After a excitement filled hop across the Atlantic, Formula1 returns to Europe, this time at the Spanish Harbour of Valencia for the 2012 European Grand Prix. This is the 5th running of the European Grand Prix at Valencia, since the F1 debut of the Valencia Street Circuit in 2008. The race will be run for 57 laps around this 5.419 km long circuit comprising of 25 corners. With a number that high, you would expect this to be a twisting, turning roller-coaster, but it really isn’t. Let’s take a exploratory lap around this peculiar track.
The first sector is basically a couple of straight stretches and a couple of slow chicanes. On a hot lap, the cars fly through the right handed turn-1 in 6th gear at 290 kph, before hitting the brakes hard to slow for the right-left chicane at turns 2-3, taken in 2nd gear. The cars exit turn-3 almost rushing the wall at the right hand side, dashing into the quicker left-right chicane at turn 4-5. It is important to hit the apexes right, as the exit leads on flat out through the kink at turn-6 and the gently curving turn-7, all in top gear. The braking zone for turn-8 brings us to the end of sector 1, and also takes us through the all important DRS detection zone.
Sector 2 really brings out the character of this unique track, with the longest straight, the DRS zone, the slowest corners, and the track’s identity – the harbour bridge. The cars come flying in, in top gear before they brake hard for the right handed hairpin at turn-8, which leads onto the harbour bridge through turn-9. The braking area would normally make for a good overtaking opportunity, but the closeness of the walls around this track makes it tough to find enough space for a pass here. A short shoot over the bridge, and the cars take another 2nd gear right handed hairpin at turn-10. The exit opens up onto the back straight that runs into the dockyard through turn-11. The back straight also houses the DRS zone on this track. With cars revving in top gear, rear wings open, this is the best place to overtake, as was seen from 22 DRS-aided moves last year. This makes it all the more vital to get good traction out of the dead slow turn-10. The fast and kink-ridden back straight is brought to an abrupt halt by the slowest chicane on the track at turns 12-13. This, aided by the DRS boost makes for a spectacular tripping point. Even if you’re overtaken here, the track grants you another opportunity to fight back a bit later. But for that, you must stay close enough to the car in front as you slide your way through the 4th gear right hander at turn-14 and the left handed tilt through turns 15-16. By the time you’re at the end of sector 2, you are in the slipstream going well over 300kph in top gear.
And here’s your chance to take back a place lost to DRS. The braking zone into the slowest hairpin on track at turn-17 is the second and last overtaking opportunity on the track. What follows is probably the trickiest last sector on calendar. The cars accelerate out of turn-17, brake slightly for the 4th gear left handed long chicane at turns 18-19, accelerating as they hit the apex at 18, lifting off slightly for the right hander at turn 20, climbing through the gears to 6th gear by turn-21, flying out blinded by the wall to string together the apexes at turn 22, 23, 24, and braking hard while turning for the left handed turn-24 in one breathless burst. The need to get the car turned under braking poses a very interesting challenge for the drivers. Exiting out of turn-24, the cars drift slightly wide into the pit lane entry under braking before diving left to make the final apex at turn-25 and back onto the start-finish straight.
Valencia is one of the wider street circuits on the calendar, yet it retains a distinct claustrophobic feel due to the continuous, high concrete wall and fences all along the track. This also makes it exceedingly tough to overtake, and there are only two real opportunities available at turns 12 and 18. The track surface and conditions are somewhat similar to Sakhir, Bahrain due to the smooth yet abrasive tarmac. The ambient heat is likely to be high, and may cause issues with tyre wear. The stop-start sector-2 with heavy braking zones after high speed straights will put some stress on the brakes, and the slow corners before the straights will mean that traction in the lower gears would be vital. The conditions appear to suit the Lotus, and pose questions to the McLarens who are struggling for traction out of slow corners. Ferrari are bringing a revised exhaust to the race, and would be hoping to build on the recent gain in momentum.
Friday’s practice has thrown up a few surprises, and a few promises. Sebastien Vettel tops the timing charts, and would love to make it a hat-trick at Valencia. The Force India cars finally seem to be making a move up the order, outpacing both Ferraris and Mercedes. Practice times are hardly of consequence, but the fact that FP2 saw another instance of the top 15 cars clocking times within one second of the leader means that for the second time in a row, it’s going to be a very very tight qualifying and a cracker of a race. Will the much touted Grosjean or the former Emperor Schumacher ascend to become the 8th race winner of the season? Or will the support of his home fans and the new found pace of Ferrari propel Alonso to his second win? Will Massa finally return to the podium?
Wait till Sunday to find out …