In Budapest Felipe Massa lost what would have been a dominant victory when his engine let go with three laps to go, and when Kimi Raikkonen’s car smokily expired in the late stages at Valencia, all sorts of thoughts must have gone through Felipe’s mind. As it was, though, his Ferrari ran faultlessly from grid to flag, and thus he took his fourth victory of the season. “The car was perfect all afternoon,” he said, “and it was even better in the last stint than it had been before.”
Six races remain in the 2008 campaign, and the World Championship fight increasingly distils to a two-hander, between Massa and Lewis Hamilton, whose McLaren had nothing for the Ferrari on this occasion, but at least ran, and finished, a solid second, Lewis thus maintaining his championship lead.
That said, it was inescapably the case that Hamilton couldn’t quite match Massa’s pace. In Valencia Martin Whitmarsh said that significant aerodynamic updates were on the way for the next two, ultra-quick, races at Spa and Monza, and if Lewis is not to be overhauled they will need to be good.
Fortunately for McLaren, at the moment only one Ferrari appears to be a serious threat, for Kimi Raikkonen – World Champion or not – had another lacklustre weekend, qualifying only fourth after mistakes when it mattered, dropping a place to Heikki Kovalainen at the start, and thereafter making little impression through to his late-race retirement. At the moment the highest-paid driver in F1 is looking very expensive indeed.
Robert Kubica as usual drove beautifully for BMW, finishing where he qualified, third, but plainly the team has lost ground to Ferrari and McLaren in the last two or three months, and if he did well to finish ahead of Kovalainen, he trailed Massa and Hamilton by almost 40 seconds.
Toyota had a very positive weekend in Valencia, Jarno Trulli finishing fifth and Timo Glock seventh, the pair of them sandwiching the Toro Rosso of Sebastian Vettel, who had been very much one of the stars of qualifying. Nico Rosberg’s Williams took the final championship point.
New venues are something to which Formula 1 has become accustomed in recent years, but a new one in Europe, now that’s a different matter. For some years the permanent circuit outside Valencia has hosted a MotoGP round, and quite frequently – thanks to the climate – it has been used by the F1 teams for winter testing. At no stage, though, was the tight and fiddly track considered for a Grand Prix, but Valencia, host of both the last and the next America’s Cup, and bidding fair to become its natural home, is very much a go-ahead city, and proved amenable to Bernie Ecclestone’s suggestion of a street circuit for a second Grand Prix in Spain.
Such a thing would have been unthinkable a few years ago, for Spain was never a country with much taste for F1, its focus always on motorcycle racing, in which many of its sons had traditionally excelled. What transformed Spanish interest in F1 – indeed to the point of obsession – was the arrival of Alonso, the country’s first great racing driver. Were it not for Fernando, this race in Valencia would never have been contemplated.
Alonso passionately loves his country, and inevitably was much affected by the Madrid air disaster earlier in the week. Three days of national mourning were announced by the Prime Minister, and at the circuit Fernando asked for a minute’s silence in memory of those who had died. He also had stickers made up, depicting the national flag, and requested that every Grand Prix driver wore one on his helmet. All very willingly complied.
Once the track opened for practice on Friday, the first man really to get moving was Sebastien Bourdais, and perhaps that was no surprise, for he had become very familiar with street circuits during his four seasons in the Champ Cars, and the concept of concrete barriers (and consequently blind corners) was not alien to him.
Bourdais’s first season in F1 has hardly gone as he would have wished, for he has been routinely outpaced by the precocious Vettel, but through the streets of Valencia he looked much at home, and although his precocious team mate again out-qualified him, both Toro Rosso drivers were in the top 10 – and way quicker than the supposed ‘A’ team, Red Bull. Given that the cars are as good as identical, Mark Webber pointed out, the superiority of Toro Rosso had to come from Ferrari, rather than Renault, horsepower.
In Q2, Vettel actually set the fastest lap of the entire weekend, 1m 37.842s, and you had to doff your cap to McLaren’s simulation techniques, which had predicted a lap time for Valencia of… 1m 37s.
In the all-important Q3, though, Vettel was only sixth fastest, beaten by the heavy hitters: Massa, Hamilton, Kubica, Raikkonen and Kovalainen. Again Massa looked more convincing than Raikkonen, who admitted to mistakes on his crucial runs, and said he had simply not been fast enough. Hamilton said he was quite happy with the job he and McLaren had done; most of all, he was relieved that a severe headache, brought on by a muscular spasm in his neck, had been relieved by the physiotherapy and a couple of injections.
The most disappointed man by far, after qualifying, was Alonso, who invariably produces something for his home crowd, and had set second fastest time in practice on Friday. In his efforts to force the Renault along faster than it cared to go, Fernando made mistakes here and there, and failed even to make it into Q1. Twelfth was not where he had expected his Grand Prix to begin, but his people were not deterred: on race day 115,000 of them were on hand.
As it turned out, they were in for consummate disappointment, for as the cars flashed by the pits at the end of the opening lap there was no sign of Alonso. Eventually the yellow car tooled slowly into sight, minus its rear wing, and headed into its pit, from where it was quickly wheeled away.
In pit lane, too, was Kazuki Nakajima’s Williams, minus its front wing, so it wasn’t too difficult to piece together what had happened. “I was hit by Nakajima,” said Alonso, “and that was that. I’m very disappointed because I was hoping to have a special race, for all the people who came here to support me. Now I have to concentrate on Spa…”
Long before the end of the race, the grandstands began to empty, and Alonso’s early disappearance obviously had a part to play in this.
By no means, though, was this the whole story, for the sad fact is that this European Grand Prix was one of the most uneventful, processional, races in recent F1 history. Almost from the start, the cars were spread out, as if taking part in some sort of high-speed parade. Great venue, awful race, was the verdict on this inaugural Valencia event.
Massa didn’t think so, though. For him the whole afternoon was wonderful, marred only by a moment in the pit lane when Ferrari’s lollipop man waved him out too early, and he almost ran into Adrian Sutil’s Force India, which was passing by.
Soon afterwards it was announced that ‘An incident involving car 2 will be investigated after the race’, and that raised an eyebrow or two. Why, there were even those who suggested wrily – and most unworthily – that had it been a McLaren at fault, the consequence would have been an instant drive-through penalty. There are some wicked cynics in Formula 1.