The Formula One circus has arrived in Spain, just a week after the Portuguese Grand Prix, that saw Lewis Hamilton extend his championship lead over Red Bull rival, Max Verstappen. But what can we expect from this weekend? Here are the headlines you should expect to see.
1 – Spain has a new look
The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is one of a handful of circuits that have been modified for the 2021 season in order to improve safety and on-track action.
According to Formula One, the Barcelona circuit is ‘returning to its original layout’, with a wider Turn 10 corner now being present on the circuit.
Turn 10 is one of the more commonly-used overtaking spots on circuit as it is directly connected to the second DRS zone. The drivers accelerate to around 195mph before hitting the heavy breaking zone and turning into what used to be a very tight hairpin turn.
Techniques such as the ‘switchback’ – where a driver attempting to overtake around the outside will cut to the inside on corner exit – occur at this corner as the drivers approach the tricky Turn 12 right-hander.
The 2021 layout will see the steep hairpin curve become more of an ‘arc’ shape according to F1, which will see drivers carry more speed through the turn, but also have a bigger run-off area to work with.
2 – Can Bottas return to the front?
Mercedes driver, Valtteri Bottas, surprised the paddock last Saturday after beating his seven-time world champion teammate, Hamilton, to pole position for the Portuguese Grand Prix. The Finn set a time just seven-thousandths of a second faster than the Briton, and got a good start in the race to set the pace of the field.
Following the safety car restart for Raikkonen’s incident, a mistake from Hamilton (plus a little bit of help from the number 77 driver) saw Max Verstappen pass the champion for second place. Later in the race, a storming Hamilton made his way past both Verstappen and Bottas to take the lead and ultimately win the race; and Verstappen also overtook Bottas to claim second place. A sensor failure cost Bottas a chance to catch up to the Dutchman as the engine went into a ‘safe mode’ according to team principal, Toto Wolff, resulting in a disappointing third place finish.
Bottas certainly proved that he had the pace in Portugal to fight with Verstappen and Hamilton, but failed to use the same aggressive tactics that his rivals illustrate when defending. With three podiums but no victories in the last three Spanish Grand Prix; Bottas will hope to have a repeat of 2019 by taking pole position.
The 31-year old recently shut down rumours of a mid-season replacement at Mercedes, labelling the claims as “bull****” and being a very non-Mercedes move.
“I know I’m not going to be replaced in the middle of the season. I have a contract for this year and I think there’s only one team that does that kind of thing in F1, and we are not them,” Bottas claimed in an interview with Sky Sports F1.
Bottas was, of course, referring to Red Bull in the final sentence; with this weekend marking the fifth year since Daniil Kvyat was demoted to Toro Rosso and Verstappen took his infamous debut victory for Red Bull at Barcelona.
Pressure is building up for the nine-time race winner, and whether he can keep up with Hamilton and Verstappen this season may be a deciding factor of whether Wolff keeps Bottas for the next generation of Formula One next year.
3 – The Mercedes vs Red Bull rivalry will continue
The first three races of the 2021 season have illustrated the gains that Red Bull made over the course of the winter, with their gap to Mercedes shrinking considerably.
The season opener in Bahrain saw Verstappen out-qualify lead Mercedes driver, Hamilton, by almost four-tenths of a second, leaving the German manufacturer scratching their heads about the huge increase in performance.
Thrilling battles for the victory at Bahrain, Imola and Portugal show that the two leading constructors are certainly trading victories at this point, and this trend could continue as we approach the Spanish Grand Prix.
The Red Bull has famously been very quick in the corners, while the Mercedes have good all-round pace, with their preference being on the straights.
The Spanish Grand Prix will be fascinating, as it is a circuit that Mercedes have dominated in recent years – with Hamilton taking victory in the last four races, and Verstappen winning the 2016 race in his Red Bull debut.
It is expected that Mercedes will be faster in the high-speed first sector and end of the middle sector, while Red Bull will be stronger in the twisty middle and final sectors.
This data will likely come into play in free practice, where we can expect to see exactly where each team stands before lights out on Sunday.
4 – Will Ricciardo find his feet?
There were a lot of driver transfers between the 2020 and 2021 season, with Ricciardo’s move to McLaren being one of the main talking points as he partners the young and fast Lando Norris.
Much like his move to Renault in 2019, the first few races of the season have been used for the Australian to adjust to the bright orange car he now climbs into.
With a seventh place finish at Bahrain, a sixth place finish at Imola and a ninth place finish after charging from sixteenth at Portugal, it has been a strong start with McLaren for Ricciardo, but not what he is looking for considering his teammate has finished in the top 5 in all three races so far, including a podium finish in Imola.
Norris is currently on the form of his career, and will certainly be compared to Ricciardo over the course of F1’s longest ever season. However, the 31-year old described himself as “in a dark place” following his elimination from Q1 in qualifying last weekend – thus showing that he is still not totally at one with his MCL-35M yet.
Spain is a circuit that Ricciardo has driven at multiple times before, with two podium finishes under his belt from his time at Red Bull; while Imola and Portugal are circuits that will have been difficult to get used to a new car at with very little previous data to go on. This weekend will be one to watch for the number 3 driver, as he continues to chase another podium for the Woking-based team.
5 – Will Perez get his first Red Bull podium?
Much like Ricciardo, Perez’s start with Red Bull alongside Verstappen has got off to an underwhelming start. A fifth place finish at Bahrain and a fourth place at Portugal shows that the Mexican is starting to get more comfortable with the RB16B, but still isn’t quite there yet. Perez made several mistakes at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, resulting in an 11th place finish in the tricky conditions, though his performance in Portugal was a lot stronger.
Red Bull have been aiming for a consistently high-scoring lineup for the last couple of years, placing their trust in Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon, who both failed to live up to the expectations of frequent podium finishes. Perez’s announcement with Red Bull at the tail end of 2020 was surprising for many, as Red Bull took a step back from their young driver programme in favour of the experienced Perez.
Red Bull are once again in the position where they have their main driver – Verstappen – fighting for the win every race weekend, while their second driver is aiming for a podium. With two top-five finishes so far this season, Perez will be hoping to make his way onto the podium this weekend, realistically challenging Bottas in the fight.
Stay tuned on The Doughnut for more coverage of the Spanish Grand Prix, where all these questions will be answered following lights out on Sunday.
[Header image: Red Bull Content Pool]