Saturday, 23 June 2012

Valencia Preview: F1's ugly duckling

It's by no means melodramatic to say that the Valencia stop-off isn't the most popular one on the F1 calendar. It's become F1's equivalent of the ugly duckling: one that its very mention at best results in indifference, at worst vitriol, among many fans. It's one that is invariably on the tip of many tongues when the 'which F1 circuit would you like to see dropped' question is raised.

So, why is this? On the face of it, you could say the venue has a lot going for it. It is in an exciting and vibrant city, it can boast a home hero who pulls in a large and passionate crowd, and a track layout that has plenty of big braking zones that should encourage overtaking. A while it doesn't really have a quick corner worthy of the name the same can be said of many circuits F1 visits, such as Canada and Singapore (two very popular stop-offs). And, contrary to popular belief, the circuit is a challenging one for drivers.

Perhaps it all demonstrates the importance of an F1 round as a holistic event, with off-track maybe as important as on-track. While the Canada and Singapore rounds have unique and electrifying surroundings and atmospheres, F1 pitched up in Valencia for the first time in 2008 to find not the 'new Monaco' that had been promised, but a circuit in a rather rough-around-the-edges and on-the-decline industrial port that had its back turned on it by the wider city somewhat, all far away from Valencia's attractive and buzzing centre. And apparently things haven't improved hugely since.

Related to this, TV shots rarely provide obvious and memorable landmarks and reference points in the surroundings, and instead concentrate on the inexorable walls around the track. This, combined with a rather repetitive, stop-start layout, makes the track to the viewer seem rather samey and unappealing. Alan Henry in Autocourse last year said the Valencia track: 'looks like a rather run-down, faux Indycar circuit - a sort of Long Beach without the glamour'.

Possibly some of the problem is one of timing as well. The circuit arrived on the calendar on the back of a record 140,000 spectator turnout for the 2007 Spanish Grand Prix race day, and it seemed that in Spain the Alonso-mania mapped F1 streets were paved with gold. It never got that good again though, as Alonso's career hit a mini-slump with two years in recalcitrant Renaults, and Spain's economy soon hit the buffers.

And, worst of all, the circuit hasn't yet produced a particularly exciting or memorable F1 race (though, of its type, the strategy and performance by Rubens Barrichello in his 2009 win here were both diverting and impressive). Perhaps the track has just been unlucky not to have produced a thriller yet; as mentioned the big braking zones should produce passing. Though equally things in F1, as in everything, happen for a reason so there could well be an obscure reason or reasons that preclude exciting races around this venue.

F1 in 2012 has almost always been close and usually been exciting, so you could argue that this Valencia weekend will be its biggest test. On the evidence of Friday's practice the close part will continue: in the second session no fewer than fifteen cars ended up within a second of the best time. Therefore, in a continuation of 2012's pattern, even the most minor dropping of the ball in the qualifying hour could cost several grid places. The timing screens will likely resemble the output of a fruit machine and a jumbled grid, always good for racing, is eminently possible.

And it's yet to become clear who is hot and who is not. Sebastian Vettel topped yesterday's practice times, and Mark Webber but for technical problems possibly would have been close to him, as Red Bull has brought a fairly fundamental range of upgrades (one Red Bull wag commented that the car the team has brought is not so much a B-spec but a D-spec). The suspicion so far is that it's all working very well for the Bulls. And indeed, it's under-commented fact but no less true for that that Red Bull's record of in-season car development is an excellent one. Furthermore, Seb has taken the pole and win (and led virtually every lap) in both of the last two visits here.

Lotus - favourites for the race?
Credit: Morio / CC
So while predicting Seb for pole won't involve sticking much of your neck out, on race day things are less clear cut. As you might expect in southern(ish) Spain at the end of June the weather will be unremittingly hot, and in those circumstances Lotus and Sauber come right into the picture over a race stint. Sergio Perez has commented that he believes the Valencia track won't suit the C31 but Lotus's race simulation runs on Friday sent a shudder down the pit lane and look to be the strongest out there. A race win is on for Kimi Raikkonen or Romain Grosjean (either of which would give us eight winners in eight rounds), but it could pivot on what happens in qualifying. Passing has never been easy around Valencia, and the Lotus is usually not as good on a Saturday as on a Sunday (though both looked strong in Saturday morning practice over a lap). If the two cars claim good grid slots then put your money on them, if they leave themselves with too much to do to reach the gazelles at the front then the race win could be lost already. Stopping one time fewer those most others may be tempting for Lotus as a solution to such a conundrum. With the hot temperatures and short pitlane many will be inclined to stop 2 or 3 times in the race, though last year Perez did a one-stopper and given what happened in Canada some may be inclined to try the same or similar again. And backing up quicker cars in enacting a longer strategy will be a lot more doable here than in Canada a fortnight ago.

Elsewhere, Williams and Force India could be dark horses, and then there is Fernando Alonso. Ferrari seems to have relocated a lot of its swagger in recent times and by law of averages there has to be a home winner in F1 soon (there hasn't been one since Felipe Massa took the win in Brazil in 2008). Meanwhile, McLaren struggled in Friday's practice; Valencia has never really been fertile territory for the Woking team, Lewis Hamilton predicted that 'It’s going to be a tough one for us' and Jenson Button admitted that 'the time just isn’t there' on longer runs. So unless the team finds something quickly (and that Jenson topped the times on Saturday morning suggests that it might have, over a lap in any case) this weekend could be all about damage limitation.

So, times are close, the order could be unusual, strategies may be varied, and the cars good in qualifying may not match those good in the race. Who knows? Maybe this year F1's ugly ducking will turn into a very fine swan indeed.

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