The ‘nip and tuck’ title battle in Spain

The Formula One circus pitches up in Barcelona this weekend for the Spanish Grand Prix with Red Bull’s tantalising tilt at prising the spotlight away from showstoppers Mercedes topping the bill.

Three races in and against pre-season predictions, it is Lewis Hamilton who leads Max Verstappen by eight points arriving at the fourth leg of the championship.

Wins last Sunday in Portugal and in the opener in Bahrain leave the seven-time champion in his customary habitat at the top of the F1 drivers’ tree.

Barcelona is a track the teams know intimately as the usual venue for pre-season testing, and with its reputation as a circuit where overtaking opportunities are few and far between, the onus will be on Saturday’s qualifying to command a prime front row seat on Sunday’s grid.

Hamilton is seeking his fifth consecutive win in Catalonia, with three of his last four victories delivered from pole.

Should he top the time sheets on Saturday, he will celebrate his 100th pole position, after being denied that honour by his teammate Valtteri Bottas last weekend in Portimao.

Verstappen and Red Bull’s emergence as serious title contenders not only has F1 fans gripping their sofas’ arm rests or smart phones — Mercedes chief Toto Wolff says he’s enjoying the same sensation he felt at the first signs Mercedes could muscle in on the then Red Bull roadshow seven years ago.

While the 2021 Hamilton continues to display all the hallmarks that have turned him into a serial champion — often flawless race craft, consummate professionalism and steely focus, Verstappen this season has changed.

The Dutch driver seems to have his eye on the bigger picture, as F1’s managing director Ross Brawn pointed out.

“It’s clear that Max Verstappen is approaching this championship in a different way because he finally has a title-winning car,” said Brawn.

“And it had to change because when you’re a title contender, the focus has to be on consolidating when you’re not the fastest and when opportunities such as a mechanical issue for a rival or a Safety Car present themselves, you must be in a position to strike.”

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