This year’s European Grand Prix was not the best race we’ve seen so far this year — but at least it wasn’t the utter snoozer we had last year. There are at least a few interesting talking points.
First, of course, is the performance of Rubens Barrichello, which was truly masterful. For once, the most experienced driver in the history of F1 has shown that the statistic doesn’t just mean he’s old — it means he can do the business as well. It is his first win for five years, and who would begrudge him this one?
Brawn were forced to spend Friday experimenting with set-up in an attempt to get to the issues that have prevented them from being competitive since Turkey. Despite this, Barrichello put all the car’s troubles behind him and didn’t seem to put a foot wrong all weekend.
I heard someone say that an emotional Rubens is a quick Rubens. It appears as though Felipe Massa’s injury has had some kind of impact on Barrichello’s form, not least because Massa has apparently been giving Barrichello tips on which lines to take in Valencia.
Certainly, not all of the performance can be put down to an improvement in the car because Jenson Button was thoroughly outclassed. In fairness, Button’s race was immediately compromised by a disastrous first lap — fatal on a circuit like Valencia. Even so, the Championship leader was strangely off the pace compared with Barrichello.
Barrichello even seemed to have the upper hand before the race started, as he was heavy on fuel and could pit later. It was marginal though, and it took until the third stint for the advantage to finally be realised.
There is a slight debate over whether McLaren’s bungled pit stop handed Barrichello the lead on a plate, though most agree that Barrichello would have ended up ahead anyway. Who knows how he would have coped under pressure from Hamilton though if that pacey McLaren was closer to him.
Hamilton and McLaren must count this as a lost victory, not a good second place. After the race, Hamilton’s words said he wasn’t disappointed or upset about the team’s mistake. But for me, his tone of voice said it all. This wasn’t the relaxed and happy Hamilton that we saw after the race in Hungary, and I detected more than a bit of tension in his voice in the post-race interviews.
I think Hamilton thought he had the race in the bag. I remarked at one point during the first stint that it sounded like he was taking it easy. Soon afterwards, Martin Brundle said that Hamilton was nowhere near his limit. For much of his first stint he was lapping in the high 1:39s or low 1:40s. In both his second and third stints he ended up consistently lapping rather faster, in the mid 1:39s.
It’s strange, because Hamilton has traditionally been criticised for not being conservative enough. But this is one instance where I think if he had pushed harder he would have won. His lead was indeed fairly comfortable during the first stint, but I feel he could have pressed home his advantage further.
Kimi Räikkönen scored his second consecutive podium in a row, and it was another relatively bland yet quick performance. He was barely on the television and there was apparently nothing interesting about his race, apart from the fact that he finished third.
This is interesting bearing in mind all the silly season issues, particularly while a question mark remains over the future competitiveness of Felipe Massa. People constantly say they struggle to understand Räikkönen, and many speculated about how he’d react to having Michael Schumacher as a team mate. On the current evidence, you have to say that he appears to have reacted rather well to no longer having Massa as a team mate. Räikkönen’s oft-predicted move to rallying in 2010 seems less likely now.
Fernando Alonso was another one who had a relatively uneventful race. But he and the Spanish fans will take the three points over the lap one retirement he suffered last year in Valencia. Alonso still does what I expect him to do in mediocre machinery, but is not yet showing enough of his double World Champion class which we saw last year.
BMW Sauber will be relatively pleased with how their weekend unfolded. The upgrade seems to have worked, with the team having its best qualifying of the season and Robert Kubica scoring a point. They are no longer the underachieving tail-enders, though you would still expect more.
As for the other big-name underachievers, Toyota, they are scratching their head over the fact that they were actually quite quick during the race, but were neutered by a poor qualifying performance. This year’s Toyota has always been bad round twisty places (such as Monaco and sector three at Barcelona), but despite its supposed “street circuit” status, Valencia isn’t actually all that twisty.
True enough, Timo Glock set the fastest lap during the race. Pascal Vasselon says that all of Glock’s laps during the race were fast. Looking at the raw lap times it doesn’t seem that way, but Glock’s slow times in the early part of the race are said to be down to a heavy fuel load. All told, it must be pretty frustrating to be fast, yet finish a dismal 14th, ahead of just the three new drivers.
There is one big team I haven’t yet mentioned. Red Bull — could you get a much more disastrous race? Webber was off the pace all race, never looked like scoring a decent result and ended up finishing behind a BMW. Meanwhile, Vettel’s brand new Renault engine rasped its way into an escape road just a day after another one spewed all over half the circuit. That’s not good for Renault’s engine department, but more on that in a future article.
Vettel wondered aloud if he is a “killer” of his engines in his post-race interviews. He has now used up seven of his eight engines, and with Spa and Monza coming up he is almost certain to take a grid penalty at some point in the next few races. If his Championship chances weren’t severely dented already, this near-certain penalty surely hammers a sturdy nail into the coffin.
Red Bull’s capitulation this weekend means that yet again Jenson Button has got away with a dire weekend virtually unscathed. Despite only finishing 7th, his Championship lead decreased by just half a point. Yet again, Button looks as likely as ever to become World Champion despite not having any good results. In Turkey his lead was 26 points. But after four dire races, his lead has only been cut by less than a third of that amount.
Since his last win four races ago, there have been four different winners. The lack of any real challenger gives Button breathing space. And for the first time in a while, Barrichello has moved up into second place in the Championship, hammering home the fact that Red Bull have not quite done enough to prove they can win the Championship.
But Spa will be a very different race, and conventional wisdom suggests that it will suit Red Bull. But do they have enough in the tank? Webber needs to overcome a substantial 20.5 point deficit to Button.