F1: Round 5 – Catalunya, Spain – 10 May

F1 returned to Europe after the fly-away events in Australasia and the Middle East, and things were looking a bit more familiar: instead of the fireworks of the opening races we had a race dominated by incidents at the start and then by the pit stop strategies chosen by the teams.

But if Ferrari and McLaren had been hoping that a return to home familiarity would put them back on top of the pile, then they will have to think again: because once again it was Brawn GP that dominated by out-thinking and out-performing the rest of the field. Yes, they had luck on their side: but it was luck that they had engineered.

The start of the race decided much of what followed: Rubens Barrichello got a stunning start and swept around Sebastian Vettel to fight his team mate Jenson Button for the lead into the first turn, and he pulled it off. Button had to back off or risk taking them both out of it, and anyway he now had Felipe Massa looming in his rear view mirror and had to secure second place before he could deal with taking back the lead.

Massa had followed Barrichello through and managed to overtake Vettel, a move that thoroughly wrecked Vettel’s entire race. The German ended up behind the Ferrari, staring at Massa’s exhausts for almost the entire race after that critical move and there was nothing he could do about it. Further back, Massa’s team mate Kimi Raikkonen managed to force Lewis Hamilton out onto the grass verge down the start-finish straight, boosting Kimi up to a very satisfactory 10th but demoting Hamilton down to virtually the back of the field. Hamilton’s entire race would be about trying to recover from this and make it into the points, but this start left him too much to do.

The worst start of all was Jarno Trulli’s, and it was about to get even worse as they went into turn 2. Nico Rosberg went off track, recovered and inadvertantly forced Trulli off into the gravel to avoid a collision. Trulli wasn’t able to keep the car under control as he hit the gravel, and the car snapped back at ninety degrees across the track. A collision of some kind was inevitable, and the poor schmuck in the wrong place at the wrong time was Adrian Sutil: the impact wrote off both Toyota and Force India.

Even worse, two cars behind were caught out by it all and ended up crashing violently into each other in a cloud of exploding carbon fibre. And the two cars were also team mates – Sebastien Bourdais’ Toro Rosso ending up running into the back and over the top of that of Sebastien Buemi. Both were emphatically out and they were lucky not to be joined by more, but somehow the rest of the field – Hamilton especially – managed to weave their way through the wreckage as the safety car was deployed to facilitate the clean up. Even more amazingly there were no tyre problems from running over all those carbon fibre shards.

Brawn GP led the field one-two, but then faced a restart with Massa (and the Ferrari KERS power boost) right behind them. In the end it wasn’t an issue – Barrichello and Button handled it perfectly and Massa was no threat. In fact the big fight at the restart was between Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso for fifth, Alonso putting in a massive push and seemingly getting past the Red Bull as the two swept over the full width of the track coming into the first corner, only for Webber to reclaim the position by braking impossibly late and taking the corner.

After this, things settled down as the race held its metaphorical breath to see how the pit stop strategies were going to work out. Before they could happen, however, we had two high profile casualties: Heikki Kovalainen slowed on lap 8 and crawled back round to the pits with a gear selection problem; and on lap 19, Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari suddenly spluttered to a halt out on track. Raikkonen has been stuck behind Nick Heidfeld, making attempt after attempt to take 9th pace off the BMW but seemingly unable to do so even though the Finn denied that there had been problems with the KERS boost that should have made it possible. It was another major blow for Ferrari who were hoping for a return to form here.

As expected from the car weights, Jenson Button was in first followed a lap later by Rubens Barrichello. Barrichello emerged way in front of his team mate, which raised eyebrows until it emerged that the team had changed Button’s race strategy and put him on a two-stop plan while Barrichello remained on the three-stop one. That meant Rubens had to really push to stretch out a lead if he wanted to stay out in front, while Button had to be wary about Massa and Vettel getting too close. It was a typical work of strategic deviousness from Ross Brawn – the kind of thinking that won Michael Schumacher title after title. The only question was, by splitting strategies – who was getting the ‘A’ plan? Was Brawn favouring Button and sacrificing Barrichello’s chance for a first GP win in five years? The conspiracy theorists were revving their laptops…

Now the die was cast, and there was very little anyone could do except wait and see how it all worked out. There certainly wasn’t much that the drivers could do on track, evidenced by how frustrated Vettel was stuck behind Massa for most of the race (synchronised pit stops being the icing on the cake as far as that went), and Lewis Hamilton showed it again when he emerged from his first pit stop just ahead of Timo Glock. Hamilton was able to hold the position despite later reporting severe tyre wear and sliding all over the track, and he kept the position over Glock following the second and final round of pit stops as well. Despite Lewis’ problems, there seemed no way for Glock to pass him on track.

So it was all down to pit stop strategies. And critically, that meant it was all down to the hard and soft tyres. Massa and Vettel came in together for their final stops on lap 44, now forced to switch to the dreaded harder ‘prime’ option. Practice had suggested that these tyres were 0.6s a lap slower that the soft options that they had been using up to this point, but the reality was even worse and both drivers were over a second slower than the cars still left on soft compounds.

Critically, among those still on soft tyres at this point was Rubens Barrichello, whose three-stop strategy meant that he didn’t have to switch to the hard tyres until his final stop 7 laps later. By then, Massa and Vettel had lost so much ground that Rubens slotted easily into second place ahead of them both; and even Mark Webber, who had looked well out of contention after a sluggish first pit stop, benefited from the same approach and popped out on track right behind Rubens in third place after pitting on the same lap.

And Jenson Button also benefited: even though he was on a two-stop strategy, Ross Brawn had organised it so that the final run on hard tyres was as short as possible, minimising the time lost on hard tyres. Ironically, Brawn’s cautious handling of Button’s tyre strategy proved almost irrelevant – Button was one of the very few drivers who made the hard tyres work. He wasn’t quite as fast as on the soft tyres, of course, but the difference for Button wasn’t nearly as pronounced as it was for Massa, Vettel and many others up and down the field. And it was at that point that you realised, reliability problems aside, Jenson Button had this one in the bag.

There was one final unexpected drama still to come as the race wound down, however. Ferrari’s radio transmissions to Felipe Massa revealed that the team didn’t think he had the fuel to make it to the end. For once it wasn’t a disastrous team strategy miscalculation but more likely a technical problem with the refuelling rig that hadn’t delivered the right amount of fuel. But Ferrari didn’t find out and tell Massa until quite late in the race, and they delivered the instruction to Felipe to save fuel at all costs as he was coming under the most pressure of the afternoon from Sebastian Vettel. His response to his race engineer was … Not happy, let’s just say. And it got worse when, with four laps remaining, the team broke it to him that they were still a lap short on fuel and that Massa would have to back right off. That meant letting Vettel through, and it even meant letting Fernando Alonso catch up from some 17s behind and take 5th place from him as well. Massa finally made it to the end, crawled past the chequered flag – and then parked it out on track. It really had been that tight. You felt that the Brazilian was very, very unhappy at the twist in the tale – and once again, Ferrari ended the race looking disorganised and deeply in need of a Ross Brawn-eque figure to take things in hand.

Massa’s woes meant that the race finished with a Brawn one-two followed by a Red Bull one-two, Webber leading in Vettel. You had to wonder how the results would have gone if Vettel hadn’t spent 62 laps stuck behind a Ferrari, and if Button and Barrichello hadn’t had the boost of Brawn Brain Power behind them. But isn’t it amazing how Brawn GP are “lucky” time after time, race after race? It’s the same thing people often said about Michael Schumacher, that he was “lucky” about avoiding accidents and about his strategy; funny how that “luck” can be so remarkably consistent from race to race when a team is firing on all cylinders.

Alonso thrilled the home crowd with his late overtaking of Massa, but otherwise Renault, BMW, Williams and Toyota had very middling races. The most disappointed driver out there seemed to be Lewis Hamilton, who had put his heart and soul into the race only to finish short of the points that had been their target. The poor qualifying, the problems at the start, and the tyre problems mid-race all combined to thwart their push for 8th making the race effectively pointless for the resigning world champion, who was even lapped in the dying moments of the race by the winner, Jenson Button. It felt like a passing of the torch, the 2008 champion symbolically handing off to the 2009 champion-in-waiting, and it really seemed to have taken the wind out of Hamilton’s sails.

“I drove my heart out as I always do, it’s just that the car … I dunno. I had no grip,” he told the BBC after the race. “The car is that bad. I’m driving the socks off it, but …” Kovalainen’s comments were more upbeat and supportive of the team, but then he ended up only having to drive it for eight laps before it failed on him.

So overall, it was back to a typical Spanish GP “processional” race with little prospect of on-track overtaking and everything coming down to a good start and a good pit stop strategy. All the regulation changes to allow more overtaking don’t really seem to be working, at least not here – they just allow the cars to run closer together in the procession. F1 still has some figuring out to do on that side of things.

But one thing certainly hadn’t changed from the opening rounds of 2009, and that’s the superiority of Brawn and Red Bull over the rest of the field. And even five rounds into the 2009 season, that’s still a profoundly shocking change to the sport in a very short space of time. The dream of a title just months after near-collapse is still alive for Brawn and Button; while the nightmare of a lost season looms large for Massa, Raikkonen, Hamilton, Ferrari and McLaren.

Race results

Pos  Driver        Team                    Time
 1.  Button        Brawn GP-Mercedes       1h37:19.202
 2.  Barrichello   Brawn GP-Mercedes       +    13.056
 3.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault        +    13.924
 4.  Vettel        Red Bull-Renault        +    18.941
 5.  Alonso        Renault                 +    43.166
 6.  Massa         Ferrari                 +    50.827
 7.  Heidfeld      BMW Sauber              +    52.312
 8.  Rosberg       Williams-Toyota         +  1:05.211
 9.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes        +     1 lap
10.  Glock         Toyota                  +     1 lap
11.  Kubica        BMW Sauber              +     1 lap
12.  Piquet        Renault                 +     1 lap
13.  Nakajima      Williams-Toyota         +     1 lap
14.  Fisichella    Force India-Mercedes    +     1 lap

Fastest lap: Rubens Barrichello, 1:22.762

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                      Lap
Raikkonen     Ferrari                   18
Kovalainen    McLaren-Mercedes          8
Trulli        Toyota                    1
Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari        1
Bourdais      Toro Rosso-Ferrari        1
Sutil         Force India-Mercedes      1

World championship standings

Drivers:                    Constructors:             
 1.  Button        41        1.  Brawn GP-Mercedes      68
 2.  Barrichello   27        2.  Red Bull-Renault       38.5
 3.  Vettel        23        3.  Toyota                 26.5
 4.  Webber        15.5      4.  McLaren-Mercedes       13
 5.  Trulli        14.5      5.  Renault                 9
 6.  Glock         12        6.  BMW Sauber              6
 7.  Alonso         9        7.  Ferrari                 6
 8.  Hamilton       9        8.  Williams-Toyota         4.5
 9.  Heidfeld       6        9.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari      4
10.  Rosberg        4.5       
11.  Kovalainen     4       
12.  Massa          3       
13.  Buemi          3       
14.  Raikkonen      3       
15.  Bourdais       1 
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