The frenzied sprint for the F1 World Championship finishing line starts what promises to be a hectic seven race schedule this coming Sunday, with the inaugural European Grand Prix staged on the new waterfront circuit in Valencia.

Not only is this one of two brand new races on the 2008 schedule – the other one being next month’s Singapore fixture – but it is a reflection of how Spain has consolidated its position as a commercial and sporting force within Europe over the past few years. Not bad for a country which had something of an on-off love affair with this high octane business right up to the emergence of Fernando Alonso just five years ago.

The country first hosted a Grand Prix on the now long-defunct Pedralbes street circuit in Barcelona in 1951 and ‘54, after which there was a 13-year break before the country’s next F1 fixture with a non-championship race at the newly completed Jarama track just north of Madrid.

Jarama hosted its first championship Spanish GP in 1968, after which the fixture alternated between there and Barcelona’s spectacular Montjuich Park track until the latter was abandoned following a tragic accident in the ’75 race when Rolf Stommelen’s Hill-Cosworth suffered a rear wing failure, vaulted the trackside barrier and killed four onlookers.

The race was then held at Jarama through to 1981, then dropped from the schedule again until ’86 when it popped up at Jerez , then switched to its present home at Barcelona in 1991. A tight little track at Valencia, outside the city, was subsequently developed as a winter Formula One testing venue, but this weekend’s race is being staged on a totally new track down on the waterfront.

“The thing you’ve got to remember about Spain is that there was no real F1 interest there prior to Alonso because they’d never had an F1 driver of any consequence,” said John Hogan, for more than 20 years the vice president of sponsorship for Philip Morris who masterminded the Marlboro cigarette brand’s multi-million dollar investment in the McLaren and Ferrari teams.

“Spain was always a motorcycle racing country. Until Alonso arrived there were only patchy crowds in the grandstands at tracks like Barcelona, but when it came to the MotoGP events there was so much support from the Spanish riders that they would be staging three or four events a year simply to satisfy the huge demand.”

The Alonso effect is reflected in Banco Santander’s move to sponsor the McLaren team last year. And the fact the bank is widely tipped to switch its support to Ferrari in 2010 gives added weight to speculation that Alonso will be joining them at the famous Italian team.