2010 European Grand Prix (Valencia, Round 9, June 25th – 27th)

Valencia Track Map ©FIA

Being a street circuit, Valencia only actually gets used once a year and as it is in the city’s harbour, the track generally finds itself coated in large swathes of dust and dirt. Unfortunately, this tends not to clear over the course of a whole weekend, meaning that the first two European Grand Prix have been fairly drab affairs with little overtaking.
Unlike in seasons gone by, it is now rare for a Grand Prix to pass without some raft of updates being unveiled and at the European Grand Prix, it was the turn of Ferrari, Renault and Mercedes to bring some major upgrades to their respective machines. Almost all of the modifications concentrated upon the rear of the car; particularly the diffuser and exhaust areas.  While Renault and Mercedes appeared quietly confident, Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso appeared keen to play down the Italian team’s new toys, claiming the team were “…very calm about […] expectations.”  Red Bull, meanwhile, reinstalled their version of the F-duct; although Valencia with its long straights and many tight corners may still leave the Austrian squad at a disadvantage compared to McLaren.

As expected, the opening ninety-minute session was topped by a Mercedes-powered car; however it was neither McLaren machine, but the works car driven by Nico Rosberg. The young German was closely followed by both Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, all of whom were separated by 0.2 seconds.
The session was dominated by excessive tyre wear, partially related to the extreme lack of grip produced the dusty track and it represented itself further with a number of offs; including escape road antics from Jarno Trulli, Hamilton, Alonso and Michael Schumacher amongst others. Bruno Senna was another victim of the circuit’s lack of grip – he also ran wide at the apex of turn 3 and it only compounded a difficult session for Hispania Racing. The Brazilian driver lost a wing mirror during the session that was later clattered by a following Sebastien Buemi – a red flag brought the session to a stop, while marshals claimed the shattered part.
Senna’s teammate, Karun Chandhok was replaced in Practice 1 by Christian Klien; unfortunately both Hispania drivers had their sessions cut short by various reliability issues – again. Paul di Resta stepped in for Adrian Sutil at Force India, but his session also ended early as the team worked on the rear end of the car. Heikki Kovalainen only arrived at the circuit some fours before the start of practice due to air traffic control strikes in France – he and his girlfriend drove non-stop from Geneva to make the event, but stayed on the pace despite his tiredness; the Finn’s fastest time only some 0.3 seconds behind the second Toro Rosso of Jaime Alguersuari.

Both Chandhok and Sutil returned for the next ninety-minute stint and as the Hispania driver bedded himself in nicely near the bottom of the timing sheets, Sutil instantly popped up within the faster runners. However hard the Force India driver pushed, he could not quite match the pace of Fernando Alonso or the Red Bull pair. Unlike the morning practice, none of the Mercedes powered cars got a look in at the top of the sheets; however the real concern of the weekend lies with Schumacher, who appears to be clearly struggling against his teammate, Rosberg.
The second red flag of the weekend came out just over a half-hour into practice as Felipe Massa spun his Ferrari on the exit of turn 8, stalling his car in the process – with no cranes nearby, the session was halted while his car was removed. Sadly for Timo Glock, his Virgin suffered another reliability woe as the Nick Wirth designed machine lost high gears – his session done, Glock pulled over and made his way back to the garage. With time ticking down, teams switched their concentration to longer runs, with faster runs inevitably giving way to slower laps in the final minutes.

It almost goes without saying now that the Red Bull duo spent Saturday morning pushing the benchmark, but Vettel and Webber were not alone in setting the pace during third practice as Robert Kubica pressed them hard for speed, while Sutil and Alonso were not far behind.
What was more unexpected were the struggles faced by the McLaren’s – Hamilton had brake issues and Button suffered from rearward imbalance, putting them both 9th and 10th on the sheets following their respective runs. Pedro de la Rosa also had some problems in his Sauber that necessitated a new engine – his sixth of the season; following their blow-ups, the Swiss squad may now be resigned to having to except a penalty at some stage later in the year.

Sometimes, it’s best to just get on with the job at hand rather than make remarks or rash predictions that could bite back and despite their apparent advantage on the long, curving straights, McLaren found themselves locked out of the front row for the race. When it came to putting times down, the Red Bull pair nailed it with Vettel snatching pole only 0.08 seconds faster than Webber as the German driver secured the team’s 8th pole of the year.
It was not the only hard fought battle going on – in the opening 20 minute stint of qualifying, the three new teams fought amongst themselves to decipher their own order, while Kamui Kobayashi joined them for an early lunch. This weekend is marked as Lotus’ 500th Grand Prix and Trulli gave the team something to cheer about, with a time now only 2.5 seconds off the Q1 pace set by Kubica – the Norfolk/Malaysian team are quickly leaving Virgin and Hispania Racing behind; however there were some smiles at Hispania – Senna brought up the rear, only 4.7 seconds from top spot. Worries creased the Mercedes camp; a struggling Schumacher scraped his way into the next stint.

Sadly for the Mercedes team, neither would progress past Q2. Unstable cars compounded with (or caused by) upgrades that were not working, saw the works team qualify 12th (Rosberg) and 15th (Schumacher) respectively. Meanwhile, both Williams’, Petrov and Buemi all ran very well, with all but Buemi going through to Q3. Buemi, however, did secure 11th place – some three rows ahead of the disappointed Alguersuari. Neither Force India driver nor Sauber’s Pedro de la Rosa would emerge from the second session come the end of the 15 minute stint.
There may always be slight question mark over the fight for pole at Valencia – despite Red Bull’s excellent (and mildly surprising) pace, mistakes by both Hamilton and Button made sure pole would not be assumed by a silver and red car. While Hamilton had just enough in hand to claim third, Button’s mistake was more costly – the reigning champion unhappy with 7th spot. An off-kilter qualifying session gave Nico Hulkenberg and Rubens Barrichello the opportunity to get in clear laps and they would set identical times; however the rookie driver picked up the advantage over his experienced teammate – 8th and 9th for Williams. Petrov rounded up the top 10, once again losing out to his Renault partner, Kubica (6th), with the Pole just falling short of both Ferrari’s led by Alonso.
This was Vettel’s day though. He was untouchable when it mattered most and on a track where passing is very difficult, pole position is absolutely vital. Red Bull need capitalise.

Following two poor races in the harbours in the couple of years, Valencia finally delivered at the third attempt and while 2010 European Grand Prix was not a stunning affair, there was still more than enough going on to keep viewers entertained. For Red Bull, there was probably too much going on and it would be easy to simply say that Vettel led from flag-to-flag, it would ignore lots of incident, some great drives… and one of the scariest accidents in Formula 1 for quite a while. The German driver looked absolutely faultless during green flag conditions and his team were strong enough to keep it together during the safety car pitstops – what a shame an accident involving Webber signalled the emergence of safety car.
In one sense, Webber had only himself to blame. While Vettel got away well off the line and surged into the lead, the Australian bogged down and then was squeezed on the approach to the bridge – the victor of Monte Carlo was 9th by the end of the first lap and already mired in the pack. Vettel had his own difficulties though – a fast starting Hamilton spent the opening three corners climbing all over the Red Bull; they even touched. As they approached the slow turn 3/4 exchange, Hamilton found himself partially inside Vettel, clattering the German’s right rear wheel in the process. For once, luck played out for the Red Bull man; however Hamilton emerged with a slightly damaged front wing that was content to drop occasional carbon fibre shards, something that would drop the 2008 Champion into the clutches of Alonso. Behind the leading trio, Petrov would also had a poor start – the Russian found himself squeezed in the first few turns, losing him five positions by the end of the first lap. The field concertinaed through the concrete barriers and Trulli lost his front wing in the process, before having gear issues following his pitstop. That was just the first Lotus related incident during the race.

It would only take a few laps for the event to settle into a steady pace, with Vettel eking out a comfortable margin to Hamilton; all the while the two Ferrari’s of Alonso and Massa stalked the Englishman in 3rd and 4th places respectively. Webber resigned to a difficult day pitted early to change to hard tyres, emerging behind Heikki Kovalainen – surely this should be an easy pass? A swift move down the straight maybe?
As Webber closed in on the Lotus – jigging ever so slightly on the racing line – Kovalainen broke for tight turn 12 chicane, much earlier than Webber anticipated. The Red Bull, pulling itself along in the slipstream of the Lotus, launched itself over Kovalainen’s rear wing and took flight like an aeroplane in the Spanish dock. As Kovalainen was shoved hard into the barrier, Webber’s car initially back-flipped through the air, before landing cockpit down and turning over once more. The now severely damaged blue and red machine lost little speed in the first crash and Webber braced himself once more as he slammed violently into the barrier at the far end of the run off area.
Thankfully, there were positive signs almost immediately as a winded and flustered threw his steering wheel out of the car and flung his headrest to the floor – sighs of relief all round, as the sport came very close to a potentially deadly moment and another indication of the strength of modern day Formula 1 cars.

With a very broken Red Bull lay in the run off area and large clumps of debris shrouding the corner, the safety car emerged to close up the field; however even this could not be done without controversy. As Bernd Maylander took to the circuit, an unsure Lewis Hamilton passed the Mercedes AMG after it had joined the track, earning the Englishman a drive through penalty – however this penalty would not be awarded for a further 25 minutes. Hamilton was not the only driver to have a penalty hanging over his head though – as the race continued, several other runners were being investigated for running too fast under the safety car it would eventually lead to post race penalties for Button, Barrichello, Kubica, Sutil, Buemi, de la Rosa, Petrov, Rosberg, Liuzzi; all of whom had five seconds added to their finish time.

With the race neutered, the field poured in for new rubber – all that is, except for the Sauber of Kamui Kobayashi. The Japanese driver had been fairly anonymous over the course of the weekend, but staying out had placed him in third inbetween both McLaren’s; yet with Kobayashi still on hard tyres, he would still need to change later in the race. Inevitably there would be losers and in this case it was the Ferrari pair; Alonso dropped to 10th and Massa to 15th. Schumacher was also the victim of a mistimed stop – following a hard in-lap, the Mercedes turned over the former champion with a speedy tyre change, only to lose out as Schumacher came to a red light at the end of the pitlane. Suddenly 3rd place became 19th as Schumacher had no choice, but to let the field through. The German would pit again two laps later to get back on to hard rubber, but with him languishing down in 21st, it was always going to be a difficult afternoon.

Come the beginning of lap 15, the safety car left the circuit and Vettel resumed the lead, despite a last corner mistake – from here on in, it would be Vettel’s to lose. While Hamilton fell away from the Red Bull, he pulled away from a frantic Kobayashi / Button fight; however there was nothing that the reigning Champion could do to get by. This was mirrored in battles lower down the field, where Buemi and Sutil fought over 7th and Alonso was pushing Hulkenberg for 9th position; yet like Button, Sutil and Alonso found themselves pinned to their respective places.
Hamilton’s penalty was finally announced on lap 25 and spurned on by his crew, the 2008 World Champion put three consecutive fastest laps together and get himself just enough time to squeeze out ahead of Kobayashi – job done; Hamilton was still second, albeit some 14 seconds behind race-leader, Vettel. One could discuss the actions of Hamilton following the safety car deployment for quite a while, but it cannot be denied that the sheer length of time that it took to come to the decision greatly aided Hamilton’s chances of a podium finish.
As the laps tick by, the McLaren driver would steadily take tiny amounts out of Vettel’s lead, but it would not be enough at his current rate – the McLaren team would simply not have enough over the Red Bull’s to the dent the lead.

Regardless of how intense the fight up front was, the battles down the pack were becoming ever more intense. Down the long curving front stretch, through the almost endless myriad of tight chicanes and hairpins and along the sweeping (if rather barren) backstretch, Kubica continued to challenge 5th place Barrichello. The veteran was driving a very canny race having jumped his team mate off the time and despite – rather than because of – the Renault’s faster pace, Kubica could not find a way passed the Brazilian; the gap still pinned at less than a second after 35 tours of the concrete maze. Kubica, unfazed by Barrichello’s mass of experience would continue to push and pressurise the Brazilian, but to no avail.
The second Williams of Hulkenberg was indeed passed by Alonso not long after the safety car left the track, but still ran well on the edges of the top 10 for much of the race; however signs that this positive run would come to an early conclusion came on lap 41. Approaching one of Valencia’s many tight corners, a gush of blue smoke rose from the rear of the blue and white machine – something was very wrong. It would take a further 10 laps to finally give way, but a ruptured exhaust would soon kill Hulkenberg’s Cosworth-driven car and with that, the young rookie’s difficult début season continues.

The Williams driver can be somewhat thankful that he has not found himself driving for either Virgin or Hispania though. As Lotus continues to drop both squads, the “other” new teams are often left to fight amongst themselves – which was precisely what was happening when the leaders chanced upon Bruno Senna and Timo Glock. Both fought hard between themselves as they battled for 20th position, but realistically the leaders should have fought their way by with ease.
Not so this time around – Vettel would lose a three second chunk getting around the rearward pair, but more alarmingly, Glock chopped across the front of Hamilton as the McLaren driver set about poaching the Virgin. As the Virgin and Hispania battled, Hamilton could feel the time ebb away as Vettel pulled out another small gap – the Briton would eventually force a way through, leaving Kobayashi and Button to blocked. After a shocking display in front of the leaders by Glock, he would soon finish the battle – as Senna and Glock approached turn 17, the German pulled slightly ahead and swept across the front of the Hispania, puncturing his own right rear tyre and smashing Senna’s front wing in the process. Both would pit instantly and it was a move that would earn Glock a 20-second penalty after the race.

The accident freed Kobayashi and Button and as much as the McLaren driver pushed, there was simply no way by the Sauber driver – it would seem that until Kobayashi pitted, Button would be locked in place. Ahead of the 3rd place battle, Hamilton had no worries about being held up – in fact, he was flying. Following the backmarkers had shortened Vettel’s lead to 11.9 seconds, by lap 47 it was 9.5, a lap later 7.9, before the gap levelled at 6.6 seconds by the 52nd tour. The Red Bull driver, feeling some pressure, urged himself onward and restored the to 7.3 seconds with five laps remaining – game over; this was Vettel’s “for sure”.
While the Red Bull camp relaxed, the Sauber garage exploded into life – a marvellous 53 lap stint from Kobayashi, most of which in 3rd place, came to an end as the young man pitted for soft tyres. Hearts fell as the mainly white car exited the pits – Kobayashi who had been setting a relative good pace, fell around two seconds shy Buemi and Alonso; the Sauber driver slotted into 9th position. Almost as a gift, Alonso gets blocked by Buemi as the Swiss driver overcooks it into one of the many featureless Valencia corners. This race wasn’t over yet – immediately, Kobayashi on fresh new rubber and Alonso on old worn Bridgestone’s locked horns; the youngster pushed and pressed the double-World Champion, eventually forcing a way down the inside of turn 17 – the aggression that had disappeared for much of this season had returned; 8th place. Now Kobayashi set his sights on the Toro Rosso.

As one Red Bull liveried car felt supreme pressure, another felt supreme delight – for the first time this season, Sebastian Vettel took a hard-earned victory from a pole position in front of the 85,000 strong crowd. Hamilton, thinking it better to hold station and pick up guaranteed points gets second place to the plaudits of his team, with Button trailing not far behind. A jubilant Williams crew received Barrichello for fourth place ahead of Kubica and the rather silent Sutil, but those expecting Buemi next were in for a shock. Kobayashi still holding on to the freshness of his Bridgestone’s followed the flow of the Toro Rosso through the winding final few turns and powered his way passed the Swiss driver – 7th place. It may not be a podium, but it all counts. Alonso crossed the line – disgruntled – to pick up ninth, while de la Rosa flash through to a (temporary) tenth spot.

It’s not clear why it took so long for the penalties to be applied, but two hours after the race the sanctions came through, with the biggest losers being Sebastien Buemi and Pedro de la Rosa – Buemi demoted from 8th to 9th (promoting Alonso), while the Spaniard was dropped from his 10th spot to 12th, gifting the final point to Rosberg. It had been a dreadful weekend for the Mercedes team as their upgrades clearly did not work and this point was little reward for much pain.
The Championship moves to Silverstone in two weeks (I’ll be there on the Friday – sweet) and with the British Grand Prix approaching, two British drivers lead the title hunt in a British team in what should be an interesting test for the new Circuit layout. Here’s hoping it doesn’t rain.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Valencia, European Grand Prix (Round 9, June 27th)
1  VETTEL        Red Bull
2  HAMILTON      McLaren      +5.0s
3  BUTTON        McLaren      +12.6s*
4  BARRICHELLO   Williams     +25.6s*
5  KUBICA        Renault      +27.1s*
6  SUTIL         Force India  +30.1s*
7  KOBAYASHI     Sauber       +30.9s
8  ALONSO        Ferrari      +32.8s
9  BUEMI         Toro Rosso   +36.2s*
10 ROSBERG       Mercedes     +44.3s
11 MASSA         Ferrari      +46.6s
12 DE LA ROSA    Sauber       +47.4s*
13 ALGUERSUARI   Toro Rosso   +48.2s
14 PETROV        Renault      +48.2s*
15 SCHUMACHER    Mercedes     +48.8s
16 LIUZZI        Force India  +50.8s*
17 DI GRASSI     Virgin       +1 lap
18 CHANDHOK      HRT          +2 laps
19 GLOCK         Virgin       +2 laps**
20 SENNA         HRT          +2 laps
21 TRULLI        Lotus        +4 laps
22 HULKENBERG    Williams     +8 laps*
23 KOVALAINEN    Lotus        +49 laps
24 WEBBER        Red Bull     +49 laps
* 5s added to race time for safety car violation
** 20s added to race time for ignoring blue flags

Europe, Qualifying (June 26th)
3rd Session
1  VETTEL        Red Bull      1m37.587s
2  WEBBER        Red Bull      1m37.662s
3  HAMILTON      McLaren       1m37.969s
4  ALONSO        Ferrari       1m38.075s
5  MASSA         Ferrari       1m38.127s
6  KUBICA        Renault       1m38.137s
7  BUTTON        McLaren       1m38.210s
8  HULKENBERG    Williams      1m38.428s
9  BARRICHELLO   Williams      1m38.428s
10 PETROV        Renault       1m38.523s
2nd Session
11 BUEMI         Toro Rosso    1m38.586s
12 ROSBERG       Mercedes      1m38.627s
13 SUTIL         Force India   1m38.851s
14 LIUZZI        Force India   1m38.884s
15 SCHUMACHER    Mercedes      1m39.234s
16 DE LA ROSA    Sauber        1m39.264s
17 ALGUERSUARI   Toro Rosso    1m39.458s
1st Session
18 KOBAYASHI     Sauber        1m39.343s
19 TRULLI        Lotus         1m40.658s
20 KOVALAINEN    Lotus         1m40.882s
21 DI GRASSI     Virgin        1m42.086s
22 GLOCK         Virgin        1m42.140s
23 CHANDHOK      HRT           1m42.600s
24 SENNA         HRT           1m42.851s

Europe, 3rd Free Practice (June 26th)
1  VETTEL        Red Bull      1m38.052s
2  KUBICA        Renault       1m38.154s
3  WEBBER        Red Bull      1m38.313s
4  SUTIL         Force India   1m38.500s
5  ALONSO        Ferrari       1m38.513s
6  BARRICHELLO   Williams      1m38.623s
7  LIUZZI        Force India   1m38.676s
8  MASSA         Ferrari       1m38.686s
9  BUTTON        McLaren       1m38.769s
10 HAMILTON      McLaren       1m38.816s
11 ROSBERG       Mercedes      1m38.822s
12 BUEMI         Toro Rosso    1m39.050s
13 HULKENBERG    Williams      1m39.105s
14 PETROV        Renault       1m39.113s
15 SCHUMACHER    Mercedes      1m39.222s
16 ALGUERSUARI   Toro Rosso    1m39.392s
17 KOBAYASHI     Sauber        1m39.527s
18 DE LA ROSA    Sauber        1m39.699s
19 KOVALAINEN    Lotus         1m41.303s
20 TRULLI        Lotus         1m41.428s
21 GLOCK         Virgin        1m41.955s
22 DI GRASSI     Virgin        1m42.354s
23 SENNA         HRT           1m42.611s
24 CHANDHOK      HRT           1m44.622s

Europe, 2nd Free Practice (June 25th)
1  ALONSO        Ferrari       1m39.283s
2  VETTEL        Red Bull      1m39.339s
3  WEBBER        Red Bull      1m39.427s
4  ROSBERG       Mercedes      1m39.650s
5  HAMILTON      McLaren       1m39.749s
6  KUBICA        Renault       1m39.880s
7  MASSA         Ferrari       1m39.947s
8  SUTIL         Force India   1m40.020s
9  BUTTON        McLaren       1m40.029s
10 BARRICHELLO   Williams      1m40.174s
11 SCHUMACHER    Mercedes      1m40.287s
12 LIUZZI        Force India   1m40.387s
13 PETROV        Renault       1m40.618s
14 KOBAYASHI     Sauber        1m40.906s
15 DE LA ROSA    Sauber        1m40.945s
16 BUEMI         Toro Rosso    1m41.115s
17 HULKENBERG    Williams      1m41.371s
18 ALGUERSUARI   Toro Rosso    1m41.457s
19 KOVALAINEN    Lotus         1m42.467s
20 TRULLI        Lotus         1m42.993s
21 GLOCK         Virgin        1m43.811s
22 DI GRASSI     Virgin        1m43.854s
23 SENNA         HRT           1m44.095s
24 CHANDHOK      HRT           1m44.566s

Europe, 1st Free Practice (June 25th)
1  ROSBERG       Mercedes      1m41.175s
2  HAMILTON      McLaren       1m41.339s
3  BUTTON        McLaren       1m41.383s
4  KUBICA        Renault       1m41.715s
5  MASSA         Ferrari       1m42.182s
6  VETTEL        Red Bull      1m42.216s
7  WEBBER        Red Bull      1m42.275s
8  SCHUMACHER    Mercedes      1m42.312s
9  ALONSO        Ferrari       1m42.421s
10 BARRICHELLO   Williams      1m42.463s
11 HULKENBERG    Williams      1m42.707s
12 PETROV        Renault       1m42.962s
13 BUEMI         Toro Rosso    1m43.310s
14 LIUZZI        Force India   1m43.380s
15 DE LA ROSA    Sauber        1m43.397s
16 DI RESTA      Force India   1m43.437s
17 KOBAYASHI     Sauber        1m43.729s
18 ALGUERSUARI   Toro Rosso    1m44.183s
19 KOVALAINEN    Lotus         1m44.491s
20 GLOCK         Virgin        1m45.563s
21 SENNA         HRT           1m47.123s
22 TRULLI        Lotus         1m47.285s
23 KLIEN         HRT           1m47.343s
24 DI GRASSI     Virgin        1m47.356s

Driver Team Points
1. Lewis Hamilton McLaren 127
2. Jenson Button McLaren 121
3. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull Racing 115
4. Mark Webber Red Bull Racing 103
5. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 98
6. Robert Kubica Renault 83
7. Nico Rosberg Mercedes GP 75
8. Felipe Massa Ferrari 67
9. Michael Schumacher Mercedes GP 34
10. Adrian Sutil Force India 31
11. Rubens Barrichello Williams 19
12. Vitantonio Liuzzi Force India 12
13. Sebastien Buemi Scuderia Toro Rosso 7
14. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber 7
15. Vitaly Petrov Renault 6
16. Jaime Alguersuari Scuderia Toro Rosso 3
17. Nico Hulkenberg Williams 1
Constructor Team Points
1. McLaren 248
2. Red Bull Racing 218
3. Ferrari 165
4. Mercedes GP 109
5. Renault 89
6. Force India 43
7. Williams 20
8. Scuderia Toro Rosso 10
9. Sauber 7

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