Fernando Alonso took his fourth win of the season at the European Grand Prix, in what was a tense race that seemed to be going Kimi Raikkonen's way. But in the closing laps, when Raikkonen was leading, his McLaren had trouble with the right front...
Fernando Alonso took his fourth win of the season at the European Grand Prix, in what was a tense race that seemed to be going Kimi Raikkonen's way. But in the closing laps, when Raikkonen was leading, his McLaren had trouble with the right front tyre and eventually the Finn crashed out on the last lap, promoting Alonso's Renault to the lead and the victory.
Williams' Nick Heidfeld took his second consecutive second place with a strong drive that kept him in the top three throughout the race. Ferrari was finally back on the podium, as Rubens Barrichello kept himself out of trouble to come home third. The Nurburgring event was mostly about strategy and tyres -- and the notorious first corner.
Giancarlo Fisichella stalled on the grid at the start of the formation lap and the Renault appeared to be stuck in gear as the marshals couldn't move it. Eventually mechanics were allowed back onto the grid and removed the car to the pit lane on a jack, and Fisichella started from there. The rest of the pack lined up again and the first corner changed the whole look of the race.
Raikkonen got ahead of pole man Heidfeld in the run down to turn one and the trouble happened behind them. Third placed Mark Webber had another poor start in the Williams and Juan Pablo Montoya's McLaren came hurtling up along side him. Webber braked quite late and Montoya turned in, resulting in contact that sent them both off.
Meanwhile, Ralf Schumacher's Toyota hit the back of Alonso's Renault and Ralf also spun, while the Ferraris and the BAR of Takuma Sato got mixed up in it as well. Somewhere in all the confusion, David Coulthard's Red Bull went barrelling through to fourth from 12th and Sauber's Felipe Massa also made his way through, up to sixth from 11th.
Once the mess had sorted itself out, Webber was out of the race and Sato and Ralf dived in the pits for front wing changes. Webber was disappointed but did not blame Montoya. "Getting away (from the line) hasn't been one of our strengths," the Australian said ruefully.
"Both Nick and I were a little bit on the back foot down to the first corner. I was trying to defend against Jarno (Trulli) and I couldn't quite turn in at the apex, so that was a shame. It's not up to Juan Pablo to give me room -- he turned in, for sure, but he's got to get round the corner too."
After the incident, the order was Raikkonen from Heidfeld, Trulli's Toyota up one to third and Coulthard fourth. Alonso gained one place to fifth but he had the problems of Coulthard and Trulli between him and the leaders. Massa was sixth and Red Bull's Tonio Liuzzi also gained from the confusion, up to seventh, as did Jenson Button's BAR in eighth.
One of Alonso's problems was solved when Trulli got a drive-through penalty, as the Toyota mechanics had spent too long on the grid after the 15 second signal was given before the start. Bad luck for Trulli and he rejoined in ninth. Montoya had dropped back to 10th and Michael Schumacher to 11th and they both started working their way up the order.
Rubens Barrichello had also lost out at the first corner but his Ferrari got past Button after a scrap through turns one, two and three to take eighth. Montoya then homed in on Button and got past, while Fisichella had got away from the pit lane start and had made his way up to 12th.
Barrichello closed down Liuzzi and dispatched the Red Bull at the Coca-Cola curve and further down the field the Jordans of Tiago Monteiro and Narain Karthikeyan were running 13th and 14th ahead of the Sauber of Jacques Villeneuve. Raikkonen was not escaping from Heidfeld, the gap between the top two just two seconds.
Trulli's penalty had promoted Coulthard to third and Michael finally got past Button for 10th in the run up to the first round of pit stops. Barrichello was first in on lap 11, a bit earlier than most had expected, and he and Heidfeld turned out to be on three-stop strategies. Heidfeld was in on the next lap and rejoined in fourth ahead of Massa, who was doing a good job keeping the Sauber in contention.
Villeneuve got past Karthikeyan, and Montoya was closing on Liuzzi, and Raikkonen was next to pit, also earlier than expected. He rejoined third behind Alonso, which left Coulthard in the lead. Liuzzi and Montoya dived into the pits together and Juan got the jump on the Red Bull to come out ahead.
Coulthard pitted next and subsequently got a drive-through penalty for speeding in the pit lane, which dropped him to fifth after he took it. Button and Fisichella had been arguing over 11th and Fisichella won the position but then went into the pits anyway. Alonso finally took his first stop on lap 22 and the order after the shakeout was Raikkonen, Heidfeld, Alonso, Barrichello, Coulthard, Massa, Michael, Montoya.
Ralf and Sato were late stoppers but the first corner antics had dropped them outside the top ten. Raikkonen was comfortably ahead of Heidfeld but then had a mad moment and it all went a bit pear shaped. The McLaren shot across the gravel and grass after the chicane then into the gravel at the next turn, allowing Heidfeld to nip past into the lead.
Raikkonen recovered and unfortunately for Heidfeld his three-stop strategy meant he had to pit again not long after. Minardi's Christijan Albers got a drive-through for ignoring the blue flags and Ralf was next to come grief, spinning into the gravel after going wide over the kerbs, which was the end of his race.
Raikkonen was having one or two random off track excursions, locking up at turn one and going wide, and it seemed the McLaren had flat-spotted a front tyre somewhere along the way. However, there was 15 seconds between him and Alonso so he was getting away with the odd mistake or half a dozen.
The middle stint of the race was fairly static, with the points scoring positions not changing. Montoya had a go at Michael at the first corner and they came so close to banging wheels but made it through unscathed. Michael then put some distance between them and Raikkonen was the first to take his second stop, on lap 44. The McLaren's right front barge board was broken but it appeared not to be a major problem.
Alonso took the lead and promptly set the fastest lap of the race, while Monteiro got a drive-through, also for ignoring the blue flags. Massa and Montoya pitted, Massa staying ahead, and Michael beat both of them in his stop to rejoin sixth. Alonso wandered into the gravel at the hairpin and lost some time, but scrambled out and took his second stop.
Massa was struggling with his tyres and was next into the gravel, going off track for a considerable amount of time and looking more like he was rallying than circuit racing. The Sauber apparently took some damage and a couple of laps later Massa was crawling round, then his left front tyre, which was peeling, hit the front wing and he had to go into the pits for a change.
That little episode let Montoya move up one and Raikkonen was next to start displaying some rather alarming tyre behaviour. His right front was indeed flat-spotted and wobbling like mad, little strips peeling off, although not quite delaminating. Alonso was closing at a rate of over a second a lap -- seven seconds the gap and seven laps left to run…
Michael charged through the gravel as well but was far enough ahead of Fisichella to stay in fifth, and Karthikeyan followed suit, narrowly missing teammate Monterio on the rebound. At the front Alonso was storming up behind Raikkonen, the gap now just 1.5 with three laps to go. Would Raikkonen's tyre hold to the end or would McLaren pull him in for change?
Such a move would probably have dropped Raikkonen to third, which may have been an acceptable compromise but it didn't happen. Kimi stayed out and with one lap to go the inevitable happened. The tyre was so unbalanced it broke the front suspension, rather than the tyre itself failing, and Raikkonen ditched into the barrier at the first corner, narrowly missing punting Button out as well.
Alonso sailed past to take the lead and the victory. "It was a very, very good race from our side," said the Spaniard. "It is true that I lost so much at the start. I nearly finished my race at the first corner, I don’t know who pushed me in the back, and I thought that maybe something broke in the back of the car but it felt okay and obviously I lost so much I was happy with the second place."
"The car was so nice to drive, so quick, and we were pushing McLaren and Kimi so hard until the point that they had a failure in the tyres. We were very lucky today, but at the same point we were also very strong and able to push them like at the beginning of the season, not like the last two races."
Heidfeld drove confidently to second after what was a fairly uneventful race for Nick. "Obviously, we did a three-stop race and a short first stint but we just did that because we hoped to get the best result, which we in the end got with the second place," he comemnted.
"I just pushed as hard as possible in the first stint and I tried to get a gap, which worked pretty well, and I think the car was really nice but as I had to push hard at the start I lost rear tyres a little towards the end."
Barrichello also had a pretty quiet time to come home third, while Michael made it a double points finish for Ferrari in fifth. Coulthard split the scarlet pair in fourth. Barrichello believes it's the start of the Ferrari revival that many have been expecting.
"It is very unfortunate that we have been out of the podium for a long time, the car is very reliable, the engine is good and the tyres are fantastic, it is just that we had a difficult time at some point into the season but we are coming back and I feel the Ferrari team will be very strong from now to the end of the year and we are going to be winning races hopefully soon," he said.
Fisichella bravely made up the lost ground from his pit lane start to cross the line sixth, followed by Montoya and Trulli in seventh and eighth respectively. It was a shame for Massa, after running in the points all through the race until his problems, who finally finished 14th, one behind teammate Villeneuve, who didn't really make an impression at all.
Liuzzi was ninth and Button and Sato had a tough time to finish 10th and 12th. Both Jordans and Minardis made it to the line, Monteiro and Karthikeyan in 15th and 16th, Albers ahead of Patrick Friesacher for 17th and 18th. It was quite a low attrition rate considering all the on and off track incidents. Raikkonen was classed 11th.
The result will give Renault and Alonso a bit of breathing space at the top of the standings, but while Raikkonen appears to be Alonso's main rival, Trulli and Heidfeld are only two points behind the Finn. The gap between Alonso and Raikkonen is now 32 points, and between Renault and McLaren 23 points.
The question most people will be asking is should McLaren have bought Raikkonen in for a tyre change? With hindsight the answer is obviously yes but at the time it was a very tough call to make. The risk was big but so was the gain if it worked out. It didn't work out and McLaren and Raikkonen had to pay the price.
"We jointly decided to go for the win and no member of the team including Kimi regrets this decision," said McLaren team principal Ron Dennis. "The resulting suspension failure was understanedable in the circumstances."
However, it maybe casts a bad light on the one set of tyres per qualifying and race rule. Tyres have become even more of an influence this season and many times we've seen drivers struggle with degrading rubber. Raikkonen's accident, although avoidable if the team had bought him in, perhaps calls into question the safety aspect of the tyre rule.
Despite that, Raikkonen is still a force to be reckoned with and Williams is rapidly gaining ground. Renault may have taken the victory at the Nurburgring but it was by luck rather than judgement. Alonso probably would have been on the podium anyway but the win was unlikely until Raikkonen's problems.
Canada and America are the next two back-to-back races and the battle looks set to be rejoined just as fiercely. First Renault's successes and then McLaren's had people saying that one or the other was going to be dominant, but so far this season has been anything but predictable. Final top eight classification: Alonso, Heidfeld, Barrichello, Coulthard, M. Schumacher, Fisichella, Montoya, Trulli.