After the early season ‘fly-aways’, the Formula 1 paddock makes a return to Europe for the Spanish Grand Prix.

The sight of the glistening Mediterranean, wooded hills and the Pyrenees in the background gives a familiar touch to the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya for many. After all, the location has been on the Formula 1 map since 1951 and it has kicked off the European leg of the season since 1993.

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Beyond the regular races at Barcelona, the track also hosted the pre-season testing where the teams put the newly designed 2017 cars through their paces. But that was early March and a lot has evolved since then – some teams have excelled while others have languished.

A few months on from the pre-season testing and the teams can expect fresh challenges at the Spanish Grand Prix. For one thing, the track temperature will be noticeably warmer and more suited to those teams – like Ferrari – that can better manage their tyres in the heat.

Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya

And this time, the drivers will need to navigate the track in race conditions. The 2017 version of the cars will take on the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya’s eclectic mix of 16 corners – mostly medium and high speed – with reduced braking zones and more full-throttle corners. The wider tyres and revised car aerodynamics has now made it possible to go flat out through the iconic sweeping turn 3 right-hander making it a spectacle for spectators.

This track really has everything and it will test the limits of both car and driver. The endless pre-season gym sessions will prove worthwhile as the drivers cope with a staggering 5g around the high-speed turn 9 while Spain will be much harder on the tyres compared to Russia. The teams will run the three hardest compounds – soft, medium and hard – as higher tyre degradation and different strategies will come into play.

Force India has demonstrated their program continues on an upward trajectory.

“Barcelona is a track that really tests a Formula One car,” says Force India’s Sergio Perez.

“There are some quick corners that feel very special, such as turns three and nine, where you can appreciate the aero performance of these 2017 cars. It’s always a difficult track for overtaking and so there is extra emphasis on qualifying well.”

“When you get to Europe, you feel that the season is in full flow. It’s race five – a quarter of the way through the season – and the year is flying by really quickly.”

Everyone is Upgrading

The return to Spain for the first European race of the season marks another constant – a release of a swathe of car upgrades.

This year is no different to any other and up-and-down the paddock the teams are preparing to deploy aero, power unit and setup improvements.

Ferrari dominated pre-season testing at Barcelona and will look to continue their competitiveness this weekend with further aerodynamic upgrades. On the Mercedes side, much of the attention will be on honing the set-up of the W08.

It will be fascinating to see whether either change gives a clear advantage to one team over the other.

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“The prevailing feeling is that there is lots of homework to do to come back stronger with a car that can perform on a consistent level every weekend,” Wolff admitted after the lasting outing in Russia.

“I have the feeling that we are moving in the right direction but we need 24/7 shifts to achieve our ultimate target.”

But the team hoping for the biggest improvements is Red Bull who have consistently been off the pace through the early races.

Red Bull boss Christian Horner said recently that design guru Adrian Newey has been “working day and night” to close the gap on Mercedes and Ferrari.

Even this may not be enough, however, with Daniel Ricciardo pouring cold water on a big leap forward through aero improvements.

“For sure in the last years we’ve felt the chassis is a lot closer to where it needs to be and it’s more power unit [performance] we’re looking for, but I feel this year so far we’re definitely trying to find a chunk from both ends,” confessed the Australian.

“I feel it’s now more like 50-50.”

This won’t stop Red Bull supporters from reminiscing about Max Verstappen’s unlikely victory last year in Spain and hoping for a similar result to further ignite an already hotly contested campaign.