By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - The first European race of the Formula One season provided a boost for Ferrari and Fernando Alonso, with Lotus and Kimi Raikkonen also smiling, but left plenty of other former champions feeling the pain.
While Red Bull retained their lead in both championships, they struggled with similar tire problems to others in Barcelona on Sunday with triple champion Sebastian Vettel finishing off the podium with his lead over Raikkonen cut to four points.
The Circuit de Catalunya, used for two of the three pre-season tests and host of the fifth race of the year, had been seen as a key track in the season after rounds in Asia and the Middle East.
All teams brought upgrades to Spain, with former champions McLaren and Williams needing a bigger boost than most after a troubled start and Mercedes eager to show they could be quick on Sunday as well as Saturday.
In the end, the song remained pretty much the same. Ferrari and Lotus proved easy on the tires and highly competitive, Force India stayed solidly in the points while Red Bull went slightly off the boil.
Pirelli, already in the spotlight after some alarming previous failures that saw treads strip away from the tires, took more flak for sowing confusion with some 77 pitstops made over the 66 laps.
They vowed to take another look at both the compounds and structures, although nothing can be done for at least another two races.
"It's a right mess," said McLaren's Jenson Button, referring to the tires rather than his team's predicament. "It's the same thing we had in China, waving each other past so we don't destroy our rubber while hoping that the guy who's overtaking will."
Mercedes struggled again to translate qualifying speed into race pace, with Lewis Hamilton plunging from front row to 12th at the chequered flag, while McLaren were still clearly groping around for a silver bullet to their aerodynamic woes.
Williams, last year's winners in Spain but without a point in four races, made it five blanks.
"For me this weekend was important just to understand the jump in terms of performance we could expect from the other teams," Ferrari principal Stefano Domenicali told reporters after Alonso had won his home race and moved up to third overall.
"It seems that everyone has moved more or less with the same kind of improvement," added the Italian of the evidence from Sunday. "I don't see a big change."
Whereas last year saw seven different winners in the first seven races, only three men - all of them world champions - have won so far: Alonso (twice), Raikkonen and Vettel (twice).
Raikkonen has been on the podium in four of the five races and now has 22 successive points finishes, two short of Michael Schumacher's all-time record although the scoring system has changed.
The quick-wearing tires have come in for criticism, with Sunday's race a blur of pitstops, but Ferrari and Lotus would argue that making the most of them is just a part of the challenge that they have risen to better than others.
Hamilton, looking slightly shell-shocked after a long Mercedes debrief, said it was all part of motor racing but hoped his team would fix their problems with the same sort of speed shown by his car in qualifying.
"I don't understand what it is," he said, of a car that has been on pole for the last three races without coming close to winning any of them. "It's obviously the tires...there's something we haven't quite caught onto just yet.
"It's not rocket science, I don't think. I don't know why it's taken us so long to really grab hold of it. But clearly Ferrari have and so have the Lotuses figured it out. We just need to do that and I'm sure we will at some point."
Vettel, who had arrived in Spain fresh from a victory in Bahrain, made four pitstops - the same as Alonso - and said Red Bull needed to catch up.
"The first three cars were a little bit too fast for us and regarding looking after the tires, they did a better job," said the German. "We're not going at the pace of the car, we're going at the pace of the tires and obviously we do something to make the tires wear more."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Justin Palmer)