Round 5 of the 2013 Formula One Championship took place at the Circuit de Catalunya, where Scuderia Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso started to really give his title chance a welcome boost on home soil, as the double World Champion secured his 32nd career victory, ensuring his climb to third overall in the drivers’ title race. Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen and Brazil’s Felipe Massa, who scored his first podium finish since his home race at the end of last season, rounded out a Red Bull-free top three in the Spanish sun.
95,000 fans were in attendance for the 66-lap race around the 4.655km race, which saw Williams win last year, but time is fleeting in Formula One due to variables changing so frequently. Track temperatures were around 37 degrees Celsius, with a potential of a three or four stop strategy being employed by the teams due to the abrasive surface of the Montmelo track, as a two stop was not really feasible, according to Pirelli’s Paul Hembery.
The five lights going out saw the action underway for the very first race of the European stages of the 2013 season, with pole sitter Nico Rosberg leading Vettel into the first corner, as Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton locked his front wheels dramatically at the end of the 730 metre dash to the first corner. However, it was clearly Alonso that was the man to watch. The Spaniard carried out his trademark lightening start, and then followed that up with an audacious move into turns 1 and 2 around both Hamilton and Raikkonen, putting him behind both young German drivers.
The pits were active from as early as Lap 7, with Mark Webber being the first of the drivers to go onto the hard compound tyres, showing signs of a four stop strategy for the Australian, whose future is still in question at Infiniti Red Bull Racing. Rosberg was told by his engineer to conserve the tyres from a very early stage, with team mate Hamilton dropping down the order rapidly, especially when he pitted alongside Alonso on Lap 10 for new prime tyres, being passed by other rivals in rapid succession.
The race would see Mercedes-Benz struggle throughout the race, with Rosberg, finishing 6th and Hamilton, finishing a lap down in 12th, clearly dejected after a fantastic qualifying the day before. It seems like they still have lots of work to do to sort out their race pace characteristics, or will the potentially proposed changes from the Italian tyre manufacturer make things that little bit easier? When Lewis was heard on the radio in the latter part of the race to say that he “couldn’t drive any slower,” it shows that there is a lot of head scratching to be done.
Lotus GP’s Romain Grosjean was the first of the retirees from the race, as his right rear suspension had a technical failure, as well as Caterham’s Giedo van der Garde losing his left rear wheel after a botched pit stop, with the Dutch driver limping back to the pits before retiring, as his under floor was damaged.Sauber’s Esteban Gutierrez led the race at one point during proceedings, before leaving clean air on Lap 14 for the Spanish hometown hero to have an abundance of clean air in front of him as he took the lead of the race. Last year’s winner was clearly not enjoying himself this year, as his day was also compromised by a drive-thru penalty for speeding in the pit lane, as well as having a garage issue, having parked in the wrong pit box. He did, however, overtake Hamilton just past the half way point, with Lewis again disconsolate with the under-performing W04.
Jenson Button was in clear damage-limitation mode, as his qualifying pace was clearly something to forget, as team mate Sergio Perez had clearly had the upper hand on the Briton, but the 2009 World Champion pulled back a points finish. Perez was ordered by his engineer to hold his ground, rather than the Woking squad have another in-depth team talk after the Mexican’s actions last time out.
Both drivers secured an 8th and 9th place finish, with Toro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo securing the final points finish of the race, having shown a measured and steady performance to bolster his chances of progression in the sport, whereas Jean-Eric Vergne has show increases, but this time around, his race was again to end early for the third time in a row, just several laps from the end.
Infiniti Red Bull Racing were in contention for a potential win or even a podium finish, but with the race pace strength that Ferrari had, they also had to consolidate a solid pair of finishes in 4th and 5th, as Vettel and Red Bull know that there is still more of a chance to keep themselves ahead of the rest. Vettel was leading at several points in the race, as well as Webber showing good speed when switching to the hard tyres, but the Milton-Keynes squad will now look onwards to Monaco in just a fortnight’s time.
Sahara Force India saw Scotland’s Paul di Resta finish as the highest place Brit in 7th, having the measure of Adrian Sutil, who also finished behind Hamilton, with the upgrades from the Silverstone-based squad soon to come thick and fast as the race for speed continues. Gutierrez and team mate Nico Hulkenberg were placed 11th and 15th respectively, as their progress is not yet apparent to make any judgement on their progress, but the German must be unhappy with both the lack of pace and the badly timed release in the pits on his fifth and final pit stop, which caused Vergne’s retirement.
Charles Pic was the highest placed of the back teams for Caterham, as Jules Bianchi continues his impressive form ahead of Max Chilton for Marussia, as the two rookies continue to do battle. So with Alonso and Raikkonen closing down on Vettel, with the “Iceman” just 4 points behind, the F1 paddock moves to the jewel of the calendar, Monte Carlo, where the track is unforgiving, incredibly technical and difficult to overtake at corners including Sainte Devote, Casino Square and Tabac. Could we see Infiniti Red Bull Racing keep up their impressive record around the principality and secure their fourth successive win, or will the dice roll in someone else’s favour? We’ll find out in just two weeks’ time…
(Images courtesy of Octane Photographic)