Last weekend's Monaco race and the upcoming European Grand Prix are the first of six sets of back-to-back races on this year's calendar. For the last ten years the NÃ¼rburgring seems to have settled into being the home of the European GP, an event...
Last weekend's Monaco race and the upcoming European Grand Prix are the first of six sets of back-to-back races on this year's calendar. For the last ten years the N?rburgring seems to have settled into being the home of the European GP, an event which previously wandered around various circuits in different countries.
A condensed version of the famous Nordschleife, the 5 km Eifel track is a mixture slow to medium speed corners and a high speed section. Cars can be prone to understeer and downforce tends to be high, while the elevation causes a slight drop in engine power. The track is fairly smooth and tyre wear is not a major concern; the most unpredictable thing is the weather.
It's quite a technical circuit but perhaps not one that many drivers would rate as a favourite. "It has some very exciting corners, but the first section is really annoying," is the opinion of Sauber's Jacques Villeneuve. "It's slow and it just isn't fun, and it spoils driving there for me."
The European weekend sees a new qualifying format, from two sessions split over Saturday and Sunday to just one session on Saturday afternoon. The running order will be decided by the results of the last race in reverse and each driver will have one flying lap. Renault's championship leader Fernando Alonso thinks there's good and bad sides to having just one session.
"It is good to know the qualifying positions from Saturday onwards, so that is definitely an improvement," he commented. "But on the other hand, we have to rely on the previous race position for our starting slot -- which means you will be punished for a bad result with an early qualifying position at the next race."
Renault suffered from tyre wear in Monaco but McLaren got it right; Kimi Raikkonen took an untroubled victory while Juan Pablo Montoya cut his way through the pack to finish fifth after starting near the back. It was a good race for the team and Raikkonen is hoping for a repeat performance this weekend.
"After such a great result in Monaco, I am really looking forward to racing again this coming weekend," said the Finn, who moved up to second in the drivers' standings after his Monaco win. "The MP4-20 package is working really well and hopefully we will continue to be competitive in Germany."
Raikkonen may have won in Monaco but Williams came off best as a team. Nick Heidfeld and Mark Webber took second and third respectively, Heidfeld's second podium for the Grove squad and Webber's first ever F1 podium finish. For Heidfeld, as for the Schumacher brothers, the N?rburgring is a track close to where he grew up.
"I learned how to ride a bike near the circuit when I was three years old and my father often used to take my two brothers and me there when we were young," Nick explained. "In the winter, we would go sledging on the Nordschleife! When I was eight, I started go karting there as well, so it's easy to understand why I have a special relationship with the circuit."
Ferrari was mixing it with the midfield teams in Monaco -- the Scuderia has the race pace but is still struggling to get it hooked up in qualifying. The Bridgestone tyres are not at their best over a single fast lap and although Michael Schumacher is famed for cutting his way through the pack if necessary, it hasn't really been working this season.
"Qualifying is our Achilles' heel at the moment and that was particularly evident at Monte Carlo," said Michael, who, naturally, is not about to give up on his chances. "If this weakness has less of an effect than it did at Monaco then we have a realistic chance of progressing and going on to win races."
After its two race absence BAR returns to competition at the N?rburgring. Stripped of its Imola points and forced to sit out Spain and Monaco, the team has yet to make an impact on the current hierarchy but is eager to prove itself. Jenson Button spent Monaco race day commentating on the action and is now impatient to be back in it.
"It goes without saying how much we racing drivers look forward to our next Grand Prix, but it's been five weeks since I last raced at Imola and I'm very excited about getting back in the car this weekend," he remarked. "The whole team is incredibly upbeat and determined."
Of course, BAR's return makes the job of the other teams even harder. Two more competitive cars back on the grid is not only difficult for the front runners but also for the midfield and back-end teams, who benefited in Spain and Monaco from BAR's absence. Sauber, Red Bull, Jordan and Minardi will have their work cut out, presuming BAR is up to speed.
Every race we've been waiting for Ferrari to return to form but it's yet to happen, while first Renault and now McLaren have been setting the pace. As there's only a week between the last race and the next, it seems unlikely that we will see much of a change in the order -- but the way things have been going this season, you just never know.