RACE DEBRIEF

    Mercedes have made the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya their own in recent years – but in the face of stiff opposition from Red Bull, is the competitive order set for an upheaval in 2021? We look at the drivers most likely to claim pole, podium, points and victory at the Spanish Grand Prix based on current form.

    Vying for pole

    After a pair of outlying races in Italy and Portugal, this weekend’s comparison between Red Bull and Mercedes is going to be a fascinating one, at a circuit that has in recent years proven to be a litmus test for performance among the F1 teams.

    The drivers have usually lapped the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya a couple of hundred times in pre-testing by the time they arrive in town for the Spanish Grand Prix. But with that not the case this year, the result from Barcelona is going to give us a crucial read on the teams’ current performance levels.

    READ MORE: Wolff enjoying ‘a buzz I have not felt since 2013’ after Mercedes defeat Red Bull in Portugal

    Up at the front and in terms of pole position, the Spanish Grand Prix may well be the sternest test Red Bull’s Max Verstappen has endured so far this season. Why? Because this is a track that Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes have utterly dominated in recent years.

    Hamilton has taken five poles here since 2014, while a Mercedes has been on pole here every year since 2013 – with front row lockouts every year in that time bar 2017.

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    Mercedes have taken every pole in Spain since 2013

    Last year, Verstappen was a full 0.708s off Hamilton’s pole time – but we’re dealing with a different Red Bull in 2021. Verstappen has now endured two races where he could rightfully have claimed to have had the speed for pole – off-track moments costing him at both Imola, where he simply lost time at Tamburello, and Portimao, where a pole-worthy lap was deleted for track limits infringements.

    READ MORE: Horner says track limit rules have been ‘brutal’ for Red Bull in 2021 – and team must be ‘perfect’ to beat Mercedes

    So, Verstappen probably has the pace – but is he starting to feel the strain of being a consistent pole favourite for the first time in his career? And with Mercedes having taken pole at the past two races – Hamilton at Imola, Valtteri Bottas in Portugal – where will they stack up against the Red Bulls at this happiest of hunting grounds for the Silver Arrows?

    Pole positions in the last five years:

    • 2020 – Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
    • 2019 – Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes)
    • 2018 – Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
    • 2017 – Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
    • 2016 – Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)

    FAN VIEW: The F1 Play voting for the Spanish Grand Prix literally could not be tighter, with a literal handful of votes separating the top pick Max Verstappen and his nearest rival Lewis Hamilton. Much, much tighter than it was ahead of Portugal. Mercedes showed in Portugal they are far from done - the voting really reflects that.

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    Is Verstappen feeling the strain on Saturdays?

    In the mix for victory

    Once again, when you’re in Spain, you’re in Hamilton country. No one else has triumphed here since 2016, Hamilton with a full five wins to his name at Barcelona in total – while in two of the last three Spanish Grands Prix, his winning margin over the rest of the field has been more than 20 seconds.

    It’s a daunting record, while Red Bull will come to Spain a trifle deflated, with Verstappen having been largely outpaced by Hamilton’s Mercedes on race day in Portugal – Verstappen much closer than he had been in 2020, but still unable to prevent a commanding Hamilton victory.

    READ MORE: Red Bull race pace ‘not good enough’ to challenge Mercedes in Portimao says Verstappen

    The real question as Mercedes and Red Bull arrive in Catalunya, then, is once again whether Portugal was a one-off line fluff for Red Bull around an infrequently-used, wind-blown and grip-light Portimao track – or whether Mercedes have now got the stronger package of the two and moved back to their traditional frontrunning position.

    However, should Mercedes and Red Bull be as evenly-matched as they were at the last ‘conventional’ circuit we visited, Bahrain, then on current form, the fight between Verstappen and Hamilton in Spain should be brilliant to watch.

    Wins in the last five years:

    • 2020 – Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
    • 2019 – Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
    • 2018 – Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
    • 2017 – Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
    • 2016 – Max Verstappen (Red Bull)

    FAN VIEW: The dominant performance Hamilton produced in winning in Portugal has produced renewed faith from F1 Play gamers in the seven-times World Champion. The voting ahead of that race was incredibly tight, but this time Lewis holds an undeniable edge over his young Dutch rival Verstappen as they head to Barcelona.

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    Let battle recommence in Spain!

    Podium Outsiders

    He might have conceded in Portugal that Red Bull and Mercedes remain too quick for McLaren at the moment – but that shouldn’t detract from Lando Norris’ blistering current form.

    The 21-year-old has finished as the fastest ‘midfield’ runner in all three races so far this season, his results standing as a fourth, a third and a fifth. If any of the midfield are going to snatch a podium in Barcelona, then, Norris is the driver with the current form to do it.

    READ MORE: ‘It was a lot of fun’ – Norris revels in McLaren pace after third straight top-5 finish

    Mind you, Sergio Perez would probably dearly love to find himself on the podium for the first time as a Red Bull driver. Perez has had some great races at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, including a P4 in 2017 and a P5 last year – while he’s presumably keen to see how strong a handle he has on the RB16B at a track all the drivers know well, having finished over 20s adrift of Verstappen at Portimao… but at least in the P4 that should rightfully be the domain of either a Mercedes or a Red Bull driver.

    As for Ferrari, meanwhile, the team are definitely on the up. But continuing issues with race pace compared to McLaren mean that Charles Leclerc and home hero Carlos Sainz remain as outside outsiders for podium glory this weekend.

    Podiums in the last five years:

    • Mercedes – 7
    • Ferrari – 3
    • Red Bull – 5

    FAN VIEW: Not surprisingly it’s Mercedes and Red Bull drivers who absolutely dominate the F1 Play voting for the podium positions this weekend. The only man outside of them getting any notable support is McLaren young gun Lando Norris. He’s been impressive so far in 2021 – and gamers have certainly taken note.

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    Norris is in superb form currently

    Points potential

    It was Alpine who were really the surprise package at Portimao, the team coming from nowhere to be in and around the hunt with McLaren and Ferrari – with Esteban Ocon seventh and Fernando Alonso eighth after a late-race rampage from the Spanish former champion. Was that a one-off, or have the Anglo-French team really taken a step? They’ll be keen to find out, as Alonso prepares for his first home race since 2018.

    READ MORE: Alonso says 'anger' stemming from poor qualifying inspired him to second points finish for Alpine

    Alpine’s performance on race day in Portimao was in marked contrast to Aston Martin’s. Sebastian Vettel flashed the old magic in qualifying by making it to Q3 for the first time in 15 races. Come Sunday, though, and the race pace wasn’t there for the team, as Vettel and Lance Stroll came home 13th and 14th.

    But with both cars set to use the team’s update this weekend (only Stroll got it in Portugal) will it be enough to give the team – who claimed P4 and P5 at Barcelona last year as Racing Point – a boost up the order?

    And finally, there’s an exciting battle going on right at the back of the field to see which team out of Alfa Romeo, Williams and Haas can score their first points of 2021. You could argue that Alfa are sort of winning that fight, after Kimi Raikkonen finished P9 at Imola only to be penalised down to P13.

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    Alfa Romeo's hopes of beating Williams and Haas to points in Portugal were hurt by Kimi Raikkonen's off

    But with Haas’ Mick Schumacher having revelled in the “big, big steps” his team had made with the VF-21 at Portugal, and Williams having shown flashes of extremely promising pace this season, it’s going to be fun to see which of these teams can make the breakthrough.

    Points in the last five years:

    • Mercedes – 153
    • Red Bull – 122
    • Ferrari – 91
    • Racing Point/Force India – 52
    • AlphaTauri/Toro Rosso – 21
    • McLaren – 19
    • Haas – 16
    • Williams – 14
    • Renault/Lotus – 14
    • Alfa Romeo/Sauber – 5

    FAN VIEW: While Norris is a very confident choice to again go well, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc is expected to be a top 10 mainstay once more on F1 Play. Daniel Ricciardo is being tipped to give McLaren two cars in the points in Spain while local hero Fernando Alonso is coming in for support after a fine drive in Portugal.