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When Alonso triumphed through chaos to relieve a nation

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When Alonso triumphed through chaos to relieve a nation
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Apr 20, 2020, 2:18 PM

In the latest feature in our series of classic races picked out by Motorsport.com journalists, we look back on the 2012 European Grand Prix. A race that had it all - fine judgement, poor judgement, crashes, emotion and a unique podium

"It was a colourful narrative of locking wheels and dashed hopes, games of nerve both in the cockpit and on the pit wall."

So reads the description of the 2012 European Grand Prix in the 28 June issue of Autosport magazine that year. It was a race that had it all - from masterful domination undone by mechanical failure, to brave moves leading to good fortune, stupid passes ending in disaster, crashes galore and pitstop blunders, joy, misery and a unique podium.

This was an event that again reminds us of how good Formula 1 can be - and yet at the same time why it can be so frustrating. Here, perhaps, there are further lessons from the past that the championship can use in its future. And there was a message of hope - something, in 2020, we need too.

Sebastian Vettel had taken his 33rd career pole in scorching conditions in Valencia, with the RB8 upgraded and finally looking like it might achieve level of domination its predecessor had enjoyed in 2011. Although there were more hurdles for Vettel to clear on his way to a third world title, this was the moment in 2012 that Red Bull got on top of the complex rear bodywork tunnels that had frustrated it so far that season, and we all know how it turned out for him...

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But it was the line-up behind Vettel on the 3.367-mile track - elements of which can still be seen around the Valencia harbour to this day (although this writer would suggest they are better seen in the day and not in darkness the night before Formula E testing gets underway...) - that provides the first hindsight lesson to today's F1 stakeholders.

Lewis Hamilton lined up second for McLaren - which has not started from pole since the 2012 season finale - with Pastor Maldonado (Williams), Lotus pair Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raikkonen, Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi and Force India driver Nico Hulkenberg making it seven different cars in the top eight starting spots. What F1 would give to have such variation at any point in the delayed 2020 season!

Jenson Button and Paul di Resta rounded out the top 10 for McLaren and Force India, ahead of Ferrari's Fernando Alonso and Mercedes driver Michael Schumacher.

Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1

Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1

Photo by: Mercedes AMG

It might be hard to looked back on that season's fleet given the truly hideous nature of the cars of that era, but some of the technical details on those cars are worth recalling. As well as Red Bull's work on its tunnel system, the Mercedes W03 featured the double DRS, which channeled air from the rear-wing opening through the chassis to stall the front wing, and was banned for 2013. An early warning of Brackley pioneering that foreshadowed its later domination of the decade just gone, even if the team later felt working on the double DRS "slowed us down on other [development] things" - per then team principal Ross Brawn.

The Valencia event was a cliche of two halves, with domination and disaster the theme of Vettel's day after sprinting away from pole.

As he so often did during his title years, Vettel romped to a two-second lead by the end of the first lap over Hamilton, and he added the same amount to his lead the next time around. It was clear at this stage that Grosjean was the greater threat, after seeing off Raikkonen's superb launch from the second row and then passing Maldonado for third at Turn 2, but he took until lap 10 to move past the McLaren into second. Grosjean's pass would come back to haunt Hamilton later, as the French driver was able to stay on the outside at Turns 12/13 and squeeze by when that became the inside for the second part of the complex.

By this stage, Vettel was already 11.5s to go the good, despite Grosjean now being able to match his times even after using up much of his tyre life getting past Hamilton. In the pack behind, Alonso's race, which our report noted "depended heavily upon a good start", had indeed begun in such a way, as the Ferrari driver made a series of bold moves on the first lap - particularly his pass on Button on the way into Turn 2 - to rise from 11th to eighth.

From there, Alonso passed Hulkenberg during the first stint, and then had his path to fourth eased when Kobayashi, Raikkonen and Maldonado all endured pitstop problems. "It was as if the sea was parting for Alonso," noted Autosport.

Vettel and Grosjean had pitted on lap 16 of what would be a 57-lap race, and it was Grosjean who was running quicker during the second stint. Behind them, chaos reigned as various strategies came together and the long-first-stinters - including Schumacher and Webber - were swamped by the Alonso-led early stoppers. "There were all sorts of desperate passing and defending attempts amid one long madly-snaking line of ducking and diving cars," read our report - and tears were inevitable.

Bruno Senna and Kobayashi clashed on the ultra-fast run through Turn 7 before the track's famous bridge over the harbour, but it wasn't this incident that turned the race around. That was down to Jean-Eric Vergne's inexplicable moving over on Caterham's Heikki Kovalainen as they ran down the main back 'straight' to Turn 12, which damaged both cars and put the Toro Rosso out. The safety car appeared, as debris was spread everywhere by the embarrassment, for which Vergne ended 0/10 in Autosport's driver ratings (which also took into account his failure to beat Kovalainen in Q1, despite Webber enduring hydraulic difficulties that caused gearshift woe and led to an open goal for the Q1 regulars).

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren, Pastor Maldonado, Williams

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren, Pastor Maldonado, Williams

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The leaders - including Hamilton and Alonso - opted to pit for new tyres, which led to a further stroke of luck for Alonso. Hamilton's McLaren's team had set what was then an unofficial record pitstop time of 2.6s at his first service, but a jack failure this time around cost him 10s and Alonso and Raikkonen got out ahead to run behind Vettel and Grosjean in the safety car queue (with the yet-to-stop Daniel Ricciardo temporarily ahead of Raikkonen).

At the restart, Vettel did his thing and duly shot clear, while Alonso got the jump on Grosjean and toughed it out around the outside of the circuit's first big stop at Turn 2, repeating his lap one heroics there to claim second. "[Alonso's] raw desire and audacity very much on display," noted Autosport.

The day's 26-degree heat was baking the entire field, but it seemed to be raising Alonso's good fortunes particularly deliciously. Red Bull had seen that Vettel's alternator had stopped working under the safety car, and he soon slowed to retirement as his electrical fuel pump failed as a consequence of the alternator issue.

Alonso was through into a lead he would not lose. Not that he had it easy, Grosjean saw to that as he harried Alonso and cut his lead to less than a second by lap 39. But then fortune smiled on Alonso again as Grosjean, superb on the day, was struck out a lap later with the same alternator issue as Vettel - both cars running the same Renault engine. "It had been a magnificent run while it lasted," Autosport wrote of Grosjean, "and that breakthrough win is surely not far away." Words to look back on in 2020 and wonder where things went wrong for Grosjean - he was so fast in 2012/2013...

Alonso had urgent concerns about his tyres in the final eight laps, but everyone else was struggling at the same time behind him. Raikkonen, who had lost out to Hamilton as they passed Ricciardo, relentlessly pressured and then dispatched the McLaren three laps from home, and the grip-less Hamilton was exposed to the charging Maldonado.

The Williams driver was seeking a second podium visit in Spain that year after his shock Barcelona triumph, but there was no happy ending this time. Like Grosjean's pass on Hamilton earlier on, things came to ahead at the Turns 12/13 switchback on lap 56. But whereas the Lotus driver stayed on the circuit, Hamilton edged Maldonado clean off. Despite clearly going all-four-wheels-off, Maldonado rejoined at the Turn 13 apex, pitching Hamilton into the wall and taking his front wing off. The Williams driver was rightly penalised for causing the collision and he lost the point he had claimed slowly touring to 10th at the flag.

Fernando Alonso, Ferrari F2012.

Fernando Alonso, Ferrari F2012.

Photo by: Sutton Images

But that shambles brought joy elsewhere. Schumacher and Webber's long-run tactics paid off, and they were among the drivers rapidly racing up the order towards the finish, with the Maldonado/Hamilton shunt elevating Schumacher to third and the only podium of his comeback career. Joining Alonso, Raikkonen and Schumacher on the rostrum was Andrea Stella - then Alonso's race engineer - who had engineered all three during his time working for the Scuderia.

Such chaos, such drama, such... unpredictability. Again, how contemporary F1 would benefit from more events like this - coming in what was a thrilling season overall.

There are of course good reasons why things are different now. The engine-usage regulations have increased reliability so impressively, and 2012 really was too dependent on the tyres - as getting that year's Pirelli's into a narrow working range was key. But such is the frustration of F1 - wanting one thing always impacts another...

But it wasn't just the drama for why Valencia 2012 stands out. It was the emotion of the whole thing.

Although no one knew at the time, Schumacher would never again stand on an F1 podium - but the trials of his second career act before that day meant it was a popular result (particularly with one soon-to-be-graduating student watching the race in Budapest bar).

And then there was Alonso's celebrations. He'd stopped his car on the cool-down lap - apparently to ensure the FIA could take a fuel sample - and climbed out to rejoice in front of two packed grandstands.

Autosport explained: "For five minutes or so he interacted with the adoring crowd and afterwards spoke with real eloquence about the difficulties the economic crisis is placing upon the people of his country and how he was glad to be able to relieve them of that worry - at least for a passing moment or two."

Such is the power of sport. When things go back to normal after the coronavirus pandemic, how we must hope that such performances can relieve the worry - for on-going health or economic reasons - at least for a passing moment or two.

Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus F1, Fernando Alonso, Ferrari, Michael Schumacher, Mercedes AMG F1 and Andrea Stella, Ferrari Race Engineer celebrates on the podium

Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus F1, Fernando Alonso, Ferrari, Michael Schumacher, Mercedes AMG F1 and Andrea Stella, Ferrari Race Engineer celebrates on the podium

Photo by: Sutton Images

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Series Formula 1
Author Alex Kalinauckas