BARCELONA, May 6 – Huge crowds, traffic chaos and high tension are expected in Catalonia this weekend as a hopeful Fernando Alonso bids for victory and Michael Schumacher faces a moment of truth in Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix.Alonso, racing for Ferrari on his home soil for the first time, knows that he has to claim pole position in what promises to be a closely-fought and vital qualifying session on Saturday to trigger his bid for a 23rd career win and second at the Circuit de Catalunya.
He claimed his only previous Spanish triumph for Renault in 2006, but believes he has a good chance of returning to the top of the podium for the first time since the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix in mid-March.
But he and Ferrari will face fierce rivalry from Red Bull, McLaren and, possibly, Mercedes – with the latter hoping that seven-times champion Schumacher can rediscover the touch that once made him the ‘king’ of Spain.
The former ‘red baron’ has won the Spanish Grand Prix on this track six times in all – once for Benetton and five times for Ferrari, a record that leaves him clear of all others as the most successful driver. The next best total is three wins, shared by five men.
Schumacher this weekend will be using a heavily-revised ‘new’ Mercedes car in a bid to kick-start his disappointing season to date. In four races, he has yet to beat Mercedes team-mate and fellow-German Nico Rosberg or claim a podium.
Another flop could signal that the 41-year-old ‘comeback kid’ faces a European summer season of dismal performances – and mounting pressure to quit the sport for good.
One man who was surprised that Schumacher returned after a three years’ absence was Alonso, who has succeeded him at Ferrari.
The 28-year-old Spaniard said: "I was more than surprised that he came back… with the calm life he could have lived and with such a past."
Alonso himself faces pressure this weekend.
He said: "Barcelona is always a very special race for me. I will try to make everyone happy in Spain. I know people will expect a lot from us, but I think we are ready for the challenge and in Barcelona we should be very competitive."
Alonso is currently third, 11 points behind leader Briton Jenson Button of McLaren. But his bid for pole will not be easy as Red Bull have dominated this year with four poles in succession while Ferrari have not topped the qualifying times since 2008.
Alonso added: "Red Bull is stronger in qualifying and they are very fast; but we can catch up in the race. McLaren know how to develop their cars, but we are not jokers. I believe Ferrari can challenge for the championship."
If Alonso slips in Spain, he believes his Ferrari team-mate Brazilian Felipe Massa can also take the initiative. "We are complementary and if I am missing something, in the corners, he has it – and I am faster in some other places…"
Both Red Bull drivers German Sebastian Vettel and Australian Mark Webber have taken pole this season and will aim to do the same on Sunday on a track where 15 of the 19 races run have been won by the pole-sitter.
This season, however, has yet to see a victory from pole – a statistic that may change this weekend. Vettel, three times on pole, certainly hopes so as he goes for fourth time ‘lucky’.
Equally confident and focussed are McLaren who, like the rest, will bring many car upgrades to Spain.
"We’ve got a couple of fairly significant upgrades coming for this race," said Briton Lewis Hamilton, the 2008 champion. "It would be naive to think these will move us up the pecking order, but we’re optimistic they’ll help us to bridge the gap to the leaders."