Rubens Barrichello sped to an immensely popular victory in the European Grand Prix in Valencia, finally breaking his 2009 duck and thrusting himself firmly back into title contention as he paid tribute to Felipe Massa with an emotional triumph 85 races on from when he last ascended the top step of the rostrum.
Barrichello's tenth win at the highest level closed the gap separating him from team-mate Jenson Button in the drivers' standings to just 18 points, setting the scene for a thrilling four-way scrap all the way to the Abu Dhabi finale at the end of October. With Red Bull-pleasing tracks speeding into view and Button seemingly under the cosh having still not finished any higher than fifth in the last four outings, it really could go any which way.
A textbook getaway for the McLaren-Mercedes duo when the lights went out saw reigning F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton vault into the lead from team-mate Heikki Kovalainen, with Barrichello retaining third and Kimi Raikkonen exploiting his KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems) advantage to maximum effect to move up to fourth. Going in the opposite direction, by contrast, was world championship leader Button, who made a good initial start in his Brawn GP but then had to get out of the throttle in turn one as he pulled alongside Red Bull Racing rival Sebastian Vettel and slipped back to eighth.
There were dramas further down the order, too, as drivers straight-lined chicanes and Renault new boy Romain Grosjean and Toyota's Timo Glock tripped over each other, with Sébastien Buemi in the Scuderia Toro Rosso also sustaining opening lap damage and all three needing to pit for repairs. There was similar misfortune for F1 returnee Luca Badoer, who confounded his critics with a lightning getaway up to 14th from 20th, only to spin later around lap one and undo all his good work in one fell swoop as the Italian's difficult comeback continued unabated.
As Hamilton and Kovalainen scampered away out front, third-placed Barrichello was frustrating Raikkonen's efforts to find a way by, with Vettel fifth, Nico Rosberg a strong sixth, home hero Fernando Alonso seventh for Renault and Button being forced to relinquish the final points-scoring position to closest title-challenger Mark Webber in the second Red Bull after being deemed to have gained an advantage in his tussle with the Australian by cutting the chicane.
With seven laps of the grand prix completed, Hamilton was already almost five seconds ahead of the sister Silver Arrow, as the ailing Button started to come under attack from Robert Kubica in the first of the closely-matched BMW-Saubers. Grosjean found his F1 baptism becoming harder by the minute with a very sideways moment as he chased Badoer down at the rear of the pack, as the order and gaps up at the front remained fairly static all the way up until the first scheduled pit-stops at the end of lap 16 of 57 when Hamilton, off the back of a flurry of fastest laps as the defending F1 World Champion increasingly turned up the wick, as expected became the first to blink.
Vettel and Kubica came in on the same lap, as Hamilton rejoined still ahead of the duelling Webber and Button – effectively with a pit-stop in-hand over the two chief title protagonists. Vettel, though, endured a disastrous stop as a rig problem saw no fuel go into the German's RB5 and forced the sport's youngest-ever grand prix-winner to pit again just a lap later – destroying his podium hopes and arguably also dealing a hefty blow to his championship chances as he slipped down to 16th place.
With Kovalainen pitting a lap later, the released Barrichello immediately set a new fastest lap as the veteran Brazilian bade to leapfrog the Finn and perhaps even Hamilton too. The São Paulista, indeed, was fairly flying, taking whole chunks of time out of Kovalainen in every sector, as Button pitted before Webber and rejoined the fray hemmed into traffic, caught between Giancarlo Fisichella in the Force India and Williams' Kazuki Nakajima, and outside the top ten. All eyes, however, were on the sister Brawn GP BGP 001, as Barrichello pitted 19 laps in and rejoined comfortably clear of Kovalainen – and right in the wheel tracks of the race leader. The chase was on.
Things were not going quite so well, though, for the other Brawn, as Webber rejoined the fray ahead of Fisichella – who still had another eight laps left before his own first pit-stop. Vettel, though, brought a troubled weekend and abject race day to a premature close when he dropped out 23 laps in, as engine gremlins re-occurred for the 22-year-old and he posted the first retirement of the grand prix.
Up at the sharp end, meanwhile, Hamilton and Barrichello were enjoying a cat-and-mouse game, as Kovalainen began to nibble away too to haul himself back into contention once again. Down at the rear of the order, the recovering Grosjean cleared the improving Badoer as both came into the pits together exactly halfway through, with the Italian touching the forbidden white line on the exit and later earning a drive-through penalty for his troubles.
Fisichella finally peeled into the pits at the end of lap 31, promoting Button back into the points and releasing the British star to chase after Webber again – and he immediately set about doing just that. With his team encouraging him to try to overtake the Red Bull on the track, the Brawn GP paring started to turn the screw, with Barrichello closing the gap separating him from Button down to just 3.6 seconds as the second rounds of pit visits approached. Hamilton nailed his in-lap, though, but then disaster struck as the 24-year-old came in to find no tyres awaiting his MP4-24, costing him between four and five seconds, and with them quite possibly the race victory.
That placed the ball into Barrichello's court for the first time in the race, especially with Hamilton re-emerging tucked up behind old sparring partner Rosberg – and the 37-year-old immediately set a new fastest lap. A puncture for Nakajima then saw rubber being shred all the way around the circuit as the Japanese ace tried to make his way back around to the pit-lane.
Barrichello pitted with 18 laps remaining and a 23-second lead, and a super-quick stop did the job – by some margin. McLaren suffered further misery as Raikkonen leapfrogged the fading Kovalainen during the second round of stops, as Button pitted before Webber for a lightning-fast stop, critically rejoining in clear air as he sought to jump his quarry and chief title challenger. The New South Wales native was in just a lap later, but his stop was two seconds longer than Button's, costing the man from Queanbeyan track position to not only his Brawn rival but also Kubica in the BMW, dropping him outside the points in the process.
As Barrichello pulled inexorably away from long-time leader Hamilton, Buemi suffered a brake failure that pitched him into a high-speed spin and retirement, with the Swiss rookie's star continuing to wane at Scuderia Toro Rosso as new team-mate Jaime Alguersuari finds his F1 feet. The super-soft shod Button was mirroring his team-mate's pace as he began to whittle down the gap to sixth-placed Alonso, lapping consistently as the fastest man on the track.
Another driver lapping very quickly was fifth-placed Rosberg, who fancied his chances of snatching fourth spot off Kovalainen in the last eight laps, with Button inexorably closing in on Alonso for sixth further down the road. As the clock ticked down, though, the Briton suddenly halted his charge, allowing the partisan Spanish supporters to regain their breath – as the delayed Glock curiously pulled fastest lap out of the bag on a weekend when Toyota had displayed no great pace at all.
One man who had plenty of pace, though, was Barrichello, who retained his cool and his composure in the stifling Valencia heat to take his first F1 victory in almost five years – and arguably the most popular triumph of the season. Hamilton followed 'Rubinho' home at a distance in the runner-up spot to wonder what might have been, with Raikkonen taking his second consecutive podium finish in third and Kovalainen narrowly staving off the charging Rosberg for fifth. Alonso crossed the line a solid if slightly disappointed sixth on home turf, with Button hanging onto seventh to maintain a comfortable world championship lead, and Kubica injecting a little ray of light into a generally miserable season for BMW by pinching the final marker.
Webber wound up some eight seconds adrift of the points on a decidedly black day for Red Bull in ninth, with Adrian Sutil completing the top ten, and Nick Heidfeld, Fisichella, the Toyotas of Jarno Trulli and Glock, Grosjean, Alguersuari, Badoer and Nakajima rounding out the 18 finishers at the chequered flag.
This, though, was all about one person – the one many had written off as a has-been, the one desperate to win to pay tribute to his injured friend...and the one who has re-established himself as a genuine 2009 F1 World Championship contender.Crash.net Driver of the Day:
Rubens Barrichello (without doubt one of the most popular and well-deserved F1 victories in recent memory – there remains plenty of life in the old dog yet and, who knows, maybe even a championship...)
To see the race result in full, click here