By Pat Espresso

After eight races, F1 fans are already talking about a season that promises to be one of the best in the history of the sport. Four world champions and four closely-matched teams separated by only a handful of points for a championship that promises to be fought until the last race at Abu Dhabi in November. Half a dozen drivers at least are thinking 2010 could be their year.

After Canada’s thrilling spectacle, hopes are high that the return to Spain for the European Grand Prix around Valencia’s street circuit will continue to give us the thrills, intrigue and scandal that have marked the series so far. What is almost certain is that the ‘hands-off’ stewarding seen up to now will not continue. Max Mosley must have been wishing he still held the whip hand after no driver was seriously punished for the on-track antics we witnessed in Montreal.

McLaren’s dream team of Button and Hamilton will be aiming for a hat-trick of 1-2s at the harbour-side track this year. Button in particular knows he needs to find some extra speed for qualifying to keep up with his sidekick, especially at Valencia where opportunities for overtaking are as limited as at Monaco. Hamilton, though, is riding high and after two victories in a row he’ll be feeling invincible. He’s certainly driven like a champion all season and now the results are coming his way. His form is ominous for the chasing pack. Button’s tactic of trying to stay with him in the hope of a mistake might be his only chance this year. Either that or the McLaren pit crew will continue to handicap Hamilton’s chances.

The revitalised Prancing Horse was one of the biggest stories at Montreal, with Fernando Alonso rightly disappointed that a good chance for a win was wrecked by his failure to negotiate the backmarkers as well as Button. All F1 fans are delighted that the Ferrari is resurgent, especially in the hands of the best all-rounder on the grid in Alonso. One of the biggest surprises was the Maranello outfit’s decision to re-sign Massa. The Brazilian has been with Ferrari so long he’s almost a piece of the furniture, keeping him on seems a sentimental move rather than for the good of the team. Most still think Kubica would be unstoppable in a Ferrari. Maybe Fernando wasn’t keen on having his Polish friend too close?

Valencia also promises the next instalment in the Red Bull comedy. Undoubtedly the best car in the paddock, with two of the best drivers, the team is in danger of another unheroic failure to win a championship that was theirs for the taking in the early part of the season. Vettel seems more and more the sulking brat while the re-signed Webber looks like the loneliest man in the world, knowing he has to beat not only the McLarens and Ferraris but then his own team if he is to become world champion this year. I’d love him to do it, if only to see the look on the faces of Red Bull’s team leaders when he sprays them with champagne. As the season wears on, the Red Bulls look increasingly catchable. And the car looks even more fragile.

If the Red Bull team is giving us comedy, Michael Schumacher in Montreal was a tragedy. It wouldn’t have been surprising if he’d been black-flagged and told to forget F1. His driving was shocking and a black mark on the legacy of a driver with an extraordinary record. Maybe Canada was an aberration,  it wasn’t the mark of a legend. I wonder what he thought when two Force Indias passed him on the last lap? Ross Brawn’s hopes of emulating last year’s debut success are fading, despite his bullish claim that the team are still in the race. The stunning coup of attracting Schumacher back to F1 now seems like a mistake. And Rosberg, unfortunately, seems like a perpetual runner-up, despite occasional flashes of a brilliant talent.

Valencia’s streets are tough on brakes and its twisty, narrow confines mean it can get pretty hot for the cars. The downside is that, unlike Montreal, it offers little challenge for the drivers and in the past it hasn’t proved much of a spectacle for the fans. Hamilton was on pole last year but the race was won by Barrichello. What wouldn’t Williams give for the Brazilian veteran to repeat that this weekend? Both Williams and the struggling Sauber team must look at Renault with envy, seeing the progress they are making this year.

An encouraging sign that the great name of Lotus are on the way back was Kovalainen’s result in Canada, where he finished ahead of the erratic Petrov in the second Renault. All the new teams will be hoping to have the same impact on the sport as the Force Indias. They have shown that it is possible for new teams to establish themselves in the cut-throat world of F1. Every F1 fan will wish the new teams well, but it’s hard to see how some can keep going if they remain so far off the pace.

The battle at the back of the grid though will not be why most of us tune in on Sunday. Ferrari? Red Bull? McLaren? It’s impossible to predict a winner.. Qualifying will be hugely important so the names Alonso, Hamilton, Vettel are likely to be prominent as pacesetters.. But as we have seen in the eight races so far, much can happen on race day. Victory in Valencia will not settle the championship, or even affect the title race too much as the points spread is tantalisingly close this year. What Spain will show is which teams are winning the all-important development race, building up their points ready for what promises to be an amazing showdown later in the year. Viva F1!

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