Formula 1 heads to Spain for round six of the season with several big questions in need of answering and the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is perfectly placed to answer them.
Can Red Bull sustain its championship challenge?
After Mercedes wilted in the heat at Silverstone, Max Verstappen and Red Bull may be quietly confident of a repeat should current weather predictions prove accurate.
Will Mercedes withstand the Spanish summer? Higher temperatures than those experienced in Northamptonshire a few days ago could knock the championship leaders further off course having experienced a disappointing race with just second and third place to show for it.
Can Valtteri Bottas outscore his team-mate? The result made Verstappen Lewis Hamilton‘s closest challenger in the championship, his advantage in the standings remaining at 30 points but his team-mate Valtteri Bottas slipped down to third a further four points adrift.
Where does Ferrari go from here? Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel‘s Jekyll and Hyde weekends at Silverstone will be under analysis at Maranello after the latter was left with no clue as to the pace differential between the pair.
Here is the team-by-team guide ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix.
It says everything that second and third in the 70th Anniversary GP was looked upon with such disappointment by Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff.
Having looked more than capable of winning every race this season, the reigning champions had to settle for the first runner-up places, and exposed a potential Achilles heel that’s open to attack until it identifies — and solves — the root causes of its tyre woes.
“The win was not there for us, clearly we were not the fastest car,” was Wolff’s assessment post-race.
“I think we had indications in the past that our relative gap was not as large to our competitors when it was hot.
“It comes down to the fact that we have a car with high downforce, and obviously when conditions change, and parameters change like temperatures going up, compounds getting softer, pressures going up, we have to acknowledge that the Red Bull is a pretty fast car – and that’s what we have seen today.
Same track, seven days later and an entirely different race unfolded. Max Verstappen broke Mercedes’ dominance of the season to date, his Red Bull-Honda taking clinical advantage of severe tyre…
“We have a handful of days to assess, come up with solutions, test them on the Friday in Barcelona and hopefully have a better race on Sunday. These days where we lose are the days where we learn the most.”
Ominous words for rivals, then, with Mercedes having lost just once in Spain during the turbo-hybrid era.
Valtteri Bottas was less than enthused with his team’s strategy during the second race at Silverstone, claiming that Mercedes was caught “sleeping” by Red Bull, which Wolff denied.
“I don’t think we were sleeping but I accept his perspective. I think we just had a slower car today, and you have to just admit that.
“It’s clear that he’s not happy and I totally respect that. None of us is happy with the result.”
The fact that Verstappen could be considered a credible championship challenger this season speaks to how good the Dutchman has been in exploiting the maximum from an unruly RB16 this year.
With a DNF on his record from round one in Austria, he has responded brilliantly to record a podium finish at each of the subsequent races, splitting the Mercedes drivers in Hungary and proving by far the best of the rest at the Styrian and British Grands Prix.
Team principal Christian Horner was very upbeat following the 70th Anniversary GP win, and it could be because a weakness in the previously impenetrable Mercedes armour has now been found.
Alex Albon put in a much-improved performance on Sunday but his distant Saturday efforts will need to be eradicated sooner rather than later.
Despite putting in some stunning overtakes, he has often been left with too much to do on race day this season; his team-mate showing the car’s potential by causing headaches for the race leaders ahead.
What will be a positive heading into the Spanish Grand Prix though is the chance at victory. With weather conditions expected to be hot, the prospect of another win is not out of the question should Mercedes struggle again with tyres.
“Max has got a great feeling for these tyres and we’ve seen on numerous occasions he’s been able to manage these tyres incredibly well,” Horner told F1.com. “We know that following a car closely, you do damage your tyres.
“We knew that Mercedes would pit [at Silverstone] because they were on that softer compound to begin with, so we wanted to make sure we could make hay while the sun was shining and have tyres left.
“It was an amazing performance. I mean the pace in the race was beyond what we expected.
“The pace in the car – it was just so easy and even after Mercedes pitted and went onto a new hard we were able to pull away and at that point you think this really is game on now.”
Could it be game on for the championship? We will have to wait and see.
Sebastian Vettel left Silverstone less than impressed with his car’s driveability and Ferrari’s strategy. Is this the reason for his 12th place finish, compared with Charles Leclerc’s stellar drive to fourth, or has Vettel checked out in advance of his departure from the team at the end of the season?
His current string of bad results cannot help his current search for a new seat on the grid but the compressed season does offer him another immediate opportunity to show that he can take the fight to Leclerc.
He will have a new chassis after Ferrari identified a crack in the one used across both Silverstone weekends.
“Sebastian will have a new chassis, because after the Silverstone post-race analysis, we spotted a small fault caused by a heavy impact over a kerb, head of chassis engineering Simone Resta said.
“It would not have had much of an effect on performance, but it was the logical decision to take. ”
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Last season, Ferrari had a power advantage in Spain as the cars qualified third and fourth (Vettel 0.3sec ahead of Leclerc after a mistake by the Frenchman). This year, the team arrives having run a low downforce setup at Silverstone to mask its lack of power. That approach won’t work at the high-downforce Barcelona circuit, so don’t be surprised to see both red cars battling in the midfield.
Strategy could once again prove crucial, with high temperatures forecast and Leclerc’s confidence will be boosted by his tyre management at Silverstone, which enabled him to stop only once last weekend.
In hindsight, Vettel could have followed the same strategy, said team principal, Mattia Binotto, but he defended the decision to pit the German on lap 22, which dropped him into traffic and prompted a message from Vettel that the team had “messed up”.
“I think we’re not sacrificing Seb, we saw with the times that it would have made no difference for him stopping earlier or later,” Binotto said.
“Reviewing all the data, eventually by leaving Seb out on track, we may have left at least the one-stop strategy open to him as well, which we didn’t, but it was not a matter of sacrificing or not.
“We always said that maximising the team’s points is the first priority and that is what we were trying to achieve, and not compromise anyway.”
The result leaves Vettel 13th in the drivers’ championship with just 10 points to his name after five rounds while Leclerc sits fourth, with 45 points.
There weren’t many headlines during either Silverstone weekend that didn’t include Racing Point in it.
Saturday’s qualifying brought relief from controversy as Nico Hülkenberg‘s put his car third on the grid, on his delayed F1 return. He was unfortunate to finish seventh in the race, behind Lance Stroll.
As the team returns to the track where it showed its potential in pre-season testing, it will hope that it can keep the tyre wear in check, while maximising performance from the Mercedes engine and last year’s Mercedes aero concept. If not, it could be a familiar tale of great promise on Saturday that fades during the race.
The team is hopeful that Sergio Perez will be returning to the car after the Mexican’s period of self-isolation, but Hülkenberg is on standby he returns a positive Covid test again.
Off the track, the team remains under pressure following confirmation that both Ferrari and Renault have followed through on their intention to appeal the decision regarding the team’s brake ducts.
After the Silverstone race, Racing Point was reprimanded for using the parts in question, in line with the stewards decision, so expect another this weekend in Spain.
Out of the two McLaren drivers, it is Lando Norris that has enjoyed the lion’s share of luck so far in 2020 and so it proved to be once again at Silverstone.
Carlos Sainz will be happy to be flying home for the next round after failing to score a point in either race at the team’s home grand prix.
A repeat of last season’s eighth-place would be a welcome gift at this point, as the Spaniard looks to replicate the form that had him end 2019 best of the rest in the championship behind the top teams.
“It’s been a very frustrating start to the season for me, but we keep pushing together as a team to maximise our performance,” Sainz said in the team’s preview.
“The competition around us is fierce and looks like it’s taken a step forward, that’s why losing those many points in the previous races hurts, but we’re focused on ourselves as we head to Spain and know that we must keep pushing.”
Renault put in arguably its strongest weekends of the season so far across both Silverstone dates, with a season-high result of fourth for Daniel Ricciardo in the British Grand Prix.
The French team has elevated its expectations following such a strong performance, and Esteban Ocon believes it can be the springboard the team can use for the next phase of the season.
“I think the car is capable of more than eighth, really and we have seen in qualifying Daniel can go fifth,” he said.
“That’s what we need to improve on my side of the garage. We definitely need to put the car up there and in the race the car is quite quick.
“We are not shy of fighting with the bigger boys so it’s very positive. It’s going to be an interesting season.”
After the highs of seventh for Pierre Gasly in the first Silverstone race, his side of the AlphaTauri garage fell into the strategy trap in the heat and it cost the Frenchman a better result.
Team-mate Daniil Kvyat benefited, though, scoring his second points finish of the season in 10th.
Like Mercedes, the team will be eager to identify the causes of the blistering that cost Gasly pace in the middle stint with more hot weather on the way this weekend in Barcelona.
“It was a long time ago now, but we have the data from winter testing and it will be interesting to see how the cars have evolved since February,” Gasly said.
“The conditions were very different then, very cold and now it will be very hot right in the middle of August, which is not the usual time for the race in Barcelona.
“It will make things more complicated for the tyres compared to the race’s usual date in early May, especially when you consider this track is never easy on the tyre front.”
70 years after it had dominated F1’s inaugural event, Alfa Romeo lined up for its anniversary event on the last row of the grid.
Team principal Fréd Vasseur said the team is yet to extract the maximum out of its current package.
“The team performed well and executed a clean race, but we have a lot of work still ahead of us before we can be where we want to be.
“We need to improve our qualifying pace to be able to start further up the grid: on Sunday we seem to have a good turn of speed and we can keep up the pace with all the others, but we can’t really get anything out of it if we’re starting that far back.”
Giovinazzi believes that it is the team’s Saturday performances that is holding it back.
“I believe our Saturday issues have masked some of the pace we have during the race, so we need to keep working on it to be in the fight for points right from the start of the race,” he said.
Williams has endured a mixed bag so far in 2020 as it slumped to an 18th and 19th place finish after George Russell made it into Q2 for the third time this season.
The Mercedes junior driver has demonstrated the improvements the team has made from last season, but it can’t quite make that same step in the races.
Russell says he is hoping the differing conditions of the past two weeks can help Williams find its way going forward.
“Off the back of two very different Grands Prix at Silverstone, one being cold with hard tyres and one being hot with soft tyres, I think that has given us some good learning.
“This week in Barcelona is going to be really tricky as we normally race there in May, now we are racing there in August.
“However, I am excited to get back driving again and hopefully put in another good Saturday, but this time focus on doing the same job on Sunday.
Two retirements and two 16th places for Haas capped off two difficult weekends for the team.
A gamble on strategy in race one put Romain Grosjean in a top-five position but it was only temporary as the team continued to struggle with the VF-20.
It will have a plethora of data though to fall back on for this weekend with winter testing conducted at the same venue, something that can only be a help for Haas according to its team boss.
“Last year, with the double points-score, having had a bit of a difficult season up until then, it was very good,” Guenther Steiner said.
“In another way it maybe wasn’t so good as we believed in our upgrade, which then ultimately, we put back on the shelf and went back to the Melbourne spec.
“Getting the points last year was a nice moment, but maybe for going forward in the season the package was the wrong thing to do. You learn out of all this and I hope we don’t make that mistake again.
“For this weekend, hopefully the racetrack suits our car, it’s not such a power-sensitive circuit. Hopefully we can get something done, it will be difficult like every track this year, but it looks a little bit better for us. We’ll find out on Saturday and Sunday this week.”