BARCELONA Formula One's European season kicks off in Spain this weekend with Lewis Hamilton on a roll and ready to wrest the championship lead from Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg.
Hamilton has never won a grand prix in Spain but, after racking up three successive victories for the first time, the 2008 world champion can break new boundaries at the Circuit de Catalunya on Sunday.
"I'm in a good place right now and I'm hoping that this will be the year," said the Briton, who is four points behind Rosberg despite winning three races to the German's one.
"The circuit is fantastic, our car has performed well so far and I'm really looking forward to a good race."
Rosberg was on pole in Spain last year but has also never won there.
Barcelona, the fifth round of the 19-race season that ends in Abu Dhabi in November, could also see the first big shake-up of the pecking order after the opening 'flyaways' in Asia and the Middle East.
The return to the sport's European roots, and its most fervent fans, sees the teams back in their palatial paddock 'motorhomes' and represents something of a fresh start.
All the teams plan to bring upgrades and Renault, who power Red Bull and their four times world champion Sebastian Vettel, are confident they can bring much more to the party after a difficult start to the season.
"There are significant improvements to the software that should further enhance driveability and therefore overall performance," said Remi Taffin, Renault's head of track operations.
"With three weeks between China and Spain we’ve made a huge amount of progress and in fact this race may well show that the ‘engine race’ is a lot closer."
If that is the case, then predictions that Mercedes will run away with the season could be premature.
ALONSO AT HOME
Ferrari's Fernando Alonso won in Spain last year, from fifth on the grid, and arrives buoyed by his first podium appearance of the season in China last month when he finished third and way ahead of team mate Kimi Raikkonen.
The Spaniard, who also won his home race with Renault in 2006, can expect an improved car and huge support from the local crowd but Mercedes have not been standing still either.
The dominant team, who have taken every pole position so far and won every race, have also been working flat out to make their car even better.
"Our aim must be to increase the advantage we enjoyed at the last race in China," said Mercedes motorsport head Toto Wolff.
"If we are to build a sustained level of success in this sport, any small advantage must be seen as a platform upon which to build a bigger advantage."
While Hamilton and Rosberg have been out on their own, the gap between the rest of the midfield pack has been far closer and that pecking order could be in for a reshuffle in Barcelona.
The question is which of Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, Force India or Williams will make the bigger step.
"Spain is a good leveller," said Rob Smedley, head of vehicle dynamics at Williams, whose solid results so far have only hinted at the car's untapped potential.
"We have got a big step coming in all areas of the car," added the Briton.
McLaren have failed to score a point in their last two outings after a strong start in Australia and have dropped to fifth overall. They too are hopeful a corner has been turned.
"We know the areas where our package falls short, and we’ve taken steps – both short- and long-term – to address those," said Racing Director Eric Boullier.
"While not all of those will be in evidence in Barcelona this weekend, they mark the start of a fresh push and spirit within the whole organisation."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ken Ferris)
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