Fifteen cars within one second on Pirelli tires
The teams prepared for the Grand Prix of Europe in Valencia with the usual two free practice sessions on Friday, where they got to sample the P Zero White medium tire and P Zero Yellow soft tire for the first time at the toughest street circuit of the year.
At the end of the second free practice session, the top 15 cars were covered by less than a second, highlighting the closeness of the competition this year. Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel set the quickest time of the day, 1m39.334s, on the P Zero Yellow soft tyre – 0.131s ahead of Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg. The top five cars were all from different teams, with fractions of a second once more separating the leading runners.
Weather conditions were comparatively cool for this time of year, with free practice two starting in ambient temperatures of 24 degrees centigrade and strong but variable winds. For race day, conditions are expected to be much warmer, as they were last season.
The teams used the medium tyre exclusively in the morning, before moving onto test the soft tyre as well in the afternoon. As usual, the free practice sessions focussed on assessing the wear characteristics of both tires with different temperatures and fuel loads: information that will be vital when it comes to calculating race strategy, as overtaking in Valencia is as difficult as it is in Monaco.
Williams driver Pastor Maldonado, the winner of the Spanish Grand Prix in May, was the quickest driver in free practice one thanks to a time of 1m40.890s set early in the session on the medium tire. The benchmark was raised by Vettel in the afternoon (who was second-fastest in the first session) as the track evolved, using the faster tire.
There were no tyre issues at all throughout both sessions, although the variable winds affected aerodynamics and occasionally cars locked up under braking, flat-spotting their tires.
Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery commented: “From what we can see initially, the time difference between the two tire compounds is in the region of 0.3-0.5s, and this only emphasises how close the times were in the first two sessions. As usual, free practice is all about the teams collecting data relating to the performance of their car-tire package compared to that of their rivals, under every set of circumstances possible. It’s very hard to overtake in Valencia, so effective strategy will be key and the sessions this morning were vital to gathering the information to base this on. We’re expecting both weather and track conditions to change over the course of the weekend, as the circuit is constantly evolving. However, conditions this afternoon were a bit more representative, so maybe this was a better reflection of what we will see in the grand prix. Valencia is the most demanding street circuit of the year in terms of energy through the tire, so the drivers will have to look after the soft compound in particular. This has shown a lot of speed so far, but as there is not an enormous performance gap between the compounds many teams could choose to base their race strategy on the medium.”