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Hungary 2008: Kovalainen joins 100 club

3 August 2008

Finnish drivers have always enjoyed success in the Hungarian Grand Prix – referring to it as their 'home' race – and Heikki Kovalainen made sure that tradition was maintained in the 2008 edition, as like subsequent world champions Damon Hill and Fernando Alonso before him, he secured the maiden victory of his fledgling Formula 1 career in Budapest.

The 26-year-old's success – in only his 28th start in the top flight – saw him become the 100th different driver to triumph in a grand prix, and made it seven different winners in the past seven years around the demanding Hungaroring. Though the result was merited, however, it only came following ill-fortune for McLaren-Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton and late-race heartbreak for Ferrari's Felipe Massa…

With five previous Hungarian Grand Prix winners in the field and memories of Kovalainen and Hamilton's energetic first lap scrap at Silverstone last month – in which they had briefly touched wheels through Copse Corner – still fresh in everyone's minds as the drivers sat on the starting grid, the tension was certainly mounting, but few probably expected what would happen once the five red lights went out.

Kovalainen suffered for being on the dirty side of the grid as Massa breezed past the Finn from the second row, and much to McLaren's shock, the Ferrari – its wheels locked in a haze of tyre smoke – went bravely all the way around the outside of pole-sitter Hamilton into the first turn too, making the move stick in a supremely gutsy display that helped to erase the memory of the rather easier manner in which the Brazilian had let the world championship leader past in the closing stages of the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim a fortnight earlier.

Behind the leading trio, Timo Glock made up a spot into fourth in the Toyota, followed by BMW-Sauber's Robert Kubica and Fernando Alonso, with defending F1 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen's lacklustre form this weekend continuing as he fell back a place down to seventh.

Behind them, Nelsinho Piquet made a bright getaway to gain two positions up to eighth in the sister Renault – only to subsequently lose them again to Mark Webber and Jarno Trulli over the course of a scrappy first lap – whilst Sebastian Vettel went briefly off-piste in the Scuderia Toro Rosso, as he and the man he will replace at Red Bull Racing next year, David Coulthard, got a little too close for comfort and the two duelling Hondas traded places during an energetic opening tour.

Whilst Hamilton was keeping pace with Massa at the front, Kovalainen had dropped four seconds within three laps, though the Finn would go on to stabilise the gap as the opening phase of the grand prix wore on. Behind the second McLaren, Glock was running a lonely but no less impressive fourth, under no threat from Kubica behind as the leaders began to spread out around the circuit and Alonso continued to frustrate Raikkonen's intentions.

Eight laps in and Massa had extended his advantage to two seconds – though with suspicions he was running somewhat lighter than his pursuer – whilst one of the closest on-track battles was being waged between Webber and Trulli for the final points-paying position.

Fastest lap for Massa on lap 15 stretched the lead to more than three seconds, with Kovalainen a further six seconds in arrears and the increasingly impressive Glock still keeping well in touch with his McLaren quarry, ahead of Kubica, Alonso and Raikkonen all disputing fifth place more than ten seconds behind the Toyota.

Massa was the first man to blink at the end of lap 18, switching over to a used set of Bridgestone's harder-spec rubber, with Kubica making his stop on the same tour and Webber doing likewise, giving Trulli the incentive to push in an effort to get by the Red Bull.

Such had been Massa's pace, indeed, that he rejoined the fray still in front of team-mate Raikkonen, and Hamilton gave the lie to those who believed he would be running somewhat longer than the Ferrari by coming in next time around. Critically, though, the Briton re-took to the circuit behind the scrapping Alonso and Raikkonen, promoting team-mate Kovalainen to the head of the field for the first time in the race.

Glock was the next man into the pits – going further into the grand prix than many had expected and fuelling for a lengthy middle stint – with Kovalainen stopping at the end of lap 20 and enduring a minor delay on his rear wheel.

Raikkonen got baulked by the Scuderia Toro Rosso of Vettel as both he and Alonso came up to lap the young German – and the two former world champions were both into the pit-lane at the end of the lap, Alonso holding onto the place by the narrowest of margins.

Trulli was the last of the front-runners to pit a lap later still, the Italian successfully leapfrogging both Webber's RBR and Kubica's fading BMW, whilst a long-running Piquet very nearly came out from his stop in front of Raikkonen too, which would have meant double Renault trouble for the Ferrari star – and double frustration to boot.

Coulthard was up into fifth place 27 laps in, just over eight seconds adrift of Glock and running a long first stint with the super-soft tyres on his Red Bull, whilst his soon-to-be successor Vettel became the race's first retiree after his engine overheated during his opening stop.

When Coulthard did finally come in at the end of lap 29, he rejoined the fray alongside Rubens Barrichello, with the pair of them staging a near-repeat of their Hockenheim tussle – albeit without the costly clash at the end of it this time.

Up front, meanwhile, Massa was still edging slowly clear of the chasing Hamilton, holding a margin of nearly four seconds as the race neared its midway mark, whilst a small fire during Sébastien Bourdais' first pit-stop was swiftly put out by the STR crew, before Kazuki Nakajima had a similar encounter in his Williams.

There was subsequently a further fuel fire incident when the unfortunate Barrichello came in to make his first stop as, in a near carbon copy of the Brazilian's Silverstone woes that had arguably cost him second place in the British Grand Prix, the fuel hose initially failed to properly connect to his Honda and flames began to lick the side of the car.

With 30 laps to go, there was suddenly disaster for McLaren when Hamilton went off-course, the legacy of a left front puncture – as he had suffered in Istanbul last year – that sent him touring back to the pit-lane as quickly as he dared. That left the Briton to complete the final 29-lap stint on Bridgestone's super-soft tyres – reducing his grand prix to an exercise in damage limitation and promoting Glock up into a potential podium position.

The McLaren rejoined the action just – and perhaps critically – ahead of Coulthard, albeit dashing the world championship leader's hopes of a hat-trick of victories and leaving him to try and fight his way back up into the points again from tenth position, around one of the most difficult circuits on the calendar on which to overtake.

That removed the pressure almost entirely from Massa who, with a 23-second cushion over new second-placed man Kovalainen, stood to regain the advantage in the drivers' standings. The Brazilian pitted for his second and final stop with 26 tours left to run – rejoining narrowly in front of Glock, who in an inspired performance had just set the quickest final sector of anyone in the race.

Kovalainen and Glock's second stops saw the status quo preserved at the front of the field, with the former rejoining briefly behind the still duelling Alonso and Raikkonen, and a flying Hamilton now hunting down eighth-placed Kubica six seconds up the road for the final points position.

A lurid slide from Raikkonen – sending the Ferrari shooting off-piste – badly harmed his chances of pipping Alonso in the pair's second round of stops, and left him potentially at the mercy of Piquet behind too. Incredibly, the Finn nonetheless succeeded in jumping Alonso after the duo made their respective pit-stops, whilst Kubica's second pit visit promoted Hamilton back into the points, as Giancarlo Fisichella and Nakajima very nearly touched in their battle further down the order.

Hamilton's charge continued with Toyota telling Glock to push as the McLaren – 19 seconds behind with 17 laps left to run – was still a threat, and suddenly, now released from behind Alonso, Raikkonen was the fastest man on the race track.

Piquet rejoined from his second stop practically side-by-side with Trulli, and as the Italian kept his foot in around the outside of the first corner in an effort to regain the place, his uncompromising Renault adversary aggressively forced the Toyota wide and held onto the position.

With 13 laps remaining, the recovering Hamilton's next quarry was former team-mate Alonso, with whom the Briton fell out so spectacularly at the Hungaroring this time twelve months ago, ahead in fifth. Further up the order, Glock was beginning to feel the pressure as he ran wide with Raikkonen now hunting him down – the Finn setting a new fastest lap of the race as he took as much as a second-and-a-half out of the Toyota per lap.

Hamilton's pace, though, was now beginning to fade, with the Stevenage ace having covered more laps on the super-soft rubber over the final third of the grand prix than he had done at any other stage during the course of the meeting – giving McLaren yet further cause for concern as the Woking-based outfit's weekend continued to degenerate from a dream into a nightmare.

Raikkonen, by contrast, had got the gap to Glock down to a shade over two seconds with six laps remaining, making the first rostrum finish of the reigning GP2 Series Champion's career at the pinnacle of world motorsport look increasingly tenuous as the defending Formula 1 World Champion lined up to pounce. A lap later and the difference between the pair had been reduced to next-to-nothing, as the Force India of Adrian Sutil was pushed into the garage to mark only the race's second retirement.

As the race entered its last three laps Toyota were left to agonisingly bite their nails for the second time this season – following Trulli's defence against Kovalainen for the final podium position in France – but the biggest drama of all was yet to come, as Massa's Ferrari suddenly and spectacularly blew its engine going across the start-finish line, cruelly putting the crestfallen Brazilian out of contention after having not put a wheel out of line race-long.

That allowed Kovalainen to inherit the race lead – and with Raikkonen backing off to look after his engine in the wake of his team-mate's ill-fortune, Glock's new-found second place was all of a sudden looking rather more secure.

With Kovalainen reeling off the final couple of laps to take the chequered flag for his breakthrough grand prix success, Glock held on for a superb and extremely popular runner-up spot, with Raikkonen salvaging something from his weekend at least in third.

Alonso fended Hamilton off to the line to seal fourth spot, with Piquet backing his team-mate up in sixth for only his third points' finish of an ever-improving rookie campaign in the uppermost echelon, and Trulli and Kubica rounding out the top eight.

Outside of the points in the final reckoning were a frustrated Webber in ninth, followed home by Nick Heidfeld – who paid the price race-long for having been baulked in qualifying – Coulthard, Jenson Button, Nakajima, Nico Rosberg, Fisichella, Barrichello, Massa classified an unrepresentative 17th and the luckless Bourdais.

The main story, though, was neither that of Massa's unfortunate loss nor of the get-out-of-jail-free card which Hamilton had been handed as he incredibly extended his championship lead – but instead that of a man who may have had to wait some nine races for his second podium finish with McLaren, but when that podium finally came grabbed it with both hands and embraced the winners' trophy up on the top step to signal the blossoming of a new star – Heikki Kovalainen.

To see the race result in full, click here


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