Throughout the season we have heard lots of criticism of how tyres are making Formula 1 a lottery and allowing midfield teams to battle for the win.
While it is clear that unfancied teams such as Sauber and Williams have both enjoyed competitive races this year the Pirelli rubber has not actually made a drastic difference to performances during the races.
Only in Malaysia, where the race was run in wet conditions, has the winner come from off the front row of the grid. Looking back over the season and it is clear that there have been some surprising results but, by and large, the competitiveness of teams has been clear throughout each weekend of racing.
William’s Barcelona success, with Pastor Maldonado at the wheel, has been cited numerous times by pundits and writers as a sign that Formula 1 does not reward the best package but rather the most fortunate at any given time.
The Venezuelan however was incredibly competitive all weekend in Spain and he utterly deserved his victory after compiling the most complete weekend of any driver. In qualifying only Lewis Hamilton was faster but with the Englishman relegated to the back of the grid Maldonado thoroughly deserved his pole position. Having trailed Fernando Alonso in the early stages he then made better use of strategy and traffic to take the lead and claim the win.
While many look at seven races and seven different winners as a sign of unpredictability it is in fact a sign of the incredible competitiveness of Formula 1 at present and the big question heading into this weekend is whether we can have yet another first time winner in Valencia…..
The Valencia Street Circuit
The inaugural race in Valencia, the 2008 European GP, featured the oddity of zero on track overtaking manoeuvres with pit strategy playing the crucial role in determining the outcome of the race. The following year a superior strategy by Brawn GP helped Rubens Barrichello to outsmart Hamilton for the win.
This weekend however the combination of speed and strategy will be crucial but with overtaking a much easier proposition at present it is clear that Valencia could be in store for much better Grand Prix.
Even though it is a street circuit Valencia has a very high average lap speed with numerous high speed straights and the thrilling final section seeing driver thread the eye of the needle through walls towards the final corner.
With DRS likely to play a key role being able to exploit a strong car under braking will be more important than ever so expect to see the likes of Alonso at the fore once again this weekend.
The difficulties in overtaking however were perfectly explained by Sebastian Vettel:
"In Valencia, we drive an average of more than 200kph, which means it's one of the fastest street circuits in Formula One,” commented the reigning world champion. “Overtaking is possible, but only with some risk. The reason is that the air turbulence created by cars driving closely behind each other doesn't disappear as it normally would due to the high walls around the track; you lose grip and, in some extreme cases, you have to lift the throttle.”
Schumacher and Lotus look for first victory
The Canadian Grand Prix showed, once again, the pace of the Lotus. Romain Grosjean has enjoyed a very successful campaign for the Enstone squad and having claimed two podiums he has shown a tremendous turn of speed while also exhibiting an ability to manage his tyres.
When asked about what he needs to do to put himself into position to win this weekend Grosjean simply said, “Qualify better.”
With his teammate, Kimi Raikkonen, having shown the same blistering pace that marked him as one of the most exciting drivers in Formula 1 history it is clear that his talent is not diminished from his two year exile in rallying. The Finn however has been inconsistent but he seems motivated and eager to prove himself once again.
At Mercedes Michael Schumacher has driven very well this season but ultimately his speed has gone unrewarded. He has had accidents and mechanical woes befall him to a much greater extent than other drivers but the German heads to Spain with high hopes of another strong showing.
"Our entire focus is now on the race in Valencia,” said the German. “I am sure that everybody's motivation is even stronger because the weekend in Canada didn't go as well as we had hoped. Our motto in the last few days has been to roll our sleeves up and focus on the job in hand; everybody in the team has taken that approach to heart, so we can travel to Valencia in an optimistic mood. The harbour area is particularly nice and, given its location, the circuit is also really interesting, so let's see how we can perform there.”
The likely contenders
The string of different winners has to come to an end at some point in time and Valencia is well placed for the first repeat winner of 2012.
The Spanish track has been kind to the likes of Hamilton and Vettel in the past but it is impossible to overlook Fernando Alonso.
Racing in front of his home crowd the Spaniard will be a handful for the rest of the field and with the double world champion driving better than ever, and dragging incredible performance from his Ferrari, there is little doubt that he will be in position to challenge over the course of the weekend.
Red Bull has locked out the front row at Valencia for the last two year with Vettel leading the way home on both occasions. Mark Webber claimed a podium last year but it was the year before that Webber really hit the headlines with his aerobatic crash with Heikki Kovalainen.
Having been comprehensively beaten by Vettel last season Webber has been much more competitive thus far in 2012. Having taken time to adjust to the Pirelli tyres he now has a much better understanding of how the Italian rubber works throughout the course of a race and how he needs to manage the tyres.
In addition to this the loss of the exhaust blown diffuser has clearly hampered him less than Vettel and has, in all likelihood, played a key role in closing the gap between the teammates. Coming to Valencia after a disappointing Canadian weekend, qualifying fourth and falling to seventh at the flag, it is imperative that Webber can have a strong weekend.
“Obviously it's very difficult to predict how we might go in Valencia,” commented the Australian. “As we've seen with seven winners and plenty of different podiums. Our main goal is to improve our positions in both championships, so personally for me in the Drivers' Championship and of course the team is looking to keep a good margin in the Constructors'.”
Another difficult weekend in store for Button
Jenson Button has been suffering a crisis of confidence of late with the McLaren driver having been outpaced and outraced by his teammate, Lewis Hamilton, in the last three Grand Prix.
The season started with such promise for Button with a victory in Australia but since then he has struggled to get to grips with the McLaren while Hamilton has flourished. With Button having admitted that he will use his teammate’s setup as the basis of his Valencia setup it is clear just how far he has fallen in recent months.
The pair employs polar opposite driving styles and their natural setups reflect this. Hamilton can manhandle and bully a car around the track whereas Button has a much more classical and flowing style. The 2009 world champion needs a balanced car that doesn’t break away unexpectedly whereas Hamilton can deal with excessive oversteer very easily.
After the Canadian Grand Prix, where he finished a distant 16th, Button was clearly disconsolate and said:
“I’m pushing the car to its limits and yet I’m so far off the leaders [pace],” said the 32 year old. “It’s a little confusing. Every time you jump in the car you’re excited and confident that it’s going to go well and every time you make changes you think you are going to improve. But it’s not happening. I’m confused and lost and I don’t really understand what is going on at the moment.”
With the Englishman utilising Hamilton’s setup as his starting point this weekend it is clear that it will take some time to adapt it towards his style and as a result it is highly unlikely that he will suddenly regain his form and return to the sharp end of the field.
If however he can start to make progress towards competitiveness then the weekend will have been seen as a success for Jenson.
Setup challenges facing the teams in Valencia
As with any street circuit the evolution of the track surface will play a key role for teams trying to find the perfect setup for their drivers.
Valencia however also provides various other issues for teams to overcome.
Some of Formula 1’s leading engineers were keen to discuss these difficulties in the lead up to the weekend.
"Valencia is a street circuit, but not a typical one, because the surface is very smooth, and the kerbs are not very high,” said Sauber’s Giampaolo Dall’Ara. “In addition, the aerodynamic efficiency is significantly more important than, for example, in Monaco or Singapore, and there are proper run-off areas. Most of the corners are slow, but you cannot ignore the level of top speed. As a result of this layout, braking stability and traction are very important. In Valencia we have to expect high temperatures at this time of the year, so the tarmac can get very hot."
Williams Mark Gallin also went into detail some of the unique challenges provided by Valencia.
“The track layout places a lot of stress on the braking system and the high ambient temperatures, coupled with a lower than average mean speed, forces one to open up the cooling package,” commented the Williams chief operating officer.
The layout of Valencia also offers a challenge for the engine manufacturers within the paddock.
“It's actually a big challenge to get the engine mapping right for Valencia,” said Renault’s Remi Taffin. “The corners are so similar. Ten corners are taken in first, second or third gear, and if you get one corner wrong then you will be at a disadvantage for the rest of the lap.”
Formula 1 revolves around Pirelli tyres
The work done by Pirelli tyres to spice up the racing in recent years has been crucial in providing Formula 1 with so many different winners this season but Valencia offers numerous subtleties to which the Italian rubber has not encountered thus far in 2012.
Paul Hembery, Pirelli’s motorsport director, knows that the Italian’s rubber will come under scrutiny again this weekend and the strategies employed by the teams will be crucial in the outcome of the race.
"Valencia could not present a bigger contrast to the street circuits that have come before it: the track is faster and the temperatures higher, with plenty of energy going through the tyres,” said the Englishman. “What it has in common with the others is the difficulty of overtaking, which will put the emphasis on qualifying. So we are expecting a fairly straightforward race, with either two or three stops depending on which tactics the teams use - although one team tried a one-stopper last year as well.
"The weather should be consistently warm throughout the weekend, which should lead to fewer variables in terms of temperature, so there probably won't be many big surprises to emerge. We've used the combination of soft and medium tyres more than any other line-up so far this year, as it has shown itself to be a perfect compromise between performance and durability, allowing drivers to show their speed when they need to but also benefit from longer stints in the race."
Weather for the weekend
Mid June in Spain promises blue skies and high temperatures. With the track taking the cars around the port of Valencia a calming sea breeze offers some rest bite from the heat but temperatures in excess of 35C are expected once again on the Eastern coast of Spain.