If Mercedes was focused only on itself in the opening four races, it will surely arrive in Barcelona with at least the occasional cursory glance behind at its rivals. The start of the European season marks the start of what should be a ferocious development battle, with a large step up in performance across the grid likely both aerodynamically and on the engine side. It is said that a car which runs well in Barcelona should run well for the rest of the season as it is such a versatile track. Once again it will be the fight behind Mercedes which is most interesting, while the gap between the Silver Arrows and the nearest competitor may well determine the sort of season we are really in for.
Mercedes is still very much the team to beat after dominating the opening four races and it is unlikely any team will have made a big enough jump to be on a par with them just yet. The team's most concerning battle remains an internal one, with Lewis Hamilton clearly holding the edge over Nico Rosberg so far, despite trailing him in the drivers' standings. Another Hamilton victory could be a decisive psychological blow to Rosberg, who is yet to beat his team-mate over a race distance. Elsewhere Daniel Ricciardo has provided a compelling storyline in the Red Bull garage so far this season, as he clearly has the edge over the struggling Sebastian Vettel, who has had to move over for his younger team-mate twice in two races. Ricciardo may well fancy his chances of a first (official) career podium in Barcelona if Red Bull has made a significant improvement over the last three weeks.
Force India has been the surprise package of the season so far, and its current standing of third in the constructors' is a superb achievement given its limited resources compared to the teams around it. Whether or not it can sustain that form now the development battle intensifies remains to be seen, but in Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez Force India has a driver line-up which can make the most of its early potential.
Out of form
Kimi Raikkonen's struggle for form was magnified in China as Fernando Alonso scored Ferrari's first podium of the season. Raikkonen is yet to finish higher than seventh and he has admitted his driving style has not allowed him to get the best from the F14 T. Anyone thinking the Finn lacks motivation are wrong, however, as he memorably said it has "fuck all" to do with that when probed on the issue after the race in China.
Meanwhile, McLaren arrives in Barcelona on the back of two races without a point. Eric Boullier has already said Spain represents a "fresh push" for the team and that downplays just how important this race will be in the context of the rest of the season. Sauber is also in big trouble at the moment, having found itself nearer to Caterham and Marussia than to the midfield so far. The team says it has made "extensive" reductions to the weight of the C33, and will arrive in Spain with "a significant aerodynamic update" including an updated front wing and new engine cover. Alarm bells might start to ring in Hinwil if these upgrades do not make Sauber more competitive.
One to watch
The team which has been consistently making gains this season has been Lotus, though considering how far behind they started that is hardly surprising. The team has stayed quietly optimistic since the winter and that has now manifested itself in Pastor Maldonado suggesting a top-five finish is realistic if everything goes the team's way in Barcelona. Without something like a safety car period fifth or above may be a bridge too far at this stage for Lotus, who are still yet to score a point this season, but the team is clearly confident a big step forward has been made in the three weeks since China. With so many upgrades being brought to Spain by all the teams it is not beyond the realms of possibility Lotus will have lept forward, especially if it has made progress with that troublesome Renault powerunit.
Big gains up for grabs
The chasing pack knows making at least a dent in Mercedes' advantage in Spain is imperative if any team wants to make 2014 anything like a two-horse race. With the exception of 2012, only small gains have materialised in Barcelona in recent seasons but the new breed of F1 cars are still at the very beginning of their evolution, meaning big improvements are there to be made from the major upgrades coming to Spain. We know Red Bull has a very good aerodynamic package so gains on the Renault side could see them breathing down Mercedes' neck, while it will be interesting to see where Ferrari truly sits after China. Of course, perhaps most worryingly from the perspective of viewing figures, it is also not beyond the realms of possibility that Mercedes will simply extend its advantage further in Spain.
A big weekend for F1's PR department
It is fair to say F1 has made something of a pig's ear of promoting the new turbo era in a positive light this season. With Bernie Ecclestone's trial underway in Germany there is more reason than ever to rectify this, and with upgrades set to make the field even faster Spain should present the sport with an easy sell this weekend. In China, Lewis Hamilton's victory took just 26 seconds longer than Fernando Alonso's in 2013. We say "just" because that equates to a loss of half a percent in terms of performance with 33% less fuel in the car. There were also just two mechanical retirements in the race. That is a staggering achievement given the fact the naysayers were predicting mass retirements and endurance racing over the winter. With so many upgrades being brought to Spain expect that gap to go down again and this time we will see whether F1 can spin itself a positive headline for a change.
Counting the cost
Cost-cutting has been in the news recently after the Strategy Group voted against the proposed budget cap for 2015, a move which angered F1's smallest teams. A meeting on May 1 has not resolved the issue, with the unhappy teams being asked to come up with cost-cutting ideas of their own ahead of a meeting in Monaco. The talks are important as they will dictate the direction the regulations take for future seasons, with serious consideration being given to a return to active suspension and a change to 18-inch wheel rims for 2017, among other changes. The F1 product has come under fire in 2014 and these talks will have huge implications on the next three or four seasons.
Facts and stats
- This is the first time the teams arrive at the Circuit de Catalunya without any pre-season testing data from the Circuit de Catalunya under their belts, as the track did not feature as a winter testing venue.
- Out of the 23 races held in Barcelona, 17 of them have been won by the man starting in pole position.
- Pastor Maldonado is the most recent F1 driver to win his maiden grand prix, which he did at the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix.
- Michael Schumacher's tally of six victories in Barcelona is more than double anyone else has managed in F1.
There are no prizes for guessing who the bookmakers have as favourite for Spain, with Lewis Hamilton 4/7 to make it four in a row. Nico Rosberg has odds of 5/2 and the bookies expect it to be such a stroll in the park for Mercedes that the next best thing is Fernando Alonso at 14/1. Brave punters may be interested in the odds of 25/1 for either Mercedes to retire on the first lap.
The forecast is a hard one to judge in Spain. It looks like temperatures should be good, with no chance of rain being forecast so far, which makes it unlikely Mercedes will be caught if they avoid any issues. It is worth noting the wind can play a crucial part on proceedings at the circuit, especially on the final sector, upsetting the balance of the cars, and that may well be an issue this weekend.
Though we should see significant steps forward from every team in Barcelona, it is still highly unlikely any team will catch Mercedes this weekend. Lewis Hamilton has the edge over Nico Rosberg at the moment, so we predict he will make it four wins on the bounce in Barcelona.