European GP - Sunday - Race Report
A siesta rather than a fiesta
Before the start of the European GP on the new Valencia street circuit we had a quick straw poll in the Media Center. How many Safety Cars are there going to be?
"Seven," said one chirpy soul.
"Three," said another.
In the end, there were none - and the race was worse off for it.
In fact in the course of the whole weekend there was only one Formula 1 car that managed to hit a wall. Given that we expected an endless stream of incidents, this was probably the biggest surprise of the weekend.
Not only were the drivers well behaved, they also found it all but impossible to overtake one another. The track is wide enough and in theory there were places where such things could be done, but the cars in F1 these days are so closely matched that it is now working against the sport. If the performance gap between the cars is minimal, it looks great on the timesheets. But it also means that no-one has an advantage big enough to use. And a race becomes a big traffic jam. Victory and defeat are decided with pit stops.
As a spectacle the European GP was not one that will be remembered fondly, but F1 has found a good new venue. It will get better, but this was a good start. It will probably help if the local hero is not shunted out of the race on the first lap...
From the start Felipe Massa was the man in control. He had a little less fuel than Lewis Hamilton, but it was not much. The rest of the field were not able to compete. Kimi Raikkonen never looked like a threat and his race ended with the only incidents of note. On lap 43 he pitted for his second stop. The Finn tried to leave before the refuelling hose was detached and the team's refueller Pietro Timpini was knocked over. He suffered a fracture in his foot and some pain in his back.
"His first words were to say sorry," said Stefano Domenicli. "As though the incident was his fault: it is thanks to the passion, dedication and professionalism, that these guys show on a daily basis for Ferrari, that the team is so special."
Sadly, Raikkonen did not get much further. At the start of the 46th lap the Finn's engine blew - in a big way. It was the second major Ferrari engine failure in two races.
"It was definitely not the weekend I was hoping for," said Raikkonen. "I do not believe that, despite this negative result, I am now out of the running for the title. There are still six races to go and 60 points up for grabs. We have seen that the situation change really quickly, even if I realize things are now more complicated. I made a mistake and left before I should have done. Fortunately, Pietro is not too badly hurt. I wish him all the best and hope he gets better soon."
As Raikkonen trudged into the pits, Massa was reeling off the last few laps, worrying no doubt about whether his engine would make it, and remembering what happened in Hungary when he lost a similar lead with a similar problem.
During his second pit stop there had been a mini-drama when the team let him go and he almost went into the path of Adrian Sutil. In the end Massa had to back off and he lost some time but it is hard to see what else Sutil was supposed to do. The stewards decided that Ferrari was to blame and fined the team $10,000.
"I didn't do anything wrong," Massa said. "I just backed off. I expected him to back off because I was the leader, but in the end I backed off otherwise one of us crashes into the wall. I don't see any problem. I let him go and passed him afterwards. That was it!"
Massa win gives him 64 points, six behind Lewis Hamilton. Kimi Raikkonen is fading away with just 57 points, and if he is not careful he may even be overtaken by Robert Kubica, who has 55 points.
No-one ever saw Felipe as the man who would be Ferrari's challenger, but there is no doubt about it now.
"I was on top when we had the problem in Hungary," he said. "It is so frustrating when the victory in your hand suddenly disappears with three laps left and the race is almost finished. We came here and I was on the top again, so the mentality was the same and we were even more motivated after the problem. We came here to a new track and did a fantastic job. Choosing the right tyres was pretty difficult, especially in qualifying, but we did a perfect job on that and in making pole position and winning the race and taking the fastest lap. There was nothing more we can ask for."
For Lewis Hamilton it was not too bad a story, but once the race was ended he began to admit to problems that had been kept quiet. He had a nasty case of 'flu and then suffered from a painful neck spasm on Saturday which left him needing medication.
"It's been a pretty miserable weekend," he said.
The problem was so bad that McLaren test driver Pedro de la Rosa was hoping that he might get a chance to race, but Hamilton is not the type to give up. After the race he looked tired, but he had done what was necessary, kept his losses to a minimum.
His race was not very exciting once he had made sure that Robert Kubica did not jump him at the start. He managed that but could not do anything about Massa. He was just hanging on. Kubica dropped away quickly when a plastic bag got caught under the front of his car, but once that had gone he was able to stay ahead of Heikki Kovalainen in the second McLaren, and behind him Raikkonen never looked a threat.
Behind this gaggle of cars Jarno Trulli and Sebastian Vettel both did well but passing was impossible.
Trulli was happy.
"The weekend started badly for me but it has finished really well today so I'm happy. I pushed very hard when I needed to while paying attention to taking care of my tyres and my brakes throughout. This shows how good we are getting and how nice it is to race with a competitive car every weekend. Toyota is doing a very good job this year and looking strong and more competitive at every circuit."
Vettel was also joyous.
"It was a perfect day," he said. "It was fun but tough and hot out there. It's a nice race track. We made no mistakes, no mistakes all weekend and maximised our performance. The whole team can be very proud of what it has achieved and hopefully, for the next races we can be in the top 10 again."
The final points went to Toyota's other driver Timo Glock and to Williams-Toyota's Nico Rosberg. Glock went into the race with a huge fuel load, going for a one-stop strategy, hoping to be able to take advantage of any Safety Cars that might appear. It was not such a good strategy without them, but he was still able to make up some places at the start and then held station and was able to go home with some points, which was good after such a poor qualifying.
Rosberg, too, was happy not to have done something silly (which is more than can be said for Kazuki Nakajima. It also gave him a point and that helped Williams and Rosberg as well.
"It's been a long time since it happened," he said.
Nakajima hit Alonso at the start, saying he could not avoid him. That meant another new nose. He then did what he could but 15th was all that was left for him.
Heidfeld went home with nothing in his BMW. He reckoned that it was one of the worst races he had ever had.
"To finish ninth in a car which is obviously good enough for third is a disaster," he admitted. "I had big problems with the harder tyres during the first two stints, and it was only better at the end with the softer compound. I lost one position after the start and later in the race I couldn't gain any."
End of story.
Bourdais might have been a contender for points but he had an incident with Heidfeld early on and damaged his front wing.
"It was a real shame," he said. "I had to do 17 laps like that, losing around 20 seconds to the group I was in. The next two stints were good and I had a good pace."
But no points.
Renault's day was even worse than that. Alonso was shunted from behind by Nakajima on the first lap and Nelson Piquet's 11th place - with a one-stop strategy - achieved little.
"My mechanics did everything to try and allow me to continue," Alonso said, "but my race was already compromised. I am extremely disappointed."
Piquet too had a damaged wing after the first lap and could do nothing.
The Red Bulls were nowhere and all hopes of Safety Cars were lost. David Coulthard had a brush with another car on the first lap and lost places and was able to challenge the Force Indias but then he collided with Sutil. This damaged his aerodynamics and he spent the rest of the day at the back.
Things were miserable too at Honda where Barrichello started from the pit lane because of a gear ratio change. Neither driver was able to do much after that.
"We made things difficult for ourselves by qualifying so far back on the grid," said Button. "I was heavily fuelled compared to most others and running long on a one-stop strategy, but I was stuck behind Heidfeld when he had already pitted which cost me some time as I didn't have the pace to overtake him.
Force India managed to get Giancarlo Fisichella home and the team seemed happy with the new seamless gearbox. Sutil's race was rather more exciting. He started from the pit lane after suspension set-up changes. In the end he hit a wall.