Street circuits are always odd but the European Grand Prix in Valencia, Spain, is perhaps odder than most. Built around the port rather than within the city itself, the track isn’t faced with the typical urban constraints. It features generous runoff areas in places where other street courses would have unyielding walls.
It’s also smoother than your average public road and so allows race engineers to lower ride height down to more normal levels without having to worry about too many bumps. Valencia is entirely consistent with other street circuits when it comes to grip, though: there isn’t any, or at least not much. As such, lap times tend to drop dramatically during the race as the track evolves with the rubber that’s laid down.
“In Valencia, we drive an average of more than 125 mph, which means it’s one of the fastest street circuits in Formula One," says Red Bull Racing driver Sebastian Vettel. He should know; he has won in Valencia the past two seasons.
"Overtaking is possible, but only with some risk," explains Vettel (pictured above). "The reason is that the air turbulence created by cars driving closely behind each other doesn’t disappear as it normally would due to the high walls around the track; you lose grip and, in some extreme cases, you have to lift the throttle. The start-finish straight in Valencia is special because it‘s not very long, it turns into a fast right corner which we take at 180 mph.”
The usual compromise in Formula One is to have less wing on the car than at a conventional permanent circuit but more than would be the case at those tracks such as Monza or Montreal which have similar configurations of straights but many fewer corners.
With all of those long straights going into heavy braking zones, Valencia, at first, looked like it might provide a few really good overtaking opportunities, of the like seen at Montreal’s Wall of Champions or the Senna S at Interlagos in Brazil. But no such luck. The configuration of the corners makes successful overtaking moves few and far between. Three times in four years the guy on pole in Valencia has won the race.
The other way in which Valencia differentiates itself from other street race courses is its reputation as a tire killer. The lack of grip, the sheer volume of corners, plus high summer temperatures and the requirements of heavy braking, often while turning in, all come together to destroy rubber very efficiently indeed.
“Obviously it’s very difficult to predict how we might go in Valencia, as we’ve clearly seen with seven winners and plenty of different podiums," said Mark Webber. "Our main goal is to improve our positions in both championships, so personally for me in the Drivers’ Championship and of course the team is looking to keep a good margin in the Constructors’. I know everyone in Milton Keynes has been working incredibly hard in between the two races."
Race distance: 57 laps (191 miles)
Start time: 8:00 a.m. EST
Circuit length: 3.36 miles
2011 winner: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing)
2011 pole: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing)
Lap record: Timo Glock (2009)