Webber takes win after Red Bull car race pace is as good as expected
Hamilton loses solid second place two laps from end with tyre deflation and crash
Alonso inherits second with an almost brakeless Sebastian Vettel a battling third
Jenson Button unable to pass Michael Schumacher but finishes fifth nonetheless
Mark Webber today won the Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya in dominant style.
The Australian made no mistakes, and seemed to be comfortable in managing the gap between him and his rivals. He suffered none of the misfortune that befell others, but should take a lot of credit for what was a confident, fast and complete performance.
Fernando Alonso inherited second place after the unfortunate Lewis Hamilton left the road two laps from the end with a front left tyre deflation, with Sebastian Vettel third. The German was periodically as fast as his victorious team-mate, but suffered with brake problems and a slow pit stop.
The morning began with the enticing prospect that any one of seven drivers could leave Spain leading the drivers’ standings. But after yesterday’s qualifying, it certainly looked as though it would be one of the Red Bulls that would win the race. The new, improved RB6 had looked extremely fast in qualifying, and more upgrades were expected in the future. “40% of the car is new,” Christian Horner told the BBC. “But there will be further steps later this season.”
For his part, on the grid Webber hoped it would be “a boring grand prix”. He wanted nothing but a clean first corner, and then all he would have to do was to concentrate on swallowing the distance and watch his mirrors. Others also thought the first corner could be where the race was decided, with overtaking at a premium in these dry conditions. “It could be pretty manic,” said Jenson Button.
The event was slightly different. The 90 000+ spectators, mostly concentrated down the pit straight and a the first corner, were to be disappointed if they wanted carnage. There was robust driving by Hamilton to repel a hard-charging Alonso off the grid, but neither was not close enough to challenge either of the Red Bulls, of which Webber was the leader. He had not been unduly threatened by Vettel down into the first turn, and was then in the best position to control the race. It had been exactly what he had wanted, and to tell the truth the others’ best chance of winning the race evaporated there and then.
Further down the grid it was nearly as peaceful, Nico Rosberg being the only one to take to the grass. Both Saubers got into trouble on the first lap, de la Rosa hitting a Renault, for which he received a puncture and Kobayashi losing a number of places. The Japanese went on to look racy as he fought his way back up. Elsewhere Senna was out, after an incident he himself described as ”getting carried away.” Alguersuari, the Catalan on home soil, was up to ninth and looking good.
By lap 5, based on their qualifying speed and clean start, you might have expected the Red Bulls to have scampered away. But Hamilton was having none of it, gamely hanging on and only having lost 2.5s to the leader Webber. But the gap was only ever going to get bigger, Webber issuing a statement of intent with a fastest lap on lap 9 of 1m27.559. By lap 11 that was down another tenth, and another by lap 14. Alonso, in fourth, was losing an average of two-tenths a lap to the front-running three.
In the midst of a wheel-to-wheel conflict between Buemi and Liuzzi, in which the Swiss took to the run-off at turn one, Schumacher and Massa were already pitting from sixth and seventh. They had uneventful stops, but it was not the same story for Nico Rosberg. He saw the mechanic on the front right wheel slap his hand to his brow in a symbol of disaster, and slammed the brakes on as he left his marks. The front right, having been loose, then caught fire. But he was dragged back and quickly was on his way, even if the chance of a competitive finish had almost been ruined.
Then it was the turn of the big guns to come in. Alonso was the first, his stop fluent and easy. Vettel was slow, taking over 24 seconds, and Button, next up, had more issues. The right rear wheel nut was a problem for some reason, and the Brit was delayed. Clutch drag, it was to become obvious later, was also a factor. He came out, disastrously, behind Michael Schumacher, their positions having been neatly reversed. He was to battle the German for the next ten laps or so.
Button was fast down the straight, mainly thanks to his F-duct, but Schumacher got excellent traction out of the last chicane and so had a better run down that straight. Button looked as though he would threaten the great man for a few tours, particularly on laps 24 and 25, but kept going round the outside, something that Schumacher could easily close off and go on to hang the Brit out to dry around turns two and three. Was Button short of daring or invention? It was difficult to imagine Hamilton being similarly recalcitrant. But according to Button after the race, it ”was almost impossible to pass. It was frustrating. I was trying everything to pass.” Martin Brundle did not agree. “Jenson should have been more aggressive,” was the commentator’s verdict.
Meanwhile, Hamilton had not had his team-mate’s bad luck in the pits and came out to dice with Sebastian Vettel down to the first corner. It was nail-bitingly close, and the presence of Lucas di Grassi in the Virgin did not help matters (although he did the best he could to make himself as inconspicuous as possible). Hamilton was through, forcing the German onto the run-off in a firm but fair way. He went off to consolidate his second place, albeit with little chance of challenging the dominant Webber.
Felipe Massa was being anonymous so far, having come into the weekend with rumours flying about his relative pace and his place within the Ferrari team. But he had managed to catch the Button/Schumacher battle. He rapidly went on to blot his copybook, though, on lap 24 with a slide into Karun Chandhok that was entirely his own fault. Despite the front wing part that flew off as a result, Massa turned out to be faster without it. “Half a second faster with a broken front wing- think we’ve found the solution,” said a wry Rob Smedley on Massa’s radio.
Further down the field Jaime Alguersuari was still looking as though he was benefiting from being on familiar ground. He made a great move on lap 23 round the outside of Nico Hulkenberg, the video of which Jenson Button might like to watch. But the Catalan was to upset a few fans later with an incident with Chandhok, which was again none of the Indian’s fault. Alguersuari promptly got a penalty, but it would not ultimately affect him too much.
At the front, it being lap 26, Webber was making hay. He was now 10.2 seconds in front of Hamilton, banging in the fastest laps once more. Then it was Vettel, Alonso, Schumacher, Button, Massa, an excellent if quiet Adrian Sutil, Kubica, Barrichello (who had done a superb job to come up from 18th), Alguersuari, Hulkenberg, Petrov, Kobayashi, Liuzzi, Rosberg, Buemi, Trulli, Glock and di Grassi.
The Hulkenberg/Petrov/Kobayashi battle, for 12th, was providing the most entertainment at the 30-lap mark. Kobayashi, despite having an F-duct, was suffering from a similar problem to Button in that he could not live with Petrov’s superb exit of the final chicane and his run down the pit straight. Hulkenberg soon pitted, leaving the two youngsters to fight it out, which they did in superbly entertaining style. Like Button before him, Kobayashi was unable to get past the guy in front.
Elsewhere little was happening. Rosberg pitted again from a lowly 16th, with frankly little to lose. His team’s guess was that fresh rubber would be an advantage, and there was a brief idea that the front runners might also face the conundrum of whether to stop again. It was a phantom scenario, though, because although Rosberg did threaten Hulkenberg for 15th, his pace was not earth-shattering.
By lap 40 Webber had got the fastest lap mark down to below 1m26s. He was now around 12 seconds clear of Hamilton, and it looked as though he could increase that margin at will. Hamilton certainly had accepted that Webber was uncatchable at this point, his lap times regular if unspectacular. All the drivers were holding station, although there was no particular sense of boredom on the part of the spectator. It certainly was not boring for Webber, who was on for the ‘hat-trick’ of pole, fastest lap and win.
On lap 48 Webber had got the margin up to 16 seconds from Hamilton, who in turn was a couple of seconds clear from Vettel who looked as though he had no intention of, or perhaps no capability to, challenge the Brit. Alonso was around four seconds behind them, with no answer either. A full twenty laps after the viewer first saw them, Kobayashi was still fighting Petrov but still inconsequentially, and it was the nadir of the race.
Then suddenly a Red Bull was in the gravel, and it was a wobbling Vettel. The right front looked as though it might fly off at any second, but the German managed to strong-arm it to the pits, which were mercifully close. After the change and the pit-stop Alonso had nicked poor Seb’s podium place, although Vettel, setting blazing sectors, seemingly had no intention of giving up. But give up he had to. The team got on to him, by lap 62 saying ”you need to slow down, this is critical.” They were principally worried about the front brakes, and it was a wonder to watch Vettel being so ginger into the braking zones. This raised the delicious possibility for Hamilton fans that Webber might have the same issue, the old reliability monster rearing its ugly head for the Red Bull team. There were no signs that the Australian had any difficulties, but in F1…
But any such hopes were dashed two laps from the end, with a front left deflation for Hamilton that saw him into the gravel trap round the outside of turn three and then into the tyre wall. It was game over for the hard-charging Englishman, Lady Misfortune having cold indifference to his status as the only man to challenge the Red Bulls on pure pace.
A Schadenfreude cheer went up from the Spanish fans at Hamilton’s demise, but also that their man had inherited another place, this time Hamilton’s hard-fought second. Webber by this time was sweeping over the line to take the utterly-deserved win, with the Spaniard second, and a very cautious Sebastian Vettel third. Fourth was Michael Schumacher, much-improved on previous offerings, and his best performance of the second career. Button was fifth with Massa sixth, Sutil seventh, Kubica eighth, Barrichello ninth, Alguersuari tenth with the final points. Petrov got 11th, with his shadow Kobayashi 12th, Rosberg 13th, Hamilton classed as 14th, Liuzzi 15th and Hulkenberg 16th. Jarno Trulli and both Virgins also finished.
“I’m absolutely rapt,” said the victorious Webber. “The first corner was very important. Then I settled into a rhythm…just making sure the tyres were in good nick, because we didn’t know if they would last until the stop. It’s a fantastic result and I’m thrilled,” he reported.
Alonso was grinning like a schoolboy who had just been let off. “When you gain two unexpected positions like that you feel great,” said the Asturian, who had acknowledged the fans’ role when he accepted his trophy. “Overall the weekend has been so-so…we need to improve, we know that, to be close to the Red Bulls especially in qualifying,” he added.
Vettel looked bemused as to how to feel about the result. “A lot of things went wrong today,” he mused. “I was not quick enough and struggled with the balance. Mark was in his own league…I felt the car was getting better but as soon as I got close to Lewis I lost the grip. I don’t know how to feel because third is not bad but I felt like I had a horrible race,” he ended lamely.
In all, it was not as dull an event as one might have expected from the look of the result. But it is one that will leave a lot of drivers and British fans unsatisfied, and grateful that Monaco is only a week away. Someone who will be happy, and especially so after beating Vettel in a straight fight, is Mark Webber. He is not out of this championship by a long shot, and when he is on his form, he is blisteringly quick. Just as he was today. It will be humbling for his rivals to think about how much he could have won by.