2012 has had the most open start to a season in Formula One history. The first seven races were won by seven different drivers, in five different cars. It seemed that success on Sunday was more or less a lottery. But in Valencia a week ago, some order began to emerge.
It became apparent in the early stages of the race that Red Bull have a very quick car. The World Champions had not dominated the early part of the season, but a heavily updated rear-end brought performance to the RB8, so much so that Sebastian Vettel managed to lead by over 20 seconds before a safety car eliminated that advantage. Vettel’s race was ended by an alternator failure, but barring that he would have won the race easily.
In pre-season testing, it was obvious that this year’s Ferrari was not competitive, and accordingly expectations for the season were low. Yet Fernando Alonso finished fifth in the opening race in Australia, and won in Malaysia, albeit in wet conditions.
Alonso followed up his win in Malaysia with podiums in Spain and Monaco, and then became the first repeat winner of 2012 at the European Grand Prix in Valencia. He now leads the Drivers’ Championship by 20 points, in a car that has not looked particularly quick all season. The F2012 is certainly much improved however, and the resources of the mighty Scuderia Ferrari mean that it will continue to get quicker, making Alonso all the more formidable.
Red Bull have the quickest car. After Valencia, that much is beyond doubt. But the driver to watch is not in a Red Bull. Fernando Alonso is the man to beat, and at this stage is looking likely to be 2012 World Champion.
On lap 56 of 57 in the European Grand Prix, Pastor Maldonado and Lewis Hamilton collided, putting Hamilton into the wall and out of the race, and taking the front wing off Maldonado’s car. But who is to blame?
Arguably, both drivers acted wrongly.
Maldonado pulled alongside Hamilton on the outside under braking for the right-hand turn 12. Hamilton maintained the inside line, but drifted towards the outside on the exit, forcing Maldonado off the track. Maldonado did not yield, and kept attacking, despite being off the track. As he rejoined the track, the front of his car made contact with the left side of Hamilton’s McLaren. The left side of Hamilton’s car was lifted off the track, and the car bounced sideways into the wall on the outside of turn 13. Maldonado lost his front wing in the process, but was able to continue and ultimately finished tenth.
Maldonado was penalised for “failing to rejoin the track in a safe manner”. He had all four tyres outside the white line that demarcates the track limits. His return to the track resulted in a collision. The stewards added 20 seconds to Maldonado’s race time, which dropped him from 10th to 12th in the final results.
Hamilton is arguably also guilty – of forcing the Williams driver off the track. Maldonado was alongside going into the corner, and therefore Hamilton was required to allow him space. Hamilton did not do that, and therefore could have been penalised. His race ended in the incident, which nullified the need for a penalty.
This is one of those crashes that could almost be considered a “racing incident”. Accidents happen in racing, and it is not always necessary to apportion blame. However, the rulebook requires that Maldonado be penalised – because his car left the track completely before the crash – and so a penalty has been imposed.
The Valencia circuit has been criticised for providing boring, processional races. Not so this year. The 2012 European Grand Prix was an overtaking fest, mostly due to the high degradation of the Pirelli tyres in the Spanish summer heat. Fernando Alonso produced arguably one of the finest drives in his career to win the race, with Kimi Raikkonen second and Michael Schumacher third for his first podium since returning to Formula One in 2010.
At the start it was all Vettel, as the World Champion rocketed away from Lewis Hamilton at the start, building up a 20 second lead before the first round of pitstops. It was not to be Vettel’s day, however, as his Red Bull coasted to a halt with an engine related issue on lap 34.
Alonso got away well from 11th on the grid to run eighth on the opening lap. Some good overtaking meant he was running third by the time a safety car emerged on lap 29 when an incident between Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne and Caterham’s Heikki Kovalainen left pieces of wheel, tyre and floor littered all over the track. At the restart, Alonso managed to pass Romain Grosjean to take second, and inherited the lead when Sebastian Vettel retired from the race. Grosjean kept up with Alonso and looked likely to challenge for the lead until his alternator failed, putting him out of the race. From that point, Alonso had only to manage his tyres to the finish, which he duly did to become the first repeat winner of 2012.
Raikkonen finished second to take his third podium of the season. He has been accused of lacking aggression in the early part of the season, but answered that charge with some skillful overtaking, including a classy move around the outside of Lewis Hamilton. Raikkonen never looked in contention for the victory, however, but will be happy with a good haul of 18 points which puts him firmly sixth in the Drivers’ Championship.
Schumacher had attempted to make a one stop strategy work, which meant he was a bit slow in the early part of the race while managing tyre wear. When it became clear that the degradation was higher than expected, the team switched him to a two stop strategy, and he duly unleashed the speed available in this year’s Mercedes. After his second stop, Schumacher was running 11th, but made a late charge, passing several cars to run fifth on the penultimate lap. Lewis Hamilton and Pastor Maldonado tangled while they were running third and fourth, putting Hamilton out of the race and taking off Maldonado’s front wing. Schumacher made quick work of the damaged Williams to snatch third place. The podium is certainly deserved after a very difficult start to the season for the illustrious German. In his own words, “For all my boys – we’ve been criticised lately – it’s just the best answer to give, to get on the podium.”
Mark Webber drove an impressive race to finish fourth, after starting 19th. He was Schumacher’s shadow for most of the race, never really looking like passing the German, but never too far behind.
Force India produced their best result of the season, as Hulkenberg and di Resta finished fifth and seventh respectively. It’s an encouraging result for a team that has been steadily improving over the last few races. They will be hoping to carry on that trend at the British Grand Prix in just under two weeks’ time.
The other promising performance of the day came from Caterham. After the safety car, Vitaly Petrov was running tenth until he lost his front wing against the Toro Rosso of Daniel Ricciardo. He still managed to finish 13th, ahead of team-mate Heikko Kovalainen. Caterham have been consistently well clear of Marussia and HRT, and fighting with the Toro Rossos. Their first point still eludes the team, but it cannot be far away.
Alonso’s win gives him a healthy lead in the championship, 20 points clear of Mark Webber in second place. After Hamilton and Vettel failed to finish the race, they are now third and fourth in the standings, with Nico Rosberg close behind in fifth. The Lotus pair of Raikkonen and Grosjean are sixth and seventh, followed by Button, Perez and Maldonado.
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Michael Schumacher has had a miserable 2012. Just two finishes – two tenth places – from seven races is not the start to the season the most successful man in Formula One history was looking for. But there are those in Formula One who think his luck is about to change.
Pirelli motorsport boss Paul Hembery stated last week that Schumacher would be a good bet for victory: “I think you have to look at someone like, maybe Michael getting the pole position,” Hembery said in an interview with Autosport. “He probably would have won Monaco if he hadn’t been penalised, so why not there? Michael for Valencia, that’s where the money needs to go.”
Tyres have played a significant role in determining race results in 2012, which adds weight to Hembery’s opinion. If Mercedes can set the car up well for the Valencia circuit, then the prediction of a Schumacher win could come true.
Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn is optimistic about the seven-time champion’s chances in Valencia: “There’s every opportunity that at the next race in Valencia we’re going to have an eighth winner…There are some very quick drivers in very quick cars who have not won a race yet – think of Michael in our car.”
Schumacher has been winless since returning to Formula One in 2010. He was arguably robbed of a podium in China when his team made an error in the pits, and – as Paul Hembery has stated – could have won the Monaco Grand Prix if not for his five-place grid penalty. Will Valencia be the turning point for Schumacher? A win would be the perfect way to show he still has what it takes.