MAY 30, 2005
EUROPEAN GP - SUNDAY - RACE REPORT
Unlucky Mercedes star
Kimi Raikkonen did everything he could do to win the European Grand Prix but at the first corner on the last lap of the race it all went wrong. He had driven a wonderful race, taking the lead at the start and being able to stay well ahead of Nick Heidfeld, despite the fact that the BMW Williams driver was racing with a much lighter fuel load. The two men were left almost to themselves at this part of the race after a first corner shunt took care of some of their challengers. Raikkonen and Heidfeld were thus able to concentrate on one another while David Coulthard did as best as he could in third place, admittedly being 15 secs down by the end of the first nine laps.
Heidfeld confirmed what we all suspected on lap 12 by rushing into the pits for the first of what was obviously going to be three stops. That left Kimi with a 20 secs advantage. He would not pit for another six laps and that allowed David Coulthard to lead for Red Bull for two glorious laps before he too had to pit and thus the lead passed to Fernando Alonso for three laps before he ran out of gas and had to head for the pits. And that meant that Raikkonen was back in front with a four second advantage over Heidfeld. He was soon closing in but we knew that it would not be long before Heidfeld would again disappear into the pits. As Heidfeld closed in we saw a chink in Raikkonen's armour as he bounced off the road on the run down the hill and Heidfeld was suddenly in the lead. It did not last long. Almost immediately he went into the pits, leaving Raikkonen again, now 15secs clear of Alonso. Kimi then had a moment as he tried to lap Villeneuve but at the time it did not cost him much time and did not seem to have caused any problems. The gap remained much as before until he stopped on lap 43, allowing Alonso to go back into the lead for a few laps before he disappeared to the pits again for his second stop. And so we had Heidfeld back again trying to find a way to get an advantage before he had to go back to the pits for the last time. On lap 50 Nick disappeared and we were left with Raikkonen with a lead of seven seconds over Aloso and just a few laps to run. Alonso was charging as hard as he dared and closing in and it was clear that Kimi was having some problems with the tyres. The lead came down and as they crossed the line to start the last lap Fernando was just a second behind. There was no way that Fernando was going to overturn that.
But as Kimi braked for the first corner, the top-link of his right front suspension gave way and the wheel was torn from the car in dramatic fashion. These things always look like small bombs going off. The car rotated down the road spewing parts, although the wheel stayed on thanks to the wheel tethers. The car narrowly missed the BAR-Honda of Jenson Button. Who knows what would have happened if contact had been made?
The team had taken a risk and gone for victory. There were no official regrets.
But it was a costly failure.
Alonso could hardly believe his good fortune. His Renault had been hit at the start in a crash which had resulted from a collision between Mark Webber and Juan Pablo Montoya. Ralf Schumacher had run into the rear of the Renaults and cars were suddenly going everywhere. Ralf and Takuma Sato would go to the pits. Webber retired.
Those early seconds of the race had been important and there had been plenty of tension in the build up. Webber was believed to have a full fuel tank, but we all knew that he must get to the first corner in a position to challenge (or at least chase) Raikkonen if he was to have any chance. The danger was that the Williams would be swallowed up by the pack as it has been on several occasions.
There was an aborted start to begin with, to keep the tension high and poor Giancarlo Fisichella was sent off to the pitlane and the field went off on a second parade lap. Finally all systems were go and the start lights went out.
Webber got away well and protected himself from Trulli but then had to watch for a fast-starting Montoya on the outside. This was the critical moment and Webber left his braking as late as late could be at the first corner. Ahead of them Raikkonen had left Heidfeld for dust and was in the lead. Perhaps he did hit the brake pedal a fraction of an instant too late but at that very moment Montoya came charging across in front of the Williams, apparently thinking that Webber would simply disappear without trace. It was not a smart move and Montoya must take at least some of the blame for the shunt. Webber, to his credit, admitted that he had got it wrong.
"Getting away hasn't been our strength," he said, "but that's no excuse to hit Juan Pablo. It's not up to Juan Pablo to give me room at that point. I got a bit locked up. It would have been OK if it was sidepod to sidepod, but wheel to wheel was too much."
If anything Webber was a little hard on himself. The incident knocked him out and relegated Montoya to 13th.
The man who made the most of all of this was David Coulthard in his Red Bull. He started from 12th on the grid and was fourth at the end of the first lap. Trulli was third but some last-minute fiddling by the Toyota men on the grid meant that Jarno would soon be sent into the pits for a drive-through penalty and so disappeared off down the order.
For Alonso the bump at the start was a source of worry.
"I thought my car might have been damaged," he said. "After a few corners it was clear that everything was OK, and then it was a case of pushing hard. Our strategy was definitely perfect. I was quite happy to settle for second before the last pit stop, then the team said that Raikkonen had a problem and that I should push. That was when I went off because I was just trying 100% and made a mistake.
While Renault celebrated an extraordinary victory, McLaren could only lick its wounds and hope that Fate will be kinder in Canada and Indianapolis.
Williams were happy enough to have ended up second and this was significant because the sudden upturn in Williams fortunes is going to make it very difficult for BMW Motorsport boss Mario Theissen to paint the team as the bad guys when he goes to the BMW board and tries to convince them to buy Sauber and put him in charge of the team.
Barrichello ended up third which was really more than Ferrari deserved given the performance of the car. The team tried to make things sound better than they were but it did not really work. Rubens was lucky and Michael Schumacher was lacklustre. Bafflingly so.
David Coulthard on the other hand did a good job and his reward was fourth place although he was kicking himself by the end because he might have had a podium if he had not been nabbed for speeding in the pitlane.
"I made a mistake trying to get out in front of the Minardi in the pit lane," he said. "I came off the speed limiter fractionally early and picked up a penalty, which cost us a podium. But we've got to be satisfied with what we've done here today and I'm happy with the result."
Further back, Jenson Button was not having a good day, finishing 10th and fighting his car all afternoon.
The race was not a classic but was saved by the last minute drama.