The European leg of the 2016 Formula 1 season kicks off this weekend with the Spanish Grand Prix on the outskirts of Barcelona.
The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is one of the oldest and most-used tracks in F1, playing host to pre-season testing on a regular basis.
As a result, it offers teams the perfect opportunity to gauge how far they have come since the first runs of their new cars in winter testing three months ago.
Nico Rosberg arrives in Spain riding the crest of an ever-growing wave after racking up his seventh straight grand prix victory in Russia two weeks ago.
With four wins from four races in 2016, history is firmly on the German’s side: no driver has lost the championship after making such a good start.
However, as Rosberg is all-too-quick to point out, none of them had Lewis Hamilton for a teammate. Will the Briton’s revival start on Sunday in Spain?
Here’s our full preview of the race.
2016 Spanish Grand Prix – Talking Points
Verstappen, Kvyat prepare for fresh starts
The biggest talking point heading to Spain – surprisingly – comes from outside of Mercedes. After his disastrous display in Russia, Red Bull announced that Daniil Kvyat would be returning to Toro Rosso for the remainder of the season, with Max Verstappen moving in the opposite direction.
With both drivers slated to take part in Thursday’s FIA press conference, things could get quite awkward. It will be fascinating to see how both deal with such a sea-change in their careers.
For Verstappen, this promotion presents a golden opportunity to prove himself as one of F1’s future stars with a top-line drive. Can he make an immediate impression in Spain?
As for Kvyat… quite where his career goes from here is hard to say. He’ll need to push on from an early stage though.
Reliability the focus for Mercedes after tough start
Lewis Hamilton may arrive in Spain with a 43 point deficit in the drivers’ championship to Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg, yet the Briton hasn’t been able to fight for a race win so far this season. His luck has been appalling, with power unit problems ruining his weekends in China and Russia.
The focus for Mercedes at the start of the European season has become reliability. The threat of Ferrari is not as great as once feared, easing some of the pressure at the front, but with Hamilton hungry to fight back, ensuring his car is running properly will be paramount this weekend.
If all goes to plan, then perhaps we’ll get our first Rosberg-Hamilton battle of the season. If Hamilton ails to a fifth straight defeat though and Rosberg’s lead swells to 50 points or more, his title hopes will become all the slimmer.
Can Ferrari cut the gap?
After all the pre-season hype, Ferrari’s start to the new season has been disappointing at best. Reliability has been a weak spot, yet the inherent pace of the SF16-H simply does not seem to be up to scratch. Kimi Raikkonen’s failure to even get close to Rosberg in Russia is proof of that.
With rumors of changes in the senior management at Maranello circulating and CEO Sergio Marchionne saying he expects wins to come soon, the pressure is on to cut the gap to Mercedes and get back in the fight.
Updates for the car will arrive in Barcelona, much as they will for all teams, but Ferrari needs to dig deep and ensure it can keep the Silver Arrows in sight. If not, it risks being marooned in second for the entirety of the season – and with Red Bull looking stronger this year, it may even be a battle to hold on to P2.
Updates to shake up the pecking order?
The beginning of the European season ordinarily heralds the first big raft of updates for teams as they push to kick on from the first four rounds.
A number of teams have confirmed that they will be arriving in Spain with sizeable overhauls for their cars, the biggest set to come from Force India. Renault is focusing on engine updates ahead of a bigger step in Canada, while even Haas is bringing some smaller new parts for the VF-16.
The question now is how this will change the pecking order, particularly in the tight midfield. Red Bull and Williams will be hoping to wrestle control in the battle for P3 and even cut the gap to Ferrari, while the likes of Force India, Toro Rosso, McLaren, Renault and even Haas will hope to make some serious gains.
It may only be a ‘little’ thing, but the start of the European season marks the return of F1’s mighty motorhomes. Up and down the paddock in Barcelona, giant structures have been erected to make the teams feel at home over the weekend.
This, combined with the shorter flight times – Lewis Hamilton left Monaco only this morning on his private jet – will leave the teams feeling more refreshed for the next run of races. Between now and the Italian Grand Prix, there are just two flyaways to contend with (ironically, one of them is the European Grand Prix), easing up the amount of travel taking place.
One interesting thought is that Red Bull and Toro Rosso share a motorhome, the Energy Station. Might that make things a little more awkward for Max and Dany?
2016 Spanish Grand Prix – Facts and Figures
Lap Record: Kimi Raikkonen 1:21.670 (2008)
Tire Compounds: Hard/Medium/Soft
2015 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2015 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:24.681
2015 Fastest Lap: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:28.270
DRS Zones: Main Straight (T16 to T1); T9 to T10
2016 Spanish Grand Prix – TV Times
Free Practice 1: NBC Sports Live Extra 4am ET 5/13
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 8am ET 5/13
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports Live Extra 5am ET 5/14
Qualifying: NBCSN 8am ET 5/14
Race: NBCSN 7am ET 5/15