If recent form is anything to go by, Ferrari and McLaren should be able to put Red Bull under pressure in the European Grand Prix.
But whether they can pass them at a circuit noted for processional racing will be the ultimate test of how well the 2011 rules have promoted overtaking.
The grid for the European Grand Prix has a familiar look to it, and not just because there are two Red Bulls up front.
The top five drivers are present in the same order as they were for last year’s race.
Mark Webber will be anxious for a better start than he had last year. He lost seven places on the first lap, which ultimately led to him trying to make that fateful pass on Heikki Kovalainen which ended in a spectacular crash.
Last year Lewis Hamilton got past him easily on the run through turn one and even had a nibble at Sebastian Vettel at turn two.
The memory of two scruffy outings in Monaco and Canada may impress upon Hamilton the need to show a little restraint in the race. But he’s clearly got an eye on victory, saying after qualifying “we can win from this position”.
The temperature continues to rise in Valencia and is expected to be hottest on Sunday, with track temperature potentially hitting 50C. This makes tyre performance a considerable unknown, particularly on the new medium tyres which are only being raced for the first time this weekend.
It led some teams to try to minimise their running in qualifying, saving as many fresh sets of tyres as possible. Toro Rosso did this, and Nick Heidfeld and Adrian Sutil did not set a time in Q3 for the same reason.
Few of the front runners have any fresh sets of soft tyres left. One exception is Nico Rosberg, who has one set of unused soft tyres left according to Mercedes.
Through practice, Ferrari seemed to be running well on the medium tyres while McLaren were struggling. That all turned around in qualifying.
Felipe Massa said: “With the new medium compound, today we struggled more than yesterday: maybe there is more rubber on the track and the higher temperature did not work in our favour on this front.”
The track certainly seemed to come towards the McLarens, who appear to be running a higher downforce level than their rivals which could help Hamilton and Jenson Button prolong their tyre life.
With the softer tyres much quicker than the medium tyres, expect the front runners to use them until they run out and have to switch to the harder tyres – similar to what we saw at Barcelona.
Making multiple pit stops is not too great a disadvantage here as the time lost coming through the pits is not as high as at other tracks – hence why Hamilton’s drive-through penalty cost him so little last year.
Red Bull may have annexed the front row again but they’ve had to contend with quicker cars attacking them from behind in the last three races.
If that pattern continues in the race they may find it harder to protect their positions than they could in Spain or Monaco. A pair of long DRS zones, with a single activation point on the run to turn eight, could leave them vulnerable.
The configuration of the Valencia street circuit shares some characteristics with Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina – straights leading into chicanes, which make overtaking very difficult. The race will be a significant test of how powerful the overtaking-friendly 2011 rules are.
Who do you think will come out on top in Valencia? Can anyone keep Vettel from his seventh win this year? Have your say in the comments.
2011 European Grand Prix
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