Qualifying on the street circuit in Valencia, Spain, for Round 8 of the 2012 Formula 1 season kept nearly all of the hallmarks of the year intact, offering both the expected and the not-so-much in equal measure. On the expected side was a front row of Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) and Lewis Hamilton (McLaren). Vettel has won both the pole and the race in Valencia the past 2 years as well as the last two polls in succession. This particular run to the top of the time charts tied him for third on the all-time list at 33 with Jimmy Clark (1960-68) and Alain Prost (1980-91, 93). Vettel is 24. Pastor Maldonado (Williams) also ran well, qualifying at P3.
Vettel’s teammate, Mark Webber, was on the surprise list, failing to make it out of Q1 due to problems with his drag-reduction system. He had good company in Ferrari though, with neither Fernado Alonso nor Felipe Massa breaking out of Q2.
Vettel and Hamilton held their position at the start, while Romain Grosjean (Lotus) took P3 from Maldonado. Within the first few laps Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber) had taken P4. Tire temperatures were described very early on as “at the maximum,” with track temperature at 45 deg. C on Lap 10. Both Force India drivers were being warned of break caliper wear.
Grosjean took P2 from Hamilton on Lap 10, at which point Vettel had already built a 22 sec lead. Hamilton and team discerned a need for a front-wing adjustment, while Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus) began to take the fight to Maldonado for P5, taking the spot one lap later.
Hamilton pitted and came out in 12th despite a 3 sec stop, with first stops in general coming much earlier than expected. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), Raikkonen, and Kobayashi all pitted at once, with Kobayashi the last out. Vettel pitted from P1 and came back out with the lead as Grosjean came in next. Time difference at the time was circa 14.5 sec.
McLaren advised Hamilton that “cooling tires should help,” with Hamilton responding “it doesn’t, I’ve been doing it every lap.” By Lap 22, Alonso, Raikkonen, and Kobayashi were caught in a train behind Michael Schumacher (Mercedes), Bruno Senna (Williams), and Mark Webber (Red Bull), who had yet to pit. Schumi and Webber came in, but Senna stayed out. When Kobayashi tried to follow Raikkonen past Senna he and Senna collided. Both drivers had to stop for new front wings. Paul di Resta (Force India) was running P4 as the last car to stop.
Alonso passed di Resta for fourth, continuing his march up from a P11 grid spot. Raikkonen took fifth from di Resta one lap later and Maldonado P6 just a few turns after that. The stewards issued a drive-through penalty to Senna for the collision. By Lap 25 the top 3 had reestablished itself as Vettel, Grosjean, and Hamilton, with 20.5 between P1 and 2 and another 8.5 back to P3.
Force India let di Resta know his tires were on pace for a one-stop strategy, which looked likely to get him as high as P6 if it worked. By contrast, Button was already making his second stop. A battle for P17 between Heikki Kovaleinen (Caterham) and Jean-Eric Vergne (Toro Rosso) brought the safety car out. Hamilton came into the pits and a 14-sec. stop let Alonso past.
The safety car reset the field, but Grosjean had four back markers between him and Vettel. The stewards decided to let Grosjean overtake, setting up a potential fight to the finish. Lap 32 under the safety car saw Vettel, Grosjean, Alonso, Daniel Ricciardo (Toro Rosso), Raikkonen, and Hamilton holding down the Top 6.
Alonso took P2 on the restart. Vettel had a major drive problem, moving Alonso into P1 at home. Top 3, Lap 37: Alonso, Grosjean, and Hamilton. Alonso’s lead stood at 0.7 sec, with the Ferrari turning fastest laps and the Lotus just hundreths slower. With 20 laps to go Hamilton and/or Raikkonen were under investigation for overtaking under the previous yellow.
Grosjean lost the alternator one lap later and pulled off course. Alonso, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Maldonado = Lap 42 Top 4, with Vitaly Petrov (Caterham) in P10(?!). Schumi and Webber both overtook, however, to push Petrov back to 12th. The Top 3 were covered by 4.9 sec, with some concern being voiced from the Ferrari pits. Petrov lost his wing and had to pit after a duel with Ricciardo.
On Lap 50 (of 57) Maldonado was starting to reel Raikkonen in. And Raikkonen doing the same to Hamilton. Raikkonen began putting real pressure on and took P2 with just 3 laps to go. Maldonado looked ready to pounce next. The drivers collided and both left the race, Maldonado coming from off the track to force the contact. In the final lap Schumi looked like a podium was in the works, but Webber was putting pressure on. Yellows prevented any further passing.
At the end it Alonso, Raikkonen, and Schumacher, with Vettel, Grosjean, Hamilton, and Maldonado all retired in what was the race of the year so far. It was Alonso’s second victory of 2012. Webber moved up from P15 on the grid to take fourth. Alonso and Webber leapt past Hamilton into first and second in the season standings.
UPDATE: Schumacher's podium was being investigated post-race for allegedly using DRS under yellow flage.
Driver standings - Top 10
111 - Fernando Alonso (Spain) - Ferrari
91 - Mark Webber (Australia) - RBR-Renault
88 - Lewis Hamilton (Great Britain) - McLaren-Mercedes
85 - Sebastian Vettel (Germany) - RBR-Renault
75 - Nico Rosberg (Germany) – Mercedes
73 – Kimi Raikkonen (Finland) – Lotus-Renault
53 – Romain Grosjean (France) – Lotus-Renault
49 - Jenson Button (Great Britain) - McLaren-Mercedes
39 – Sergio Perez (Mexico) – Sauber-Ferrari
30 – Pastor Maldonado (Venezuela) – Williams-Renault
Constructor standings - Teams scoring points
176 - RBR-Renault - Vettel, Webber
137 - McLaren-Mercedes - Hamilton, Button
126 – Lotus-Renault – Raikkonen, Grosjean
122 - Ferrari - Alonso, Felipe Massa
92 - Mercedes - Rosberg, Michael Schumacher
60 - Sauber-Ferrari – Perez, Kamui Kobayashi
45 - Williams-Renault – Maldonado, Bruno Senna
44 – Force India-Mercedes – Paul di Resta, Nico Hulkenberg
6 – STR-Ferrari – Daniel Ricciardo, Jean-Eric Vergne
Next event: 2012 FORMULA 1 SANTANDER BRITISH GRAND PRIX – Silverstone – July 6-8, 2012