Following the four-week mid-summer break, the F1 circus reconvenes in Valencia this weekend for the second running of the European Grand Prix in the Spanish city – and there are all sorts of questions awaiting answers.
Whilst Brawn GP and Red Bull Racing have ruled the season as a whole, it was multiple world champions McLaren-Mercedes who left Hungary last month on the highest high, after defending title-winner Lewis Hamilton delivered the Woking-based concern – which has endured a torrid time of things in 2009 by its usual lofty standards – its first victory in more than nine months. Indeed, not only did the Stevenage-born ace win the race, he thoroughly dominated it – making Brawn and RBR look comparatively ordinary. Though a second consecutive triumph might be a little too much to ask in Valencia, the tight, twisty nature of the Circuit Ricardo Tormo should suit the MP4-24 well – witness the car's pace in both Monaco and Budapest – and another rostrum finish can certainly not be discounted.
More than just that, Hamilton and McLaren's apparent resurgence is arguably good news for compatriot Jenson Button, whose world championship lead is slowly being eaten away at by the rampant Red Bull pairing of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel. The more Hamilton can take points away from the Australian-German duo, the longer Button's increasingly tenuous advantage will be preserved, and whilst the anticipated hot temperatures and tortuous layout of the Valencian track should on paper play into Brawn's hands, the same conditions at the Hungaroring resulted in just seventh and tenth places respectively for the British star and team-mate Rubens Barrichello. Unless Brawn has managed to resolve the issues afflicting its BGP 001 over the month-long hiatus, another drubbing at the hands of its chief rivals may be on the cards.
A good deal of the paddock's focus this weekend will also fall upon Ferrari, where Luca Badoer is set to return to the grand prix grid for the first time in almost a decade in place of the recovering Felipe Massa. The affable Italian's performance will likely determine just how long he gets to stay in the car, but rejoining the fray at a circuit around which he has never driven before – and one notoriously tricky to learn at that – will be no easy task. A top ten qualifying position would be an achievement in itself, and it will be interesting to see how the 38-year-old shapes up against 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen in the sister F60 – and, for that matter, just which Kimi Raikkonen turns up.
Renault appears to have taken a significant leap up the pecking order of late, with fans' favourite Fernando Alonso the fastest driver on the track in the final stint of the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring with the revised R29, and going on to set pole position and lead the opening eleven laps of the Hungarian Grand Prix a fortnight later until an errant wheel put a premature halt to his charge. Whilst it is unlikely the double world champion would have won the race, still the Régie
has come on in leaps and bounds since the beginning of the campaign Down Under in Melbourne back in March, and heads to Valencia with its tail up after being partly exonerated and cleared to compete by the FIA Court of Appeal on Monday [see separate story – click here
]. The European Grand Prix will also mark the F1 debut of GP2 Series front-runner and erstwhile Renault reserve driver Romain Grosjean, who will have a weight of expectation upon his shoulders as the Swiss-born Frenchman steps into the breach to replace the sacked Nelsinho Piquet.
Next in-line looks likely to be Williams, with hopes that the Toyota-powered FW31 will fare well around the Circuit Ricardo Tormo and Nico Rosberg inarguably in the form of his life, riding the crest of a wave off the back of six consecutive points-scoring finishes in the top flight and eight from ten races this year. What the young German is most for desperate of all, however, is a podium [see separate story – click here
] – and that could just come this weekend. Team-mate Kazuki Nakajima, for his part, would surely settle for just a point or two to belatedly open his 2009 account – and stake his claim to hanging onto his seat at the Grove-based outfit for a third full season.
As to what Toyota can achieve this weekend, the jury remains out. Frustratingly unpredictable from one track to another, the TF109 struggled woefully in Monaco earlier this year – with neither Jarno Trulli nor Timo Glock managing to escape the very back row of the starting grid in the glamorous Principality – but appeared substantially more competitive in Budapest last time out, when both men came home inside the top eight and Glock looked particularly racy in the closing stages as he chased down McLaren's Heikki Kovalainen for fifth. The young German, indeed, has seemed to surpass his more experienced team-mate in terms of race day performances of late, and it will be interesting to see if the Pescara native – a renowned qualifying and street circuit specialist – can turn the tables on Spanish soil.
Down at the rear of the field, finally, Force India F1 can stake a claim to having overtaken BMW-Sauber and Scuderia Toro Rosso in the pecking order. Though the Silverstone-based squad failed to perform as many had expected it would in Hungary – with both cars dropping out at the first opportunity in Q1, and Giancarlo Fisichella taking the chequered flag a lowly 14th on race day – hopes are high of rebounding under the Spanish sun, around a track that should theoretically play in favour of the Mercedes-powered VJM02.
Despite its imminent departure, BMW has vowed to carry on pushing until season's end – even though little seems to have any noticeable effect upon the recalcitrant F1.09 – whilst Toro Rosso's upgraded STR4 certainly appeared to demonstrate an improvement in qualifying in Budapest, with Sébastien Buemi in eleventh spot, but the grand prix itself was an altogether different story. At least rookie Jaime Alguersuari will have his home fans to cheer him on in Valencia as the teenager bids to break into Q2 at only the second time of asking. The 19-year-old showed real signs of potential at the Hungaroring, and should he succeed in achieving his stated goal this weekend too, he really will be starting to look something special indeed.
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