Sunday, 22 June 2008

French Grand Prix Race Report: Ferrari to the fore on their favourite track

Felipe Massa retook the lead in the F1 World Driver's Championship with a comfortable victory for Ferrari in today's French Grand Prix. He was able to lead home his teammate Raikkonen for a dominant 1-2 Ferrari whitewash, while one of their biggest rivals suffered a nightmare day ending up in a lowly 10th place.

From the start it was formation flying for the Ferraris as Raikkonen led Massa through turn 1, and they were able to set about building a healthy lead at the front. Alonso in third place had a poor getaway and was immediately at the mercy of Trulli and Kubica. Both drivers got through, but Kubica got ambitious down the outside of the Adelaide hairpin and Alonso was able to recover one of the positions he had lost.

Many eyes were on Hamilton and Kovalainen, both well down the field after receiving penalties, to see what kind of start they would make. In truth, neither driver got off to a great start. Hamilton got stuck behind Heidfeld on the grid, and Kovalainen got held up with the Red Bull of David Coulthard plummeting down the field after a poor start. The biggest drama of the opening laps was yet to come however, and it involved another controversial incident for Lewis Hamilton.

He knew he had to get past as many cars as he could as fast as he could, and the next man in his sights was Sebastien Vettel. He got alongside him on the run down to the Nurburgring chicane and tried an ambitious move down the outside. He got through, but couldn't avoid running wide and cutting across the second half of the chicane. It was a very marginal call, but Hamilton decided NOT to give the position back to Vettel. It looked as though he had gotten away with it, but after what seemed like an age the announcement came that the race stewards were investigating the incident. After a few minutes the inevitable drive-through penalty came, effectively ruining his chances of a decent finish.

By the time the penalty was announced Hamilton had passed his team mate and was bottled up behind the Renault of Nelson Piquet. Unusually, the McLaren didn't really have the pace to get past the Renault. Even when Lewis got into the slipstream of Piquet he didn't have anywhere near the straight line speed to make a pass into the hairpin. Even without the drive through penalty the McLaren didn't really look quick enough to have made it through the field to get a podium finish.

Meanwhile, at the front of the grid it was as easy as can be for the Ferraris. Raikkonen was beginning to build a gap to Massa, and Massa was leaving Trulli for dead in third. It didn't look as though anyone could stop Raikkonen from winning, and from it being a comfortable Ferrari 1-2 finish.

Trulli was holding firm in third place with Alonso and Kubica in close company. As was suspected, Alonso was running very light in qualifying and was the first man to pit. He came out right in front of his old adversary Lewis Hamilton, and it wasn't long until they were swapping paint again! Neither car was damaged as Hamilton squeezed past the fat-with-fuel Renault, but it was more high risk,scrappy driving from Hamilton.

Alonso's early stop meant that Kubica was able to emerge from his stop ahead of him, and was now hot on the heels of Trulli in third. Trulli was putting in an excellent performance, and although he wasn't able to keep on the pace of the Ferraris he was managing to hold Kubica and Alonso at arms length. It looked as though the battle for the final podium place was going to be the most interesting on track squabble for the rest of the day. Kubica and Alonso had always been in contention, and now Kovalainen had played his way firmly into the picture after being fuelled very heavy from the start.

However, the action at the front wasn't over by a long shot. Although we didn't see much of it on the TV screens, we could see from the timing screens that Raikkonen was all of a sudden losing about a second and a half per lap. Massa was closing on him at a rate of knots, and it seemed like Kimi definitely had a problem. Eventually the cameras picked up Raikkonen and we could see his right hand exhaust exit flapping in the air stream. It wasn't long before Massa was right on his tail, and the only sensible option was for Kimi to let his team mate through. In doing so he was effectively handing the the world title lead to Massa, and losing even further ground in his title defence.

Eventually Raikkonen's times stabilised and he was able to make second place comfortably his own. Not great news for Raikkonen exactly, but we saw Michael Schumacher have to retire from a race with a broken exhaust in 2000, so it could potentially have been much worse for him.

Behind him the heat was on in the battle for third. Kovalainen had closed to within about a second of Trulli with 10 laps to go, and was pushing hard just as drops of rain began to fall. The rain turned out not to be too severe and was only enough to cause a few slippery moments here and there. Kubica was holding station in fifth place, waiting to pounce on any kind of incident between the McLaren and Toyota and a the potential for a collision was certainly there as Kovalainen was pushing Trulli extremely hard. A few years ago here Rubens Barrichello stole a podium finish from Trulli in the dying moments, and Kovalainen was hoping for a similar moment of weakness from the Italian.

Behind the battle for third there was a final bit of drama for Fernando Alonso. After all the promise from qualifying yesterday it had all gone wrong for the Spaniard. On badly worn soft tyres he was in a battle with Mark Webber, and he ran badly wide in the hairpin. However, not only did Webber gain a place but his young team mate Piquet also squeezed through, resulting in the first really impressive performance from Piquet in his F1 career.

In the final two laps Kovalainen knew he had to make a brave move if he was to snatch the podium away from the impressive Trulli. He got a good run out of '180' and pulled alongside the Toyota on the run up to the second high speed chicane. It was always going to be in incredibly ballsy move to pull off, and in the end it was a move too far the Finn. After some contact at 160+ mph Kovalainen had to take to the escape road and settle for fourth place and some decent championship points for the first time in a while.

Out front Massa cruised serenely to his third victory of the year, and put himself into pole position for the long title run in. Raikkonen scored points for the first time in a few races, but his race will still be tinged with a bit of disappointment. Jarno Trulli was undoubtedly the driver of the day though. Not only was he quick throughout the day he also had to withstand severe pressure from a number of different drivers throughout the day. It was a real highlight in his career, and a fitting tribute to the founder of Toyota Motorsport Ove Andersen who tragically lost his life in a rallying incident in the past week.

Going into the British Grand Prix Massa leads the title but it is certainly close. The top four drivers (Massa, Kubica, Kimi and Hamilton) are separated by just ten points, so it's still anyone's game from now until the end of the season...

No comments: