Spanish GP: Preview & five predictions for Barcelona

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Formula 1's European season gets underway with this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona.

The return to the sport's traditional heartland sees Ferrari desperate to turn around their fortunes after Mercedes continued their domination with a record fourth successive one-two finish in Baku.

But while the championship standings look pretty bleak for Sebastian Vettel and others looking to break the Silver Arrows streak, the gap could actually be a lot worse with only 40 points covering the top five in the Drivers' standings.

And now comes a crucial stretch in the calendar which will shape the season to come, with eight races in 11 weeks before the summer break at the end of July.

Furthermore, the Spanish GP is seen as a reset for the pecking order as teams bring the first major upgrade packages to their cars in the hope of finding performance.

Ferrari is promising both aero and engine improvements for Barcelona, while Red Bull is hinting at less dramatic changes, although that remains to be seen.

Of course, Mercedes will have their own updates too, but if a significant challenge is to emerge in 2019, it will start in the coming weeks.

It is in the midfield though, where the biggest changes could come, as a few hundredths let alone tenths of a second, could make the difference between points and Q1 elimination.

Notably, Renault and Haas are hoping to unlock the pace which we know they have but have struggled to turn into results this season.

Finally, there's Williams, a team who claim to be getting onto their feet and are hoping for big gains this weekend.

About the Spanish GP

The Spanish GP has been held at the Circuit de Barcelona Catalunya every year since 1991, having had previous stints at Jarama, Jerez and Montjuic.

If reports are to be believed, this could be the final season F1 visits for a race, with speculation it will be replaced by the Dutch Grand Prix in 2020.

The circuit will likely remain the annual location of pre-season testing though, with teams and drivers already completing hundreds of laps on this track this year.

It is also an interesting circuit because of the variety of the layout. From the high-speed corners at Turns 3 and 9, both of which are flat-out in today's cars, to the technical final sector which puts a lot emphasis on the tyres.

It does mean overtaking is quite tricky, with the main straight into Turn 1 the only major area where moves can be made but that hasn't stopped plenty of drama from taking place over the years.

One of the most iconic battles in F1 took place during the first race in Barcelona, with Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna running centimetres apart down the straight in 1991.

Michael Schumacher would take one of his most iconic victories in the wet in 1996, as he dominated the field to claim his first win for Ferrari.

Five years later, the six-time winner of this race claimed one of his most fortuitous triumphs after Mika Hakkinen retired from the lead on the final lap.

Spanish hero Fernando Alonso took his final F1 win at his home event in 2013, a year after one of the biggest shocks as Pastor Maldonado won for Williams in 2012.

More recently, Mercedes have ruled in Catalunya with four wins in five years, the only exception coming in 2016 when Hamilton and Nico Rosberg collided on Lap 1, allowing Max Verstappen to take the chequered flag in his first race with Red Bull.

Predictions

After the history lesson, let's look ahead to what may lie in store this weekend in Spain with my five predictions:

Ferrari to fly or falter

Ferrari's urgency to turnaround their season has been highlighted by the gamble to introduce a new engine this weekend, a month ahead of schedule.

This is the kind of decision that will either end in success or a cloud of smoke and that may well be the case as the extra power will help around much of the circuit.

As for the situation between Vettel and Charles Leclerc, the time has come for Ferrari to drop any favours towards the German and simply concentrate on beating Mercedes with whichever driver can achieve it.

Leclerc has been strong at all the races so far and there's no reason why he won't be again this weekend.

Gasly ready to make Red Bull mark

It has been a tough start for Pierre Gasly since joining Red Bull, with the Frenchman often struggling to make the top six in the first four races.

In Baku, however, there were signs of progress and this was proven by his comeback from the pit-lane to sixth, which was only stopped by a driveshaft problem.

It was a performance that will give Gasly confidence to push on going forward and hopefully start keeping teammate Max Verstappen a little more honest.

As for Red Bull's competitiveness, they continue to edge closer to Mercedes and Ferrari with each improvement that comes.

So it will be interesting to see if the latest updates can bring them into the picture for podiums and even victories sooner rather than later.

Renault's big midfield test

There's no doubt that Renault has fallen short of expectations this season both in terms of performance and reliability reasons, as they remain very much in the midfield pack.

If there's one area where they'd be expected to hold an advantage though, it is in development as they have more resources and personnel than most of the teams around them.

So their speed in Spain will be an indicator as to whether they can return to the front of the midfield or, as I fear, Renault will continue to disappoint.

Not just because of their own shortcomings but also because of the ability of teams like McLaren, Racing Point and Alfa Romeo to keep up.

All eyes on Spain's new F1 torchbearer

2019 will mark the first Spanish Grand Prix since 2002 without the man who made F1 what it is in the country today, Fernando Alonso.

Instead, it now falls on Carlos Sainz to carry on the double world champion's legacy and he heads to Barcelona needing a good result.

The main reason for that isn't necessarily his problematic start to the year, but more his performances at McLaren relative to rookie teammate Lando Norris.

While that is more of a testament to the Briton's own ability, it doesn't look great for Sainz as a driver many tipped for great things but could end up getting lost in the pack.

The start of a Williams recovery?

Azerbaijan couldn't have gone much worse for Williams after two big incidents left them scrambling for parts.

They would manage, however, and now they can look forward to this weekend which won't see a sudden spring into the midfield but might see a significant drop in the gap to the rest of the field.

There is a feeling that once the British team has improved the handling of what is a very unpredictable car, it will unlock a lot of untapped performance.

If that can be achieved in addition to adding some further upgrades then Williams might just see more light at the end of the tunnel.

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