Following another action-packed flyaway race in China, F1 returns to its home continent as the European leg of 2010 kicks off this weekend with the Spanish Grand Prix.
The Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona is used regularly for testing, and so the drivers and teams know the place like the back of their hands. This usually makes for pretty dull races as the cars have the optimum set-ups and are close in performance.
This weekend could well be different though. The team pecking order is still far from decided yet this season, and with every team bringing their first big performance upgrades to the Spanish circuit, there could well be some surprising results. There is also a slight threat of rain over the weekend, and either qualifying or the race could be affected.
Jenson Button, who has won the two wet races this season, and sits ten points clear at the top of the driver's championship, may welcome some inclement conditions. The world champion won this race last year, and has astounded pundits by not only matching the performances of his teammate Lewis Hamilton, but by comprehensively beating him.
After the one-two finish in Shanghai, McLaren also sit proudly atop of the constructor's championship, and the team will be hoping that their performance upgrades will allow them to compete with Red Bull and Ferrari whatever the weather.
Hamilton sits 11 points behind his teammate in fourth place in the driver's standings, and although he hasn't been as prolific as his fellow Brit, he has arguably been the most exciting driver on track this season. In the last three races he has made his way through the field with a number of overtaking manoeuvres on track, including an interesting battle with Michael Schumacher in China.
The seven-time World Champion is yet to make the impression on the Formula 1 season everybody anticipated, and in China he seemed to spend most of the race slipping backwards through the field. Mercedes feel they have found the cause of Schumacher's problem – a lack of front-end grip owing to the narrower front tyres and a rear-end weight balance – and have tailored their upgrades to suit the German's driving style.
The honeymoon period for Schumacher's return is coming to an end, and if he remains uncompetitive around the traditional European circuits, even his most loyal supporters will be questioning his decision to return. Schumacher has won six races at this circuit, and nobody else in the field has won this grand prix more than once. This weekend would be as good a time as any to put in a solid performance reminiscent of his heyday.
Nico Rosberg sits second in the championship thanks to his consistent performances in the Mercedes, and looks to be ready to take his first win in Formula 1. Nobody yet knows if the upgraded Mercedes – which will be tailored to Schumacher's requirements – will suit Rosberg's driving style. However, the young German has impressed so far this season, and is clearly growing in confidence every time he beats his teammate. He led a good proportion of the race in China for a while, and could be an outside bet for the win this weekend.
The passionate Spanish crowd will not be too preoccupied by the travails of Messrs Button, Hamilton, Schumacher and Rosberg though. Thousands of fans will be there to see just one man: Fernando Alonso.
Since winning the first race of the season, the double world champion has struggled to find the pace to compete with McLaren and Red Bull, and has already blown three of the eight engines that he can use in this 19 race season. Ferrari has asked the FIA for special permission to make changes to their V8 engines, in order to improve reliability.
Pedro de la Rosa and Jaime Alguersuari are the two other Spanish drivers on the grid. De la Rosa and his Sauber team have had an uninspiring season so far, and any sign of improvement will be classed as a success for the team. Kamui Kobayashi, in the second Sauber, has only completed nineteen racing laps during the first four grand prix, and one imagines he will just be delighted to see the checkered flag.
Alguersuari has had a more successful start to the season. The rookie driver is still learning the F1 trade, but scored his first two F1 points in Malaysia. He will be hoping that, on a track he actually knows, he will be close to, or even ahead of, Sebastien Buemi, his Toro Rosso teammate.
Red Bull again failed to convert pole position into race victory in China and despite impressive qualifying performances this season, particularly from Sebastian Vettel, only sit third in the race for the constructor's title. Many acknowledge the team let the driver's championship slip through their fingers last year, and if they don't start performing to their potential on race day soon, they could threaten to do the same in 2010.
The team have taken pole position in every race this season, and have got statistics on their side in Barcelona. The driver on pole position has gone on to win this race in each of the last nine races, and in a race which looks to be a simple one-stop fair and with little chance of overtaking, Red Bull will go into the race as favourites.
The midfield teams are also bringing a raft of upgrades to Spain. Force India in particular think that they will have 'an edge' over their rivals, and Williams will also be hoping to find themselves closer to the likes of Mercedes.
Lotus Racing, who have established themselves top of the new teams, have all season identified Barcelona as an important point in the team's development. Whereas in the first four races the Norfolk-based team were content with just finishing races, they are now hoping for a big jump in performance as they begin to try and compete with the more established teams. Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli may be a long way off scoring their first points of 2010, but they should be getting progressively closer to the top-ten positions from this point onwards.
Timo Glock will finally be able to carry enough fuel in the tank of his Virgin to last him the race distance, although thanks to the ash cloud that delayed the team's return from China, teammate Lucas di Grassi will still not have a fuel tank large enough to allow him to complete the 66 laps in Barcelona.
Qualifying begins at 13:00 BST this Saturday, and reports can be found throughout the weekend here at thecheckeredflag.co.uk