|Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen (back) compete during the Portuguese Formula One Grand Prix race at the Algarve International Circuit in Portimao on May 2, 2021.(GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP) |
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.
"When we were behind in testing and in Bahrain, it's a buzz that I have not felt in the team since 2013 when we had that first sniff that we could be there," said Wolff. "The whole place is excited and continues to be excited. I'd like to be happy after Abu Dhabi at the end of the season but for the time being, we'll take it one step at a time."
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."
Verstappen's boss at Red Bull Christian Horner is like his Mercedes counterpart Wolff lapping up the first proper inter-team title battle for some time.
"The picture is starting to clarify. Red Bull and Mercedes are the two standout teams, and Lewis and Max are the two standout drivers.
"It's incredibly tight. The biggest winner for that is Formula 1 – and if it goes like this for 23 races, it's going to be nip and tuck."
One driver who has special reason to approach this weekend's race with a spring in his step is Fernando Alonso.
The two-time champion is finally finding his feet with Alpine, formerly Renault, after his return to F1, scoring points for the second straight race in the Algarve sunshine.
"It was good, it was fun," said the veteran Spaniard ahead of his home grand prix.
"We were fighting with one McLaren, one Ferrari - things that were unthinkable in Imola or Bahrain. So I think we made a big step forward in terms of the car performance."
Alonso is in 12th in the drivers standings, nine places and 32 points behind Lando Norris, who has enjoyed a sensational start to 2021 for back-in-business McLaren with three top-five finishes.
Sensational is not how even Nikita Mazepin's most loyal followers would describe the Russian rookie's three first appearances in the fast lane.
A lap one crash in Bahrain, spins at Imola, and a dangerous block on Sergio Perez last Sunday suggest the young Haas driver will be just happy to reach Sunday night having crossed the line without any further mishaps.