Rubens Barrichello ended his F1 victory drought of nearly five years with a classy win on the streets of Valencia.
A crucial mistake by McLaren on Lewis Hamilton’s final pit stop gave Barrichello the opportunity to snatch victory – but his 35-second lead over team mate Jenson Button showed how well the Brazilian had driven.
Barrichello went to his third spot on the grid with four laps’ more fuel than pole sitter Lewis Hamilton – a useful strategic advantage, providing he could stay within touch of the McLarens at the start.
With no KERS cars immediately behind him this was accomplished – although Kimi Raikkonen’s sprint from sixth to fourth briefly threatened to demote him.
Button’s bad start
Team mate Jenson Button had a more difficult start. Although he got away from the line smartly, as he drew alongside Sebastian Vettel the Red Bull driver squeezed him, forcing Button to lift. That allowed Fernando Alonso through and Mark Webber got a run on him at the chicane.
As Button and Webber headed into turn four side-by-side Alonso out-braked himself and Button followed the Renault across the kerbs. A few corners later Button dived down the inside of Alonso – but ran wide, allowing him back through again.
It got worse for Button: his team reckoned he’d illegally stayed ahead of Webber by cutting the chicane, and judiciously told Button to let the Red Bull past in case the stewards handed down a penalty. Having done this, Button was now down in eighth.
Barrichello chases Hamilton
With a slightly lighter car, Hamilton left Kovalainen behind. By lap six the two McLarens were separated by four seconds, with Barrichello 1.7s adrift followed by Raikkonen, Vettel, Nico Rosberg, Alonso, Webber and Button.
Hamilton came in for his first stop on lap 15, by which time he had a 7.5s advantage over Kovalainen, with Barrichello another 1.2s behind. After Hamilton’s stop Barrichello took between 1.5 and 2 seconds out of his lead per lap – meaning that, once all three had pitted, Hamilton remained ahead but Barrichello had jumped Kovalainen and left him well behind.
Now the race was all about Hamilton and Barrichello – and whether Hamilton could eke out enough of an advantage to stay ahead. Brawn told Barrichello on the radio that he needed to cut Hamilton’s lead to two seconds. But it crept up – hitting 4.3s by lap 27 and staying around the four-second mark before Hamilton’s pit stop on lap 37.
Pit stop problems
It looked very much like we were set for a close battle to the end – but Hamilton endured a fumbled pit stop, the team failing to get the tyres on the car quickly enough, which handed Barrichello the lead. Once the Brawn driver had pitted on lap 40 his advantage over Hamilton was six seconds. Hamilton’s pit stop had taken 13.4s – easily four or five seconds longer than it should have been. It seems that critical mistake robbed us of an exciting finish to the race and potentially cost Hamilton a win.
Afterwards McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh didn’t quite see it that way. His explanation was:
Barrichello was running longer than us so we tried to get extra lap. We made the call very late and we didn’t get tyres out in time. It cost us a few seconds but it didn’t lose us the race. We didn’t have the race pace so it didn’t make any difference to the outcome. It was an operational error but a consequence of the circumstances.
McLaren’s explanation that they were trying to stretch Hamilton’s advantage by saving enough fuel for an extra lap makes sense. But there’s no denying that the effect of the fumbled pit stop cost Hamilton real time, without which the outcome might have been different. However, McLaren also suspected Barrichello could have pitted later than he did – his lap 40 pit stop may have been brought forward out of a concern that the safety car was about to be summoned following Kazuki Nakajima’s puncture.
Whatever happened, the outcome was clear – the fight for the lead was over and the race was now Barrichello’s to lose.
Tough times for Badoer
Hamilton wasn’t the only driver suffering misfortune. Romain Grosjean’s debut was compromised on the first lap when he damaged his front wing. The same thing happened to Sebastien Buemi, who swiped his wing off against Timo Glock’s right-rear tyre, giving the Toyota driver a puncture.
Ferrari’s stand-in Luca Badoer profited from this to move up from last to 14th on the first lap – but it didn’t stay that way for long. He was back down to 17th before the first tour was complete. He later picked up a drive-through penalty for crossing the white line while letting Grosjean past in the pit lane exit, and had a spin. The only driver he finished in front of was Nakajima, who’d spent much of one lap dragging his three-wheeled car to the pits.
There doesn’t seem to be any need to labour the point that Ferrari are taking quite a risk by keeping him in the car. He will be expected to do much better at Spa next weekend – a track he knows, and when explanations about ‘inexperience’ won’t cut any ice.
Raikkonen on the podium again
Meanwhile the other Ferrari of Raikkonen quietly nabbed third place off Kovalainen at the final round of pit stops. Kovalainen in turn fell back into the clutches of Nico Rosberg, the man who is tipped to take his place at McLaren next year, who had another strong race in the Williams.
Behind Alonso, sixth, was Button, who finally succeeded in passing Webber at the final round of pit stops when the Red Bull driver was delayed on his in-lap. This came after Button spent a chunk of his middle stint stuck behind Giancarlo Fisichella’s late-stopping Force India.
Button’s race had all the hallmarks of a driver who has one eye on the title and doesn’t want to take any risks. He shied away from going wheel-to-wheel with Vettel at the start, and let Webber past to ensure he didn’t get a penalty. The approach paid off – despite finishing seventh for the second race in a row his championship lead has grown to 20.5 points over Webber.
Robert Kubica snatched the final point having started tenth. He fell behind Nick Heidfeld’s more heavily-fuelled BMW at the start but his team mate let him through early on.
We go from one of the least-loved circuits in Formula 1 to its grand, all-time classic: Spa-Francorchamps. Valencia showed us that Brawn are back, but can the championship-leader emulate his team mate’s winning ways in the Ardennes?