The F1 fraternity moves into what many feel is the real start of the championship this weekend, at the Circuit de Catalunya. Situated adjacent to the Autopista del Mediterraneo and in between the sleepy towns of Montmelo and Granollers, the circuit that plays host to the 2010 Spanish Grand Prix is a favorite with teams and drivers alike.
A testing haven, it is like a home away from home. For those of us on the other side of the pitwall however, the familiarity and tradition dictate that we are in for a Bahrain-style procession.
Those in the Red Bull squad will have been the most eager to get going this weekend. The Adrian Newey inspired RB6 has been far and away the dominant machine, yet has not reached its full potential, winning only one of the previous four Grand Prix.
The Milton Keynes outfit went well here last year and were strong in preseason testing, but the competition this time round is potentially of a higher level. The start of the European season traditionally see a host of important upgrades up and down the grid, yet Red Bull has been coy on their planned additions, with the only definitive news being that the "F-Duct" that Mclaren introduced at the beginning of the season won't be ready in time for Barcelona.
Due to the relatively stable weather forecasts for this weekend, as well as the tight nature of the circuit, it is hard to see past a Red Bull victory in north-eastern Spain this weekend if they are not afflicted with the same kind of reliability issues that they have encountered in 2010.
Hanging onto the Red Bull colored coat tails are Ferrari and Mclaren. The latter will be buoyed by their solid showing in Shanghai, although that could not be considered a true indicator of raw performance due to the weather conditions in China.
Mclaren Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh has promised significant aerodynamic upgrades for the MP4-25, which should give Messrs Hamilton and Button a boost on a circuit that depends heavily on good aerodynamic performance. Both drivers will be targeting an improvement on their respective qualifying performances if they are to have any chance of victory come Sunday.
Ferrari, on the other hand, is like a boat that is being buffeted by a strong Atlantic wave at the moment. Their machine is sturdy and fast, but the unpredictable nature of at least two of the four races this season has seen them unable to reach the potential that they exhibited in Bahrain.
Like Red Bull, they will be hoping that the weather forcasters are correct in Spain, and that a dry weekend will allow them to get back up to speed. De Facto number two, Felipe Massa, will be out for revenge after fiery Spaniard Fernando Alonso barged his way past in the Shanghai pitlane; however his wish for retribution might be hard to grant at the Spaniard's home Grand Prix, with Alonso determined to score his first home victory since 2006. Expect a competitive showing from the Scuderia.
Michael Schumacher will head to Barcelona this week a worried man. The vultures otherwise known as the international media have been slowly encircling the German after what can only be described as very average races in Bahrain, Australia, Malaysia, and China.
Mercedes is giving Schumacher a renovated chassis for this weekend, in the hope that the longer wheelbase will suit the German better and bring him up to speed with Nico Rosberg. If Mercedes and Schumacher cannot improve on what has been a solid but not spectacular start to the season, the wisdom of Schumacher's comeback will be scrutinized like never before. There have been rumours that should Schumacher not improve considerably by mid-season, the three year contract that he signed in late December 2009 may not be as water-tight as first thought.
Of the other podium finishers this season, Renault is continuing with their aggressive development policy, and as such, we will not see a large leap in performance from the French manufacturer. The expectation is for another solid showing from eastern-European stalwarts Kubica and Petrov, and both cars should make it into the third qualifying session to maintain their impressive start to the season.
However, the Renault's excellent traction will serve it well a week later in Monte Carlo, where they should be very strong. A Monaco podium for the French outfit cannot be ruled out.
Hovering above the new teams are Williams and Toro Rosso. Both teams have remained reticent about new upgrades for their cars, although it has been reported that Sebastian Buemi has asked for a new chassis after his spectacular suspension problem in Chinese practice. Along with Force India, both teams desperately need an extra boost to propel them up the grid after mixed fortunes so far in 2010.
Hot on the heels of the aforementioned mid-table teams is Lotus. Due to the late start in designing and manufacturing their cars, the Malaysia-Norfolk team will be bringing perhaps the biggest upgrade package of the grid to Barcelona.
Technical Director Mike Gascoyne had previously said that these upgrades were intended for Bahrain, but due to time constraints and logistics this wasn't possible. A forecasted 1.5-2 seconds is due to come Lotus' way, which could conceivably see them fighting with the likes of Toro Rosso and Williams. At this rate of development and with the resources available, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Lotus gaining a handful of points by the end of the season.
Conversely, Virgin Racing and HRT cannot expect to take any significant steps forward in Barcelona. The ex-Manor team will at least be relieved that their cars are now fitted with sufficiently large fuel tanks after the farcical realisation that they could not finish races with the fuel tank capacity they had started with.
Settling into the 'Minardi' role is HRT, who are dependent as much on chassis manufacturer Dallara as they are their own team to move forward. Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok will be hoping for another race finish to cement their improved reliability since Bahrain.
The nature of the circuit near Barcelona suggests that a Red Bull win is a formality. Long, medium to high speed corners require a strong aerodynamic package and that is where Red Bull has excelled in 2010.
With a dry, if overcast, race predicted at the moment, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber will be strong favourites heading into this weekend. It will be interesting to see if they have maintained their margin of superiority, or if the likes of Mclaren, Ferrari and Mercedes have done enough work back at base to lessen their disadvantage.