With the four early-season flyaways now out of the way, Formula 1 returns to mainland Europe for one of the most important races of the season: the Spanish Grand Prix.
We may only be four rounds in to the year, and the battle between Mercedes and Ferrari may be as tight as ever at the front of the pack, but the upcoming weekend in Barcelona could be a decisive one.
The start of the European season ordinarily brings with it the introduction of significant update packages for cars, which will sport plenty of revised bodywork parts and new elements over the weekend that weren’t present last time out in Russia.
With 2017 marking the start of a new technical cycle for F1, the gains – and, therefore, the losses also – to be made are huge in the development race. Should Mercedes or Ferrari have found a magic bullet, it could lay the foundations for a purple patch of form that will prove crucial come the end of the season in Abu Dhabi.
Here are the key talking points for the Spanish Grand Prix weekend.
2017 Spanish Grand Prix – Talking Points
Bottas settles in to life as a GP winner
Valtteri Bottas’ maiden grand prix victory last time out in Russia may have not been one of the most spectacular successes in recent memory, yet it was an important one for both the Finn and the wider title battle playing out.
For Bottas, on a weekend where he was bombarded with questions about status as a number two driver at Mercedes behind Lewis Hamilton, to have outperformed his illustrious teammate so convincingly was a big statement of intent.
He may only have been given a one-year deal, but to already be in the winner’s column after just four races in a Mercedes is likely to have done Bottas’ chances of a renewal for 2018 a world of good.
It not only proved that Bottas has what it takes to win grands prix and control races, but it also showed how crucial he will be in denying the rival Ferrari team – and, perhaps more importantly, Sebastian Vettel – points in the title battle.
Kimi Raikkonen has looked off the boil for a while now, even if he did reach the podium in Russia. With Hamilton and Vettel so evenly-matched, it has seems more and more likely that it will be their Finnish teammates who decide the title race. Going on his performance in Russia, you’d want Bottas in your corner, hands down.
For Bottas though, there will be loftier ambitions on the table. He proved in Russia he has what it takes to beat Hamilton and Vettel. If he can keep doing that, then a title bid of his own wouldn’t be so unthinkable.
This ain’t a scene, it’s an arms race
It has been difficult to judge who out of Ferrari and Mercedes has been quicker through the opening four rounds of 2017. Much of their raceday performance has come down to tire management, with the closest sniff of a wheel-to-wheel battle on-track coming in Russia when Bottas soaked up pressure from Vettel late on.
This title race was never going to be decided by tire management, though. It was going to be decided by who could outdevelop their rival across the course of the season. A good ol’ fashioned arms race.
Mercedes’ big problem through the opening four races was that its car, the W08, was running at a heavier weight than that of the rival Ferrari SF70H. With this apparently resolved, the team should be in a more feisty mood this weekend, particularly with a raft of other updates also set to arrive for the W08 car.
For Ferrari, its big challenge will be keeping hold of Mercedes’ coattails. It has already surprised the paddock by producing a base car that is good enough to take the fight to the Silver Arrows at the front of the field. The question now is can it keep up in the development race.
Acronym questions aside, Red Bull looks to make a step
Red Bull’s 2017 campaign has been a mighty disappointment thus far. Considering the team pushed for the current regulations to place a heavy emphasis on aerodynamics, an area it has traditionally been strong in, to be almost two seconds off the pace at points isn’t great going.
But the team has always said it would be bringing a major, major update to the Spanish Grand Prix. Chatter in the past few days has suggested that the overhaul of the car is so big that there were even considerations to rename it the RB13B, or even skip a step and make it the RB14.
While such rumours have been unfounded, be sure to keep an eye on the new bits that crop up on the Red Bull car this weekend. There is an enormous gulf at the front of the pack to make up in relation to Mercedes and Ferrari, who themselves will have been making progress. As such, a repeat of Max Verstappen’s surprise maiden win from 2016 seems unlikely – but then again, didn’t it seem so 12 months ago..?
Will Pirelli’s tire picks cause trouble?
Pirelli’s tires have met mixed responses so far this season. After revising the compounds as part of its push to increase the tire sizes by 25 per cent, the more conservative nature of the rubber appeared to be offset by softer choices. Case in point: Australia and Bahrain, where managing the tires was a challenge.
At the other end of the spectrum, though, there was Russia, where even the softest possible selection resulted in a one-stop race that lacked any real strategic creativity, because it simply was not possible.
For Spain, Pirelli has moved in the opposite direction with its tire picks, electing to take its soft, medium and hard compounds to Barcelona. While this would be standard in previous years given the abrasive nature of the track and its hard-on-tire, the more conservative nature of the 2017 compounds and the difficulty to bring them alive means that drivers could struggle to work with them.
“We’re going for the harder tires for the first time this year in Barcelona. I’m not sure if it’ll help us or not but I just don’t think it’s going to be good for anyone,” Ricciardo said.
“The tires are already hard enough so the harder compounds are just way too hard. Hopefully for Barcelona’s sake it’s hot and therefore these harder tires work, but if it’s cold then it’s going to be a struggle for everyone.”
A true test for F1 in 2017
The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya may not be the most inspiring circuit in F1, yet it does offer the most well-rounded test for all teams due to its mix of high- and low-speed corners, plus some decent-sized straights.
As a result, outside of the battle at the top between Mercedes and Ferrari, we should get some firm answers regarding how the midfield is really shaping up. There has been little to separate Force India, Williams, Toro Rosso, Haas and Renault so far this season, with each of the five appearing to stake a claim for being the top midfielder at one point or another.
So we may finally get some answers this weekend. Williams has appeared to have the best-rounded car, and was quick through testing in Barcelona. Force India looks more consistent and has promised a significant update package for the race, so may be able to leapfrog ahead in terms of true pace as well.
The race for fourth in worth millions of pounds in F1, not just pride. This race could set the tone for the fight to come through the remainder of the year.
2017 Spanish Grand Prix – Facts and Figures
Track: Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya
Lap Record: Kimi Raikkonen 1:21.670 (2008)
Tire Compounds: Soft/Medium/Hard
2016 Winner: Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
2016 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:22.000
2016 Fastest Lap: Daniil Kvyat (Toro Rosso) 1:26.948
DRS Zones: T16 to T1; T9 to T10
2017 Spanish Grand Prix – TV/Stream Times