Can McLaren and Ferrari pressure Red Bull? (European GP pre-race analysis)

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Fernando Alonso, Ferrari, Valencia, 2010

Wondering whether we might see our first decent race in Valencia this year I wrote this in the European Grand Prix preview:

The best we can hope for is a similar situation to what happened in Turkey, with the faster McLarens and probably Ferraris starting behind the Red Bulls and a battle for the lead developing on-track that way.

Well, we’re halfway there. Red Bull have locked out the front row of the grid. But can McLaren and Ferrari take the fight to them in the race?

The start

With the clean, inside line Sebastian Vettel will have to do something silly to be anywhere other than first at the end of lap one.

Mark Webber is more vulnerable in second place, on the dustier side of the grid and with Lewis Hamilton poised to dive up the inside on the run to the first corner.

Webber may have to take a leaf out of his team mate’s book – Vettel squeezed Jenson Button hard at the start last year to keep him behind.

Throughout practice we saw drivers struggling to slow their cars down at turn one. Tomorrow all 24 of them will have to get their braking point for the corner exactly right at the same time – there’s high chance for front wings to go flying.

Although we’ve never seen a safety car deployment at Valencia, one could easily arise. After all, both the first two practice sessions had to be red-flagged so the marshals could recover debris or cars from areas they couldn’t access quickly.

And an early safety car period could make the strategy situation very interesting indeed.

Strategy

The early safety car dilemma

Everyone in the top ten qualified on the super-soft tyres, so it looks like we’re in for a fairly standard strategy race. The leaders should pull away and pit to make their mandatory switch to the other tyre compound – medium – once they’ve got enough of a gap to the cars behind them to make their stop and come out in clean air.

But an early safety car period would mean the field spreading out more slowly, forcing the front runners to delay their pit stops.

We saw this happen at Monaco but with one crucial difference. Fernando Alonso started at the back and got his mandatory pit stop out of the way during the safety car period. Once he was running in clean air the front runners had to pit early to keep him behind.

What we haven’t seen yet – and what we could see tomorrow – is a situation where an early safety car period means the front runners have to choose between staying out on worn tyres, or ducking into the pits, accepting they will come out in traffic.

OK, but what if there isn’t a safety car?

If the race proceeds as normal from the start then it becomes a question of whether any of Red Bull’s rivals are faster than them in race trim. This was the case at Istanbul, and we all know what happened there.

Ferrari couldn’t find the same kind of performance improvement as their rivals on the super-soft tyre in practice or qualifying but believe they’ll be strong on the medium tyre as Alonso admitted:

With the harder tyre, our car was more competitive as its behaviour inspired more confidence over the flying lap, but to have done Q3 with this compound would probably have compromised our race.
Fernando Alonso

Pit stops will be crucial as ever and, as noted here last week, this is an area where McLaren are weaker than their rivals at the moment. Lewis Hamilton has lost places in both the last two rounds during pit stops – he can’t afford that tomorrow if he’s going to take the fight to the Red Bulls.

The best of the rest

Renault appear to have the upper hand in their battle with Mercedes this weekend. Robert Kubica is poised to make trouble for the Ferraris at the start if either should slip up.

Remember that drivers can’t maintain position if they go into one of Valencia’s many chicanes side-by-side with a rival, cut it, and come out ahead. Jenson Button had to forfeit a place to Webber after doing that last year.

Williams are well placed to end their three-race streak out of the points. Rubens Barrichello needs to get off the line better than he has at the last two races, though.

For the second race in a row Michael Schumacher starts in the bottom half of the field. From 15th getting into the points is going to be a challenge, even with the benefit of Mercedes’ fast pit stops.

How do you expect the race to unfold tomorrow? Will McLaren be fast enough to take on Red Bull? Will Alonso and Massa put Hamilton under pressure? And where will Schumacher finish?

Have your say in the comments and remember to join us for live comments throughout the race starting one hour before the Grand Prix.

2010 European Grand Prix

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