Alonso ends streak as favourites fall
24 June 2012
F1's run of different winners was capped at seven as Fernando Alonso took an emotional - and somewhat unexpected - victory in front of his home crowd on the Valencia street circuit.
The Spaniard came from eleventh on the grid to claim the win, but initially looked destined for a podium finish at best as world champion Sebastian Vettel appeared intent on making it a European Grand Prix hat-trick for himself and Red Bull Racing. When the German's near 20-second cushion was wiped out by the safety car, it made the race more interesting, but not as much as his subsequent retirement on the second lap after the restart.
Vettel made the perfect getaway from his third pole of the season, leaving front row partner Lewis Hamilton with no option but to slot into second in order to protect his position from Pastor Maldonado. Further back, there was contact in the pack - notably between the two Lotus drivers and then between Romain Grosjean and Maldonado as the Frenchman went through into third - but fortunately there was no repeat of the GP2 shenanigans that produced five safety car period across two races.
Vettel, however, was unaffected, and had already stretched out a near two-second advantage as the cars flashed back across the start-finish line, with Hamilton, Grosjean, a fast-starting Kamui Kobayashi and Maldonado next up. Alonso, having gained one place in the opening skirmish, had risen to eighth by the end of the lap, having pounced on Nico Rosberg and Paul di Resta through turns four and five.
Vettel appeared to be running away with the race as he continued to pile on the pace through the first part of the race, although his speed did raise the question of just how many pit-stops he was planning to make during the 57-lap distance. With the majority of the field looking at two or three changes of tyres, the guess was that the world champion may be aiming for the latter, needing to build a gap - albeit not one as big as required by most circuits - in order to retain his victory aspirations.
By lap five, he was nearly eight seconds to the good, covering the middle sector of the lap a second faster than anyone else. Vettel's cause was helped by Grosjean's pursuit of Hamilton, which saw the Lotus driver take several looks at the McLaren before eventually passing it at the end of the DRS zone heading into turn twelve on lap ten. The Frenchman was not the only one on the move, with Alonso taking Nico Hulkenberg for seventh and Kimi Raikkonen overcoming Maldonado to move into the top five, before the first round of pit-stops began in earnest on lap 13.
Hamilton was the first of the frontrunners to stop, with Kobayashi, Raikkonen, Maldonado and Hulkenberg following a lap later. Alonso was in on lap 15, but a quick turnaround allowed the Spaniard to pick up a place at Raikkonen's expense. Vettel's margin, however, was enough for him to stop and rejoin in the lead, while Grosjean managed the same feat from second.
Alonso's race could have come unstuck when he became embroiled in a multi-car battle ensnared by Michael Schumacher - which at its height included no fewer than nine of the German's rivals - but nipping past the Mercedes for sixth on the road allowed him vital breathing space that allowed him to catch and pass the late-stopping Paul di Resta and move back into the top four approaching half-distance
By then, Vettel had stretched out nearly 19secs over his pursuers, and the race appeared to be in his pocket until Jean-Eric Vergne's ill-advised swerve at Heikki Kovalainen that not only damaged both cars but also left the track covered with sufficient debris to warrant the appearance of the safety car. Although the decision came late enough to deny Vettel the chance to make his second stop when those immediately behind them could, the German was still able to complete his tyre change and slot in behind the safety car as it trundled round for five laps.
Although both Grosjean and Alonso did their best to keep close to the Red Bull as they approached the restart, a minor error by the Frenchman allowed Vettel to open enough of a gap to ensure that he would not be challenged. The slip proved more costly than that for Grosjean, however, as it allowed Alonso - who took a wider line into the final turn - to power past into turn two. Hamilton also nailed Raikkonen for fifth before Kobayashi and Massa collided, costing the Brazilian a potential points finish as he headed back to the pits for repairs.
This time, there was no need for the safety car, but that would have been academic for Vettel, who seen coasting through the DRS zone, his engine dead. Hurling his gloves at the fence, the German was left to reflect on one that got away, and his mood would not have been helped by the realisation that Alonso, a non-factor in qualifying, was now his successor at the front of the field.
While Alonso leading put the bid for an eighth different winner in as many races on hold, the sight of Grosjean giving chase to the double world champion - and Raikkonen holding on to Hamilton in fourth - proved heartening - until the Frenchman appeared to reprise Vettel's retirement, coasting out of P2 just seven laps later with a reported alternator failure that robbed the fuel pump of power.
That left Alonso with a four-second advantage over Hamilton - who had overcome another disastrous pit-stop under the safety car to come back to second - with Raikkonen, Maldonado and Hulkenberg next up. Paul di Resta, Sergio Perez, Jenson Button and Rosberg followed on, before Vitaly Petrov crossed the line in tenth for Caterham.
The Russian's joy was short-lived, however, for homing in rapidly was a two-engined train comprising Schumacher and Mark Webber - the Australian up from 19th on the grid - who were benefiting from the decision to make their second tyre stop sometime after the leaders. Two laps after being passed, Petrov then lost his front wing as Caterham and Toro Rosso continued to have a fatal attraction, and would only recover to 13th at the flag. That was one place better than team-mate Kovalainen, with Charles Pic claiming third in division three for a Marussia team deprived of Timo Glock's services after the German contracted an intestinal ailment.
While Alonso held firm at the front, Schumacher and Webber continued to make ground, running in tandem to depose of Button on lap 48, Perez five laps later, before di Resta fell next time around. The turning point in their respective races came a little later, however, as, first, Raikkonen finally found a way past Hamilton, who was struggling with badly-worn rear tyres, and, then, Maldonado set about trying to follow the Finn, the scent of another podium filling his nostrils. After taking a look into turn one, it was later on lap 56 that the matter came to a head, as both drivers ran side-by-side through the DRS zone. Maldonado held the outside line, allowing Hamilton to ease him towards the kerbs, but, instead of opting for the cut-through with all four wheels off the racing surface, the Venezuelan attempted to rejoin the track and pass Hamilton at the same time, resulting in heavy contact that pitched the McLaren driver into the wall.
With Maldonado hampered by the loss of his front wing, Schumacher and Webber were promoted to fourth and fifth, which quickly became third and fourth as they accounted for Hulkenberg on the same lap. The podium finish was Schumacher's first since he returned to F1 in 2010, and the 155th of his career, ending a 99-race wait for silverware.
While Hulkenberg held on to fifth, team-mate di Resta saw his brave one-stop strategy - the only one in the field - count for less when Rosberg, another late second stopper, came steaming through on his way from outside the points to sixth spot, passing both the Scot and Button on the final lap. Button was in the same trouble as Hamilton had been, and would have slipped out of the points had it not been for his team-mate's incident. Perez and Maldonado rounded out the point-scorers, although it remains to be seen whether any action will be taken against the Venezuelan that may allow Williams team-mate Senna into the top ten.
With Raikkonen unable to bridge the gap to the front, it was an emotional Alonso that took the flag, becoming the first repeat winner of 2012 and reclaiming the lead of the world championship. The 29th win of his career, achieved at a margin of 6.4secs, was also the best, he claimed, but ended unceremoniously as the Ferrari stopped trackside, forcing Alonso to seek alternative transport to the podium - although not before he had celebrated with the partisan - if undersized - crowd.
The Spaniard's 20-point 111-91 championship advantage, now over Webber, is the biggest anyone had enjoyed all year, while Hamilton and Vettel are left to wonder what might have been as they slip to third and fourth respectively, on 88 and 85 points apiece.
Next up is Silverstone, where a Ferrari team struggling to keep pace with its rivals took an unexpected victory. Sound familiar?