It’s been a cracking start to the 2018 season but now it’s time for F1 to grow up.
If the opening few races were 2018’s crazy teenage years, the Spanish Grand Prix, marking the sport’s return to Europe, is akin to that first job you get after graduating.
It may have some memorable moments but chances are it won’t be quite the devil-may-care affair of what went before.
Let’s see what you learned
The teams know the Barcelona circuit intimately, thanks to all the testing that goes on there, so car set-up should be a non-issue.
And, of course, the first four races of the season give everyone time to work out what’s working and what’s not.
With Mercedes, it’s (as usual) been tyres. With Red Bull, it’s been the collision-avoidance system.
Most teams will be bringing car updates but a lot of the attention will be focussed on McLaren, whose current fourth place in the Constructors’ Championship belies a disappointing start to the season, which started to go wrong way back during winter testing.
They’re turning up with a new nose, new wings, improved bargeboards, a redesigned floor, a different engine cover and some tweaked deflectors.
That’s the full Bride of Wildenstein and they’ll have a ton of work to do analysing which new bits work well with which other new bits.
Chances are that at least some of these mods will be held back for a race or two, but McLaren fans are hoping that their heroes will be genuine top-four challengers.
Thing is, other teams are also bringing upgrades so, while McLaren might well close the gap to the front-runners, this is already looking like damage-limitation.
McLaren’s Fernando Alonso wasn’t being overly cheery at the circuit – last Saturday brought his WEC debut victory in Spa, while this Saturday marks the fifth anniversary of his last victory in F1. It’s easy to see why he is, yet again, dropping sombre hints about his F1 future.
And it’s not difficult to see why he thinks the ‘predictability’ of F1 now is ‘sad’ … though, to be brutally honest, few things have been more predictable (especially this crazy season) than Nando slogging his Spanish guts out to drag the McLaren into undeserved points finishes.
In Baku, he drove what may have been his best race ever – the ‘race of my life’ he called it – and finished seventh.
These fuelish things
McLaren have another ace up their Woking sleeves: their fuel supplier, BP, is giving them some fancy new go-juice, rumoured to be worth a third of a second per lap.
Renault are the other team to get this fuel, so we might see these midfielders both closing on the leading pack … if they don’t hold each other up.
Although Red Bull use Renault engines, their petrol comes from ExxonMobil – will we hear Christian Horner blaming his petrol station if the Bulls under-perform this weekend?
In addition, everyone is getting slightly smaller tyres.
Yes, 0.4mm has been shaved off the tyres for this weekend (apparently after Mercedes ‘highlighted’ an issue with temperature performance and Pirelli responded; insert your own conspiracy theory here).
It might not sound much but tiny changes like this can make a big difference to how cars perform, so keep an eye on Mercedes in particular to see if it eases their ongoing tyre tribulations.
Eye caramba, Ferrari
Among the more bizarre updates on show this weekend is a natty little wing mirror number on the Ferraris.
Well, natty if you like your F1 chariot to look like Sid the Sloth, from Ice Age.
Ferrari have added a wing above their mirrors and suspended the lot from the halo. From the front, the Ferrari now has a broad, ugly ‘face’, complete with nose, two narrow eyes and a couple of eyebrows locked in an expression of abject boredom.
Either the FIA will ban the things or we’re going to see eyebrows sprouting from every halo soon, alongside all the other aero trickery (and on-screen graphics…) that’s appeared on the head protectors. Can it be long before Lightning McQueen is hired as the Safety Car?
Barcelona: F1’s smooth operator
The entire track has been resurfaced, so it’s smooth, easier on the tyres and fast.
In fact, it could be up to two seconds a lap faster than last year.
Thing is, this circuit tends to be a good indicator of the true F1 pecking order, so the big boys and girls should have a fruitful weekend.
And it’s a miserable place for overtaking. The two biggest straights are maxed for DRS (something F1 has said it wants to get rid of in 2021) but, in general, you’ll see a lot more action on Barcelona’s La Rambla … and it’s pedestrianised.
There have been iconic moments at the Barcelona circuit, none moreso than Nigel Mansell putting the moves on Ayrton Senna at the first F1 race here, back in 1991.
But F1 fans know not to expect too much from this race, and plenty will be keeping their fingers crossed for a bit of rain this weekend to mix things up.
Having said that, we’ve become rather used to action-packed grands prix already this season so don’t assume there will be nothing to talk about.
The Red Bulls may be a bit less fighty after their coming together in Baku (they’ll still be allowed to race each other but the pit wall will get involved if things get too heated, say Red Bull … as the Verstappen-Ricciardo buck is passed yet again).
There are proper gravel traps at the Barcelona circuit, including 30feet of the stuff that’s replaced asphalt around the outside of turn one, so don’t be surprised if someone gets beached, especially on the opening lap, and the Safety Car makes an appearance.
But the real reason to tune in is to get a feel for what the rest of the season may hold, especially with regard to the Merc-Ferrari-Red Bull queue.
And, of course, to mock those Ferraris with their F1 eyebrows.