Alonso sails through a perfect storm
Sky Sports F1's Martin Brundle reviews a breathtaking European GP, a world-class drive from Fernando Alonso, controversial rulings from the stewards, and an ominous return to their 2011 pace from Red Bull...
Last Updated: 27/06/12 9:56am
The European GP in Valencia was a hundred and four minutes of pure action and pleasure. For some drivers it was a case of leaving Valencia with a pleasantly surprising result and decent points. For many others it was about a wasted opportunity.
The perennial predator who made the most of his skill, the rub of the green, and the misfortune and slow pit-stops of others was, of course, Fernando Alonso. It was his 20th consecutive finish in the points and surely one of the finest victories of his impressive career. From 11th on the grid, his overtaking moves were breathtaking in their execution and at a high level of risk too. He was very lucky not to be spun out while going round the outside Romain Grosjean for example, but as the alternators failed on Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull and Grosjean's Lotus, along with the front jack at Lewis Hamilton's pit-stop, Alonso's bravery and skill paid massive dividends.
Having failed to make the top ten shootout in qualifying, he also had two new sets of soft and one new set of medium compound tyres available for the race which the team made fine use of with a pro-active strategy. You largely make your own luck in this business and that is why Alonso now leads the championship by 20 points.
We had the perfect storm: The combination of 45 degree track temperature and the medium and soft Pirelli compounds on a challenging track layout with many high speed arrivals into slow corners generating mixed strategies along with much gambling on tyre degradation. Add to this a DRS rear-wing zone extended by 100 metres which worked perfectly in generating overtaking opportunities whilst forcing drivers to finish the job for themselves.
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We barely saw him on TV but Vettel was peerlessly out front in a style ominously reminiscent of his 2011 domination. The safety car deployed for debris on the track at various points was the beginning of the end for the reigning Champion. His race and potential Championship lead evaporated and then the engine gremlins struck. It was game over as Vettel furiously threw his gloves away.
To suggest the safety car was a tactical deployment to spice up the racing is nonsense. We saw as they pushed Vettel's and other cars away at various times just how difficult it is for the marshals to clear the track at that circuit between the walls and with limited internal service access.
When we talk about safety in motor sport it's primarily for the spectators, track workers and pit crew as well as the drivers. Shards and lumps of carbon on the racing line cannot be ignored.
What did work very well was the decision on this occasion to let the lapped cars pass the safety car before restarting so we had those running in race order nose to tail, and it only cost another lap at safety car pace.
This immediately cued that opportunist move by Alonso on Grosjean. He really did demand, seize and steal this race from the others, as if he wanted it even more badly than anybody else.
There has been much debate post-race about the penalties handed out. Let me start by reminding everyone that the stewards have infinitely more TV angles and data available than we do, along with interview accounts from drivers involved and other observers. I know two of the stewards well, Garry Connelly and Mika Salo, and I have a high regard for them.
I thought Senna was unlucky to get the drive-through for the contact with Kobayashi but they obviously decided he should have seen the Sauber approaching immediately after Raikkonen passed. I thought Kobayashi was pushing his luck into a space guaranteed to close.
Jean-Eric Vergne was rightly penalised for his intimidatory move on Kovalainen. This is an all too common racing tactic of being virtually past someone and then driving towards them to intimidate them and hoping to force them to lift off or even brake. I had some clown do this to me at night in Le Mans at 190mph 10 days ago and so I returned the compliment to give him a taste of his own medicine. He immediately took a sensible pill. It's a nasty and dangerous habit which needs stamping out and to be fair JEV put his hand up afterwards, as well as in his pocket to pay a huge fine.
I thought Raikkonen overtook under waved yellows but apparently he was in front of his opponent before reaching the flag post. Hamilton was under investigation for doing a 'green sector', meaning it was his personally fastest in the race at that point, while yellow flags were out. McLaren swiftly provided some data to the stewards during the race to prove he did lift off at the flags but just happened to be quicker everywhere else in that sector. This is all so subjective, and what does slowing down actually mean? If you are a hundredth of a second slower the computer says 'ok'. If you do the respectable thing and lift off for safety your closest opponents will leave or catch you.
It was all to no avail because Hamilton would end up in the wall. In the closing stages he had lost his rears, he described them as feeling like two flat tyres. Should he have simply yielded to Maldonado? Of course not, every point counts and you never know what might happen to your opponent before the chequered flag.
Did he squeeze Maldonado off the track? No, he left the mandatory car's width in the braking zone and then if your opponent tries to go around the outside of a tight corner he's likely to run out of space, that's perfectly normal. Should Lewis have left more space for Maldonado? Absolutely yes, especially for him given their history together, but the layout of the track there means he couldn't run very far off line as a tight left-hander followed immediately. But the bottom line is that Maldonado speared at a sharp angle into the side of Hamilton's car having just recovered from fully off the race track. The throttle pedal works both ways, and this was a particularly stupid accident anyway because he was guaranteed to pass the McLaren any time soon. Apparently Williams had implored him on the radio not to take risks, and he is very lucky not to be carrying a heavy grid penalty to Silverstone.
Many team personnel I spoke to were unhappy that Michael Schumacher got away with opening his DRS rear wing generating higher speeds in a yellow flag zone. As far as many are concerned that's an open and shut case resulting in a penalty - as Red Bull found out earlier in the season.
It would have spoiled a great podium though. To see Schumacher up there with Alonso and Raikkonen representing 10 World Championships, a truly world-class home victory, and two comeback kings, perfectly summed up the madness of the day.
Special mentions to Mark Webber's run from 19th to 4th, two Force Indias well into the points, the fine pace of Caterham until they both got embroiled in tangles, and Mercedes pulling two results out of the bag from dismal mid-race positions.
Commiserations to Lotus and especially Grosjean, who saw yet another potential victory slip away.
The real story of the day may just have been lost in the drama though. Vettel and Red Bull were in a class of one on pace.