Motor racing-Verstappen hopes his 100th ends up like the first

FILE PHOTO: Formula One F1 - Portuguese Grand Prix - Algarve International Circuit - Portimao, Portugal - May 1, 2021 Red Bull's Max Verstappen during the press conference FIA/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) - Max Verstappen's first Formula One win at the Circuit de Catalunya on his Red Bull Racing debut in 2016 was simply sensational but another success on Sunday, in his 100th start for the team, would surprise nobody.

The 23-year-old Dutch driver returns to the Spanish Grand Prix track outside Barcelona as a title contender fighting wheel-to-wheel with Mercedes' seven times world champion Lewis Hamilton.

Eight points behind his British rival after three races, Verstappen will find round four much more to his liking than Portugal last weekend.

Grip levels, after the Algarve circuit's slippery surface, should be more normal and Barcelona is always a good benchmark for a car's strengths and weaknesses.

"Barcelona will always hold special memories for me. Your first F1 win is pretty emotional, especially when it is a bit of a shock to everyone as it was my debut for the team," said Verstappen.

"I think it can be a good track for us, but I do expect Mercedes to be very quick too so it’s going to be very close again and it’s just going to depend on who finds the best set-up," he added.

Verstappen started 23 races for Red Bull-owned Toro Rosso, now AlphaTauri, before his promotion to Red Bull Racing at the age of 18 made him the youngest ever grand prix winner.

He and Hamilton have been in a league of their own this season, the Dutch driver winning once with two second places to Hamilton's two victories and one runner-up.

Hamilton has won in Spain five times, and for the past four years, and another victory would equal Michael Schumacher's six with Benetton and Ferrari.

Pole position would also make him the first Formula One driver to reach 100 but Mercedes' director of trackside engineering Andrew Shovlin said the weekend was looking too close to call.

"To be honest, I think it will be a bit more of the same. You won't be able to split them, you won't be able to read the race and I think it will just be a bit tight and we are settling into that," he said.

Hamilton's team mate Valtteri Bottas, who finished third from pole position in Portugal, is already 37 points behind the Briton and fourth overall.

With his position at the team uncertain for next year, and Mercedes-backed Williams driver George Russell favourite to replace him, the Finn needs a strong showing.

Behind the podium regulars, expect McLaren's Lando Norris to continue the fine run of form that has sent him third overall.

Only 1,000 spectators -- circuit members drawn by ballot -- will be allowed into the grandstands as a result of restrictions on mass gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic but they will have two Spanish drivers to cheer on.

Carlos Sainz will be making his first home appearance as a Ferrari driver while double world champion and two times Spanish GP winner Fernando Alonso returns with Renault-owned Alpine after two years out.

Formula One did not test at the circuit pre-season, for the first time since 2014, and the La Caixa turn 10 has been radically re-profiled with the lap distance extended by 20 metres.

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Toby Davis)

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