Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa’s winning margin of 0.9s over Lewis Hamilton suggests the Spanish Grand Prix was a close run thing. In fact it was anything but, and a Ferrari one-two looked like an inevitability from the first corner.
Hamilton came out on top of a three-way fight for third that was contested entirely on a strategic level, with no-one looking in any danger of making a move on the track.
But a stark reminder of the real dangers of Formula 1 came as Heikki Kovalainen crashed heavily at turn nine and there was relief all round when it emerged the McLaren driver had not suffered serious injury.
Events swung in Ferrari’s favour before the race had even begun. Fernando Alonso got on the accelerator too hard warming his tyres up on the formation lap and spun across the grass on the inside of the last corner, narrowly missing the barrier.
With dirty tyres it was scarcely a surprise to see him beaten off the line by Felipe Massa’s Ferrari, the Brazilian taking up station behind his team mate.
Behind Alonso, Robert Kubica struggled to get the BMW away quickly again having voiced concerns earlier about the clutch on his F1.08. Lewis Hamilton threaded his McLaren through a narrow gap between Kubica and Heikki Kovalainen to move up to fourth.
Toro Rossos out early
Adrian Sutil made an optimistic attempt to pass David Coulthard at turn four on the first lap and spun his Force India. He was collected by – who else – Sebastian Vettel, the German retiring on the first lap just as he has in Bahrain.
That brought the safety car out for two laps, and once it went back in Nelson Piquet Jnr spun off to resume in 18th. He moved to pass Sebastien Bourdais on the sixth lap and the pair collided. Piquet had moved alongside Bourdais as the Frenchman was turning into La Caixa, and it seemed as though the sidepod-mounted mirrors on the Toro Rosso had prevented him from seeing Piquet coming.
Also out at the same time was Anthony Davidson’s Super Aguri. His radiator ingested gravel from Piquet’s earlier spin and failed soon afterwards.
Alonso drops back – and out
Alonso’s second place on the grid had sent the crowd into rapture but left everyone else wondering if the R28 was quicker or just light on fuel.
The answer came on lap 16 when the home driver pitted, three laps before Massa. Raikkonen was in on lap 21 followed by Hamilton and Kubica on the 22nd tour – both getting out ahead of the Renault. All the same the R28 was clearly quicker than it had been in the first three races of the year.
It wouldn’t last much longer, however. A rare engine failure sidelined Alonso, who acknowledged the applause of the fans that had packed into the Catalunya circuit in their thousands once again.
Horror crash for Heikki
Alonso’s retirement came after the second, much longer safety car interruption of the day.
Heikki Kovalainen was leading the race when his car speared straight on at turn nine, hitting a tyre barrier wrapped in a conveyor belt almost head-on at around 140mph at a force of up to 29G.
It was a shocking scene as the McLaren had clearly ‘submarined’ underneath the tyres – exactly what the conveyor belt is supposed to prevent. The marshals had to pull the car out to reach Kovalainen. He was quickly taken to the medical centre where his injuries were revealed to be limited to concussion, and he was taken to hospital for checks.
Mclaren suggested the accident was caused by damage to the wheel rim caused by something getting into it – most likely a stone, as had caused Davidson’s problem.
Races ruined by safety car appearance
Meanwhile the field queued behind the safety car for several laps and, coming in the middle of a sequence of pit stops, this played havoc with some unfortunate drivers races. The worst affected was new race leader Nick Heidfeld, who’d carried a heavier fuel load, and was forced to pit during the safety car despite the pit lane being closed and incur a penalty.
The poorly thought out change to the rules that was introduced last year ruined another driver’s race, and a change is not expected until the Monaco Grand Prix next month.
It also went wrong for Rubens Barrichello, who in his record-equalling 256th Grand Prix start succeeded in knocking the nose off the front of his Honda and having to retire. On lap 42 Nico Rosberg joined him on the sidelines with a broken engine.
Points on offer for lower teams
The unusual string of retirements left the way clear for several drivers to pick up rare points. For a while it looked as though Takuma Sato might claim a dream points finish for the beleaguered Super Aguri team, the Japanese driver running as high as ninth before his second pit stop.
It was Jenson Button and Honda who exploited the unreliability to best effect, claiming sixth place and the teams’ first points of the season.
But there was still more incident further down the field as Timo Glock braked too late at Renault and tagged David Coulthard’s Red Bull. Coulthard suffered a burst rear tyre and Glock also headed for the pits with a broken front nose. The stewards investigated the incident but took no action.
Coulthard provided one of the races few passing moves as he recovered to pass Takuma Sato. Nick Heidfeld did the same with Giancarlo Fisichella, sweeping around the Force India driver at turn one.
Raikkonen romps home
Raikkonen never once looked like losing the lead and confirmed afterwards that the Ferraris had time in hand: “We could have run a bit faster but [there’s] no point to push when you don’t need to.”
Raikkonen controlled the pace in the later stages even as his team mate began to be caught by Hamilton. It looked like an exercise in winning at the slowest possible speed. But is Raikkonen beginning to think Massa might be his closest competitor in the championship battle, and it’s no bad thing if Hamilton takes the odd point off him?
The British driver was third ahead of Kubica who had another strong race. Mark Webber took fifth place and Button was a happy sixth. Kazuki Nakajima was seventh ahead of Jarno Trulli, who reckoned he’d have finished sixth had he not gone into the pits by mistake on one lap.
Heidfeld ended up ninth ahead of Fisichella, who gave Force India their first top ten finish. Glock, Coulthard and Sato were the remaining finishers.
The next track on the calendar is Istanbul in two weeks’ time. It’s another Ferrari stronghold, and a repeat performance for the red team there would make it highly unlikely that anyone is going to beat them to this year’s championship.