Sunday, 27 April 2008

Spanish Grand Prix: Race Review

Kimi Raikkonen cruised to one of the easiest victories he will ever earn in today's Spanish Grand Prix. After securing pole position with an excellent lap in qualifying yesterday he was the clear favourite for the 10 points, and he didn't disappoint with a flawless lights to flag victory. The 130,000 strong Spanish crowd were left deflated as their hero Fernando Alonso didn't make it to the chequered flag, whilst Lewis Hamilton returned to the podium after his dismal weekend last time out in Bahrain.

In truth it was a fairly dull race, as they usually are at the Circuit de Catalunya. There were a couple of safety car periods which inevitably closed the field somewhat to keep things quite tight in the top four places, but without those it would have been a truly awful race.

Off the start line Kimi Raikkonen made a decent start which enabled him to reach turn one in the lead, which perfectly set up his race win. Crucially, behind him the man with the best start was Felipe Massa who was able to squeeze around Fernando Alonso and into second place. Lewis Hamilton put his nightmare start in Bahrain behind him and made a great move on Robert Kubica to take fourth place.

Going into turn four Adrian Sutil in the Force India tried a ridiculously over-ambitious move on David Coulthard which resulted in contact and a spin. Sadly Sebastien Vettel was left with nowhere to go and collided with Sutil's stricken car. Rotten luck for young Vettel as it saw the end of both of the young German drivers' races. This brought out the first safety car of the day and allowed the pack to close up behind Raikkonen.

From the restart there was little movement in the field, largely due to the high speed, high downforce nature of the Barcelona circuit. Raikkonen was setting fastest laps out front, Massa was in tow, and Alonso was able to keep Hamilton at bay (much to the delight of the Spanish fans).

Nelson Piquet had another disappointing race in what is proving to be a tricky debut season for the Brazilian. He had an off braking into turn 10 losing him numerous places, and then whilst attempting to recover he made an ambitious late move on Sebastien Bourdais in the same corner. They came into contact and both cars ended up retiring with broken front suspension. Both Toro Rossos were out after just a handful of laps, completing a miserable weekend for the team.

As indicated by Alonso's remarkable qualifying performance, the Renault was the lightest car on the grid and he was first to pit. However, Alonso didn't appear to be quite as light as we may have expected - only a couple of laps lighter than Massa - so it seems Renault really have made a huge leap forward in pace. Inevitably the early stop for Alonso allowed Hamilton to gain a position into third, and he now had the Ferraris in his sights and a mirror full of BMW.

Everything was routine for the Ferraris in the first round of stops and they rejoined comfortable first and second. Davidson sadly had to retire due to a punctured radiator after some track debris, and then came the biggest incident of the race. Whilst approaching the super-fast, blind right-hand Campsa corner Heikki Kovalainen suffered a freak failure on his front left corner. This sent him spearing off across the gravel trap at close to 140mph, and he eventually came to a sickening halt by diving underneath the tyre barriers. The scene was reminiscent of Luciano Burti's horrible accident at Blanchimont, Spa in 2001, and the level of obvious concern shown by the track marshalls was also similar.

The safety car and medical car were immediately deployed, and there followed around 10 minutes of anxious waiting for any news of the fate of Kovalainen. There were huge sighs of relief all round when the cameras picked up Heikki Kovalainen being stretchered away giving a big thumbs-up to the applauding crowd. All the news so far suggests that he has no serious injuries.

The safety car was terrible news for Nick Heidfeld as he was the last man yet to stop, and was running out of fuel. He had to come in to refuel while the pitlane was effectively closed, meaning he would have to take a penalty once the race resumed. It completely ruined his race, putting him in last place on the track. This rule really needs to be changed as it seems to serve no real purpose, and penalises those like Heidfeld purely out of bad luck.

As the race got underway Hamilton was close to the Ferraris and Kubica was still keeping him honest. Those front four gradually disappeared into the distance leaving the rest of the field miles behind. The pattern of the rest of the race was now set with Hamilton able to keep in touch with Massa and Kubica able to hold onto Hamilton, but whenever they got within a second of the man in front they were hit with terrible understeer from the dirty air in front. This track simply does not provide good racing. There are too many high speed corners and not enough long braking zones for drivers to make moves.

This was highlighted by the fact that Nick Heidfeld was having a torrid time getting past Fisichella despite having a massively quicker car. It eventually took a mistake from Fisi in the final corner for Heidfeld to be able to get a run on him down the main straight and make an excellent move around the outside of turn one. On most circuits it would have been like taking candy from a baby for a BMW to get past a Force India, but not here. In fact, the stats now show that it is EIGHT races in a row where the pole sitter has cruised to victory here. Let's hope the new European Grand Prix down the road in Valencia will be a bit more interesting!

With a dozen or so laps to go Timo Glock made a silly move on Coulthard which damaged both of their cars, and will probably result in him having a penalty of some sort handed down to him at a later date. Again, the nature of the track meant Coulthard found it difficult even to get past Sato despite having a car that was about 4 seconds a lap faster at that point in the race!

Whilst making his record equalling 256th race appearance Rubens Barrichello somehow managed to knock his own front wing off while pitting. This eventually caused damage to his car and resulted in a retirement. Then the Spanish crowds were hearbroken by a massive engine failure in the back of Alonso's R28. It was rotten luck for Alonso who was driving a decent race and was probably due a fifth place finish. That meant Rosberg inherited a points paying position, but that wasn't to last long as his Toyota engine blew and the Williams ground to a halt on the main straight.

You could almost sense the frustration of the likes of Kubica and Hamilton as they were both pushing extremely hard but didn't really have a hope in hell of getting close enough to try a pass. They both drove great races but weren't really able to put on much of a show for the crowd. However, they will both be heartened as they showed good race pace and were not crushed by the Ferraris as some had expected them to be. Ferrari clearly have the upper hand at the moment, but McLaren and BMW are both still in there fighting hard, and it's not over by a long shot.

Behind the front four Webber, Button, Nakajima and Trulli all had good but very quiet races to round out the rest of the points paying positions. The unlucky Heidfeld wasn't able to recover after his penalty and finished ninth, losing his second place in the driver's championship in the process. Fisichella put in one of the performances of the day to come tenth after running as high as eighth place at one point. Encouraging signs for Force India.

So moving on to Turkey, the Ferrari team cemented their advantage in both championship races, and Kimi Raikkonen will now be on very short odds to take his second consecutive WDC. However, there were encouraging signs for McLaren (freak accidents aside) as they seem to have gotten over their little blip last time out. BMW too are still consistently there or thereabouts. It's still all to play for...

Provisional Race Results

1. Raikkonen
2. Massa
3. Hamilton
4. Kubica
5. Webber
6. Button
7. Nakajima
8. Trulli
9. Heidfeld
10. Fisichella
11. Glock
12. Coulthard
13. Sato
ret Rosberg
ret Alonso
ret Barrichello
ret Kovalainen
ret Davidson
ret Bourdais
ret Piquet
ret Sutil
ret Vettel

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