There was torrential rain, there were cars flying off track all over the place, the safety car was out and the race was even red flagged for a while but McLaren's Fernando Alonso came through it all to win the European Grand Prix. The reigning champion snatched the lead from Felipe Massa in the closing laps and the Ferrari man had to settle for second, while Mark Webber scored Red Bull's first podium of the year in third.
Although it was sunny near the start there was an ominous black cloud lurking and sure enough the first drops began to fall on the formation lap. Spyker's Markus Winkelhock started from the pit lane on wet tyres, which turned out to be a very good call, if only for a brief period. At the start Ferrari pole-sitter Kimi Raikkonen, second place Alonso and Massa in third tussled, with the result that Massa moved into second.
Through the first couple of corners the BMW Saubers of Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica had contact and McLaren's Lewis Hamilton got tangled up in it to receive a puncture. Red Bull's David Coulthard went shooting away over the gravel for an unknown reason but managed to regain the track, while Nico Rosberg's Williams and Rubens Barrichello's Honda also had contact.
Renault's Heikki Kovalainen had a good start and was up to fourth, and Webber was fifth, but the rain was already coming down hard. Raikkonen entered the pit lane to change tyres but simply skidded back out onto the track again and had to struggle round a lap in the downpour on slick tyres. Meanwhile, many cars were ducking in for a tyre change, Heidfeld for a new front wing as well and Winkelhock was in the lead!
Raikkonen finally got back to the pits and by then Massa was second, Alonso third and Jenson Button had got his Honda up to fourth. It was short lived; by then the rain was ridiculous and Button skidded off track at turn one. Incredibly, he was the first of six cars that aquaplaned off there in very quick succession -- it was amazing that nobody crashed into a car that was already off.
Adrian Sutil's Spyker followed Button, then Scott Speed's Toro Rosso, Rosberg and Hamilton next then Anthony Davidson's Super Aguri, which stopped half on the gravel and half on track. He backed out and got going again but Tonio Liuzzi's Toro Rosso flew backwards down the track, narrowly missing the safety car, which had then been deployed. Liuzzi did actually hit one of the track crew vehicles but he was just about stopped by then.
It was just madness, utter chaos. Hamilton was smart and kept the engine going -- eventually the McLaren was craned out of the gravel and he rejoined the field, albeit some way behind. Winkelhock pitted for full wets and retained the lead but the track was a virtual swimming pool and the race was red flagged; it was just too dangerous out there in the soaking conditions.
"I went back out on track and after some time there were yellows going into the first corner," Rosberg said of what happened after he changed tyres. "I slowed down a lot but I aquaplaned and slid into the gravel. In such a situation, the tyres just come up and sit on top of the water and you have no contact with the ground. The engine then stopped and that was it."
So, time for a deep breath and back to the grid to reform in race order and wait for the rain to pass. That order was: Winkelhock, Massa, Alonso, Webber, Coulthard, Kovalainen, Raikkonen and Wurz in the points' positions. It didn't actually work out too bad for Raikkonen after his earlier mishap -- of course, he wouldn't be happy but he was far from out of contention. Well, at that point anyway…
Rubens Barrichello's Honda was ninth and Renault's Giancarlo Fisichella rounded out the top 10. Kubica followed in 11th, then Toyota's Ralf Schumacher, Super Aguri's Takuma Sato, the second Toyota of Jarno Trulli, Heidfeld, Davidson and Hamilton at the back in 17th. There was a bit of shuffling around as drivers tried to figure out where they were supposed to be on the grid and by that time it was sunny again.
However, the track was still very wet in places and more rain was predicted. The race restarted under the safety car after a delay of about 15 minutes -- Winkelhock stayed on extreme wets as Spyker chief technical officer Mike Gascoyne said they'd been told it was going to rain again in a few minutes. That didn't actually happen, but as Gascoyne said, Spyker had nothing to lose by trying it.
The safety car stayed out for two laps and in that time Hamilton worked his way through the pack and all the way round to the back again to unlap himself. Heidfeld and Trulli pitted to swap back to intermediates -- there was already a dry line appearing but in some places it was still dodgy and there was a lot of spray. Hamilton ducked into the pits before the safety car went in to put on dry tyres, which didn't work out too well.
Massa and Alonso were quickly past Winkelhock at the restart and Alonso had a shot at Massa as well but the Brazilian held him off. The rain Spyker expected didn't materialize and Winkelhock was rapidly passed by Coulthard, who overtook Webber for third, Webber himself now fourth, then Kovalainen and Raikkonen were past the Spyker too. Hamilton took a trip across the gravel at Dunlop, the track not really ready for dry tyres.
The Red Bulls were scrapping like mad and Webber took back the third place from Coulthard at turn one, then Raikkonen pulled the same move on Kovalainen. But the Renault fought back and moved ahead again; Raikkonen wasn't having that and immediately had another go but Kovalainen held. Hamilton was starting to lap a bit quicker as the track improved but was still a way behind.
It wasn't long before drivers started visiting the pits for dry tyres. Raikkonen was in first and a whole queue followed him in, including Massa and Alonso. They stayed in formation and Coulthard was in the lead until he too pitted. Then it was back to Massa leading, Alonso, Raikkonen up to third, Webber, Wurz, Kovalainen, Coulthard and Kubica making up the top eight.
Kubica was harassing Coulthard and Schumacher, Heidfeld and Fisichella were close behind. Winkelhock's exciting day came to dismal end by the side of the track when his Spyker stopped with suspected hydraulic problems. It was a shame but he got to lead in front of the home fans for a few laps, which, as he said, is something to remember in his first ever Formula One race.
"To lead a Formula One race is something nobody can take away from you - you have it for your whole life," he commented. "I am really happy about it - I was leading my home Grand Prix! Unfortunately then we had a hydraulic problem and I had to stop. The target for me was to finish, but I know that not getting there was not down to me, so I am really pleased with what I achieved."
Meanwhile, abut five seconds covered the top three and Raikkonen was closing on Alonso. Kovalainen was hassling Wurz and eventually dispatched the Williams at turn one to take fifth. Schumacher made a small error and Heidfeld took his chance; there was contact which resulted in Schumacher spinning into the gravel and out of the race. The stewards investigated the incident but decided no action needed to be taken.
"I made a little mistake in the corner before and he was able to close up and then he made a move at the final corner and we collided," said Schumacher. "In general he is a very fair driver but these things happen in racing. It was a racing incident. It is clearly a shame because we could have scored points. We had another good weekend in qualifying and again we didn't get the result which is disappointing."
Sato was the next retiree with what turned out to be a hydraulics problem. He safely got the car off track and onto the grass. Massa was belting out fastest laps and pulling away from Alonso and Raikkonen slightly, the gap up to seven seconds. Hamilton was still last but now 14th due to other retirements and homing in on Fisichella. He charged past the Renault through 12 and 13 then set his sights on Trulli.
Raikkonen, despite his earlier watery problem, was still in contention for the win but then the Finn's bad luck in Germany struck again. The Ferrari slowed, coughed, sped up again then slowed to a crawl. It was race over for Raikkonen as he nursed the car back to the pit lane. It seemed like the car was cutting out intermittently and eventually gave up -- Ferrari put it down to hydraulics.
"I am very disappointed," the Finn unsurprisingly said. "I was in a good position, immediately right behind Felipe and Alonso and the car was very quick and I was convinced I could win. But gradually, the hydraulic system began to malfunction, I began to lose time and then I was forced to stop. This knock back does not mean I feel like giving up the fight, even if there is now one less race in which to compete."
Pit stops started spooling through again with no change at the front, although Webber was up to third due to Raikkonen retiring, with Wurz and Coulthard behind. Hamilton got past Trulli on the pit straight and it started to look like perhaps a point or two might be possible for the championship leader. Barrichello was next in his sights and he dealt with the Honda efficiently at turn one to gain 10th.
Alonso had closed the gap a little to Massa and the Ferrari was looming up to lap Hamilton, who didn't waste any time getting out of the way. With 12 laps to go a report came out that rain was expected in approximately seven minutes. Kovalainen quickly pitted from fifth and changed to intermediate tyres -- a cunning plan or a mistake? He rejoined in eighth and was promptly overtaken by teammate Fisichella.
Nine laps remaining and down came the rain again. Several cars dived into the pits and Alonso was released just about into the path of Fisichella, narrowly missing the Honda pit crew. Apparently Honda will lodge a complaint. Massa had pitted too and he seemed to lose momentum on the intermediate tyres. Alonso didn't waste any time and closed the Ferrari down.
He attacked and they went side by side, fighting all the way round the circuit, Massa just holding on but struggling with tyre vibrations. Alonso tried again at turn one and it was so close; they bumped wheels through five and six and Alonso finally made it stick to snatch the lead. He immediately started pulling away from the Ferrari and Massa just didn't have an answer.
Three laps to go and it had stopped raining but there was not really any point changing tyres again. Hamilton was verging on the points before the rain and although he had stayed out longer than most, he eventually had to change to intermediates and that dropped him back again. In the closing stages he homed in on the Renaults and got past Fisichella for ninth but there was no time left to oust Kovalainen from eighth.
Victorious Alonso took the chequered flag eight seconds ahead of Massa, a win which puts the Spaniard just two points behind Hamilton in the standings. It had looked likely to be a Ferrari day with Raikkonen on pole and then Massa leading for so long, but eventually McLaren got the upper hand. Alonso and Massa were both a little fraught after the on-track scrap but put the matter to rest with a few words before the podium.
"This was a really exciting race for both the drivers and all the fans," said Alonso. "The conditions were unbelievable -- mainly at the start when we were just aquaplaning everywhere. In the dry conditions the Ferraris were a little faster but in the final stages when the rain started again, we were quicker and I was able to overtake Felipe to take the lead. During this battle we touched twice, but that is motor racing and we were fighting for victory."
Massa commented: "I was lucky at the start because I managed to stay on track when the conditions meant it was almost impossible, but then I was not so lucky at the end. But that's racing and I have to accept it. The discussion with Fernando? I was a bit on edge but then he apologized and that was the end of it. The positive side is that I have made up a lot of ground in the Drivers' classification. There is still a long way to go this season and we have to be confident."
Webber very nearly lost third to Wurz at the final corner. The Red Bull had a bit of a wobbly moment and the Williams was all over the back of it, but Webber just sneaked across the line ahead. Coulthard came home fifth, pretty damn good from starting 20th, so it was a good afternoon for Red Bull and elevates the team to sixth in the constructors' standings, two points behind Williams.
"It's great to get some points on the board, especially as David finished fifth as well," said Webber. "I didn't have a good start and was on the back foot, the rain certainly came much earlier than we expected. We had to make a quick decision and went for the intermediates, but as the rain got much worse we were aquaplaning really badly. The FIA took the right decisions in bringing out the Safety Car and then suspending the race."
Despite their early scuffle both BMWs finished in the points, Heidfeld sixth and Kubica seventh. Kovalainen's tyre ploy in the closing laps didn't work out but he picked up the last point in eighth. It was a case of so near but so far for Hamilton in ninth and Fisichella rounded off the top 10. Barrichello, Davidson and Trulli were the last to take the flag in 11th, 12th and 13th respectively.
It was an exciting and unpredictable race and the championship battle is once more on in earnest. Two points between the McLaren drivers at the top and Massa is nine points behind Alonso. Raikkonen's unfortunate retirement has dropped him seven points behind Massa but although Ferrari still has work to do, it's far from over. Final top eight classification: Alonso, Massa, Webber, Wurz, Coulthard, Heidfeld, Kubica, Kovalainen.