The days of long-haul flights, jet lag and sweltering temperatures are over (for now) as Formula 1 begins its summer tour around Europe this weekend at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona.
Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix starts a run of eight European races (punctuated by a trip across the Atlantic to Canada in early June) that will have a huge say in the winner of the 2012 drivers' championship.
The Circuit de Catalunya is a track with which all F1 drivers and teams are overly familiar. This season it was venue of two of the pre-season test sessions and, in the days before testing bans, used to be a second-home to many of the teams as they regularly sent their drivers and test teams to pound around the 4.655km circuit.
The key to success in Barcelona is a well-balanced car that can cope with the various medium-speed corners that make up the circuit. A good qualifying result used to be considered essential, as it is traditionally not a great place for overtaking. In fact, the driver on pole has won this race for nine of the last ten seasons.
But last year, things changed, all thanks to Pirelli. Sebastian Vettel, who started second, needed a four-stop strategy to take victory, in a race that featured 51 overtaking manoeuvres – only 29 of which were facilitated by DRS. There were 77 pit stops in total, and the passionate Spanish fans were treated to one of the best Spanish Grand Prix in living memory.
From the evidence so far this season, the tyres are likely to have a similar life-span to 2011. Added to that, the competitiveness at the front of the field should mean that, once again, the winner will be hard to predict.
Lotus looked particularly impressive at last week's Mugello test, with Romain Grosjean topping the timesheets on both dry days in Tuscany. Red Bull were not far off the pace for most of the week, and McLaren and Mercedes cannot be discounted ahead of the Spain, despite failing to make any impression on the front of the timesheets over the three-day test session. These teams were more focused on gathering data over long runs, and so the times are hardly representative of the true pace of their cars.
Interestingly, of the six world champions on the grid, only one has not won a race at the Circuit de Catalunya: Lewis Hamilton. Apart from the disappointing eighth place in Bahrain, the 2009 world champion has been the model of consistency in 2012 and, assuming McLaren can sort out their shortcomings in pit stops, he should have a good chance of getting his first ever F1 win in Spain.
Of course, the most successful of the current drivers at Barcelona is Michael Schumacher, who has won this event six times. He is not confident that Mercedes will be able to challenge for victory on Sunday though, claiming that the characteristics of the Circuit de Catalunya did not appear to suit the MGP W03 in pre-season testing.
The only other current driver to have won this event more than once is Kimi Raikkonen, who did so in 2005 for McLaren and then in 2008 for Ferrari. He came close to taking victory at the last race in Bahrain, and may be in contention for victory again on Sunday.
Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button have all won the Spanish Grand Prix once and, certainly for Vettel and Button, it is possible to dream up a plausible scenario in which they could take the win. Unless Ferrari has made some immense gains since the last race in Bahrain, it would seem as though a wet race is necessary for Alonso to win in front of his adoring fans. Mark Webber, who took victory here in 2010, cannot be counted out either, and neither can Nico Rosberg, or even Romain Grosjean.
Even after four races, no clean order has been established at the front of the grid in 2012 and nobody is sure which team has the fastest car. With each team likely to bring a raft of significant upgrades to Spain this weekend, the order could come more pronounced. Teams that have made good advances will start to pull away from others, and some teams could even begin to drop back through the field. Assuming the track stays dry, the Spanish Grand Prix weekend should be the race that will give an indication as to how the rest of the season will pan out.
If you are, for some reason, only going to watch one race from Spain, then it should definitely be this one. The street race in Valencia, which even the combination of Pirelli tyres and DRS could not make exciting last year, may provide better views of beaches and yachts, but the racing in Barcelona this weekend will be so much better than the usual bore fests that have been the European Grand Prix of recent years.
- Qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix begins at 13:00 BST on Saturday, with the race getting underway at the same time on Sunday.
- Live coverage of events in Barcelona will be available in the UK on Sky Sports F1 HD, BBC One, and BBC Radio 5 Live.