Formula 1’s European season kicks off in Spain this weekend with Lewis Hamilton on a roll and ready to wrest the championship lead from Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg.
Hamilton has never won a grand prix in Spain but, after racking up three successive victories for the first time, the 2008 world champion can break new boundaries at the Circuit de Catalunya on Sunday.
“I’m in a good place right now and I’m hoping that this will be the year,” said the Briton, who is four points behind Rosberg despite winning three races to the German’s one.
“The circuit is fantastic, our car has performed well so far and I’m really looking forward to a good race.”
Rosberg was on pole in Spain last year but has also never won there.
Barcelona, the fifth round of the 19-race season that ends in Abu Dhabi in November, could also see the first big shake-up of the pecking order after the opening ‘flyaways’ in Asia and the Middle East.
The return to the sport’s European roots, and its most fervent fans, sees the teams back in their palatial paddock motorhomes and represents something of a fresh start.
All the teams plan to bring upgrades and Renault, who power Red Bull and their four times world champion Sebastian Vettel, are confident they can bring much more to the party after a difficult start to the season.
“There are significant improvements to the software that should further enhance driveability and therefore overall performance,” said Remi Taffin, Renault’s head of track operations.
“With three weeks between China and Spain we’ve made a huge amount of progress and in fact this race may well show that the ‘engine race’ is a lot closer.”
If that is the case, then predictions that Mercedes will run away with the season could be premature.
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso won in Spain last year, from fifth on the grid, and arrives buoyed by his first podium appearance of the season in China last month when he finished third and way ahead of team mate Kimi Raikkonen.
The Spaniard, who also won his home race with Renault in 2006, can expect an improved car and huge support from the local crowd but Mercedes have not been standing still either.
The dominant team, who have taken every pole position so far and won every race, have also been working flat out to make their car even better.
“Our aim must be to increase the advantage we enjoyed at the last race in China,” said Mercedes motorsport head Toto Wolff.
“If we are to build a sustained level of success in this sport, any small advantage must be seen as a platform upon which to build a bigger advantage.”
While Hamilton and Rosberg have been out on their own, the gap between the rest of the midfield pack has been far closer and that pecking order could be in for a reshuffle in Barcelona.
The question is which of Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, Force India or Williams will make the bigger step.
“Spain is a good leveller,” said Rob Smedley, head of vehicle dynamics at Williams, whose solid results so far have only hinted at the car’s untapped potential.
“We have got a big step coming in all areas of the car,” added the Briton.
McLaren have failed to score a point in their last two outings after a strong start in Australia and have dropped to fifth overall. They too are hopeful a corner has been turned.
“We know the areas where our package falls short, and we’ve taken steps – both short- and long-term – to address those,” said Racing Director Eric Boullier.
“While not all of those will be in evidence in Barcelona this weekend, they mark the start of a fresh push and spirit within the whole organisation.”
Facts & Stats ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix
- Mercedes have won every race so far this season. The last team to start a season with four wins was Renault in 2005. McLaren won the first 11 in 1988.
- Red Bull’s quadruple world champion Sebastian Vettel has 39 career wins, Alonso 32, Lewis Hamilton 25, Raikkonen 20 and Jenson Button 15. Rosberg has four.
- Vettel needs two more race victories to equal the late Ayrton Senna’s tally of 41. Only Alain Prost (51) and Michael Schumacher (91) have won more.
- Ferrari have won 221 races, McLaren 182, Williams 114 and Red Bull 46.
- Hamilton’s win for Mercedes in China was his third in a row, his first such F1 hat-trick, and equalled Niki Lauda and Jim Clark’s tally in the all-time list of winners.
- Rosberg won the season-opener in Australia.
- Mercedes – with Hamilton (Australia/Malaysia/China) and Rosberg (Bahrain) – have started every race on pole this year.
- Vettel took nine poles last year, and now has 45 for his F1 career, but has not been on pole in 2014.
- Hamilton now has 34 poles, more than any other British driver in the history of Formula One.
- Ferrari’s last pole position was in Germany with Fernando Alonso in 2012.
- Ferrari have finished a record 71 successive races with at least one car in the points, a run that dates back to the 2010 German Grand Prix.
- Caterham and Marussia have yet to score a point after four seasons in F1.
- Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat is Formula One’s youngest point scorer aged 19 years and 324 days.
- Hamilton has yet to win in Spain – one of only two races on the calendar, excluding Austria and Russia which he has not had a chance to race at, where he has not triumphed. The other is Brazil.
- Seven different drivers have won in Spain over the past eight years.
- Ten of the last 12 Spanish Grands Prix have been won from pole position and 17 out of 23 at the Circuit de Catalunya.
- The only drivers to win in Barcelona without starting on the front row are Michael Schumacher, who triumphed from third place on the grid in 1996, and Alonso from fifth last year.
- Alonso is the only Spaniard to have won a Formula One grand prix. Apart from last year, when he won with a four stop strategy, he also claimed his home race in 2006 with Renault.
- Ferrari are the most successful team at the Circuit de Catalunya with eight wins in 23 years. Since the first Spanish Grand Prix in 1951, the Italian team have won it 12 times. (Reuters)