Twice in two days a sportsman named Alonso has brought Spain to its feet in celebration. Fernando was definitely watching his namesake last night. Maybe it inspired him to do great things today.
Certainly he wasn’t sounding very inspired yesterday afternoon: having qualified in 11th, the Ferrari driver confidently stated last night that a podium finish was out of the question. But good luck (for him) and even better driving saw him mount the top step, having been largely unchallenged in the last quarter of the race.
Valencia hasn’t provided a very much in the way of thrills and spills since it appeared on the calendar in 2008 – well, it made up for that today with a race that seemed like a throwback to an earlier time. There were mechanical failures, collisions, punctures and a safety car. It was more like a European Grand Prix from the golden age than any of the modern iterations.
It didn’t start out that way. In the early exchanges it looked like Sebastian Vettel would be the one to take a regulation victory. His Red Bull got off well from pole position and streaked away from the field. For 28 laps he forged remorselessly ahead, building a 20-seconds gap to second placed Romain Grosjean and taking a first pitstop under no pressure. He, rather than Alonso, was odds-on to be 2012’s first double-winner.
Then came a safety car. Heikki Kovalainen and Jean-Eric Vergne’s Toro Rosso tangled, both picked up punctures and were limping around the circuit. The debris they left on the track was dangerous, the safety car came out, and Vettel’s lead was gone in an instant.
Battling over 17th position, Kovalainen’s Caterham and Vergne collided, with both cars sustaining damage and punctures. Kovalainen, not unkindly, later said Vergne had made “a rookie mistake.” Vergne demurred: “I felt I was ahead and as I started to turn into the corner, we collided and his front wing clipped my rear wheel. There was too much damage to the floor and it was impossible to change the damaged rear wheel so there was no way for me to continue. I think it was just a racing incident.”
Sadly for Jean-Eric, the stewards disagreed, fining him an eye-watering €25,000 and giving him a 10-place grid penalty for Silverstone.
As they hobbled around the circuit the leaders streamed in to the pits. Lewis Hamilton, from third, had yet another poor stop, and emerged down in sixth. The top five at the restart were Vettel, leading Grosjean, Alonso, Daniel Ricciardo and Kimi Räikkönen. Ricciardo’s position was slightly false as he had another stop to make; the rest were clearly going to run to the end.
Vettel got away well from the restart but Alonso, to the great delight of the crowd, passed Grosjean for P2. That turned into P1 shortly afterwards as Vettel slowed to a halt, his car cutting out with a broken alternator. Grosjean made a spirited attempt to get on terms with Alonso, but the Ferrari wasn’t seriously tested. Then, as Vettel stalked back to the pits under his own little thundercloud, Grosjean joined him on the retired list. He also had an alternator failure. Alonso was free and clear.
“The engine stalled, the engine just switched off. There was nothing we could have done,” said Vettel. “I think the safety car was not ideal for us: it might be that the retirement, in some regard, is also due to being under the safety car. It’s shit, but you can’t change it now.”
Alonso’s emotions were trending in the other direction. “It’s an amazing feeling,” he said. “When you find yourself third in the race after the safety car, I said: ‘hopefully there is the chequered flag now and I enjoy this podium celebration.’ Two laps later I overtake Grosjean on the restart and you think again ‘hopefully the race finishes now’. Then Vettel stopped and it was a very long race until the end and, yeah, I enjoyed so much this moment.”
While Alonso ran untroubled to the flag, behind him the racing was furious. Hamilton passed Räikkönen to regain second position but the Finn wasn’t giving it up. Instead of chasing down Alonso, the McLaren driver had to fend off the Lotus. Having all made their final stops very early in the race, tyres were deteriorating rapidly, which presented more opportunities for overtaking. Räikkönen hounded Hamilton and retook second with two laps remaining.
“When I was in the third place, I thought I would try to save the tyres a bit and try to get Hamilton at some point,” said Räikkönen. “I saw him sliding a bit. So I think it was the second-last lap or something but I got him in the end. And for the team, bad luck. It would have been much nicer to have both cars on the podium.”
Immediately after ceding second to Räikkönen, Hamilton came under attack from the charging Williams of Pastor Maldonado. Maldonado attempted a pass in the DRS zone but got it wrong, spearing into the side of the McLaren and losing his front wing. Hamilton came off worse, however, his race over in the barriers. Maldonado later laid the blame squarely on his McLaren rival, arguing that Lewis hadn’t given him enough room. As arguments go it looks pretty thin: the Stewards certainly thought so and gave Maldonado a drive-through penalty. That late in the race it translated into 20-seconds added to his race time.
That promoted Michael Schumacher into third place for his first podium since the Chinese Grand Prix of 2006 – though the Mercedes driver admitted he was unaware of this until after the chequered flag. “Certainly I wasn’t aware I was going in the direction of a podium,” said the seven-times World Champion. “Even crossing the line I wasn’t aware at that stage. But, being pretty heavily involved for most of the race in some kind of battling and then having Webber on my tail and needing to fight forward but needing to pay attention to the back, that was very exciting. But that’s what I’m here for: to be excited and those guys got me excited, no doubt. And hearing finally the message ‘P3’ – yeah, that’s a sweet finish.”
As Schumacher says, behind him was Mark Webber. From 19th on the grid Webber had dragged himself back into contention but pitting after the safety car period put him down to 13th. With fresh tyres and cars struggling ahead, he recovered brilliantly to fourth. “We tried to make a different strategy work at the start but after the safety car I thought there were a lot of people getting home on the prime and that that wouldn’t be great for me,” said Mark. “But in the end the prime didn’t have the range. For once it was nice to give Perez and all those guys a taste of their own medicine.”
Fifth was Nico Hulkenberg for his best ever finish. Sixth was Nico Rosberg, now the only driver to have scored points in every grand prix on this circuit. Paul Di Resta ran a lonely one-stop race for seventh, Jenson Button had another day to forget in eighth. Sergio Pérez was ninth for Sauber and the limping Maldonado grabbed the final point.
Ricciardo’s Toro Rosso had been squabbling for tenth with the Caterham of Vitaly Petrov, but a collision at the end of the DRS zone nine laps from home pushed them both down the order.”I went to get around him and he defended by going a bit wide,” explained Daniel. “So I tried to switch back and I feel I gave him some racing room, but we still made contact because perhaps his move was a bit too aggressive. That cost me a chance to get into the points.”
The result lifts Mark Webber into second position in the Championship – but on 91 points he is 20 adrift of leader Fernando Alonso. Also, thanks to Webber’s fine drive, Red Bull extended their lead in the Constructors’ Championship – though jubilation was not the mood in the garage following a rollercoaster grand prix.
Alonso, however, hailed this as perhaps the best of his 29 grands prix victories. “I’m feeling very proud to be a Spanish sportsman at the moment, and winning in Spain is probably the best victory I ever felt in terms of emotions. Nothing maybe compares to this one.”
The odds on Fernando Alonso winning the World Championship aren’t quite as short as those on Spain lifting the European Championship – but they’re a good deal shorter than they were when this F1 season started.
- Get the official Vettel and Webber team kit from the Bull Shop
- Visit the official Formula 1 website
- Search for Formula 1 videos on YouTube
- Visit Red Bull Racing