Following its now traditional three-week summer break, the Formula 1 World Championship campaign roars back into life with a vengeance in Valencia this weekend - as the all-new Spanish street circuit prepares to host its inaugural race in the top flight, the 2008 European Grand Prix.

The event will mark the first time Spain has welcomed two F1 races in the same season since Jerez de la Frontera last featured on the sport's calendar eleven years ago, and it is an outing that is anticipated with a considerable degree of excitement.

With the title battle reaching fever pitch - and as many as six drivers still in contention for the ultimate laurels with seven races left to run - McLaren-Mercedes are expected to hold a slight edge around the harbour-side track, given the Silver Arrows' dominance around the similarly tight and twisty streets of Monaco earlier in the year.

Indeed, between them, Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen have claimed four of the past six grands prix, and look odds-on to make that five in seven in the Spanish city, with Hamilton in particular keen to stamp his authority on proceedings in 2008, having come so close to glory during his maiden assault on top flight honours last year.

The young Briton and world championship leader is a renowned street circuit specialist - and famously prevailed around the tortuous confines of Monte Carlo just under three months ago - whilst Kovalainen's confidence will have been boosted by his breakthrough F1 triumph last time out in Hungary. Both are more than capable of walking away with the silverware this weekend.

It was not lost on anyone at Woking, however, that McLaren was unexpectedly outpaced on race day in Budapest by Ferrari, and even if the Scuderia seems unable to hold a candle to its rivals in qualifying at present, there is clearly little to choose between the two teams during the races themselves.

For that reason alone, McLaren well know they cannot afford to rest on their laurels, and Ferrari have been injected with renewed hope that the fight is far from over yet. Felipe Massa has been in fine form of late, and would have assumed the lead in the drivers' standings but for his cruel retirement almost within sight of the chequered flag at the Hungaroring.

Defending world champion Kimi Raikkonen, on the other hand, seems to have lost some of his spirit in recent weeks, with no win now since Barcelona all the way back in April and only three podiums from the interceding seven races. The Finn knows he must rapidly start performing again and display some semblance of his former self soon - or else kiss his chances of retaining his hard-fought crown goodbye.

Behind the leading two teams, many eyes will be on whether Toyota can make further in-roads on the ailing BMW-Sauber squad, whilst the Munich and Hinwil-based concern will be bidding to arrest the decline that has seen it go from being a regular front-runner and podium challenger earlier in the campaign to Robert Kubica driving what technical director Willy Rampf termed a 'faultless' race in Hungary - to scrape just a sole point for eighth place at the close.

Indeed, the Pole's resurgent team-mate Nick Heidfeld has out-scored him over recent outings, and Kubica needs to get back in amongst the grandees once more if his fading world championship hopes are not to be irreversibly extinguished.

Timo Glock's debut rostrum finish in Budapest has clearly given the reigning GP2 Series Champion both the hunger and conviction to repeat that feat - achieved entirely on merit, courtesy of a superb performance behind the wheel of his TF108.

With the pace and consistency of both Glock and Jarno Trulli, the Cologne-based outfit looks well-placed to see off the threats of Renault, Red Bull Racing and Williams behind in the fraught tussle for fourth spot in the end-of-season constructors' rankings - but who comes next is anyone's guess.

Performance-wise at least, Renault would appear to have stolen a march over similarly-powered Red Bull and multiple former champions Williams, and the R?gie seems finally to have got a greater handle on the previously frail reliability of its R28 too. What's more, Nelsinho Piquet now being in a position to back up home hero Fernando Alonso in the points-scoring stakes - with the young Brazilian's self-belief immeasurably reinforced following his remarkable Hockenheim podium - has given Renault, like Toyota, two strings to its bow, whereas RBR has in essence only one.

Whilst David Coulthard invariably displays strong race day pace, his poor qualifying form has more often than not left the Scot on the back foot come lights-out and - in such a competitive field as is the case in 2008 - with just too much work to do.

Though the ever-consistent Mark Webber has notched up points on six occasions this year, Coulthard has troubled the scorers just once, in Montreal, and the Milton Keynes-based concern's failure to keep pace in terms of development compared to its close rivals has seen RBR slip some eleven points adrift in the battle for fourth, with no top eight finishes since Magny-Cours four races ago. Whilst points may be a tall order this weekend, however, they are far from impossible.

A similar result for Williams, by contrast, would be something of a triumph in itself - Nico Rosberg's propensity to shine on street courses notwithstanding - given the Grove-based outfit's seemingly relentless slide down the grid, with just four points tallied from the last seven grands prix and the bulk of the team's efforts now focussed on development of its 2009 machine.

Indeed, much the same can be said for Honda, whose 2008 campaign has fallen a long way beneath expectations, whilst Scuderia Toro Rosso could yet leapfrog both in the constructors' standings should Sebastian Vettel's strong form continue. The Red Bull-bound star's best result of the season to-date came in a similar setting in Monaco - so he cannot be discounted from contention for the bottom end of the points-scoring positions in Valencia.

Force India, finally, may be eyeing further improvements to their package this coming weekend, but whether they will be sufficient to drag the underachieving Silverstone-based squad off the back of the grid remains to be seen. The team can at least take comfort in the fact that the last time one of its drivers ran up inside the points - and well up, in fourth place - it was in the form of Adrian Sutil at Monaco, around a street circuit...

by Russell Atkins