x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Who could become the eighth wonder of Formula One season?

Seven races and seven different winners. Gary Meenaghan, in Valencia, lists the five drivers best equipped to continue this trend at the European Grand Prix in Valencia this weekend.

Michael Schumacher has played down any hopes of winning the European Grand Prix despite recent form. Sutton Motorsport Images
Michael Schumacher has played down any hopes of winning the European Grand Prix despite recent form. Sutton Motorsport Images

Take one of those fortune-telling Magic 8 Balls, ask it a question, toss it in the air, check your answer. Do this four or five times and you will likely throw up four or five different, deliberately vague and intentionally ambiguous responses.

This weekend's European Grand Prix takes place with the sport in position to produce a record eighth winner from eight races this season, yet the four or five drivers realistically capable of finishing top of the podium for the first time this Sunday are as non-committal as the little black prophesying ball.

Michael Schumacher, the seven-time world champion, has claimed only two points from seven races so far, but Ross Brawn, his team principal at Mercedes-GP, and Paul Hembery, the head of motorsport for the tyre manufacturers Pirelli, predicted an eighth winner to be crowned in south Spain, and tipped the veteran driver as the man to claim a first victory.

On Thursday, when Schumacher was asked whether he believed he could become the Eighth Wonder, the German was quick to quell expectations, citing his forced retirement in Canada earlier this month.

"In Montreal, we indicated it would be a good circuit for us, but it turned out to be not so good, so there is a question mark of what this track will be," he said. "This year, I don't think it is very straightforward to predict and try to understand what is going on. Therefore I am a little bit reluctant to say we are in a very strong position here.

"We hope to be in a good position, but to call it a victory here would be too optimistic from my point of view, after what we saw in Canada."

In Magic 8 Ball-speak, read: "Don't count on it."

Schumacher is one of two world champions yet to score a race win this year. Kimi Raikkonen, winner of the drivers' title in 2007, has finished on the podium twice with Lotus, but is yet to make the final step up to the summit this season. The Finn has taken 55 points since returning to the sport in March, following a two-year hiatus, and knows victory is within his grasp. Whether it will arrive in Valencia, he refuses to speculate.

"We try always to win, but it's not easy," he said. "For sure qualifying is important – perhaps more here than some other places - but we will have to wait and see. We don't know how we will do, but we will see over the next couple of days and hopefully we can be up there on Sunday. But we can't know yet."

In Magic 8 Ball-speak, read: "Cannot predict now."

Romain Grosjean, Raikkonen's teammate at Lotus, has similarly finished twice in the top three, prompting analysts to announce the car as one of the fastest in the sport and the Frenchman as one of the most impressive drivers. His second-place finish in Canada has seen him arrive at the dockside track high on confidence. He concedes victory here is certainly a possibility, but he laughed off any talk of being crowned the unprecedented eighth victor. "We have to go into every weekend aiming for a win," he said. "Approaching a race in any other way is like putting yourself on the back foot from the start. But it's always difficult to rate your chances before free practice or qualifying. Things can change, but on paper we are looking good. The car is looking good, it's hot and that is good for us, so hopefully we can have a good chance."

In Magic 8 Ball-speak, read: "Better not tell you now."

Grosjean was joined on the podium in Montreal by McLaren-Mercedes's Lewis Hamilton, the record seventh winner, and Sergio Perez of Sauber, who finished third. It was the Mexican's second podium of his career, with his first coming in Malaysia in March. Peter Sauber, the Swiss team owner, said if his staff can exploit the car's full potential this weekend then "a great deal is possible".

Perez, when asked whether he can make the final push and turn a podium into a win, said "definitely there will be a chance that we can win a race this season", but added he expects a tough race in Valencia.

"We have already got a second and third place, so the next target has to be to win a race and hopefully we can make it this season," he said. "I expect a very difficult weekend for us, but you never know. If we can get sorted [today], have a good Saturday qualifying and good race then who knows, but I think it will be tough."

In Magic 8 Ball-speak, read: "Outlook not so good."

The fifth driver who could realistically become the sport's unprecedented eighth winner this year is a source of debate. Perez refused to state names when asked by The National how many of the 17 remaining drivers he reckoned could claim victory, but added "for sure there are four or five".

Ferrari's Felipe Massa, teammate of Fernando Alonso who sits two points off the championship lead, undoubtedly has a car worthy of fighting at the front. Whether he can extract the maximum from it remains to be seen, but he has shown signs of fight in recent races.

"Many drivers have possibilities of victory and I would put myself inside" that group, he said. "If you look at how the races are and how things change with the strategies and everything, there are many possibilities."

For Magic 8 Ball-speak, read: "As I see it, yes."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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