Taking a starring role in Spain
Sky Sports F1's Martin Brundle steps off the movie set in Barcelona to review another dramatic race, explain why the rules around Qualifying need a tweak, and consider what lessons will be learnt from the fire at Williams...
Last Updated: 16/05/12 10:50am
The Spanish Grand Prix felt more like being part of a movie set rather than a motor race. After the first four flyaways, the jet lag, the smog of China, the stress of Bahrain, and the incessant rain back in the UK, the majority of the paddock seemed to be revelling in in the sunny environment and the warm hospitality of the motorhomes. It's a long time since I've felt quite so happy to be in Barcelona.
After the Mugello tests the previous week and the inevitable upgrades following a three-week break it was reasonable to expect normal service to resume with more predictable races as the development race between the big budget teams kicked in. No chance, it was wilder than ever.
After last year's four-stops winning strategy, many teams felt that saving tyres for the race was top priority. A gap of over a second between hard and soft compounds and the incredibly close 2012 field was always going to make qualifying a lottery. We had the bizarre situation of Sebastian Vettel heading down the pit lane a minute before Q3 started so that he could be the first on the grid of anybody only doing an out-lap for sector times without having to complete 2.9 miles of hot lap. Some didn't even bother to do that but we did have a last-gasp effort from the likes of Hamilton, Maldonado and Alonso.
Once again the unpredictable races have taken the shine off qualifying as many are realizing that a race supply of new tyres of the right compound are more important than grid position at some tracks. We could consider points for the top three on the grid but the drivers who didn't think they would make that still wouldn't run.
Possibly a set of tyres only available to those who make Q3 would help, but then the racing wouldn't be so interesting if the top 10 had such a tyre advantage on race day. Qualy needs a careful tweak with a clever solution for 2013.
McLaren had not fuelled Hamilton's car properly but they sent him for a run anyway. He didn't have enough fuel to complete the 'in lap' and the team asked him to switch the engine off. A clear breach of the technical regulations (instigated after this last happened to Hamilton back in Canada 2010) and disqualification from qualifying is the standard penalty in such instances I'm informed. He would start last through no fault of his own and having enjoyed essentially zero advantage, and having used up tyres to claim pole position, which seemed brutal. Rules are rules I guess.
Lotus had looked very fast again on long runs plus they lined up third and fourth on the grid. Vettel, Webber, Button, Massa and Hamilton were well out of position compared to the expected pace of their cars. A tasty race seemed certain.
But such is the pace of 18 cars in the field this year nobody can be discounted. As expected, traffic light king Fernando Alonso led out of turn two but Maldonado stayed with him, surprisingly leaving the Lotuses behind. Indeed the Williams appeared to be a tenth or two faster here and there.
Sergio Perez had touched with Romain Grosjean on the first lap and put a set of hard tyres on. These were clearly working very well and most, but not Lotus, reacted to this around lap 10. The broader operating range of that compound suited a track nearly 10 degrees cooler than qualifying.
A key moment came at the second stops when Williams made the first move and using the fresh tyres and a great out lap while Alonso was in traffic, Maldonado had the lead. The danger was that at some point he would need to stretch his tyres further than Alonso.
Maldonado proved imperious to the relentless pressure of the local hero Alonso never once making any apparent errors. It was a truly impressive drive, underlined by the fact that despite younger tyres Alonso was struggling first, although he felt something may have gone wrong on his car with seven laps to go.
Had the race been three laps longer Kimi Raikkonen may well have won it, such was his pace at the end when they finally came alive. When asked if he thought Lotus could win this year Raikkonen dryly suggested they should have already won the last two.
Romain Grosjean was equally impressive at the end but would have to settle for fourth. Hamilton drove beautifully while nursing (yes, really) his tyres to a two-stop strategy, and with some wonderful overtakes would finish 8th albeit 78 seconds behind the winner. It was, though, seven seconds ahead of a dejected Jenson Button who started 14 places ahead of him.
On a weekend when Sir Frank Williams was feted on the occasion of his 70th birthday, the first Williams victory since 2004 was sweet even for those who were beaten in many ways. If they had to lose, then Maldonado winning his maiden race, the first ever for a Venezuelan, in a Williams was at least acceptable. It was Williams' sixth Spanish GP win - 15 years after their last one.
Maybe Maldonado won't be perceived as a 'pay driver' now after such a mature drive.
But then it all literally flared up. At Sky Sports F1 we had just chatted with Maldonado as we followed him into the Williams garage where he was off to see Sir Frank for the first time since the end of the race. That special moment for them was shortly afterwards interrupted by a ball of flame and thick black smoke. Seeing images of the fire it's a miracle that more injuries were not sustained as the team prepared for the now traditional celebratory photo.
Frank was hurriedly wheeled out, there's a picture of Maldonado piggy backing a relative away from the scene. His wife passed us holding the trophy and crying, fleeing the smoke. Next Maldonado came past urgently looking for her. Johnnie Williams came past and he had clearly been very close to the fire. Sir Frank was seen wheeling around the paddock checking up on crew and family.
Many F1 folk in the pit lane and paddock were nothing less than heroic in diving into the smoke to put out the fire. If it had spread to the pit building and then likely to the line up of team trucks it would have been catastrophic for many people and surely would have compromised Monaco.
Only for very fleeting moments are so many people allowed anywhere near the pit garages in this way. Not any more I suspect, the victorious photo calls will now be in the paddock if it's far enough away from the garages.
As the fire engines finally arrived, the smoke cleared, and the medical helicopter fired up, it really did feel like a movie set. I know we all wish anyone who was burned or inhaled smoke the speediest and fullest recovery. That one was a lesson to us all in the relaxed wind down of a great sporting event.
Almost unnoticed after the race, Michael Schumacher was given a five-place grid drop for the next race in Monaco, of all places. He misjudged Senna's braking and rear ended him. That one was definitely down to Michael I'm afraid even though Bruno, on very worn tyres, was not exactly arrow straight into the braking zone.
With five different driver and teams winning the first five races, Alonso and Vettel sharing the championship lead and with complex tyres which need careful management at all times, what on earth will the traditional madness of Monaco offer us?