McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes will all be hoping fervently that a change in the regulations governing engine mapping will clip Red Bull’s wings a little this weekend at the European round in Valencia and give them more of a chance of getting on even terms with the Milton Keynes team in qualifying.
The FIA have informed all of the teams that they may no longer use different settings for engine maps between qualifying and the race. Red Bull’s rivals believe that use of a very aggressive map is one of the reasons why the Renault-powered RB7s have enjoyed up to a half second advantage in qualifying this year and specifically why they seem able to pull something out of the bag in Q3. Such a set-up would create more exhaust gases, which can then be used to create greater downforce by being blown over the rear-end diffuser.
The change comes ahead of FIA plans to ban off-throttle exhaust blown diffusers from next month’s British Grand Prix onwards.
Ferrari believe that these changes could turn around the world championship fight, and team principal Stefano Domenicali said in Canada: “We need to see in Silverstone, what is the real effect of this change in the regulations with regard to the effect of the exhaust. Then, we will see really where is the second championship in terms of the level of performance above all in higher downforce tracks."
Fernando Alonso, however, believes that Ferrari can be very strong on his second visit of 2011 to his Spanish homeland, after the 150° Italia’s performances in Monaco and Canada, and that victory may even be possible.
"I know that our fans are eagerly awaiting our first win of the season and I can assure you that the same goes for us," he says. "At the last two races, we showed we were clearly capable of winning and, especially in Monaco, we came pretty close, although I believe that even in Canada I could have fought for it all the way to the end, given what we had seen in qualifying.
"Now we go to a track with reasonably similar characteristics to Montreal and there is no obvious reason why we should not be competitive here too."
Last year the Spaniard lost out big time when the safety car was deployed, much to his chagrin, and is determined to make amends this year.
"I always believe that luck and bad luck balance out by the end of the season and maybe this unwritten rule also applies to race tracks," he said. “If that's the case, I would be more than happy if last year's misfortune was paid back now!"
Red Bull, meanwhile, will be hoping to get back into Victory Lane after Sebastian Vettel’s momentary lapse halfway round the last lap in Canada, and most of all Mark Webber would like to put memories of his dramatic 2010 360 degree back flip behind him and open his winning account in 2011.
“Valencia is a street circuit, but the average speed (200 km/h) is extremely high, so it’s tricky,” world champion Vettel says. “In general you need a lot of wing for the corners and less for the relatively long straights, which means you have to find a compromise.
“There are no run-off zones, so you can’t make any mistakes - a small slide and you end up in the wall... Overtaking is difficult and the only real possibility is in Turn 12. We had a good race there last year and the car should be good. I’m looking forward to it.”
Webber says: “Valencia hasn’t been an incredible venue for me in the past but I’m looking to try and break the duck this year. I quite enjoy driving the last sector of the track, as it’s got a really good combination of corners which are challenging. There’s no reason why the car shouldn’t perform well there, but as we’ve seen in the past few races, we’ve certainly had our fair share of competition.”
At McLaren, Jenson Button is ready to carry on providing that as he did in Canada, while Lewis Hamilton is looking for consolidation after his disappointments there.
“It’s been a fantastic week in the aftermath of the Canadian Grand Prix,” Button says. “I had a few days’ break immediately after the race, which was perfectly timed as it gave me the opportunity to take in all the positive memories of a crazy weekend, and to reflect on an incredible race. I wouldn’t say that winning in Montreal has given me extra motivation, because I was already totally committed, but I think it will help to sharpen the focus and conviction of everyone in the team. We’ve proved we can challenge and beat Sebastian, and we know we can fight for this world championship.
“I’m looking forward to Valencia. I had a good race there last year and I think the track shares some of the characteristics of Montreal and Monaco, so I’m confident that we’ll be competitive again. The trick will be to find enough performance in the race to overcome any potential difficulties in qualifying. It’s a hard place to pass and I don’t think that DRS is going to make it much easier during the race.”
Hamilton says: “For me, Valencia will be a weekend of consolidation after two disappointing results in Monaco and Canada. Those two races were particularly frustrating for me because we showed we had the pace to win both of them, yet I only came away with eight points.
“I’ve always gone well at Valencia, finishing second there in every race, and I really enjoy attacking the track. It’s a difficult circuit with no let-up, but that won’t deter me as I’m really keen to get back on track and get back in the points. This race will be our third street circuit in a row, so hopefully it’ll give me the chance to reverse the bad luck I’ve encountered in the previous two!
“We’ve arguably had the fastest race car in the last three races, and that’s really encouraging because I know that, when it’s put to best use, I should be able to finish at the front. As always, that will be my goal next weekend.”
Pirelli will bring their new medium compound tyre for the first time this weekend, after the successful trial on Friday in Canada. This will be the prime tyre, with the usual soft as the option. The PZero White medium tyre is not quite as durable as the hards, according to Pirelli, but is quicker while still representing a significant step over the option tyre.
"Tyre wear on this circuit is likely to be quite high because of the track layout, the nature of the surface, and also the weather conditions, which should be very warm,” says Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery. "For all these reasons, we've selected the medium and soft tyres, which should provide the teams with a good level of resistance, plenty of different opportunities for strategy and about a second per lap difference between the compounds.”
Another important factor to note is that following the introduction of a second DRS zone in Canada earlier this month, the FIA have confirmed that this weekend’s race will also feature two DRS zones. The first will be between Turns 10 and 12 and the second between Turns 14 and 17. As in Montreal, there will be a single detection point in Valencia, just prior to Turn Eight.
“We have two DRS zones here this year which, in combination with new tyre compounds from Pirelli, should almost certainly make things more interesting,” said race director Charlie Whiting.
“After a few years here it’s starting to look a little more lived-in now and more like a race track, which is good. And it’s unique, as the bridge across the harbour opens every night, so the circuit becomes incomplete until it’s closed again.”
It looks like being a warm weekend, albeit with the chance of thunderstorms in the region on Thursday and showers on Friday, but each of those days the ambient temperature will be a predicted 26 degrees Celsius, rising to 27 for Saturday and Sunday.
The race will run over 57 laps of the 5.419 kilometre (3.367 mile) circuit, or 308.883 kilometres (191.933 miles). It starts at 1400 hours local time, which is two hours ahead of GMT. There is only one minor circuit change since last year, with the tyre barriers at Turns 12 and 17 doubled in depth for increased safety.