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Spain 2008: Finnish pleasure and Finnish pain

27 April 2008

Kimi Raikkonen may have strengthened his world championship credentials by triumphing from pole position in the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona, but the real joy of the race was that of countryman Heikki Kovalainen, who escaped concussed and heavily shaken but thankfully otherwise seemingly unscathed from a terrifying high-speed accident when his McLaren-Mercedes broke just after he had taken the lead of the race.

There was drama, in fact, even before the lights went out, when front row sitter Fernando Alonso got onto the grass and very nearly clouted the pit wall coming around to the grid, as the Spaniard attempted to warm his tyres up a little over-enthusiastically.

Whether his heart was ion his mouth or not, he had composed himself again in time for the start as he vaulted off the line, but Felipe Massa was even better, and by the time the front-runners got to turn one, the Brazilian had passed his Renault rival into second place, making it a Ferrari one-two within mere moments of the grand prix having got underway.

Lewis Hamilton was another man on the move, charging past Robert Kubica into fourth, but in doing so he aggressively chopped across the nose of fast-starting McLaren team-mate Kovalainen, who then had to get off the throttle to avoid running into the Briton and was left to unsuccessfully try the outside line around the BMW-Sauber instead, consequently staying in sixth place.

Further back, though, later around the opening lap there was further excitement as Adrian Sutil ambitiously tried a move up the inside of David Coulthard, but with two wheels on the grass it was never going to work and the Force India predictably made light contact with the Red Bull Racing machine and went spinning across the track, where he was ploughed into by the luckless Sebastian Vettel, himself receiving the unwelcome attentions one of the Super Aguris, caught up in the chain reaction.

Sutil and Vettel were out on the spot – the incident maintaining the latter's unenviable 100 per cent non-finishing record in 2008 so far, and meaning three of those retirements have been first lap collisions. The safety car was therefore deployed, with Raikkonen leading from Massa, Alonso, Hamilton, Kubica, Kovalainen and Nick Heidfeld, up two spots from his lowly ninth grid position. Nico Rosberg was another to have made a good getaway, progressing into eleventh from 15th, whilst team-mate Kazuki Nakajima had gone in the opposite direction down in 14th.

The safety car returned to the pit-lane at the end of lap three, and just one lap later Raikkonen had already opened up a 1.3 second margin over the sister scarlet machine, with the two McLarens also looking racy back in fourth and sixth.

The next man to hit trouble, though, was Nelsinho Piquet, who ran off-track from tenth place, and shortly afterwards would make his retirement terminal, by clattering into the side of an unsighted Sébastien Bourdais whilst endeavouring to make his way back up the order again from 18th place. Piquet was out on the spot, with Bourdais touring back to his pit box where a broken left front suspension would see him take a similarly early bath.

Anthony Davidson was another man to drop out early on, as Super Aguri's miserable season showed no signs of brightening up anytime soon. The Hemel Hempstead ace's radiator had been punctured by a stone brought back onto the track by Piquet, meaning there was no way back in what could be his last outing in the top flight for now.

Raikkonen continued to lap up to four tenths of a second a lap quicker than Massa as the race passed the ten lap mark, with Hamilton beginning to apply the pressure on Alonso and Kovalainen doing likewise to Kubica behind, though neither was close enough to launch a challenge. Heidfeld, Mark Webber, Jarno Trulli and the advancing Rosberg rounded out the top ten, with the Hondas of Rubens Barrichello – equalling Riccardo Patrese's record number of grand prix starts in Barcelona this weekend – and Jenson Button just behind.

The biggest surprise at this stage of the race, however, was that Alonso had still not made his first pit-stop, making his sensational qualifying performance on Saturday seem even more impressive and giving McLaren and BMW considerable cause for concern, despite the Spaniard's low-key pre-race predictions [see separate story – click here].

The double world champion was, however, the first man to blink at the end of lap 16, fuelling for a long middle stint as he had done back in 2006 – then en route to victory – and consequently rejoining in-between the duelling Hondas down in eleventh place. That allowed Hamilton to finally get the hammer down, and the 23-year-old did indeed immediately set personal bests, just three tenths of a second shy of the quickest lap of the race.

Massa was next in, stopping some way short of his marks in his pit box, and he came back on-track behind seventh-placed Trulli. Raikkonen followed suit a lap later, but the McLarens and BMWs sailed on. That promoted Hamilton – 2.4 seconds clear of Kubica – into the lead of the grand prix with 46 laps remaining, whilst further back Webber and Trulli came in together, rejoining in the same order.

Hamilton and Kubica pitted at the same time at the end of lap 21, vaulting Kovalainen to the head of the field. Crucially for the pair's ambitions to leapfrog Massa, they both rejoined just behind Rosberg, though the Williams too would make its first pit visit only a lap later.

The biggest drama of the race, though, was about to follow, as the cameras suddenly showed Kovalainen's car embedded heavily in the tyre barriers at turn nine, after something seemed to break and fly off the McLaren, causing its left front tyre to blow midway through the corner – not dissimilar to team-mate Hamilton's high-speed 'off' in qualifying at the Nürburgring last year – and the Finn became a helpless passenger at more than 140mph.

The MP4-23 ploughed straight on at unabated speed into the tyres, with the safety car and medical car both being immediately sent out. Happily, Kovalainen gave the thumbs-up as he was stretchered away to the medical centre afterwards, no doubt in a degree of shock and pain, but happily conscious. He was later transported to the local hospital for further checks on possible concussions.

A big loser under the second safety car period of the race was new leader Heidfeld, who had no choice but to pit before the pit-lane was open as he was about to run out of fuel, the German thereby earning himself a stop-go penalty. Both Hondas, Coulthard and Nakajima all took the opportunity to re-fuel once the pit-lane had been officially opened, before Barrichello – in his 256th grand prix – curiously managed to remove his front wing leaving the pits again, almost colliding with another car on the exit. That prompted a particularly slow out-lap and another pit visit for the experienced Brazilian – not to mention a good deal of embarrassment.

When the action got underway again for the third time, the question now was whether Hamilton could make any impression on second-placed Massa, whilst Heidfeld's penalty destroyed his hopes of a rostrum finish, and maybe even any points at all as he dropped right down to the back of the field as a result. Webber, Trulli and Rosberg, meanwhile – the latter enjoying an increasingly strong race from his lowly grid slot – reprised their Bahrain showing to battle it out over the lower points-scoring positions and Brits Button and Coulthard were also in close proximity again further back, with just 16 runners left in play.

On lap 33 there was heartbreak for Spanish fans as Alonso suddenly slowed from third place, with flames licking out of the back of his Renault engine as he parked it on the grass to make it a double whammy for the luckless Régie. That promoted Webber, Trulli and Rosberg's battle to one for fifth place, with Nakajima eighth and, incredibly, the plucky Takuma Sato ahead of Giancarlo Fisichella, Button, Coulthard, Timo Glock and Heidfeld just shy of the points. Only 14 drivers now remained in contention following Barrichello's retirement, and both Super Aguri and Force India began to sense a real opportunity to open their accounts for the year.

Massa, Hamilton and Kubica were still tussling it out over the runner-up spot, just under three seconds adrift of race leader Raikkonen with half-distance completed, though the Finn seemed merely to be pacing himself and able to turn up the wick at will. On laps 39 and 40 Hamilton again gave a small indication of what McLaren's true pace could be should the team only be able to properly unlock it, by lapping quicker than Raikkonen for two laps in succession, but there was misery for Rosberg, who like Alonso suffered an engine failure coming onto the pit straight, dashing the young German's hopes of a points finish.

Rosberg's despair, though, was in stark contrast to the mood at Force India, with Fisichella – 5.4 seconds behind Nakajima – graduating into the points after Super Aguri brought Sato in early for his second stop, electing for a long final stint of the race. The Italian was the next driver to blink, with 22 laps remaining, but Heidfeld was the real danger man back in 13th, the BMW ace piling the pressure on Button, Coulthard and Glock in front of him, though he too was in next time around – his third pit visit of a frustrating afternoon – rejoining in the wheeltracks of his quarry Fisichella.

Massa then set a new fastest lap of race with 20 laps to go to deflate Hamilton's charge somewhat, but that sudden spurt of pace was explained by his pitting at the end of the lap, with Webber and Trulli doing likewise, though the latter was delayed by a tardy stop. Raikkonen, Hamilton and Kubica were again all in together, with a slow getaway seeing the long-time race leader only narrowly preserve his advantage over team-mate Massa. Hamilton similarly retained a small edge ahead of Kubica, with little to choose between any of the four with 18 laps left to run.

Heidfeld, meanwhile, was harrying Fisichella for all he was worth for the final points' position, the Italian desperately trying to cling on but under considerable pressure. Glock then went and jumped Fisichella in his second stop, shattering FIF1's ambitions of a point under the Spanish sun, but shortly afterwards the German collided with Coulthard in turn five, as the Toyota attempted a pass from a long way back, breaking his own front wing and leaving the Scot with a left rear puncture. Coulthard rejoined down in an unlucky 13th place, having been run into for what must seem to be the nth time this season.

Heidfeld then drove all the way around the outside of Fisichella into turn one to finally make the move stick, after the Italian had got out of shape coming through the last corner and – despite doggedly holding the inside line down the pit straight – proving unable to stave off the BMW's irresistibly greater pace.

With nine laps remaining a scant seven seconds blanketed the top four challengers, though in truth none of them had ever really threatened to make a move on the driver ahead, and the status quo would remain as such all the way to the chequered flag, with just 5.6 seconds separating Raikkonen, Massa, Hamilton and Kubica.

Webber was half a minute further back in fifth for his third consecutive points' finish of the 2008 campaign – and one that has strengthened his own position in the drivers' world standings – with Button coming home a brilliant sixth after lapping faster than anyone bar Hamilton in the closing stages. Nakajima and a disappointed Trulli – who was mistakenly called into the pits for a phantom stop towards the end in the wake of Glock's coming-together with Coulthard, costing him a couple of places – took the final points-paying positions.

Behind them, Heidfeld got within four seconds of the top eight at the close, with Fisichella, Glock, Coulthard and Sato completing the finishers, the latter duo having waged a fraught tussle in the dying laps in an effort to avoid the ignominy of the wooden spoon.

Up front, though, the two main talking points of the race both revolved around Finns – one who had been lucky to emerge from the biggest accident of the season so far, and the other who had sent his rivals a warning message that he will be very, very tough to beat in 2008.

To see the race results in full, click here


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