Nico Rosberg may have arrived in Spain as the man in form after winning the first four races of the 2016 Formula 1 season, but it was Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton who stole the show in qualifying on Saturday in Barcelona.
Hamilton produced a stunning lap in the dying moments of Q3 to beat Rosberg by almost three-tenths of a second, comfortably claiming his third pole of the season.
The Briton joked after the session that it was “three from three” for him in qualifying this season, having suffered a power unit failure on the two occasions that Rosberg claimed pole.
However, the German remains the man to beat, and from second on the grid, he will know that an eighth successive grand prix victory remains well within reach.
Mercedes aside, there are a number of fascinating storylines on the cards heading into Sunday’s race. Here’s what to watch for in the Spanish Grand Prix, live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7am ET.
2016 Spanish Grand Prix – What to watch for
A straight fight at last for Lewis and Nico?
While Rosberg may have forged an impressive championship lead in the early part of the new season, he’s yet to go wheel-to-wheel with Hamilton at the front of the pack. Poor starts and qualifying setbacks have left Hamilton to fight his way from the back, giving Rosberg a relatively easy ride.
That could all change today though. Relying both Mercedes get a good start, we may see them enjoy a serious fight at the front. It would be a big psychological victory for whoever comes out on top.
Rosberg’s championship lead is safe for this weekend at least, yet if he can beat Hamilton in a straight fight and take the advantage to 50 points, it would be a significant blow to his rival’s aspirations of a fourth world title.
Verstappen prepares for Red Bull debut
Max Verstappen appears to have immediately justified Red Bull’s decision to promote him to its senior F1 team for the Spanish Grand Prix. In qualifying, he nearly beat teammate Daniel Ricciardo, and will start the race an excellent fourth on the grid. Not bad given he first drove the RB12 car on Friday.
All weekend long, there has been a feeling that Verstappen is finally ‘arriving’ in Spain. While he has undoubtedly impressed with Toro Rosso, the chance to battle at the front with a top-line car allows us to see what he is truly made of. The first signs have been impressive, but it will be in today’s race where we really see what the young Dutchman is made of.
Can Ferrari fight back?
The pressure is mounting once again at Ferrari. After a disappointing start to the season marred by reliability woes, the Italian marque hit a new low in qualifying as it finished fifth and sixth behind both Mercedes and Red Bull.
Big questions will inevitably be asked, as it could be an early sign that Ferrari will no longer be the second-fastest team. Red Bull’s RB12 car is clearly strong, and with a significant engine update due for the Canadian Grand Prix, Ferrari’s status as ‘best of the rest’ is under serious threat.
It’s a big race for Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen today. A good start and smart strategy may put them in the fight for the podium once again, but in reality, the top step looks a long way off now.
Kvyat seeks redemption
While Verstappen impressed in his first run in the Red Bull, the man he replaced faded in qualifying. Daniil Kvyat failed to make it out of Q2 upon his return to Toro Rosso – something new teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. did manage – only appearing to justify the harsh call made.
Kvyat has 17 races to save his F1 career. His future within the Red Bull setup looks bleak, meaning he needs to do his talking on-track to sell himself to other teams. Points in Spain would be a good and much-needed start in a bid to make up for his errors in Russia.
Can Haas reach the points again?
It’s been a funny season so far for Haas. The car seems OK in terms of pace when in front, but less so when chasing. Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez both grumbled about the VF-16 car in practice before reaching Q2, yet neither appears capable of reaching the points.
That said, as we saw in Russia, lots can change. A good start or a lucky safety car, and perhaps Grosjean and Gutierrez may bring home another haul of points for the American team. At the track where its car first debuted back in February, this race will be a true marker of how far it has come.
2016 Spanish Grand Prix – Starting Grid
1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
3. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
4. Max Verstappen Red Bull
5. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
6. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
7. Valtteri Bottas Williams
8. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
9. Sergio Perez Force India
10. Fernando Alonso McLaren
11. Nico Hulkenberg Force India
12. Jenson Button McLaren
13. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
14. Romain Grosjean Haas
15. Kevin Magnussen Renault
16. Esteban Gutierrez Haas
17. Jolyon Palmer Renault
18. Felipe Massa Williams
19. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
20. Felipe Nasr Sauber
21. Pascal Wehrlein Manor
22. Rio Haryanto Manor
The Spanish Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.