Once again, the Circuit de Catalunya will play host to the first European round of the F1 season

After four rounds of touring one traditional venue (Australia) and three events added to the Formula 1 calendar since 1999, motorsport’s premier series returns to the Circuit de Catalunya for an event which has been a near-constant on the F1 tour since 1967, and the 21st Grand Prix run at the Barcelona circuit. And rarely has the circus arrived in Spain with more questions and points of debate hanging over it than this season.

The early-season flyaways completed, the Championship stands extremely finely balanced with ten points separating the Red Bull and McLaren drivers and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, and four different winners from the first four GPs. Add in the impressive form of Lotus-Renault and the renaissance in full swing at Williams, and 2012 is shaping up to be a spectacular season for F1.

Following today’s two practise sessions, here are the five big questions still unanswered ahead of Sunday’s race …

1) At what point this weekend will Mercedes be able to focus on the grand prix?

The debates from Bahrain are hanging unresolved over the Silver Arrows. Nico Rosberg seems genuinely ready to discuss his defensive driving at Sakhir, if only someone from the FIA would sit down and discuss it with him. As Jenson Button commented after practise today, if Rosberg isn’t in the wrong, then Lewis Hamilton, who was forced onto the concrete outside the track limits by Rosberg but completed his overtaking manoeuvre regardless, must have acted illegally, and yet neither driver has been punished. The paddock needs this issue solved urgently, before a repeat incident occurs.

Across the garage in veteran Michael Schumacher’s corner, the tyre fiasco rolls on unabated. The German has repeated his stance that he feels Pirelli’s rubber has too big an impact on the outcome of races at the moment. The tyre company is sticking to its production philosophy and believes any change to more durable tyres would reduce the amount of action in races at the moment. Meanwhile, Mark Webber believes several drivers will sit out the final session of qualifying tomorrow because saving tyres has become so important.

The rapid degradation of Pirelli’s tyres has led to many more pitstops, leading to more exciting racing

At some point Mercedes would do well to remove itself from these debates entirely and focus on achieving results. It secured one top-6 placing in each of today’s practices; there may be a solid race result waiting in the wings if Ross Brawn’s team can concentrate themselves fully on the job at hand.

2) Can Lotus follow up on their outstanding 2-3 in Bahrain?

Kimi Raikkonen certainly thinks so.

Talking to motorsport news website Autosport.com, the Finn was in bullish mood and claims that  there is “nothing to suggest” the team can’t challenge for big points once more.

“We’ve been fast everywhere else so far and there’s nothing to suggest we won’t be fast here again,” said Raikkonen. “Our car is better now than the winter, and it feels that this Friday was a bit easier than the others, so we are maybe ahead of where we were at other races. In Bahrain we didn’t have so easy a Friday, so we will see tomorrow.”

Lotus have shown real promise in today’s sessions, with both drivers finishing in the top ten in both sessions. Raikkonen’s teammate Romain Grosjean, who joined his more experienced teammate on the podium in Bahrain, continues to match the Finn on a regular basis – and that success could be the key to what is promising to be an extremely successful season for Lotus at this early stage.

3) Is F1 at risk of alienating its traditional fanbase in Europe if many more rounds are sacrificed?

This discussion has become a Catalunya staple in recent years as the Spanish GP is typically the first European event of the season. As every year goes by, more of the core European rounds are coming under threat of being sacrificed to make space for new events in new markets for F1. Russia and the two American events are the most recent examples, but really it’s places like Bahrain, where the track is terrible and there are clear socio-political reasons for not being there, and Korea, where the facilities were woefully under-prepared, that rankle most with me.

It’s probably best that I don’t provide an answer here, as my view is coloured somewhat by the fact that some of the races to be given the chop in recent years – Magny-Cours, Imola, Estoril – were most of my favourite tracks to drive on video games. Instead, I’ll say that F1 needs to avoid like the plague adding any more street races to its calender (like, for example, New York next year). These things are terrible. No-one overtakes, no-one moves places except in the pits or benefitting from someone else’s accident. It’s not racing, it’s following.

4) When will Felipe Massa post a decent drive in 2012?

Felipe Massa knows that the pressure on him isn’t going to go away – but the big result which would quiet his doubters is eluding him of late | (Image via the Telegraph)

If it doesn’t come soon, it might never happen for Massa, who will be all too aware of the colossal pressure on him to start producing. The Brazilian has lagged far behind Alonso in the sister car all year, and, with just two points from the first four races, currently sits behind the likes of Sergio Perez, Pastor Maldonado and rookie Jean-Eric Vergne in the drivers’ standings. But Massa’s slump started before this season – he hasn’t registered a podium since the end of 2010 (Korea), has just two in the last two calendar years, and didn’t even crack the top four last year. Ferrari cannot hope to achieve its goals for this season solely through Alonso’s performance – if it doesn’t start getting results from Massa soon, there are many other drivers with F1 experience available to fill his seat.

5) Three drivers who need to beat their teammates this weekend

Since the above question was an attempt to stop Massa becoming a fixture in this section, we’ll steer clear of him …

Mark Webber – Sebastian Vettel returned to form with his win in Bahrain, and has been considerably quicker than Webber so far in practise at Catalunya. The Aussie looked to have the upper hand in the first couple of events, and will want to get back on terms with his German rival at the first opportunity.

Michael Schumacher – Having only secured his first point of the year last time out, and sitting even lower in the standings than Massa, the old master is nowhere in comparison to China winner Rosberg. Michael wouldn’t have made those tyre comments if he wasn’t genuinely struggling with the Pirellis, but they clearly work on his team-mate’s car, so the seven-time champ needs to figure it out pretty soon.

Nico Hulkenberg – The German is back in F1 after a year as Force India’s test driver, but he’s having a torrid time stacking up to Paul di Resta so far this season. Both drivers are in their second season of F1, but di Resta’s more recent experience of the Force India is clearly helping him and the Scot currently holds a 15-2 points advantage. More to the point, he’s been in the battle for points consistently. Hulkenberg hasn’t.

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