F1 European GP: The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

It all started so well for the McLaren-Mercedes team at the European Grand Prix. They locked out the front row and would have KERS to guarantee them the lead on a track that is notoriously hard to pass. However, the race results showed a mix of misfortune, mistakes, and strategy rather than just the qualifying results. In the end, it was Rubens Barrichello using a mix of strategy and taking advantage of mistakes to pick up his first win in five years. The race did show the continued improvement of McLaren and Ferrari. And, of course, there is all the silly season news and rumours that are kicking about with drivers trying desperately to find a ride for next season.

This was supposed to be a coronation for Lewis Hamilton. Thank God it wasn’t because I wouldn’t be able to take any more pro-Hamilton English smugness. The British still got their win, except that it was from a Brawn as opposed to a McLaren. I don’t think you could get a more popular victory on the F1 circuit than a win for the senior man on the F1 circuit. He had to work some for it too. He started the race with three more laps of fuel than Heikki Kovalainen but stayed within a second through the first stint. He put in a few quick laps and made his way by Kovalainen on the exchange of pit stops. Then he closed in on Hamilton and got within five seconds before Hamilton’s stop. Hamilton’s stop was a mess because they weren’t ready for him. Barrichello put in some qualifying speed laps and easily beat out Hamilton to coast to the win.

Meanwhile, the championship contenders had all sorts of fun today. Sebastian Vettel was running fifth early on before he had a fuelling problem during his pit stop that required a second stop. To add insult to injury, his engine grenaded only seven laps after the second stop. That was his second blown engine of the weekend. He better hope that it’s just a problem with those two Renault engines as opposed to a cooling, gearbox, or other drive problem with the Red Bull. An engine problem might just go away with the next one they put in the back. A problem with the car won’t be fixed in time for next week’s race.

At the head of the championship standings, Jenson Button and Mark Webber spent most of the day together. On the first lap, Button ran through a chicane and came out ahead of Webber. The team decided that Button should concede the position to Webber and that’s how they ran until the final pit stop. Button stopped a lap before Webber but came out ahead of him because traffic slowed Webber massively on his in-lap. Adding insult to delay for Webber was the fact that Robert Kubica got by as well which knocked him out of the points while Button finished seventh.

Between the Red Bull struggles and Barrichello’s win, the whole championship complexion has changed. The gap from Button to Webber stretched from 18.5 to 20.5 or two whole races that Button can sit out without having to worry about losing his lead. The way he’s performed after winning 6 of the first 7 races, he needs the gap. One thing he shouldn’t worry about is the challenge from his teammate. Barrichello is now in second in the standings, 18 points back of his teammate. For the lunatic Brits out there, no Hamilton isn’t out of the hunt to repeat yet. He’s only 45 points behind Button with 60 points left on the table.

•••

There are a few possible reasons for McLaren’s return to form in the last few races. They could be cheating again. It’s not as if they haven’t done it before. They could have optimized the car to work with the KERS unit so they get a bigger advantage from it. Either they’ve made it or the car lighter so they can move more ballast around. The third explanation is that the car is just suited to twisty, low-grip circuits like the Hungaroring and the Valencia street circuit. Otherwise, I can’t see how a car can go from near last place to the front of the grid in half a season. It’s not as though Hamilton is a driving god. McLaren must have poured a pile of money into the development of this car. Of course, with the rules for 2010 only now being finalized, it’s not like they were shooting their chances of a 2010 title to hell by developing this year’s car instead of next year’s.

I guess I would have to ask the same questions about Ferrari after Raikkonen’s second straight podium. Actually, maybe not “would” so much as I could ask how Ferrari has made its way near the front but that isn’t exactly a last to first jump. They’ve been consistently scoring points since Bahrain and looked reasonably competitive in testing. Their recent streak of podiums hasn’t been as big a surprise as McLaren’s.

•••

I’ve mentioned it a few times in recent weeks but I got confirmation yesterday. With the exception of the start, I don’t think there was an on-track pass all race.

•••

The latest rumour circulating the paddock is that Toyota’s Jarno Trulli is on his way out at the end of the season. I mentioned a while ago that I don’t think much of Trulli as a race driver. Turns out that Toyota might just agree with me. Or at least they think that Trulli is asking for too much money for a driver that hasn’t won a single race for Toyota. As I mentioned before, Trulli’s only win came at Monaco from the pole. If Trulli asks for anything about say €3 million above what Glock is making, then I say drop him. I don’t think I’ve seen Trulli pass anyone this season. As for Glock, he’s scored more points when he starts in the pit lane than when he starts on the grid. That’s a race driver.

Heikki Kovalainen still hasn’t signed with a team for next season and I don’t think he helped himself at all today. He fell from second to fourth today because he was easily run down by Barrichello and Kimi Raikkonen heading into pit stops. In fact, if it wasn’t for the design of the circuit, it was very possible that Nico Rosberg was going to pass Kovalainen in the dying laps of the race. Rosberg is another driver without a confirmed ride for next season. Anyone else think that his drive yesterday sent a message to McLaren? We know Mercedes would love to have a German driver in one of the cars they supply whether its in a McLaren or a Brawn.

And Rosberg brings me to Williams. Rumour has it that they’re looking for a way out of their contract with Toyota. I can understand why. I can’t think of any benefit that has come with Toyota engines except Kaz Nakajima’s salary allegedly being paid by Toyota. The rumoured front-runner is Renault, though Mercedes-Benz is also a possibility. If Williams signs on with Mercedes, that would strengthen the likelihood of Rosberg staying. Whether Rosberg stays or goes, I would expect Nico Hulkenberg to move up from GP2 and into one of the Williams race seats in 2010.

Finally, McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh is certain that Fernando Alonso will be driving a Ferrari next season. Word is that Spanish bank Santander will sponsor Ferrari and that the team will hold some sort of season-end party in Valencia complete with a demonstration run at the Circuit Ricardo Tormo. I can’t imagine why all that would come together if Alonso wasn’t signed, sealed and waiting to be delivered. If Massa returns to racing, that leaves Raikkonen as the odd man out with one year left on his contract. A slightly outlandish rumour has come out saying that Fiat, Ferrari’s parent company, will start a world rally team and Raikkonen’s contract will be transferred to them to run next season. That would certainly be the most unique solution to a problem that’s never existed in the past.

•••

Speaking of driver moves, I think Luca Badoer is on notice for next week’s race at Spa. He can’t finish last again and expect Ferrari to keep him in the race seat. He knows the track and has to show some improvement there or we could see Marc Gene take up the hot seat. I know Ferrari engineer Rob Smedley (race engineer for the #3 car) was texting Felipe Massa all weekend and can’t wait to get him back in the car.

•••

The next race is next week. After four weeks off, I guess the geniuses at the FOM and FIA decided the teams can make the quick turnaround. I think it would have been better if it was a three week break and two weeks between Valencia and the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa. The Spa-Francorchamps Circuit is one of the best, fastest, and most challenging tracks in Formula One. Passing is guaranteed and so is an exciting race. The other great thing about Spa is that the weather is unpredictable. Weather conditions can change during the race and be different at different parts of the track making strategy a real challenge for the teams.

I would expect that the KERS cars will have a decided advantage at Spa. The extra 80 horsepower will provide a massive boost down the long run from the La Source hairpin to Les Combes and from Paul Frere to the Bus Stop chicane. We know that McLaren and Ferrari will run KERS. The question is if Renault and BMW will run it. Renault and BMW started the season with KERS but dropped it quickly. Brawn looks to have a fight on their hands as they won’t be running KERS and we’ll see its benefits most brightly at Spa and Monza.

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