Daniel Ricciardo’s chemistry with Max Verstappen, McLaren’s true pace and other key questions ahead of Spanish GP

After spending the last three full days in the paddock, we couldn’t possibly be more excited about the race itself. There’s been so much happening, on and off track, and with Barcelona being the first race on the European circuit, interest is even higher. Will the upgrades that teams have brought work? Will a new pecking order emerge? Who will be the heroes — and villains? We are looking forward to the answers!

1) Does Spain signal Mercedes’ return to dominance over Ferrari?

Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton (centre) celebrates pole position with Valtteri Bottas. Reuters

Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton (centre) celebrates pole position with Valtteri Bottas. Reuters

For a team that has stamped its authority on the Hybrid Turbo Era (seemingly outsmarting their competition by a mile), 2018 has been far from satisfactory for Mercedes. That said, tables seem to be turning — they won their first race of the season at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix a fortnight ago and have now locked out the front grid in Spain. Hamilton was -0.132 seconds on Vettel in Q3 — which one could argue is a sliver. “I needed this pole; I’ve not had a pole for a while,” a relieved Hamilton admitted. He will also be hoping to claim his first race of the season on merit (after being gifted the race win in Baku).

2) How does Bottas really stack up against Hamilton?

After trailing in Hamilton’s shadow last season, Valtteri Bottas has lately been keeping on pace with Hamilton — even outperforming his teammate in the last two races. Is it because Bottas has made solid improvement, or because Hamilton is floundering? In the qualifying session of the 2018 Spanish Grand Prix, Bottas qualified only four hundredths of a second behind Hamilton — these performances will hold him in good stead when it comes to contract discussions with Mercedes. In fact, Toto Wolff said after qualifying, “Valtteri has been upping his game through the last races and has been very solid indeed. This proves us right with our decision. Having the drivers close to each other in close of performance, and racing equally is most important.”

3) Is all well between Verstappen and Ricciardo at Red Bull Racing?

After the Azerbaijan debacle where the two Red Bull Racing drivers took each other out, rumours have been strife. This race will shed light on the dynamics between the two — and luckily for us, they qualified one after the other. Daniel Ricciardo insisted that he had nothing to prove to Verstappen or anyone else. “I know what I am doing. I am comfortable and will continue this way — I have always been a clean driver,” he had said. However, he did admit that till the Red Bull Racing supremoes didn’t see proof that their two drivers had calmed down, they would keep talking to them.

Red Bull’s situation has also become a talking point across the grid — Wolff confidently stated, “We are not having a Red Bull-like situation from last race, we are in a very different situation with Valtteri and Lewis. We let them race and they do it with the greatest respect and skill.” Guess he’s conveniently forgotten about what happened at the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix.

4) What is McLaren’s true pace after upgrades?

Like we all know, McLaren has perfected the art of PR — all talk, no walk. They have brought massive upgrades to Spain, including a new and highly-publicised nose design. Are the upgrades really working, and are they now definitively leading the midfield? After qualifying, Stoffel Vandoorne said he believed the upgrades were working well. “Here at Spain, Fernando (Alonso) and I have both our best qualifying sessions of the year (McLaren entered Q3 for the first time in 2018). There is an improvement in terms of how the car is handling. Every little bit will help us move forward in the midfield battle.” Meanwhile, Alonso joked, “We gain six places every race — since I am starting P8, I guess P2 is possible.”

5) How will the race strategy play out for the various teams?

This season, the importance of strategy has been iterated time and again. How will the respective teams plan their race strategy for the Spanish Grand Prix? On paper, it seems pretty obvious that the top six cars (who are starting on softs) will attempt to do a one stopper. But reality may not be as simple. Explained Alonso, “It’s a different race here with factors like the threat of rain...after the race it will be easier to figure which tyre and strategy was the best one.”

Interestingly, all eyes will be on Alonso in terms of strategy — he is the only driver in the top ten who starts on super softs. As Sebastian Vettel admitted, “tomorrow I think it will be a close race. Anything can happen really, just like the last couple of races.”

It started raining at Granollers, our location of stay and a suburb that is only 20 mins from the Circuit de Catalunya, late night on Saturday. The weather predictors indicate that rain could continue on Sunday; throwing up yet another challenge for the teams’ strategists.

6) Will Kimi Raikkonen finally catch a break?

For all those who’ve been wondering when Kimi Raikkonen is likely to retire, his performances have delivered a suitable answer — he’s notched up three podiums in the first four races of the season. Unfortunately, Raikkonen’s luck as eluded him, thus keeping him away from top honours; a large part of it could also be attributed to Ferrari often forgetting him mid-race while focussing all their energies on Vettel! Will the 2018 Spanish Grand Prix prove otherwise?

Raikkonen expressed his concerns over his race, saying, “I didn’t have the long runs yesterday, so it’s a bit unknown. We’ll see what happens tomorrow, I think it’s a bit tricky.”

Interestingly enough, Raikkonen could have clinched pole in the last two races had he ‘strung’ a lap together. It was another story altogether in Spain though. His Ferrari was beaten to pole by four tenths.

7) What will the circuit deliver?

In various press conferences, drivers were repeatedly asked whether this circuit ‘holds any secrets for them’ given how much they drive and test around here. However, the circuit has dealt a wildcard thanks to an unlikely combination of high winds, a new tarmac on the track and, of course, the chance of rain. Ricciardo said, “This is the track that is the safest and easiest for us, because we come here all the time. But it has surprisingly seen more crashes than any other circuit. It’s unexpected to see so many incidents.” Vettel also criticised the new tarmac, saying, “It was not necessary. They could have saved the money and put it somewhere else.”

Luckily for us, we don’t have to wait too long to get all these answers (and some more). The 2018 Spanish Grand Prix awaits!

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Updated Date: May 13, 2018 14:55 PM

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