Fernando Alonso claimed victory in a Spanish Grand Prix dominated by worse-than-feared tyre degradation at a hotter-than-expected Barcelona, which left teams reeling trying to cope with the emerging situation.
Kimi Raikkonen proved the toughest competition to the local hero in Spain but the Finn still fell short of being able to make it a close race after a bewildering number of pit stops for the entire field during the afternoon that made the Circuit de Catalunya pit lane feel like it should be fitted with a rapidly-revolving door thanks to the sheer number of ins and outs during the race.
Felipe Massa had a good first half of the race before he spent the latter stages acting as a doorstop to keep Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber down in fourth and fifth place, while the air went out of the Mercedes balloon early in the race leaving Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton with something close to a nightmare meltdown on their hands.
The mind games had started well before the cars even completed the formation lap. The all-Mercedes front row had led the way to the starting grid doing everything they could to protect their tyres for the battle to come. Third place Sebastian Vettel complained over the Red Bull team radio that they were going too slowly, despite the fact that the field was atypically spread out and took almost a minute to form up on the front straight. But finally everyone was in position and the lights went on one by one - and then out.
Rosberg got a great start from the lead and Hamilton initially tucked in behind him into the first corner, only to have first Sebastian Vettel into turn 1 and then a flying Fernando Alonso out of turn 2 sweep around him and bump him down to fourth place in the first corners of the race. Having locked up and flat-spotted his tyres in that opening lap defence, Hamilton quickly fell off the pace of the lead trio and had to be content with protecting his reduced fourth position until the first round of pit stops.
Kimi Raikkonen held station behind Hamilton in fifth place while McLaren's Sergio Perez got a great start of his own squirting down the middle to into six ahead of Felipe Massa, who had already recovered two of those positions that he's lost as a penalty for blocking Mark Webber in qualifying. Adrian Sutil was another big gainer having jumped up to eighth place ahead of Romain Grosjean and his own Force India team mate Paul di Resta, who rounded out the top ten.
Even with DRS enabled, there was surprisingly little opportunity for the drivers to apply it for overtaking moves - not least because the field was so closely packed that virtually every car had DRS enabled from the car ahead of them which they could use to protect from attack from behind. Lewis Hamilton was the exception to the general rule once he lost touch with the leaders, and sure enough Kimi Raikkonen made an easy DRS-assisted pass on the Mercedes for fourth place on lap 7.
Mark Webber was the first of the leaders to pit, coming in on lap 7 which presaged more cars coming in next time around. Adrian Sutil's stop was nightmarishly long - well over a minute - and was clearly dealing with more serious matters than a routine tyre refresh. A few moments later Romain Grosjean crawled onto pit road with a desperately broken Lotus crabbing its way to retirement with a comprehensively failed right rear suspension.
Alonso pitted at the end of lap 9 while Rosberg and Vettel left it a lap longer: it worked out well for the Ferrari which gained a place by the early stop, and then a minute later Alonso pressed his advantage to put Rosberg to the sword and assume the effective lead - although in fact Sauber's Esteban Gutiérrez was in the lead until his own first stop at the end of lap 13.
Rosberg was clearly not happy on this new set of hard tyres, and Vettel barged his way past the Mercedes on turn 6; four corners later and Felipe Massa also dismissed the German. Kimi Raikkonen had an even easier time of it now that his Lotus was on the grippier medium tyres, and he coasted past Rosberg as if on a Bank Holiday run down to the coast.
That left Alonso with a four-second lead from Vettel, Massa and Raikkonen with Rosberg now being hunted down from Webber who had benefited from his early stop to get ahead of Perez, di Resta, Daniel Ricciado and Lewis Hamilton who had now fallen to the edge of the top ten in a race going badly awry all round for Mercedes. Ricciardo pulled off a nice DRS pass on di Resta into turn 1 at the start of lap 19
Tyre wear was now becoming an issue, with Massa and Webber both in again at the end of lap 20 signalling at least a four- if not five-stop strategy. Massa's front left tyre was looking particularly worn, and the same was evident on the cars of Vettel and di Resta; Alonso was also in from the lead next time around, strongly suggesting that the hot conditions (36C on the track) were causing far more rapid degradation than the race engineers were expecting coming into the weekend and catching them out. The strategy handbook was all=but thrown out with the used Pirellis as the teams just had to react to circumstances; in Caterham's case, the contingency was having a wheel fly off Giedo van der Garde's car which forced the Dutchman to crawl his way back to pit lane on three wheels and will surely see the team slapped on the wrist for not attaching the left rear properly in the preceding pit stop.
While those around them pitted, Vettel and Raikkonen stayed out to assume the lead. Raikkonen was all over the back of the Red Bull, and at the end of lap 24 Red Bull called the race leader in for new tyres leaving the Lotus in charge; however the bid to make the current set of tyres last all the way to a three-stopper fell shorter than hoped for and Raikkonen had to head in on lap 26 after all. It seemed that no one had the upper hand and everyone as more or less in some form of crisis management and damage limitation as the midpoint of the 33-lap race neared.
Mercedes' woes were highlighted by a plaintive radio call from Hamilton who was still going backwards down the running order and was now struggling to retain 13th place: "Now I've been overtaken by a Williams!" he wailed on lap 29. When the team rubbed salt in the wound by warning him his brakes were in danger of overheating, he responded through gritted teeth: "Well, I can't drive any slower!"
As the race hit the halfway point, Alonso continued to lead by almost 14 seconds from Massa, while Vettel's tyre issues meant he lost third place to a determined Raikkonen. Webber was running a quietly impressive fifth place ahead of di Resta, Hülkenberg, Rosberg, Ricciardo and Perez after the latest round of pit stops. Most the drivers were having to get their heads down and simply slog through it, not able to entertain thoughts of gaining positions for the car ahead because of the strain it would put onto the already distressed tyres.
Lap 36 signalled the latest round of pit stops for fresh rubber during which time Raikkonen managed to pass Massa for second spot but was still well adrift of the other Ferrari. Meanwhile a collision on pit lane with Vergne's Toro Rosso left Hülkenberg's day in almost as much of a mess as his shattered front wing, and especially once the German became the latest newly-minuted recipient of a stop-go penalty for unsafe release. For once, Esteban Gutiérrez wasn't the bad boy of the Sauber team: he was out on track battling Jenson Button for seventh place, the McLaren having gone for a maximum-duration tyre conservation strategy for a three-stop afternoon along the lines as that being attempted by Raikkonen and Rosberg.
The vast majority of the field has been pulled into line on a four-stop strategy, so that as the second half of the race wore on it became clearer to see how everyone was faring relative to each other. It was increasingly clear that Alonso has a strong grip on proceedings and that Raikkonen was a solid lock for second spot. Lotus moved to solidify that position by coming in for a final set of tyres on lap 45, hoping to make the fresh set count before everyone else shed their current worn set to get on an equal footing.
Alonso was in for his final set of hard compound tyres at the end of lap 49, returning to the track with the full length of the Catalunya front stretch between him and Raikkonen. Massa dropped in behind the Lotus for the final stint and appeared to have been deployed to do his best to hold up Vettel in fourth place and take the maximum number of championship points away from the Red Bulls.
Vettel was followed home by his team mate Mark Webber who was well clear of a spirited battle over sixth place between Nico Rosberg and Paul di Resta. It was a much calmer affair behind them, with Jenson Button running just ahead of McLaren team mate Sergio Perez. Given the furore and ensuing fall-out that surrounded their battle at Bahrain, and with all the focus on team principal Martin Whitmarsh's job security this weekend it was no surprise that a strict "hold station" instruction was issued to both men and that they obeyed to the letter without argument. Given how things had looked overnight for the Woking squad, a double-points finish was something of a dream outcome for them - especially as Button had even got to overtake the ailing Mercedes of former team mate Lewis Hamilton along the way in a case of rather satisfying schadenfreude
. Meanwhile while Daniel Ricciardo succeeded in securing the final point on offer in Spain by finishing in tenth place narrowly ahead of Gutiérrez and a despondent Hamilton.
It might have not been the most exciting or thrilling race of the season so far, or even the easiest to follow amid that snowstorm of pit stops, but it had certainly been unpredictable and in terms of what it means for the world championship we couldn't have asked for better: Vettel still leads by 89 points but that's only four clear of Raikkonen, while Alonso moved closer with 72 points in third place.
And if nothing else, the home crowd in Spain certainly couldn't have been happier at the sight of the victory of their man Fernando Alonso at the line for the second time.See full race results.