Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel proved once again that he’s a leading contender for this year’s Formula 1 top honors. He led the grand prix at Valencia from pole, and controlled the race virtually from red lights to checkers. He was joined on the podium by the McLaren duo of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, who are currently the leader and runner up in the points standings.
Clearly, the most decisive moment of the race was Mark Webber’s crash on lap 9. He rear-ended a weaving Heikki Kovalainen, and used the Finn’s Lotus as a launching pad. Webber’s Red Bull shot upwards, flipped in a somersault, landed upside down and tumbled into the runoff zone, where he came to a stop right-side up. The crash was frightening, but Webber quickly showed that he was still full of life by angrily tossing his steering wheel over the broken nose of his car.
While it initially appeared that Kovalainen had been trying to get out of Webber’s way, as the two cars had a massive difference in pace, Kovalainen later revelaed that he’d been placing his car defensively. True, they were scrapping for position, but the performance difference between the Red Bull and the Lotus is so great that they can barely be said to be in the same formula. As if to prove the point, Kovalainen threw out an anchor about 60 meters ahead of where Webber would have marked the beginning of his own braking zone, and therein lay the catalyst for the accident. Taking a defensive racing line is one thing, but throwing your car into reverse is another.
Teh saftey car was naturally deployed after Webber’s mishap, and therein lay much of the drama for the remainder of the race. Michael Schumacher, who has thus far endured a rather torrid comeback season, had hauled himself into third during the initial pitstop shuffle. He then pitted himself, hoping to take advantage of the safety car window, only to be detained by a red light at the end of pit lane, while he watched the safety car lead the entire field past in formation. Schumacher joined them dead last.
In another twist of fate, Lewis Hamilton managed to squeak by the safety car as was it initially deployed. Although Fernando Alonso was only a few meters behind Hamilton, he was forced to queue up behind the safety car, along with a train of several other cars that were similarly unlucky. This allowed Hamilton to build a margin between himself and Alonso, such that Alonso ended up 9th and Hamilton 3rd.
Hamilton later served a drive-through penalty, but by then he’d built up such a gap that he was able to serve his penalty and rejoin the track without losing position. Ferrari later condemned the situation as “a scandal,” and Alonso himself claimed that the race had been “manipulated.”
After the race, a total of nine cars were penalized for flouting safety car rules, as Hamilton had down, and for their infractions they received five-second penalties against their overall race times — a penalty which had scant impact on the final results. In fact, a five second penalty would have substantially less of an impact than a drive-trough penalty.
When the checkers fell, the top ten slots were mostly filled by the usual suspects. Exceptions: Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi, who made a late race charge on fresh tires, and Rubens Barrichello, who stayed out of trouble, and showed that the Williams is capable of a decent result when conditions are right.
Ironically, Williams proved to be stronger than Mercedes this weekend. Mercedes pilot Nico Rosberg, who was at Williams for the past four seaons, must have been scratching his head in bemusement. And as for Rosberg’s team mate, German ace Michael Schumacher, his race was ruined by saftey car debacle. In the late stages of the race, he traded fastest laps with Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, but in the end he finished out of the points.
Although the race was exciting, the excitement was mostly derived from Webber’s misfortune and the pit-stop chaos that erupted in its wake. If not for that, the race would’ve been mostly a processional. It was a far cry from the tire centered drama that unfolded at Montreal. Hopefully, Bridgestone will be able to supply sticky-soft tires that degrade after a lap or two at the next venue, Silverstone. In the fuel ban era, deploying tires with the half-life of a neutrino seems to be the antidote to hum-drum races, even if it does seem to be a contrived solution.
One has to wonder what sort of mayhem will be wrought next year when movable rear wings are introduced. It’s not so much the wings themselves that are apt to be problematic. It’s the complicated rules governing their use. They make the safety car rules look simply by comparison.