Everything to Play for in Valencia?
After Mark Webber set the pace in the morning session on a track that was still dusty and covered with debris, the times tumbled in the second session. Fernando Alonso quickest of the day, ahead of Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Michael Schumacher – just four tenths of a second separating the four teams.
In the racing debut for Pirelli’s medium compound this weekend, they appear to be around one to one and half seconds slower than the soft tyre. The focus is therefore likely to be on the option tyre, although with them expected to have a range of 20 laps (with the white-marked medium tyres predicted to be good for a further 10 laps) we shouldn’t see the pit frenzy of earlier races. Two stops are most likely while one-stopping could bring some of the mid-fielders rewards – Sauber could be one to watch with Kamui Kobayashi looking to repeat his strategical success of last year.
The one question mark over the weekend surrounds engine mappings after the FIA decided to limit teams to having to use the same engine mapping for qualifying as for the race. In some ways it’s a curiosity that engine mapping has been exempt from parc fermé conditions until now, although it’s hard not to think that the timing of the move is aimed at clipping Red Bull’s wings. The Austrian team has been outstanding in qualifying, particularly in Q3, so could we see the first non-Red Bull pole of the season? They could certainly have a fight on their hands for the first time in 2011.
The big challenge facing the teams this weekend has been in understanding the new medium compound, an effort hampered by overcast conditions during Friday with much higher track temperatures expected for the rest of the weekend. “The chief element at this Grand Prix is the first appearance of the Medium”, explains Alonso. “It was important that we were able to do so many laps, because on a circuit like this one, getting a lot of kilometres under your belt helps you gain confidence in the car, looking for the limits and thereby improving performance.”
With four teams closely matched at the end of Friday’s testing, can we expect a similarly closely fought qualifying and race? Hamilton certainly thinks McLaren will be in the mix. “It looks very tight up at the front but we’re definitely in the fight, which is the important thing,” suggested an optimistic Hamilton. “I think we’ve got some more pace up our sleeves for the rest of the weekend, too.”
Schumacher was less confident about Mercedes’ prospects though. “All of us are aware, though, that under normal circumstances we will not yet be strong enough to fight for the podium,” reflected the seven-times World Champions, “and will most likely find ourselves starting around the fourth row.”
Somebody else other than Red Bull on pole? “It’s not by chance that Red Bull have always taken pole in the first seven races of the year,” says Alonso, “and clearly they are still the favourites.”
Weather: Warm but overcast, air temperature of 25-27˚C, track temperature of 28-38˚C.
Photo: Pirelli Tyres