A close battle for victory can be expected in the first European round of the 2018 Formula One season at this weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix (Race: Sunday, 9.10am ET).
Lewis Hamilton profited from some late drama to secure his first win of the year in Azerbaijan two weeks ago. With four laps to go, he sat third, only for a rash overtaking attempt from Sebastian Vettel and the retirement of teammate Valtteri Bottas to gift him victory.
Kimi Raikkonen came home second for Ferrari, with Vettel recovering for a fourth-place finish that, in combination with Bottas’ retirement, was sufficient to see Ferrari move to the top of the Constructors’ Championship. In the Driver’s Championship, reigning champion Hamilton now leads Vettel by six points at this early stage.
It looks set to be a competitive, season-long battle for both championships – one that looks increasingly likely to be fought between Ferrari and Mercedes. Red Bull fell further behind in the standings after Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen crashed into each other and wasted a potential double-podium finish in Azerbaijan.
It is difficult to pick a winner for this weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix. No one driver has really been able to stamp their authority on the event since Michael Schumacher’s run of four consecutive victories for Ferrari at the turn of the millennium. There have been 10 different winners in the 13 subsequent runnings.
There has, however, been a pattern of Mercedes strength in recent years. Since the switch to hybrid engines in 2014, one of their cars has taken pole position in all four of the races at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, while they have locked out the front row three times. They have gone on to win three of the four races, twice with one-two finishes. It would probably have been a clean sweep had a first-lap crash not eliminated both their cars in 2016.
Hamilton won two of those races and has four further podium finishes in Spain to his name. While he has not yet shown his best pace this year, there is no doubting his underlying ability, and his victory in Azerbaijan may prove to be just what was needed to restore some confidence and get him back in the zone. He is the most likely victor this weekend.
The first European race of the season is traditionally the point at which teams introduce significant update packages to their cars, and that is again the case this year. The strength of correlation between wind tunnel results and real, on-track performance is likely to vary from team to team and could result in some moving up or down the pack this weekend.
Those movements are likely to have most impact in the midfield. While McLaren and Renault have been the most consistent points scorers to date, it says much for the pace potential of all the midfield teams that Force India, Haas and Sauber have all also secured at least one top-six finish. Each race, one team or another seems to find some extra speed.
Force India were the team who did so most visibly in Azerbaijan. Sergio Perez qualified eighth and then recovered from a first-lap incident to secure himself the last spot on the podium in third. They weren’t the only surprise performers. Charles Leclerc showed some impressive race pace to finish sixth for Sauber, while the Williams of Lance Stroll (eighth) and Brendan Hartley’s Toro Rosso (10th) also scored their first points of the season.
The other points places went to the Renault of Carlos Sainz in fifth and the McLarens of Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne in seventh and ninth respectively.
McLaren have not shown good pace in qualifying so far this year, but they’ve consistently performed well on race day and are the current occupants of fourth in the constructers’ championship. Their switch from Honda to Renault power units has given them the necessary platform to become regular points scorers again after three difficult years.
Azerbaijan represented McLaren’s third double-points finish to date. They have shown decent pace in Spain over the last couple of years despite the handicap of their previous power supply and have, in Alonso, a driver who will be determined to perform well in front of his compatriots. They can be fancied to achieve another double-points finish on Sunday.
Force India are unlikely to repeat their podium finish in Azerbaijan but will nevertheless have a good chance of getting some more points on the board this weekend. Perez and teammate Esteban Ocon finished fourth and fifth respectively in Barcelona last year, while Perez has ended up in the points on five of the six occasions he has finished in seven appearances at the Spanish Grand Prix. Another top-10 finish for Perez on Sunday looks a solid wager and features as part of our Spanish Grand Prix predictions below.