There seem to have been quite a few complaints over how dull the European Grand Prix has become ever since its move from Nuerburgring to Valencia. The street circuit, while a visual treat with its view of the harbour and the sprawling city, with a section on a suspension bridge, has not in the past provided much in terms of racing action. The first whiff of positive change came via Saturday’s qualifying session: about three-tenths of a second separated the topper of Q2, Romain Grosjean, from no. 11 Fernando Alonso. The elimination of both the Ferrari drivers as well as Michael Schumacher in Q2 was quite surprising; Mark Webber didn’t even make it past Q1 owing to DRS problems with his Red Bull.
Going by history, there wasn’t much reason to expect a great deal out of the race- but how wrong most of us were proved! Kamui Kobayashi and Bruno Senna provided some action with a collision for which the Brazilian was given a drive-through penalty by the stewards- which, to me, seemed rather unfair. Narain Karthikeyan received a drive-through penalty for speeding in the pit-lane (!); Jean-Eric Vergne was involved in an avoidable incident with Heikki Kovalainen, spraying debris across the track and causing a safety-car period. The McLaren team bungled up yet another Lewis Hamilton pit-stop, this time struggling with the front wheel jack. Reliability issues haunted pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel, forcing him out of the race from the lead, along with Grosjean, who could have challenged eventual winner Alonso for the victory from his strong second place. Kobayashi had yet another run-in, this time with Felipe Massa, who had dropped considerably after showing some promise earlier in the weekend. Hamilton, already punished by a slow pit-stop and with a scare in the shape of potential yellow-flag infringement (of which allegation he was later cleared), finally found himself shunted out of the race as Williams’ Pastor Maldonado attempted to overtake him; Maldonado had 20 seconds added to his time after the stewards investigated the incident and found himself outside the points as a result.
The incidents played into Alonso’s hands, and he found himself taking the chequered flag without really being challenged in the closing laps. Kimi Raikkonen gave Lotus something to cheer about with his second place, but the real surprise came in the shape of Michael Schumacher finishing third for Mercedes. After a season marked by several retirements, Michael has finally managed to get on the podium for the first time since his comeback- may this be the first of many! Webber complained that Schumacher had used the DRS under yellow flags: however, as the stewards found that the German had slowed down considerably, he was not docked of his podium place.
The European GP is sure to have provided statisticians with plenty of fodder. Schumacher, at 43, became the oldest driver to stand on the podium since Sir Jack Brabham at the 1970 British GP. All the three drivers on the podium were winners of Drivers’ Championships with Ferrari. This was the first race of the season to see a repeat winner, the preceding seven races having been won by seven different drivers. Alonso has now pulled a twenty-point lead over second-placed Webber; if the Ferrari team can give him a better car and permanently sort out the issues they have faced with its Pirellis, they should be able to prove their detractors wrong, particularly as the championship is wide open at this stage. Massa has serious introspection to do- he hasn’t had much luck this season, rather reminiscent of Rubens Barrichello’s Ferrari days, and it would be a pity to see him leave on a low after he almost won the 2008 Drivers’ Championship, losing to Hamilton by an agonising point.
Valencia has set high standards for the British GP coming up in two weeks. With England’s propensity for rain, surely an exciting wet race shouldn’t be too much to ask for?
PS. The gods were surely conspiring in some way- how else would you explain Spain and Italy’s quarterfinal victories on Saturday and Sunday respectively in the Euro 2012 Championships?