Fernando Alonso produced arguably the greatest drive of his Ferrari career to date and capitalised on a rare Sebastian Vettel retirement to take a grip on the 2012 Formula One world championship this afternoon in the European Grand Prix.
The Spaniard climbed from 11th on the start grid to claim victory in front of hundreds of thousands of adoring home fans at the Valencia street circuit.
Sebastian Vettel, the 2010 and 2011 winner of the event, looked to be on course for a hat-trick of wins at the track but came unstuck after a mechanical failure robbed his car of power and stalled his engine after a short safety car period.
The German initially led the race from Lewis Hamilton who had started 2nd, but the Briton was incapable of keeping up with the reigning World Champion and Vettel looked set to cruise to yet another crushing triumph. The picture of the race was changed on lap 27 when a clumsy attempt at an overtake by Frenchman Jean Eric Vergne left debris on the track after he hit the Caterham car of Heikki Kovalainen. The twenty second lead built up by Vettel was eradicated in an instant when the safety car was deployed to slow the pack down, and Franco-Swiss hero Romain Grosjean looked set to pounce on Vettel at the restart after passing Lewis Hamilton earlier in the race. However, the racing fraternity had neglected to notice the irrepressible Alonso who had seized the initiative and overtaken nine cars in front of him to run 3rd as the green flag was shown and the racing got back underway.
With all eyes on Vettel and Grosjean, Alonso made his presence felt with a spine-tingling pass on the Lotus driver on the 34th lap. Hammering away at his throttle, Alonso forged ahead of Grosjean only to be confronted by the startling sight of Red Bull car number one parked at the side of the circuit; Vettel was out.
The double World Champion was furious as he scrambled from his cockpit, hurling his gloves to the ground in frustration but regained his composure enough to return to the pitwall and explain to his team the sudden loss of power when his engine stalled.
Thus Alonso took the lead to the delight of the myriad Spanish supporters packed into the grandstands around the circuit. Grosjean wasn’t finished yet though and launched a valiant and spirited attack on the Ferrari for around 4 laps before he too fell victim to mechanical gremlins. A stuttering gearbox selected neutral and stuck; his race was run.
Hamilton was back up to 2nd despite being noticeably slower than those in front but was quickly demoted to 2nd when Kimi Raikkonen finally skated his way past the Mclaren with two laps left to go. Hamilton was by now suffering from severe tyre-degradation and losing fistfuls of time every lap. He may have been happy with 3rd, but we will never know as the enthusiastic and exuberant Pastor Maldonado was gunning for the final podium slot. Driving around the outside of Hamilton at turn ten, the Venezuelan clattered across the kerb before slamming into the side of the Mclaren and catapulting the unfortunate Hamilton into the barrier. The 2008 World Champion was visibly angry with the move and threw his steering wheel from the car. While Maldonado limped around to an eventual 10th place, Michael Schumacher and Mark Webber were blitzing their way through the field on fresher tyres and the German veteran was incredulous to fins he had climbed four places in just under two laps. His first podium appearance since the Chinese Grand Prix in October 2006 was just reward for Schumacher after a difficult start to the season. ‘I didn’t actually think about a podium.’ he said after the race. ‘It was only when I crossed the line and asked my guys where we finished…and then they told me ‘that’s 3rd, that’s the podium! I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t really something I expected.’
Force India weathered the storm to claim a double points haul courtesy of young guns Nico Hulkenberg and the one-stopping Paul Di Resta. Di Resta was the highest finishing British driver after the demise of Lewis Hamilton thanks to another mediocre showing by 2009 World Champion Jenson Button. After slipping back at the start Button ran solidly but unspectacularly to finish 8th and take home 4 points.
Kamui Kobayashi was solely responsible for most of the day’s action as his antics ended the chances of both Bruno Senna and Felipe Massa; the Japanese driver seemed set on Kamikaze as he smashed his front wing against the back of Senna’s Williams before slicing up Massa’s front right tyre and causing the Brazilian to slip back to 16th at the flag.
Once the chequered flag was thrown Alonso was left to cruise back to the pits waving a Spanish flag from his cockpit on a weekend that has seen Spain dominate the sports headlines. Stopping with a suspected car problem halfway back to the pits gave the 2005/2006 World Champion a welcome opportunity to celebrate with his ranks of worshippers, and he was seen to be visibly emotional during the podium proceedings. ‘[It is] really difficult to express in words how I feel.’ he smiled in the post race press conference. ‘I feel very proud to be a Spanish sportsman at the moment! This is probably the best victory I have ever felt in terms of emotions. We had a problem with the car and stopped it, but it was in the right place because we had two grandstands so I had a little bit of time [to celebrate] with the fans.’
Given the disastrous lack of speed shown by Ferrari in pre-season testing, few would have rated the team as a factor in this season’s title chase. Look at the championship table now though. You may notice the name at the top reads ‘Alonso’…
2012 European Grand Prix Top Ten
1.Fernando Alonso ESP Ferrari
2.Kimi Raikkonen FIN Lotus Renault
3.Michael Schumacher DEU Mercedes AMG
4.Mark Webber AUS Red Bull Renault
5.Nico Hulkenberg DEU Force India
6.Nico Rosberg DEU Mercedes AMG
7.Paul Di Resta GBR Force India
8.Jenson Button GBR Mclaren Mercedes
9.Sergio Perez MEX Sauber
10.Pastor Maldonado VEN Williams Renault