Who said Valencia would be dull?

 

To answer the question; everyone. Past races at the Valencia track have been fairly tedious and not very interesting to watch. A distinct lack of overtaking in previous years, caused mainly by the style of the track, meant that going into the 2012 European Grand Prix there were fairly low expectations for the race to be as exciting as the others have been so far this season. What in fact happened on Sunday afternoon was nearly 2 hours of the most exciting, action-packed grand prix racing in recent memory. The tyres again had a significant part to play, just as they have all season, but for once we actually saw some overtakes. The skill, precision and bravery to pull off some of the moves, particularly heading down into the chicane after the DRS zone, were incredible (Grosjean and Alonso to name a couple).

The first corner (if you ignore the kink on the start straight) has 'accident waiting to happen' all over it. A tight and tricky slow chicane had seen plenty of incidents in the support series races but when it came to the Formula 1 guys, no such drama ensued. Bar minor contact involving Schumacher all 23 cars successfully negotiated the first few corners, albeit with significant changes to the running order.

Vettel got his customary excellent start and shot off into the lead in a way that only he is seemingly able to do. Although Romain Grosjean had a fairly average start off the line, he'd jumped up to P3 by the time they reached turns 4 and 5. An excellent and brave move to out brake Maldonado up the inside running into the first chicane saw the Frenchman jump from 5th to 3rd in just a few hundred metres (after repassing team mate Raikkonen). It was a move you'd expect from a vastly more experienced driver, such as an Alonso or Raikkonen, but as was said on commentary it just shows the increasing confidence Grosjean has after a very strong opening to the season.

Again the Ferrari's kept up their record of only going forwards on the opening lap of a race, and were joined in this race by the two Force India's. Nico Rosberg had a poor start and ended up back in the pack with team mate Schumacher and Jenson Button, who following another average qualifying found himself going backwards.

Vettel continued to pull away out at the front, not only creating enough of a gap to escape the DRS detection but then following this up by continuously stretching his gap to Hamilton and Grosjean by over a second a lap. With Grosjean visibly faster than the McLaren, it seemed only a matter of time before something would happen. Given the history of the Valencia track when it comes to overtaking, it appeared that the only way would be to try an ambitious and risky overtake, or to wait till the pitstops and try and get past there.

However, what we saw was arguably one of the best overtaking moves we've seen for a long, long time. With Grosjean inside the one second window he needed to activate the DRS he was able to pull up to the back of the McLaren heading down into the turn 12 chicane. Hamilton left a gap just wider than the width of a Formula 1 car for Grosjean to place his car, to which he duly obliged. Although a gap was there, an overtake didn't seem possible. But as previously stated, Grosjean is high on confidence at the moment and having had a radio message stating he needed to pass Lewis or else his chances of winning the race might be over, he went for it. Staying on the outside of Hamilton around the outside of turn 12, he managed to keep his speed and more importantly position to be on the inside line for turn 13. A supremely brave and opportunist move saw him rise to 2nd place and overtake the 2008 World Champion with a move that Lewis himself would have been delighted with. This set Grosjean off down the road to try and catch Vettel, yet strangely didn't have the pace to do so and carried on falling back from the reigning champion.

Despite starting down in 11th place, Alonso had worked his way through the field during the opening lap to move well inside the top 10. After a period of seemingly being unable to overtake the Force India of Hulkenberg, he found a turn of speed as other's tyres began to fall away and moved progressively up the field.

The first pit stops came early than many were predicting and confirmed that most were having to go for a 2 stop strategy. The three cars of Vettel, Grosjean and Alonso were able to stretch their first stints out for longer than those around them, which allowed Alonso to come out ahead of Raikkonen, Kobayashi and Maldonado and into a net 4th place.

The only safety car of the day was caused by Jean-Eric Vergne. I think a Mr M Brundle described it as a Formula Ford style nerf from Vergne into the side of Kovalainen's Caterham causing both to have punctures. Vergne showed his inexperience by driving the car too quickly back to the pits resulting in huge amounts of his blown tyre decorating the second half of the track. Vergne was quite rightly given a 10 place grid drop and a fine for his actions. This caused the safety car to be sent out, leading to some quick decisions being made regarding whether to pit again or not. The majority of cars, particularly neae the front, chose to pit again and were looking to then get to the end of the race on that set of tyres. Some drivers had good pit stops, others not so. Yet more woes in the pit lane for McLaren and Hamilton saw him drop behind Alonso in the running order. Vettel and Grosjean remained in 1st and 2nd respectively, with Alonso moving up to 3rd.

When it came to the restart, we were all waiting in anticipation for Grosjean to attack Vettel now that the gap had been wiped away. One man who was not waiting for that to happen though was Alonso who instead pulled off a truly great move at the first chicane around the outside of Grosjean, something that the Frenchman had surely wanted to try on Vettel out front.

Not long after the restart however, the TV pictures cut back to the leaders heading down into turn 18 with a slowing Vettel pulled over on the right side of the track. Vettel was out. We're so used to seeing ultra-high reliability, particularly from Vettel and Red Bull, that it was hard to believe what had happened at first. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not Vettel's biggest fan. He is though a truly outstanding driver with immense talent and I have lots of respect for him, but at times over the last 2 seasons (2010 and 2011) the races where he was dominating out front were just not as exciting and after a while got a bit boring to watch week in, week out. The near 20 second lead he had before the safety car looked to be a repeat of his incredible drives from previous years, and although it's not nice to see someone retire with a car error through no fault of their own, it probably benefited the race that he had to retire.

This incredibly saw Alonso take the lead. After starting 11th on the grid and in front of thousands of adoring Spanish fans, Alonso put on a truly outstanding display to wow fans of nation in big economic trouble. Grosjean was now in 2nd place, but incredibly he too retired just a matter of laps later with another car error and was told to park the car after a radio message from his engineer, who you could tell was deeply disappointed that it had to end this way.

A very eventful end to the race started off with Schumacher and Webber working their way through the pack after making a second pit stop, after the safety car. Both moved up from outside the points after pitting to being well inside come the final few laps, carving through the lower points scorers of Button, Perez and the two Force India's who were on much older rubber. After trying lap after lap to pass Hamilton, Raikkonen finally got the move done with a nice undercut overtake coming out of turn 18 to move up into 2nd place. Despite dropping back in the early parts of the race on the soft tyre, Pastor Maldonado showed some impressive pace on the medium tyre and was running in 4th place, catching Hamilton significantly towards the end. As the commentators said, all he needed to do was pick the right place, a safe place, to overtake Lewis as he clearly had the faster car at this time. Unfortunately Maldonado didn't wait for the right time and tried a Grosjean-esc move around the outside of Lewis at turn 12. This time however Lewis was so forthcoming in giving room to his competitor, forcing Maldonado out over the kerb and off the track. The Venezuelan rather ambitiously decided to try to keep the inside line, but going back over the kerb forced the car into Lewis' causing the Englishman to retire with a crash into the barrier. Maldonado lost his front wing in the incident, yet somehow managed to stay on for a provisional 10th place come the chequered line.

The incident between Hamilton and Maldonado left the charging pair of Schumacher and Webber to move up to 3rd and 4th respectively. I've got to be honest, when Schumacher moved through into 3rd I cheered, and cheered loudly at that. You can only respect Schumacher for what he has achieved, but ever since his return 2 years ago I've become a big, big fan. Seeing him take his podium since his return was a fantastic moment, warmly welcomed by everyone in the paddock as shown by the reaction he got when receiving his trophy on the podium. He's been right out of luck this year, but finally things went his way and to see the seven time World Champion back on the podium was simply great and brought a huge smile to my face. Webber too had a great race to rise from going out in Q1 on saturday to finishing 4th come Sunday afternoon. Solid and encouraging pace from Force India saw Hulkenberg finish 5th and Di Resta again in the points in 7th. Nico Rosberg shot through the field late on to take 6th after being way back in 10th or 11th with a matter of laps left to run. Another disappointing day for Jenson saw him take 8th place, strangely his third best result of the season, ahead of Perez and then Senna.

But the day belonged to Alonso. This season so far is proving to me that Alonso is indeed the best driver on the grid. The car is not the best on the grid, yet he leads the championship by 20 points after the latest round. He was incredibly emotional on the podium and you could see just how much this meant to him and the Spanish fans that were there to see one man and one man only. His driving this season has been exceptional, and has become the first driver to take more than one win this season to take the lead in the championship. Whether he'll be there at the end of the season or not is another question, it's impossible to say right now, but with the unpredictability we've seen so far who knows. He's on top at the moment, and deservedly so. He's scored points in 20 consecutive races and quickly approaching Schumacher's record of 24. Consistency is key in this sport, and he is showing that in a car which at the start of the season looked to be mid-field at best. He's an outstanding driver and for me, as stated above, the best currently out there.

After the race Maldonado was given a 20 second time penalty, seeing him drop out of the points and promoting team mate Bruno Senna into 10th. At the time I thought it was a racing incident, and in some ways still do. Hamilton could have left a gap, he and the team must have known he was slower and for his championship sakes he may have been better settling for 4th place than a DNF. Both drivers were to blame in ways in my opinion, Maldonado for trying something too ambitious when if he'd just waited he'd have surely got past cleanly and taken a second podium of the season. These two do have history, with Lewis punting Maldonado off at last years Monaco Grand Prix, so maybe that had a part to play? Who knows, but it was a disappointing end to the race for Pastor, who again had driven excellently and significantly outperformed Senna (not for the first time). Lewis had an odd race, with McLaren seemingly lacking pace all day.

Apologies for the long article, but it was such an eventful race with lots to cover and discuss. The day belonged to Alonso and Spain, but you have to feel sorry for Vettel and Grosjean in particular who could have each taken the race win were it not for failures with their cars. The two or three lap battle with 8-10 cars part way through was amazing viewing, with on the whole some excellent skill on show with cars running so close for so long. Senna quite rightly got a drive through for his involvement in the incident with Kobayashi (who later got a penalty for contact with Massa), but apart from that the driving standards on show were top notch. A truly remarkable race that will be remembered for a long time to come. "Who said Valencia would be dull?" Formula 1 never fails to exceed expectations. Let's hope we have many more Valencia GP's of that ilk in the years to come (even if it does go to every other year).

Top Drivers

 
Driver Points
Hamilton 252
Rosberg 211
Vettel 203
Raikkonen 107
Bottas 101
Massa 97
 

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