From a crucial opening few seconds to team mates with recent history starting side-by-side, and a Haas team seeking a big return to a potential weakness for Fernando Alonso, we highlight the key aspects to look out for in Sunday’s race in Spain…
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: 5 storylines for Sunday's race in Spain
Getting a good start in any race is important, but in Spain it can make or break a driver’s Sunday. The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is notoriously difficult to overtake on.
But the 730-metre run from pole position to the opening corner - the longest on the calendar to Turn 1 (Russia’s longer run is technically to Turn 2) - provides a major opportunity to make ground.
It’s just long enough for the slipstream to start having an impact but not so long that it results in the following car breezing past, and then the first three corners allow drivers to go side-by-side on the opening lap.
Qualifying has left a grid with a two-by-two feel, so Mercedes have the front row locked out and will be on the defensive from the Ferrari pair directly behind.
With the knowledge that a change in position at Turn 1 could have a long lasting effect, drivers are likely to push the limits that little bit further in search of any advantage, and that means a risk of incidents such as the one that accounted for both Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen on the opening lap last year.
Risk at Red Bull
The two-by-two nature of the grid continues back to row three, where the Red Bull drivers will line up alongside each other. Far from increasing the chances of a processional start, the positions throw up the tantalising prospect of a scrap into the opening corner between two drivers who are coming off the back of a high-profile collision and stern discussions with their team.
Both Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo were summoned to the Red Bull factory after their crash in Baku, but the team insist they remain free to race each other. Whether they can do so respectfully or whether the underlying frustrations since the last race will resurface when the lights go out is another matter…
The warnings from Team Principal Christian Horner might still be ringing in the drivers’ ears, but with the priority when it comes to strategy within each team typically going to the lead car on track, both Verstappen and Ricciardo will know that emerging from the opening corner ahead of the other carries additional value.
Add in the fact that the two drivers will not only be thinking of how the deal with each other but also the rest of the field as it heads towards Turn 1 and there are plenty of ingredients for further controversy.
Has the time come for Haas?
When Formula 1 was last in Barcelona for pre-season testing, Haas emerged as a strong candidate for the title of best of the rest behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. Further confirmation came during the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, where both cars reached Q3 for only the second time in the team’s history. But then it all went wrong in the race…
With just 11 points to show from the opening four rounds despite a seriously quick car, Haas matched their Melbourne performance with both cars in the top 10 on Saturday. Kevin Magnussen led the charge with seventh place and described it as the equivalent of pole position for the team, getting the better of all of their midfield rivals in qualifying.
But recent history has shown that an impressive Saturday can mean little when the lights go out, and Romain Grosjean’s own Q3 performance came following a number of off-track moments during the weekend.
Arguably the fourth quickest car is currently only eighth in the constructors’ championship, and Haas will be desperate not to let another opportunity slip away.
One potential advantage Magnussen has when it comes to trying to hold on to seventh place in the race actually comes in the form of the man alongside him. Fernando Alonso will start from eighth and has finished in seventh at each of the last three races, but there is one big difference. Alonso is the only driver who is guaranteed to start on the supersoft tyre, while the rest of the top 10 will start on the softs.
Alonso was forced into setting his best time on the supersoft in Q2 after failing to break the top 10 with a soft tyre run, showing he also wanted to avoid the softest compound when it came to the opening stint. Magnussen believes it makes the McLaren much less of a threat, such is the close performance of the different compounds this weekend.
“It’s clearly not great to be starting on a supersoft and I don’t think anybody will be tomorrow except for the ones that have to, because it’s not faster,” Magnussen said on Saturday evening. “There’s no upside to being on a supersoft. It wears out faster and it’s slower.
“I’m in a good position I think. I’ve got someone who is going to really struggled to do a one-stop strategy. If he gets in front then basically you can afford to wait for him to pit and then you just have to do a clean race.”
But there’s hope from above
Despite Magnussen’s confidence in his strategic advantage, there still could be a spanner in the works. Drivers were struggling for grip throughout Friday practice as the track lacked rubber early in the race weekend, and while conditions have improved, the forecast is for some fairly substantial overnight rain ahead of the race.
That means the track is likely to be ‘green’ (lacking rubber on its surface having been washed away) on Sunday and therefore low on grip once again. That change could make the supersoft a slightly better option for Alonso, but the Spaniard will be hoping for a further home advantage from potential rain during the race on Sunday afternoon.
If the start is wet, the tyre difference will be completely erased as drivers will be allowed to choose the wet weather compounds they start on and will not have to run two of the dry options in the race.
Alonso isn’t the only driver who could be doing a rain dance tonight, with Nico Hulkenberg stuck down in 16th on the grid after a fuel pressure issue eliminated him in Q1 and has left him with a big challenge to try and join his Renault team mate Carlos Sainz in the top 10.
- Chris Medland