6 reasons why Valencia could — shocker! — be a good race

The Valencia street circuit, site of this weekend’s European Grand Prix, has got to be the least favorite venue among Formula 1 fans. During its short run on the calendar, the tight street course along the city’s harbor has not allowed for much passing, leading to processional races.

Plus, it doesn’t have the pageantry and history of Monaco. It also doesn’t have the night-race novelty of Singapore.

But this year, there are enough story lines coming into the weekend that we could be in for a compelling race. At the absolute minimum, practice and qualifying will be exciting. There’s just so many unknowns:

1. Ferrari upgrades. We’ve heard plenty about what Ferrari is bringing, including a change to the exhaust system that mirrors Red Bull’s, which essentially blows exhaust through the diffuser, increasing downforce. (I think I have that right.) The team’s also promised some other tweaks, as well, and there is a ton of optimism coming from Maranello. The question is: How well will it work? Could it bring a half-second or more per lap to the cars? If so, Ferrari could be back.

Here’s Fernando from the pre-race interviews:

Q: You have got some developments here I believe with the blown diffuser. What do you think that is going to bring you?
FA: I think we have been improving the car every race more or less, so I think it is a matter of how much the others improve as well to see a clearer step ahead, a step forward. I think we are optimistic. We are happy with the job we have done in these last couple of weeks, so we arrive in Valencia with a good package in our car but we remain very calm about our expectation as other teams were not watching television in these last two weeks, so I think everybody will bring updates here. Hopefully ours is a little bit better than others.

Q: (Carlos Miquel – Diario AS) Fernando, you tested the new car at Fiorano; what were your feelings and what do you think the improvement in lap time could be?
FA: The feeling was very good. I was running behind a car with cameras, so it was very good at 60kph, very stable. We also did some laps without a car in front but we had like ten cameras on the car and on the helmet, so it was not very comfortable to drive. It was also my first time driving a Ferrari Formula One car at Fiorano, so I really have no idea but I think tomorrow we will have a better answer. We expect a step up with the car, a little bit quicker but as I said before, I think all the other teams will bring some new parts here, so I think the most important thing is to confirm that we are competitive here, as we did in Canada, and we need to keep improving the car. Silverstone, Hockenheim, Budapest… it’s not one evolution in the car, in the year and you stop. This is a job that we need to keep doing until Abu Dhabi, so there is a long way to go but we are optimistic.

2. Mercedes and Renault. Both teams will be using the exhaust-blown diffuser that has been a major part of Red Bull’s success this weekend. It appears Mercedes may only run it during practice, but we’ll still get a sense of whether this is the tweak that will get that car sorted. And an improved Renault at the hands of Robert Kubica could, heck should, be a podium contender. (Renault’s ongoing strong performances also could make it the prime slot for 2011, if Vitaly Petrov is let go. Both Kimi Raikkonen and Adrian Sutil have been mentioned.)

3. McLaren. Lewis Hamilton has never won three races in a row, and he’s never won in Valencia. He’s the hot driver right now, so will he break through? And how will Jenson Button handle the weekend. Will the team mates stay close or will we see some separation?

4. Lotus and HRT. Lotus is making a big deal that this weekend’s race is the name’s 500th grand prix and the team hopes it can celebrate with maybe a point. That’s something to watch. I think under the right circumstances, including a handful of cars crashing out in one wreck plus some additional attrition, Heikki Kovalainen could slot into 10th. And for HRT this weekend is another “home” race. How might the perform.

Here’s Mike Gasgoyne:

Mike Gascoyne, Lotus chief technical officer
“I’m really looking forward to this weekend, and am excited about both celebrating the 500th race Lotus has competed in, and helping add another chapter to one of motorsport’s greatest stories. We’ve already come a long way this season, and have much further to go until we can add more glory to the Lotus legend, but I and the whole team are very proud to be in a position to help the Lotus name reach this landmark moment, and it’ll be great to celebrate that with Clive, Tony and the whole team. For the race, we have a few more updates to the car to help us keep pushing forward, so we’re not letting up on the challenge to take the race to the cars in front. I’m confident we’ll put on a good performance in Valencia – we’ve got the right drivers to cope with the demands of the circuit itself, and the car keeps improving with every new step we take, so I think this will be another chance to pressure the midfield, and make good on the promise we showed in Canada.”

5. Williams. Todd’s got a piece up about Rubens Barrichello’s change in fortune, but he’s saying the team can get into Q3 this weekend. It sounds like most of the team’s big updates — the blown diffuser, again — are still to come, but a little bit here and there could move Williams into contention with Force India. (Yeah, that’s still not great for the team, is it?)

6. Fernando Alonso. Yeah, I mentioned him above with Ferrari, but Alonso is the reason this race is in Valencia. He’ll have to be pumped to give the crowd something to cheer about that’s non-World Cup related.

Valencia will be worth watching just to see what he does.

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