Preview of the European Grand Prix
This weekend sees the fifth and final European Grand Prix to be held at the Circuito Urbano Valencia before it alternates with Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya as host of the Spanish Grand Prix – although there are rumours that the organisers may try to escape that contract too. The circuit has been roundly criticised since joining the calendar in 2008 but the unpredictability of this season may offset the negatives. It may not live up to the hype of an eighth winner but we’ll still be spoilt with a choice of seven potential second-time winners…
So what should you look out for this weekend?
Track and Conditions
The name ’street circuit’ conjures up images of a ‘tight’, ‘twisty’, ’slow’ circuit with ‘minimal overtaking’. However, whilst the Valencia Street Circuit partially rewrites the book on three of those counts, it’s produced little overtaking since the track appeared on the calendar. Even last year, armed with two DRS zones, there were only 27 passes – 22 of which were DRS assisted while the five ‘normal’ passes represented the year’s second poorest return. This year, only the first of those two DRS zones will be in use, covering the curving back section down to the right-left chicane and the best potential overtaking spot.
Over the three races held previously on the circuit, Valencia has produced the highest finish rate of any circuit on the calendar with 92% of cars reaching the chequered flag. Despite the lack of run-off, the lack of accidents has meant that the safety car has only being called into use once – memorably for Mark Webber’s airborne escapade.
Spain’s second race on the calendar is fast, sweeping and wide with drivers reaching top speeds in excess of 300kph (186 mph) at the end of the main straight. Most of the corners into each other, which is why overtaking is difficult as there is little room for manoeuvre and not a huge speed differential between the cars. As with any street circuit, there are more bumps than on a purpose built track, and the first proper corner – Turn 2 – is made trickier by being both bumpy and tight.
The next stretch is rather stop-start in nature down to Turn 8, with the emphasis on traction rather than aerodynamic grip. Between Turns 10 and 12 the cars run flat-out for 12 seconds. There are 25 corners in total, which make this circuit physically challenging over the course of 57 laps, and it’s easy to make a mistake.
The climate in Valencia tends to be warm and sunny and it doesn’t show any signs of being any different this year. Instead the bigger question teams will be looking at is the wind strength and direction with a strong sea breezes potentially causing balance problems.
The lack of high-speed corners means that the teams will run with relatively low levels of downforce as good straight-line speed is important down the long back straight, although downforce will not be quite as low as two weeks ago in Montreal. The lack of downforce will be balanced by a supple enough suspension to give good mechanical grip in, and good traction out of, the low-speed corners. Exiting the corners also puts a reasonable demand on the engine, but it is an area where smooth pickup and how the engine delivers its power is important.
A good grid position will be more important than most races so far this season and DRS plays an important in achieving that – with the adjustable wing available throughout qualifying it can be deployed for around 60% of the lap length.
Valencia features the shortest pit lane on the calendar with just 252 metres speed restricted, limiting the penalty of making an additional stop. With on-track overtaking difficult, flexible pit stop strategy could be key to gaining places. Last year, the frontrunners all adopted the same strategy: starting on the soft tyre and stopping three times before completing a final stint on the medium tyre. Soft and medium will be available once again but the greater durability of this year’s tyres may mean less stops being required.
Valencia has produced little in the way of memorable races in four years but there are several notable incidents, the most significant of which came during the circuit’s debut. On lap 43 Kimi Raikkonen pitted for his second stop but then the Ferrari driver tried to leave before the refuelling hose was detached. The team’s refueller Pietro Timpini was knocked over, suffering a fracture in his foot. More importantly, with many already pointing the finger at Ferrari’s novel pit stop light system, it foreshadowed the more calamitous events of that year’s Singapore Grand Prix which were to ultimately contribute to Felipe Massa missing out on the drivers’ title.
Of course, the European Grand Prix as an event has a more spectacular history, with Ayrton Senna’s masterclass at Donington in 1993 set to live long in the memory.
Ones To Watch
It couldn’t possibly be eight winners from eight could it? Realistic candidates are running low, especially on a circuit which throws up few retirements and the prospect of a surprise result but Lotus’ pairing may be the best bet. Kimi Raikkonen is no stranger to the top step of the podium and Romain Grosjean will be looking to go one better than his second-place in Montreal. Another driver keen to improve from second is Lewis Hamilton – the McLaren racer has finished runner-up around Valencia’s streets on three of the four occasions that the circuit has featured on the calendar.
Food for Thought
Who do you think will win in Valencia? With the circuit set to alternate with Barcelona, will you miss the annual dose of each?
Circuit Profile – Valencia Street Circuit
2011 European Grand Prix – Vettel Cruises to Victory in Valencia
Photos: Vodafone McLaren Mercedes, Mercedes AMG Petronas, Red Bull Racing/Clive Rose/Getty Images, Vodafone McLaren Mercedes