It may not have opened the European leg of a Formula 1 campaign since 2019, but the Spanish Grand Prix is still a crucial litmus test for what we can expect from the remainder of the 2021 F1 season.
This weekend’s race at the Catalunya circuit will provide a key indicator for the title battle, expose the true extent of the struggles faced by drivers and teams and provide a clearer picture of this year’s pecking order.
McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo believes he will have not have “too many odd things going on or excuses of any sort” at the traditional pre-season testing venue, following an unpredictable weekend of conditions in Portugal.
Ricciardo has struggled to match Lando Norris since joining McLaren, but he’s far from the only driver or team who will be hoping for a change of fortunes this weekend – and he’s far from the only one with no excuses to hide behind this weekend either.
Our writers pick out who they think will be under the greatest pressure to deliver during this weekend’s Spanish GP.
Given Red Bull is having its best start to the season of the hybrid era, it might seem strange to pick it out. But after being defeated by Mercedes in two out of three races, Barcelona is a key test of its title credentials.
On paper, the Red Bull could have a pace advantage in Barcelona, so qualifying will be a test of just how good the car is aerodynamically. And if Red Bull, most likely with Max Verstappen, is on pole position then it should hold all the cards in defeating Mercedes. If it loses out, either on pace or through not executing the race as well as Mercedes, it will be a serious blow.
Red Bull hasn’t fought for a world championship for a long time, with its last victory coming in 2013. While its many strengths – including aerodynamic development and rapid pitstops – have been showcased, there have been areas where it’s looked a little rough around the edges. Most notably in not being on top of the nuances of track limits in Bahrain and Portugal.
On a track Mercedes has made its own in the hybrid era, only losing out in 2016 after Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were wiped out on the first lap of the race, there’s a chance for Red Bull to make a real statement of what it is – or isn’t – capable of in this battle.
– Edd Straw
Bottas has already had a pole position in 2021 and, save for the absolute disaster of a race at Imola, he is performing just about at the level expected.
But though the Finn has certainly had his moments as a Mercedes driver, the recent form does not make for a good narrative, with the two latest weekends incorporating basically every major weakness in his time as a member of the Silver Arrows.
At Imola he was puzzled by a loss of pace and a tyre warm-up struggle in Q3, and then was deeply uninspiring in the wet-dry race, and at Algarve he showed himself unable to fully take control of the race out front despite delivering a solid start and nailing a safety car restart.
None of these are particularly new things, but Bottas would’ve loved to figure them out by now – and they are made to look worse by the fact it’s not just team-mate Lewis Hamilton but Max Verstappen’s Red Bull that’s performing better.
And therein lies another problem. Unconvincing as a title contender, Bottas has also not taken much in the way of points off Verstappen in the championship battle so far, save for a couple of fastest laps.
In Barcelona, Bottas and Hamilton have been reliably very close in qualifying, but usually pretty far apart in the race. The task for Bottas will be ‘simple’ – continue with the former, but rectify the latter.
– Valentin Khorounzhiy
The man whose comments sparked this entire piece has teed up this weekend as a significant one in his ongoing McLaren adaptation.
Ricciardo found a renewed optimism in bringing the McLaren closer to his liking after a charge through the order in Portugal, but it was still a difficult weekend that only added two points to his total.
In Spain, his priority will be on returning to Q3 and being a lot closer to team-mate Lando Norris in qualifying.
It felt like the extremities of Portugal, with its low-grip surface and changing wind conditions, exacerbated the areas Ricciardo has struggled with in the MCL35M.
He believes that a known quantity like Barcelona, with more grip, and a higher-downforce set-up, will give him a better platform to work with. And he wants to try some mechanical ideas on the car to open up the window in which he can get the car to perform at its best.
That’s a big declaration to make for a single weekend, especially as Ricciardo had started off the Portugal round in high spirits with a strong Friday and a comfortable feeling in the car.
He’s added his own expectations for Spain and putting the emphasis on a strong performance.
– Scott Mitchell
ASTON MARTIN AND SEBASTIAN VETTEL
Sebastian Vettel wasn’t able to convert a first Q3 appearance of the season in Portugal into points, but the reason for that – according to Aston Martin – was not having the new floor that Lance Stroll had use of.
“The post-race analysis we have done duly showed that Lance was able to access greater race pace than Sebastian – the result of the aero updates uniquely fitted to his car, which he used to good effect,” said performance engineering director Tom McCullough.
Vettel will have an updated car this weekend, though. And that immediately raises expectations.
Aston hasn’t had a great start to the year but it’s got a car into the top-10 shootout in qualifying at every race.
So there is some pace in the AMR21, it’s just a marginal Q3 car. And it’s been waiting to unleash developments aimed at creating more aerodynamic load at the rear of the car, which it has repeatedly stated has been weakened by the new-for-2021 floor rules.
“Creating Formula 1 aero updates is something of an art,” said McCullough.
“It is based on science and engineering, of course, it is, but it is also a frustratingly unpredictable process.”
Nowhere is that process more routinely tested than at Barcelona, which has validated or exposed upgrade packages for many years.
Away from the oddities of Portugal, a track Aston feels doesn’t suit its car, there’s little excuse for this team not to make a stronger statement this weekend – even if it’s quite a way off challenging McLaren and Ferrari.
– Scott Mitchell
The whole tenor of Alpine’s season still hangs in the balance after a very disappointing opening two events followed by a very promising one at Portimao last weekend where Esteban Ocon was mixing it with Ferrari and McLaren and comparable on race performance.
But the Portuguese track is a funny place, with its gripless tarmac and gusting winds. How seriously can we take that performance?
Was it a product of its latest aero upgrade based around the new diffuser? Or did Alpine just stumble into a better place than most in how it got the tyres up to temperature and maintained them there – the key challenge of the Portuguese track?
Barcelona’s challenges are much more representative of the season as a whole and if Alpine reverts to being a chunk away from Ferrari/McLaren and AlphaTauri, then it’s likely in for a mediocre season. But if it’s still in there pitching as it was last week, it has a platform to build upon.
The focus then becomes very much on the drivers. Ocon did a great job in getting the best from the car in Portimao and Alonso came alive in the race after another poor qualifying. Barcelona would be an appropriate venue for the Alonso comeback to really catch the wind.
– Mark Hughes
Yuki Tsunoda’s Portuguese GP verdict was blunt: “Really tough. I don’t know what’s happened at all, just no pace at all from my car.
“I struggled all race with a strange car balance. I don’t know what’s happened, just have to look at the data and make the car better for Barcelona.”
Portugal was a shame for Tsunoda because he’d shown flashes of why he is such an exciting prospect across testing and first two races but his crash in Imola qualifying and spin in the race (just after putting the moves on Lewis Hamilton!) had disrupted his momentum.
Perhaps the clue to Tsunoda’s struggles lay in team-mate Pierre Gasly’s post-race remarks. Gasly said AlphaTauri already knew from winter testing it needed to improve its low-speed cornering performance, but the Portugal performance gave it “proof we are struggling against our main competitors”.
Given Tsunoda had no prior knowledge of Algarve, perhaps it was no surprise he struggled more than Gasly with a less competitive car.
“At least, it gives us a clear direction for development,” Gasly added. It also means there is reason to expect AlphaTauri to be back on form at Barcelona.
“I’m confident we’re going to have slightly better pace,” said Gasly. “Barcelona has a lot more high-speed corners and medium-speed corners.
“It still has the low-speed corners in the last sector, which is tricky, but [less] compared to [Portugal] where you have a lot of second and third gear corners, and they’re not our favourites, especially compared to Alpine, Ferrari or McLaren.”
With a faster car and greater familiarity with the circuit, the variables that stunted Tsunoda in Portugal should be removed. And a sharper weekend is expected as a result.
– Scott Mitchell
It’s clearly quite difficult to be an F1 rookie these days and particularly difficult to be one in 2021, and it’s never a big surprise anyway when a rookie is beaten by their team-mate. But at least Tsunoda has an actual grand prix winner as the reference point within his team, whereas Mazepin is being compared to another rookie.
So far, across the gamut of the F1 sessions he’s contested, the Russian has been either accident-prone (more accurately, spin-prone) or off the pace, or both. The VF-21 is clearly not the easiest car to drive, as Mick Schumacher’s copybook isn’t exactly blot-free, but the German is reliably extracting much more pace right now.
Mazepin has also come under fire from other drivers for on-track conduct, but those instances – for the most part – seem to so far have been borne out of Haas’s communication shortcomings and qualifying strategy quirks rather than Mazepin bringing his junior single-seater aggression into F1.
In any case, the intra-team battle at Haas has so far been more one-sided than a rookie fight should be, and Mazepin must at least make inroads into Schumacher’s current advantage in Barceloona and prove Guenther Steiner’s claim that the gap between his two drivers is exaggerated.
Mazepin has tested a Mercedes F1 car at the Spanish venue, he’s raced here over and over again in junior categories – even winning on his GP3 debut – so there really is no excuse not to step up.
– Valentin Khorounzhiy
Williams is adamant that its car is pretty good aerodynamically and the qualifying pace George Russell extracted from it at Imola and in Portugal supports that. But it has proved very sensitive to windy conditions, with both drivers struggling badly in the Portuguese Grand Prix and George Russell sliding to 16th having been hopeful of challenging for a points finish.
As a very aero-dependent circuit, Barcelona is the perfect venue to prove how good the car is – assuming, that is, the conditions are calm. If Williams can perform well, it will prove that it has every chance of elevating itself off the bottom of the constructors’ championship table for the first time since 2017 and potentially even challenge Alfa Romeo for eighth.
Given Barcelona was also one of Williams’s weakest circuits in terms of pace deficit to the front last year, it’s also a measure of just how much aerodynamic progress the team has made with the FW43B.
– Edd Straw