Formula One drivers on even pace early

Formula One leader Sebastian Vettel is among several drivers who are keeping expectations in check for the Spanish Grand Prix, although local favorite Fernando Alonso is hoping the first race in Europe can revitalize Ferrari’s campaign.

Vettel, the two-time defending World Champion, went to the top of the standings for the first time with his victory in Bahrain last month. McLaren pair Lewis Hamilton and teammate Mark Webber are in the German’s rearview mirror, in second and third place.

Four different winners in the first four races has given the season its most unpredictable start for 30 years, but the Catalunya Circuit has a history of rewarding qualifying performances, with the 10 champions before Vettel’s victory in 2011 winning from pole position.

"A car that functions well aerodynamically in Barcelona will work everywhere, so it will be an interesting weekend. We have been working on the package for Barcelona at this week’s test, but we will still have set-up work to do there on arrival," said Vettel, who edged Hamilton for the victory last year after Webber started first on the grid.

Hamilton is looking to rebound from an eighth-place finish in Bahrain following three straight third places, with Barcelona one of the few tracks the 2008 champion has yet to win at.

"Our performance at Barcelona during winter testing looked promising but the form of the season is still very hard to read, so it’s difficult to predict who’ll be at the front next weekend," Hamilton, who trails Vettel by four points, said. "I think we have a comparatively stronger car this year, so I hope we can have another strong race."

Alonso’s 2006 victory here for Renault was one of the two-time champion’s most memorable, and the Spanish driver is looking to harness something extra from one of two home races on the season. Alonso won in Malaysia but has since finished seventh and ninth to slip 10 points behind Vettel alongside McLaren’s Jenson Button.

"In Montmelo, we will be counting on making a step forward, but we won’t know until Saturday if we have, and if so, how big a step it is," Alonso said. "Clearly, having limited the damage in the first four races this year, we must turn things around."

Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo is adamant the team needs to turn the season around in Barcelona, even though there are still 15 races to go after Spain, including eight more in Europe.

Tires have also been a topic of discussion going into Barcelona after Michael Schumacher said drivers’ skill was being negated by the ever-changing Pirelli tires, which made it feel like you’re driving on "raw eggs."

"Barcelona is a track we have driven extensively on, and this is why we know that its characteristics do not exactly play fully into our hands," the Mercedes driver said.

Like Ferrari, Mercedes will be looking for a boost after failing to follow up Nico Rosberg’s victory in China at Bahrain. Rosberg, who is 18 points behind Vettel, was fifth in Bahrain and Schumacher — still without a podium in the third year of his comeback — was 10th. The seven-time F1 champion has just two points so far.

Lotus will also be looking to capitalize off of Kimi Raikkonen’s second-place finish in Bahrain, which put the Finnish driver one point behind Rosberg. The 2007 world champion is one of the few who was not mum on his chances at a track where he has won twice before.

"I expect Lotus to be very competitive at Barcelona. It’s going to be very, very close between the top teams," Raikkonen said. "All the teams have updates for the first European race, which makes it even more interesting and even tighter at the top."

Qualifying for Sunday’s 66-lap race is on Saturday after practice, which begins on Friday.