Rencken: Pastor no big surprise
On Friday afternoon, after the second of the day’s two free practice sessions, Lotus’ coming man Romain Grosjean opined that the Spanish GP grid would be “mixed up”. He based this on the fact that Pirelli had brought its soft and hard compounds to the race but no medium option – with a gap between the two of 1.5sec/lap it was crucial that drivers ran all three qualifying segments on softs.
The problem: these tyres degraded rapidly after a single qualifying lap – particularly in Saturday’s 25C ambient temperature – so drivers had but a single shot per session if they were to retain sufficient stock of the quicker stuff for Sunday’s race.
Romain, who scored his first podium place in Bahrain, was totally on the money; even the Swiss/Frenchman could not have guessed how mixed up would be the starting order as factors other than tyre degradation came into play.
BREACH OF REGULATIONS
Still, the race upheld its 21-year tradition of delivering the winner from the front row of the grid. Eventual winner Pastor Maldonado (Williams) started from pole but the Williams driver, maligned in 2011 for buying the seat via a substantial slice of Venezuelan investment, was initially overshadowed by Lewis Hamilton.
Then, after the Briton failed to complete his deceleration lap after setting the fastest time, the stewards found his McLaren team had breached qualifying regulations that demand drivers make it back to the pits and be in a position to supply 1.3 litres of fuel from the tank for use as conformity sample.
It subsequently transpired that Hamilton’s fueller had plain erred, hitting the drain button and not “refuel” during the final top-up, leaving Lewis marginal. The result: disqualification from the session and relegation to the back of the grid. Scratch one potential winner.
Then Jenson Button, who set the fastest time during Friday’s second session, failed to get to grips with his rubber during the white-knuckle hour, dropping the second McLaren to 11th. Scratch two.
At Red Bull Racing things were not much better: Sebastian Vettel failed to optimise Q2 so could not push in Q3 without screwing a set of softs, while Mark Webber set his Q2 time, then relaxed without realising how rapidly the track evolved. Eighth and 12th were the result for the World champion and his team mate respectively. Scratch three and four.
MASSA NO LONGER 'PROTECTED'?
Across at Mercedes, Michael Schumacher was so marginal on tyres that he elected to miss his Q3 shot to be able to have free choice of compound; Nico Rosberg failed to sort his set-up, jeopardising his chances. Scratch five and six.
When Ferrari states it is disappointed with Felipe Massa it means something; to date the team has protected the Brazilian, part of the family since he started in F1 back in 2002. He got stuck in traffic on his fastest lap during Q2 but was unlikely to have made the Q3 cut. Scratch seven.
Thus, as the field lined up under 24C skies, the only opposition of any substance faced by Maldonado, who learned a bitter lesson when he tangled with Fernando Alonso on the last lap in Melbourne while contesting fifth, was the same Ferrari driver alongside after qualifying third but benefiting from Hamilton’s woes, and the Lotuses of Kimi Raikkonen and Grosjean behind them.
Straight after qualifying Alonso summed up the situation perfectly: “I don't know if this position [third] is a true reflection of our car's performance - it's definitely not normal for a Red Bull and a McLaren to be eliminated in Q2 and that the other Red Bull gets into Q3 with no sets of new soft tyre available.” That was even before the second McLaren was eliminated…
Thus all Pastor needed do was dispense with Alonso into Turn 1 then keep 23 cars behind him for 66 laps through better tyre management – easier said than done, yes, but not impossible as history at this circuit shows.
PASTOR IN CONTROL
Although Alonso pushed him, taking the lead until the first pit stops, then during subsequent reshuffles – as did Raikkonen on occasion – the story of Sunday was all about rubber conservation and, as the race went into its final 10%, it was clear Pastor was way better-placed than the Ferrari driver.
No surprise that, for where the Williams man ran to a soft used, hard new, hard new, hard new strategy, pitting on laps 11, 24 and 41, his main opponent went for SU, HU (10), HU (26), HU (44) after depleting his new hard stocks during the prelims. Come the closing stages it was Pastor in control as he stretched the gap to win by 3.3sec from the most relentless driver on the grid.
“I did my job during qualifying then after the first lap the pace was good and we concentrated on strategy by looking after our tyres because degradation was a big factor today,” the 27-year-old said.
His victory ranks among the most unexpected this century and gives Williams its first win in eight years – a superb birthday present for Sir Frank, who turned 70 in May 2012 and had a party thrown in his honour in the paddock on Saturday evening.
“Pastor’s qualifying performance was truly excellent,” he told Wheels24 [even before Hamilton’s relegation was announced] and post-race said simply: “We needed that…” before being wheeled, smiling, to the pit garage for a group photograph.
As the team assembled for said picture a spark ignited a refuelling rig, setting the garage alight, fortunately with no serious injuries. But, when you have directed a team to no less than nine Constructors’ and seven Drivers’ titles – mostly from a wheelchair – a blaze is unlikely to seriously faze you, particularly after such a remarkable victory from pole.
The Lotus twins went for a slightly different strategy, SU, SU, HN, HN, but even this proved insufficient to provide a decisive advantage, yet kept them comfortably ahead of Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi in fifth. The Japanese was followed by Vettel – who, like Webber, underwent a mysterious change of nosecone – with the Mercedes-powered trio of Rosberg, Hamilton (who drove like a demon to make up lost ground) and Button filling the next three places.
Nico Hulkenberg took 10th but Schumacher took himself (and Bruno Senna in the second Williams) out of contention with a shamateurish move under braking for which he got hit with a five-slot grid penalty for the next race in, of all places, Monaco.
Thus Maldonado became F1’s seventh winner in as many races in succession, with the first quarter of the 20-round season now done and dusted and two drivers (Vettel/Alonso) sharing the top points slot. It doesn’t get much better than that, does it?
But then perhaps it does... we could have the sixth winner this year in two weeks in Monaco…