F1 revs up for thrills, even without Schumi

Formula One may be ruing the absence of Michael Schumacher on the starting grid again, but even without the hullabaloo around the record world champion Sunday’s European Grand Prix is poised to launch a fascinating final stretch of the season.

Schumacher was forced to call off his plan to return from retirement to step in for the injured Felipe Massa at Ferrari, but is in Valencia to help the Italian in an advisory role.

One of the questions which should be answered in Valencia is whether Ferrari and fellow pre-season favourites McLaren-Mercedes have turned the corner following a miserable start this year.

It looked that way in the last race in Hungary when world champion Lewis Hamilton took the chequered flag for the first time this season. Now the pressure is well and truly on for overall leader and fellow Briton Jenson Button.

The Brawn driver has seen a seemingly impregnable points lead dwindle to just 18,5 points over the past three races, but Button says the team has been working hard over four-week summer break to remedy the problems.

“It’s going to be great to get back racing again after the summer break and everyone at the team is looking forward to Valencia,” he said.

“Valencia is quite challenging for the drivers with so many turns and the added factor of being surrounded by barriers means you have to maintain your concentration, but there’s been a lot of work going on at the factory following our shutdown and, with the cars at the front being so close at the moment, it will be an interesting weekend.”

Button, on 70 points, is being chased primarily by the Red Bull’s of Australian Mark Webber (51,5) and Germany’s Sebastian Vettel (47).

Twenty-two-year-old Vettel, in particular, had been looking forward to competing against 40-year-old Schumacher before the seven-time world champion abandoned his comeback plans when he realized his neck, injured in a motorbike injuries earlier in the year, would not stand the strain of F1 racing.

Fortunately for Spanish fans, one major attraction is appearing—national hero Fernando Alonso—after a decision to suspend the Renault team was overturned by an appeal court of motorsport federation FIA.

The two-time world champion also has a new team-mate in Romain Grosjean who replaces the luckless Nelson Piquet Jr as Renault hope to improve their competitiveness.

Instead of Massa, injured on the head by a flying dislodged spring in qualifying in Hungary, Ferrari have now turned to test driver Luca Badoer, the first Italian behind the wheel of the prancing horse since 1994.

Badoer is a seasoned performer even though he failed to pick up a point in 49 previous starts, albeit among mainly also-ran teams.

Kimi Raikkonen may well feel confident of adding to his 18 points for Ferrari after finishing second in Hungary, and the same can be said for Hamilton (19 points) who says he is “still buzzing” following his victory at the Hungaroring.

The McLaren team feels it has now finally got its package together to launch a belated attack over the last seven races of the season.

McLaren, who with Ferrari are the only two teams still using Kers, believes the energy recovery and boost system could now start to give it an advantage, as team boss Martin Whitmarsh explained.

“There is no doubt now that Kers is an advantage,” he said.

“Certainly, if we can get near the front of the grid then we have a launch advantage.”

Whitmarsh said McLaren had been “too far back in the grid to be able to exploit the launch advantage that Kers should be giving us”, but that had now changed.

“It has come together and been a real technical challenge for everyone in the team, and the drivers,” he said.

Hamilton, 24, who finished second in Valencia behind Massa last season, said the team’s development improvements mean “we’ve now got a car that’s much easier to drive on the limit, and which really rewards your input.”

The first practice sessions take place on Friday, with qualifying on Saturday to determine grid positions for Sunday’s race.—Sapa, dpa

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