Sunday, 23 August 2009

European Grand Prix

One tiny muscle. The muscle that connects the skull to the top vertebra. Michael Schumacher damaged this muscle in February whilst testing a motorcycle. Although a relatively small component of his bionic body, this pull was enough to prevent him participating in Valencia.

In the press conference in which he announced his inability to take part, he was genuinely and visibly upset. “I am in one of my toughest moments I have faced in my career. For a moment, I felt like I was back alive. And now I have to cancel all this.” Heartbreaking really.

What’s more heartbreaking is that the poor sod had to go back to his day job, and spent the race showing Eric Clapton around the Ferrari garage.

Instead of Schumacher, Ferrari replaced the injured Felipe Massa with another old stager, Luca Badoer. He is a Ferrari test driver but actually retired from racing in 1999! He was obviously second choice, and he didn’t sound too optimistic about his prospects, making apologetic noises, and promising to do his best.

In the first qualifying session, Badoer finished twentieth, slower even than the Force India cars. There was some initial sympathy from Jonathan Legard and Martin Brundle but no such kid gloves from David Coulthard, who described his performance as, “simply not good enough.”

After failing miserably, and finishing a second and a half behind Alguersuari in nineteenth, he seemed pretty resigned to his status as makeweight. He said that he was just aiming to finish the race.

On the track, the temperature was extremely high, with Eddie Jordan grumbling about it being hotter than Bahrain, but Jenson Button was dancing around in his ice vest. The Brawn problem had been all about grip, and we have been told for several races that hot temperatures are essential for the Brawn tyres to do a good job.

Sebastian Vettel had sustained an engine failure in Saturday morning practice, meaning that the Red Bull team were frantically replacing it as qualifying started. The rules say that a driver can only use eight engines throughout the season, and Vettel is now onto his sixth. I’m not entirely sure what happens if the eight engines are all used – I would imagine the young German has cut out the floor of the cockpit and run along in the manner of Fred Flintstone.

The qualification ended up as a triumph for McLaren, with Lewis Hamilton following up his win in Budapest with a pole position, and Heike Kovalainen joining him on the front row.

At the start of the race, the McLarens got away well and held the first two positions. Jenson Button had a disastrous first lap, dropping to eighth, whilst the best performer was Luca Badoer, who made up six places during lap one.

In the commentary box, there was a little revising of opinion on Badoer’s abilities, but he managed to spin off the track on lap three so Brundle could go back to canning him. In fairness to Badoer, he did manage to finish the Grand Prix, but not before he had a stop-start penalty for crossing the white line exiting the pits, overshot another corner, and being lapped.

At the front, Lewis Hamilton took off from the front of the grid, and Kovalainen managed to keep Barrichello at bay. At the first round of pit stops, Barrichello leapfrogged into second place, and attacked Hamilton hard. Getting to within four seconds before the second round of stops, the McLaren team virtually handed the race to Barrichello by fumbling the stop. As Hamilton came to a halt, the mechanics didn’t have the tyres ready. Scrambling them out of the garage and out of their covers, the mechanics slowly replaced the tyres as Hamilton sat watching the race disappear.

After his corresponding stop, Barrichello came out four seconds ahead of Hamilton, and didn’t look back. Having threatened all season to win a race, he finally claimed his first Grand Prix victory since China 2004.

Ross Brawn had repeatedly said that conditions would suit the Brawn cars, and that made it even more of a shame that Jenson Button did so badly. Having made a poor start, he spent most of the 57 laps staring at the back of Mark Webber’s car, unable to get past, and only got ahead after the second round of pit stops. By that time, he was way off the pace, and could only finish seventh.

Kimi Raikkonen, whose mid-season rallying adventure ended with his car rolling into a Finnish ditch, came in third, conspicuously ahead of his aged team mate Badoer.

Sebastian Vettel was seriously let down this weekend by his equipment. Having lost an engine in practice, he dropped out of contention when his first pit stop had to be repeated due to a faulty fuel nozzle. Racing outside the top ten as a result, his race finished in a puff of blue smoke as yet another engine failed.

With Webber finishing ninth, it was a puzzling day for all the top title contenders. Barrichello’s win, coupled with the abject failure of his team mate and their rivals, puts him right back into contention.

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