The rollercoaster that is the 2012 Formula 1 World Championship shows no sign of slowing down or even heading into the predictable three-horse race it has normally been in recent years. Drivers' and constructors' champions Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull were both expected to provide a much stronger defense of their respective titles than they have so far and no one could have expected either the string of tactical and human errors that have characterised McLaren's season so far or the largely disappointing pace of Ferrari's F2012.
The problems at the top of the order - hardly helped by a string of accusations aimed at French tyre manufacturer Pirelli for producing unpredictable compounds - have helped normally middle-order teams like Sauber, Mercedes and Force India make more than a few successful excursions up the grid.
McLaren's Lewis Hamilton recorded his first win of the season in Canada, in the process making it seven winners from the opening seven races. Logic may dictate that trend has to be broken at some time but given the topsy-turvy nature of the championship so far and the fact that an improving Felipe Massa still has to win his first race, the phenomenon of one-race wonders could be set to continue as the teams prepare for the European Grand Prix at Valencia, Spain.
As we head into the eighth race of the season, Hamilton's Canada win puts him in the lead for the drivers' championship - he has 88 points to Alonso's 86 and the Red Bull duo of Vettel and Mark Webber are next with 85 and 79 points. Red Bull have a more comfortable lead in the constructors' standings, with 164 points to McLaren's 133. Lotus are enjoying a fantastic season and are third with 108 points while a disappointing Ferrari are fourth with 97.
What Drivers and Teams Say:
The European Grand Prix takes places on the streets of Valencia - a circuit made of long straights and slow to medium speed corners, where overtaking can be a challenge. In addition, being a street circuit, grip can sometimes be an issue and is usually a scarce commodity early in the weekend. So expect times to tumble as the sessions progress.
The other point, and this ties in to fears over the general unpredictability of the tyres, is that they do not seem to respond well to heat. Several drivers, including Ferrari's Fernando Alonso and the McLaren duo, spoke on the same issue ahead of the Canadian Grand Prix. The universal opinion up and down the pit lane, ahead of the Valencia race, is that tyre management will be crucial.
"Valencia proves a difficult track for both driver and car and with the expected large track evolution throughout the weekend tyre management will once more be crucial. Pirelli bring the medium and soft compounds to this race, a pairing that was last used in Bahrain. The track layout places a lot of stress on the braking system and the high ambient temperatures, coupled with a lower than average mean speed, forces one to open up the cooling package," Mark Gillan, the Williams team's chief operations engineer, said to Formula1.com. Tyre wear and management were also cautiously spoken of by Mark Smith, Caterham's technical director and Paul di Resta of Force India.
Tyre management has also been pinpointed as critical by former Toro Rosso driver Jaime Alguersuari in his BBC column. Alguersuari pointed to Alonso and Vettel losing podium positions, to Lotus' Romain Grosjean and Sauber's Sergio Perez respectively, in Canada, as proof of his observation.
Ferrari, meanwhile, continue with a distinct upturn in fortunes following an emotional letter to the entire team from chief executive Luca di Montezemolo and a warning to Massa to improve his performances. The Italians brought a range of upgrades for the F2012 in Canada and it seemed to work. The changes included improvements in traction control, exhaust configurations and brake ducts, according to the team's official Web site. It appears the Italians will retain much of those updates for the Valencia race.
The other point a number of drivers made concerned the need for good traction, particularly since Valencia does have a number of slow corners leading to faster sections - like the sequence from Turn 17 to Turn 25 and again from Turn 8 to the long back straight across the bridge.
"The circuit is quite tough - it's a very technical track, with lots of slow to medium-speed corners that require good traction and set-up as well as lots of precision. Towards the end of the lap, the track gathers speed and opens up, the sweepers leading to the pits are actually incredibly fast, and they're all about correct placement of the car to ensure you're well placed for the following corner," Hamilton explained. Grosjean also made the same points, explaining, in addition, the stress the high speed sectors placed on the brakes.
The final and perhaps most critical aspect of this weekend's race, at least for McLaren and Ferrari, will be their work in the pit lane and tactical approaches. McLaren have made some rather glaring blunders this season, leading to publicly expressed frustration from both drivers, while Ferrari have generally made excellent calls and tactical decisions.
The general expectation, at least from Paul Hembery, Pirelli's motorsport director, is for a two or maybe three stop race. Hembery's calculations, it seems, is based on high expected average temperatures and the fact that the Pirelli rubbers will wear out quickly. The French company will offer Soft and Medium compounds for this race.
Incidentally, Hembery tips struggling Mercedes driver Michael Schumacher as the winner for this round. The former seven times World Champion has come under pressure to perform after being comprehensively outraced by team mate Nico Rosberg. Schumacher responded with pole position in the Monaco Grand Prix and given the Valencia circuit shares similar characteristics, Hembery believes the German ace could win this one.
The 2012 European Grand Prix will kick start with two Free Practice sessions (FP) on Friday, as usual, followed by the third session and the qualifying programme for Saturday before the race on Sunday.
Check back with IBTimes UK for updates on the Free Practice and qualifying sessions, as well as complete Raceday previews!