Brazilian ace grabs pole and sets up mouth-watering inauguration of Valencia’s sweeping new street circuit.
Heading into the inaugural European Grand Prix at Valencia and all the talk was of consistency. Risk-minimisation, level-headedness and sound strategic leadership littered the discourse of Formula One’s championship contenders ahead of this pivotal moment in the title race.
You wonder how much weight this will carry for Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa as they sweep through Valencia’s flat-out, non-existent Turn 1 and charge line astern into the heavy braking zone of Turn 2, egos jostling, memories of previous exploits vivid.
Massa’s sensational pole position was the perfect antidote to Hungary. Just as the Budapest heat so cruelly robbed the Brazilian of victory, so it erased the possibility of a colossal on-track scrap with Lewis Hamilton at the final pit-stop window.
And so, on Sunday, Massa versus Hamilton will be played at once again, this time for a hundred thousand Valencians, and against the backdrop of the city’s sprawling harbour side. Massa, who so outlandishly carved up his McLaren rival at the first corner at Hungary having been humiliated himself by the Briton a fortnight earlier at Hockenheim is this time charged with the responsibility for defence after pipping Hamilton to pole by a mere two tenths of a second.
It was an impressive showing from the feisty 27-year-old. Massa isn’t supposed to be at home threading his car through the narrow wall-enclosed confines of a street circuit; though you would never have guessed it by the way he assaulted the Valencia kerbing in the opening part of the lap.
“The first sector was just fantastic,” enthused Massa. “I made some very small mistakes in sector two when you always have an oversteer car or understeer car depending on the corner. Then I had a good sector three but everything was done in sector one.”
“Already in the first lap on Q3 I was thinking the lap was good but you think people have made mistakes or didn’t do a great lap. You always need to try the second one and try to improve everything.”
Even Lewis Hamilton was forced to acknowledge his rival’s pace: “He destroyed everyone. Ferrari are going to be hard to beat tomorrow but we will push as hard as we can.”
It wasn’t just the way Massa eclipsed Lewis Hamilton that was special but the fact that he had to come from behind to do it, both in the immediate context with Lewis having gone quicker on his final flying lap, but also in terms of the title race; Hungary was Massa’s for the taking and the anguish at leaving the circuit with a real terms points deficit would have been equally as painful as losing the race.
“For sure it is always nice to be on top after such a bad result especially how it happened,” conceded the Brazilian reflecting on his Hungarian disappointment. “It was so bad to have a problem with three laps to go with a win completely in my pocket.”
“After such a difficult race it is very nice to be here for the first time in Valencia and also after the problem we had in the last race and to be on the top. But for sure the race is tomorrow and we don’t know how it is going to be but it is always nice to start on pole position. We will try to do a great race.”
The scene is set then not just for an explosive battle between the two front row starters, but also between McLaren and Ferrari. The Scuderia certainly seemed to have ironed out some of their teething problems on the Bridgestone Potenzas in qualifying, while Lewis and Heikki somehow don’t look completely comfortable around the 25-corner track.
And rest assure that if anything should happen between Massa and Lewis in the run down to Turn 2, Kimi Raikkonen the reigning world champion, let’s not forget before we brandish him into insignificance on the basis of a couple of poor results will be there to pick up the pieces.
The Finn invariably races better than he qualifies, and with a fourth place starting slot reserved for him, coupled with the presence of real overtaking opportunities, you would be mad to write him off.