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Valencia: You can't be serious

Maurice Hamilton June 20, 2012
Valencia will host this weekend's European Grand Prix © Sutton Images
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Sebastian Vettel led every lap of last year's European Grand Prix, his advantage rarely being under two seconds. When the race first came to this corner of Spain in 2008, there were four on-track overtaking moves; a year later there was just one. Even with DRS last year, the Grand Prix was hardly a Passing Fest. That sums up Valencia in all its boring glory.

It seems strange to say that because, on paper, the track looks promising. If you ignore the mountains of containers defining the port in the background, the location is interesting and different. The circuit runs across a swing bridge at the entrance to the harbour and finds its way in and around the abandoned hangar-sized sheds used by America's Cup competitors in 2007.

And yet it fails to deliver. The tentative relationship between the Grand Prix and yacht racing is actually appropriate since neither makes ideal viewing; a lot of movement but very little relevant action for the paying spectator.

The straights are long, curving and fast; all very well if this is a speed trial but useless if you want to see a race. Similarly, the final sequence of bends is a dramatic place to watch as the cars change direction a couple of times at high speed and need to brake hard while turning right in preparation for the final left-hander. But you can't overtake.

You do, however, see some huge brake-locking moments. You find that drivers who really get it wrong tend to run straight into the pit lane entrance, pretending this is what they intended to do all along.

The first time I saw that happen, it reminded me of a guy called Adrian Rae, a mad-cap farmer from County Down who was a quick driver - but only now and again. He scraped together enough money to buy a rather tired second-hand Lotus 18 and brought it to a general test day at Kirkistown, our local circuit on the site of an old airfield. (Actually, 'test day' is a bit of fancy title; you simply unbolted the gate, chased the cows back to the neighbouring field, checked for dung on the track and went about your business.)

Me and my mates are watching from the inside of a reasonably tight right-hander, followed by a left, at the bottom of the circuit. The bold Adrian, relishing the precision of his first single-seater racing car, is playing to the crowd - but pretending not to.

It's only a matter of time before the excessive sideways momentum gets the better of him and provokes a half-spin in a cloud of smoke - and he compounds the felony by stalling. Calm as you like, he removes his open-face crash helmet as if to signal this is his normal method of coming to a halt and announces in a loud voice to the assembled company: "Jayzus I tell ya', this car handles f***ing well!" All this while stationary in the middle of the track.

To tell you the truth, we could do with Adrian at Valencia this weekend if not to enliven proceedings on the track, then to provide some life in the immediate vicinity. The extraordinary thing about the circuit is that you can get to within half a mile and not have the faintest idea anything of significance is happening. Which in a manner of speaking is true - but you get my drift.

Valencia's harbour is usually sparsely populated on grand prix weekends © Sutton Images
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Being located in the port area, the venue is far-removed from the action in the centre of this grand old city. And yet, apart from the odd banner here and there, none of the usual trappings are present to indicate there is a Grand Prix going on. And, by that, I also mean the absence of race fans flocking to the gates.

There is the distant 'thrum' of racing engines as practice for supporting events (of which there are very few) takes places and cars pass the pits before heading towards the sea and the outer reaches of the waterway. But, apart from that, there is more excitement being generated by taxi drivers and several of the many Spanish unemployed knocking around a football in a dusty square close by the main entrance.

The surreal feeling is exacerbated in the media centre, entrance to which is gained by the only escalator I've come across in 30 years of reporting on F1. But, once inside the very nice permanent building, the only view - pleasant as it may be - is of the half-full marina. Otherwise, you need the TV monitors to tell you there is activity on the race track.

Downstairs, they do very nice coffee and a ready supply of ice cream. Most of the media guys sit there to watch practice and comment that someone is having a laugh.

Which is what we said to Adrian Rae as the tyre smoke cleared from his ticking but otherwise silent Lotus 18 all those years ago.

Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1 in the build-up to each Grand Prix.

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Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1. A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live