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Six key questions ahead of the Spanish race

15 May 2016

Mercedes expect a tough challenge for victory in Sunday's Formula 1 Gran Premio de Espana Pirelli 2016, but who will it come from - Red Bull or Ferrari? Ahead of the race, we take a look at that question and five more that suggest it will be a fascinating contest in Barcelona...
Can Hamilton finally break Rosberg’s winning streak?

Spain marked Lewis Hamilton’s 52nd career pole position and Mercedes’ 58th, moving the latter ahead of Red Bull and into fifth place overall in the record books. Hamilton’s 1m 22.000s lap was a whopping 2.681s faster than Nico Rosberg’s 2015 pole time, and a fine rebuttal of those who say that F1 cars are no longer fast enough.

It was also a relief for the man who has suffered two consecutive Mercedes MGU-H failures which have prevented him from progressing to Q3 and condemned him to damage-limiting outings in China and Russia. He goes into the race determined to start cutting the 43-point deficit to his team-mate, and his chances look rosy.

“Obviously I didn’t get to compete in the last two qualifying sessions, so very, very happy with it and very grateful as well,” he said. “The car was great. Yesterday was a bit of a difficult day, so to be able to start on the right foot today is a real blessing

“Hopefully everything comes together. I’ve been working on starts obviously at the past races and yeah, we’re in the best position to start from. We’ll try to get off on the right foot, and tomorrow could be a good day.”

Explaining his qualifying sessions, he continued: “To get out today and feel the car beneath me once again was a great relief. But still, Nico was incredibly strong, as you can see, so there were areas where I knew I needed to pick up and that was really what I was trying to do – and in Turn 10 on my first run in Q3 I pushed a little bit too much. When I came in I was just laughing, believe it or not, because the lap was so good. Between those runs I was just giggling, thinking ‘That was such a good lap’. It would have been easily pole – but I’m glad I got it with the second one. Whilst it put a bit more pressure on the second lap, I was still able to get it, so I’m happy with that.”

As things stand, he has his best chance yet in 2016 of ending his team mate’s run of seven consecutive victories. Surely he has to take it.

Can the rapid Red Bulls keep the Prancing Horses at bay?

Daniel Ricciardo’s qualifying lap, which was 0.433s better than Kimi Raikkonen’s and 0.654s better than Sebastian Vettel’s, was a real shot in the arm for Red Bull.  Newcomer Max Verstappen’s ultra-impressive showing, meanwhile, was arguably the best qualifying performance for any teenager since Riccardo Rodriguez put his sharknose Ferrari second on the grid at Monza for the 1961 Italian Grand Prix. It also marked the first time since Austin last season that Red Bull have had both cars in the top four.

All of that bodes well for the RB12’s chances, but Ferrari have a habit of racing better than they qualify, so the team will have to push very hard to maintain their starting positions by the chequered flag.

“This is really the first track of the year that we’ve put on the majority of downforce that we currently have on the car and it’s shown our strengths are coming back,” said Ricciardo on Saturday evening. “I think we’ve shown signs already this year and today that’s shown again. We do have a good car underneath us. It would be nice to be back here tomorrow [third]. I’d love to say we can fight with them [Ferrari] but I’ll just try to hang with them, hopefully get a slipstream so they can drag me down into Turn 1 and I can stay close…”

Will Verstappen beat Ricciardo?

Max Verstappen has insisted all weekend that his task is to enjoy himself, rather than to target beating his much more experienced team mate. But he races well, and we all know that he would enjoy himself even more if he had the Australian in his mirrors and a podium finish in sight.

The truth is that both Red Bull drivers will be going flat out, not just to beat one another but also to stay ahead of Ferrari.

You wouldn’t rule out the possibility of car 33 finishing ahead of car 3, but equally, Ricciardo is at his most dangerous when under pressure and facing a challenge.

“I’ve said I don’t need any extra motivation because I feel I’m my own motivation,” he said. “I love the sport, I love the competition, and so as long as there’s someone to compete against, sure I’ll always have a high level of motivation. But I would say sure, it’s another challenge, having Max in. At the moment I guess he’s the hottest young property as the up-and-comers are concerned. At least he’s created the most hype I would say out of the new kids on the block and I think it showed today, he was very quick throughout qualifying. It’s good for me, obviously: more challenges and more people to measure myself against. It’s exciting.”

So, just settle back and enjoy their intra-team battle.

What happened to Ferrari in qualifying?

Sebastian Vettel freely admits that Ferrari don’t know what happened in qualifying, though some suggest that they were undone by the jump in track temperature from 28 degrees Celsius in FP3, when he was just 0.147s off Nico Rosberg’s fastest time, and the 42 degrees seen in Q3.

“We are disappointed as a team today because we didn't deliver what we can, we need to have a look and understand. We can't change it now,” the German said.

"Tomorrow is another day and I think the car should be a lot quicker then. We know that it can be very strong, we just need to make sure that we get it in the right groove.

 “There's the start and there's a long race, there are a lot of laps. For sure, lap one is important, but there's a whole race after that. I'll try to go a lot further than that, and see what we can do.”

Who’ll be Spain’s top dog - Sainz or Alonso?

The crowd will have two heroes to cheer on, and it’s a toss-up which has the better chance of the better result -Carlos Sainz, or Fernando Alonso?

“I’m very happy with today’s qualifying,” the former said after finishing in eighth place for Toro Rosso. “We’ve been strong the whole weekend so far and today’s P8 was the maximum we could hope for, and we did it - I’m very satisfied with my lap in Q3.

“The race will be a very interesting one, and to start from the fourth row in front of my home crowd is something I’m looking forward to. To race on home soil is always special, something that I’ve been dreaming of since I was four years old, when I started to watch Formula 1. To finally be here, living the dream, is an awesome feeling and I will try and enjoy myself and put on a good show for all the fans out there.”

Getting through to Q3 was a big fillip for McLaren, after they came so close in Russia.

“Today is the first time in a long while that I haven’t watched Q3 on television!” Alonso joked after qualifying 10th. “And it’s nice to be part of the show. This is new-shape McLaren-Honda’s first time in Q3 - but, in truth, we probably deserved this result a couple of races ago. But never mind that now: let’s just enjoy it before we turn our attention to tomorrow and look at how we can convert it into world championship points. That’ll require some thought because, for the first time this year, we’ll be starting on used Q2 tyres – we don’t have a free choice, which is a slight handicap that we’ll look to recover somehow.

“Nonetheless, we should be thinking about moving forwards tomorrow - and doing that here is usually all about the start and the pit-stops. Put it this way: I don’t think we’ll see too much overtaking tomorrow. That means we really need to focus on the start, and then look after our tyres because degradation is likely to be a factor. There’s still a long way to go, but this is a good step.”

On performance, the Toro Rosso probably has the better chance, but when it comes to strategy, the odds favour McLaren. On reliability, it’s probably even stevens.

What will the Spanish result really mean?

It’s generally reckoned that if a car goes well at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, it will go well at most tracks, because the Spanish venue makes many demands of machinery. It requires good traction in the slower corners, and plenty of downforce in the faster stuff, plus a strong engine down the long straight and a chassis that doesn’t overstress the front-left tyre.

Qualifying showed that Red Bull currently have greater performance over a lap than Ferrari in high track temperatures, and the red cars were a long way off Mercedes. If it stays that way in the race, the Scuderia will be on red alert - and under huge pressure - despite the massive effort that’s gone into the SF16-H and its recent updates.

And if the Mercedes check out from the start, it bodes ill for their competition for the rest of the year…