BARCELONA (AFP) – Championship leader Lewis Hamilton is hoping he can rely on pure performance and not good fortune as Formula One returns to Europe this weekend.
But his Mercedes boss Toto Wolff is warning the champions they face an intensified scrap for glory in the Spanish Grand Prix, a race that has seen plenty of drama and excitement in recent seasons.
Hamilton, the 33-year-old four-time world champion, secured an unlikely and unexpected four-point lead in the drivers’ title race when he won at last month’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix after a series of accidents and incidents removed his rivals from the fray.
It was his first win this season – extending his run of successful points-scoring finishes to a record 29 races – and he was quick to admit it was one of the luckiest of his career after Ferrari had been dominant.
“There’s been two weird races which have kept us in the mix,” he said.
“But we know that we can’t rely on that for the next 17 races, or however many there are left. We need ultimate performance and confidence in the car.”
Hamilton has won twice at the Circuit de Catalunya in the last four years, having secured pole three times in that time on a track where the prime starting position often decides the outcome.
But this time around, he arrives on the back foot despite his championship lead and with chief rival and fellow four-time champion Sebastian Vettel hunting his fourth consecutive pole position, but first in Spain.
The contest this weekend is also likely to be seen as a solid indicator for the season ahead as it is regarded as a ‘bellwether’ circuit which, by Sunday night, will have seen how all of the top teams have progressed with their extensive packages of upgrades following the opening four flyaway races.
“It will be interesting to see how much performance the teams can find with their upgrades and what impact those upgrades will have on the team ranking,” said Wolff.
“It’s the first step in the development race and it could run to the end of the season.”
Hamilton knows how much his bid for a fifth title depends on his team in finding answers to the performance problems that have seen him struggling in recent outings.
“I’ve got the pace within me and the car has got the pace, but we’re not unlocking it and we have got to improve in a lot of areas,” he said in Baku, where he was surprised by his own win.
In recent years, the track at Montmelo, in the industrial hinterland to the north-west of Barcelona, has borne witness to the sensational arrival of Dutch teenager Max Verstappen, who won in 2016 on debut with Red Bull, after the two Mercedes had collided on the opening lap.
A collision between the two Red Bulls in Baku contributed to gift Hamilton his victory two weekends ago and this will have ensured much more stringent discipline and focus is exercised as Daniel Ricciardo and Verstappen mount their challenge.
“This could be a really important and defining weekend, a defining moment for the season,” said Verstappen.