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

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.


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.

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

  1. BasCB (@bascb) said on 26th June 2010, 22:54

    I am curious weather Petrov and H├╝lkenberg will get through lap 1 without problems or will they hit Buemi. Also curious what Rosberg and Schumi as well as both FI cars will do at the start.
    They might be trying to get ahead of some guys in front of them. But mainly i am curious weather we will beat the overtaking record in Valencia this year.

  2. Alex Bkk said on 27th June 2010, 0:19

    I have to agree that Webber is in a bit of a tight situation for a start with LH 3rd and FA 4th. I can see Alonso trying to tuck in behind Hamilton at the start and really closing the door on Webber going into turn one. I’m betting that those that line up on the dirty side of the track will have their pointy ends in the direction of the clean side.

    Interesting, in its short history only Brazilians have won @ Valencia.

    • dragon said on 27th June 2010, 10:00

      Interesting, but hardly surprising, seeing as the F2008 and BGP001 were both beasts of a car :)

      • Alex Bkk said on 27th June 2010, 12:00

        Ahhh…. but they were both Brazilian drivers in those beasts… that was my very short point.

  3. Icthyes (@icthyes) said on 27th June 2010, 1:00

    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.

    That’ll be good for him. He won’t win the race otherwise.

    I see two things happening tomorrow: Hamilton gets the jump on Webber and overtakes Vettel via pitting earlier for tyres, or it’s a Red Bull 1-2 or 1-3.

  4. Leftie said on 27th June 2010, 1:26

    My guess is that most of the people outside top 10 will go for primes, which does not look as a bad strategy, concerning that options probably will suffer from degradation even on sunday. Not that much as in Canada though, but anyway. I see options as an optimum tyre for the later stages in the race.

    The key to this race will be in managing prime tyres.

    • miguelF1O (@) said on 27th June 2010, 1:59

      if the track is as bas as the canadian prime or option will deteorate so fast that it would not be much of an advantage but this track is so smooth that probably it will be like any other track strategy

      • Leftie said on 27th June 2010, 8:56

        possibly. but there were some concerns about options lasting more than few laps on saturday (note – there was no rain, lots of support races to lay more rubber in), and no such worries for primes. i still believe it is a bit trickier than usual here.

  5. F1Fan said on 27th June 2010, 2:10

    I like Alonso’s chances to even win this race. Vettel is on an iffy gearbox, Webber is … well, Webber, and the Ferrari is faster than the McLaren in race trim, and perhaps faster than, or at least as fast as, the Red Bull. If Alonso can get a good start, maintain position or even somehow gain one, I think he stands a chance.

    I expect Alonso to pit first out of the front-runners, perhaps doing as few as 11-12 laps on the softs. He would then have to do 3-4 super-fast laps on the mediums while the others are on worn softs. That will be his chance to win the race.

    • As soon as any of the front runners pit the rest will follow suit accordingly, they’re never going to let Alonso just run three or four laps on fresh tyres if that means he’ll come out ahead. He’ll only get more than an outlap if he doesn’t pose a threat anyway.

      Red Bull would do well in taking the initiative here for once if they end up running 1-2.

      • Leftie said on 27th June 2010, 9:09

        Alonso pointed out that probably Ferrari could make primes last longer than the others. Even if everybody might follow suit after he pits he might have a small advantage of not gone off tyres at the later stage of the race.
        In fact, Ferrari were quite good in terms of working with tyres this year so far, innit?

  6. DaveW said on 27th June 2010, 2:58

    Will McLaren be fast enough to take on Red Bull?

    Most likely. RBR is like that difficult jar of jam. It might seem hard to open at first, but it will always succumb to sufficient pressure. Anyway, even if they are quicker, they will only be able to pull away if Vettel can pull away from Webber and thus not have to drive defensively. Not likely.

    Will Alonso and Massa put Hamilton under pressure?

    Yes. They have a few kph on him on the straight, which is important. They will have to worry more about Button though.

    And where will Schumacher finish?

    Sometime before Suzuka, in a hastily convened press conference.

  7. Jhonnie Siggie said on 27th June 2010, 3:26

    My bet is that a Bull will win and Hamilton or Alonso will finish second. With the reliability issues of the Bulls this year plus HAM starting on the cleaner side of the track, the smart money would be against a Red Bull 1-2 finish.

    However, IMHO, all this Saturday talk about where RB got their advantage in quali from is rubbish. They never lost their dominance in quali. They simply gambled on the wrong strategy in Canada by starting on the harder tire. If they had started on the softer tire as they are doing here, HAM would not have been on pole.

  8. wasiF1 said on 27th June 2010, 4:04

    Vettel winning with Hamilton second & between Webber & Alonso 3rd.

    I think the worrying thing for Alonso is Massa as he is starting on the clean side of the track & if Massa clear Alonso into turn 1 then Alonso have to rely heavily on Ferrari pitstop to be on the podium.
    I don’t think that we will see overtaking on this track, may be the first 4-6 laps will be interesting & the race may be won & lose there & anything is that all the drivers on the top are on soft compound tyre so there is little chance we will see overtaking.

  9. gpr said on 27th June 2010, 5:49

    i want to have schumi have a great car…….i wanna see him competein .overtakin the mclarens ,ferraris , red bulls……guess it won’t happen this season……….

    • Lachie said on 27th June 2010, 6:09

      We’ve had far too many years of seeing Schumacher in a good car, time to see what he can do in one that isn’t optimal

      • Leftie said on 27th June 2010, 9:11

        we saw that in the past as well, aren’t we?

        • dragon said on 27th June 2010, 10:02

          Exactly. He wasn’t always driving red!

          Besides, the quality of the field at the moment is such that I would dearly love to seem him firing in a competitive car. I’m HUGELY disappointed in Merc’s pace.

          • Leftie said on 27th June 2010, 11:25

            Red wasn’t always the class of the field as well. I’m still don’t believe he’s lost it so much.

  10. super bejo said on 27th June 2010, 6:54

    will the race become a duel between Germany ‘Vettel’ and England ‘Hamilton’ …?

  11. Eric said on 27th June 2010, 8:12

    Webber Hamilton Alonso all crash out first corner, Vettal Massa Kubica left to fight it out…

    i can see a massive pile up in that first corner…
    no one is going to yield….

  12. Yasser Tariq said on 27th June 2010, 10:35

    Although it sounds outrageous, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed on the chance that both of the Ferrari drivers would stand on the podium.

  13. Maciek said on 27th June 2010, 11:03

    I’m betting on Vettel or his RedBull cracking under pressure – again. I’m also betting that Kubica may be quicker in the race than his qualifying position – whatever happened in Q3, he didn’t improve on his Q2 time. Hamilton, Alonso, Webber fighting it out for the win would make me a happy racing fan.

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