Why Spain is the start of F1’s ‘second season’

Formula One hits Europe for the first time this year in Barcelona – here’s five things to watch for as the season resets after the flyaways.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

It’s the great guessing game of any Formula One off-season; the never-ending quest to work out which team is fastest and why before the cars hit the track for pre-season testing and, you know, actually demonstrate that for themselves. And then do some more guessing as to who is holding something back after testing for the season-opener in Australia

Another F1 truism? We spend the opening quartet of flyaways from Albert Park debating the pecking order of teams one through 10 on the grid with one qualifier: wait until they return to Europe for the Spanish Grand Prix. Spain, as the first GP much closer to home for the teams after the races in far-flung Melbourne, Sakhir, Shanghai and Baku, marks the start of F1’s unofficial ‘second season’, where teams bring significant aerodynamic and performance updates that have been finessed in factories while the machinery itself stays largely in launch spec, chasing victories far away from base.

What do we know about the season so far? The big three of last year – Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull – are still the top triumvirate in F1, but the true order of that trio remains to be seen. Mercedes has dominated since the advent of the V6 turbo hybrid era in 2014, and a familiar pattern looked set to emerge when Lewis Hamilton demolished the opposition in Australian Grand Prix qualifying in March. But since, Ferrari (Sebastian Vettel) has taken three straight poles, Red Bull (Daniel Ricciardo) has won a race in China, and it was Hamilton who belatedly took Mercedes’ first win of 2018 in fortunate fashion in Azerbaijan last time out, his teammate Valtteri Bottas retiring late with a puncture after the Finn looked set to win a race Vettel had in his keeping until a late race safety car for … well, you know what.

The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, site of round five of the season this weekend, is one that every driver and team knows like the back of their hands as F1’s pre-season testing track of choice, and it’s one that provides every type of corner (even if we miss the fearsome big-balls right-handers that used to be the final sequence of the lap). Meaning there’s few unknowns about the venue; but what of the cars?

What might a technical shake-up do to that enormously-analysed pecking order we talked about earlier? Will we see technical directors entering the paddock with last-minute go-fast bits in their hand luggage ahead of qualifying on Saturday? (Answer: yes). And what trends might be revealed in Barcelona that set the scene for the races to follow?

Here’s five things to keep an eye on for this weekend.

1. Look for Silver to shine
Azerbaijan has been a tricky track for Mercedes in recent years despite it winning seemingly everywhere else, the propensity of its cars to overheat its rear tyres in the stop-start early part of the lap diluting its overall performance advantage over the rest. Catalunya, therefore, comes at the perfect time for a team that hasn’t yet hit its usual heights this season, Hamilton admitting after Baku that “Ferrari still hold the upper hand”, particularly in qualifying.

Since F1 made its big power-plant shift in 2014, there’s only one time Mercedes hasn’t won in Spain, and that came after Hamilton and Nico Rosberg committed the cardinal sin of crashing into one another (yes, other teams do it too) on the first lap for Max Verstappen to sweep through to win on his Red Bull debut in 2016.

Mercedes spent much of the pre-season running at the same circuit sandbagging so as to not show its superiority over its rivals, and while the team trails Ferrari (by four points) in the constructors’ championship, you’d be shocked if that didn’t change come Sunday night. Should Ferrari be able to hang with Mercedes in Spain, we might just have a title fight that’ll rumble on for the remainder of the year.

2. Running of the Bulls in Spain?
Ricciardo won in China, sure, but Barcelona shapes as Red Bull’s best chance for a strong result in a relatively normal race, not the safety car-generated tyre gamble that was Shanghai last month. Yes, the RB14 might labour down the lengthy front straight, but the sweeping curves that feature across much of the rest of the lap should see Ricciardo and Verstappen in their element, especially in the super-long Turn 3 and the quick right flick of Turn 9 onto the back straight. Passing is notoriously difficult at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya and tyre debris off-line tends to shrink the racing line, but the Bulls should be quick enough in clean air to do some damage at a circuit that shapes as one of their most suitable for the season.

3. Making sense of the midfield
The top three teams are clearly the same as last year, but what have the first four races told us about the order of who follows them? Barcelona, as a track everyone is very familiar with, should help in sorting out the midfield minefield, with the identity of who is the next-best team seemingly switching by the race.

McLaren (fourth in the constructors’ championship with 36 points) lead the chase for now, but that’s largely on the back of Fernando Alonso being one of just three drivers in the field to score points at every race (Hamilton and Vettel, first and second in the championship, are the others).

The Spaniard always lifts to another level at home, but can he keep his 2018 form up against the likes of Renault (fifth, 35 points, and who have had both drivers in Q3 in all four races) and Force India (sixth, 16 points, and who had Sergio Perez on the podium in Baku)?

The other team to keep an eye on is Haas (eighth, 12 points), who could have had more points than that from either Romain Grosjean or Kevin Magnussen in Australia alone had both their pit stops not gone awry. Two points finishes from a possible eight (and Grosjean being just one of two drivers yet to score at all, along with Sergey Sirotkin of Williams) isn’t an accurate reflection of the American team’s pace, and Spain could be the start of them finishing where their speed suggests they should.

4. When is 1 worth more than 66?
When it comes to qualifying in Spain, that’s when. Sunday’s race is 66 laps long, but history suggests whoever has ‘1’ next to their name after qualifying 24 hours earlier is in the box seat to take the victory. More races are won from pole in Spain than anywhere (even Monaco), and with the current generation of fast-cornering cars, turbulent air and tyre marbles can turn the Spanish GP into a largely processional affair, one where the field can be strung out quickly. Last year’s one-on-one Battle of Barcelona between Hamilton and Vettel was both highly unusual and completely exhausting for its sheer intensity, but few remember that third-placed Ricciardo was the only other driver on the lead lap by the end, and he was a whopping 75 seconds adrift. We’ll know more about the true pace of all the cars after Sunday, but it’s hard to imagine Spain will serve up a race as compelling chaotic as Baku was, or build to a thrilling finale like Shanghai did.

5. The animals line up in pairs
With Catalunya being a track that rewards car pace more than allows individual drivers to shine, the grid can take on a ‘Noah’s Ark’ feel, the teams often lining up side-by-side based on the optimum performance of their machinery. Which means teammates can often set up next to one another for the long (740 metre) run the right-handed first corner, after which a switchback into Turn 2 always catches a few drivers out. If you’re a team principal, you could be forgiven for watching the first 30 seconds with your hands over your eyes …

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