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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Max Verstappen needs a quiet race in Barcelona: Spanish Grand Prix talking points

Dutch Red Bull driver is on arguably his worst run of form since arriving in Formula One

Max Verstappen arrives in Barcelona for the Spanish Grand Prix following a tough start to the season. David Ramos / Getty Images
Max Verstappen arrives in Barcelona for the Spanish Grand Prix following a tough start to the season. David Ramos / Getty Images

Verstappen needs a quiet race

The Spanish Grand Prix will always have happy memories for Max Verstappen.

The Circuit de Catalunya was the scene of the Dutchman’s first Formula One win in 2016 when he became the youngest driver to win a race at the age of 18 years and 228 days.

Verstappen’s star has soared since then and he has established himself as one of the top names in F1 and has gone on to win twice more with Red Bull Racing.

But as he returns to the scene of his first victory on Sunday for the fifth round of the 2018 season, the focus is on Verstappen for less positive reasons.

For the first time in his F1 career he is having a sustained rough patch. Granted, in 2017 Verstappen had only one podium in his first 14 races, but a lot of that was down to reliability issues with his car and its lack of speed.

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But this season has been one to forget so far for the 20 year old. He spun in Australia, collided with Lewis Hamilton in Bahrain, wrecked his chances of a win in China with some ill-judged overtaking attempts, and then two weeks ago was involved in a collision with his teammate Daniel Ricciardo that took them both out of the race.

What Verstappen needs in Barcelona is a straightforward weekend, something he has not enjoyed this year yet.

A quiet run to fifth place, ideally beating Ricciardo, but finishing behind Ferrari and Mercedes-GP would not, on paper, be much to get excited about.

But Verstappen needs to refocus. Most of his problems this season have been of his own making and a weekend of staying out of trouble is what he needs to try and get his campaign back on track.

Whether he has been pushing too hard, over confidence, or just bad luck, Verstappen has put together arguably his worst run in F1 over the past four races.

An unspectacular race in Barcelona that at least starts to rebuild some belief should be welcomed by Verstappen given the context.

Sebastian Vettel, right, has claimed pole position in three of the four races so far this season. David Ramos / Getty Images
Sebastian Vettel, right, has claimed pole position in three of the four races so far this season. David Ramos / Getty Images

Ferrari seek Barcelona omen

One of the biggest changes this season has been Ferrari’s qualifying form.

The Italian team only had five pole positions in 2017 but Sebastian Vettel has already started at the front three times in the first four races this year.

If the German takes a fourth in a row on Saturday it will also be a positive omen for Ferrari’s long term ambitions for the season.

Since its first staging in Barcelona in 1991, the Spanish Grand Prix has been a strong early indicator for end of season honours.

Of the 27 races at Circuit de Catalunya, only three times has the car on pole for the race not gone on to be constructors’ champions that year.

So if Ferrari go well here then the signs of a first constructors’ title for the Italian marque since 2008 look very good, which can only be a good thing for Vettel’s aspirations of a fifth drivers’ title.

The safety car deployed during the Azerbaijan Grand Prix proved costly to Sebastian Vettel's hopes of victory. David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters
The safety car deployed during the Azerbaijan Grand Prix proved costly to Sebastian Vettel's hopes of victory. David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters

Vettel's safety car curse

Without the safety car periods in China and Azerbaijan, most would agree that Vettel would be leading the drivers’ championship going to Spain rather than trailing Hamilton by four points.

Vettel was on for second place in China and the win in Azerbaijan before the course car came onto the track. He ended up with eighth and fourth instead, earning 16 points instead of 43.

Vettel and Ferrari have been the consistent class of the field so far. They are not dominant as Mercedes can fight with them, but the German has been a force at every race so far and there is no reason to expect that to be any different in Barcelona.

The good news for Vettel is that the safety car has traditionally been a rare sight in Barcelona, but he will be wary given that one of the main factors for him being beaten by Hamilton in the race 12 months ago was an ill-timed Virtual Safety Car (VSC) period.