Well, well, well. As I’ve been fitting the curves from the long runs in FP2 this evening, pretty much each piece of data has added something unexpected to the mix. This could be a fun Grand Prix weekend. I have 20 cars (on the assumption that those who did not do representative runs will be somewhere near their team mates) within 1.3s per lap in race pace. Even allowing for field spread in the early laps, this would give us 20 cars on the lead lap at the end of the race. And it’s about time we had a safety car to mix everything up…
So what have I got in terms of pace? In line with expectations for a hot weekend on a rear-tyre limited circuit, Lotus are quick. Indeed the race pace of Grosjean leads the way in the FP2 runs. Next up? Massa. The second Ferrari is about 0.1s down on the lead Lotus, and is about 0.5s up on his team mate. Maybe it’s fuel load – but maybe Alonso was playing with engine modes. I am inclined to believe that the red cars will be seriously competitive.
There’s a full 0.3s in pace behind the lead two. But then we have five cars running so close in pace that I can’t pick a difference between them. A Red Bull, the second Lotus, a Williams and … two Force Indias. Vettel looks good, and is about 0.4s up on Webber (although I am not certain whether that is a tyre compound effect) – and allied to the qualifying pace they seem to have, the World Champions will expect to be in the mix. Raikkonen is once again quick, but not as quick as his team mate – this pattern has been evident for a few races now. I think that Grosjean is the most likely candidate if we are to have an eighth winner.
As at the last race, Maldonado has showed good pace on the Friday – only he was much less convincing (to the tune of about 0.6s) in the race last time out. The pace of Williams has been genuine before (and we all ignored it then) – but I think he’ll need to qualify well to have an impact in the race. The Williams cars don’t seem to fight through the pack when their race pace is strong, when other cars (think Lotus or Sauber) are able to manage it. Senna was a full second down on his team mate – it’s quite a while since he matched Maldonado for pace by my reckoning.
The surprise is Force India. They had a good car for qualifying in Canada, but the race pace (on Friday and Sunday) was at the back of the midfield. At Valencia, however, they have race pace and I think that getting a good result from one of their cars is likely – maybe even a repeat of the top six performance in Bahrain (but without the need of making a different strategy work).
The observant will have noticed that there is no mention so far of Mercedes, McLaren or Sauber. At 0.5s from the pace are the Sauber of Perez and the Ferrari of Alonso. Another 0.1s back is the first Mercedes (Rosberg) and then we have Webber, Schumacher and Button. The only McLaren to do a long run was 0.9s from the pace of Grosjean. That’s a lot, and it could be that they’re running a different programme, although the McLaren boys did not look happy with the car and there will be some major changes overnight. Even if Lewis were to be 0.5s quicker than Jenson’s run (which is stretching it a bit) this would still put him behind the Force Indias on race pace. Not what we might have expected.
And then we have the final surprise. At 1.2s from the pace we have Toro Rosso (Ricciardo), and at 1.3s we have Kovalainen. Caterham look to be pretty close here – indeed a shorter run from Petrov was 0.3s quicker than the run of Kovalainen, so there is some pace in the green cars. Could they get properly into the midfield? It’s the most likely it’s ever looked from the Friday running.
A quick run down of the race pace:
Vettel, Maldonado, Raikkonen, Di Resta, Hulkenburg @0.3s
Alonso, Perez @0.5s
Senna, Kovalainen @1.3s
There was no useful data from Hamilton, Kobayashi or Vergne.
So what do I think? The favourites for the race must be Vettel, Alonso and Grosjean. McLaren need a serious overnight rescue job – it’s not beyond them, but right now it doesn’t look good. Most likely to be the surprise of the weekend has to go to Force India – it’s looking like their turn for a big result. And you never know, with a bit of attrition and maybe a safety car or two, this could be the race when Caterham snatch a point.
Trouble is that we have all this promise from Friday and then I remember that the race is on the Valencia Street Circuit. Dampens the expectation a bit as it hasn’t produced the greatest of races so far. Perhaps this year…