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.