Sunday, 27 May 2012

Formula 1 - Spanish Grand Prix 2012

Circuit de Cataluña
Five things about the race:
> Without knowing the starting grid, you'd never guess who won.
> Pit strategy proved more important than DRS at the front.
> Lotus are still fast.
> McLaren struggled, with Jenson Button complaining of a lack of balance.
> Schumacher vs Senna not as enticing a battle as it sounds on this occasion.

The topsy-turvy nature of the 2012 Formula 1 season continued at round 5 of 20, the Spanish Grand Prix at the Cataluña Circuit in Montmeló, near Barcelona, where Venezuelan driver Pastor Maldonado managed to be second-fastest in Friday Practice... and then again in the final qualifying session, a session he never reached last year in his first ever F1 season. After Lewis Hamilton was disqualified from qualifying altogether because his last (and fastest) lap was done with too little fuel in it, Maldonado was then promoted to become the first ever Venezuelan pole-sitter in the sport. This after qualifying 21st and failing to finish at the previous race in Bahrain. Was it chance? Has the Williams FW34 come on leaps and bounds during the in-season test week at Mugello? Does the aero balance just happen to be best-suited to this track? It was something of a mystery. Less of a mystery was Fernando Alonso outperforming his car again to start 3rd on the grid at his home race (although it's a proven fact that being at your home race adds around 30bhp to your car), only to be bumped up to 2nd following Hamilton's demotion to last place before the race had even started.

It looked easy for the Spañard - when you can go from 4th to 1st at the start of the Spanish GP in a competitive car, surely overtaking a relative newbie who's considered a "pay driver" (rather than a "skilled driver") in a midfield team is as easy as getting your team mate to move over for you? Hmm...

The Grid:
1st - P Maldonado, 2nd - F Alonso, 3rd - R Grosjean, 4th - K Räikkönen, 5th - S Pérez, 6th - N Rosberg, 7th - S Vettel, 8th - M Schumacher, 9th - K Kobayashi, 10th - J Button, 11th - M Webber, 12th - P di Resta, 13th - N Hülkenberg, 14th - J-E Vergne, 15th - D Ricciardo, 16th - F Massa, 17th - B Senna, 18th - V Petrov, 19th - H Kovalainen, 20th - C Pic, 21st - T Glock, 22nd - P de la Rosa, 23rd - N Karthikeyan, 24th - L Hamilton (PEN).

As the five red lights went on, Pastor Maldonado controlled his nerves as Fernando Alonso finished absorbing energy from the home crowd and got ready to go, along with his 23 opponents of course. As the lights went off, the Ferrari quickly drew alongside the Williams, with both Lotuses pressing hard into the first corner as Alonso squeezed past Maldonado to take the lead of his home Grand Prix and make the crowd go wild at Turn 1 of the 66-lap race. Meanwhile, Sergio Pérez had made a great start from 5th to get in-between the Lotuses, only to have his left-rear tyre sliced open by Romain Grosjean's front wing and send him very wide at Turn 3 and right back to the grid, where Hamilton no longer was, having made it up to 19th by the end of Sector 1. Five places in three corners sounds good until you remember that four of them are Marussias or HRTs and the fifth is someone with a puncture. Nico Rosberg had been busy in the manic scramble for positions as well, getting from 6th to 4th as Grosjean and Pérez separated in Turn 3, and somehow Kamui Kobayashi had got himself ahead of Sebastian Vettel, only to be re-overtaken at Turn 5. As Jenson Button then overtook Kobayashi as well, the Japanese driver returned to 9th place, ahead of Jean-Eric Vergne. Michael Schumacher was 6th (behind Grosjean) by the time the field ploughed into Turn 10.

After Lap 1:
1st - F Alonso, 2nd - P Maldonado, 3rd - K Räikkönen, 4th - N Rosberg, 5th - R Grosjean, 6th - M Schumacher, 7th - S Vettel, 8th - J Button, 9th - K Kobayashi, 10th - J-E Vergne, 11th - F Massa, 12th - M Webber, 13th - P di Resta, 14th - N Hülkenberg, 15th - D Ricciardo, 16th - H Kovalainen, 17th - B Senna, 18th - V Petrov, 19th - T Glock, 20th - L Hamilton, 21st - C Pic, 22nd - P de la Rosa, 23rd - N Karthikeyan, 24th - S Pérez.

The following lap, Michael Schumacher tried to pass Romain Grosjean into Turn 1, to no avail (DRS isn't activated until the end of lap 2, and the DRS Zone is about two thirds of the long main straight). Lewis Hamilton, who had to get past Timo Glock a second time, started to battle Bruno Senna for 17th place. Ayrton's nephew against Ayrton's biggest fan. Lewis chased Bruno for a few corners before diving down the inside at Turn 7, a corner where there's only one line to take, and beating him to the apex, snatching the position off him. Unfortunately though, the race calmed down very quickly compared to the rest of the year's races. Red Bull Racing weren't terribly calm though - with their drivers in the middle of nowhere, they pitted Mark Webber for tyres as early as lap 7 and Sebastian Vettel a lap later, in order to get them in clear air (this makes the cars work better and go faster, and the places lost would be made up when everyone else pits later). Like Sergio Pérez when he finally got the limping car in for four working tyres, both RBR drivers went from Option to Prime tyres.

Lap 10 saw pit stops starting properly, with Nico Rosberg, Jenson Button and Paul di Resta all coming in for Prime tyres. Jenson came out behind Sebastian Vettel, meaning their effective positions were unchanged, as Lewis Hamilton passed Nico Hülkenberg and ended up in 8th place, having not pitted yet. Five more cars pitted the following lap, including Grosjean, Schumacher and Fernando Alonso, who was in and out of the pits in under 20 seconds, rejoining in 3rd place, while the other two exited the pits just ahead of Sebastian Vettel with Lotus ahead of Mercedes-AMG in 9th and 10th respectively. The front-runners pitting early meant that not only had Pastor Maldonado now inherited the lead for a time, but Heikki Kovalainen's Caterham was up in 6th place, followed by Bruno Senna's Williams (why have there been enormous gaps between team mates this year? It's probably about who can use the tyres best). Pastor and Kimi Räikkönen both pitted in on lap 11, dropping back one place each as Alonso surged past and gained a slight advantage over them both. Slightly disheartening for the Williams driver... but then his team mate was having a worse time of it. Not only did Nico Rosberg get past him with DRS on lap 12, with Romain Grosjean squeezing past at the same time and bumping into him (breaking off part of Grosjean's front wing end plate), but a lap later, he encountered Michael Schumacher.

The septuple world champion closed in down the main straight, but didn't make a move fast enough, so when Senna braked for the corner, Schumacher went piling into the back of him, taking them both out of the race (Senna rejoined momentarily, but the car was too damaged to make it even half way round the lap). After the race, Michael said that Bruno had moved around in the braking zone to defend, and so he couldn't avoid him - he even called Senna an idiot - but the replays showed very little movement from the Williams car, whereas Schumacher had plenty of time to move out and make a more obvious move if he'd wanted to. Thus, he's been slapped with a 5-place grid penalty at the next race in Monaco (the last place you want such a penalty). During the resultant yellow flag period, Sebastian Vettel and Felipe Massa were found guilty of not slowing down enough through the flagged area and were given drive-through penalties.

On lap 25 - with the Safety Car avoided - Pastor Maldonado pitted in for the second time, having shrunk the gap down to Fernando Alonso. In order to retake the lead, he had to utilise the extra grip of new tyres to the fullest in the short period between him exiting and Alonso entering the pits, and that's exactly what he did. The middle section of his outlap (lap 26) was 1.3 seconds faster than Alonso's was that lap, which made all the difference. Compounding Alonso's issues was a stricken Charles Pic, whose Marussia had a driveshaft problem, getting in his way at turn 1 the following lap, so once he pitted in, even Scuderia Ferrari's knack for lightning-fast pit stops couldn't stop Pastor Maldonado sailing past to take the lead by a good couple of seconds. The stewards slapped Pic with a penalty, but that became difficult to serve once his car stopped working completely and ground to a halt. If Alonso wanted to win his home Grand Prix now, he'd have to use his younger tyres to the fullest and hope Maldonado needed to pit again later.

Alonso set about wearing away at Maldonado's lead, getting it down to 4.1s by lap 41 of 66. With Alonso as determined as ever, perhaps more so at his home race, the last thing Pastor wanted was a botched pit stop. Sadly, no-one told the right-rear wheel man that. The delay didn't prove fatal to his chances though, as when Alonso pitted in three laps later, the Ferrari rejoined three seconds behind. The gap was smaller, but still big enough. However, things became a little more complicated, as Kimi Räikkönen had overtaken both of them to take the lead in his Lotus by not pitting. Could he make it all the way to the end and be a surprise victor?

No. Not only did Pastor and Fernando pass him on track, he had to pit again, but after his third stop, he would definitely make it to the end of the race, whereas a question mark hovered over the two cars in front of him, who his race engineer assures him would be making a fourth pit stop. If that happened, he would win without question. It was becoming a thinking game, this race. Depending on tyre endurance, any of the top three could win the Spanish Grand Prix. Alonso caught up to Maldonado and became able to DRS him into the first corner, making a move... that didn't stick. The next lap, Maldonado was able to use DRS to pull away from Alonso because he was a second behind backmarker Felipe Massa (and then Paul di Resta), so much like Kimi Räikkönen against Sebastian Vettel in Bahrain, Alonso had one chance, and couldn't make it happen. After that, his tyres started wearing away and Pastor soldiered on, in a team with the same budget as Force India, a car that could only qualify 21st the previous race, but on a track that clearly suited the Williams FW34 - and perhaps Pastor's driving style as well, seeing as his team mate was never inside the top 10 before being taken off by Schumacher - and so he became the fifth driver in five races to seize the chequered flag (by 3.1 seconds), as well as the first Venezuelan ever to win a Formula 1 Grand Prix. Williams ewre understandably delighted, having not won since the 2004 Brazilian Grand Prix. Alonso's worn-out Ferrari had to really defend second place at the end, as Kimi's Lotus was only half a second behind by the end. Romain Grosjean finished fourth, followed by Kamui Kobayashi, who started in 9th place.

But what of Lewis Hamilton? He was race-winningly fast in qualifying, but partly for running too light on fuel. He made up seven places in the first three laps, rising as high as fourth before pitting, but his aim of a two-stop strategy didn't pan out, and once again a chaotic left-rear wheel man (sack him!) delayed one of his pit stops, as he left the old wheel in the way of the one fitted on his McLaren MP4-27, meaning he ran over it and caused the car to jump up over it before setting off once and for all. Towards the end he was stuck behind Felipe Massa - you'll be happy to know they didn't crash into each other this time - before Massa was found not to slow down for yellow flags and given a drive-through penalty. After more overtaking moves of varying bravery, he got it up to 8th place when the flag dropped. An impressive comeback.

Sadly, the Williams celebrations were interrupted by a huge garage fire, caused by static electricity (possibly from a KERS) igniting a fuel container. They've recovered, replaced all the damaged equipment, and amazingly Bruno Senna's car - which was in the fire - only received minor damage and will be on the grid at Monaco. An amazing effort from all involved. The rest of the results and points are below. Now go watch the Monaco Grand Prix!

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