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.