Spanish GP to test Ferrari’s title mettle

The 2017 Spanish Grand Prix (14 May) is the starters gun for one of Formula One’s fiercest ever development wars as Ferrari and Mercedes continue their titanic battle for on-track supremacy.

Few had tipped Ferrari to be in race-winning contention this season, but the four-round extra-European prologue to the 2017 F1 season was a finely balanced fight between the Scuderia and three-time constructors champion Mercedes.

The ledger shows each team with two wins — Ferrari in Australia and Bahrain, Mercedes in China and Russia — and the championship tables show Sebastian Vettel ahead by 13 points and Mercedes in front by just one.

That the two cars are almost perfectly matched in pace validates the teams’ gruelling offseason efforts, which in turn have changed the sport’s preseason pessimism into cautious optimism.

But F1 fans would be wise not to jump the gun, because at the Spanish Grand Prix Ferrari faces the sternest test of its title mettle to date.

Formula One’s return to Europe represents the first opportunities teams have to bring significant upgrades to their cars. All the data gleaned during preseason testing and all the experience gained during the first four races culminates in a raft of updates installed at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

Playing this upgrade game has been a key weakness of Ferrari’s in recent seasons.

This much was evident in 2016. The Scuderia would have won in Australia were it not for a strategic howler, and in Bahrain Kimi Räikkönen split the Mercedes pair in a tight Bahrain Grand Prix.

In Spain, however, Ferrari’s promising start to the year dramatically unravelled.

In Russia last year Ferrari was 0.7 seconds off pole, but it fell to 1.1 seconds behind in Barcelona. By comparison Red Bull Racing was 1.7 seconds behind in Russia but improved to be just 0.6 seconds off qualifying’s top spot, leapfrogging the Italians in the process.

The trend perpetuated for the rest of the season: Red Bull Racing moved forwards while Ferrari struggled to evolve the car, and the Scuderia ended the season in despair.

So while Ferrari’s form has been cause for celebration, it is the ensuing development war that will prove the team to be a championship contender or a title pretender.

The pressure will be on Red Bull Racing, too, to make a big step forward after a disappointing opening four rounds.

The Bulls suffered a similarly slow start to 2016 — it had the same 57 points this time last year — but quickly jumped Ferrari to win the only two races not won by Mercedes.

That Red Bull Racing is struggling surprised many given the team’s possession of Adrian Newey, the sport’s foremast designer, in a regulatory era that emphasis aerodynamics.

It has been a bitter pill to swallow for drivers Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, who started the year expecting to race for victories rather than minor places.

“I hope the upgrade will give us a chance to really fight with Mercedes and Ferrari or at least get us closer,” Ricciardo said. “It means that the people who do the work behind the scenes get their reward as well.”

Ricciardo and Verstappen, the latter a sensational maiden winner in Barcelona last year, might have to wait a little longer to make a lunge at the race lead, however, with engine supplier Renault delaying its latest power unit specification until July due to reliability concerns.

Every step in the development race counts, which makes the Spanish Grand Prix all the more exciting as the 2017 season continues to unfold.