Ferrari and Mercedes make F1 upgrades but Alonso left playing tennis


A home from home for the teams, the Circuit de Catalunya will spring no surprises as they return to racing in the European heartland. However, what they are all hoping to bring to the Spanish Grand Prix is innovation. After four flyaway openers to the season – almost a phoney war – it is in Barcelona that the shooting match begins in earnest with the onset of the development battle that will be key in deciding what looks a finely balanced season.

There is nothing to choose between Ferrari and Mercedes. The latter lead the constructors’ championship by a point and honours are even with two race wins apiece. The Scuderia’s . The two drivers, both multiple world championship winners, have never gone head to head but are finally in evenly matched machinery. Their contest, initially engrossing, enters the phase where it will become edgy.

How well-matched they remain is in the hands of the engineers as the sport’s new regulations mean the current formula is still being explored and exploited. The teams test here at the Circuit de Catalunya, so its variables are known and comparative data is readily available, making upgrades the order of the day.

After three years of Mercedes dominance, Ferrari look to have their nose in front for Spain. The new car is well-balanced, strong through the corners, able to run well in dirty air and crucially has a wide operating window for its tyres. Mercedes have the straight-line speed but the car looks to be more of a handful to drive, especially in turbulent wakes. It also works its tyres harder and, , putting that rubber into what is a narrow operating window has proved difficult.

Both teams are at a crucial juncture but there is some shared symmetry. The new Ferrari started last year as the work of the British technical director James Allison . He was replaced by Mattia Binotto, previously the head of Ferrari’s power units. Binotto and his team – and they stress it is very much a collective approach – are now shaping where the car is going. Allison, in turn, joined Mercedes and has also inherited a car but now has his chance to make his mark and will aim to put his former team on the back foot.

For Hamilton, who topped the time sheets in both practice sessions, the changes were categorically positive. “The team has done an amazing job with the upgrades,” he said. “The car is working just as we expected, it’s been a much better start to the weekend for me than in Sochi, so I’m very happy.” Mercedes have introduced major aerodynamic upgrades in Spain, including a scooped turning vane on the nose and are working on bringing the weight of the car down, key to tyre wear and balance.

start from a slightly more stable platform and, although several tenths back in practice, Vettel was confident more is to come. “I don’t know who brought the most updates, I don’t think it matters who brought the most, I think it matters who brought the best,” he said. “I’m happy with what we brought, some of the stuff you can see, some of the stuff you will not see. There are no secrets but the usual work.”

Red Bull want to join that fight, having been well off the pace of the leaders. Talk of an entirely new car was exaggerated and they have not made structural or mechanical changes but the expected aero upgrades are being bolted on. They need a major step up but their Renault power deficit remains and realistically they are likely only to narrow the gap rather than catch their rivals, although Daniel Ricciardo remained cautiously optimistic.

His sense of buoyancy was starkly absent at McLaren, who are paying a fortune for the two-time world champion to enjoy his leisure time at his home grand prix. Alonso made it as far as turn three on his opening lap in practice before the Honda power unit gave out and his car had to be removed from the track. An hour later a post on Instagram revealed he was happily playing tennis.

“It’s tough but it’s tougher for McLaren, who bring updates trying to find a millisecond here and there and we cannot even run,” he said. He completed only 21 laps in the second session and made it clear on Thursday that he would leave the team unless the situation improved. While the front runners move forward in Spain, are struggling even to tread water.