Montmeló (Spain) (AFP)

Has Mercedes already made up for lost time at the start of the season on Red Bull?

If the Portuguese Grand Prix last week was able to give this impression, F1 will have the heart of it this weekend in Spain.

The last explanation between the two teams, on the Portimao circuit, actually brought more questions than answers.

The Mercedes (with Finland's Valtteri Bottas ahead of Briton Lewis Hamilton) monopolized the front row, but Max Verstappen's Red Bull would have been in pole position if his time had not been canceled for exceeding the track limits.

Hamilton won and Bottas, third, took the point of the fastest lap in the race, but it would have gone back to the Dutchman, second, if he had not again crossed the limits of the track.

What is the balance of power at the dawn of the fourth round out of 23 scheduled for 2021?

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said after qualifying that he was "almost at the same level" as Red Bull in practice and had a "good car for the race".

After the GP, Hamilton and Verstappen were more measured.

"I don't think we have progressed but rather that Red Bull has retreated slightly this weekend," said the first.

"It was a funny weekend," added the second.

"We had a lack of grip all the time. Already last year it was not a great circuit for us, so it's difficult to judge. Let's wait for Barcelona."

It must be said that if Portimao is a little-known track (F1 has only raced there twice, last year and this year) and atypical with its slippery asphalt, the Spanish Barcelona-Catalonia circuit is quite the opposite.

After thirty GPs since 1991 and the winter tests every year between 2014 and 2020, drivers and teams know the Catalan track by heart and it does not have many surprises in store.

- Hamilton aims for a 100th pole -

We can therefore expect a new wheel-to-wheel duel between Hamilton and Verstappen, with Bottas and possibly Red Bull Mexican Sergio Pérez in second knit.

"We are witnessing the tightest fight (between two teams) for a long time," recalls the Mercedes star.

"It will be a question of reliability, who makes the minimum number of mistakes and also the bonus points for the best lap in the race, which are going to be very important."

Among the drivers, with two successes out of three this season, the 36-year-old British veteran is eight points ahead of the ambitious 23-year-old Dutchman, a victory on his record.

And this weekend, Hamilton has a second opportunity to claim the 100th pole of his F1 career.

Now with 97 GP successes, he is also on his way to an equally unprecedented 100th victory in the category.

Among manufacturers, Mercedes leads with 18 units better than Red Bull.

It is more linked to the difference in results between Bottas and Pérez, who is still discovering his car and has "learned a lot" in Portugal, than to the intrinsic level of their cars.

With the national icon Fernando Alonso, 2005 and 2006 world champion, back in F1 at Alpine and his heir Carlos Sainz Jr starting out in the colors of Ferrari, this 2021 Spanish GP had all the ingredients for a great popular celebration. .

The Covid-19 decided otherwise.

First planned behind closed doors, we will finally drive in front of 1,000 people on Sunday, before having 7,500 spectators per day during the next round in Monaco from May 20 to 23.

© 2021 AFP