Felipe Massa has the cards stacked in his favour: he’s starting from pole position at Valencia with the benefit of the clean side of the grid – now the organisers have swapped the grid around.
But will the F1 pack get through the tricky first corners without a crash? What are their strategy options for a race that’s likely to be interrupted by the safety car? And why did Timo Glock not get a penalty after qualifying?
No penalty for Timo Glock
After seeming to get in the way of Nick Heidfeld and Nelson Piquet Jnr during Q1 I expected Timo Glock to get the standard five-place grid penalty. But the stewards were satisfied that no penalty was required.
Given that Sebastien Bourdais got a penalty for impeding at the Hungaroring, and Heikki Kovalainen likewise at Magny-Cours, for what looked to me like very similar infractions, I’m at a loss to explain why. As ever the implementation of F1’s rules seems rather inconsistent.
Best ever qualifying for Toro Rosso
With Sebastian Vettel sixth and Sebastien Bourdais tenth, Toro Rosso enjoyed their best ever qualifying session. Vettel was the best non-McLaren/Ferrari/BMW driver.
As a sign of how the team have improved in recent races, their most recent best qualifying performance was at Silverstone this year – eighth and 13th.
But how big a role is the performance of their Ferrari engines playing? And would Vettel have beaten Heikki Kovalainen for fifth without that mistake on his final lap?
Of the four pairs of teams that made it into Q3, their drivers’ final lap times varied between 0.5s and 1.3s:
Felipe Massa – 0.5s – Kimi Raikkonen
Lewis Hamilton – 0.8s – Heikki Kovalainen
Sebastian Vettel – 0.6s – Sebastien Bourdais
Robert Kubica – 1.3s – Nick Heidfeld
The wide variation in these gaps hints that the teams have split their drivers further apart than usual on strategy – with one fairly light and one fairly heavy – because of concerns about a safety car period. There’s a high chance of a safety car appearance during the Grand Prix because of the limited run-off around the track, and the lack of cranes to recover cars as used at venues such as Monte-Carlo.
Valencia seems to have a particularly high consumption rate over the course of a lap – partly because of the length of the lap, and partly because there are several high-speed sections. In the GP2 feature race two cars ran out of fuel on the final lap – astonishingly, it was the two championship leaders.
The heavier fuelled drivers could come into play in the event of a safety car appearance around half way through the race – Kazuki Nakajima, Fernando Alonso and Timo Glock seem best placed to capitalise, starting from the top three places where they have free choice of fuel load (11th-13th).
Good news for Felipe Massa, Robert Kubica and Heikki Kovalainen among others. Pole position has been moved from the left to the right side of the track, and all the odd-numbered positions along with it.
This means Massa will now start from the clean side of the grid – as you would expect the pole sitter to – along with all the other cars directly behind him.
Of course at Hungary Massa was able to slot into the lead from third on the grid and Lewis Hamilton’s chances of beating him into the first significant corner – turn two – seem remote. Especially because Hamilton, in addition to starting on the dirty side, will also be on the outside for the flat-out turn one before braking into turn two.
Robert Kubica must fancy his chances of taking second from Hamilton at the start.
In terms of weather, more hot sunshine is expected, with track temperatures around 40C.
First lap crash
While we’re talking first corners, it’s worth noting how tight turns two and three are. As well as being very dusty and slippery off line this is one section of track where the racing line runs very close to the walls.
In the GP2 race Sakon Yamamoto pinched another driver at the apex of turn three (the left-hander), provoking an accident that eliminated three cars.
F1 has six fewer cars on its grid than GP2 does – and rather more experienced drivers. But it only needs one of them to make a mistake that could have far-reaching implications for the race – and the championship.
What do you think will happen at the start of tomorrow’s race? Don’t forget to join us here from 12 noon (British time) for the live Grand Prix blog.