2012 parity keeps F1 drivers guessing
Formula One leader Lewis Hamilton is looking to capitalize on his triumph in Montreal with a victory in Sunday's European Grand Prix that would make him the first repeat winner in Formula One this season and break the unprecedented run of seven different winners in seven races.
Besides keeping his eye on the most wide-open field of challengers ever seen, Hamilton will have to fend off Fernando Alonso's improved Ferrari and two-time defending world champion Sebastian Vettel, going for his third consecutive win at Valencia.
Hamilton leads Alonso overall by two points, and Red Bull's Vettel by three.
''The intensity of this year's championship means there's so little breathing space. We may have won in Canada, but there's an enormous amount of pressure to keep racking up good results at every grand prix,'' said Hamilton, who has finished as runner-up three times in the four years the race has been held in the Mediterranean coastal city.
Even though this season is proving to be the most competitive in the series' history, Hamilton enters the event at the sinewy America's Cup harbor course in top form.
The English driver finally broke through with a commanding win two weeks ago at the Canadian GP when his McLaren team outfoxed Ferrari and Red Bull with a well-timed pit stop to give Hamilton the fresh set of tires he needed to overtake Vettel and Alonso and claim his first win of 2012.
Hamilton believes the season will be tightly contested to the end.
''I think that consistency, rather than individual strong results, will be the key to winning this world championship, so we need to back it up in Valencia with another strong result,'' he said. ''I'm only two points ahead of Fernando, which is nothing, particularly when there are a handful of really strong drivers all separated by a couple of points, so there's still everything to play for.''
Pirelli's tricky tires have kept teams guessing for the best setup and pit-stop strategy and the outcome in doubt through the first seven races of the year.
The Valencia street circuit is notoriously tough for passing, so a strong qualifying run Saturday and smooth teamwork in the pits should play a critical role to determine who celebrates on the podium come Sunday.
Last year, Vettel beat the second-place Alonso by more than 10 seconds after speeding away from pole. The German also recorded the fastest lap on the 25-turn, 3.4-mile course.
Vettel said the circuit was both one of the fastest and most demanding.
''In Valencia, we drive an average of more than 200 kph, which means it's one of the fastest street circuits in Formula One,'' said Vettel. ''Overtaking is possible, but only with some risk. The reason is that the air turbulence created by cars driving closely behind each other doesn't disappear as it normally would due to the high walls around the track. You lose grip and, in some extreme cases, you have to lift the throttle.''
It appears that at least both man and machine won't have to deal with last year's blistering temperatures. Forecasts call for a reasonable 86 degrees over the weekend as opposed to last year when temperatures reached a stifling 115 degrees.
Alonso, who has never won in front of the home Spanish crowd at Valencia, left the Canadian GP ruing the risky decision to try and maintain his lead on worn tires late in the race, only to see his pace falter and end up finishing fifth. But, after a slow start to the season, Ferrari has revamped its car and given the two-time world champion a vehicle it believes capable of winning on any track.
''It's all down to a huge amount of work, from a large number of people, with particular emphasis on aerodynamics, design and production,'' said Ferrari chief designer Nikolas Tombazis. ''It's been intense over the past few months resulting in a big improvement in car performance.''
Hamilton's teammate, Jenson Button, and Vettel's teammate, Mark Webber, also will be looking for that elusive second win of the season, along with Pastor Maldonado of Williams and Nico Rosberg of Mercedes. Rosberg's partner, Michael Schumacher, will be hard-pressed not to improve this round. The record seven-time champion has failed to finish five races this year and has yet to place better than 10th.
Yet given the unpredictable nature of this campaign, an eighth different winner in the eighth race cannot be ruled out.
Either Lotus driver — 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen and second-year pilot Romain Grosjean — or Sauber driver Sergio Perez could be due for first-place finish. Grosjean and Perez came in second and third, respectively, in Canada, masterfully managing their tires toward the end, while Raikkonen has made the podium twice this season, his first back after a two-year hiatus from F1.