Saturday, 23 August 2008

European Grand Prix Qualifying: Massa Masters the Streets of Valencia

Felipe Massa will start the first ever Grand Prix on the streets of Valencia's harbour from pole position after a perfect final lap knocked Lewis Hamilton off top spot by 2 tenths of a second. Of the drivers from the two big teams it was only really Massa and Hamilton who turned up to the party in the final qualifying session, with the Finns Raikkonen and Kovalainen back in fourth and fifth respectively. Robert Kubica put in an excellent performance to to take third, and could well be the cat amongst the pigeons as the three big title rivals stream down towards the crucial turn 2 on the opening lap.

After being bathed in glorious sunshine all yesterday the weather was decidedly gloomy and overcast for today's session. The spectre of rain loomed throughout the session, and there were brief spots of rain falling across the track at one point, but the track remained dry. The cool conditions definitely didn't suit the drivers too well though, as they struggled to get their tyres working in the early part of the session, particularly the option tyre.

In Q1 we had a real surprise in terms of the fastest man on track. Jarno Trulli was quickest despite missing out on this morning's practice session with mechanical problems. All of the major players got through without too much trouble, but there were surprises elsewhere too. Toro Rosso looked strong as they had done all weekend, but their big brothers Red Bull struggled badly. Coulthard failed to make it through, and Webber only just made it through. There was further disappointment for British fans as Jenson Button also dropped out. Button had looked pretty quick all weekend long, so it was a real surprise to everyone to see him joining team mate Barrichello on the sidelines for the rest of qualifying.

Q2 got underway with very light rain beginning to fall. It didn't last though, and didn't seem to make conditions any more slippery than they already were. The big story from this session was the massive disappointment for the Spanish fans as Fernando Alonso could only manage 12th fastest in the session. He had been looking reasonably strong all weekend, and would have certainly have expected to be making it through to the final session. However, on his final lap he ran wide coming out of the bridge section and skidded across the kerb losing him vital time, and probably giving him a sore backside in the process. With Piquet in 15th place this was pretty disastrous news for Renault, and also for the Valencia race promoters who would have been desperate to see Alonso doing well here.

At the front Sebastian Vettel continued his fantastic weekend and his impressive season so far by topping the time sheets. Could he be about to spring a real surprise in the final session? Sadly no, he couldn't quite maintain his head of steam in the final session. He put in a good performance to finish in P6, but a mistake on his final lap ended his chances of getting in amongst the big boys. Still, with Bourdais in a decent 10th place it was easily Toro Rosso's best qualifying performance yet. Hard to believe they are supposed to be one of the minnows of the F1 world, and a team that Dietrich Mateschitz is wanting to sell off.

After the first round of hot laps Ferrari were looking very strong. Both Massa and Raikkonen had put in strong laps, Kovalainen seemed to be struggling a little with his McLaren, and Hamilton made a costly error braking for the final turn that left him well adrift of the Ferraris. Hamilton knew he had to up his game in the final minutes, and he certainly rose to the challenge. He was the first of the major players to set his final flying lap, and he jumped straight to the top of the time sheets. The gauntlet had been very much thrown down to Kimi and Felipe. Raikkonen was first to step up to the plate, and he failed to impress, finishing well over two tenths shy of Hamilton. Kimi stayed on the prime tyre for his final lap, and I wonder whether he now regrets that decision.

The spotlight fell on Felipe Massa next, and he didn't disappoint. Running the softer option tyre he drove a completely clean lap and set a blistering time to take pole position by 2 tenths of a second. After his bitter disappointment in Hungary three weeks ago, this will have been the perfect tonic. Kubica was still out on track in the BMW, and he put in a great lap too. He squeezed out every last tenth the BMW had to offer, but it was only good enough for P3. Still an excellent performance from the Pole.

So Massa and Hamilton will lead the field on a voyage into the unknown tomorrow afternoon in the first ever Grand Prix start in Valencia. There is still some debate as to which side of the track will be the most favourable for the run down towards the opening turns, with some pundits claiming that starting in P2 may actually yield a better start. We'll have to wait and see, but one thing's for sure, Hamilton will be looking for a bit of revenge over Massa after the Brazilian got the jump on him at the start in Hungary.

Provisional Starting Grid

1. Massa
2. Hamilton
3. Kubica
4. Raikkonen
5. Kovalainen
6. Vettel
7. Trulli
8. Heidfeld
9. Rosberg
10. Bourdais
11. Nakajima
12. Alonso
13. Glock
14. Webber
15. Piquet
16. Button
17. Coulthard
18. Fisichella
19. Barrichello
20. Sutil
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European Grand Prix: Saturday Practice Session

Robert Kubica set the pace in the final practice session before Saturday afternoon's qualifying session for the European Grand Prix. It was a session in which the drivers from the big two teams were keeping their powder dry for the most part; Felipe Massa was the quickest of the four in fifth place, with team mate Raikkonen as far down as fifteenth.

Williams showed some good pace in this session with Rosberg and Nakajima second and fourth respectively. It was also another good session for the Toro Rosso team, and this time it was Sebastein Bourdais who led the way up in third place. After a very inconsistent debut season thus far Bourdais seems to be really enjoying himself here in Valencia. The track character is quite similar to some of the American street circuits he will have been familiar with from his days as Champ Car champion, and it really seems to suit his driving style.

Lewis Hamilton was a respectable seventh place, but he doesn't look entirely happy on here yet. At one point in the session he went fastest of all on his first lap on the soft compound tyres, and then almost immediately spun off the track. He appears to have good pace when he manages to hold it together, but will need to up his consistency if he wants to score well here and cement his lead in the driver's championship. Title rival Kimi Raikkonen had a very quiet session this morning way down in 15th, but he showed he had good pace over one lap by being fastest of all yesterday, so will not be unduly worried by his position today.

Saturday Practice Times

1. R Kubica BMW-Sauber 1:38.754
2. N Rosberg Williams 1:38.877
3. S Bourdais Toro Rosso 1:39.009
4. K Nakajima Williams 1:39.270
5. F Massa Ferrari 1:39.276
6. S Vettel Toro Rosso 1:39.300
7. L Hamilton McLaren 1:39.314
8. N Heidfeld BMW-Sauber 1:39.335
9. Coulthard Red Bull 1:39.421
10. N Piquet Renault 1:39.452
11. M Webber Red Bull 1:39.597
12. J Button Honda 1:39.628
13. F Alonso Renault 1:39.652
14. H Kovalainen McLaren 1:39.802
15. K Raikkonen Ferrari 1:39.802
16. T Glock Toyota 1:39.919
17. A Sutil Force India 1:40.019
18. G Fisichella Force India 1:40.059
19. R Barrichello Honda 1:40.512
20. J Trulli Toyota no time
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Friday, 22 August 2008

European Grand Prix: Friday Practice Sessions

After a three week long mid-season break Formula One is back, and it has made the journey to the first of two brand new street circuits - Valencia, Spain. As ever with F1 there is no such thing as a "holiday", perhaps with the exception of the drivers. The teams will have been working feverishly on squeezing a few extra hundredths of a second out of their cars since Hungary, and will be anxious to see the fruits of their labour out on the baking hot tarmac in Valencia.

The track itself has definite echoes of the Monte Carlo street circuit, with the course looping its way around the picturesque harbour against the back drop of the gleaming Mediterranean Sea. However, in terms of the track layout the character of the track should be very different. There are plenty of very high speed corners here, particularly the likes of turn one, and the track is also quite wide and spacious throughout, in stark contrast to more traditional style street circuits like Monaco. First impressions of the track are very favourable, with a great variety of corners, hopefully some good opportunities for passing, and a very eye-catching bridge section across the harbour.

Friday's first practice session began with the track naturally very green, and also extremely dusty due to the baking heat and lack of rain in Spain at this time of year. Times tumbled rapidly throughout the session as the track began to clear and rubber up, and all drivers were out putting plenty of mileage down in order to get used to the unfamiliar circuit. No doubt they will have been in the simulators at the factory in the past few weeks, but no amount of simulation can prepare you for the real deal.

At the end of the first session it was Toro Rosso's German sensation Sebastien Vettel who took the weekend's first headlines with an excellent lap in the dying moments to oust Ferrari's Felipe Massa. Lewis Hamilton managed to take P3 despite a spin in turn 2 late on in the session. He wasn't the only one taking advantage of the generous run-off areas here, with home favourite Fernando Alonso also running off the circuit at one point and Jarno Trulli having a minor pirouette.

To underline Toro Rosso's vast improvement Sebastien Bourdais put his STR3 up into fourth place. This was in stark contrast to the fortunes of Toro Rosso's big brothers over at Red Bull who managed to finish the session propping up the time sheets in last and second last place. David Coulthard had a brush with a crash barrier on his final run, just to make matters worse.

The second session saw most teams and drivers focussing on longer runs for the majority of the session, before the battle for the top spot heated up in the last ten minutes or so. At the chequered flag it was world champion Kimi Raikkonen leading the way with the fastest lap of the weekend so far. Fernando Alonso entertained the Spanish crowds with second place, and a spin at turn 2 to boot, and Jenson Button was a surprise third place finisher.

So far both Ferrari and McLaren are unsurprisingly looking strong, with Ferrari perhaps having a slight edge so far. It really is quite difficult to judge though with all drivers spending time just getting comfortable on the new circuit. For instance, Toro Rosso were nowhere near as competitive in the second session, and Rubens Barrichello finished dead last despite teammate Button coming third. We probably won't get a really good idea of who's hot and who's not here until we get down to the nitty-gritty of qualifying tomorrow.

Practice One Times

01 S. Vettel Toro Rosso 1:40.496 29 laps
02 F. Massa Ferrari 1:40.654 27 laps
03 L. Hamilton McLaren 1:40.822 21 laps
04 S. Bourdais Toro Rosso 1:41.099 31 laps
05 H. Kovalainen McLaren 1:41.163 23 laps
06 R. Kubica BMW 1:41.281 24 laps
07 K. Räikkönen Ferrari 1:41.317 27 laps
08 K. Nakajima Williams 1:41.329 26 laps
09 F. Alonso Renault 1:41.385 31 laps
10 N. Rosberg Williams 1:41.706 22 laps
11 R. Barrichello Honda 1:41.830 27 laps
12 J. Trulli Toyota 1:41.930 27 laps
13 A. Sutil Force India F1 1:41.951 23 laps
14 T. Glock Toyota 1:42.036 27 laps
15 N. Piquet jr. Renault 1:42.107 32 laps
16 N. Heidfeld BMW 1:42.453 23 laps
17 J. Button Honda 1:42.460 29 laps
18 G. Fisichella Force India F1 1:43.075 25 laps
19 D. Coulthard Red Bull 1:43.312 23 laps
20 M. Webber Red Bull 1:43.524 24 laps

Practice Two Times

01 K. Räikkönen Ferrari 1:39.477 30 laps
02 F. Alonso Renault 1:39.497 39 laps
03 J. Button Honda 1:39.546 35 laps
04 F. Massa Ferrari 1:39.678 31 laps
05 L. Hamilton McLaren 1:39.712 31 laps
06 H. Kovalainen McLaren 1:39.954 30 laps
07 T. Glock Toyota 1:39.967 32 laps
08 R. Kubica BMW 1:40.149 35 laps
09 N. Piquet jr. Renault 1:40.439 32 laps
10 G. Fisichella Force India F1 1:40.500 23 laps
11 M. Webber Red Bull 1:40.585 24 laps
12 N. Rosberg Williams 1:40.607 34 laps
13 D. Coulthard Red Bull 1:40.696 23 laps
14 K. Nakajima Williams 1:40.742 34 laps
15 J. Trulli Toyota 1:40.877 32 laps
16 S. Vettel Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:40.982 36 laps
17 A. Sutil Force India F1 1:40.999 32 laps
18 N. Heidfeld BMW Sauber 1:41.084 31 laps
19 S. Bourdais Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:41.246 38 laps
20 R. Barrichello Honda 1:41.377 31 laps

Onboard vid of the new track - Youtube - Kubica Onboard Valencia Friday Practice
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