Qualifying in Valencia saw Sebastian Vettel soar to the top of the time sheets, creating a gap of over three tenths of a second to Lewis Hamilton, who will start the race alongside Vettel. By 2012 standards, three tenths of a second is quite a large gap, and F1 fans were reminded of Vettel’s dominance over qualifying in 2011.
Now that the grid is set, fans are left to wonder whether or not we will see the first ‘repeat-winner’ of 2012. So far, we’ve seen seven different drivers win the first seven races, and it seems more likely than ever that we will see the first driver to notch two victories to his name this weekend. The first three drivers on the grid have already won races. The other winners, however, are further back on the grid. Nico Rosberg qualified in sixth place, Jenson Button in ninth, Fernando Alonso in eleventh, and Mark Webber all the way back in 19th position due to a DRS failure. The most ‘likely’ drivers to claim their second victory are Vettel, Hamilton, and Maldonado in first, second, and third positions respectively. I use the word ‘likely’ with caution, because as always in F1, race results are determined by much more complex factors than the qualifying results.
Red Bull have been somewhat disappointed with their race pace, highlighted by Mark Webber’s comments after Friday practice. They have run well in the heat before, such as in Bahrain, but they seem to be lacking a little bit of long-distance pace. If this truly is a problem, Vettel must pull out an early lead in the first stint, and may want to use the soft tires for as long as possible. Spending too much time on the harder tires could create problems for Red Bull.
Lewis Hamilton should be a strong contender this race, given his relatively strong pace during practice sessions. McLaren seemed more confident than the Red Bull concerning their long-distance pace. However, during the post-qualifying press conference he clearly stated that he was aware of the pace capable of both Lotus and Ferrari. With two Lotus cars in the top 5 positions on the grid, they must be considered contenders for victory. If we look at the performance of Lotus in Bahrain, we see that Raikkonen started the race in eleventh place and eventually found his way up to second, in front of the second Lotus car, which Romain Grosjean drove from seventh on the grid to third place.
During the past month, Lotus have been trying to improve their qualifying performances. They’ve achieved their best result in Valencia since the Spanish Grand Prix three races ago. With a strong qualifying performance and the very hot track temperature playing into their favor, Lotus are in a very strong position from which they can challenge for victory. Personally, my money is on Grosjean for the race win. If Grosjean is able to stick with the leaders at the beginning of the race, he has the potential to put on a very strong late-race charge, as Raikkonen did in Bahrain.
Given Red Bull’s possible race pace issues, the race could possibly come down to a battle between Hamilton and Grosjean, and possibly Kimi Raikkonen as well. Given Lotus’ consistent pace throughout the weekend, and Hamilton’s wariness of their speed, I believe that a Lotus driver will be standing on the top step of the podium tomorrow. Then again, this is 2012. Heikki Kovalainen could win tomorrow, for all I know.