F1: Round 11 – European Grand Prix, Spain – 23 August

A mixture of pit stop masterstrokes, committed driving and mistakes by rivals put Brawn GP back on top in the European Grand Prix. Unfortunately for the world title hopes of Jenson Button, it wasn’t him at the top: it was his team mate that benefited most from the developments of the day giving the likeable Rubens Barrichello the win that he had been looking for all year – finally!

At the start of the race, with locked-out control of the front row and the assistance of the KERS system, there was no danger of McLaren duo Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen not converting their qualifying performance into one-two positions on the first lap, with Barrichello slotting safely into third place and Kimi Raikkonen in 4th ahead of Vettel, Nico Rosberg and Fernando Alonso.

But it was not such good news for Rubens’ team mate Jenson Button, who found himself squeezed on the inside going wheel-to-wheel with arch rival Sebastian Vettel and having to back off going into turn 1, the loss of momentum causing all kinds of knock-on problems for the Brit who lost three places. He only held on to eighth against Mark Webber by cutting a chicane, and the stewards spotted this and frowned – Button was ordered to hand the position to Webber, putting him to ninth and out of the points, a nightmare start to what was billed as a resurgence for Button and Brawn’s championship campaign.

Rubens, meanwhile, found the early laps of the race frustrating as he was backed up by Kovalainen which allowed Hamilton to get away in front. The first round of pit stops became critical: Hamilton pitted first of all the cars, Kovalainen came in on lap 17, giving Rubens some four laps before his own stop to put in some belting laps. He did exactly that, came in for a flawless pit stop – and emerged well in front of Kovalainen and not far off the back of Hamilton. It was game on between the two for the race win.

Button, meanwhile, was resolutely stuck behind Mark Webber. But it wasn’t all bad news for Jenson: Sebastian Vettel’s own pit stop had been a disaster, a refuelling rig problem meaning Vettel had to come in a second time for fuel, dumping him down to 16th place. Not that it mattered in the end, because on lap 25 the Red Bull cruised to a halt with Vettel’s second engine failure in two days. Now all Jenson needed to do was use the second round of pit stops to overtake Webber …

The middle section of the race was frankly rather static, with Hamilton having to manage his rear brake temperatures and no one really looking like threatening anyone with overtaking moves. What incidents there were tended to be toward the back of the pack, with Timo Glock having taken out the front wings of both Sebastien Buemi and Romain Grosjean on the first lap – requiring them all to pit early and allowing Luca Badoer to climb to 17th as a result despite a first lap spin of his own. Badoer would also spin on lap 37, and also pick up a drive-thru penalty for cutting the pit lane exit blend line on lap 30 having been overtaken in the pit lane by Romain Grosjean for position. All in all, a bad début for the Ferrari fill-in driver.

Buemi eventually retired with brake problems, while Kazuki Nakajima had a left rear puncture that obliterated the tyre and left the carcass on track as he limped painfully slowly back to the pits on lap 43, meaning that he eventually rejoined the race dead last.

As the race hit lap 38, Hamilton came in unexpectedly early for his final pit stop. And when we say ‘unexpectedly’, we really mean it – the McLaren pit crew weren’t ready and the tyres weren’t in place, despite the fact that Hamilton was only obeying the direct instructions from the pit wall. The bodged stop cost Hamilton at least 4s, and when Barrichello pitted for the final time on lap 41 it was no surprise to see him come out well in front of Hamilton to claim the lead. McLaren couldn’t have made it easier for Brawn if they’d served up the trophy on a platter.

Pit stops seemed to be Brawn’s killer attribute today: Button had closed on the back of Webber but was unable to get past, so he was called in early for his final stop as Webber got caught up behind traffic; Webber came in the next lap around, but the damage was done to Red Bull and when the Aussie re-emerged back on track, he realised to his horror that he was looking at the back of Button’s car – and worse, Robert Kubica sneaked through for position as well, as Webber exited pit lane.

That decided the points positions, in a race that hadn’t been exactly exciting on-track but had been pretty dramatic at key moments in the pits. Behind the top two we had Raikkonen passing Kovalinen in the second round of pit stops thanks to a longer middle stint, followed by Rosberg and Alonso as they had been right back on lap 1, followed by Button and Kubica – forcing Webber out of the points.

It hadn’t exactly been the resurgent return to form for Brawn, then – and they would have preferred the drivers to be reversed in their finishing positions when it comes to the championship standings – but they had reacted well with their pit strategy and been aided by some bad luck/bad decisions by their Red Bull and McLaren rivals. And sometimes, such strokes of luck can be exactly what the doctor ordered.

McLaren meanwhile will be kicking themselves as a golden opportunity squandered, while Red Bull will be wondering whether this weekend was a glitch – or a sign that their own championship hopes have passed their high water mark and are now on the wane.

Only a week to find out at the wonderful, historic track of Spa in Belgium!

Race results

Pos  Driver        Team                      Time
 1.  Barrichello   Brawn-Mercedes          1h35:51.289
 2.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes        +     2.358
 3.  Raikkonen     Ferrari                 +    15.994
 4.  Kovalainen    McLaren-Mercedes        +    20.032
 5.  Rosberg       Williams-Toyota         +    20.870
 6.  Alonso        Renault                 +    27.744
 7.  Button        Brawn-Mercedes          +    34.913
 8.  Kubica        BMW Sauber              +    36.667
 9.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault        +    44.910
10.  Sutil         Force India-Mercedes    +    47.935
11.  Heidfeld      BMW Sauber              +    48.822
12.  Fisichella    Force India-Mercedes    +  1:03.614
13.  Trulli        Toyota                  +  1:04.527
14.  Glock         Toyota                  +  1:26.519
15.  Grosjean      Renault                 +  1:31.774
16.  Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari      +     1 lap
17.  Badoer        Ferrari                 +     1 lap
18.  Nakajima      Williams-Toyota         +    3 laps

Fastest lap: Glock, 1:38.683

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                      On lap
Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari        42
Vettel        Red Bull-Renault          24

World championship standings after round 11

Drivers:                    Constructors:             
 1.  Button        72        1.  Brawn-Mercedes        126
 2.  Barrichello   54        2.  Red Bull-Renault       98.5
 3.  Webber        51.5      3.  Ferrari                46
 4.  Vettel        47        4.  McLaren-Mercedes       41
 5.  Rosberg       29.5      5.  Toyota                 38.5
 6.  Hamilton      27        6.  Williams-Toyota        29.5
 7.  Raikkonen     24        7.  Renault                16
 8.  Trulli        22.5      8.  BMW Sauber              9
 9.  Massa         22        9.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari      5
10.  Glock         16       
11.  Alonso        16       
12.  Kovalainen    14       
13.  Heidfeld       6       
14.  Buemi          3       
15.  Kubica         3       
16.  Bourdais       2 

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