Mercedes expects 3-way fight to continue in Spanish Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images

Mercedes AMG Petronas is not expecting things to get any easier when the FIA Formula 1 World Championship returns to Europe this weekend.

Lewis Hamilton won the Azerbaijan Grand Prix two weeks ago to end Mercedes’ winless streak this season, but the team expects the battle with Ferrari and Red Bull to be as tight as ever at the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona.

“We’re hoping that this year’s Spanish GP will be a good race for us, but we know that it will be tough,” Mercedes chief Toto Wolff said. “The first four races indicate very strongly that we will see the three-way battle continue and, if anything, intensify.”

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 23: Ferrari Team Principal Maurizio Arrivabene, Mercedes GP Executive Director Toto Wolff and Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner in the Team Principals Press Conference during practice for the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 23, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Mercedes was the team to beat the last few years but has endured a tough challenge from Ferrari and Red Bull this season. Hamilton’s victory in Baku came after Sebastian Vettel had won the first two races with Ferrari – in Australia and Bahrain – and Daniel Ricciardo had triumphed with Red Bull in China.

Although Hamilton holds a four-point lead in the drivers’ championship, it was Scuderia Ferrari which showed the fastest overall pace to start the season, and Red Bull Racing was not far behind with its fast race-pace.

Mercedes has taken three of the last four races in Spain, but Red Bull won with Max Verstappen in 2016 and Ferrari with Fernando Alonso in 2013.

There could be changes in the running order up front as teams will start unveiling their most significant car updates in Barcelona.

“Obviously one of the circuits we know best, since we are doing a lot of testing preseason in the winter on this track,” said Sebastian Vettel. “The opening of the European season is showing everybody, with some update packages usually coming around this time, where everyone is in the pecking order and sets you off for the rest of the season.”

Wolff said Barcelona marks “the first step of the development race” for the teams.

“It will be interesting to see how much performance the teams can find with their upgrades and what impact those upgrades will have on the team ranking, both at the front and in the midfield,” he said.

McLaren F1 Team is one of the teams trying to stay ahead in that “midfield” pack, which also has the Renault Sport F1 Team, Sahara Force India, and Haas F1 Team.

“I know we have some developments in the pipeline, but we also know there is no magic bullet that will propel us to the front of the grid overnight,” said two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, who is sixth in the drivers’ standings. “In Barcelona it’s a chance to evaluate some new things, see where we are, and determine the direction that we take with car development as we progress through the season.”

Earlier this week, Alonso was spared punishment by motorsport governing body FIA after Williams Martini Racing team requested a review of the Spanish driver’s actions in the first lap in Baku. FIA also denied Williams’ request to have the three-grid penalty given to driver Sergey Sirotkin scrapped.

Getting off to a quick start in Barcelona will be crucial on Sunday, as the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya historically doesn’t allow for many overtaking opportunities.

“After an exciting start to 2018 we’re now heading into the European season with races like Spain and Monaco that present very different challenges than some of the previous tracks,” Wolff said. “Overtaking is difficult in Barcelona and even more so in Monte Carlo, making track position key for a good race result. So, every team will work hard to get every last bit of performance out of the car in qualifying.”

Starting lineup grid for IMSA Petit Le Mans: Tom Blomqvist puts MSR on pole position

Petit Le Mans lineup

IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar championship contender Tom Blomqvist put the Meyer Shank Racing Acura at the front of the starting lineup for the Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Road Atlanta.

Blomqvist turned a 1-minute, 8.55-second lap on the 2.54-mile circuit Friday to capture his third pole position for MSR this season. Earl Bamber qualified second in the No. 02 Cadillac for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Ricky Taylor was third in the No. 10 Acura of Wayne Taylor Racing, which enters Saturday’s season finale with a 19-point lead over the No. 60 of Blomqvist and Oliver Jarvis (who will be joined by Helio Castroneves) for the 10-hour race.

PETIT LE MANS STARTING GRID: Click here for the starting lineup l Lineup by car number

PETIT LE MANS: Info on how to watch

With the pole, MSR sliced the deficit to 14 points behind WTR, which will field the trio of Taylor, Filipe Albuquerque and Brendon Hartley in Saturday’s race.

“We really needed to put the car in this kind of position,” Blomqvist said. “It makes our life a little less stressful tomorrow. It would have given the No. 10 a bit more breathing space. It’s going to be a proper dogfight tomorrow. The guys gave me such a great car. It’s been fantastic this week so far, and it really came alive. I’m hugely thankful to the boys and girls at MSR for giving me the wagon today to execute my job.

“That was a big effort from me. I knew how important it was. It’s just awesome for the guys to give them some sort of reward as well. It’s always nice to be quick. If you do the pole, you know you’ve got a quick car.”

Though WTR has a series-leading four victories with the No. 10, MSR won the Rolex 24 at Daytona and has five runner-up finishes along with its three poles.

The strong performances of the ARX-05s ensure that an Acura will win the final championship in IMSA’s premier Daytona Prototype international (DPi) division, which is being rebranded as Grand Touring Prototype in the move to LMDh cars next season.

Taylor qualified third despite sliding into the Turn 5 gravel during the closing minutes of qualifying while pushing to gain points.

“Qualifying was important for points,” Taylor said. “Going into it, if we outqualified the No. 60 Meyer Shank Acura, they had a lot to lose in terms of championship points. So, we were trying to increase the gap over 20 points which would’ve made a big difference for tomorrow. We would have loved to get the pole and qualify ahead of the No. 60, but in the scheme of the points, it didn’t change a whole lot. I’m feeling good since it’s such a long race, and the No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura team does such a good job strategizing and putting us in a good position.

“I’m very confident in our lineup and our team compared to them over the course of 10 hours. I’d put my two teammates up against those guys any day. I think we are all feeling optimistic and strong for tomorrow.”

In other divisions, PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports (LMP2), Riley Motorsports (LMP3), VasserSullivan (GTD Pro) and Paul Miller Racing (GTD) captured pole positions.

The broadcast of the 10-hour race will begin Saturday at 12:10 p.m. ET on NBC, moving at 3 p.m. to USA Network.



Results by class

Fastest lap by driver

Fastest lap by driver after qualifying

Fastest lap by driver and class after qualifying

Fastest lap sequence in qualifying

Best sector times in qualifying

Time cards in qualifying

PRACTICE RESULTS: Session I l Session II l Session III