Always one of the most intriguing points of the Formula 1 calendar, the European swing of the season gets underway this weekend with the Spanish Grand Prix. With three weeks since the last race in Bahrain, there has been crucial time for all of the teams to develop their cars. For Mercedes and world champion Lewis Hamilton that means attempting to stay in front in what has become an unexpectedly tight battle with Ferrari.

It looked set to be a year dominated by Mercedes, but Ferrari have so far made the championship race far more intriguing. Sebastian Vettel claimed victory in just his second race for the Italian team in Malaysia, while Kimi Raikkonen split the Mercedes when finishing second behind Hamilton in Bahrain. And Ferrari have brought significant upgrades with them to Barcelona this weekend, although Vettel continues to insist that they have not yet breached the gap to Mercedes.

“Not so long ago, three months, we were here for winter testing and the gap between everyone and Mercedes was huge,” he said, reports BBC Sport. “What has happened since then for us is very positive but the gap is still there and it is still big.”

“Barcelona historically has always been a place where teams have brought updates to its cars, sometimes bigger or smaller. We've probably done the same as everyone else but hopefully we'll have a bigger update and a better lap time to catch up to the guys in front, Mercedes.”

Four-time world champion Vettel currently sits third in the drivers’ standings, a point behind Nico Rosberg and 28 behind leader Hamilton. The championship leader has enjoyed his time out of the car over the past three weeks, including taking in the fight between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas last week. Yet Hamilton has still not put pen to paper on a new contract with Mercedes despite months of negotiations. He insists, though, that he is ecstatic with his current situation.

“This is the happiest I’ve been for a long, long time career-wise,” he said, reports Sky Sports. “Outside, it’s great when you can do the things you want to do knowing they are not a distraction and then you can perform,”

“In the car I feel the best I have ever been and I’m very happy with how it has gone this year. I left the last race sitting on the plane thinking ‘it has been a great couple of weeks’. When you have had a season like we had last year it is not easy to continue or do better and the surprising thing is that it has been better than last year. But there is still a long, long way to go.”

Perhaps the man most desperate for improvement in Spain will be home favorite Fernando Alonso. While the team he left last year, Ferrari, has been causing a stir at the front of the grid, his new team McLaren has yet to score a single point and has been languishing ignominiously at the back of the pack. But after some minor encouragement last time out, Alonso is hoping McLaren can further increase its competitiveness in front of his adoring fans.

“I think in Bahrain we had a nice step and that brought us closer to the Q3 cut-off and also to the points and we need another small step to reach that goal,” he said in a press conference on Thursday, according to “Obviously it's not what we want, we want to be on the podium and win races, but one step at a time and hopefully here in Barcelona we can see this step.

“But we need to see what the others are bringing here to this race. Obviously it's the first European grand prix, which normally everyone brings some good updates, as we do as well, but it's just a matter of which one made the step a little bit bigger.”

F1 Spanish Grand Prix Schedule (all times EDT)
Practice 1: Friday, 4 a.m. (NBC Sports Live Extra)
Practice 2: Friday, 8 a.m. (NBCSN, NBC Sports Live Extra)
Practice 3: Saturday, 5 a.m. (NBC Sports Live Extra)
Qualifying: Saturday, 8 a.m. (CNBC, NBC Sports Live Extra)
Race: Sunday, 8 a.m. (NBCSN, NBC Sports Live Extra)