BARCELONA (Reuters) – Nico Rosberg will have Formula One history in his sights in Spain this weekend, even if Dutch teenager Max Verstappen seizes his share of the limelight. The championship leader has won seven races in a row, including the last three of 2015, and can join fellow-German Michael Schumacher (2004) and Britain's Nigel Mansell (1992) as the only drivers to start a season with five successive victories.
The chances of that happening looked remote this time last year, when Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton had won three of the first four and was heading for a third title, but Rosberg is now 43 points clear of the Briton. As 18-year-old Verstappen would agree, after his rapid promotion from Toro Rosso in a swap with demoted Russian Daniil Kvyat, Formula One moves fast off the track as well as on it.
"I'm just enjoying the moment and the form I'm in, doing my best to keep it going and hoping I can carry it through to the end of the season," said Rosberg, 11/10 at bookmakers' William Hill with Hamilton at 5/4.
Another triumph for Mercedes would equal McLaren's run of 11 in a row from 1988, and that looks more than likely given that the champions have won 36 of the last 42 races.
Rosberg will pick up plenty of good vibes at a circuit where he won from pole last year, his first victory of that season, but he has plenty of rivals for attention.
Hamilton, who went from 10th to second at Sochi after his second successive power unit failure pushed him down the grid, will be even more determined to turn the tide while McLaren's Fernando Alonso can count on strong home support.
"I'm confident they'll get to the bottom of the problems we've been having. I know I'm still quick," said Hamilton.
"I've known that since day one in testing and, when I've had clean air and a damage-free car this season, I've shown it on track."
Barcelona marks the real start of the European season, the sport's historic heartland, even if Russia preceded Spain this year for the first time.
A circuit where teams test pre-season, it is both predictable and surprising -- there have been nine different winners in the last nine years yet all but two of the last 15 pole-setters have won.
The paddock 'motorhomes', the palatial hospitality units used only at European races, will gleam in the sunshine with teams bringing major upgrades to the track and hoping for a change of fortunes.
A good result in Spain bodes well for the rest of the year.
"Barcelona is a very good indication of where you are with the car," said Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel, whose team are hoping for a clean weekend to show their real potential after a nightmarish string of mishaps and failures.
Renault, who took their first points of the campaign in Sochi, have said already that Barcelona and the first in-season test that follows will mark the start of their real development programme.
"We look at this race as a marker in the sand: the exit point of our recovery from the takeover (of Lotus) and the first race as 'our' team," said Renault F1 managing director Cyril Abiteboul.
"It will start small but I’m confident we will gain momentum as we go forward."