It was a bitter-sweet day in Barcelona for the Red Bull team. Mark Webber won the race handily from pole, while Sebastian Vettel struggled with a variety of problems throughout the race, including failing brakes, a poorly timed pit stop, an off-road excursion and a near collision with a back-marker. Vettel still managed to make the podium, inheriting third place when an Lewis Hamilton retired late in the race.
Races at Barcelona are often won on Saturday. In recent years, the pole-sitter has typically gone on to victory on Sunday. There is precious little overtaking at the Circuit de Catalunya, and at least among evenly matched cars, so qualifying is critical, and today’s race was a textbook example.
Webber defended his position from Vettel going into turn one, determined not to repeat the mistake he made in Malaysia this year, when he let Vettel slip by him. Fortunately for the Aussie, it wasn’t deja vu all over again. Webber held first, and never looked back. He was able to steadily pull out a lead, leaving Vettel and Hamilton in his wake. From then on, most of the lead cars held station, with overtaking occurring primarily as a result of traffic or pit stops.
“Today was a special day,” said Webber after the race, “no doubt about it and I’m very happy to capitalise on the pole position. It’s an aggressive run in to turn one with the slip stream and the big head wind and I knew the guys would be arriving in the braking zone, so I needed to be very precise with everything into there. I had that covered and then settled into the race.”
Hamilton was the only driver who seemed to have a chance of taking the fight to the Red Bulls, and the McLaren driver was ultimately able to slide past Vettel when the German was balked by a backmarker. While Hamilton was the beneficiary of Vettel’s troubles for a time, the tables turned late in the race when Hamilton suffered either a puncture or a rim failure.
“Today, I was looking good to split the Red Bulls,” Hamilton said, “and it would have been perfect for us in both world championships if I could have finished second this afternoon. I was just nursing the car to the finish line, then I suddenly felt the steering go, and then there was immediately a failure on the left-front corner. I didn’t sense anything odd before the accident – the car was feeling great – so that’s why it was such a surprise.”
Hamilton’s retirement elevated Fernando Alonso to the runner up position, much to the delight of his Spanish fans. “I am happy with getting this second place in front of my fans,” Alonso said after the race. “I am happy for them, but especially for the team, who have worked so hard this weekend without making mistakes. It’s true the result came in an unexpected way, but that’s racing. We knew we could expect a difficult Grand Prix, because on tracks like this we still don’t have enough aerodynamic downforce to fight for pole position and the win, even if the races are very long and that was confirmed yet again today. In circumstances like this we have to try and attack and exploit every opportunity.”
Sebastian Vettel also managed to reach the podium as a result of Hamilton’s misfortune. But the young German was far from satisfied. While he conceded that Webber was “in a league of his own” today, he nevertheless felt frustrated by a variety of problems that hampered his performance, his third place finish not withstanding.
“A lot of things didn’t go my way today,” Vettel said to the press. “The start was okay; there was no chance to get past Mark, but also it wasn’t worth taking the risk. It was quite slippery, so I didn’t want to take a run down the outside. I was not quick enough today. I struggled a lot with the balance of the car. The car’s fast – Mark was in his own league today, but for some reason I found it difficult. There were a few problems. I was unlucky as I had a slow stop and had to wait in the pit box for the Ferrari to drive past and then Jenson was coming in, so it felt very long!”
Michael Schumacher finished behind Vettel, in fourth. It was the best finish of the seven-time champ’s season thus far. Mercedes introduced a much-publicized longer wheelbase on the W01 this weekend, along with other upgrades, and the car seems much better suited to Schumacher’s driving style. He was quicker than Nico Rosberg all weekend. Schumacher was able to pass Jenson Button for fifth when the McLaren driver had just emerged from a pit stop, and was still on cold tires, and the German successfully defended his position for the remainder of the race, but Schumacher said that the Mercedes still lacks the pace needed to contend for podiums and wins.
“It was quite an entertaining race right from the start even if we knew from the beginning that there would not be a chance for us to compete for a podium place if everything goes as normal,” Schumacher said. “Still it was exciting for me to manage to keep the position that I gained but then, I am obviously not too happy as today we could only defend. All we could do was to hope for reliability problems of others in order to make up positions and that’s not really what you want to do. It was an interesting fight with Jenson but all I could do is try to not give him a possibility to overtake. In the end the gap to the front is just too big to be really happy after this race. For Monaco, we hope that the characteristics of the track will suit our car better.”
Schumacher’s team mate, Nico Rosberg, found himself unable to capitalize on the car’s upgrades, however. He struggled with the car all weekend, and finished 13th.
As for Jenson Button, who finished fourth, he contended that he might have made better progress during the race had he not been held up by Schumacher – who, naturally, was defending his position. Referring to Schumacher’s pass, Button said, “When I rejoined the track, I didn’t know where Michael was. Into Turn One, he turned in, and if I hadn’t backed out of it, we would probably have crashed. As everyone knows, it’s almost impossible to overtake around here, and Michael was moving about a bit to make sure I couldn’t get past. That was frustrating because the pace of my car was really good this afternoon, but that doesn’t make any difference if you can’t overtake.”
On the whole, there were few surprises during the race. There seemed to be more mechanical failures than overtaking maneuvers, and it seemed to be a day when being lucky was at least as important as being good.
One notable aspect of today’s finish, however, was that we’ve now seen four different winners in the first five races. Points leader Jenson Button is the only driver to have won more than a single race. The points standings seem remarkably fluid, with no single driver being dominant at the moment. Clearly, the new points system has amplified the the points volatility. Kudos to the FIA for instituting that change.
Although Red Bull clearly seems to be the class of the field in terms of outright pace, and might have been more dominant up to now, they’ve been plauged by niggling reliability concerns which have hampered their results. Arguably, Vettel might have have had two additional wins under his belt, had it not been for mechanical glitches.
And while Red Bull might be quickest, there seems to be a natural rotation at work, with various teams thriving at certain venues and lagging a bit at others. Weather has also played a significant role in the results. The first leg of this season has been the wettest since 1993.
While not all of this season’s races have been equally exciting (the opener in Bahrain was on a par with watching paint dry), the season as a whole holds the promise of being one of the least predictable in decades.