It’s been four years since the European Grand Prix last graced the Formula One calendar. Lewis Hamilton plied his trade with McLaren, Fernando Alonso was the hero for Ferrari, Sebastian Vettel was reigning world champ in his Red Bull and Kimi Raikkonen drove for Lotus. Badger GP ponders over a brilliant 2012 European Grand Prix.
There was very little surprise when Sebastian Vettel stormed to his third pole of the season in his increasingly strong Red Bull. The reigning champion was four-tenths of a second faster than Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren, and just two-tenths separated Hamilton from sixth placed Nico Rosberg, highlighting how close the field were in the early stages of the 2012 season.
A strategy mix-up left Fernando Alonso trailing his title rivals in a lowly 11th place. The local hero’s mood was inevitably cold as he weighed up his chances on Sunday;
“The podium is out of reach and clearly, with Hamilton on the front row, it’s easy to expect that we will lose ground to him. Let’s hope that starting from the cleaner side of the track I can quickly make up a few places.”
If Alonso was annoyed, then Mark Webber must have been downright furious after a DRS issue left him languishing down in 19th. With the Valencia track being a place where overtaking is notoriously difficult, both men have their work cut out in Sunday’s race.
Vettel stormed away into a big lead from the grid ahead of Hamilton, while Romain Grosjean took advantage of some argy-bargy between Pastor Maldonado and Kimi Raikkonen to slot into third through Turn 1.
Further down the field Alonso leapt from 11th to 8th by the end of lap one. The biggest first lap loser was the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg, who fell from 6th to 11th and was only just ahead of teammate Michael Schumacher.
Alonso immediately set about chasing down on the Force India of Nico Hulkenberg. The young German had fallen behind Raikkonen by three seconds in as many laps. This was the order of the field until lap 10, when Grosjean decided he’d rather see Hamilton’s McLaren in his mirrors rather than on his horizon line. A beautifully timed move saw the Lotus move up to second place – however he was now fifteen seconds behind Vettel.
Hulkenberg was usurped by Alonso in a copycat of Grosjean’s brilliant overtake on the following lap. Ferrari were beginning to sniff some blood at the front of the field. Impressive too was the Sauber of Kamui Kobayashi who sat in third place, and was running at very similar pace to Grosjean in front of him.
The pit-stop sequence kicked off on lap 11, with Jenson Button’s McLaren peeling off for a new set of mediums, while Felipe Massa opted for softs just a lap later. Raikkonen and Alonso finally passed a struggling Maldonado. With the Lotus and Ferrari now in clear air, Kobayashi chose to pit immediately, but a slow stop hampered him badly. Raikkonen and Maldonado followed him in but both lost out to Alonso who stayed out for one extra lap.
The top five consisted of Vettel, Grosjean, Hamilton, Paul Di Resta and Rosberg; the latter two had not stopped yet. A gigantic train was forming behind them as Schumacher, Bruno Senna and Webber continued to struggle along on some very worn rubber.
Alonso quickly disposed of the trio in the space of a few corners. Raikkonen jumped ahead of Senna as Schumacher and Webber cried enough a lap later. This left Senna to defend from Kobayashi, Maldonado, Massa, Hülkenberg, Button and Sergio Pérez. Kobayashi immediately began to attack the Williams.
Unfortunately Senna didn’t realise that Kobayashi was drawing alongside his car and jinxed right in order to try and slipstream Raikkonen. The two cars touched, leaving Senna out of control, and Kobayashi missing most of his front wing.
At the front Vettel was still twenty seconds ahead of Grosjean, while Di Resta lost out to Alonso and Raikkonen, who in turn started to chase down Hamilton.
The race was turned on it’s head on lap 27, after Jean-Eric Vergne rather stupidly chopped into front of the Caterham of Heikki Kovalainen, leaving debris scattered all over the racing line. The stewards had no choice but to deploy the safety car.
The majority of the field swarmed into the pitlane for a free pit stop, but Lewis Hamilton probably wished he hadn’t bothered. McLaren suffered an unfortunate front-jack failure which saw Hamilton stationary for fifteen seconds rather than the usual three. This allowed both Alonso and Raikkonen to leapfrog him.
The running order prior to the safety car peeling back in was Vettel, Grosjean, Alonso, Daniel Ricciardo’s Toro Rosso (who had yet to stop), Raikkonen and Hamilton.
As soon as the race restarted on lap thirty-four Alonso picked off Grosjean in a wonderfully confident move around Turn 1. He may have claimed a podium was impossible less than twenty-four hours before, but it seemed a certainty now.
Kobayashi ruined his impressive drive by plowing into Massa’s Ferrari the lap before Vettel shocking began to slow to a halt. The Red Bull’s alternator had given up, leaving a frustrated Vettel throwing his gloves at the catch-fencing.
Alonso now led the race to the delight of the home crowd and seemed set for an impossible win. Grosjean then suffered a heartbreaking alternator failure on lap 41, exactly the same problem Vettel had earlier in the race, while in a strong second place. This left Hamilton taking the position behind Alonso, with Raikkonen chasing down the McLaren at a rapid rate of knots.
Hamilton’s tyres were absolutely shot by this stage of the race. Traction zones were proving to be a nightmare for the 2008 world champion and it didn’t take long for Raikkonen to punch by into second place. Maldonado also fancied his chances of grabbing his second career podium as he stormed up to the rear of a struggling Hamilton.
Hamilton was staunch in his defence from Maldonado. Some strong manoeuvres from the Brit visibly frustrated Maldonado on the penultimate lap, and led to the Venezuelan making a rather desperate move going into Turn 13. Hamilton aggressively forced the Williams off the track. As Maldonado re-joined the track he clipped the side of Hamilton’s car, sending the McLaren sliding into the wall and into retirement.
Severe front-wing damage left Maldonado with an uncontrollable car; he would go on to finish 10th on the road, but a 20-second time penalty dropped him to 12th after the race. The biggest beneficiary of the clash was Michael Schumacher.
A perfect call from Mercedes to make an extra tyre stop left Schumacher in sixth place with a lap and a half to go. The seven-time champion breezed by Hulkenberg’s Force India just before reaching the Hamilton/Maldonado incident and was dealt a lucky card when a much faster Webber couldn’t attack him thanks to the yellow flags for said incident.
It had been a long time coming for Schumacher, who was now into the third year of his big comeback, with only four fourth places to show for his efforts. As pleasing as the result was to Schumacher’s fans, it was still rather disheartening to see a driver as successful as Schumacher celebrating a third place like it was a championship win.
Raikkonen held onto a consolation second place for Lotus, just over six seconds adrift of an emotional Alonso. The radio transmission from the Ferrari on the slow down lap revealed Alonso to be in tears as he proudly picked up a Spanish flag from overjoyed track marshals.
The win left Alonso leading the championship by ten points from Webber. Vettel was the biggest loser having gone from potentially leading the title race, to languishing in fourth. Hamilton also lost out considerably after his crash, going from first to third in the championship in one lap. It was game on for the rest of 2012.