Spanish GP - Sunday - Race Report
A pay driver no more!
BY TONY DODGINS
Given the unpredictability we have seen thus far in 2012, a fifth different winner in the Spanish GP should have been no surprise. It's just that nobody quite expected it to be Pastor Maldonado in a Williams!
The FW34 has looked a decent, competent car so far, but prior to Barcelona its race pace was superior to its qualifying speed.
So had they found the magic bullet at the recent Mugello test?
Chief operating officer Mark Gillan was cagey.
"We brought a number of bits here and let's say that the majority found their way onto the car," he said after qualifying. "Come Friday P1, between Valtteri (Bottas, the team's third driver) and Pastor, we did a lot of aero testing, then analysis on Friday night. We concentrated not just on race pace but also the qualifying side."
In P3 on Saturday morning Maldonado was second only to Sebastian Vettel. He stepped out of the car and told them not to touch it. When he went on to qualify second and assume pole when Lewis Hamilton was penalised for a fuel transgression, Williams' rivals were left hoping that the one-lap improvement had come at the expense of race pace -- through DRS revisions, for example.
It wasn't the case. "That's part of it," Gillan added, "but I think it's a small part. Our gain is irrespective of DRS, it's general lap time and a stable platform."
Qualifying was one thing but there were plenty predicting that the pressure would get to Maldonado. The pressure of leading the pack around on the formation lap; of lining up on pole in front of packed grandstands all baying for Fernando Alonsi in the Ferrari; the pressure of tyre management and 66 laps.
But Maldonado didn't put a wheel wrong. He was aggressive when Alonso thrust the Ferrari down the inside into Turn 1 but didn't overdo it when the Ferrari kept coming, giving Alonso just enough room. He tracked the twice champion all the way to the Fernando's first stop after 10 laps, never more than a second and a half adrift. Maldonado made his own first stop a lap later and the status quo resumed.
Before the race everyone feared the Lotus race pace and so it was slightly surprising when Kimi Raikkonen was unable to match the speed of the leading pair, dropping 3s away. At first you suspected it was wise tyre management, given that the Pirellis degrade less quickly if you can run them in clean air, but the anticipated threat from the black and gold cars never truly materialised.
The entire field started on Pirelli's option tyres, which gave an initial speed advantage but were not as durable a race tyre as the prime. Maldonado had three new sets of primes left for the race while Alonso had three used sets. The key moment for Maldonado came when he pitted two laps sooner than Alonso at the second stops.
Ferrari did not react immediately and Alonso was further delayed when he spent the best part of a lap negotiating Charles Pic's Marussia, not aided by a yellow flag at the end of the main straight. Pic received a Drive Through penalty.
Once in front, Maldonado managed to control the gap to Alonso and look after his tyres, the Ferrari 7s behind when it pitted out. Alonso had that back down to 4s by the time Maldonado made his final stop on lap 41, meaning that the Williams needed to make its final set of primes go 25 laps.
Alonso stopped three laps later and resumed 3s behind the man bidding to become Venezuela's first GP winner, with 20 laps to go. If there's a man you'd not wish to see filling your mirrors when trying to win a first GP, it's surely Alonso!
The gap was soon down to less than 1s, where it stayed until there were seven laps remaining.
"I suddenly lost grip in Turn 7 at the rear," Alonso said. "I asked the team if something was broken because the handling changed from one moment to the next, for no apparent reason."
The lap times, however, reveal the Williams speeding up rather than the Ferrari slowing unduly.
The quickest cars in the race by this stage were the Lotuses, with Raikkonen closing to within half a second of Alonso at the chequer, and Romain Grosjean fourth in the sister car. Grosjean had lost position at the start, suffered some front wing damage in contact with Perez, and also felt that the cooler ambient and track temperatures on race day had worked against the team.
Kamui Kobayashi was an excellent fifth for Sauber, bullying his way past both Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg in the final stint. Williams apart, Sauber had also made impressive progress between Bahrain and the beginning of the European season but for one reason and another, it was masked.
Kobayashi suffered a hydraulic problem at the end of Q2 and could take no part in Q3. He felt he would have qualified very close to the top five, like team mate Sergio Perez, and that a podium finish was within the car's capability. Perez himself had his fine qualifying effort negated by a first lap brush with Grosjean in Turn 1, necessitating an unscheduled stop for a punctured left rear.
After the victory in Bahrain, Spain became an exercise in damage limitation for the constructors champions. Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber completed the opening lap seventh and 10th respectively and Vettel ultimately got home just one place better off.
Early stops (lap 6, Webber; lap 7, Vettel) did not help when the pair were both delayed. Both cars needed new front wings. Webber was unsure where the damage to his was sustained but he suddenly lost downforce, while Vettel's was hit by flying debris from the Bruno Senna / Michael Schumacher contact (see separate story) at Turn 1 some 12 laps in. Vettel then had to serve a Drive Through penalty for failing to respect yellow flags when he arrived into Turn 1 DRS-assisted. Webber finished outside the points for the first time this season.
The Mercedes speed evident in China was not in evidence at Barcelona but Rosberg got the car home seventh and kept himself within 20 points of the championship lead, which is shared by Vettel and, unbelievably once again, Alonso.
Lewis Hamilton drove a heroic race from last to eighth, the only man to make a two-stop strategy work, which included 31 laps on his last set of Pirelli primes, beating team mate Button in the process. This is the man who supposedly can't make his tyres last...
Asked to run through his problems post-qualifying, Button had said:
"How long have you got? I struggled with the balance of the car. On Friday it felt like it was really working well with the tyres, I switched them on really well, especially the soft, I had really good pace in FP2 and it came easy, but qualifying very different.
"I had a lot of understeer at high speed and also a very unstable rear end at low speed, so it's a bit difficult to try to understand. I know that the pace is there and Lewis did a fantastic job all the way through qualifying." It didn't get any better for Jenson on race day and he was all but lapped by the flying Maldonado.
For Pastor it was a fairy story as he led the 7500th lap in Williams history and scored the team's 114th win - the first since Juan Pablo Montoya at Interlagos in 2004. There was nothing fortunate about it - as good a drive as you will see.
You could not have scripted Barcelona better and I don't think there was a man in the pitlane who begrudged the 70-year-old Frank Williams (see separate story) his latest success.
Maldonado has always hated the 'pay driver' tag that is sometimes cast upon him. As far as he is concerned, a GP2 title is a strong calling card and qualifies him as a 'proper' driver. In Barcelona, he more than proved it. And, who knows, given his prowess around Monte Carlo, could easily become the first two-time winner of 2012! If he can beat Lewis Hamilton...