Max Verstappen is poised to defend his Red Bull’s dominance at the Spanish Grand Prix this weekend, aiming to dispel any doubts about his car’s beatability.

The three-time world champion, who first made his mark on the circuit as a teenager, has clinched victory at this race for the past two consecutive years.

Taking place just north of Barcelona, this race marks the beginning of a hectic three-week stretch, featuring five races in six weeks.

With such a packed schedule, teams will have limited time to fine-tune their cars.

Therefore, the upgrades they bring to Spain could prove decisive in determining the frontrunners as the summer racing season kicks into high gear.

Verstappen has won six of the nine races so far this season and recorded his 60th career win in Montreal two weeks ago.

Overall, the 26-year-old Dutchman has won 50 of the last 75 events and holds a 56-point lead over Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc going into Sunday’s race.

While some races have effectively been over once Verstappen sped off the starting line, there have been signs that his chasers could at least make this season a bit more interesting.

Both Mercedes and McLaren led the pace during stretches of the Canadian GP before Verstappen steered clear.

And two of the last four races have gone to other drivers: McLaren’s Lando Norris won in Miami after Verstappen clipped a chicane and had to pit, while Leclerc won in his home race in Monaco.

Spain, however, usually lets the flat-out fastest cars dominate. Twenty-four of 33 races here have been won by pole sitters, and no driver has won from starting further back than fifth. It is also well known to drivers because pre-season testing used to be held here.

The 4.6-kilometer (2.86 miles) Barcelona-Catalunya Circuit was made even more fit for speed last year when a chicane that was unpopular among drivers was replaced by two fast turns ahead of the main straightaway.

“I think it’s always very tricky, in a way, of course, exciting,” Verstappen said about the state of the competition before practice started for the race on Friday.

“This is normally a track that is a bit more straightforward. People have a bit more information about a track like this; it’s been on the calendar for a while. Of course, from our side, we are hoping to have a good weekend here.”

Verstappen has fond memories of a track where he showed the stuff of a future champion by winning the 2016 Spanish GP on his Red Bull debut. That made him F1’s youngest race winner at age 18. He also scored wins here in the last two seasons.

In Canada, Norris lamented not having taken his chance to get a second win. Now he hopes McLaren can match the Red Bulls for pure speed.

“The whole season we’ve been strong, at every race,” Norris said. “If we can get the car performing like it has done in the past on high-speed circuits, and then I’ll be confident that we can. We should be able to fight.”

For Mercedes’ George Russell, who finished third in Montreal, a good result here should translate into better things to come.

“I think this is going to be a real test, and if we can be fast this weekend, that bodes really well for the season,” Russell said.

Ferrari is looking to bounce back from a frustrating weekend in Canada when both Leclerc and Carlos Sainz struggled in qualifying and then neither were able to finish the race.

With Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin so far unable to reproduce their fine 2023 season, the home fans will likely place their faith in Sainz. He is trying to claim his second race of the season after winning the Australian GP in March when an engine fire knocked Verstappen out.

Sainz is the best driver who does not have a seat guaranteed for next season after seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton agreed to switch Mercedes for Ferrari in 2025. So Sainz is in need of strong performances, especially ahead of teammate Leclerc, to showcase his talent.

This is the first race in Barcelona since it was announced that Madrid will be getting a new F1 event for Spain’s capital in 2026. That sparked questions about the future of the Spanish GP that has been held at Montmelo since 1991.

F1 president Stefano Domenicali has said that the race in Catalonia could stay on the calendar beyond 2026 when its current contract expires. Even so, the Catalan regional government, which holds an 83% stake in the Barcelona track, has moved to spruce up the permanent track.

Some 50 million euros ($53.46 million) have been invested in upgrading areas both for teams and for fans, including changes to the control tower and pitlane, as well as hospitality and the installation of solar panels.

“We are not worried about Madrid; our competition is the entire world,” Roger Torrent, the leading government official in charge of the track, told The Associated Press.

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