Felipe Massa has once again outlined to his rivals that he can race superbly well by winning the European Grand Prix in dominant style. After claiming pole position yesterday, Massa drove well all afternoon, but an error in the pitlane could see the Brazilian penalised later this evening. Lewis Hamilton didn’t really have an answer for the pace of the Ferrari and came home second, and Robert Kubica returned to the podium with a fine third-place finish for BMW.
The start caused a little confusion with the pole-sitter side being changed. It seems as though the circuit officials and drivers couldn’t decide on which side of the track the pole position should be, the racing line pretty much going down the middle of the track. With dust covering just about everywhere except the racing line, the grid was shifted around prior to the cars taking to the grid.
As the lights went out Massa pulled away from his grid slot well and entered the first corner in the lead. Behind the Ferrari though was Lewis Hamilton, and the McLaren driver came under threat from the fast starting BMW of Robert Kubica. Hamilton managed to maintain his position but it looked pretty dicey at times. Nearly all cars managed to avoid incident on the first lap; the only coming together was between Fernando Alonso and Kazuki Nakajima.
The Spanish driver was ahead of the Williams, but as Alonso lifted to avoid contacting the car ahead of him, Nakajima was caught off-guard and slammed into the back of the Renault. Kazuki lost his front wing and Fernando his rear. Both drivers pitted and Fernando was wheeled into his garage. The mechanics attempted to fix the R28, but a lap later Alonso had vacated the car.
The first stint saw little overtaking or incident; Kovalainen passed Raikkonen at the start and the only other eyebrow rasing moment centred around David Coulthard making a lunge-tastic (credit: Keith Collantine, F1Fanatic) move on the Force India of Giancarlo Fisichella. Coulthard came from quite far back as he attempted to pass the Italian on the inside. The pair made contact and Coulthard was sent onto the run-off area pointing the wrong way.
Robert Kubica also had a fairly eventful first stint, being forced to slow slightly due to debris collecting on his bargeboard. What looked like a plastic bag had got caught up with the aerodynamic parts that cover the area in front of the sidepod and effected the handling of Kubica’s BMW. It isn’t clear if the debris detached itself of its own accord or if it was removed during the Pole’s first stop, but soon enough Kubica was back up to race pace.
The first round of pitstops saw smiles from McLaren as Felipe Massa came in on lap 15, ahead of second-placed driver Lewis Hamilton. McLaren CEO Martin Whitmarsh took the opportunity to smile, knowing that his driver was heavier with fuel during qualifying and now in a good position to get ahead of Ferrari. When Hamilton came in for his stop, he was stationary for less time than his rival, but the Briton couldn’t get pass Massa and fed back in behind the Ferrari.
The middle stint of the race highlighted the problem Formula One has with the cars. Almost no overtaking happened during the European Grand Prix and the field was spread out around the long 5.44km track. Although the port circuit in Valencia looks magnificent and has some interesting corners, certainly one or two that could be used for passing moves, today proved that the cars simply cannot get close enough to make a pass stick.
It was in the second part of the race that Massa really got the hammer down and posted lap records that were 0.7s faster than the McLaren of Hamilton. Further back, the gaps between the drivers were yo-yoing but ultimately, remaining about the same over the course of the stint. Kimi Raikkonen was tucked up behind Heikki Kovalainen and although the world champion looked faster, Kimi simply could not dispense the McLaren.
Further down the field and Sebastian Vettel was having a great race, and Force India looked okay with Giancarlo Fisichella keeping pace with the woeful Hondas and staying ahead of the recovering Nakajima and despondent Coulthard. Timo Glock ran a one-stop strategy which worked out well for the German; qualified thirteenth, finished in seventh. Nico Rosberg too was having an enjoyable afternoon, and although he lost the bridge on his front wing, managed to bring home the FW30 in eighth, collecting a much-needed point for Williams. After last year when both Rosberg and Alex Wurz finished well in races with damaged cars, perhaps losing all the winglets next year will be an advantage for Team Willy.
The second round of stops is where Ferrari looked to fall apart though. Both Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen were involved in incidents, and Massa’s pitstop calamity could change the result of the race. The controversy came as Massa left his pitbox after his second stop, driving into the path of Force India driver Adrian Sutil. It seems that Ferrari and Force India have a close relationship; the former supplying engines to the latter and Kimi Raikkonen using Sutil as a brake in Monaco earlier in the year.
The incident, which hampered both drivers, has resulted in a steward’s investigation, the result of which will not be known until later today. Instead of making a judgement during the race, it seems as though the stewards will want to review more evidence, speak to the teams and drivers and then make a decision. While it is good to get all the facts before deciding, it does mean that the result could change – not so good for the fans.
Kimi’s incident came a few laps later when he entered the pitlane for new tyres and a glug of fuel. It would appear that the Finnish world champion left his box earlier than expected and the refueller was still attached to the car. As the employee was pulled down to the floor they took a hefty knock from Raikkonen’s rear-right wheel. Although little has since been said about possible injuries, it seems as though the refueller is okay and is undergoing precautionary checks at the hospital.
These pitlane blunders will almost certainly call into question the system Ferrari are using. Instead of having a lollipop man release the car when all is ready, the Maranello-squad now use a lighting system that is positioned on a gantry above the drivers head. As each part of the pit stop is completed, the system is made aware and once the fuel nozzle comes out, the red light changes to amber, and then to green when the car can be safely released back into the pitlane. The replays clearly show Raikkonen leaving the box before the green light came on, but also of note is that the amber light was shown while the fuel nozzle was still attached to the car.
I’m not going to say I’m an expert on this system, because clearly I am not, but the fact that there are two questions, one relating to the driver and one relating to the system itself, proves that maybe Ferrari should have practiced with it some more.
Raikkonen’s incident proved moot in terms of results anyway, as his Ferrari V8 expired at the end of his out-lap. In a large plume of smoke Raikkonen pulled his F2008 over the side of the track and made his way back to the pitlane on foot. Ferrari appear to have some demons in their engines at the moment, Felipe Massa suffering a failure during the Hungarian Grand Prix three weeks ago.
All in all, Valencia gave us a relatively boring race. All but three competitors finished but we saw little overtaking, little excitement, but a fair amount of drama. Massa’s dominant win, should he keep it, puts him just six points behind Lewis Hamilton in the championship, and more importantly perhaps for the team, Felipe is now seven points ahead of his team mate. More of a worry to Raikkonen though is Robert Kubica, who sits on 55 points, just two behind the Finn.
The constructors campaign is also looking healthy, with Ferrari still leading on 121 points, but McLaren not far behind on 113 and BMW with 96. With six races still to run this year’s championships are going to go on and on, possibly down to the wire in Brazil. Obviously, this is good for the sport and good for the fans.