Sunday, August 23, 2009

Getting Back to Work at the 2009 European Grand Prix

by Noah Joseph

Ever come back from vacation only to feel like you need another vacation? We've all been there, so we can all empathize with the performers in the Formula One circus. After the last grand prix in Hungary, the premier racing series took a much-needed break for nearly a month, ostensibly to regain their energy and regroup for the final rounds.

But for most parties, the would-be vacation proved to be anything but restful. On top of all the usual off-track posturing that typically occurs between races, two teams had to replace their drivers, a former multiple world champion nearly came back out of retirement, a major automaker announced its withdrawal from the sport, a whole slew of legal battles were fought, and all the parties ratified a new comprehensive commercial agreement for the years ahead. So much for a vacation.

Recuperated or not, however, it was back to work this weekend for the 2009 European Grand Prix, held for only the second time at the Valencia circuit on Spain's sun-drenched Mediterranean coast, where everybody had something to prove. Follow the jump to read how it unfolded.

When we left off in July, Jenson Button and Brawn GP were firmly in the lead in both the drivers' and constructors' standings. But after winning six out of the seven initial grands prix, their dominance began to wane. Red Bull took three race wins to emerge as a daunting contender, and while the erstwhile back-markers had set up camp at the front of the field, McLaren came back with a surprising return to form at the Hungarian Grand Prix, defending champion Lewis Hamilton finally putting up a fight to keep his crown. The big question on everyone's mind over the course of the month-long recess, then, was whether the teams we'd all come to know as the front-runners in years past could maintain their return to the winner's circle, or whether their challenge would run out of steam and give way once more to the underdogs.

By Saturday afternoon, it seemed like McLaren-Mercedes – celebrating its 250th grand prix together – was back at the front and back to stay. Hamilton and wingman Heikki Kovalainen – who had so far this troubled season retired from as many races as he finished – took the front row in qualifying with a dominant pole and second position on the grid. The Brawn GP duo of Barrichello and Button were relegated to still-respectable third and fifth places on the grid, respectively, sandwiching Red Bull wunderkind Sebastian Vettel in fourth. Ferrari's former champion Kimi Raikkonen placed sixth next to Button, ahead of Williams' Nico Rosberg and double champ/local hero Fernando Alonso, whose Renault team had just successfully appealed a penalty to participate in the race altogether.

Despite the extreme heat and humidity in Valencia, all the cars made it off the starting grid without incident for the opening formation lap. But while the top three maintained their positions after the lights flashed green, Raikkonen took full advantage of his KERS boost and superior race-craft to catapult himself into fourth place by the exit of the first corner.

Cleared by his team to pursue the race win (instead of playing his usual support role to his championship-leading team-mate Button), Barrichello summoned up a command performance, applying consistent pressure to the McLarens over the course of the race distance. But it was Brawn's legendary strategy in the pits that capitalized on Rubens' performance to dispatch the McLarens in the same fashion by which the driver and strategist duo had back in their days at Ferrari. Barrichello passed Kovalainen for second place in the first round of pit stops, and after subsequently whittling down on Hamilton's lead, a mistake in the McLaren pit put Barrichello in the lead, a position which he held onto until the checkered flag.

Palpably jubilant, Rubens stood atop the highest step on the podium for the first time in five years, marking his tenth career victory in some sixteen years on the grid and his first outside of Ferrari. Having driven valiantly for four of the teams on the grid, F1's elder statesman was greeted with applause by everyone, stood victoriously atop his car in victory lane and paid tribute to his fallen countryman Felipe Massa, still recovering from the major blow to the head he received a month ago in Hungary. Rubens hugged his crew, kissed the camera, danced on the stage and kissed the top step of the podium on which he received his hard-earned trophy.

Vanquished but still accomplished, Hamilton took the second step beside him, and magnanimously took responsibility for the pit crew's foul-up as part of the team. But while his wingman looked destined to join them, it was Kimi Raikkonen who took the third step on the podium, having passed his fellow Finn for position in the second round of pit stops.

Kovalainen crossed the line shortly behind Raikkonen in fourth, with Nico Rosberg right behind him in fifth. Fernando Alonso, who showed promise in the Friday practice sessions, took sixth. Title leader Jenson Button fell back two positions from his fifth-place qualification to seventh, ahead of BMW's Robert Kubica who took the final point of the race. Vettel, meanwhile, retired early from the race after blowing out his engine on lap 23.

Those who were watching to see how the newbies would fare were entertained by a mix-up in the pit lane between Renault's rookie Romain Grosjean, who was called up to replace a fired Nelson Piquet, and Ferrari's veteran test driver Luca Badoer, filling in for the injured Felipe Massa. Having entered the pits together, Badoer ostensibly inadvertently cut off Grosjean who pulled out of the Renault pit behind Ferrari's, forcing him to move aside to let the Frenchman past, only to receive a drive-through penalty for drifting over the white line upon exiting the pit lane. Ferrari prefaced Badoer's drive by saying the race would act as a test session, but that hardly masked the spin-outs and all-around poor performance by the returning pilot. Grosjean ultimately finished fifteenth of the same lap as the leader, ahead of Toro Rosso's Jaime Alguersuari in his second race. Badoer trailed in seventeenth, ahead of Williams' Kazuki Nakajima, whose blown tire capped a day far less successful than his team-mate's.

Despite scoring minimal points in this round, Button still maintains a commanding lead in the drivers' standings with 72 points, ahead of his triumphant team-mate, who leaps ahead of Red Bull's Mark Webber with 54 points to 51.5. Vettel's two wins counteract his retirement at this race to hold his fourth place at 47 points ahead of Rosberg in fifth with 29.5, Hamilton trailing in sixth with 27 and Raikkonen in seventh with 24 championship points. Barrichello's victory also further entrenches Brawn GP's lead in the constructors' standings with 126 points to Red Bull's 98.5. Ferrari trails in third with 46 points ahead of McLaren's 41. You can bet they're all taking a deep breath as they head to Belgium with less than a week to gear up for the next round at the venerable Spa-Francorchamps, so stay tuned.

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