By Alan Baldwin
(Reuters) - Max Verstappen returns to the scene of his first Formula One triumph on Sunday, hoping to pile more pressure on championship leader Lewis Hamilton in Spain after winning at Silverstone last Sunday.
The 22-year-old Red Bull driver has stood on the podium at the last four races and is now the closest challenger to Mercedes' six-times world champion, with 30 points separating them.
It would be a lot less if Verstappen, who has beaten Hamilton's Finnish team mate Valtteri Bottas in the last three races, had not suffered the first retirement of the season in Austria last month.
"It’s a different track so let’s see how competitive we are against Mercedes and how the temperatures have an impact on everyone," the Dutchman said of the Circuit de Catalunya.
Verstappen will always have a soft spot for the Barcelona track after becoming Formula One's youngest ever winner there on his Red Bull debut in 2016 at the age of 18.
This year's race, postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has also led to it going behind closed doors, is normally held in the cooler month of May rather than August where track temperatures are likely to be above 40 degrees Celsius.
"The track at Barcelona is also quite hard on the tyres so I’m not sure how they will hold out in the heat," said Verstappen.
The tyres were decisive last Sunday, with the Red Bull managing the softer compounds better than the Mercedes which suffered severe blistering, but there will be a return to harder rubber in Spain.
That could help Hamilton, who had won three races in a row before Verstappen's success and has also won the last three outings in Spain.
"Maybe it won’t be as bad as today but still going to be a challenge," he said last Sunday when asked about expectations.
Bottas started on pole in Spain last year and needs to pull something out of the bag to rein in a team mate who is driving as well as ever.
Losing out at Silverstone, after also starting on pole but having the strategy go against him, was a serious blow.
The top three will be taking every precaution against the new coronavirus, with a rising number of new infections being seen in Spain and particularly around Barcelona.
"I stay at the track always, so nothing changes for me," said Hamilton. "I stay in my bubble, I’m only around a couple of people and so I will get to the airport and then go straight to my motorhome and stay at the track for the three/four days."
Verstappen and Bottas said it was the same for them.
"You minimise contact, you stay in your bubble. I don’t expect any trouble. It’s not only in Barcelona or in Spain there is corona, you know, so you just have to be careful," said the Dutchman.
Racing Point's Mexican Sergio Perez, who missed the two rounds at Silverstone after testing positive for COVID-19, could return for Sunday's race.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)