All to play for as the teams arrive in Germany
Qualifying revisions, BAR's return, the first of a series of back-to-back races and the chance of rain in qualifying and the race - small wonder the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring is shaping up to be one of the most difficult races to predict so far this season.
Fresh from their success in Monaco, McLaren are going all out to repeat it on Mercedes-Benzs home ground. The auguries are good, as Kimi Raikkonen was flying here in 2003 before his engine broke. This years MP4-20 has shown great speed which, coupled to reliability, created the platform for Raikkonens wins in Spain and Monaco that have laid the foundation for a very strong championship challenge. With Juan Pablo Montoya now firmly back in harness, expect the silver arrows to go very well this weekend.
That other Anglo-German team, BMW Williams, likewise have high expectations in the engine manufacturers homeland, especially after their 2-3 result in the Monaco Grand Prix. Both McLaren and Williams demonstrated there that their cars are well balanced, and this will be critical on a track where the camber of the corners tends to promote time-consuming understeer. Ralf Schumacher won that 2003 race after Raikkonens retirement, and both Nick Heidfeld and Mark Webber and very motivated after each scoring their best-ever results in Monte Carlo. For Heidfeld, of course, it is also a home grand prix on the track closest to his birthplace of Monchengladbach.
Renault admit that they make a mistake on tyre choice in Monaco, and their R25 with its rearward weight bias ate its tyres at a voracious rate. Nevertheless, Fernando Alonso was able to score healthy points for his hard-won fourth place and the blue team remain the championship leader.
Alonso is adamant that he will bounce back this weekend. Why not? Last year, we finished fourth and fifth there so with the R25, there is no reason why we should not be fighting for the podium. The car had a brand new aero package in Monaco, and I don't think we really saw the benefits of it there - at a more normal circuit, like Nurburgring, we definitely will.
From our point of view, it has never been a perfect track, so it will be important to prepare well and have a trouble-free approach to the race. The place where you can really make up time on the lap is in the first sector, under braking and in the slow corners, but you have also have every type of corner at the Nurburgring - and they are all important. Renault has not been on the podium there, but I think we have a good shot at it this year.
Ferrari have a great track record at the Nurburgring, and will be hoping for the lower sort of ambient temperature that we saw at Imola, where the F2005 was blindingly fast. It was also very quick at Monaco once the tyres were hot, and if things are cooler in Germany that will certainly help them. If it rains in qualifying and the race, which is possible according to the weather forecast, it will be fascinating to see for the first time this season which tyre is better in such conditions - Ferraris Bridgestones or their major rivals Michelins?
Nurburgring is a home race for Toyota as well as McLaren and Williams as the Japanese team are based up the road in Cologne. Following a slightly disappointing race in Monaco, they come here determined to regain their previous pace and knowing that logistics favour them. If we need any new parts we know they can be with us in a couple of hours, technical director Mike Gascoyne said. The circuit itself is typical of F1. There is a reasonable mix of high-speed and low-speed corners and the cars run with fairly high downforce. Such a mix means a car has to be good in every area. When it comes to Toyota's performance, I think we'll be okay. We've shown ourselves to be pretty competitive on that type of circuit so I don't think we will have any issues there this week."
At Red Bull Vitantonio Liuzzi will stay in the driving seat for another race, prior to Christian Klien taking over again in Canada, while at Sauber Jacques Villeneuve will be hoping for better things after his close call with team mate Felipe Massa at Monaco which lowered the temperature in the garage noticeably.
Jordan and Minardi will be locked in battle again this weekend, the latter keen to repeat its Monaco performance and to out-qualify their main rival.
Which brings us to the change in qualifying. The second, Sunday morning session has been abandoned and so have combined times. In there place the system reverts to a single one-hour session on Saturday afternoon, run with fuel for the first stint of the race, over a single flying lap. The running order will be the reverse of the finishing order of the previous race, with the winner going out last. I think this single session is a sensible compromise for the rest of the season, said Pat Symonds, Renaults executive director of engineering. Certainly, the public was confused with the aggregate system, and knowing the qualifying result is much better for the media too - the Sunday papers, and television broadcasts, will be able to give fans a meaningful judgement of what is going to happen in the race that afternoon.
In terms of race strategy, the change in format will not mean strategies alter radically - just because we are effectively going back to last year's qualifying format does not mean we will suddenly be using strategies similar to those from 2004. The behaviour of the single-race tyres has been the main factor in how race strategies have evolved for this season, and I don't anticipate significant change from what we have seen in the opening races.
Finally, BAR return after their two-race ban, more determined than ever to win a grand prix and to turn a negative into a positive. They have been testing very hard at Paul Ricard and will have developments in the tyre, brake, engine and aerodynamic departments.
"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, Jenson Button said. The whole team are incredibly upbeat and determined. I've been so impressed with the way they've handled this situation and I can't wait to see what we can achieve at the Nurburgring.
Summarising the mood in the team, sporting director Gil de Ferran said: We have spent the last few weeks waiting somewhat impatiently for this weekend and, although we would rather have been racing, all efforts went into turning this hiatus into an opportunity for the team to improve its performance. We continued testing and are confident of a good showing at the Nurburgring, just as we were heading into Barcelona. Since we last raced in Imola there have been several enhancements to our aerodynamic performance, which bode well for the coming races. As we haven't had the opportunity to measure up against the competition, we look forward to doing so at the Nurburgring."