5 Jul 2012 – Fernando Reigns in Spain
Sometimes the race falls to the swiftest.
Sebastian Vettel was the fastest driver of the 2012 Grand Prix of Europe weekend. He won the pole position by a staggering .33secs over Lewis Hamilton. Given the fact that P2 through P10 were covered by about .5secs, the gap between the pole and the second-fastest qualifying time is nothing short of astonishing.
He converted his pole position advantage at the start and led with imperious ease, leaving all his pursuers huffing and puffing in his Red Bull’s wake. Things looked very grim for anyone who were hoping for an unprecedented eighth different winner in eight Grands Prix.
Behind Vettel, Grosjean had a great start from his P4 grid spot, hassling and harrying Lewis Hamilton. After several laps of closely stalking the first of the McLarens, Grosjean put a brave move on the outside of the Turn 12 right-hander, which put him on the inside of the subsequent Turn 13 left-hand corner. Grosjean thus seized second place and set off after Vettel, easing away from Hamilton without much effort. Though he was around twenty seconds or so behind the leader, Grosjean was the only one setting comparable lap times to Vettel’s.
Other drivers were carving their way through the field. The most notable of these was Spain’s own Fernando Alonso. Alonso started from 11th on the grid, but he had a great opening stint, scything through the cars in front with sublime controlled aggression. By the time he took his first pit stop at the end of Lap 15, he had climbed up to fourth place. Post-pit stop, Alonso dropped to P9, though critically he just beat Kimi Raikkonen’s quick Lotus. The upshot was that, after all the important stops and a collision between Bruno Senna and Kamui Kobayashi on the run down to Turn 8 which resulted in nothing worse than a wrecked race for Senna and minor damage to both cars, Alonso found himself in a charging P4.
Moreover, he was inexorably catching up to Lewis Hamilton lap after lap.
Vettel, meanwhile, was not only faster than everybody else, he was also using less of his tires. He had the longest first stint among all the leading drivers – excluding those drivers who were evidently attempting to go through the race with just one tire stop – but he was still gradually stretching his lead over the impressively quick Grosjean. For all but Red Bull’s staff and their fanbase, Vettel’s resurgence to the status as the unchallenged king of Formula 1 must have felt like the beginning of the end of this season’s exciting unpredictability.
The two-time defending World Champion’s dominance notwithstanding, there was still plenty of action in the race. The battle between Jean-Éric Vergne Toro Rosso and the Caterham of Heikki Kovalainen ended in tire punctures for both cars – the left front for the green Caterham and the right rear for the dark blue Toro Rosso – and a retirement for Vergne. Vergne was attempting to pass Kovalainen into Turn 12 when he inexplicably veered right into Kovalainen’s car, which resulted in the contact that damaged both cars. The contretemps also caused the deployment of the Safety Car due to bits of Toro Rosso and Caterham littering the track, which obviously required the efforts of the brave marshals to clean up prior to the resumption of the racing.
The Safety Car period helped Grosjean immensely as it eliminated Vettel’s big lead. Although all the leaders took the ideal opportunity to change tires, Grosjean was the biggest beneficiary of the Safety Car period. The young Frenchman (who had made his Formula One debut on this circuit back in 2009 when he replaced the just-sacked Nelson Piquet Jr.) was now in the ideal position to challenge the Red Bull for the lead once the race restarted.
Meanwhile, McLaren had yet ANOTHER botched pit stop. Hamilton dropped down behind Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen due to a problematic front jack which lengthened his pit stop. The team’s other driver, Jenson Button, who had been suffering yet another miserable weekend away from the sharp end of the grid again, was also effectively punished by the Safety Car period due to the fact that he had pitted just before the Vergne-Kovalainen accident. The upshot was that Button lost time in the pits changing tires while most of the rest of the drivers he was racing were able to pit under the full-course yellow.
The race resumed on lap 34. Alonso pounced immediately, passing his old Renault teammate Grosjean with an audacious move around the outside of Turn 2. A few seconds later, Alonso’s current teammate Felipe Massa became a victim of a Kamui Kobayashi banzai maneuver. Massa was left with a puncture that dropped him down the order, while Kobayashi also limped back into the pits to retire with a broken steering system.
Lap 34 was also unlucky for the erstwhile leader Vettel. Going down the long back straight past the bridge, the leading Red Bull lost drive and was swallowed up by the charging field. Vettel’s car coasted for a couple more corners before the German abandoned his car, ripping his gloves off his hands in an obvious display of frustration.
With a championship battle that is so close and unpredictable, DNFs were potentially campaign killers. I am certain that the same thought occurred to Vettel, Red Bull technical director Adrian Newey, and Red Bull team principal Christian Horner.
Anyway, Fernando Alonso now found himself leading in Valencia, much to the vociferous delight of his fellow Spaniards. Romain Grosjean stayed in touch with the leading Ferrari with apparent ease. Meanwhile, Daniel Ricciardo’s Toro Rosso was in third, benefiting from keeping track position during the Safety Car period whilst nearly everybody else changed tires.
Hamilton dispatched Raikkonen not long after the restart, then the pair of them swept by Ricciardo easily. The sole remaining Toro Rosso took the hint and changed tires, which dropped him further down the order.
Grosjean shadowed Alonso, seemingly content to bide his time. On lap 40, however, Grosjean was slow through the bridge between Turns 8 and 9, then was overtaken easily by Hamilton and Raikkonen. His Renault engine suffered an alternator failure, which was the same exact problem suffered by Vettel when he had dropped out. Grosjean coasted a little bit down the curving back straight, then abandoned his Lotus, displaying no histrionics whatsoever. Perhaps he knew that he was in with a shot at victory. His weekend in Valencia, while fruitless in terms of championship points or any other statistic, was bountiful in that he enhanced his reputation immeasurably with his performance. Many felt that a win for Grosjean in the Lotus was imminent.
The race at the front, then, left Alonso in front of Hamilton and Raikkonen, then a big gap to everybody else. Only the Hamilton-Raikkonen pair had any chance of catching up to Alonso. However, Alonso was in inspired form in front of his home crowd. He stretched his lead over his immediate pursuers.
Hamilton had no realistic chance to catch Alonso with Raikkonen being his constant shadow, and inevitably his efforts to stay ahead of the more efficient Lotus wore his McLaren’s Pirellis faster than Raikkonen did with his tires. Raikkonen stalked Hamilton for lap after lap, until he finally overtook Lewis on lap 55 in a finely-judged maneuver. By this point, Pastor Maldonado had crawled his way up to P4, his Williams clearly with more performance left in its Pirellis than Hamilton’s McLaren did. On lap 56 (the penultimate lap of the race) Maldonado attacked, but Hamilton rebuffed him with some hard but fair defensive driving into the first few corners of the lap. Maldonado smelled blood, though, and attacked again at the end of the DRS zone entering Turn 12. Hamilton bravely braked just as late as Maldonado, keeping to the inside line going into Turn 12 and staying just in front of the Williams attacking down the outside. Hamilton therefore had the line and squeezed Maldonado off the circuit, a hard but still fair tactic, which should have obliged Maldonado to surrender Turn 13 to Hamilton. However, Maldonado did not cede anything and drove way inside the apex of Turn 13; his Williams clipped Hamilton’s McLaren, which pitched the chrome silver-and-red car into the outside wall and into instant retirement. Maldonado damaged his own Williams’ front wing in the collision, which meant that not only did he not take Hamilton’s P3 away, he didn’t finish in P4 either; he finished in twelfth place, out of the points, by virtue of the 20-second penalty he was assessed for his role in the accident with Hamilton. Such a huge waste, that accident was.
None of these things mattered to Fernando Alonso, though, as he took the checkered flag at the end of the 57th lap. Alonso therefore became the first repeat winner of the 2012 season.
Vettel and Grosjean – indeed, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Maldonado, and several others – were faster than Alonso throughout the weekend.
But sometimes the race doesn’t always falls to the swiftest.
Sometimes, indeed, the swiftest are also the first to fall out of the race.