Barcelona bullets

What we’ll be watching as F1 steps out in Spain this weekend.


The Formula One roadshow heads to the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya for the Spanish Grand Prix this weekend, where the 11 teams will show up with evolutions of the cars that have been in freight from the first race of the season in Australia in March right through to Russia two weeks ago. It’s a circuit the drivers know like the backs of their hands after years of pre-season testing, and it’s a track that exposes a car’s shortcomings – one of Formula One’s truisms is that if your car is quick here, it’s quick everywhere. Or not, as the case may be.

What five storylines will we be watching at round five of the 2016 season this weekend? These.

1. Verstappen’s big moment
Let’s be honest, this could suffice as points one to five by itself, couldn’t it? Few were surprised when Max Verstappen eventually made his way from Toro Rosso to big brother Red Bull Racing – the timing of such a move, just four races into the season (and just two since the man he replaced, Daniil Kvyat, finished on the podium in China) was what caught most people on the hop. Verstappen has shown enough in just 23 F1 races that he’s a star of the future; how he gets on alongside a star of the present in Daniel Ricciardo in equal machinery will be a talking point here and at every other race in 2016. Will it be too much too soon for the 18-year-old? Will he immediately thrive when given greater responsibility and placed under more pressure? One race won’t tell the whole story, but all eyes will be on number 33 from Friday practice in Spain to see how he compares to number 3.

2. Kvyat: stepping back or out?
Tonio Liuzzi, Scott Speed, Sebastien Bourdais, Jaime Alguersuari, Sebastien Buemi, Jean-Eric Vergne – six drivers who were let go by Toro Rosso at some stage over the team’s 10-year history, and drivers who combined for precisely zero F1 starts elsewhere after being jettisoned for the next big Bull thing. That Kvyat has a chance to step back to the team he drove his rookie F1 season for in 2014 shows that Red Bull brass still consider him a driver of quality; after the shock of swapping seats with Verstappen dies down, can he resurrect his career and bolster his stock alongside the very impressive Carlos Sainz, who has been the forgotten man in much of the reporting of the Verstappen promotion in the past week? Kvyat has done better than his predecessors by staying in the sport, and in some ways has nothing to lose by going back to an environment he’s familiar with. We’ll know soon enough whether Spain is seen as the end of the beginning of his F1 career, or the beginning of its end.

3. Perception vs reality at Mercedes
Nico Rosberg has won the past seven Grands Prix, the first four of this year in that streak, and has a lead of 43 points over Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton in the drivers’ standings. Let’s play a game of role reversal here: if it was Hamilton who had a lead that large after the opening quartet of races, would anyone be giving Rosberg any chance to win the title? Not likely: Hamilton enjoyed a 27-point lead coming into Barcelona 12 months ago, and most felt that title race was as good as over despite Rosberg being in the sister car. Hamilton has had the lions’ share of the bad luck at the Silver Arrows this year, granted, but that the three-time world champion is still considered to be the favourite among many pundits to win this year’s title is partly testament to the Union Flag-waving elements of the all-powerful British press pack, and partly because Rosberg is still criminally underrated. The German is very much aware of who and what he has to beat to take the world championship he so covets (“They [drivers who won the first four races] didn’t have Lewis Hamilton as their teammate” was his comment in the lead-up to Spain), but he could scarcely have been more impressive so far this season. If he takes another win in Barcelona, perhaps some of his remaining doubters will begrudgingly agree.

4. Vettel has no wriggle room
Sebastian Vettel’s expletive-laden tirade after being punted out of the Russian race by Kvyat was amusing for those watching at home, but his exasperation sounded like that of a man who knows he’s already hanging onto the dream of a fifth title by his fingernails. Two non-finishes in the opening quartet of races already has the Ferrari driver 67 points off the championship lead, and he already can’t afford another DNF given the Mercedes (at least on Rosberg’s side of the garage) appears too fast and too bulletproof to rely on the Silver Arrows giving Vettel more than an occasional look-in. A podium finish at a bare minimum will be a must for Vettel in Spain.

5. Alonso’s unwanted anniversary
It was one of the staples of Spanish Grands Prix past – along with a distinct lack of overtaking and lamenting that the fearsome last corner at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya has been blunted by a fiddly chicane, spectacular Fernando Alonso starts were almost a given at his home circuit. Who can forget his jack-rabbit getaway in 2011? The arrival of Spain on this year’s calendar brings his victory drought into sharper focus – his 32nd and most recent Grand Prix win came here for Ferrari three years ago. It’s an unthinkable 54 races since the driver who ended Michael Schumacher’s red reign at Ferrari has won a Grand Prix, and reading his pre-race McLaren quotes – “I hope that the upgrades we’ll test on Friday will … allow us to keep fighting towards the front alongside our rivals in the midfield” – felt a little sad. Formula One is better for having Alonso up the front; for the time being, we’ll have to be content with remembering his storming Spanish starts from the good old days.


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