F1 Preview: Spanish Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images

Round 5 of the 2018 FIA Formula 1 World Championship season sees the first of the European races, which make up the “meat and potatoes” of the Formula 1 calendar, and this weekend should give a clear indication of which teams are destined to be the main protagonists for the rest of the year.

The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, home of the Spanish Grand Prix, is the primary testing facility for all F1 teams. As a result, each team’s car is well-suited to the 2.89-mile circuit, meaning no one should face any surprises.

Consequently, it will mean that this race, maybe more than any other so far, will highlight just who is top dog in the F1 paddock.

A look at major stories entering the Spanish Grand Prix is below.

Ferrari/Mercedes/Red Bull Battle for Supremacy

SHANGHAI, CHINA – APRIL 15: Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 15, 2018 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Unsurprisingly, Mercedes AMG Petronas, Scuderia Ferrari, and Red Bull Racing have asserted themselves as the three best teams of the 2018 F1 season. But, just who ranks at the top of those three is still up for debate.

All three teams have won races, with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel topping the list with two victories to his name. Lewis Hamilton took a fortuitous victory at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, and also has a pole at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix. And Daniel Ricciardo used tire strategy to put Red Bull on the top step of the podium at the Chinese Grand Prix.

Ferrari has appeared to have the upperhand on outright pace, with Vettel scoring three poles in a row between Bahrain, China, and Azerbaijan. However, the gap between them and Mercedes is near-as-much it may as well be nominal, with both Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas showing strong qualifying form.

And the Mercedes W09 is more than fast enough to win – Bottas “coulda/woulda/shoulda” won in Baku before a cut tire ended his day in the final laps, and Mercedes even outwitted Ferrari on strategy that day to put Bottas and Hamilton 1-2 in the final laps before Bottas’ misfortune.

On the Red Bull side, their biggest threat may be themselves, specifically their own drivers. Ricciardo and Max Verstappen’s rivalry came to blows in Baku and they crashed each other out while battling for fourth. Ferrari and Mercedes have an upperhand on pace, and Ricciardo and Verstappen won’t want to exacerbate that by stepping on each other’s toes again.

Spain will serve as a “tell all” of sorts in terms of genuine strength. And when Sunday’s race concludes, we should have a clear understanding of the pecking order.

McLaren Rolls Out First Updates of 2018

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 09: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren F1 Team MCL33 Renault on track during day four of F1 Winter Testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 9, 2018 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

The Spanish Grand Prix is often the first chance for teams to throw their first major updates on their cars, and the McLaren F1 Team appears to be the first to do so, or at least is the first to reveal publicly that they are doing so.

Despite double points finishes in three of the opening four races – Fernando Alonso has a fifth and three seventh place finishes, while Stoffel Vandoorne has an eighth and two ninth-place finishes so far – the team has under-performed to expectations.

A slew of upgrades to the MCL33 could give them an added boost in Spain.

And don’t be surprised if more teams throw big updates on their 2018 cars. With Barcelona close to many teams’ bases, it represents a golden opportunity to try new things out.


  • Sergio Perez gave Sahara Force India a much-needed podium in Baku, this after a troublesome start to the year that saw Esteban Ocon score the team’s only other points finish (10th in Bahrain). Force India rose to the top of the midfield, where they’ve been each of the last two years, in Baku, and they’ll look to continue that momentum.
  • Despite their strong pace, Haas F1 Team only has two points finishes, both coming in the hands of Kevin Magnussen, who finished fifth in China and 10th Bahrain. Romain Grosjean has two DNFs to his name so far, and he crashed under the Safety Car in Baku. Both drivers and the team will be desperate to earn a sack full of points in Spain to make up for missed opportunities in the opening four races.
  • Alfa Romeo Sauber’s Charles Leclerc was one of the stars from Baku, finishing a brilliant sixth to score his first ever F1 points. A repeat performance is asking a lot of him and Sauber, but if others stumble, they could score points for the second race in a row.
  • Renault Sport F1 Team has looked strong out of the gate, but Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz Jr. are yet to score podiums. In fact, Hulkenberg has the most starts of any F1 driver without a podium. Both drivers will look to put Renault on the box for the first time since its return as a works F1 team.

Qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix is Saturday at 9:00 a.m. ET, and Sunday’s race begins at 8:00 a.m. ET.


NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
McLaren Racing

As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Formula E team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”


James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship car from Mercedes-EQ. – McLaren Racing

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – McLaren Racing

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”