A three week hiatus which involved a sex scandal, rumors of a team jump and surprises at testing took up all the time of all the F1 fans this month. But what got the fans all fired up was free practice Friday and qualifying on Saturday. Funnily enough, the F1 calendar came to the first Spanish GP, with Valencia to follow soon. Catalunya earned the first European Race degree.
Raikkonen stole the pole position from home hero Alonso, to set the track on fire following the Spaniard was last years winner Massa, Ron Dennis’s blue eyed boy wonder Hamilton struggling at five followed by his teammate Kovalainen. With rumors that Hamilton was struggling only because now he did not have Alonso’s set up was laughable, but the Englishman did seem to struggle. The facts in these rumors remain unconfirmed. The relationship between Hamilton and his current teammate Kovalainen, who is outperforming the English man, is said to be under some strain too.
The 66 lap race of 307 kilometers kicked off with Raikkonen leading Massa from Alonso and Hamilton pulling up at fourth, jumping Kubica in the first corner. Nick Heidfeld made an excellent start but could not push beyond seventh. The excitement had just started as Force India’s Adrian Sutil tried an over ambitious overtaking maneuver, trying to take two positions, shunted Torro Rosso’s Sebastian Vettel. The mess got the safety car out. This helped the home hero- Alonso, his light fuel load now could be extended into running for a few more laps. Adrian Sutil’s teammate Fisichella, however, made good progress as he sped up to the fifteenth spot. While Fernando Alonso gave the Mclaren’s a run for their money, his teammate Nelson Piquet Jr., however continued his off color season. He out braked himself and slid back to eighteen as he took a detour in the gravel trap. Piquet, however, made news again as he pulled into the gravel and into retirement as he clobbered the back of four time Indy car champ Sebastian Borudais, sending the Frenchman to the pits and nose first into the pit garage.
The leader remained Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, the world champion, drove effortlessly as he kept putting in quick laps, followed by Massa as the Ferrari duo lead the pack in perfect formation with Raikkonen pulling away from Filipe Massa pulling ahead almost five seconds. Alonso was the first to rush into the pit, but what surprised the racing enthusiasts was to see the lap countdown. Alonso had pit when the first pit stop window opened, the Renault was back and looking competitive. The Spaniard was followed within three laps by race leader Kimi Raikkonen, Filipe Massa, Lewis Hamilton and Robert Kubica. Heike Kovalainen was leading the race for the first time in his career while BMW’s gamble had paid off as Heidfeld on a longer fueling strategy was pulling into third, looking good for a long stint; the German was pleased. But his elation was short lived, as Kovalainen had a wheel malfunction, the wheel rim gave way and the Finn lost complete control and hurtled at break neck speeds towards the tire wall. The bone jarring crash got not only the safety car but also the medical car out from the pits rushing to the rescue of the Finn. Kubica might have had a cold shiver; the Pole had a similar crash in the previous season and had narrowly escaped. Kovalainen however escaped unhurt and the race went on.
This incident worked to the advantage of a few and spoilt the race of a few; the person who profited most was Hamilton, closing in on Massa. Before the crash Massa and Raikkonen had pulled away from Hamilton who was coming under pressure from the BMW of Heidfeld and the rapidly approaching Kubica. The BMW looked very strong and had entered the fray with the silver devils. It however spoilt the race of one Nick Heidfeld, the German running on fumes was forced to pit while the pit lane was closed and suffered a massive ten second stop go penalty which ultimately dropped him back to tenth behind a resolute Fisichella who battled the German for no less than eight laps before Heidfeld could slingshot his way into the first corner, pushing the Force India back to tenth. Vijay Malaya will be excited looking at the car’s reliability and the race finishes his Italian number one is putting in and add to that finishing tenth ahead of a Toyota and a Red Bull.
Raikkonen shrugged the second safety car period off as he sped off when the Safety car entered the pit. Soon, the Renault reliability issues became prominent as the RS27 gave way and the Spaniard had to pull out of the race. The usually spoilt child smiled and waved as he meandered back to the pit lane. Fernando Alonso had reason to smile, his Renault was now looking as fast the Mclarens but a little off the pace from the BMW and trailing the Ferraris by at least a quarter of a second in the straight line.
The race however belonged to Kimi Raikkonen as he was in cruise control, having driven his F2008 without errors and thus saving his engine for the next race. The Ferrari team also pulled off another innovative aerodynamic solution by having ‘holes’ in the nose wing which pushed the air straight through the vents making the car faster.
Massa played the perfect second fiddle nursing a second race engine and a third race gear box; the Brazilian almost never came under any sort of pressure from third place Hamilton. Lewis Hamilton kept out of everyone’s race as he drove his Mclaren at a very lonely third position, occasionally coming under pressure from Kubica who too was nursing a two race old engine and needed the points to keep him in the hunt for the title race. Mark Webber in his Red Bull came in fifth, followed by Button in his Honda. Nakajima made a strong finish for Williams as he led Jarno Trulli past the flag wrapping up the last point scoring position.
The F1 circus now heading to Istanbul, a track which will favor BMW and Ferrari, Mclaren fans will be nursing their wounds, with Hamilton looking unimpressive they will be hoping Kovalainen makes a quick recovery to infuse some hope into the team.
Raikkonen once again asserted himself and converted his fifteenth pole position to his seventeenth Grand Prix victory. He incidentally also became the eighteenth driver to lead from pole to checkered flag.
This result puts Raikkonen safely on the top with Hamilton tucked in behind him but 9 points adrift. Ferrari reclaimed the top spot with BMW coming in second and Mclaren at third. Scuderia Ferrari will be looking forward to Turkey to continue to their dominance, but will BMW spring a surprise or will the resurrected Renault pull of an upset?
[Image courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/the_world_in_my_eyes/2332042531/]