The race to avoid pain in Spain

Lewis Hamilton at the 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

The Spanish Grand Prix is the traditional opening round of the European Formula One season, meaning it marks the beginning of a months-long, sustained push for rapid performance development.

While the final leg of extra-European races have the opportunity to decide a finely balance title tilt, it is this block of grands prix that dictate which teams and drivers will make it to within striking distance of the finishing line in the first place.

This weekend is earmarked during winter testing as the best opportunity to make a step forward. The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is a known quantity as the preferred preseason testing venue, and as such it has become a Formula One benchmark. Perform well here, they say, and you should perform well everywhere.

A confident step forward will stand a team in good stead for the season; a wobble or a shuffle backwards could spell a major reassessment of the year’s objectives.

Which teams have the most to prove in Catalunya?

Just 14 points behind Ferrari in the constructors standings and with Lewis Hamilton leading the way for individual honours, Mercedes’s inclusion on this list may seem incongruous, but the hitherto dominant Silver Arrows have plenty to prove.

Ferrari’s pole positions in Shanghai and Baku heralded the end of Mercedes power supremacy, and the team has been fortunate to win one race to the Scuderia’s two.

It’s something of a shock that Mercedes is having such difficulty getting its car into its optimum performance window after such strong preseason form, but in many respects this is the continuation of a trend: between 2014 and 2016 the team had enough buffer for these problems not to matter, but from last year the German marque could be punished for its errors.

In 2018 it hasn’t the chassis nor the power unit to save it from bad weekends. Can updates from this round save the team from enduring another ‘diva’ season?

The Woking squad has the most to prove of any team in Formula One after promising so much for its post-Honda era and failing to deliver.

McLaren protests that its car isn’t underperforming but merely meeting targets set too low. Depending on who you talk to, updates in Spain will be either a B-spec car that delivers on the team’s potential or just iterative ahead of another tough season.

Whatever the case, Fernando Alonso is already tempering expectations.

“In Barcelona there is a new aero package coming, but I think 95 per cent of the paddock is bringing a new aero package,” he said. “I think it is up to us to make the package work and deliver to expectations, and hopefully some others do not deliver. That is our hope.”

It’s a sad state of affairs if McLaren is left to hope that other teams trip up worse than it has, but Alonso’s words combined with the removal of Tim Goss from the chief technical officer (chassis) role give little cause for optimism.

If Haas’s fast car is surprising, doubly so is that it has scored just 11 points so far this season.

The nominally American team has embarrassed itself in the opening four rounds of the year. It threw away big points in Australia with pit-stop blunders, and broken bodywork in Bahrain, strategy errors in China and rookie driver mistakes in Azerbaijan have left the team eighth in the standings.

“At the moment we cannot get it together,” principal Gunther Steiner lamented in Baku. “We are still only in our third year and that’s just reality. I think we need to get sharper … tie it all together.”

The good news is that the car is quick, but the bad news is that Haas has started the last two seasons with competitive cars before tailing off significantly from the European season onwards as its rivals ramped up development pace.

Last year it admitted to switching to development for this year’s car too early, and in 2018 it will give the VF-18 more time to grow, but for now the question of Haas’s development ability remains unanswered.

Plenty has been written about Williams’s woeful 2018 season already, from its difficult aerodynamic philosophy shift to its inexperienced driver line-up, but after four races the team seems barely closer to getting a handle on its problems.

Williams scored its first points of the season in Baku with Lance Stroll’s eighth place, but his four points were scored when Romain Grosjean, Esteban Ocon, Nico Hulkenberg and neither Red Bull Racing driver — all in objectively faster cars that weekend — retired.

The team under Paddy Lowe, having recognised the limitations of the previous car, has been bold in completely redesigning the car’s aerodynamics, but by Stroll’s account the FW41 is slower in all areas than its predecessor.

At risk is Williams’s first-ever last-place finish in the constructors championship, behind even Sauber, which was close to bankrupt only two year ago. If big steps don’t start arriving from this weekend, the unenviable achievement must be considered more likely than not.