Thursday, 30 June 2011

European GP Report: No one can fight Seb's Bull in Valencia

Sebastian Vettel wins. Getting kind of used to typing that. I'd be annoyed if there wasn't so much to admire about the boy. Yes, Seb took the honours in the European Grand Prix in Valencia, making it his sixth win in eight rounds (and he came a close second in the other two). As for Seb's claiming of his second driver's championship this year, short of falling over getting out of the bath it's surely a case of when rather than whether.

Vettel was in command in Valencia
I got back from Valencia (had a good time, thanks for asking) to encounter lots of 'boring' talk about the race. I have to say I don't agree. Partly this is because I take the Murray Walker view that there's no such thing as a boring F1 race (only processional ones), but I also thought there was much to admire in Valencia last Sunday.

Most prominently was the performance of Seb. This was no grim clinging to the lead seen from him in Spain, Monaco and Canada. Vettel was in command in Valencia, and concocted the perfect mix of speed, composure and sympathy to his Pirellis. He once again scampered away from pole at the start, and was upwards of two seconds clear of team mate Webber in second place after three laps. From then on he went as fast as he dared, edging out his lead tenth by tenth while keeping his tyres in shape, and immediately responding to whatver brief challenge burgeoned behind him. And then in the final laps he showed what he could really do, shaving the walls and setting some fastest laps, and finished ten seconds up the road from Fernando Alonso, his nearest challenger. It's hardly news, but it's worth repeating the extent that Seb has the winning from the front thing down to a nicety. And all this at a track that (again) wasn't meant to suit the Red Bull, on a weekend that the new fangled ban on changing engine mapping between qualifying and the race was supposed to trip the Bulls up, and Seb was under some scrutiny after his last lap goof up in Canada. At this rate, not even the much-vaunted ban of off-throttle blown diffusers for Silverstone will cause the slightest hesitation in his or Red Bull's stride.

Fernando Alonso was tenacious as always in Valencia
Credit: / CC
Another thing to admire in Valencia was Alonso's efforts in splitting the Red Bulls and finishing second. It was clear who the home crowd were there to see, and Nando didn't disappoint them with a tenacious and relentless run typical of him at the top of his game. It was all made possible by a neat outbraking run down the outside of Massa and Hamilton at the first corner (it's a move that he seems to have been pulling off since the dawn of time, and none of his rivals seem to learn). He and the Red Bulls very much ran as a close-knit trio out front for much of the way, and Alonso was able to make a neat (DRS-assisted) pass on Webber on lap 21, only to lose the place back at the next stops as Webber pitted a lap sooner - Ferrari's strategy calls continue to have a rather reactive air about them. Nando managed to right that particular wrong at the final stops, as the Ferrari's gentler handling of its tyres allowed him to stay out longer on the quicker options and he claimed second back from Webber by pitting later (though was also helped by Webber running wide on his entrance to the pits, and encountering traffic after he exited). Webber's gearbox then required nursing, so that was that.

Webber did also drive well to keep his team mate honest, in what he reckoned was his best drive of the year so far.

The three at the front were pretty much left to it by the rest of the field (the odd wayward backmarker notwithstanding), particularly as the McLarens had a subdued run, not able to get the best out of their tyres. According to Mark Hughes this was an imperfect storm of the medium tyre, hot temperatures, a smooth surface and abundance of acceleration zones that caught them out by exposing their relative lack of rear downforce, and it's unlikely to be repeated elsewhere. It didn't stop Lewis sounding frustrated again after the race.

Another run worthy of note was that of Jaime Alguersuari, who saved his Toro Rosso career with a strong run to finish in eighth place from 18th on the grid, which at Valencia is usually about as much use as starting the race on one of the boats in the harbour. It was made possible by a two-stop strategy and Jaime's sensitive touch on his tyres, making them last through the long stints (elsewhere, Perez again did a one-stopper on his way to 11th). This result for Alguersuari has left the waiting-in-the-wings Daniel Ricciardo no choice but to drive an HRT instead.

The Valencia race was noteworthy for its lack of off-script incident, however. It's been widely noted that not one of the 24 cars retired (setting a record). But as pointed out by Adam Cooper, there were also no yellow flags, no spins, no brushes with the wall, while the only noticeable pit stop fumble (for Massa) was fairly minor. The only incident was Schumi losing his front wing on the back of Petrov's Renault, the former champion again showing iffy judgement, which in turn resulted in the only unscheduled pitstop.

Less well-documented is that Valencia was not lacking in overtaking, it's just that it mostly took place away from the front-runners. The Valencia race this year contained 41 overtakes (see Clip the Apex's excellent analysis), which compares with only 19 across the three previous races there combined (there were none at all in 2009). Indeed, Valencia isn't even bottom of this season's overtaking charts - the Melbourne race only had 29 passes.

Nevertheless, I do find the lack of excitement engendered by Valencia races, and the lingering lack of enthusiasm for the venue, somewhat baffling. The event really should have everything going for it: an exciting and vibrant city, a home hero who pulls in a large and passionate crowd, and a track layout that has plenty of big braking zones which should encourage overtaking (races in lower formulae here tend to have a lot of incident). But somehow it hasn't yet produced a particularly exciting F1 race (though, of its type, the strategy and performance by Rubinho in his 2009 win here were both diverting and impressive). Perhaps it owes something to the track's lack of obvious landmarks and reference points, constant walls and it's rather repetitive, stop-start pattern, which makes each section of the track rather samey. But equally perhaps the track has also just been unlucky not to have produced a thriller yet. After all it's perfectly feasible that you could flick a coin four times and get heads four times in a row, it doesn't mean the coin is double-headed. Not all races can be like this year's Canadian round (remember we've seriously been spoiled this year), and every track on the calendar has had tepid races on it at some point. I for one am prepared to give Valencia another chance.

Race results
Race highlights (UK only)

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