Certainly, Fernando Alonso wasn’t sounding very inspired Saturday afternoon. Having qualified in 11th, the Ferrari driver confidently stated that a podium finish was out of the question. But good luck and even better driving saw him climb to the top step for his second victory this season, having been largely unchallenged in the last quarter of the European Grand Prix in Valencia, Spain.
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 Sunday 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 Red Bull Racing's Sebastian Vettel would be the one to take a regulation victory. His Red Bull car 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 Romain Grosjean, of Lotus, 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 had 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.
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, Toro Rosso's 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 Vettel went from feast to famine, Mark Webber recovered from 19th on the grid and dragged himself back into contention. Pitting after the safety car period put him back down to 13th, but with fresh tires and cars struggling ahead, he recovered brilliantly to fourth, behind Kimi Räikkönen in second and Michael Schumacher, who scored his first podium since the Chinese Grand Prix in 2006.
“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 Webber. “But in the end the prime didn’t have the range."
Nonetheless, the result lifts Webber into second in the championship – 20 adrift of 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.