Fernando Alonso sent his home crowd into raptures by sensationally winning the European Grand Prix from 11th on the grid, after a race that defied the belief that only dull Formula 1 races take place on the streets of Valencia.
The Ferrari ace won on merit after one of his greatest performances, although he needed a heavy dose of luck to become the first two-time winner in 2012. This was Sebastian Vettel’s race, until an uncharacteristic failure from his Red Bull left him stranded on the circuit. The World Champion had been dominant until that moment on lap 35 of 57.
The times were super-tight in qualifying the day before, until Vettel bagged a lap that left him four tenths clear of Lewis Hamilton for a Red Bull/McLaren front row, ahead of Pastor Maldonado’s Williams and the Lotus pair of Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raikkonen.
As Vettel and Hamilton led the field away, fast-starting Raikkonen found himself baulked into the fast Turn 1 by Maldonado and that allowed Grosjean to sweep back around his team-mate. Romain then pulled off an assertive dive down the inside of Maldonado into Turn 2 to steal third place. Maldonado lost another place to the fast-starting Sauber of Kamui Kobayashi before the end of the lap, with Raikkonen completing the top six.
Vettel was supreme in the opening laps. At the start of lap three he was already more than four seconds up on Hamilton and began to build a lead, as Lotus gave Grosjean the hurry-up to challenge the McLaren ahead of him.
Grosjean was clearly listening. On lap 11 he made his move on the outside of the hard-braking Turn 12, hung on as Hamilton took his line and had the inside into the following left-hander. It was a brilliant move, and Lewis could do little about it.
Alonso was soon the man on the move as we headed for the first pitstops, which began earlier than predicted. After his stop on lap 16, Alonso scythed through those who hadn’t pitted ahead of him, and once the long-running Paul di Resta was out of the way he was up to a brilliant fourth place.
Then on lap 29 Jean-Eric Vergne weaved into Heikki Kovalainen’s Caterham under braking for Turn 12. The clash spread debris over the track, bring out the safety car and instigating the second round of stops. There followed another pit disaster for McLaren. A problem with the front jack cost Hamilton dear, gifting Alonso third place behind the seemingly serene Vettel and the excellent Grosjean.
As they prepared for the green flag on lap 34, Vettel had kissed goodbye to his 20-plus second lead, but we assumed he would just start again ahead of Grosjean and Alonso. From nowhere had come Daniel Ricciardo, who had only stopped once, to fourth, ahead of Raikkonen, a frustrated Hamilton, and the long-running trio Rosberg, Schumacher and Webber.
At the restart, Alonso put a great move on Grosjean around the outside of Turn 2 – and by the end of the lap his second place had become the lead. Vettel sensationally pulled up, leaving Adrian Newey with his head in his hands on the pitwall. Sebastian threw his gloves into the fence as he walked away from his stricken Red Bull, as the Spanish faithful went crazy for their man Alonso.
“I lost drive, the engine stalled and I had to stop,” said Vettel on returning to the pits. “Why, I don’t know. There was not much we could have done better today. It’s a shame, but up to that point we did everything right. Everyone can see what would have happened, but I’m standing here and they are still racing.”
Alternator failure was suspected, according to team boss Christian Horner…
Up front, Alonso still had Grosjean to worry about – but not for long. On lap 41, the Lotus slowed suddenly thanks to… alternator failure. Both Lotus and Red Bull are powered by Renault engines, of course. A certain second place for Grosjean was lost, and perhaps even more. He could have won this GP.
So Alonso now led from Hamilton, Raikkonen, Maldonado and Force India twins Hulkenberg and di Resta, Ricciardo predictably falling back once the race had gone green. He was later involved in a clumsy clash with the Caterham of Vitaly Petrov.
But there was more drama in store as the race reached its climax. Tyre wear was always going to be a factor in the Spanish heat and sure enough it would cause havoc. Hamilton was struggling for grip and was powerless to stop Raikkonen taking his second place with three laps to go. And now Maldonado was closing in, too.
The Williams had a clear advantage, but Pastor was impatient. He made his move on the outside of Turn 12, but Lewis refused to cede and found himself turfed into the barrier on the outside of the next corner. It was an unnecessary collision. Hamilton, understandably, wasn’t about to give up the place easily, but Maldonado could have waited and taken his podium place later in the lap. Instead, he ended up with a broken front wing as a furious Hamilton trudged back to the paddock in disgust.
Incredibly, the accident allowed Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes, which had ping-ponged up and down the order all afternoon, into his first podium since his comeback. Michael was as surprised as anyone.
Alonso needed a lift back to the pits after stopping his Ferrari out on the circuit on his slowing-down lap, but once he was back for the podium the celebrations began. “It’s difficult to put it into words,” said Alonso. “To win your home Grand Prix is a very special feeling. To do it with a special team like Ferrari… in terms of emotions, nothing compares to this one.”
Mark Webber came through from 19th on the grid after a DRS failure in qualifying to finish a fantastic fourth, ahead of Hulkenberg, Nico Rosberg, di Resta and Jenson Button – another subdued and disappointing day for the McLaren driver
The best Grand Prix we’ve seen in Valencia? Just a bit. This incredible season just gets better and better.