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Barcelona beckons - Catalunya test to give clearest picture yet 17 Feb 2011

Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing RB7 is followed by Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren MP4/26 out of the pits.
Formula One Testing, Day 3, Jerez, Spain,  Saturday, 12 February 2011 Intermediate tyre on the Ferrari F150th Italia of Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari.
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Jerez, Spain,  Sunday, 13 February 2011 Nico Rosberg (GER) Mercedes GP MGP W02.
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Jerez, Spain,  Sunday, 13 February 2011 Paul di Resta (GBR) Force India F1.
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Jerez, Spain,  Sunday, 13 February 2011 Jerome d'Ambrosio (BEL) Virgin Racing MVR-02.
Formula One Testing, Day 3, Jerez, Spain,  Saturday, 12 February 2011

With the majority of teams having now completed two tests with their new cars - and three on the new-for-2011 Pirelli tyres - this week’s Barcelona session should provide the clearest form guide yet ahead of next month’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

Not only are the drivers and engineers more familiar with their machines and their rubber, the Circuit de Catalunya is a venue they know inside out, from both testing and the Spanish Grand Prix. This combination means we should at last see a true indicator of the teams’ relative pace.

One thing few pundits would argue about, even at this early stage, is that Red Bull’s new RB7 looks more than capable of putting up a stern defence of the team’s world titles. Most would also agree that Ferrari and their F150th Italia seem likely to pose a bigger threat to the men from Milton Keynes than in 2010.

McLaren chose to forgo an early launch of their new car in favour of more wind-tunnel time, and their rivals will be keeping a close eye on the radical-looking MP4-26's progress, especially after the frustrating time the team had at Jerez, hampered by a component failure and delays with spares.

Formula One fans will be hoping for a much closer fight between Mercedes GP team mates Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg this season, and both men will be back in the cockpit in Barcelona. The MGP W02 has thus far underwhelmed in terms of pace and the team have admitted reliability is their prime concern at this point.

Nick Heidfeld will begin his first test as a fully-fledged Renault race driver, having secured the Robert Kubica stand-in slot on the back of his impressive Jerez outing. The team’s new R31 has garnered much attention thanks to its forward exhausts and now it is up to the experienced German to help keep its development on track.

Williams’ new FW33 put in some impressive times in the hands of Rubens Barrichello at Jerez and the team will be looking for more of the same this week, with Barrichello’s rookie team mate Pastor Maldonado out to rack up more invaluable F1 mileage ahead of his race debut in Bahrain.

Force India were another team to hold back on launching their new car, and are another fielding a rookie driver for 2011. The VJM04 had a relatively productive four days at Jerez last week, two of them with Scottish newcomer Paul di Resta at the wheel. With teething problems (hopefully) out of the way, Di Resta and team mate Adrian Sutil will be seeking more speed from the car in Barcelona.

Sauber’s rookie driver Sergio Perez will get another two days at the wheel of the C30, sharing driving duties with team mate Kamui Kobayashi, while at Toro Rosso test driver Daniel Ricciardo is expected to join racers Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari in piloting the similarly (Ferrari) powered STR6.

The Jerez times suggested that Lotus have stolen a march on their ‘new team’ rivals, with the Renault-propelled T128 showing a useful turn of speed in the experienced hands of Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen. Virgin, however, are also convinced they have taken a significant step forward with the MVR-02, which their rookie driver Jerome d’Ambrosio will be looking to get to grips with in Barcelona.

The only team yet to show their 2011 hand is HRT and that is unlikely to change in Spain this week. India’s Narain Karthikeyan - back on the F1 grid for the first time since 2005 - is expected to continue focussing on Pirelli tyre work in last year’s car, ahead of the new F111’s debut at the final pre-season test in Bahrain next month.

Pirelli are bringing an evolution version of their super soft and soft compound PZero tyres to Barcelona (as well as their medium and hard compounds). The modifications have been incorporated following feedback from the teams. This test will be the teams’ last chance to sample all four dry compounds simultaneously, as from the aforementioned Bahrain test onwards only the compounds that have been selected as the prime and option tyres for the races will be provided. Some teams may also be hoping for some more time to trial Pirelli’s wet and intermediate tyres, though current weather forecasts suggest they are unlikely to get that chance.

The four-day Barcelona session begins on Friday (February 18). Check back throughout the test for updates on the teams’ progress and the latest images. Note that all schedules are provisional and subject to change.

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