13 May 2012
Fantastic maiden win for Maldonado in Spain
Now it was Alonso's turn not to panic, but just to keep diligently working away and chipping away at the Venezuelan's lead. A few tenths there, half a second here - and soon that gap was wearing away faster than the Pirelli tyres on the cars. The nail in the coffin for Maldonado's hopes of a dream victory came when there was a fumble on the left rear tyre during the Williams' final stop on lap 41: now it was Alonso's moment to nail it and steal the lead back for himself, and then charge to the chequered flag and claim a famous home victory before an adoring crowd.
It didn't quite work out as well as Ferrari had hoped, and Alonso was still behind Maldonado after the pit stops; but Pastor was on the older tyres and was also being held up behind Kimi Raikkonen who was yet to make his own final pit stop. That allowed Alonso to close the gap, and forced Maldonado into overtaking the Lotus on track rather than wait for the final Lotus pit stop to take its course. He didn't flinch, and lined up the former world champion for a successful DRS-assisted pass.
Alonso was even quicker to realise what needed to be done, and uncompromising in doing it at the first opportunity. That left him 18 laps to cruise up on the back of the Williams and steal the lead, and it didn't look like he needed even half of those. The Ferrari pit radio was crackling with encouragement telling him to go for it; by contrast, Williams' messages to their driver were about being careful with the tyres. It seemed that everyone was resigned to just how this was playing out.
For the next five laps, Alonso closed up within a second of Maldonado, putting him into DRS range. He toyed with the Williams like a cat playing with a helpless mouse, seemingly just biding his time for the optimum moment to strike, but oddly holding back. Surely the Ferrari wasn't having more trouble than expected pulling this one final overtake off?
Then traffic intervened. Alonso fell back a little; critically, he exited the one second DRS range off the back of the Williams. And when he tried to reel the gap in once more, it wasn't happening for him. The Ferrari was sliding and struggling for grip in exactly the way that the Williams wasn't. Remember all those radio messages about preserving tyres that the team had shot at Maldonado? All of a sudden they were looking like small works of massive genius.
Even so, who among the spectators can say that they weren't expecting something to intervene and dash this fairytale finish even now? We'd seen Maldonado crash out of a points position at the very end of the Australian Grand Prix just a couple of months ago, after all. Was the same thing going to happen here? Or was Alonso going to find his second win and charge back to snatch away the dream ending?
No, and no. Maldonado drove a perfect end to the race, coaxing the car to the finish line and claiming the chequered flag. A quick check left and right, and it was confirmed: there was no Ferrari either side stealing the limelight. The win was his, as incredible and unbelievable as it seemed. Sir Frank and all the rest of us might wake up in the morning wondering if it had really happened, but it had.
Pastor Maldonado, Grand Prix race winner.
See, it really doesn't sink in, does it? But it was true nonetheless, and a mad scramble ensued behind the scenes to check that the podium celebrations had been issued with the correct Venezuelan national anthem. Alonso had to settle for second place after all, and he was rather lucky to keep hold of that at the rate that Kimi Raikkonen had been bearing down on him in the final minutes.
A lap or two more and it would have been Lotus on the second step, not the Ferrari. If Lotus hadn't tried that experiment with a second stint on soft option tyres, then Raikkonen and his team mate Grosjean - who finished some ten seconds back from Kimi by the end - might have succeeded in shouldering the Ferrari off the podium altogether. Instead, that misstep left the Lotus pair to a fairly quiet run to the finish in the end.
The same couldn't be said for the driver in fifth place, Kamui Kobayashi: after a number of fairly subdued outings of late, the Sauber driver seemed to have rediscovered his banzai spirit with a return of some of the daring, swooping overtaking moves that didn't flinch from banging wheels to move his opponents aside when the moment called for it. Jenson Button was on the receiving end of one such move, and Nico Rosberg also got a tap on the back wheel as Kobayashi excused himself and blazed straight past.
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