The Spanish Grand Prix belonged to a Spaniard, to the obvious content of the crowds. Fernando Alonso’s second win of the season gave the two-time champion the mojo he was missing in Bahrain to re-establish his place in the fight for his third career title, missed so narrowly in 2012. But this was not the only breakthrough in driver performance in the opening race of F1’s European leg 2013.
After Saturday’s front row lock-out it seemed Mercedes were in their happy place to finally claim the podium; and yet, the weekend soon turned out to be a repeat of their Bahrain underperformance: despite holding his pole position on the first 12 laps, Nico Rosberg had to give in to the faster competitors, to eventually finish in sixth. Starting from second Lewis Hamilton did even worse, falling back place after place from as early as the first corner, overtaken by Vettel and then – Alonso. He seemed helpless, as made evident in the resigned and frustrated radio messages “I can’t drive any slower!” or “And now I’m being overtaken by Williams” – a team that still goes pointless after five grands prix, unable to repeat the stunning 2012 win by Pastor Maldonado, who this year struggled to finish 14th.
Watching Alonso slide past him on that first lap was one of the last instances Hamilton saw either of the Ferraris, unable to generate any speed and finishing only 12th. In the meantime, Ferrari drove the race of the season, by proving once more – as they did many a time the previous year, specifically via Alonso – that their qualifying is unrepresentative of their Sunday potential. To add to Fernando’s now classic fifth-to-podium start-finish ratio, Felipe Massa made his own statement of being back in the top by cruising from a penalised ninth (three place demotion for impairing Mark Webber in qualifying) to a comfortable third across the line. For both the afternoon was one to remember: Massa claimed his first podium of the season, despite an entirely better start to the year than back in 2o12, proving his right of presence at the Prancing Horse; whilst Alonso finally snatched that long awaited Spanish Grand Prix trophy, having missed the taste of a home GP win since claiming it in 2006 with Renault. As was the case in Valencia during the European Grand Prix 2012, it’s fair to say the crowd’s support was a Ferrari-exclusive upgrade for the weekend – and at both instances the champion was not shy of words of gratitude to his countrymen.
Of course, another reason for Ferrari’s satisfaction – a sentiment shared by some percentage of F1 fans’ – will be the slight demise of the standing champion, who, despite launching into the front early in the race and clinging onto the back of Rosberg’s Mercedes, was gradually pushed back, as his fighting spirit had to be tamed by overheating breaks and degrading tyres. Vettel defending position from Lotus’ Kimi Raikkonen on lap 33 was one of the most exciting moments in the fairly orderly grand prix – after which the Finn did not only gain position in the race but also to gain ground in the championship, as his second-place finish narrowed down the gap separating him from the German to mere four points. The only satisfaction for Vettel this afternoon would have come from the fact that his fourth place finish was that much better from his team-mate’s Webber’s fifth.
There were no revelations on the part of McLaren – in line with Jenson Button’s disillusioned reassurances that the car is still too far off the pace to race for a win, making him sound gradually more like Hamilton talking about Mercedes. After a poor qualifying, in which Sergio Perez seemed to be taking over McLaren’s lead-driver cap, having entered Q3 alone, Button fell back from 14th to 17th place at the opening stages of the race. Eventually he fought his way back to the front and just ahead of Perez to still finish in eight. In five events of 2013 the team scored a total of 29 points which leaves it sixth in the Constructors’ Championship behind Force India – leaving a lot to wish for in the upcoming weeks.
Among some veteran let-downs, a rookie breakthrough was at hand, as Sauber’s Esteban Gutierrez actually led the pack in a long first stint and then looked strong to challenge for 10th in the final stages, only narrowly missing out to Toro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo. The two teams had clashed earlier in the race – and quite literally so – when an unsafe release of Nico Hulkenberg in the pit-lane led to a contact with Jean-Eric Vergne, costing each of them potential points, with the Frenchman having to cut the afternoon short. He joined Lotus’ Romain Grosjean, the first retiree of the day due to a suspension failure, and Giedo van den Garde, whose team Caterham might face painful charges as a result of his wheel coming loose on the track.
So, in what unfolds to be a season dictated more than ever by teams’ tyre strategies, the temperatures on and off the grid are rising now that the circus settles down in Europe prior to the legendary Monaco Grand Prix – one to see little overtaking, but always to stage some drama on tight street-circuit corners. It will be interesting to follow whether the narrow streets of Monte Carlo will finally see the circus overturned on its head.