RENCKEN: Crashes aplenty in Valencia
For arguably the first time in 2012 tyre strategies had little or no impact on the outcome of a race. The final quarter of the European Grand Prix in Valencia, Spain, was a real nail-biter, with the make-up of the podium being decided, literally, at the line.
Mechanical breakdowns and accidents played their respective parts though, with three potential placers, namely Red Bull’s early run-away leader Sebastian Vettel and Lotus’ Romain Grosjean both succumbing to mechanical maladies not unrelated to their Renault engines.
McLaren’s championship leader (at the time) Lewis Hamilton was punted out on the penultimate lap by Williams’ Spanish GP winner Pastor Maldonado.
ENGINE WOES APLENTY
All this ensured that Fernando Alonso took an emotional victory before his adoring home crowd, his first on home soil in a Ferrari. Kimi Raikkonen, withstanding both stifling heat and incessant pressure to score, secured his second second place finish for Lotus since returning to the sport in 2012 after a two-year rallying hiatus.
Third went to a surprised Michael Schumacher, who crossed the line unaware he had scored his first podium since the 2006 Japanese Grand Prix, while fourth went to Mark Webber – making it four different teams and three different engines in the top four – and a Ferrari alumni podium.
However, these statistics relay but half the story, for Alonso started 11th, Kimi fifth, Schumacher in 12th and Webber in 19th – all of which beggars the question: “What on Earth?”
The answer is simple: The Safety Car deployed after two backmarkers pulled rookie stunts on each other at the midway point, just as most drivers were planning their second stops…
Until then Vettel had been so far ahead he was lonely. Vettel’s Red Bull was visibly quicker than the rest after controlling the pace from the start and building a 20-second lead over Grosjean, with Hamilton and Raikkonen falling about each other in their desperation to stay within sniffing distance, i.e. within ten seconds of the black/gold car.
A Red Bull said of the upgraded RB8: “This is no B-specification, we jumped from A to D since Canada.”
“Better ask what isn’t apart new from the engine and bare chassis. Underbody, exhaust, rear suspension, brakes, hubs, gearbox casing…”
Vettel cruised away up front, pulling away again when the silver SLS peeled into the pitlane after the track was cleared, and then it coasted in neutral.
By then Alonso had worked his way forward through a combination of stealth, superb strategy, tyre management and his trademark relentlessness.
Alonso would not have been up there had it not been for the Safety Car phase which concertinaed the field, and suspicions linger the interruption was contrived, for the debris on the tack could easily have been collected under yellows.
After all, what better way of closing the gap on a runaway leader than through use of the silver car, particularly given that F1’s global audience has recently grown accustomed to Grands Prix with constant changes of lead – and F1 currently faces competition from the UEFA football championship and ditto, soon, from the Olympics?
Certainly, the feeling amongst hardened hacks in the Media Centre was that it was all a bit too convenient – and even if an interruption was genuinely required to pick up the Caterham and Toro Rosso bits, it surely did not require six laps?
Suddenly the red car was in the lead, on its drivers’ home soil.
The crowd, which could afford F1’s crazy ticket prices despite a global depression which hit Spain harder than most, went absolutely mad. During qualifying Alonso suggested a points finish wasnot within reach after admitting “we are not fast enough, simple”.
Grosjean, meanwhile coasted to a halt, his Renault V8 cutting in sympathy with Vettel’s – Renault afterwards suspected alternator failure on both cars, while the talk in the paddock was that the parts had failed through a combination of slow running behind the Safety Car and the incredible 32C heat.
That did not, though, explain why the identical cars (in terms of engine) of Raikkonen and Webber went the distance under similar conditions, as did both Williams.
The outcome of the race led to the first double winner of the season in its eighth race (of 20), with Alonso retaking the title lead he lost in Canada and Webber moving up to second, 20 points adrift of Alonso (111).
The season’s previous leader Hamilton now has 88 points and must surely rue the impetuosity that led him to collide with Maldonado. The Williams’ rooki paid the price with a post-race 20 second penalty which dropped him two places from an eventual 10th place.
Fifth went to Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg, with Paul di Resta in the second Force India seventh.
McLaren’s Jenson Button and Sergio Perez were next up, with Maldonado recovering to take the final points place before being penalised and elevating Williams team mate Bruno Senna into the points.
In total, 19 of the 24 entries were classified as finishers.
As for tyre strategies, the first two started on Soft New, fitting the same again during their first stops and switching to Medium New (MN) under the Safety Car.
Schumacher and Webber went for MN, followed by Soft, Soft. Di Resta was the only top-tenner to make a single stop, which he rued afterwards.
Thus 40% of the season has now passed, with each race being more unpredictable than its predecessor – all well and good, but with DRS, tyre degradation and push-to-pass KERS buttons all artificially contrived to ‘spice the show’, one wonders whether Safety Cars are too easily deployed for the same reason.
Still, Spain is not complaining; nor are the tifosi…