European GP: race report

  • Vettel takes win in Valencia sunshine
  • Hamilton a strong second despite drive-through penalty for Safety Car infringement
  • Webber in massive accident after colliding with the back of Heikki Kovalainen’s Lotus
  • Nine other drivers penalised with five second penalties after race for yellow-flag speeding

Today’s European Grand Prix was won by Sebastian Vettel in dominant fashion after an incident-filled afternoon on the Valencia seaside. The German could not be faulted and was able to reply to periodic threats from a quick-looking Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton was hampered by a drive through penalty though, which he incurred while dithering behind the safety car coming out of the pits and eventually opting to race past it, a move which made Ferrari incandescent with rage.

The Safety Car had come out in response to a massive accident involving Mark Webber and Heikki Kovalainen. The Australian, having suffered a terrible start, was attempting to pass Kovalainen and misjudged the Finn’s defensive manoeuvres. This led to the extraordinary sight of Webber flipping up into the air, to come down on his airbox and thus into the tyre wall. Mercifully, it was immediately evident that Webber was intact, but the incident raises all sorts of questions about a) closing speeds between ‘class A’ and ‘class B’ cars, b) whether all the F1 cars on the track are in the same race and c) the proposed advent of movable rear wings in 2011.

Prior to the race, Christian Horner had attempted to play down Red Bull’s advantage. “We were really surprised at our pace [during qualifying],” said the Milton Keynes team’s principal. “We really thought the track would suit their [McLaren’s] car.” This mirrored Lewis Hamilton’s comments of the day earlier, which also alluded to how lucky he was to be fighting the Red Bulls. The two teams are locked in a battle for PR and race supremacy, and it was to be clear right from the off today.

As soon as the red lights went out, Hamilton jumped forward and was immediately threatening second-placed Mark Webber. Webber squeezed him towards the pit wall but Hamilton was already too far up on the Australian. So far up, indeed, that he could legitimately consider challenging Sebastian Vettel in the lead, and as he tentatively placed his McLaren up the inside into the first proper corner, he and Vettel touched. It was neither’s fault. The contact whacked the left endplate off the Englishman’s front wing, arguably finishing his chances of victory there and then.

Hamilton was immediately then menaced by the red Ferrari of the home-advantage Fernando Alonso, whose own start had been none too shabby. Despite a new rear arrangement and a blown diffuser, Ferrari’s pace is not yet at the level of McLaren or Red Bull’s, and this was shown as even the limping Hamilton did not look vulnerable for long. He pulled out a breathing space of a second or so over Alonso and the chasing Massa.

Webber, meanwhile, had followed Jenson Button’s example of the year before at this very track and was plummeting down the field. He finished the first tour in a woeful 9th. Michael Schumacher, despite a terrible grid position, was already up to 11th, not too far away from smelling Bull’s blood. But Webber soon became conscious of the performance advantage he had over those in his immediate vicinity, and set about tackling the competitive Hulkenberg in eighth.

With five laps gone the order was Vettel, Hamilton, Alonso, Massa, Kubica, Button, Barrichello, Hulkenberg, Webber and Buemi. Vettel was asserting authority, setting a fastest lap of 1m43.055 and thrashing that by four tenths on lap 6. He was taking three or four tenths a lap out of Hamilton in second, and it was looking as though the McLaren man did not have an answer with the reduced downforce he was suffering. Alonso was beginning to rein him in too, at the rate of two tenths a lap.

On the Red Bull pitwall, strategic action was required to rectify the position Mark Webber had found himself in. He was duly called in, to get the other tyre compound legally required, but his afternoon went from bad to worse as the front left refused to come off. He lost about three seconds. Rosberg was another having a miserable time, rejoining the race from the pits in 19th.

It was shortly after that that Webber and Kovalainen had their coming-together. Tributes were justly being paid to the strength of the Red Bull monocoque as the Safety Car came out. It was also over this section of the race that contoversy would rage, although no-one knew it yet. Hamilton had come round to find the Safety Car emerging from the pits, and he was momentarily unsure what the rules required of him. He accelerated past it, rushing round to get to the pits and change his broken front wing. It was a clear contravention of the rules, for which he would later serve a drive-through penalty.

Nine other drivers, Jenson Button, Rubens Barrichello, Nico Hulkenberg, Robert Kubica, Vitaly Petrov, Adrian Sutil, Sebastien Buemi, Pedro de la Rosa and Vitantonio Liuzzi, would also fail to stay above the time dictated by the FIA as ‘safe’ when the Safety Car is out.

The immediate loser of Hamilton’s indecision had been Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard had obeyed the rules to the letter, unlike Hamilton who had wavered. And Alonso now found himself behind the Safety Car, trawling round, unable to pit until the next time round, when he and Massa had to queue for the attentions of the Ferrari pit crew. A fuming Alonso was a highlight of the radio transmissions for the rest of the race, down in tenth as things sorted themselves out.

The Safety Car came in at the end of lap 14, Vettel sliding his Red Bull into the final turn of the lap as he touched his cold brakes. He would not suffer unduly, because although Hamilton had changed his front wing during the caution period, he was not close enough to capitalise. Thereafter, the race settled. The drama had happened, and now the stamina came into play.

Although there was little drama to be had, the much-maligned Kamui Kobayashi had found himself in third place with all those in front having pitted. The Japanese hadn’t. He would of course have to, but at this glorious moment he was ahead of Jenson Button.

With 22 laps gone, the order was Vettel, Hamilton, Kobayashi, Button, Barrichello, Kubica, Buemi, Sutil, Alonso, Hulkenberg, de la Rosa, Petrov, Rosberg, Liuzzi, Massa, Alguersuari and Schumacher. On lap 25 Lewis Hamilton served his drive-through, but the Englishman had carved enough of a gap out to be able to emerge ahead of Kobayashi, something that would cheer his fans immensely and anger Ferrari even more. They felt that the nine minutes between the stewards’ fingering of Hamilton and the serving of the penalty was deeply unjust, as it enabled Hamilton to run in clear air, unlike poor Alonso and Massa.

The Spanish spectators’ feelings were much the same as Ferrari’s, we assumed. How did we know this? From a beer bottle that now lay perilously on the track. Thankfully, the Spanish marshals were as brave as those fans were moronic; they ran and retrieved the offending object.

There was now little in the way of entertainment. The only (distant) prospect of fun was Hamilton chasing Vettel; the McLaren man having chopped the gap from fourteen seconds to a mere twelve, setting fastest laps aplenty on the way. By lap 35 he was taking half a second a lap out of Vettel, with a fastest lap of 1m40.670.

Further down the field, Sutil was hounding Buemi, and got past him for seventh on lap 40. Senna and Glock were also having a right set-to over some insignificant lower place, but they sure as hell weren’t concentrating on what was happening behind them, as some lappers found. The two eventually touched, giving Senna a broken front wing and Glock a rear puncture. It must have been frustrating, but they can’t have been traumatised. It was only 38th place, after all.

By lap 45 Hamilton had got the gap to Vettel down to just over ten seconds. On lap 49 it was 6.621seconds. It looked like a royal chase might be in order, but a chap on the Red Bull pitwall got on the blower to Vettel and told him to get a chuff on. And that was it, basically; with the caveat of unreliability, the winner being determined as soon as Vettel showed himself capable of responding to the charging Hamilton.

On lap 50 the race was to lose the brave Hulkenberg, told by his own pitwall that his Williams was probably on fire. It was a shame for the Grove crew, who had turned up with a fantastic racing car this weekend, and were to be inadequately rewarded by Barrichello’s eventual fourth placed finish.

Before the end we were treated to the sight of Kamui Kobayashi finally pitting. Not that that in particular was a treat, but he came out just behind the still furious Alonso, who had been chasing Buemi for a good number of laps now. On the penultimate lap Kobayashi, with fresh rubber on, slid past Alonso with a great move, and then set about Buemi. The fantastic performance that his career needed was compounded at the last corner of the last lap, when he nicked seventh from Buemi.

Serenely at the front, Vettel took the thoroughly deserved win. Hamilton was second, with Button third, although all results were provisional until the stewards had figured out how to punish the offenders correctly. It was not a classic, but definitely more fun than other Valencia outings have been. Debate will rage over the Safety Car issues, but there can be no doubt that Vettel was a deserved winner, and he will be spurred on by today’s events. He might just have that cocky assurance back, now, too. Beware, Webber and McLarens.

Updated results and standings:

Classified:

Pos Driver Team
1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault
2. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes
3. Button McLaren-Mercedes
4. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth
5. Kubica Renault
6. Sutil Force India-Mercedes
7. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari
8. Alonso Ferrari
9. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari
10. Rosberg Mercedes
11. Massa Ferrari
12. De la Rosa Sauber-Ferrari
13. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari
14. Petrov Renault
15. Schumacher Mercedes
16. Liuzzi Force India-Mercedes
17. Di Grassi Virgin-Cosworth
18. Chandhok HRT-Cosworth
19. Glock Virgin-Cosworth
20. Senna HRT-Cosworth
21. Trulli Lotus-Cosworth