Posts Tagged ‘michael schumacher’

Although I do most of my writing on motorsports now over at Crash.net, I don’t get to do “op-ed” pieces there and give our views on things. Happily, that’s what a blog like this is for.

So without further ado, a few notes on how Friday’s practice and Saturday’s qualifying went compared with expectations and now updated with notes following the Grand Prix – and what it all might means for the teams for the forthcoming season…

Red Bull

I’d expected the competition to cut the gap to the world champions, but still thought Red Bull would be the class of the field. I spent most of Saturday waiting for them to kick into high gear and clinch the pole, only to find that someone had forgotten to install the high gear button after all. That’s a real surprise – I’d almost say a shock – and unless they’ve got improvements coming on line or there were one-off reasons for their average showing in Melbourne so far, I’d say we’re in for a real seismic shift in the F1 line-up. I’m not sure I give much weight to Webber out-qualifying Vettel in Australia, but the Aussie’s not going to exit the team without a fight in 2012.

Post-race update: More encouraging in race trim, and almost a match for the McLarens during the GP with the exception of the opening laps where the Woking cars opened up such a huge initial lead over the Red Bulls. It confirms that this should be a close season and no one should be counting Vettel out just yet – as if we ever did.

McLaren

The closest thing there is to ‘my’ team on the F1 grid, I confess that I was worried coming into Australia that the team had badly missed a vital trick. The fact that they had managed to design a car without the horrific ‘step nose’ deemed unavoidable by the likes of Adrian Newey and Ross Brawn made me think that McLaren had sacrificed performance for aesthetics (and to be honest, I was rather on their side in the debate.) I certainly didn’t expect them to cruise pretty comfortably to a front row lock-out in Oz. Could this be the year that Hamilton and Button have a private fight for the world championship? That’d be nice!

Post-race update: Wow. The initial race pace was something else, and while it settled back into something more on the level of Red Bull, it still seemed like an easy win for Button. A strangely downbeat Hamilton at the end raises fears that he still hasn’t got his race brain back together again after the confidence-sapping 2011 season.

Ferrari

I was pretty sure that Ferrari were in dire straits from everything that came out of pre-season testing. Even so, it was still shocking to see just how dreadful the car was on the track in Melbourne, and their slump to 12th and 16th on the grid appears sadly about right. Alonso is doing his best with an evil-handling car, and his talent is frequently making the Ferrari look better than it really is; Massa, on the other hand, seems to be confirming that he’s sadly past his sell-by date. This looks like being one tough year for the poor Tifosi.

Post-race update: Alonso continued to hugely flatter the car, and fifth place is almost entirely down to his efforts. It’s rather like the feat Casey Stoner managed in MotoGP to make the Ducati look acceptable. However it was a dismal start to the year for Massa and the gossips are already talking about a mid-season driver change at Maranello.

Mercedes

Mercedes went through testing with a certain quiet assurance oozing from the team and their drivers. Friday practice appeared to confirm it, and it seemed that just maybe Ross Brawn and his technical staff might have pulled off another decisive innovation that might see them charge away into an unassailable lead of the championship in just the way they did with Button and Barrichello in 2009. All that said, 4th and 7th on the grid now seems somewhat less than hoped for, so perhaps it’s a mirage. It’s interesting that old man Schumacher is looking stronger than young Rosberg, and I wouldn’t be surprised that if there is a break-out performance to come from the Mercedes camp that it’s not led from the front by the multiple world champion in one last bid for glory.

Post-race update: So. No secret weapon anywhere under the hood. Possibly the biggest disappointment of the race weekend, and looking very far back from the McLaren and Red Bull cars.

Lotus F1

Lotus F1 always look good in pre-season testing and put on all the best fighting talk; but time and again we’ve seem them deflate the minute the cars hit the track for the start of the season, and then slowly wither away over the course of the year. I was rather expecting the same thing here, but instead we got two completely bipolar extremes: there was Raikkonen’s shocking performance on his return to the sport that saw him fail to get through to Q3, far worse than I expected; and then Grosjean stunning up the other end with a scintillating third place on the grid. One or other of these performances is a one-off blip, an outlier: the question is, which?

Post-race update: The race was another bipolar experience, with Grosjean’s rookie status showing when he was punted out of the race on lap 2, but Raikkonen playing a blinder at times as he charged back from the disappointing qualifying to finish in seventh place. You have to say, the car has something to it this year – it only remains for the drivers to consistently tap into it.

Force India

If I’m honest, I had no expectations of Force India – and I still don’t. Despite the presence of the likeable and very talented driver line-up, the team just seems to fall into the blur of the average midfield for me. Hulkenberg did as well as I’d have possibly have expected for them in ninth while di Resta apparently hit outlap traffic at just the wrong moment and slumped to a disappointing 15th. But to be honest, it’s hard to see them doing much more than picking up low-hanging points from time to time in 2012.

Post-race update: Still anonymous, even though some last-lap skirmishes popped Paul di Resta into an unexpected points finish. By then, Hulkenberg was long gone (out on the very first lap) and there really didn’t seem any pep or energy to the team as a whole at the start of 2012.

Sauber

Sauber just seem to be slipping a little bit further back every season, and 2012 looks set to continue to the trend. Kobayashi managed 13th for the Melbourne grid while gearbox problems stopped Sergio Perez coming out at all in Q2 and the resulting penalty will drop him to the back row. It’s a shame: team, manager and drivers are all very likeable, but there’s a chronic malaise threatening to settle over the operation.

Post-race update: I take it back, and admit I was a little harsh on Sauber. They still have it where it counts thanks to zesty race performances from Perez and Kobayashi, a mixture of interestingly different race strategies and some on-track fireworks that makes the team consistently one of the most enjoyable and interesting outfits to watch. Both drivers in the top ten, they have to be happy with that.

Toro Rosso

Toro Rosso are trying to shake off that very same sense of encroaching torpor as Sauber, and they’ve done it by firing their previous driver line-up and bringing in Ricciardo (who sneaked into the final ten in Oz qualifying) and Vergne (11th) in what’s billed as an X-Factor style audition to replace Mark Webber in the senior Red Bull team. Some impressive Friday practice runs made us think that they might have something strong for 2012, but I’m unconvinced and expect them to settle into midfield anonymity once more a few races in.

Post-race update: Not really seeing any signs of a quantum leap forward for the Red Bull B-team; it seems fitting that they ended up ninth and 11th, sandwiching the leading Force India. They didn’t do anything particularly eye-catching in the race, which is to say that they didn’t do much wrong but they didn’t do anything particularly encouraging either.

Williams

After a wretched 2011, Williams could hardly have got much worse in 2012. But perhaps no one was expecting the sort of performance that they pulled out of the bag at Melbourne, Pastor Maldonado shrugging off the “pay driver” tag to put in a blistering performance that saw him into the final ten. Bruno Senna also impressed over the two days in Melbourne so far. It might be a little early to say it, but these look like potential green shoots of recovery and that Williams may soon once again be at least the “best of the rest.”

Post-race update: Wow. That run by Pastor Maldonado was astonishing, and confirmed that Williams weren’t just showboating in qualifying but have something genuinely strong here. It’s a shame that a first lap incident pretty much sidelined Senna, and then that last lap accident for Maldonado was very painful on a number of levels, but there’s a huge amount to be happy and excited about at Williams for the first time in a long while.

Caterham

I had genuinely high hopes for Caterham, thinking that they would break out of the ‘new teams ghetto’ that has seen them routinely stuck in the last three rows of the grid. I was, frankly, very disappointed when they showed no such evidence of any forward movement in Melbourne and duly finished qualifying in 19th and 20th place. Chances are that means they’re going to spend 2012 as they did 2011: fighting the battle of the wooden spoon with HRT and Marussia.

Post-race update: Uh oh. Not only did they show no great improvement in their race pace, but their reliability (so good and the source of their strength last year) seems to have taken a major hit with both cars retiring within minutes of each other with steering problems. Hopefully this is an issue that can be quickly addressed, or else they’re going to go backwards in their battle of the newbie teams.

HRT

It can’t be any surprise that HRT won’t even be on the starting grid in Australia on Sunday. They’ve had barely no runs in the car and the whole pre-season preparation has had an air of barely suppressed panic. The fact that Narain Karthikeyan seemed to go out of his way to hold everyone up in qualifying made it all-but certain that the stewards would decide that this was exactly the sort of unacceptable performance that the 107% rule is designed to eliminate and so neither car will be allowed to start. Frankly, I wouldn’t wonder that the team aren’t a little relieved that they dont’ have to race and don’t just see the whole Australian leg as their first testing session of the year.

Post-race update: Erm … Yes. Best move on.

Marussia

Marussia should be in much the same dismal state as HRT, being the last team to get their car through the mandatory pre-season FIA crash tests which has meant no test runs at all. So it’s actually genuinely quietly impressive that they showed up, got both cars out on track, avoided any dramas and duly set times within 107% and make the grid on Sunday. That’s no small achievement and the team should feel pretty proud of itelf. Of course, they’re still going to spend 2012 filling out the back row of the grid and the bottom spots on every race classification, sadly.

Post-race update: Okay, so they were firmly at the back of the field all afternoon (save for a battle-damaged Bruno Senna) and never troubled anyone on pace. But I’d almost say that Marussia were the biggest surprise of the day, because having had no testing and barely scraped through the mandatory crash tests, both cars probed bullet-proof in terms of reliability and finished the race in a perfectly creditable 14th and 15th. Such an achievement is nothing to be sneered it, and they deserve a pat on the back and a large beer tonight for what they’ve done here.

Conclusions

So what are we looking at?

Certainly it seems that my fears that McLaren sacrificed performance for style were unfounded. It’s also great that they’re not starting off the season on the technical backfront, as has been their habit in recent years. If Sunday confirms this then McLaren are looking stronger than they have for some time, and the only question is which of their drivers – Lewis Hamilton or Jenson Button – will end up as world champion.

But don’t count Red Bull out – I’m sure there is more to come from them. I’m also very wary of Mercedes, who I still think are threatening to break out a major surprise that could change the whole game.

It’s possible that Lotus will be joining this fight at the front, but I doubt it. I also fear that the notoriously difficult team atmosphere at Lotus will lead to another ill-tempered break-up with a driver (Kimi Raikkonen is not going to stand for being mistreated or ill-served.) But Grosjean could yet prove to be the unexpected joker in the pack that changes everything: in his hands lies the answer to whether Lotus are duking it out among the top four or merely skirmishing in the midfield, probably with Williams as their main contenders – which would be a major bounceback from the edge for that venerable team.

Of course, normal health warnings apply: the dataset for these conclusions is far too limited. Everything could change after the Australian Grand Prix which offers the first test of the durability and reliability of the cars, which could be the deciding factor in 2012. And it could all be different again in Malaysia, let alone what the teams get on with developing between now and their return to Europe which is when the major upgrades will start.

But for now, lovers of McLaren’s beautiful car versus the ugly step-nosed sisters can take heart, and dream of triumphs and successes for one night at least.

Post-race update: And they can carry on dreaming for the whole of the week, after a hugely impressive display especially by Jenson Button. A poor start and an unfortunately timed safety car did for Hamilton’s hopes and I’m worried about his mental outlook at this point, and Sebastian Vettel can’t be counted out by any means, but it’s a great start for the Woking squad.

McLaren’s day went from hope to despair only to finish in ecstasy in a quite extraordinary Canadian Grand Prix that took more than four hours to complete.

All pictures by arrangement and prior agreement with CrashNet/CrashPA

At one point during the Canadian Grand Prix, so much had gone wrong for the McLaren team and their two drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button that I quipped to a friend, “Well, this race isn’t going to make it onto the McLaren greatest hits compilation DVD.”

Which just goes to show what I (or any other expert or fan) knows, because by the end Jenson Button described it as “a fantastic race – even if I hadn’t win I would have enjoyed it. An amazing win and possibly my best.” He went on, “Definitely one of those grands prix where you are nowhere and then somewhere. The last one is the important one to be leading and I was leading half of it. An amazing day, I don’t know what else to say really.”

Frankly, everyone was in the same situation – speechless and reeling from a succession of incidents, any one of which would have been enough to dominate the headlines after a “routine” Grand Prix and yet this week shunted into being mere passing notes and anecdotes.

The early signs hadn’t been promising. While some rain had been forecast for the day, the amount of rainfall prior to the face had caught everyone by surprised and the race officials decided that the race would have to start behind a safety car, always the most anti-climactic way to begin any motor race. After five laps of this, the safety car finally came in racing got underway with polesitter Sebastian Vettel pulling out all the usual tricks to ensure he kept the lead, but even so nearly getting caught out by Fernando Alonso on the run down into turn 1.

Vettel’s team mate Mark Webber was also looking a little wary at the start and approached turn 1 with trepidation – but Lewis Hamilton had no such qualms, and when he saw Webber going a little wide at the first corner he decided it was an invitation to dive through. Contact was the result, Webber spinning on the approach into turn 2 and Hamilton forced to run off-track to avoid further hits. Both cars came through without damage but they lost positions – the Red Bull dropped to 14th.

“What Hamilton did there goes beyond all boundaries,” Niki Lauda said, working as a commentator for RTL television at Montreal. “He is completely mad … If the FIA does not punish him, I do not understand the world any more. At some point there has to be an end to all the jokes. You cannot drive like this – as it will result in someone getting killed.”

Inevitably the word came down that the incident was being looked at by the race stewards – given Hamilton’s torrid time with authority at Monaco, new penalties seemed almost a given. He didn’t help himself when he pressed on regardless and pressured Michael Schumacher into the turn 10 hairpin, only for Schumacher – looking back to near his best in these wet conditions – made an emphatic jink left that forced Hamilton out wide to avoid another collision.

That caused Hamilton to lose more places and drop immediately behind his McLaren team mate. Hamilton was not happy with this as he was clearly the faster of the team’s two cars at this stage, and something like red mist descended on Lewis as they came down the start/finish straight on lap seven. When Button was slow out of the final corner, Lewis thought he saw an opening on the outside line between Button and the pit wall – but that was right on the normal racing line Button would take into turn 1. Not expecting a rash challenge from his own team mate, and unsighted by the water spray, Button moved along his normal line … Only to find Lewis already there trying to overtake.

The two collided; Button got off relatively lightly – although he was on the team radio to yell angrily “what is he doing?” – but for Hamilton the situation was far worse. The situation ha thrown him into contact with the pit wall and the impact had wrecked his left rear wheel and suspension. Thinking it was just a puncture he tried to nurse it back to the pits only to be ordered by the team to park it up. He seemed in a sulky mood about being ordered to park up by the team when he spoke to reporters: “The team said I had a broken suspension and so I pulled over, but when I got out that wasn’t the case”, Hamilton told reporters. “It was only the tyre that was busted.”

Actually it wasn’t, and when the car was finally returned to the pit lane under safety car conditions it was clear that more serious damage had been done to the rear suspension and driveshaft and that the team had been right to order him to stop: the damage was certainly terminal. Meanwhile Button had to pit for new tyres (opting for the risky intermediates) and a check-up – and was also under an investigation by the stewards for the clash with Hamilton – and this looked like the worst possible race outcome for McLaren especially when for good measure Jenson was then handed a drive-thru penalty for not keeping to the safety car speed differentials as he had tried to race back to pit lane.

This was the moment when any McLaren fan would have packed up and decided “not our week”. In front, it was still firmly looking like Sebastian Vettel’s day, and the two Ferraris were also coming on strong as was Michael Schumacher, perking up more than any other time we’ve seen him since his comeback to active racing. Mark Webber was also having some fun as he sought to work his way back up from the midfield from his costly contact with Hamilton at the start.

Just to prove how badly things were turning for McLaren, even the Hail Mary risky decision to switch to intermediates had backfired. It had allowed Jenson to make some impressive headway from way back down the field following his penalty, but then around 25 minutes into the race a new weather front arrived at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and it started to rain – a lot. Button, and everyone else who had risked the change from full wets, were forced into the pits.

This weather front had been expected, and had been described as a “shower”. No one was expecting what followed, which rapidly ramped up to a monsoon of almost Malaysian intensity. And nor was it a brief shower, either. Soon even the TV cameras – which much better sensitivity in such conditions that the human eye – were displaying just banks to featureless grey clouds of water. Whether it was water from the falling rain, rain bouncing up from the tack or rain being thrown up by the F1 cars no longer mattered, all that did was that no one could see anything. And the track was flooding, too.

The race officials called in the safety car before one minor incident became a total wipe-out; ten minutes later, after receiving feedback from the drivers, the officials went one step further and threw a red flag to suspend the race at the end of lap 25 and park everyone up on the starting grid to allow the weather front to pass through. The race was no where near the three-quarter distance that would allow the race to be called with full points, so a restart was very much on the cards.

Hoping that it would be a brief pause for the shower to roll over, it turned instead into a two hour hiatus as the track staff worked overtime to try and do something about the streams of water and deep pools collecting on the track. Finally, though, the skies lightened and the rain eased off: drivers who had been wondering around pit lane were recalled to their cars and TV commentators who had been left with the nightmare scenario of filling dead time with nothing to talk about except the local wildlife were given something to commentate on.

After nine laps behind the safety car, the track was deemed safe enough to resume proper racing. In fact the officials had been too cautious and the track was now already safe enough for most drivers to decide it was time for intermediate tyres, so everyone duly plunged into the pit lane with Vettel – putting safety first – among the last to make the switch.

Just when we thought we’d seen the last of the safety car and that things couldn’t get any worse for Jenson Button, we were proved wrong. Button had been putting his new intermediates to good use and was scything his way up the positions but then came up against Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari at turn 3. Alonso seemed to be running wide, Button went down the inside, Alonso turned in – and contact was inevitable. It was relatively innocuous for Button who continued back to pit lane for some new tyres as a precaution, but the contact spun Alonso around and left him beached on the high banked kerbing which meant a safety car was needed to allow the Ferrari to be retrieved. Inevitably word came down form the stewards that the incident would be investigated after the race.

The race was quickly underway again and after his latest stop, Jenson Button was starting from dead last (21st position.) The adage that “things always look darkest before the dawn” must have seemed like very black humour to Jenson at this point, but he wasn’t about to just curl up and die: he had fresh tyres, a fast car, and a lot of backmarkers to take his frustration out on. He started moving up the field, and suddenly his race came alive as he found he liked nothing more than a bit of real, rough-and-tumble racing and the thrill of some actual motor racing rather than putting in the laps and staying out of trouble. And sometimes, actual motor racing can pay off, even in these sanitised days of high-precision technical cars.

Once the DRS was activated (it had been disabled under wet conditions) it was as if someone had attached an after-burner to the McLaren and Button was able to tear through the field. Pretty much everyone had written him off by this time, but then suddenly there he was on the timing screens and on the television coverage bearing down on Kamui Kobayashi for fourth place – and blasting by him with ease, his pace now a staggering four seconds a lap faster than the race leader, Sebastian Vettel.

Behind him, Nick Heidfeld attempted to close up on Kobayashi himself but instead ran into the back of the Sauber at turn 2 when the Japanese driver had struggled to get the power down. Heidfeld’s front wing was wrecked, but then unfortunately fell off right in front of the Renault and launched it briefly into the air in one of those nightmare scenarios all drivers worry about. Fortunately in this case airtime was limited and Heidfeld returned to earth, slid along the barrier and down into an escape road without too much drama.

The race, however, needed yet another safety car period because of the amount of front wing debris now scattered all over the track. A flaw with the current safety car procedures was also apparent: with drivers having to stick within the “safety car speed differentials” wherever they were on the track, it left the field very string out and taking a long time to catch up with the safety car itself. That meant that every time the track marshals through they had a gap to go out onto the track to remove the debris, another straggling group of cars would show up around the bend. The TV cameras caught one heart-stopping moment when a marshal fell on the still-wet slippery track surface just as a car appeared: even under safety car conditions an F1 car is going at a good 60 or 70mph and for a moment both marshal and driver were grappling with which way to dive to avoid a potentially dreadful collision.

The safety car period did mean that the field was packed closer together for the restart with nine laps remaining – which meant that Button was close to Vettel, Schumacher and Webber and in with a shot of a podium place after all. A chance was all he needed to be motivated to get down to work.

Vettel was first to act, realising the danger and now putting his foot down to pull out an immediate safety cushion at the end of the caution period. Webber was next to act, dispatching Schumacher on lap 65 only then overrun the chicane in so doing, forcing him to hand the position back to Schumacher (which he neatly managed to do without offering Button any opportunistic opening) and try again next lap by.

But instead, the next lap through saw Webber make a mistake through the final chicane and nearly lose the back of the Red Bull into the wall of champions; Button saw the red carpet, and even though it meant moving off the dry line and onto a fully wet part of the track on his slicks, he went for it. He was rewarded with third place and quickly pulled away from Webber before any counterattack could ensue, and Button then quickly caught up with Michael Schumacher and blasted past him with the aid of the DRS system.

That left Button in second place, but Vettel was now too far in front. By the time Button had closed up on the leader it was the penultimate lap, and despite being the slower car it was clear that the Red Bull held all the high cards and should have no trouble holding on for the last couple of minutes before the chequered flag came out, the final lap just slipping inside the two hour time limit despite the five extended safety car periods.

Jenson Button must still have been grinning from ear to ear at the sensational recover he had made – from last to second place, one helluva achievement considering the nightmare early laps for McLaren. Perhaps, when he saw Vettel skate off the track ahead of him, Button thought that we was literally dreaming – delierious, even – because there was no way in hell that this would actually happen: Vettel never cracked. Vettel never made silly mistakes. Vettel had been perfect the entire race, there was no way he’d give it away just a few turns from the end.

But Vettel had. He ran deep into turn 3 and went sideways, just about controlling the car and preventing total disaster but not nearly good enough to stop Button from blasting his way past into the lead. A minute later and Button was through the final corner, past the wall of champions – and staring at the chequered flag, which was for him for the first time since China in April 2010.

From disaster to triumph, Button had given McLaren perhaps its most famous victory in the last few years: “The 2011 Canadian Grand Prix may well be remembered as one of the most eventful, exciting and suspenseful races in Formula 1 history,” said the team’s Martin Whitmarsh. “I’ve heard the word ‘unbelievable’ shouted at me by joyful colleagues about a hundred times this afternoon, and in truth Jenson’s drive was exactly that: absolutely unbelievable. Other adjectives that spring to mind are ‘heroic’, ‘majestic’, ‘magnificent’ and ‘superb’!”

The battle wasn’t entirely over at the chequered flag, however – there was still the outstanding matter of the investigation into Button’s clash with Fernando Alonso mid-race, which could yet have seen Button lose the victory. However it seemed that the race officials – bolstered this week by two-time world champion Emerson Fittipaldi as the drivers’ representative – had every desire to get out of Montreal without being lynched by irate fans, and the decision came down that no action would be taken against Button over the collision.

Their statement pointed out that Alonso had been on a slow out-lap from the pits and that Button had his car “firmly established on the inside line prior to the entry of the corner and drove onto the kerb to avoid Car 5 on the outside.” Accordingly, “In view of the conditions and the statements by both drivers and their team representatives, the Stewards decide that this was a ‘racing incident’ and have taken no further action.”

Even Ferrari’s team principal Stefano Domenicali seemed to concede that, while Button was still mainly responsible for his driver’s exit in his eyes, he couldn’t be expected to take all the blame. “The conditions were tricky because on the inside the line was slippery, because Jenson had a little bit of understeer in that moment,” he said. “We just had bad luck today.”

Nor was there any steward action arising from Button’s clash with Hamilton earlier in the race: “It appears from the position of Hamilton at that moment … that Button was unlikely to have seen Hamilton,” said the stewards’ statement. “At the point of contact Button had not yet moved as far to the left of the track as he had on the previous lap, or that Schumacher had on that lap.

“The Stewards have concluded that it was reasonable for Hamilton to believe that Button would have seen him and that he could have made the passing manoeuvre. Further, the Stewards have concluded that it is reasonable to believe that Button was not aware of Hamilton’s position to his left.

“Therefore, the Stewards decide that this was a ‘racing incident’ and have taken no further action.”

Cue a sigh of relief from everyone in the paddock, because no one – not even Red Bull – would have wanted one of the all-time great GPs ruined by post-race tinkering.

There were of course plenty of other stories going on during the wet Sunday afternoon. There was Paul di Resta having a fabulous race until he ended up running into the back of Nick Heidfeld and wrecking his front wing, getting a drive-thru and then finally ruing an early attempt to switch to slicks that saw him snap out, touch the wall and wreck his suspension.

And there was Michael Schumacher, suddenly looking more alive than anytime since his return from retirement, who looked set for a podium position at long last until finally the Mercedes was outclassed in the drying conditions later in the race and proved no match for Button and Webber going through.

There was also Ferrari, who lost Alonso in that incident with Jenson Button mid-race and then saw Felipe Massa – who had been running strongly right behind his team mate early in the race – slump to a rather underwhelming sixth place by the end; or Kamui Kobayashi who was in second place when the race was red flagged thanks to not having been lured in for any pit stop tyre changes up to that point, who was disappointed to end up in seventh just ahead of Toro Rosso’s Jamie Alguersuari who had been wild and accident-prone in the practice and qualifying sessions at Montreal amid rumours that he’s about to be replaced at the team, but who did a quietly impressive and accident-free race performance.

But really the crux of the story of Montreal 2011 would be Jenson Button’s astounding, triumphant day; Lewis Hamilton’s red mist; the weather playing a major, starring role in proceedings; and that rarest of sights, a mistake by Sebastian Vettel at a critical moment that showed a chink (at last!) in the young German’s armour after all.

Race result

Pos Driver              Team                      Time
 1. Jenson Button       McLaren-Mercedes    4:04:39.537s
 2. Sebastian Vettel    Red Bull-Renault     +    2.709s
 3. Mark Webber         Red Bull-Renault     +   13.828s
 4. Michael Schumacher  Mercedes             +   14.219s
 5. Vitaly Petrov       Renault              +   20.395s
 6. Felipe Massa        Ferrari              +   33.225s
 7. Kamui Kobayashi     Sauber-Ferrari       +   33.270s
 8. Jaime Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +   35.964s
 9. Rubens Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth    +   45.117s
10. Sebastien Buemi     Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +   47.056s
11. Nico Rosberg        Mercedes             +   50.454s
12. Pedro de la Rosa    Sauber-Ferrari       + 1:03.607s
13. Tonio Liuzzi        HRT-Cosworth         +    1 Lap
14. Jerome D'Ambrosio   Virgin-Cosworth      +    1 Lap
15. Timo Glock          Virgin-Cosworth      +    1 Lap
16. Jarno Trulli        Lotus-Renault        +    1 Lap
17. Narain Karthikeyan  HRT-Cosworth         +    1 Lap
18. Paul di Resta       Force India-Mercedes +    3 Laps

Retirements:

Driver             Team                Laps
Pastor Maldonado   Williams-Cosworth     61
Nick Heidfeld      Renault               55
Adrian Sutil       Force India-Mercedes  49
Fernando Alonso    Ferrari               36
Heikki Kovalainen  Lotus-Renault         28
Lewis Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes       7

World Championship standings after round 7

Drivers                      Constructors             
 1. Sebastian Vettel   161   1. Red Bull-Renault     255
 2. Jenson Button      101   2. McLaren-Mercedes     186
 3. Mark Webber        94    3. Ferrari              101
 4. Lewis Hamilton     85    4. Renault               60
 5. Fernando Alonso    69    5. Mercedes              52
 6. Felipe Massa       32    6. Sauber-Ferrari        27
 7. Vitaly Petrov      31    7. Toro Rosso-Ferrari    12
 8. Nick Heidfeld      29    8. Force India-Mercedes  10
 9. Michael Schumacher 26    9. Williams-Cosworth      4
10. Nico Rosberg       26
11. Kamui Kobayashi    25
12. Adrian Sutil        8
13. Sebastien Buemi     8
14. Jaime Alguersuari   4
15. Rubens Barrichello  4
16. Sergio Perez        2
17. Paul Di Resta       2

For a while there, it looked as though we could have a truly wild and unpredictable and exciting F1 Grand Prix of Turkey at Istanbul Park.

Unfortunately, that moment was on Friday morning, when Istanbul was strangely cold, grey, wet and windy – unseasonal conditions that caught out everyone, including championship leader Sebastian Vettel who managed to wreck his car in a nasty aquaplaning incident in the rain. Did this mean that we were in for an upset this weekend and a dramatic opening up of the race for the 2011 driver and team titles?

08.05.2011- Race, Sebastian Vettel (GER), Red Bull Racing, RB7 race winner Pictures by arrangement and prior agreement with CrashNet/CrashPA

Sadly the answer turned out to be no. Sunday brought with it hot, sunny and dry conditions, and while the cars looked all the better for having the sun glinting off the bodywork, the excitement and unpredictability of the race was diminished by the absence of the bad weather.

Blessed with the clean side of the grid, Sebastian Vettel was able to get away from the starting grid without any problems, and thereafter sailed serenely around 58 laps always on course for victory and never having to deviate from Plan A. After the excitement of the earlier races thus far in 2011 where it seemed that the competition might just possibly be catching up with Red Bull, it was remarkable just how much in cruise control he was allowed to be here.

Behind Vettel at the start, Mark Webber was lumbered with the dirty side of the track and it was as tricky for him as it had been for others similarly handicapped in the support races like GP2: the wheels spinning on the dust and struggling to grip, he had no chance to stop Nico Rosberg flying through from third place on the other side, and had to settle for holding off Lewis Hamilton into the first turn.

Lewis Hamilton had managed to overcome the dirty side jinx and hold off Fernando Alonso for fourth; Alonso was left holding on to the outside line through turn 1, wheel to wheel with Jenson Button, but once through and into the right hand turn 2 the advantage shifted to the Ferrari and Button had to let him go, settling for retaining the sixth place from which he had started.

08.05.2011- Race, start

But Hamilton – who had seen one of his finest GP2 performances here, charging from the back of the grid in his pre-F1 days – then squandered his chance and pushed Webber too hard into turn 3, ending up running wide instead and having to brake, which allowed Alonso through to take the position. Worse, it also allowed Button through as well – and Button was in no mood to show him motorway etiquette and allow his team mate to blend in ahead of him, so instead Hamilton had to grit his teeth and settle for sixth in front of Michael Schumacher. He wasn’t happy with this state of affairs and immediately set about throwing everything he had at Button to get past.

Behind the squabbling McLarens, Vitaly Petrov decided to make a lunge on Schumacher down the inside into turn 12. It was a silly move – there was no chance he wasn’t going to outbrake himself and miss the apex – but the odd thing was that Schumacher himself apparently didn’t see it coming, and didn’t allow Petrov to have the accident. The Young Schumacher was far cleverer than this: but the Old Schumacher seemed oblivious, turned into the corner as normal, and a collision was inevitable. It wrecked Schuey’s front wing and he was obliged to pit a couple of corners later, putting him to the back of the field alongside Sergio Perez, who had already pitted for a damaged front wing at the end of the first lap. As for Petrov, the Renault ironically escaped any serious damage from the collision and carried on in eighth, Felipe Massa having slipped the Ferrari past them both to lay claim to seventh during the conflagration.

Any hope of avoiding a Red Bull lock-out now seemed to rest on Nico Rosberg in second; but once the Drag Reduction System (DRS) adjustable rear wings were enabled for use down the backstraight, it was just a matter of minutes before Webber lined up the Mercedes and blew past him into turn 12 on lap 5. Rosberg had nothing for him and looked like he was standing still, although he did try and counter attack through the final corners and down the main straight after Webber’s boosted speed made him struggle to to run off. But the Aussie did hold it together, Rosberg’s retaliation faltered, and the Red Bulls were one-two.

Next time through there, Lewis Hamilton had the DRS edge over Jenson Button and put it to good use: but Jenson fought back through the remaining corners and the two came out side-by-side onto the main straight, Jenson even pulling back in front before Hamilton then switched to the inside line and took turn 1 of lap 7 first and left Button with no right of reply – until the next time through, when the DRS show was on the other foot, and Button was able to snatch the position back with a very similar move, while just in front of the battling McLarens Alonso was also putting DRS to good use to dispatch Rosberg for third place.

Having tried, succeeded and failed to overtake his team mate, Hamilton went into a bit of a funk – most likely because he had shot his tyres with all those antics on the opening laps. He was falling off the back of Button and into the clutches of Massa behind him, and at the end of lap 9 Massa got the DRS upper hand and relegated Lewis down to seventh; but two corners later and both cars were in pit lane for new tyres, at which point Hamilton got the better stop and was away again before Massa and the two went side-by-side down pit lane until Massa finally had to concede the position as they exited pit lane and back on track in 12th and 13th places. Arguably Ferrari should have been penalised for an unsafe release from the pit box right into the McLaren’s path, but the officials seemed to take the view of “no harm, no foul” and that Massa had indeed yielded the place. Eventually.

Alonso and Rosberg were into the pits next time around, it was clear that several teams were facing their worse case tyre degradation and were having to switch from a three- to a costly four-stop strategy, which several teams euphemistically dubbed “Plan B” in their lightly coded radio communications to their drivers. Jenson Button was one of the last of the leaders to pit and duly briefly led the race on lap 12 and looked set for a three-stop strategy. Of course, whether McLaren’s Plan A was a patch on Red Bull’s was another matter entirely.

After more laps on degraded tyres once he did pit at the end of lap 13, he emerged in seventh behind Hamilton and Massa, a net loss of two positions. The driver that had made the extended first stint pay off perfectly for him was Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi, who – having started from the back of the grid after qualifying problems – had muscled his way up to a staggering fifth place by the time he came in for his own pit stop at the same time as Button did, the Sauber emerging back in 13th.

08.05.2011- Race, Lewis Hamilton (GBR), McLaren Mercedes, MP4-26 and Jenson Button (GBR), McLaren Mercedes, MP4-26

Rosberg meanwhile was still proving remarkably easy prey for his rivals, with Hamilton using DRS to pass him on lap 14. “We knew we had a little bit of vulnerability on high fuel,” explained team principal Ross Brawn later. “When we got into the race we started blistering the rear tyres which we hadn’t seen in practice [sessions,] so that’s why we fell away so quickly.” However the situation was improving as the fuel load lessened, and he was able to fend off the advances of Felipe Massa for several laps despite having the advantage of DRS, until the end of lap 21 saw Massa finally force his way past – and Jenson Button then dive through as well, putting the McLaren wheel to wheel through the final corners were Button somehow made the outside line off the final corner work as an overtaking point as Rosberg got loose on the apex. Two laps later and Massa locked up on the run down to turn 12 and flat-spotted his tyres, allowing Button through; Massa took to the pits for new rubber in the meantime.

Massa’s team mate Fernando Alonso had now clearly emerged as the biggest potential fly in Red Bull’s ointment, running just 2.5s off the back of Webber who in turn had closed up to within 3.3s of the leader, Sebastian Vettel. Everyone else was holding a busted flush: Hamilton, running in fourth behind Alonso, was 10s off the Ferrari and losing almost a second a lap to him, forcing him to come in for new tyres as early as lap 10 and confirming a four-stop strategy. Webber and Alonso were in for their stops shortly afterwards, but the surprise was that Vettel was able to pump in some fast laps – faster even than those on fresh rubber – and still remain out on track until lap 25 when he finally pitted for soft tyres, confirming him on a three-stop strategy and now over 8s clear of Webber and Alonso battling over second. Button was in two laps later from fourth, but a problem on the rear left wheel cost him a second and it put him out in traffic in seventh, just ahead of Rosberg and behind Massa.

Alonso managed to pass Webber at the midpoint of the race with the help of the DRS despite being far back on the run down into turn 12 at the end of the back straight, after which things finally calmed down a bit where the only major battle of interest on track were the repeated attempts by Button to overtake Massa for sixth, but getting continually frustrated by the Brazilian who was looking something back to his old form; Button finally managed to bring DRS to bear successfully at the end of lap 34 to took the position, at which point Massa dived into the pits anyway.

Already in the pits was Lewis Hamilton for his third stop of the afternoon; and it was not going well. A major problem with the front right wheel nuts lost him horrendous amounts of time and then – to add insult to injury – once the job was finally complete, the lollypop man had to hold him still longer because of Massa arriving at the pit stall right in front of them.

“It was a disappointing day on my behalf, I would say,” Hamilton conceded, dubbing it “Not one of my best races.” He admitted to damaging his tyres in his early battle with Jenson which forced an earlier-than-planned first pit stop; “and then at one of the stops we lost a lot of time … But in general I was already behind from turn 3.” Given all that, he maintained that “I felt that I recovered reasonably well considering how much time I lost throughout the race,” even though it meant he was never in with any shot at the win or even a podium position. “I just apologised to the guys – they worked as hard as they could. We were definitely able to do better today.”

Massa’s day was also slowing going downhill; a slow pit stop followed by a run-off into the marbles and off track at turn 8 when he rejoined left him in 14th before he went on to re-overtake Kobayashi under DRS into turn 12 – a move that was starting to look suspiciously easy and hum-drum after so many demonstrations this afternoon. Kobayashi himself had been compromised by slight contact with Sebastien Buemi which meant that he got a slow puncture and had to take his final pit stop early, resulting in an uncomfortably long 20-lap final stint. “Otherwise I think I could have finished seventh and scored more points,” he said, but ultimately had to settle for tenth place.

08.05.2011- Race, Nico Rosberg (GER), Mercedes GP Petronas F1 Team, MGP W02, Felipe Massa (BRA), Scuderia Ferrari, F-150 Italia and Jenson Button (GBR), McLaren Mercedes, MP4-26

Vettel took what appeared to be final stop at the end of lap 40 and emerged some 7s ahead of Alonso in second, with Webber close behind him and then a huge gap back to Hamilton who still had another stop to make before the end. Rosburg was in fifth while Button had already come in for his final pit stop on the same lap as Vettel and was in sixth ahead of Petrov, Nick Heidfeld, Massa and Michael Schumacher who were all running very closely together on track.

Rosberg was in for his fourth and final stop at the end of lap 44; Webber was in next time around with a slightly slow stop, and Alonso, Hamilton and Massa all came in the next lap after that, and Massa got a poor stop as the rear right wheel was still revolving as Massa failed to properly engage the clutch, thwarting the crew’s efforts to mount a new tyre on it.

Alonso had been reacting to cover Webber’s own stop, and that forced Red Bull to take a safety-first approach and call in Vettel for a fourth stop after all at the end of lap 47. He had the gap over the opposition to do so, and it was better than risking leaving the leader out for another ten laps only to see the tyres fall apart and gift the win to Alonso. That left Jenson Button staying out as the only one of the front runners to try and make it on three stops only.

The strategy cards had been played – who would come out the winner? Webber immediately put out a statement of intent with a new fastest lap of the race straight away, and was charging down Alonso to take second and make it a one-two for Red Bull after all. Button was up to fourth ahead of Hamilton and Rosberg, but on considerably older rubber than they were and without anything like the cushion that Vettel would have enjoyed at the front.

Despite doing a everything he could to husband his tyres with his trademark smooth driving style, the task was beyond Button: on lap 50, he put up no fight as his team mate took the position in the DRS zone. More disappointingly, the car’s pace dropped off a cliff shortly after that and he was a sitting duck for Nico Rosberg to breeze past three laps before the end.

Button rued the decision to try and stretch the final set of tyres as long as they did – especially as they had alternatives, as he pointed out after the race. “We didn’t leave the tyres long enough,” Button suggested. “The tyres were still good at the end of every stint, but we came in … We should’ve stayed out for longer because it made the last stint just impossible, just too many laps.”

Toro Rosso’s Sebastien Buemi could sympathise with Button: he had also tried the three-stop strategy and was running in seventh only to succumb to the attentions of both Renaults, Heidfeld and Petrov, in the closing four laps and end up in ninth just ahead of Kobayashi.

There was no tyre mismatch between Alonso and Webber, but you’d have been forgiven for thinking there was by the way Webber slashed his way through Alonso’s lead and closed right up to the back of the Ferrari. As the two cars came down into turn 12 on lap 51, the DRS kicked in and Webber was made to sweep around the outside line as Alonso did everything he could to make it difficult for him as they went side-by-side through the final turns. Alonso then fought back down the main straight, but Webber protected the inside line and stopped the Ferrari from diving through. A small mistake by Alonso through turn 5 then put him outside striking distance next time through the DRS danger zone, and after that Webber was away, job done. No worries, mate.

08.05.2011- Race, Sebastian Vettel (GER), Red Bull Racing, RB7 race winner

That confirmed the podium as Vettel, Webber and Alonso, with Hamilton and Rosberg deserving their fourth and fifth places and Button sadly the victim of what had proved to be an unwise tyre strategy after all.

It had proved to be an interesting day for team mates: last year at Turkey produced that memorable and devastating crash between Vettel and Webber, and earlier in this year’s race we saw that hard but mercifully contact-free fight between Hamilton and Button; there was also the strange moment on lap 13 when Nick Heidfeld and Vitaly Petrov had come through the final corners side-by-side and wheel-to-wheel in what looked like a concerted effort to wreck both Renaults. Petrov pushed Heidfeld so wide that the German was nearly sent shooting into the pit lane entrance, and the two madly gesticulated at one another as they emerged onto the main straight.

“Yeah, that’s not nice. It shouldn’t happen,” Heidfeld said afterwards. “He just pushed me wide and we made contact. It’s not a safe thing to do.”

But the man having quite simply the worst time of it in Turkey this afternoon was Michael Schumacher. After that early encounter with Petrov that put him to the back of the grid, he found himself going wheel to wheel with the backmarker minnows and making heavy weather for it. Without a Benetton or a Ferrari underneath him, his ability to deal with traffic just seemed to have deserted him and he was overtaken by the likes of his former Ferrari team mate Rubens Barrichello, despite Rubens now being in the troubled and deeply unloved 2011 Williams, as well as by Kobayashi and Adrian Sutil making an opportunistic pass on the old master on lap 16, and later in the race Sebastien Buemi used DRS to perfection to breeze pass Schuey on lap 45, who no longer even seemed interesting in fending off such assaults.

He did have a nice moment on lap 54 when Felipe Massa passed him in turn 12, only for the old instincts to kick in again and allow Michael to perform a perfect switchback to re-pass Massa. Next time into turn 12 the two of them came up on the back of Jamie Alguersuari just to complicate things: the DRS feature went into passing the Toro Rosso, and then Massa and Schumacher battled down the start/finish straight. The Ferrari had the better straight-line speed and took the inside line into turn 1, forcing Schumacher out wide in a brutal move by Massa reminiscent of the ruthless moves of Schumacher himself at his best (or his worst, depending on your point of view.)

It was all rather dispiriting for the German, and Schumacher admitted for the first time after the race that he was no longer feeling happy with his day job: “Mostly I was able to go forward, but the big joy is not there right now,” he said, adding that the early clash with Petrov has sealed his entire day’s fortunes. “The race was a given from there, lots of fighting, lots of action, but for nothing. The golden helmet, that’s what we call it in Germany, that’s what I got and nothing else, so it’s a bit of a shame.”

For the first time it seems that the multiple world champion’s mask has cracked, and you have to wonder: is 2011 the year he will finally call it a day on his F1 career?

After the remarkable endurance achievement of all-but-one cars finishing the last race in China, Turkey nearly repeated the feat: only Timo Glock (who failed to even take to the starting grid because of a gearbox problem) and Paul di Resta (ordered to park his Force India on lap 45 on safety grounds shortly after a pit stop, after telemetry suggested a wheel was improperly attached) failed to make it to the end of the race. Williams’ Pastor Maldonado was given a pit lane speeding penalty, a drive-thru that saw him finish well off the lead lap in 17th.

08.05.2011- Race, Sebastian Vettel (GER), Red Bull Racing, RB7 race winner

But reliability and lack of retirements aside, the biggest achievement of the race was just how far in front of the competition Red Bull now appear to be. Far from a return to Europe meaning the teams would bunch up again in terms of performance, it seems to have added just another growth spurt to Red Bull. At this race, the question of 2011 is not if Vettel and Red Bull will win the titles, but with how many races in hand they’ll achieve it.

Race result

Pos Driver       Team                 Time
 1. Vettel       Red Bull-Renault     1:30:17.558
 2. Webber       Red Bull-Renault     +     8.807
 3. Alonso       Ferrari              +    10.075
 4. Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes     +    40.232
 5. Rosberg      Mercedes             +    47.539
 6. Button       McLaren-Mercedes     +    59.431
 7. Heidfeld     Renault              +  1:00.857
 8. Petrov       Renault              +  1:08.168
 9. Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +  1:09.300
10. Kobayashi    Sauber-Ferrari       +  1:18.000
11. Massa        Ferrari              +  1:19.800
12. Schumacher   Mercedes             +  1:25.400
13. Sutil        Force India-Mercedes +     1 lap
14. Perez        Sauber-Ferrari       +     1 lap
15. Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth    +     1 lap
16. Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +     1 lap
17. Maldonado    Williams-Cosworth    +     1 lap
18. Trulli       Lotus-Renault        +     1 lap
19. Kovalainen   Lotus-Renault        +    2 laps
20. D'Ambrosio   Virgin-Cosworth      +    2 laps
21. Karthikeyan  HRT-Cosworth         +    3 laps
22. Liuzzi       HRT-Cosworth         +    5 laps

Fastest lap: Webber, 1:29.703

Not classified/retirements:

Driver    Team                  Lap
Di Resta  Force India-Mercedes  45
Glock     Virgin-Cosworth       1

World Championship standings after round 4

Drivers:                Constructors:             
 1. Vettel        93    1. Red Bull-Renault     148
 2. Hamilton      59    2. McLaren-Mercedes     105
 3. Webber        55    3. Ferrari               65
 4. Button        46    4. Renault               42
 5. Alonso        41    5. Mercedes              26
 6. Massa         24    6. Sauber-Ferrari         8
 7. Petrov        21    7. Toro Rosso-Ferrari     6
 8. Heidfeld      21    8. Force India-Mercedes   4
 9. Rosberg       20   
10. Kobayashi      8   
11. Buemi          6   
12. Schumacher     6   
13. Sutil          2   
14. Di Resta       2

Red Bull had been head and shoulders ahead of every car in the field for the entire weekend, so the prospects for an exciting or even mildly interesting Hungarian Grand Prix were not good. Surely Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber would check out at the start, and the rest of the cars would trudge round in a procession for 70 laps of tedium?

Fortunately, it didn’t work out that way – and we unexpectedly got a half-decent race out of the dusty, twisty and rather old and neglected Hungaroring instead.

As ever at Hungary, the start was the most critical moment: if the Red Bulls had broken away here then all hope for an upset was gone. Vettel hasn’t been doing too well at the start – usually overcomplicating matters trying to swoop across the track to cut off his rivals – but here he kept it neat, simple and precise. Straight line to the apex of turn 1; job done. Nice.

But it was less happy for Webber. He did nothing wrong, but being on the dirty side of the track meant he got less traction off the grid and was no match for Vettel – or for Fernando Alonso, who flew off the second row of the grid. Alonso was even ahead of Vettel as they went into the first corner, but Vettel had control of the inside line and there was no way for Alonso to make the long way around work. He slotted into second, with Webber sandwiched between him and the second Ferrari of Felipe Massa in fourth.

In fifth place was Vitaly Petrov, who had the best start of the afternoon to leapfrog Lewis Hamilton by diving down the inside line into turn 1, forcing the McLaren to yield and run wide. Hamilton was not best pleased, and on lap 2 he blasted his way past on the outside of turn 2, not willing to take no for an answer. Lewis was certainly doing better than his team mate Jenson Button, who had been jostled and crowded into the first corner of the start and who had lost four places from the already lowly qualifying position of 11th.

At the front, Vettel was blasting his way into the distance, while Alonso was keeping Webber firmly bottled up. Webber was clearly biding his time, driving well within himself and looking ahead to pit stop strategy to give him a shot at taking the second spot back by staying out longer than the Ferraris, putting in some fast laps before pitting and emerging in front. That was the plan; it turned out rather differently, as F1 usually does.

The first unexpected problem was Jamie Alguersuari’s Toro Rosso, whose engine died in a plume of smoke in turns 3 and 4 of lap 3. It dripped fluid over the track, and if this had been oil then it would have triggered a full course yellow; but instead it was water that quickly evaporated without harm.

Still frustrated well down the running order, Jenson Button tried a throw of the strategy dice by pitting early on lap 15, hoping to make up some stops that way. But as the McLaren crew got to work, all hell was about to break loose: there was debris out on track between turns 13 and 14 (from Tonio Liuzzi’s front wing). The safety car that had been avoided for Alguersuari’s exit was now deployed, and all the pit crews were caught on the hop as the teams instructed their drivers to come in immediately. Jenson picked up positions straight away by the fluke of already being in the pits, while the call almost came critically too late for Vettel, who had overshot the pit lane entrance and had to clamber over the kerbing to get into the pits.

The result was chaos, and dangerous chaos at that. Robert Kubica was ushered from his pit box just as Adrian Sutil was pulling in to the pit box right in front; a crunching impact was inevitable, with damage to both cars: Sutil retired on the spot, while Kubica limped around for a few laps longer before getting a 10s stop-and-go penalty for the collision and then returning to the pits to retire on lap 25; Renault got a $50,000 penalty for the unsafe release on top of the driver penalty. It was fortunate that no one in the pit area was caught up in the accident; but worse was to come, when Nico Rosberg’s tyre changer crumbled under pressure, messed up the lugnuts – and the right rear tyre flew off as the Mercedes pulled out. The tyre launched itself into the air above the heads of the other teams working on their cars, and proceeded to bounce multiple times before finally being brought under control. An F1 tyre is a heavy object and can do a lot of damage, and a Williams mechanic was struck and taken to the medical centre with a shoulder injury. Mercedes received a $50,000 penalty for unsafe release as well.

This danger was all the result of a chaotic situation caused by the deployment of the safety car: proof once again that F1 needs to get their yellow flag procedures reformed once and for all. Why they don’t just adopt the US principle of closing the pit lane the minute the yellow comes out, with no one allowed to come in until the cars are formed up behind the safety car, is a mystery.

In fact not everyone had participated in the pit lane lunge: there were a couple of cars that had opted to stay out. One was Rubens Barrichello, which was fair enough as Williams had opted to start him on the hard tyres and go for a long first stint: switching to the super soft tyres for 55 remaining laps was just not viable. But the other hold-out was a lot more surprising and considerably more risky: Mark Webber. The team hadn’t wanted to stack their cars waiting for the pit box and risk losing positions, so they kept him out. Ferrari on the other hand did ring both cars in, and as a result Massa had to queue and lost fourth position to Lewis Hamilton.

Webber now took the lead of the race but he would still have to stop: could he pull out enough of a gap over the rest of the drivers to make this work? Red Bull’s team strategy was now clear, with Vettel either instructed or taking it on his own initiative to hang back and hold back the rest of the field to allow Webber to break away and pull out the 20s lead he would need to pit and come back out ahead of Alonso and Hamilton. So as the restart happened, Vettel bottled up the field as Webber disappeared and started to put in some dazzlingly fast laps.

Unfortunately, Vettel’s approach had fallen foul of the rules: he had dropped back so far from Webber and the safety car before the restart that he was in breach of the rules, which state that cars needed to stay within ten car lengths of each other under caution. The penalty came down: a drive-thru for Vettel. The German was incredulous, unable to work out what he was getting penalised for and the team not able to explain in detail over the radio. So Sebastian trudged through the pit lane, gesticulating his frustration, but managing to emerge in front of Massa even if Webber and Alonso were well up the road.

Webber, Alonso, Massa – someone missing, surely? Indeed there was. Unfortunately by this stage, Lewis Hamilton had exited the race. He slowed up on track on lap 24, finally pulling to a halt and climbing out by the side of e track. A rare mechanical failure – assumed to be transmission-based – had put an end to his day and meant that there was going to be a big change in the championship points standings.

Now the key interest was all focussed on Webber: how long could he make those worn super soft tyres work? How much of a gap could he pull out? Amazingly he stayed on the tyres for a whopping 43 laps, and even more astonishingly he was still putting in fastest sectors of the race when the team finally pulled him in, having decided that a 24s lap was finally a safe enough margin. It was, and then some: he was able to return to the track with his lead still formidable.

In fact Alonso had long since given up any thoughts of snatching the victory, because he’d seen through his rear-view mirrors Vettel eat through the gap that had been between them after Vettel’s drive-thru penalty, and now the Red Bull was all over him. But Hungary is not compared with Monaco for nothing: Alonso drove robustly and covered any and all openings, leaving no way for Vettel to pass despite the evident speed differential between Red Bull and Ferrari this weekend.

At this point the race was pretty much set, with Webber, Alonso and Vettel locked into the podium positions; but there would be one more incident that would have tongues wagging as Formula 1 packed up for its two week summer vacation.

Rubens Barrichello had been running up in fifth position 34s behind Massa before his mandatory pit stop which finally came on lap 56 with 14 laps remaining. He emerged in 11th position, and – as the team had planned – he was now on fresh super soft tyres just when everyone else was struggling with tyre wear. Could he gain a few positions in the time remaining?

The first challenge was his old team mate and sparring partner, the inimitable Michael Schumacher. And Schumacher, being the multiple world champion that he is, wasn’t about to give anything away – especially not when a single championship point was in the balance. He defended with all his skills and single-mindedness, even though it was clear that the Mercedes was no match for the newly-sprightly Williams. Time and again Rubens make a move, but Michael left his turns late and managed to block the Brazilian every time.

Coming on to lap 66, Rubens finally got an excellent run out of the final corner and had the raw speed to blast past Schumacher on the start/finish straight. But still Michael wasn’t about to yield: he forced Rubens far over to the right, allowing the Williams literally a car’s width between himself and the pit wall. One slight twitch from either driver and it would have been a disaster; and then the wall was finished and they flashed across the pit lane exit – fortunately no one coming out or else it would have all gone terribly wrong – and on to the grass verge, then Rubens was able to force Schumacher to move left and the Brazilian had the corner.

It had certainly got the heart racing. “That was horrible!” Rubens said over the radio, calling for Michael to get black flagged for the highly aggressive move. There was no immediate penalty but the stewards indicated that they would indeed investigate after the race and duly handed Michael a 10-place grid penalty for the next Grand Prix at Spa for “illegitimately impeding car 9 during an overtaking manoeuvre.” Michael, for his part, was adamant that he had done nothing wrong: “We know certain drivers have certain views and then there is Rubens,” said Schumacher to the BBC. “I’m known not to give presents on the track. If you want to pass me you have to fight for it, and so it was.

“As a driver, you have the ability to change the line once. That’s what I was driving to. Obviously there was space enough to go through,” he said, continuing his robust defence of his driving. “We didn’t touch, so I guess I just left enough space for him to come through.” However, other drivers and pundits watching the footage were startled by what they saw, almost unanimously condemning Schumacher and bewildered that the German hadn’t simply conceded that he’d overdone it rather than trying to blame Rubens. It seems the below-par Mercedes hardware Schumi’s returned to in F1 is perhaps exacerbating some of his old, much-criticised character flaws.

Anyway, the move was done and Rubens was rewarded with that final championship point – pulling out a whopping 19s lead over Schumacher in just the remaining four laps, emphasising just how much more speed he’d had – as the race concluded without further incident or controversy. Webber was naturally exuberant, but Vettel was notably subdued as he sulked his way back into parc fermé – warned over his team radio not to say anything about the matter until they’d had a chance to discuss it as a team in private and explain everything. Vettel obeyed, but his unhappiness was fully communicated via body language in the after-race ceremonies, and he intently quizzed the first FIA official he set eyes on (Herbie Blash) about what exactly he’d been penalised for. At least for once it wasn’t an intra-team civil war breaking out, and his congratulations to winner Webber were sincere enough.

And with that Formula 1 goes to the beach for two weeks, with an enforced shutdown for a fortnight. Not just no races: the teams can’t even turn on their CAD terminals back at base to tinker with new parts. No, everyone has to go and enjoy themselves on holiday. Whether they want to or not.

But a few team bosses will be going into that holiday with their brains buzzing at the thought that nothing and no one can now stop Red Bull. Are they just too far ahead of everyone else? Or will the final seven races of 2010 pull more surprises out of thin air and deliver more twists and turns before the next world champion is crowned?

Race result

Pos  Driver      Team                 Time
 1.  Webber      Red Bull-Renault     1:41:05.571
 2.  Alonso      Ferrari              +    17.821
 3.  Vettel      Red Bull-Renault     +    19.252
 4.  Massa       Ferrari              +    27.474
 5.  Petrov      Renault              +  1:13.100
 6.  Hulkenberg  Williams-Cosworth    +  1:16.700
 7.  De la Rosa  Sauber-Ferrari       +     1 lap
 8.  Button      McLaren-Mercedes     +     1 lap
 9.  Kobayashi   Sauber-Ferrari       +     1 lap
10.  Barrichello Williams-Cosworth    +     1 lap
11.  Schumacher  Mercedes             +     1 lap
12.  Buemi       Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +     1 lap
13.  Liuzzi      Force India-Mercedes +     1 lap
14.  Kovalainen  Lotus-Cosworth       +    3 laps
15.  Trulli      Lotus-Cosworth       +    3 laps
16.  Glock       Virgin-Cosworth      +    3 laps
17.  Senna       HRT-Cosworth         +    3 laps
18.  Di Grassi   Virgin-Cosworth      +    4 laps
19.  Yamamoto    HRT-Cosworth         +    4 laps

Fastest lap: Vettel, 1:22.362

Not classified/retirements:

Driver      Team                  On lap
Hamilton    McLaren-Mercedes      25
Kubica      Renault               25
Rosberg     Mercedes              17
Sutil       Force India-Mercedes  17
Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari    2

World championship standings after round 12

The success of Mark Webber (and the third place for Sebastian Vettel), coupled with a retirement for Lewis Hamilton and an anonymous race for Jenson Button, means that the balance of power in both championships has emphatically changed.

Coming into Hungary, McLaren had the one-two in the driver’s championship and the lead in the constructors. Now Mark Webber tops the driver’s battle, and Red Bull have at last displaced McLaren in the team stakes.

But only 20 points separates the top five drivers – less than the points for a single Grand Prix win in the newly revised FIA scoring system. It’s still very evenly balanced – providing the other teams can find some boost to their form in the remaining races of 2010 and prevent Red Bull and Webber/Vettel from sweeping all before them.

Drivers:               Constructors:             
 1.  Webber     161   1.  Red Bull-Renault     312
 2.  Hamilton   157   2.  McLaren-Mercedes     304
 3.  Vettel     151   3.  Ferrari              238
 4.  Button     147   4.  Mercedes             132
 5.  Alonso     141   5.  Renault              106
 6.  Massa       97   6.  Force India-Mercedes  47
 7.  Rosberg     94   7.  Williams-Cosworth     40
 8.  Kubica      89   8.  Sauber-Ferrari        23
 9.  Schumacher  38   9.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari    10
10.  Sutil       35  
11.  Barrichello 30  
12.  Petrov      17  
13.  Kobayashi   17  
14.  Liuzzi      12  
15.  Hulkenberg  10  
16.  Buemi        7  
17.  De la Rosa   6  
18.  Alguersuari  3 

If the 2010 Canadian Grand Prix had a strapline, it would probably be: the one where nothing happened as expected. And as such, it was great fun to see race engineers cycle from plan A to B to C in an effort to cope with increasingly unforeseen situations.

It all came down to the tyres. So far this season, tyre (and pit stop) strategy has been fixed and utterly predictable: the leading teams all use the soft option tyre for the final Q3 qualifying session, which then has to be used at the start of the race itself; its short life sees the teams pit around lap 20 and then stretch the harder tyre for the remaining laps to the end. “Simples”, as a leading meerkat celebrity in the UK would put it.

That went out of the window here. On Friday and Saturday it was clear that tyre wear at Montreal was on a scale they hadn’t seen before. On practice days, the rubber was barely lasting half a dozen laps before collapsing; hard tyres were also struggling, and there was bizarrely little difference in speed between them either. So this time out, the teams felt the only way forward was to use the harder tyres in qualifying and at the start of the race, and see how long they could stretch them in the race once the track started to rubber in.

Sensing an opportunity, McLaren had bucked the trend and opted to stick with the soft tyres. That had given Lewis Hamilton the edge to claim pole and break the 2010 run of pole positions for Red Bull. It didn’t work quite so well for Jenson Button, who qualified 5th, but he was buoyed by news that Mark Webber had been bumped from his front row start alongside Lewis by a penalty for changing his gearbox overnight and would start behind him in 7th after all.

Still, McLaren’s soft tyre option was a big gamble. To work, it really needed an early safety car to enable them to pit in a hurry and change to the harder compound. So McLaren (and Fernando Alonso too, starting from third also on soft tyres) would have been thrilled when all sorts of mayhem broke out on the first lap.

First we had Vitaly Petrov lose control into the first turn, and snap across the track collecting Pedro de la Rosa on the way, sending them both spinning onto the grass. Further ahead, we were seeing Jenson Button, Felipe Massa and Tonio Liuzzi all trying to go round a sharp corner three-wide, which was never going to be successful: on the outside line Button got away with just a bump, but Massa and Liuzzi went through a chain reaction of multiple contacts that left debris on track and both cars in urgent needs of help back in the pits. And just to cap off the first lap, Kamui Kobayashi ended up misjudging the final turn while battling with Nico Hulkenberg, launching himself into the air which was enough to cause him to lose control and end up crunching into the infamous wall of champions. Surely that was more than enough to bring out the safety car?

Actually – no, it wasn’t. To McLaren’s dismay, the earlier accidents were all cleared up (and the cars involved continued in the race), while even Kobayashi managed to limp the Sauber 300m on to park out of the way. There was nothing requiring a safety car here after all, and the race continued under green – just what McLaren didn’t want.

How long would the soft tyres last? About five laps. Even worse than anyone had feared, thanks to the track’s condition (there had been no race here for two years; coupled with some hostile Montreal weather and overnight rain both nights that kept washing the rubber off the track laid down in earlier sessions, which resulted in the worst possible combination for the tyres.) Pretty soon Vettel was all over the back of Hamilton for first, and Webber was climbing all over Button for fourth. Alonso was doing better on the soft tyres, able to stay out of trouble in the middle of all this, but it made for a multi-way battle for the lead that seemed to be going entirely Red Bull’s way.

By lap 7, with no safety car in the offing, McLaren had to abandon the soft tyres and brought Button in. Next lap around it was the leader’s turn; and Ferrari felt the same, bringing in Alonso at the same time. Alonso got the better stop and was out of his box quicker; McLaren released Hamilton just microseconds later, and the two ran dangerously wheel-to-wheel down the pit lane until finally Lewis had to concede – Fernando had pulled off the overtake.

That left Sebastian Vettel leading from Mark Webber, Robert Kubica, Michael Schumacher and Sebastien Buemi. But any smugness the leading group might have felt was rapidly diminishing as their own tyre performance started to fall off a cliff, while those of Hamilton and Alonso in clean air further back and on fresh rubber was giving them a huge advantage. Suddenly, just four laps later, the pack began to break up and started to come in for tyre changes: Red Bull held out longest, leaving it till lap 14 to call in Webber and then Vettel the next lap through, and when Vettel gambled with soft tyres – which didn’t stand a chance of making it 55 laps from here – it was clear that for the first time we were going to see a two-stop strategy if not a three-stop. We were in uncharted territory in the 2010 season rules and regulations, and at this point no one knew how it was going to pan out.

That briefly left Buemi out in the lead ahead of his own stop, but the delay had allowed the early stoppers enough time to overhaul any advantage Red Bull had established, and so Vettel found himself fourth ahead of Webber in fifth. Meanwhile Hamilton was not taking kindly to losing the pit lane duel with his old enemy Alonso; as they came up on still-to-pit Buemi, however, Alonso found his path momentarily blocked and he had to lift off a fraction. It was all the invitation that Hamilton needed, and he pounced into the final chicane on lap 16 to grab back the lead.

Alonso wasn’t letting Hamilton get away, though, and it was clear that Hamilton’s driving style was wearing this new set of hard tyres faster than Alonso’s, which meant that the Ferrari became an increasing threat as time went on. Alonso was just setting up a move on lap 27 when Hamilton abruptly called it quits and headed into the pit lane for a fresh set of rubber. That fired the starting gun for a new round of stops, with Button, Vettel and Nico Rosberg piling into the pits next time around, while Alonso stayed out a lap longer and set a fastest lap time in the process as he tried to eke out enough of a gap to retain the lead. It didn’t work: he came back out behind Lewis, and both of them were behind Mark Webber who had decided to tough it out a while longer.

There was still no safety car, not even when Adrian Sutil punctured a tyre and ran off the road at turn 1, leaving rubber debris on track. How could there not be a safety car? There’s always a full course caution in Montreal – it’s a North American tradition! The lack of a safety car for the entire afternoon will have foiled many a race strategy this weekend.

At this point of the race, Red Bull’s strategy with Webber looked like a race-winning one. He pulled out a 10s lead over Hamilton and Alonso, with Button and Vettel still in position further back. But things started going pear-shaped for the Aussie and by lap 40 the tyres were going off sharply, just at the same time he was coming up against traffic that was too busy having its own battles to make way for the leader. Webber started losing chunks of time, and yet still Red Bull oddly failed to bring him in; by lap 49 Hamilton was just a second back and clearly much faster than the ailing Webber. The next lap through, Hamilton sealed the deal with a a great move through turn 1 to take the lead once more; Webber pitted next time by, but by this point it seemed the failed strategy had consigned him to an unavoidable fifth place.

Surprisingly, Hamilton’s pace seemed better than Alonso’s at this point and he started to pull away in the lead. Nor was the advantage just for Lewis – Jenson Button also had a similar edge on Alonso, and was soon right up on the back of the Ferrari and threatening to make a move. Once again it was a delay in traffic for Alonso that allowed Button to apply the superior straight-line speed advantage of the controversial F-duct system to sail past and make it a McLaren 1-2 for the second race weekend in succession.

Any chance of a late charge by Red Bull evaporated with an increasingly concerned series of calls from the pit wall by team boss Christian Horner, making it clear that Vettel’s car was suffering a serious issue. Vettel sounded sceptical but complied, backing off so much that he ended up only a short distance ahead of Webber, but the concern seemed to be proved beyond doubt when the car stopped out on track without making it back to parc fermé.

It was a bad day for Michael Schumacher, who emerged from his own first pit stop on lap 14 right in front of Robert Kubica, but couldn’t hold him off without taking them both over the grass of the turn 3 chicane. This clearly affected the Mercedes and Schumacher had to pit again very shortly afterwards, an emergency that had far reaching consequences as it left the team trying to stretch their rubber far, far too long to avoid yet another pit stop – leaving Schumacher trying to manage a 30-lap stint on the soft tyres at the end. It was never going to work, and Michael was a sitting duck for car after car. He pulled out every possible trick in his world champion’s handbook, with some of the most ruthless moves we’ve seen from him in a long career: this included weaving and nudging his old friend and mentee Felipe Massa onto the grass verge coming down into the final chicane that damaged Massa’s front wing and caused the Brazilian to make a stop for a new nose next time around. Schumacher’s pace faded even further after this and he got shuffled back and out of the points.

It was also a pretty disastrous day for Vitaly Petrov, who after suffering the first turn collision with de la Rosa was then penalised with a drive-thru penalty for a jump start, and then a second time for causing the collision. His team mate Kubica had a sub-standard day after his clash with Schumacher on lap 14 left his own Renault with damaged aerodynamics; and he nearly had a nasty clash with Adrian Sutil as the two tangled for position down the long run to the final chicane: Kubica then decided to straight-line into the pit lane, right across Sutil’s line into the chicane. Sutil managed to see the danger and hold off on the turn, but it would have been a dangerous incident if the two had collided at right angles at such high speed. Unsurprisingly, the stewards reprimanded Kubica after the race.

It was an unfortunate day for Felipe Massa, who suffered from the errors of others to end up 15th despite an at-times inspired drive. He did at least get some small revenge on Force India, if not Liuzzi himself, for the first corner accident that ruined his day when – on lap 54 – he took advantage of Adrian Sutil battling with Heikki Kovalainen to slice down the side of the pair of them into turn 6, arguably the overtaking move of the race. He did however get a post-race 20s penalty for speeding in the pit lane after his collision with Schumacher, but it didn’t affect his race position.

But it was the very best of days for McLaren. Turkey had seen a 1-2 finish as well, but the atmosphere on the podium and in the paddock had been ominous: no such problems in Montreal, with Hamilton jubilant and completely transformed from his sulky post-Turkey demeanour and the body language between Hamilton and Button looking completely open, friendly and warm – especially in contrast to Alonso, in the final podium position, who said and did all the right things but whose body language suggested that old scars with Hamilton were very fresh in his mind to this day and who would prefer to be anywhere else than stuck on a podium with a load of McLaren people.

Hamilton has cause to be jubilant: with this win, he’s on top of the drivers’ championship, even as McLaren stretch their lead in the constructors. A couple of races ago we were thinking that all Red Bull had to do was avoid slip-ups, feuds and technical problems to claim the titles; but here they were out-thought and out-raced, beaten fair and square not only by the McLarens but even by Alonso in the Ferrari; and Massa (if he hadn’t been beaten up by Liuzzi at the start) might have been right in there, too.

Too early to tell whether this is a turning point in the 2010 season; but how brilliant that there are five top drivers so closely packed together in the battle. And how wonderful was this race, where the best laid plans of drivers and engineers were all sent into disarray, making for a good, old-fashioned, sometimes painful bare-knuckle fight rather than smoothly executed machine-tooled Plan As working their way to fulfilment.

Race result

Pos  Driver       Team                  Time
 1.  Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes      1h33:53.456
 2.  Button       McLaren-Mercedes      +     2.254
 3.  Alonso       Ferrari               +     9.214
 4.  Vettel       Red Bull-Renault      +    37.817
 5.  Webber       Red Bull-Renault      +    39.291
 6.  Rosberg      Mercedes              +    56.084
 7.  Kubica       Renault               +    57.300
 8.  Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari    +     1 lap
 9.  Liuzzi       Force India-Mercedes  +     1 lap
10.  Sutil        Force India-Mercedes  +     1 lap
11.  Schumacher   Mercedes              +     1 lap
12.  Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari    +     1 lap
13.  Hulkenberg   Williams-Cosworth     +     1 lap
14.  Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth     +     1 lap
15.  Massa        Ferrari               +     1 lap
16.  Kovalainen   Lotus-Cosworth        +    2 laps
17.  Petrov       Renault               +    2 laps
18.  Chandhok     HRT-Cosworth          +    4 laps
19.  Di Grassi    Virgin-Cosworth       +    5 laps

Fastest lap: Kubica, 1:16.972

Not classified/retirements:

     Driver       Team                  On lap
     Glock        Virgin-Cosworth       50
     Trulli       Lotus-Cosworth        43
     De la Rosa   Sauber-Ferrari        31
     Senna        HRT-Cosworth          14
     Kobayashi    Sauber-Ferrari        2

World Championship standings after round 8

Drivers:                Constructors:             
 1.  Hamilton    109    1.  McLaren-Mercedes     215
 2.  Button      106    2.  Red Bull-Renault     193
 3.  Webber      103    3.  Ferrari              161
 4.  Alonso       94    4.  Mercedes             108
 5.  Vettel       90    5.  Renault               79
 6.  Rosberg      74    6.  Force India-Mercedes  35
 7.  Kubica       73    7.  Williams-Cosworth      8
 8.  Massa        67    8.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari     8
 9.  Schumacher   34    9.  Sauber-Ferrari         1
10.  Sutil        23   
11.  Liuzzi       12   
12.  Barrichello   7   
13.  Petrov        6   
14.  Buemi         5   
15.  Alguersuari   3   
16.  Hulkenberg    1   
17.  Kobayashi     1   

Some races you can summarise in three lines because they are, frankly, rather dull. Other races you want to summarise in three lines because to try and extract even the slightest detail is to get sucked into a maelstrom from which there is no escape and only insanity awaits. This was the case with the 2010 Chinese Grand Prix, where whole books could be spun out of the events of just single laps.

So, okay, the three line summary: it rained, it dried, it rained again. The safety car came, went, returned at a suspiciously opportune moment. There was overtaking, strategy, controversy and incidents aplenty before the coolest head prevailed – just.

Right. Deep breath, and we’ll start pulling the threads apart and hope to avoid the tapestry unravelling into madness …

The formation lap saw light rain falling, but not quite enough to justify intermediate tyres from the get-go. Timo Glock’s Virgin had the inters on, but it wasn’t going anywhere – the team had left him up on the jacks as the rest of the field got underway. He was cleared away before the field came back for the start, but the team was unable to start him from the pit lane. He was joined in retirement by his team mate Lucas di Grassi early in the race, a bad day for Virgin.

Fernando Alonso got a simply unbelievable start, zipping past both Red Bulls on the front row. And by unbelievable, I mean exactly that – either he altered the universal laws of the universe or else he had jumped the start. Physicists everywhere were relieved when replays showed it was clearly the latter and he was handed a drive-thru penalty.

Meanwhile, Tonio Liuzzi triggered the big crash of the day when he lost control under braking into a hairpin, the car snapping away into a spin that unfortunately saw him running straight through the apex of the corner and collecting two of the cars that were running ahead of him, Sebastien Buemi and Kamui Kobayashi. All three were out of the race, and Nico Hulkenberg had to tiptoe his way through the wreckage, lucky not to get caught up in it.

With three cars sitting by the side of the road, a safety car was inevitable. And with the rain starting to build and conditions dipping, this meant the teams needed to make a fast call on whether to pit for intermediates. It was soon clear that the smart money was to do just that – Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber, Sebastian Vettel and Michael Schumacher all came in, as did Lewis Hamilton – just. He had actually gone past the pit lane entrance when the call was finally made and he had to swerve in to still make it.

That left Nico Rosberg, Jenson Button, Robert Kubica, Vitaly Petrov, Pedro de la Rosa and Heikki Kovalainen as the top six runners, but on slicks. This looked disastrous, and hence especially surprising that Button should get caught out given that it was his stunningly savvy call to switch early to inters in Australia that had won him the race. Instead, he seemed hoist on his own petard this time, doomed to a mediocre afternoon.

Except … Maybe not. The rain eased. Those on slicks were able to maintain decent pace, although Kovalainen was predictably easy prey to the superior horsepower behind him once the safety car came in and racing resumed. And with the track drying, the intermediates were cooking to death within minutes. Michael Schumacher, ever the wily old fox, was first to realise the situation and he was back in the pits next time around, and a lap later everyone else had to concede defeat and come in as well. Suddenly that call to stay out by Rosberg and Button didn’t look foolish in the least: indeed, now it looked like a race-winning one.

Rosberg comfortably led the race, pulling out a 4.5s lead by lap 20 but then the rain started to fall again resulting in Rosberg making an error, running off the road at turn 11 which allowed Jenson to be right back with the Mercedes. Button knew that this was the moment to pounce, and he did so, outpowering Rosberg down the straight into the hairpin to take the lead – one that he would never surrender, right through to the chequered flag, despite some late tyre and handling issues that caused him to lose much of his lead and cause a few tense moments at the end.

While Button’s rise to the top was as cool and smooth as we’ve come to expect from the world champion, the Adventures of Lewis Hamilton (Aged 25 And A Quarter) couldn’t have been more of a contrast. His first visit to the pits had been that wild, late dive that had everyone’s eyebrows climbing, but his second (for the change back to slicks after cooking in the inters) was even more dramatic, as he and Vettel did a side-by-side drag into the pit lane entrance. And then it got worse on the exit, as Vettel and Hamilton were released almost simultaneously. Vettel was alongside Hamilton, just ahead and on the proper outside line, but Hamilton would not yield. The two went side-by-side down the pit lane itself, Hamilton just inches from the pit box area where the mechanics were working and air hoses were hanging. Hamilton nearly slid sideways into the Williams pit crew at one point, and further down Vettel finally got tetchy with Hamilton and nudged him in a move that could have set off a disastrous chain reaction. Fortunately the danger passed, Hamilton had to concede and Vettel exited in the lead, but it was all disturbing stuff. Unsurprisingly both drivers were summoned to the stewards’ room after the race and given reprimands for their actions, but it’s a sign of a new maturity from the officials that no race-changing penalties were handed down and that the action on-track was allowed to stand.

With so many front runners now scattered down the field, there was a lot of action as they tried to climb back up. Vettel and Hamilton quickly passed Barrichello and then made short work of the struggling Webber (whose handling had been compromised by damage on the front right wheel during the pit stop) before coming up to the back of the Force India of Adrian Sutil. Vettel went for a move down the outside into the hairpin on lap 13, while Hamilton toyed with going down the inside and making it a three-way, but Lewis saw sense and pulled back. It was a wise call, Vettel and Sutil luring each other into outbraking, leaving Hamilton just the gap he needed to scoot past them both. Sutil managed to close the door on Vettel that time around, so it was another lap before Sebastian was able to make it past – by which time Lewis was half a straight ahead.

Now Hamilton had Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes to contend with – a face-off we’ve been looking forward to since the start of the season. Schuey obviously knows how to make it difficult for someone to pass and deployed all his consummate skills to that effect, frustrating the younger driver until lap 17 when Hamilton made a great dive up the inside Schumacher out of turn 13: they crossed at the apex of the next corner, but Lewis had the edge into the next and the move was completed, allowing him to start off after Vitaly Petrov in fourth place, 16s up the road.

But this was the moment the race changed again, with forecasts of rain – initially saying “the same as earlier, for ten minutes” but ultimately proving somewhat harder and far more persistent, lasting much of the remainder of the race. The teams started to call in their cars on lap 20 with Webber and Schumacher first in, and almost everyone else was called in the following time around and uniformly opted for intermediates despite the close call (Hulkenberg tried to be clever and went for slicks, only to immediately fall off the road and have to slink back to the pits as conditions worsened.) That single extra lap on inters worked wonders for Webber and Schumacher, however, who found themselves ahead of Hamilton and Vettel again.

And then immediately after the pit stops, there was another safety car deployment. This appeared to be caused by Jamie Alguersuari, who damaged his front wing on lap 21 on the back of a Hispania that he was lapping. That left debris on track even though the wing itself clung on by its fingertips; the wing finally fell off as Alguersuari entered the pit lane, scattering more debris there as well.

Even so, the lengthy safety car period seemed somewhat of an overreaction for such a minor incident: it seemed for all the world as if the race officials just wanted to spice things up by wiping out all those big gaps between cars that had developed after multiple pit stops by some and not others. This was great news for the likes of Hamilton, Vettel and Alonso, but bad news for Button, Rosberg and Kubica who had genuinely earned their impressive lead by holding their nerves and calling the right strategy. For those of us watching, however, this tightening up of the field made for a mouthwatering setup for the second half of the race.

The restart was messy. Jenson Button was in charge, and he slowed up to such a degree that the rest of the field almost piled into each other. It meant Jenson got a great jump on everyone but it wasn’t exactly the nicest move, and it had consequences involving Lewis Hamilton who now found himself in a Red Bull sandwich through the tight final corner, Webber on the outside and Vettel on the inside. Inevitably, Vettel struggled to hold the tighter line, moved out slightly which required Hamilton to give him space which in turn caused him to move out and push Webber off the edge of the track. Webber was not amused, but this one was a racing incident and no penalty or investigation by the marshalls was required.

Hamilton was now up to fifth, and no one could accuse him of having an uneventful day: if there was action, overtaking or controversy to be had in Shanghai, you’d also find Lewis Hamilton in close vicinity. And he wasn’t done yet, making it past Michael Schumacher for a second time into turn 8 on lap 26, and then getting past Vitaly Petrov at the same spot next time around to take fourth place. Now he had his sights on a podium finish and set about Robert Kubica, taking no prisoners with a move around the outside of the Renault into the hairpin on lap 29.

And still he wasn’t satisfied. He set about catching up to Nico Rosberg in second, who was clearly starting to struggle with rapidly wearing tyres but who put up a spirited defence to hold Hamilton back. Stymied, Hamilton opted to come in for his final set of new tyres on lap 37, the team hoping to learn from the experience with Schumacher/Webber earlier in the race and gain track position with the advantage of fresh inters for anextra lap. And it worked a treat, Rosberg coming in a lap later only to emerge behind the McLaren.

The sealed the top three, since even as tyres faded badly and everyone started slithering around in the concluding laps, none of the top three came seriously under threat. Fernando Alonso did manage to wrest fourth place from Robert Kubica on lap 39 to complete a very creditable recovery after the jump start, his tyre wear seeming the best among the front runners. Alonso had earlier needed to pull off a particularly vicious move on his team mate Felipe Massa as they came into the pits together on lap 21, running wheel-to-wheel alongside him on the pit entry and then cutting the corner to take a risky lead into the pit lane itself. That meant Alonso got to the pit box first while Massa sat behind, queuing and fuming, but given that Massa’s pace was never fast it’s just as well Alonso didn’t get stuck behind him for a lengthy stint.

The later laps were cruel to Michael Schumacher and Jamie Alguersuari, their tyres completely shot leaving them sitting ducks for the likes of Vitaly Petrov – who despite spinning out of fifth on lap 33, seemed to have the best tyres in the final part of the race and he put them to good use.

All in all, then, it was a frustrating day for Red Bull, who despite dominating qualifying and looking the class of the field, faded away into mediocrity on the race day itself. Partly that was due to some strategic naivety, but the car was also having worrying problems getting enough heat in its tyres in the wet and after the safety car. The Red Bull might be the class of the field in hot and sunny conditions, but it definitely has an Achilles heel in wet and changeable ones.

But the surprise was that McLaren should have been able to dominate the race instead, despite a disappointing qualifying. It wasn’t just a case of a single strategic decision giving them the advantage, either, because the two drivers had completely different approaches to the race – and yet ended up in a close one-two at the end of it. Button applied as much brainpower as horsepower, and his smooth no-drama style was vital; whereas Hamilton raced his socks off, providing drama and entertainment throughout the day.

McLaren are rewarded with a classy 1-2, and lead in both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships. And for the first time in their F1 careers, Button and Hamilton appeared on the podium together. Any thoughts that Button had made a mistake switching to McLaren are erased, and there’s talk of titles in the air in Woking in springtime.

Race results

Pos  Driver        Team                       Time
 1.  Button        McLaren-Mercedes           1h44:42.163
 2.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes           +     1.530
 3.  Rosberg       Mercedes                   +     9.484
 4.  Alonso        Ferrari                    +    11.869
 5.  Kubica        Renault                    +    22.213
 6.  Vettel        Red Bull-Renault           +    33.310
 7.  Petrov        Renault                    +    47.600
 8.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault           +    52.172
 9.  Massa         Ferrari                    +    57.796
10.  Schumacher    Mercedes                   +  1:01.749
11.  Sutil         Force India-Mercedes       +  1:02.874
12.  Barrichello   Williams-Cosworth          +  1:03.665
13.  Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari         +  1:11.416
14.  Kovalainen    Lotus-Cosworth             +     1 lap
15.  Hulkenberg    Williams-Cosworth          +     1 lap
16.  Senna         HRT-Cosworth               +    2 laps
17.  Chandhok      HRT-Cosworth               +    4 laps

Fastest lap: Hamilton, 1:42.061

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                         On lap
Trulli        Lotus-Cosworth               27
Di Grassi     Virgin-Cosworth              9
De la Rosa    Sauber-Ferrari               8
Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari           1
Kobayashi     Sauber-Ferrari               1
Liuzzi        Force India-Mercedes         1
Glock         Virgin-Cosworth              1

World Championship standings after round 4

Drivers:                    Constructors:             
 1.  Button        60        1.  McLaren-Mercedes          109
 2.  Rosberg       50        2.  Ferrari                    90
 3.  Alonso        49        3.  Red Bull-Renault           73
 4.  Hamilton      49        4.  Mercedes                   60
 5.  Vettel        45        5.  Renault                    46
 6.  Massa         41        6.  Force India-Mercedes       18
 7.  Kubica        40        7.  Williams-Cosworth           6
 8.  Webber        28        8.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari          2
 9.  Sutil         10       
10.  Schumacher    10       
11.  Liuzzi         8       
12.  Petrov         6       
13.  Barrichello    5       
14.  Alguersuari    2       
15.  Hulkenberg     1 

Has there ever been a season start more keenly awaited than this one? With so many changes, expectations were high: new teams, new drivers, new points system, new track layout, no refuelling, Schumacher back. It seemed almost literally anything could happen.

And what happened … felt very much like business as usual. Which felt very odd at the same time that it felt normal, and certainly seemed anticlimactic especially when compared with the astounding events that kicked off the 2009 season and set the sport on its head.

Of course, if you’re a Ferrari or a Fernando Alonso fan, you’ll view today’s events with the same dizzying sense of ecstasy that Brawn/Button fans experienced twelve months ago. Certainly the result – and the relative ease of Ferrari’s eventual triumph – very much endorses Maranello’s decision to call time on the 2009 season very early on and turn its attentions to 2010 development. It should send chills down the spines of its rivals, too, who have to wonder whether anyone will have a chance of stemming a red tide.

Red Bull (in the shape of Sebastian Vettel) were the only threat to Alonso and Felipe Massa today. He converted pole to an impressive lead and pulled away with seeming ease, at one stage putting a full second a lap on second placed Alonso. But Vettel’s performance was bookended by team mate Mark Webber’s experience, and he was having a more problematic day.

To start with, his engine belched smoke in the manner of James Bond’s Aston Martin smokescreen gadget as Webber went through the first turn. The smoke unsighted the cars behind which led to a clash between Robert Kubica’s Renault and the two Force India cars. Kubica and Adrian Sutil ended up spinning and falling back to the rear of the pack, while Webber was able to carry on with no further ill effects but the momentary loss of power at the critical corner cost him positions that he was never able to recover, and he would labour in traffic for the rest of the afternoon unable to show whether Vettel’s display upfront was a one-off down to the driver, or the true pace of the Red Bull.

That first corner also saw Alonso sneak past Massa for second place behind Vettel, and Alonso was clearly the stronger of the two Ferraris while Nico Rosberg got past Lewis Hamilton for 4th place, which was to hold up the McLaren for much of first stage of the race until the round of pit stops enabled Hamilton to get the position back when Rosberg had to be held in his pit box briefly because of incoming traffic (ironically, Hamilton’s team mate Jenson Button coming in) on his own pit stop next time around on lap 17.

After that, for a time things rather settled down into a routine that would not have been out of place in any season in the last two decades. None of the rule changes really seemed to have tackled the fundamental problem of the sport: that overtaking is absent. No one can get close enough to try, and so everyone ends up playing safe. Removing refuelling (which was meant to remove the “let’s wait till the pit stops” thinking) does nothing to tackle that problem; indeed, it removed one of the most interesting, intriguing and surprising aspects of years past and added nothing in return.

Although mandatory pit stops per se are not part of the rules, the need to run both prime and option tyres during the race imposes at least one stop. Unfortunately, the option tyres had such short life on the superheated tarmac of Sakhir that everyone got them over and done with as soon as possible, and then hunkered down for the remaining 30 or so laps nursing their rubber like a drunk with their beer.

As the race wore on (and the tyres wore down), things did perk up as everyone started to develop some technical problems or other. unsurprisingly the new teams were the worst hit, with Karun Chandhok crashing on the second lap (unsurprisingly given his total lack of practice time) and his Hispania team mate Bruno Senna, Virgin’s Timo Glock and Luca Di Grassi, and Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi and Pedro de la Rosa all retiring from assorted hydraulic and gearbox problems before the end, along with Renault’s Vitaly Petrov who retired in the pits with suspension damage.

Sebastien Buemi also ground to a halt before the end, as did Jarno Trulli who had been suffering hydraulic problems for much of the latter part of the race, but both were close enough to the finish to be classified 16th and 17th respectively. With Jarno’s team mate Heikki Kovalainen making it to the finish (albeit a lap down) it means that Lotus alone of all the new teams managed to get both cars to the end, a significant achievement for such a hastily thrown-together outfit.

Nor were the long-standing big teams immune from problems. Both McLaren drivers were told to take care of overheating brakes, while Ferrari fretted about their engines overheating in dirty air and eating up precious fuel at an accelerated rate, a major concern especially as the team had already been forced into replacing both cars’ engines overnight – without penalty, but still a major worry to be on your second engine on the first race of the year when you only have eight in total to see out the 19-race season.

But up front, nothing seemed to be troubling Sebastian Vettel. Nothing, that is, until lap 34, when suddenly the engine developed a very sour note that was painfully obvious to everyone within earshot: a spark plug had failed him. That put the engine down on power, which was painfully obvious as both Ferraris rapidly chased him down and them breezed past him as if standing still. A few moments later and Lewis Hamilton showed up and repeated the feat, leaving Vettel to wonder who else would stream past him.

In fact, the early gap that the leaders had stretched out kept him safe until the last three laps, and when Nico Rosberg did finally arrive on his tail he was strangely unable to repeat the feats of his peers, and Vettel was able to keep him behind relatively easily until the chequered flag. Vettel might have been ruing the loss of a famous victory, but he may also have cause to celebrate the damage limitation that still secured him a valuable 12pts in the new F1 scoring system.

Once in the lead, Alonso nailed some impressive laps to put his seal on the race, leaving Massa far behind – although Massa wasn’t putting up a fight and just looking after his engine and tyres in what was by any reckoning an impressive and stirring return to form after being sidelined for eight months by the horrific accident in the middle of the 2009 season.

Behind Hamilton, Vettel and Rosberg, a strangely anonymous Michael Schumacher circulated with no perceptible impact as he tried to get used to all the new rules since his heyday, ahead of world champion Jenson Button who was busy fending off a frustrated Mark Webber. Vitantonio Liuzzi held up Force India’s honour by coming ninth after Sutil’s first lap spin put him out of contention. Even so, Sutil recovered to 12th place right behind the man with whom he’d clashed, Kubica: it’s a shame that both men received zero reward for such impressive fightbacks.

Rubens Barrichello ended in the last points-paying position in tenth, while his rookie team mate Nico Hulkenberg had a good day but was undone by his Williams getting a “tank slapper” on lap 3 in the fast downhill section of the track causing him to spin out and need to slink back to the pits for new tyres well out of sequence.

But at the end of the day, everyone was left wondering where all the changes had left them, and whether it was all for the better or worse. “It’s the start and then after it is just sort of go your pace and not do mistakes,” was veteran Michael Schumacher’s take. “Overtaking is basically impossible, other than if somebody makes a mistake,” he added. “”That’s the action we are going to have with unfortunately this kind of environment of race strategy.”

Even so, the seven times world champion declared his return to the sport to have been “great fun”. And while it didn’t have the emotional high of Australia 2009, Bahrain 2010 certainly did an accomplished job in kicking off the new season and we can but hope that the new rules – as well as all the struggling new teams – will bed in quickly to produce a vintage year of Formula 1.

Race result

Pos  Driver        Team                       Time
 1.  Alonso        Ferrari                    1h39:20.396
 2.  Massa         Ferrari                    +    16.099
 3.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes           +    23.182
 4.  Vettel        Red Bull-Renault           +    38.713
 5.  Rosberg       Mercedes                   +    40.263
 6.  Schumacher    Mercedes                   +    44.180
 7.  Button        McLaren-Mercedes           +    45.260
 8.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault           +    46.308
 9.  Liuzzi        Force India-Mercedes       +    53.089
10.  Barrichello   Williams-Cosworth          +  1:02.400
11.  Kubica        Renault                    +  1:09.093
12.  Sutil         Force India-Mercedes       +  1:22.958
13.  Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari         +  1:32.656
14.  Hulkenberg    Williams-Cosworth          +     1 lap
15.  Kovalainen    Lotus-Cosworth             +     1 lap
16.  Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari         +    3 laps
17.  Trulli        Lotus-Cosworth             +    3 laps

Fastest lap: Alonso, 1:58.287

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                         On lap
De la Rosa    Sauber-Ferrari               30
Senna         HRT-Cosworth                 18
Glock         Virgin-Cosworth              17
Petrov        Renault                      14
Kobayashi     Sauber-Ferrari               12
Di Grassi     Virgin-Cosworth              3
Chandhok      HRT-Cosworth                 2

Championship standings after round 1

Drivers:                    Constructors:             
 1.  Alonso        25        1.  Ferrari                    43
 2.  Massa         18        2.  McLaren-Mercedes           21
 3.  Hamilton      15        3.  Mercedes                   18
 4.  Vettel        12        4.  Red Bull-Renault           16
 5.  Rosberg       10        5.  Force India-Mercedes        2
 6.  Schumacher     8        6.  Williams-Cosworth           1
 7.  Button         6       
 8.  Webber         4       
 9.  Liuzzi         2       
10.  Barrichello    1       




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