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Spain preview - all to play for as F1 hits Europe 10 May 2012

Race winner Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing RB7 leads Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren MP4/26.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 5, Spanish Grand Prix, Race, Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, 22 May 2011 Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing RB8.
Formula One World Championship, Rd4, Bahrain Grand Prix Qualifying, Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain, Saturday, 21 April 2012 (L to R): Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari 150 Italia passes Mark Webber (AUS) Red Bull Racing RB7 and Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing RB7 to take the lead at the start of the race.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 5, Spanish Grand Prix, Race, Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, 22 May 2011 Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Lotus E20 makes a pit stop.
Formula One World Championship, Rd4, Bahrain Grand Prix Practice, Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain, Friday, 20 April 2012 (L to R): Nico Rosberg (GER) Mercedes GP MGP W02 battles with Vitaly Petrov (RUS) Lotus Renault GP R31 and Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes GP MGP W02 at the start of the race.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 5, Spanish Grand Prix, Race, Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, 22 May 2011 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren Mercedes MP4-27.
Formula One World Championship, Rd3, Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai, China, Sunday, 15 April 2012 Grid girls.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 5, Spanish Grand Prix, Race, Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, 22 May 2011 Nico Rosberg (GER) Mercedes AMG F1 W03.
Formula One World Championship, Rd4, Bahrain Grand Prix Qualifying, Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain, Saturday, 21 April 2012 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari.
Formula One World Championship, Rd3, Chinese Grand Prix Practice, Shanghai, China, Friday, 13 April 2012 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari F2012.
Formula One World Championship, Rd3, Chinese Grand Prix Practice, Shanghai, China, Friday, 13 April 2012 Sergio Perez (MEX) Sauber C31.
Formula One Testing, Mugello, Italy, Day Three, 3 May 2012 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari 150 Italia leads at the start of the race.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 5, Spanish Grand Prix, Race, Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, 22 May 2011 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari 150 Italia. 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 5, Spanish Grand Prix, Race, Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, 22 May 2011 Pirelli tyres.
Formula One World Championship, Rd4, Bahrain Grand Prix, Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain, Sunday, 22 April 2012 Dani Clos (ESP) HRT Formula One Team Third Driver.
Formula One World Championship, Rd3, Chinese Grand Prix Practice, Shanghai, China, Friday, 13 April 2012 Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing RB7.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 5, Spanish Grand Prix, Race, Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, 22 May 2011

The Formula 1 Gran Premio de España Santander 2012 kicks off the first European leg of the 2012 FIA Formula One World Championship - and it could not be more open. None of the teams is going to the Circuit de Catalunya outside Barcelona in the firm belief that they will dominate, because nobody knows for sure.

And though the race traditionally gives a pretty good indication of technical excellence and who will lead the field for the next few months, many team bosses believe that won’t be the case this season.

Red Bull do not expect to dominate the way they did in Bahrain, nor for the race to be as significant as it usually is.

"Usually Barcelona is a pretty good indicator of car performance: if a car works well there it tends to work well in most places," team boss Christian Horner he said. "Whether that still applies this year, who knows? I'm sure most teams are bringing upgrades of varying degree for that Barcelona race. It’s the first European race so traditionally that's where teams will introduce new components to their cars and we're no different to that. It will be fascinating to see the evolution amongst the teams."

Lotus expect to be very competitive after their performance in Bahrain and are targeting victory.

"I am here to race and I race to win,” driver Kimi Raikkonen stated succinctly last week. “That is the target for me and the team. We want to win Grands Prix. We have a good car and we saw in Bahrain it is good enough to win. So that's the target.

"I expect Lotus to be very competitive. It's going to be very, very close between the top teams. This is the only circuit where the teams have already tested with the new cars, and the set-up is crucial as the track changes with the wind and temperature. All the teams have updates for the first European race, which makes it even more interesting and even tighter at the top."

McLaren think it will be a very open race.

“Our performance in Barcelona during winter testing looked promising - but the form of the season is still very hard to read, so it’s difficult to predict who’ll be at the front,” Lewis Hamilton said. Nonetheless, we had a great race there last year - I pushed Sebastian all the way to the finish. I think we have a comparatively stronger car this year, so I hope we can have another strong race.

“It’ll be interesting to see how straightforward overtaking will be this year. It’s always been a tough place for passing - as I found out last year - but I really hope DRS and KERS combined will make it a little easier. I think it’s going to be one of the toughest tracks of the year for overtaking, but I’ll be hoping for a strong performance in qualifying in order to make it as straightforward as possible in the race.”

At Mercedes, Ross Brawn is skipping the race due to illness, but expects to be back for Monaco. Technical director Bob Bell will take over his responsibilities and the team cautiously hope they’ll be competitive like they were in China, but aren’t going to Spain necessarily expecting that. Michael Schumacher downplayed things after a good test last week in Mugello, but Chinese Grand Prix winner Nico Rosberg was more upbeat.

"Barcelona is a track we have driven extensively on, and this is why we know that its characteristics do not exactly play fully into our hands,” Schumacher said. “But we will definitely try our best and at the same time keep on working for the things to come."

"The test in Mugello this week was very positive for us, and I believe we will arrive in Barcelona with a much better understanding of the tyres and how we need to set our car up," Rosberg said.

Ferrari know that this will be a crucial race for their seasonal prospects, and that a good showing here (where Fernando Alonso led for a while last year in front of his adoring home crowd) will be a major boost.

"What I want is a more competitive car in Spain, and then we can go for it this season,” Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo said uncompromisingly earlier this week. “This is what I've asked because we have a nice development programme beyond Spain.

"I was left disappointed with the way we started the season, I didn't expect it. From our technicians and data, I was given the impression of a different situation. Having said that, four races have gone by with four different winners, and one of these races was won by us. Now we need to take a step forward with a more competitive car that is less difficult to drive and that gives confidence to the drivers."

Even Sauber believe that they are only a tweak or two away from repeating their stunning Malaysian form.

"I don't think Malaysia was a freak," chief designer Matt Morris said last week. "The pace of our car is competitive - and you have seen that by having four different winners from the first four races. It is so close out there. I think the difference between a Malaysia and a Bahrain for us looks big, but it is actually quite small. Yet, that can be the difference between being on the podium and not getting any points."

Could things be any better as the championship goes into the fifth round?

As if all this isn’t fascinating enough, for the first time this year Pirelli aren’t bringing tyres that are only a compound apart. This weekend they’ll bring the silver hard compound and the yellow soft.

Traditionally the 4.655-kilometre track’s 16 corners, most of which are right-handers, put the left front under tremendous strain. But the rears also have to withstand a lot of abuse coping with traction demands out of the slower corners. The surface is also quite abrasive, and that usually goes hand-in-hand with high ambient temperatures which add to the wear rate.

The g loadings are also high here. Turn Three generates a lateral force of 3.9g for a prolonged period, while the brakes spike at 5.09g under deceleration into Turn 10.

“The race should present something of a contrast to the last pre-season test in Barcelona, where low ambient temperatures meant that it was difficult to get heat into the tyres!” Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery said. “This time we’re expecting warmer weather, which only adds to the many challenges that the tyres will face. We’ve nominated the soft and hard tyre in order to highlight performance differences that will create a different challenge for the teams, showcasing both the speed and durability of our products.

“There is a whole step in between our two nominations for the first time this year and this should allow the teams to come up with a number of different tyre strategies that could make a big difference to the final outcome. With many teams having expanded their knowledge of our tyre range and tested new components at Mugello, we’re expecting a closely-fought Spanish Grand Prix - and maybe even the fifth different winner in five races…”

Four teams are expected to run test drivers in Friday’s opening practice session. At Caterham, American Alexander Rossi will make his first Grand Prix weekend appearance, taking over Heikki Kovalainen’s car, while at HRT, Spaniard Dani Clos will be standing in for Narain Karthikeyan. Valtteri Bottas gets another outing at Williams in place of Bruno Senna, and at Force India Jules Bianchi will be in Paul di Resta's car.

The weather in Montmelo will be sunny in the main with an ambient temperature high of around 26 degrees Celsius throughout most of the weekend. The forecast, however, suggests there could be rain showers on Sunday.

There are no major circuit changes since 2011 and the single DRS zone remains on the start-finish straight, with the detection point just prior to the final corner, Turn 16. The race will run over 66 laps or 307.104 kilometres (190.834 miles), and will start at 1400 hours local time, which is two hours ahead of GMT.

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