F1: Round 5 – Catalunya, Spain – 9 May

The prospect of the yearly event at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona isn’t one that sets the blood racing: with the teams knowing the track inside out from off-season testing, and with little sign of inclement weather, it has a well-deserved reputation for being a dull processional affair. And sure enough, this year’s visit isn’t going to win any nominations as most exciting race of the season. But for the Spanish Grand Prix, there were some definite, unexpected moments of high drama.

Polesitter Mark Webber got the best start, but still had to work hard to hold off the attentions of his team mate Sebastian Vettel going into the first turn. Opportunistic as ever, Lewis Hamilton lurked behind and made half an attempt to pass the preoccupied Webber on the inside, but had to pull out of the move and then protect his own position from Fernando Alonso into turn 2.

It was an eventful start behind them, but fortunately only Bruno Senna had a race-ending incident when he ran off into the gravel and the tyre wall at turn 3. Other incidents included a clash between Sebastien Buemi and Pedro de Le Rosa that put them both into the pits, for a new front wing and left rear tyre respectively; Robert Kubica was forced wide in a wheel-to-wheel battle with Felipe Massa going into turn 1; and Nico Rosberg also lost ground by being pushed onto the grass down the start/finish straight. Two drivers to have the best starts were Rubens Barrichello (who leapt up to 12th overtaking his young team mate Nico Hulkenberg) and Jamie Alguersuari (whose nimble handling saw his weave through trouble and slower cars to climb from 16th to 9th). Alas, Heikki Kovalainen failed to get away from the grid on the formation lap due to hydraulics problems.

Webber was in control of the race, but Vettel was sticking close behind – and more importantly, Lewis Hamilton was keeping both of them honest, even as the trio pulled away from Alonso who was best of the rest. Even so, it was difficult to see how Hamilton could do anything to stop a Red Bull one-two.

With no prospect of rain requiring any serious tyre strategy considerations, the mandatory pit stop came early in the day. Michael Schumacher and Felipe Massa came in first on lap 15, with Schumacher in particular benefiting from a great stop. Alas the same was emphatically not the case for his team mate Nico Rosberg, whose stop was a disaster: as he pulled away he was suddenly flagged to a stop by the crew who realised that one of the wheels wasn’t fixed in place properly. They had to drag him back into the box to take care of it, and as a result Rosberg dropped to 17th place. With little hope of making an impact, he later tried another pit stop on lap 36 to see of fresh rubber would give him an edge in the closing laps.

There were problems in the McLaren pits as well, with the wheel nuts dropping out of one of the air guns, causing a delay while they switched to a backup: it cost him a position, Button emerging back out on track just a fraction of a second behind Schumacher. Button would try for the next dozen laps to pass the German, but the former champion knows every trick of the book and was armed with the same Mercedes powerplant as the current champion, and there was no way through for the Brit. He would remain stuck there for the rest of the day and looked frustrated at the end of the day.

The air gun problem recurred during Lewis Hamilton’s pit stop as well, but this time forewarned was forearmed and the backup air gun was already to hand. That put him out alongside Sebastien Vettel, whose own pit stop was held up by pit lane traffic: but both cars had a problem in the form of a Virgin backmarker who was idling out of the pits, clearly thinking he was doing the right thing holding back to allow Vettel past. Unfortunately it was impeding Hamilton: Hamilton was forced to swerve out as soon as the blend line ended, right into Vettel’s path. Vettel could have toughed it it out but oddly decided to go passive and run wide into turn one, ceding the position to Hamilton. Perhaps he expected the stewards to hand the place back to him: but the problem hadn’t been of Hamilton’s making and there was no such call. Hamilton was in second, and the Red Bull grip on the race had been broken.

Despite Alonso running in fourth, this was turning into another frustrating day for Ferrari. By lap 35, Alonso was some 23s behind Vettel and Ferrari started considering another pit stop to freshen up the rubber to see if it would help, as he was up to 40s ahead of the chasing pack and would have time to pit and rejoin without losing position. And Felipe Massa was having no better time of it: coming up on the Schumacher/Button battle, he had been caught out overtaking lapped traffic in the form of Karun Chandhok and ended up clipping his front wing on the back of the HRT car on lap 25. It looked as though Massa would have to pit, but despite looking very crumpled the front wing was holding on – and Massa was putting in some of his fastest laps of the way. From the pit wall, race engineer Rob Smedley quipped “I think we found the solution [to the Ferrari’s performance issues]”!

Chandhok was in the wars again just moments later, this time as Jamie Alguersuari tried to lap him. Alguersuari had been one of the stand-out drivers of the way – a move on fellow rookie Hulkenberg after the pits stops particularly impressive. But this time he suffered serious brain fade, pulling in too soon after passing the HRT without allowing enough clearance room. The collision shattered Chandhok’s front wing and almost sent Alguersuari himself veering into the wall before he caught it. He would get a deserved drive-thru penalty for boneheadedness, but such was his margin over 11th-placed Vitaly Petrov that he was able to serve it and still maintain the position, although it put him well back from Rubens Barrichello in 10th. Chandhok, meanwhile, pitted for a new front wing only to then pull off with mechanical failure the very next lap anyway.

As the race headed into the final third, several drivers were joining Ferrari and Alonso in wondering whether their tyres were going to make the distance. Hamilton radioed in to McLaren complaining that he was losing grip; Massa’s pace was also fading fast. Even Red Bull were not immune to gremlins, with Sebastian Vettel informed that his adjustable front wing was in fact no longer adjustable, and that he should stop playing with it – it wasn’t going to do anything. With 11 laps to go, Vettel ended up running off into the gravel, which convinced the team to bring him in for a new front wing and a switch to some nice, grippy soft tyres as a precaution: however, he was still being warned to take it easy on the braking and that “your brakes are about to go”. Eek. The pit stop ended any chance he had to taking the battle to Hamilton in the closing stages and dropped him to fourth behind Alonso to the delight of the home crowd.

Fortunately there were no such problems for Mark Webber, who was invincible in the lead, almost 15s ahead of second-placed Hamilton on lap 45 and notching up a new fastest lap. Indeed at this point, the best racing – indeed almost the only action of any interest – was at the back of the field, with Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock having a great scrap over 17th position and Nico Rosberg working hard to get past Nick Hulkenberg for 15th, then emphasising his pace advantage by cutting the 11s gap to Tonio Liuzzi by 2s a lap, catching him for a final battle over the last half dozen laps of the race.

The closing laps seemed set to be dominated by whether or not Vettel would make it to the end; the TV coverage returned time and again to Vettel’s on-board camera in a sort of “brakes deathwatch”, Vettel struggling to hold the car into corners by coasting rather than braking. But when the final drama broke, it wasn’t anywhere near the vicinity of the young German.

Instead, it was a McLaren that suddenly flew into the gravel and the tyre wall in turn 3: Lewis Hamilton’s front left tyre had simply burst at the worst possible moment, leaving the Brit with no control at a critical moment. The impact tore off the left wheel of the car and Hamilton was out of the race just two laps shy of the chequered flag – to the delight of the Spanish crowd, not only because it promoted Alonso to second but because Hamilton remains their hate figure from the 2007 season when Alonso and Hamilton clashed as McLaren team mates. Lewis’ title campaign took a huge hit here, just when it looked to be finally back on track. The question for Mclaren now is: was it a matter of debris causing the puncture, or the strategy of running 50 laps on one set of tyres – or a matter of Hamilton’s rougher, tougher racing style?

And as the dust settled over the wreck of the McLaren, Mark Webber rejoiced in a flawless, unopposed victory and Vettel made it to the finish line in third to join him on the podium. McLaren will at least be consoled by Button finishing in fifth, keeping him in charge of the drivers’ championship and managing to keep McLaren ahead in the constructors battle too, albeit with Ferrari and Red Bull now extremely close behind. And Virgin can also take heart from Spain, with both cars making it to the end.

Now the teams face an extremely tight turnaround before next week’s Monaco Grand Prix. As ever, the event starts a day early in Monaco; and with volcano ash hanging in the air and shutting down airports throughout Spain and France it’s just as well that they’re only 700km away by road!

Race result

Pos  Driver        Team                       Time
 1.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault           1h35:44.101
 2.  Alonso        Ferrari                    +    24.065
 3.  Vettel        Red Bull-Renault           +    51.338
 4.  Schumacher    Mercedes                   +  1:02.195
 5.  Button        McLaren-Mercedes           +  1:03.728
 6.  Massa         Ferrari                    +  1:05.767
 7.  Sutil         Force India-Mercedes       +  1:12.941
 8.  Kubica        Renault                    +  1:13.677
 9.  Barrichello   Williams-Cosworth          +     1 lap
10.  Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari         +     1 lap
11.  Petrov        Renault                    +     1 lap
12.  Kobayashi     Sauber-Ferrari             +     1 lap
13.  Rosberg       Mercedes                   +     1 lap
14.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes           +    2 laps
15.  Liuzzi        Force India-Mercedes       +    2 laps
16.  Hulkenberg    Williams-Cosworth          +    2 laps
17.  Trulli        Lotus-Cosworth             +    3 laps
18.  Glock         Virgin-Cosworth            +    3 laps
19.  Di Grassi     Virgin-Cosworth            +    4 laps

Fastest lap: Hamilton, 1:24.357

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                         On lap
Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari           43
Chandhok      HRT-Cosworth                 28
De la Rosa    Sauber-Ferrari               19
Senna         HRT-Cosworth                 1
Kovalainen    Lotus-Cosworth               1

F1 Championship standings after round 5

Drivers:                    Constructors:             
 1.  Button        70        1.  McLaren-Mercedes          119
 2.  Alonso        67        2.  Ferrari                   116
 3.  Vettel        60        3.  Red Bull-Renault          113
 4.  Webber        53        4.  Mercedes                   72
 5.  Rosberg       50        5.  Renault                    50
 6.  Massa         49        6.  Force India-Mercedes       24
 7.  Hamilton      49        7.  Williams-Cosworth           8
 8.  Kubica        44        8.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari          3
 9.  Schumacher    22       
10.  Sutil         16       
11.  Liuzzi         8       
12.  Barrichello    7       
13.  Petrov         6       
14.  Alguersuari    3       
15.  Hulkenberg     1    
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