Whilst the Circuit de Catalunya may be a familiar venue to the twelve F1 teams who use it as a frequent base for testing programmes, there will be an unfamiliar aspect to their programmes at this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix following the introduction of a new hard compound from tyre supplier Pirelli.
The Montmelo track is a popular stop on the pre-season testing rota, with the PZero tyres having seen action there four times in the past - once last year in private testing, twice this year during the official 'test season', and once more as part of Pirelli's on-going private test campaign last month - and led to the accumulation of a lot of data by both Pirelli and the teams, despite the March session providing unseasonably bad weather conditions, with cool temperatures and torrential rain.
This weekend's grand prix should see considerably warmer temperatures, providing the perfect backdrop for the full race debut of Pirelli's latest evolution of the PZero Silver hard compound tyre, which the company hopes will go some way to addressing concerns about the 'marbles' which have been a factor in early rounds of the 2011 season.
The revised rubber was tested by the teams during Friday's free practice session in Turkey and, prior to that, during private sessions in Barcelona and Turkey using Pirelli's Toyota TF109 test car. The new tyre offers a little more durability over a race distance and provides a wider gap between the soft and the hard compound, which gives the teams an opportunity to run more aggressive strategies. The yellow-marked soft tyre, which has been used at every race so far this year, will also be provided to the teams in Barcelona.
“We said from the start of the year that we would introduce evolutions of the tyres if we believed that they would benefit the sport, and Barcelona marks the first occasion that we have done this," Pirelli's motorsport director Paul Hembery remarked, "The new tyre – which we have tested extensively – reduces degradation and improves tyre wear. It's not a huge step over the original hard tyre but it does mean that there is a bigger gap between the soft and the hard tyre, which will definitely make things even more interesting on race day and give teams the opportunity to use more creative strategies."
The Barcelona circuit is preferred for testing because it provides the teams with the closest simulation of the majority of corners found during the season, but the venue also puts particular stress on the front left tyre, due to the high number of right-hand corners.
“We know the Catalunya circuit very well, because of all the testing the teams do there, but, when we come to this year's Spanish Grand Prix, the situation will be quite different in terms of tyre performance because of the increase in air and track temperature," Toro Rosso's Jaime Alguersuari confirmed, "During winter testing, the tyres were never really operating in their correct working range of temperature, so it was difficult to get them warmed up. Nevertheless, it was useful in terms of giving you some idea about tyre balance and even degradation.
"Sector three of the track will be the key to the lap time and the part of the circuit where tyre behaviour will play a vital role. This part of the track is tough on the tyres - and then there is Turn 12, which will be quite tricky as it is very demanding and you can really feel the tyres working here. Also, the exit to the final corner is going to be interesting in terms of the tyres because of the loads they are subjected to here. In qualifying, it will be important to get the tyres working properly, as you will only want to do one lap to set a time, in order to keep the tyres as fresh as possible for the race.”
The highest number of pit-stops at the Spanish Grand Prix took place during the 1995 race, when there were 59 stops in total, at an average of 2.3 per driver, and Hembery is expecting a new record to be established by the time the 2011 race is run.
"In Barcelona, based on the data we have seen in testing, we're probably expecting around three pit stops per car," he revealed, "It takes a lot longer to enter and leave the pits in Barcelona than it did in Turkey, and this is another factor that will have a definite influence on strategy.”
While weather conditions are expected to be dry and warm over the race weekend, with temperatures in the region of 22 degrees centigrade, should it rain, only four teams – Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes and Williams – have previous experience of using Pirelli's rain tyres in Barcelona, having nominated to run on the wet final day of the March test.