona if they are going to be considered as title contenders.
Finally, every fan should remember last year’s race, and the mightily impressive win for Pastor Maldonado and Williams. For many, it would have been a weekend of suspended disbelief. First the Venezuelan managed to get his car onto the front row in qualifying, and then pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton was sent to the back of the grid after running out of fuel on his return to the pits. This gave Maldonado the pole position.
After adjusting to this shock result, many fans will have immediately discounted his chances of a win, assuming that the Williams will either quickly go backwards down the field or that Maldonado, who already had a bit of a crash-happy reputation, would cause some first corner pile-up through over-zealous defence of his race lead.
And then, when Fernando Alonso did get ahead, we all assumed that the Spaniard would go on to win his home race, not thinking for a minute that Maldonado would re-take the lead.
But retain the lead he did, and Maldonado took the most unlikely, unexpected, and downright unbelievable wins of recent years. It was fully deserved, given the way that he had driven that weekend, and was made all the more welcome by the fact that it was Williams’ first win in eight years. The once great team, who had gone through many seasons of hardship, were back on top.
There was more drama after the race, not that any more was needed, when a fire broke out in the Williams team garage. The closeness of the F1 community was brought to the fore by that event, as personnel from rival teams helped to extinguish the fire and ensure everybody was safe, as well as lending the team equipment for the next race to replace that damaged in the fire.
The race this Sunday will have to go some distance to even match the 2012 event for excitement, but just seeing the cars back on track after a three week break, and to continue this 2013 season which has already had its fair share of talking points and controversy, will be reason enough to tune in.
|FORMULA 1 GRAN PREMIO DE ESPAÑA 2013|
|Friday 10th May|
|Free Practice 1||09:00|
|Free Practice 2||13:00|
|Saturday 11th May|
|Free Practice 3||10:00|
|Sunday 12th May|
|Live: Sky Sports F1 HD & BBC One, Radio: BBC Radio 5 Live / 5 Live Sports Extra|