Will F1's Spanish GP see Red Bull rediscover dominant form?

MONTMELĂ“, Spain -- While some inside the Formula One paddock think Red Bull might return to a position of dominance at the Spanish Grand Prix, the jury is still out. Max Verstappen himself is not convinced by that suggestion.

The world champions have looked beatable in recent races, with some of their cars' biggest weaknesses exposed at a run of less-conventional race circuits in Miami, Imola, Monaco and Canada. Barcelona's Circuit de Catalunya, considered the sport's best barometer for car performance, might be the perfect place for Red Bull to recapture its early form.

"I don't think it will be like the beginning of the season," Verstappen stated Thursday when asked about his expectations. That in itself speaks volumes about how big of a change F1 has seen to the competitive order lately.

Wind the clock back a few months and Verstappen was racking up race victories for fun, coasting to wins at four of the opening five races. A brake fire in the early stages of the Australian Grand Prix likely stopped that being five straight.

Then came a resurgence from Red Bull's rivals, though. First there was Lando Norris' win at the Miami Grand Prix, followed by the McLaren driver narrowly losing out to Verstappen at Imola, before Charles Leclerc won for Ferrari at the Monaco Grand Prix. Although Verstappen returned to winning ways in Canada in a topsy-turvy race featuring rain showers and safety cars, both Norris and Mercedes' George Russell felt they could have won on another day.

The upturn in form of McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes appear to have changed the temperature of the whole season. As such, Verstappen sounded cautious about Red Bull's chances ahead of Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix.

"I know that normally this is a track our car should suit a bit more, and we're excited, of course," Verstappen added on Thursday. "Of course I'm aware that everyone has been catching up a lot, everyone is quite confident. But if you compare this to the last few races that we have done, this should be a better track."

The Spanish track, which for so long hosted F1's preseason tests, is a return to more normal race tracks. The Circuit de Catalunya features a mix of high-, medium- and low-speed corners, while also featuring a long sweeping final corner leading into the start-finish straight. That variety means any car weaknesses will be brutally exposed.

Red Bull's struggles at the recent run of races came from having to avoid riding the kerbs, something that would not be such a big problem at more conventional layouts. Upcoming events in Austria, Great Britain, Hungary and Belgium are similar in nature, leading some in the paddock to suggest Red Bull will open up a gap again this week.

Leclerc is one of them.

"I'm not speaking on behalf of the team, but my personal opinion is that we will see a stronger Red Bull and a Red Bull that we have seen at the beginning of the season back here in Barcelona," he said. "Because the track layout normally, I would see a Red Bull going very fast around here, and I do also believe that the last four races from Miami to the last race in Canada was quite a lot about kerb riding as well and it's probably not one of the strengths of the Red Bulls.

"So I believe we'll see them back to a really good level this weekend. However, we also have some new parts in the car for this weekend, and if that helps us to be very close here it's a good sign for the rest because normally Barcelona is quite representative for the rest of the season. So it's going to be an interesting weekend and if we are in the fight here it's a good sign for the rest of the year."

Norris appeared to be more upbeat about McLaren's chances, pointing out that regardless of if Red Bull is strong, its rivals now all appear to be split by fine margins.

"We've been good at all of [the circuits] so far so I don't expect things to probably change too much," he said when asked about whether Red Bull would disappear out in front again in Spain. "With Mercedes and stuff joining and how close it was already in Canada, whether you're one tenth better or not, that's easily because you haven't got the tyres in the right window or you make a small mistake or the setup's not perfect. Half a tenth, one tenth and you're three, four, five positions back.

"So, I think it's just going to be a close fight between everyone, but the main thing is we've been good everywhere so far so I think we have good confidence that we just keep doing what we're doing. We can maintain a good consistency."