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Ben Edwards column: 5 to watch in Spain

Will it be Hamilton vs Vettel in Spain?
By Ben Edwards
C4F1 commentator 

The latest instalment of Sebastian Vettel vs Lewis Hamilton will be the primary focus at the Spanish Grand Prix as the top two in the points duke it out on one of the most lapped circuits in F1 history. But there are many other scenarios lurking beneath the headlines, and several drivers to keep an eye on.  

Fernando Alonso

With all the stories building up to his Indy 500 encounter in a couple of weeks’ time, it’s hard to ignore Alonso, and he’s doing his best to make sure he’s always being talked about. This weekend he races at his home circuit, the track where he last won a Grand Prix all the way back in 2013. Since that day, Lewis Hamilton has won 33 GPs, which is one more than Alonso has won in his entire career. 

This weekend will also mark Alonso’s 50th start since he last stood on the podium, and his 75th since that victory here. So far this season, he has failed to see the chequered flag in any of the four races and he didn’t even make the start in Russia. But he is still worth watching here; last season he put the McLaren-Honda combination into Q3 for the first time and although the Honda is lacking in power, the chassis makes a much bigger contribution on the Barcelona circuit. Reliability is still a bugbear, and there may be grid penalties for engine parts, but Alonso can be relied upon to deliver something special here in Spain.  

Carlos Sainz

The other Spaniard in the mix is Carlos Sainz and, like Alonso, he seems to relish the home support rather than be intimidated by it. His best-ever F1 qualifying performance was here in 2015 when he put the car fifth on the grid, out-qualifying his then teammate Max Verstappen, while his best race result was also delivered here in 2016 when he finished sixth, a result he went on to repeat in both Austin and Brazil. 

He’s had a pretty solid start to the season, highlighted by the choice to start on slicks in the wet in China against the wishes of his team, and Shanghai delivered his best result so far in seventh. He blotted his copy book by running into Lance Stroll in Bahrain, but the Williams is a quick car, and there must have been a sense of urgency to pass it promptly when he came out of the pits; sadly his timing was out. That put Sainz three places further back on the grid in Russia and yet he was still able to score the final point. 

This year’s Toro Rosso is a sound car, and it should show well on the Barcelona layout. Sainz will be targeting a top-10 start, achieved only once so far this year, and another helping of points to keep Toro Rosso ahead of Haas.   

Valtteri Bottas

The Finn came of age as a Grand Prix driver in Russia and he has been able to go home and build up to the start of the European season with a sense of a job well done. For all fans of the sport, Bottas couldn’t really have timed it any better, as he is now a serious contender and has proved that, like Nico Rosberg, he can take Lewis Hamilton on and beat him when it all clicks into place on his side of the garage. There will be a sense of relief and of belief that it can be done again. 

But will it be Mercedes or Ferrari that set the pace this weekend? The Silver Arrows have qualified 1-2 here for the past four years and that sequence began before the introduction of the hybrid V6 engines; their car should have good stability in the fast corners and in recent years they have been mighty in the twisty final sector. But the Ferrari is good on tyres, and the combination of surface and layout do present a harsh proving ground. Add in the unknown elements of upgrades on both cars and it would appear to be a wide open contest between the top two teams going into this one.  

Romain Grosjean

The Haas is fundamentally a good car, an impressive follow-up after the team’s debut season in 2016, but Grosjean doesn’t yet have a great deal to show for it; one finish in the points in Bahrain and a fine sixth place on the grid in Australia which sadly wasn’t converted into a result. Russia was one of those events that just didn’t come together for him, and the frustrations over the radio were growing throughout the weekend, before it all ended on the first lap in a clash with Jolyon Palmer. 

Expect to see a rejuvenated Grosjean in Spain, on a circuit where the car showed well in testing and where Grosjean qualified third in the Lotus back in 2012. He scored some useful points here in 2014 and 2015, but was only 14th on the grid last year and retired early with brake problems. They are still trying to get the brakes right, but aero balance will be more crucial here and that should be a benefit. The Frenchman will want to start the European season in style.   

Jolyon Palmer

The Briton is the other half of the contretemps in Russia, and a driver who has had a miserable start to the season. Two accidents in qualifying, reliability problems, getting caught out by yellow flags, you name it, and it has probably happened to Palmer. On top of that, his Renault teammate Nico Hulkenberg is relishing his new environment and making the most of tyres that can be pushed hard, an area of his game that suffered with the previous Pirellis. 

Palmer is mentally resilient as he proved last year, when a similarly difficult start to the season was converted into a sequence of decent results in the second half, sufficient to persuade Renault to retain him for this year. But he will need all of that mental strength to cut through the chatter in the background and deliver for what is now a full manufacturer effort with big budgets and big targets. 

Russian driver Sergey Sirotkin will be driving Palmer’s car in first practice, just to make life even more difficult but this is a circuit they all know intimately, so he shouldn’t be phased about losing that 90 minute session. What counts is qualifying and the race, and that’s where his best efforts must lie.