F1: Round 9 – European GP, Valencia – June 27 [Updated]

Sebastian Vettel got back to winning ways with a flawless, nearly uncontested victory at Valencia – a circuit that Red Bull didn’t even think would suit their car. But behind Vettel, everything came down to a single spectacular accident and the controversial fall out from the ensuing safety car.

Vettel got a good start from pole, while his team mate Mark Webber fared slightly less well from second and then compromised himself further by trying to sweep across the track to fend off Lewis Hamilton. When that failed – and Hamilton passed for second place – Webber then found himself desperately out of position and unable to defend against the surging Ferraris of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, and then continued to fall back through the field to ninth. It was the worst start possible for the Australian. He opted to come in to the pits on lap 8, desperately seeking a race-winning strategy – an early stop and some clear air running on fresh tyre might yet just save the day for him, even if it meant dropping down to the back of the field for the time being.

His team mate Vettel was in front, and the only threat to his win all afternoon came as they turned into the sharp turn 2. Hamilton tried a move down the inside, and the two clashed – a danger for Vettel’s rear suspension but it held firm, as the right rear trampled all over Hamilton’s wing. Within minutes Alonso was reporting from behind that Hamilton’s wing was distributing debris around the track, and Hamilton was on the radio appealing urgently for news on when the strategy would allow him to come in for a pit stop and a new nose. It didn’t look good for him, as the McLaren’s handling started to fade badly and Vettel started to pull effortlessly away.

Then on lap 10, the race changed: and it was all down to Mark Webber, still running at the back of the grid after his disastrous start and early pit stop. Going into turn 12, he was bearing down on the backmarker Heikki Kovalainen in the slow Lotus, and there seemed a moment of confusion: was Kovalainen going to let him past, or pretend that this was a serious battle for position? Was he trying to move out of the way, or blocking? as Webber following him for the slipstream or trying to get past?

Whatever: suddenly Mark Webber was launched skywards, the car flipping over mid-air and landing upside down before flipping over again to slide right side up into the tyre barrier at high speed. It was a close copy of an accident in the morning’s GP2 support race that had put Josef Kral in the hospital, but while the F1 accident was at a far higher speed, Webber appeared unharmed – hurling his steering wheel away and jumping out of the cockpit within seconds.

The safety car was out immediately, and this is where things got complicated. The leaders were already past the pit lane, which meant that the highest-placed driver able to react immediately was Jenson Button in sixth place. But next time around there was the question of whether the leaders had come around quickly enough to still be ahead of the safety car which was just emerging from the pit lane: Vettel it seemed beat the safety car to the all-important blend line and was able to race away again, get back to the pits and have a solid pit stop. Initially it seemed that Hamilton had done the same, getting to the pit stop for new tyres and a new front wing, and the duo remained 1-2. But the two Ferraris were stuck in the traffic, which delayed their own pit stops and put Alonso down to 10th place while Massa was further compromised queuing for the pit box and ended up a dreadful 17th.

Even worse was Michael Schumacher, missing even the second chance and coming in long after everyone else had pitted, meaning he exited pit lane at the back of the field. It was a rare mistake by master tactician and Mercedes team boss Ross Brawn, and while he tried making amends by bringing in Schumacher a second time to switch back to the preferred hard tyres after just two laps on the super-softs it made no difference and the team ended up using Valencia as a test session. Schumacher’s team mate Nico Rosburg was less badly hit by the pit stop but still ended up in 12th place after both cars developed brake overheating problems early in the race.

All this left Vettel and Hamilton in front, with Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi in third ahead of Jenson Button after the Japanese driver opted not to stop at all. Button would find it impossible to get past his old sparring partner and was effectively sealed off from making any impact into the battle for the race win, but was at least confident of third place once Kobayashi eventually had to make his mandatory pit stop later in the race.

Hamilton was being advised to hang back from attacking Vettel and wait to see if Red Bull’s technical gremlins put in an appearance, but that plan was thwarted by complaints coming in from Fernando Alonso about Hamilton’s driving during the safety car period: Alonso had been able to see that Hamilton had not, in fact, cleared the blend line ahead of the safety car and should not have been released to get back for a rapid pit stop – he should have been stuck in traffic with the Ferraris instead. In fact Alonso felt there was an even bigger complaint, noting that Hamilton had briefly eased off in such a way to ensure that the Ferraris never made it to the blend line. Later it emerged that Hamilton’s momentary hesitation was caused by uncertainty – was he allowed to pass the safety car at this point or not? – but as far as Alonso was concerned it was deliberate, hostile action.

Alonso, never one to miss a chance to relight his old feud with Hamilton, wanted the complaint made to the stewards, and very quickly his point was proved. Hamilton was handed a 20 second drive-thru penalty. Normally this would have wrecked Hamilton’s afternoon, but instead McLaren kept him out as long as possible, running as fast as possible, and when he finally came in to serve the penalty it meant he dropped from second place to … Well, second place, since he emerged in front of Kobayashi in third who was helpfully backing up the faster runners. Alonso couldn’t believe his ears when told this by his team, and for the rest of the afternoon a violent thunderstorm was circulating atop the lead Ferrari’s cockpit: they had played by the rules and ended up tenth, while Hamilton had cheated and served a meaningless penalty.

In fact while the penalty didn’t cost Hamilton anything in terms of position, it put him some 15s behind Vettel and without a realistic chance of fighting for the lead. He did try pushing and closed to within 6s in the final laps, but Vettel was cool and in control and able to respond anytime he felt it was needed. The penalty had cost Hamilton his chance – and robbed the fans of the prospect of a serious battle for the race win.

The safety car period had not quite had its last effect on the race, however. On lap 45 – a full 36 laps after the original incident – race control issues the devastating notice that nine cars were to be investigated for “exceeding the safety car in-lap time” with possible penalties to be applied after the race. The nine indicted were Button, Rubens Barrichello, Nico Hulkenberg, Robert Kubica, Vitaly Petrov, Adrian Sutil, Sebastien Buemi, Tonio Liuzzi and Pedro De La Rosa. Not surprisingly these were all cars that had gained position and who were running well up on the track. Fear swept through all the teams involved that they would be found in breach of the regulations and penalties or 20 or 30 seconds applied, which meant that it was possible that Fernando Alonso – still circulating in ninth – would end up on the podium with Vettel and Hamilton.

By lap 53 – just four laps before the end – the one remaining after-effect of the safety car period was Kamui Kobayashi, still to pit but putting in excellent times and still in third. Finally he came in, and the pit stop was not as rapid as he might have hoped – emerging in ninth just behind a fierce battle between Sebastien Buemi and Fernando Alonso for seventh position. But the late stop meant that Kobayashi was out on fresh, sticky rubber just when everyone else was hanging on for grim death on exhausted tyres: and the point was proved when Alonso, defending, ran wide on the penultimate lap and Kobayashi put in a sweet move down the inside to take eighth. On the final corner of the last lap, he would also outbrake Buemi, ending up taking 7th from them both – not bad for the car that qualified 18th having failed to make it through to Q2. It was a spectacular result, perhaps slightly lucky in the circumstances surrounding the safety car and the pit stop, but one eagerly seized and made the most of with an excellent performance behind the wheel.

Other than Webber and Kovalainen’s spectacular exit from the race, the only other retiree was Nico Hulkenberg whose Williams was seen belching smoke on lap 41 while in tenth place, but who was able to carry on until lap 51 when his right rear tyre delaminated and started ripping at the bodywork, forcing him to pull over in the run off area of turn 12 and climb out of the car, kicking the tyre barrier as he went.

Jarno Trulli had earlier looked to be in trouble and set for an early exit with gear problems in the opening laps, but the team was able to effect a repair and get him back out again. While he was inevitably several laps down, he did at least make it to the end of the race unlike his team mate Kovalainen.

And then the post race formalities and celebrations were hustled through with unusual haste, and an eerie calm settled over the paddock. Apparently now the race was out of the way, almost everyone was instantly obsessed by another sporting event happening several thousand miles away in South Africa. Even things such as controversial stewards decisions could wait for the beautiful game, it seems. And when the stewards did finally render their verdict it was clear that they had no appetite to rewrite the race history, and gave a meagre 5s penalty to all concerned, changing … Very little at the top, actually, although it did pop Alonso up one place ahead of Buemi and put Nico Rosburg into the top ten (and the points) ahead of De La Rosa.

But it didn’t change the leaders, and so the looming prospect of mass controversy was avoided. McLaren’s 2-3 was confirmed, meaning they still control the two championships – but only narrowly ahead of a closing Sebastian Vettel. The remainder of the season should prove interesting …

Race result

[Note: 5s penalties given to Button, Barrichello, Hulkenberg, Kubica, Petrov, Sutil, Liuzzi and De La Rosa for ‘exceeding the safety car in-lap time’.]

Pos  Driver        Team                  Time
 1.  Vettel       Red Bull-Renault      1h40:29.571
 2.  Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes      + 5.042
 3.  Button       McLaren-Mercedes      + 7.658 +5s
 4.  Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth     +20.627 +5s
 5.  Kubica       Renault               +22.122 +5s
 6.  Sutil        Force India-Mercedes  +25.168 +5s
 7.  Kobayashi    Sauber-Ferrari        +30.965
 8.  Alonso       Ferrari               +32.809
 9.  Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari    +31.299 +5s
10.  Rosberg      Mercedes              +44.382
11.  Massa        Ferrari               +46.621
12.  De la Rosa   Sauber-Ferrari        +42.414 +5s
13.  Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari    +48.239
14.  Petrov       Renault               +43.287 +5s
15.  Schumacher   Mercedes              +48.826
16.  Liuzzi       Force India-Mercedes  +45.890 +5s
17.  Di Grassi    Virgin-Cosworth       +1 lap
18.  Chandhok     HRT-Cosworth          +2 laps
19.  Glock        Virgin-Cosworth       +2 laps
20.  Senna        HRT-Cosworth          +2 laps
21.  Trulli       Lotus-Cosworth        +4 laps

Fastest lap: Button, 1:38.766

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                       On lap
     Hulkenberg   Williams-Cosworth     50
     Kovalainen   Lotus-Cosworth         9
     Webber       Red Bull-Renault       9

World Championship standings after round 9

Drivers:                 Constructors:
 1.  Hamilton     127    1.  McLaren-Mercedes          248
 2.  Button       121    2.  Red Bull-Renault          218
 3.  Vettel       115    3.  Ferrari                   165
 4.  Webber       103    4.  Mercedes                  109
 5.  Alonso        98    5.  Renault                    89
 6.  Kubica        83    6.  Force India-Mercedes       43
 7.  Rosberg       75    7.  Williams-Cosworth          20
 8.  Massa         67    8.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari         10
 9.  Schumacher    34    9.  Sauber-Ferrari              7
10.  Sutil         31
11.  Barrichello   19
12.  Liuzzi        12
13.  Buemi          9
14.  Kobayashi      7
15.  Petrov         6
16.  Alguersuari    3
17.  Hulkenberg     1 
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