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Valencia thriller puts Sebastian Vettel back on track

Sebastian Vettel wins the European Grand Prix

European Grand Prix in 90 seconds

Martin Brundle
by Martin Brundle
BBC F1 analyst

What a season this is turning out to be - even the boring tracks have seen breathtaking races.

Sunday's European Grand Prix produced a brilliant drive to victory from Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel in Valencia.

The German controlled the race at will after a hairy first couple of corners and it was a pivotal win. The German can taste a potential world championship again - "We're back on track," in his words.

Vettel delivered a slow and strategic formation lap, and then got off to a perfect start.

Kovalainen is entitled to defend his position but frankly there was no point

But he was cautious into the braking zone of Turn Two and a fast-starting Lewis Hamilton tried to seize his main chance to take control of the race.

They touched, Vettel was fortunate not to spin, and Hamilton damaged his front wing, which he would be lucky enough to change 'free of charge' under the safety car.

If Vettel had made a mistake or had a gremlin in the car then his championship chances would have been under pressure - this was his first win since the Malaysian Grand Prix in April, despite Red Bull's performance superiority.

Vettel saw his Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber, not for the first time in his racing career, head for the skies and scoring no points. It was the turning point for the race as the safety car was inevitably deployed to clear away the trail of debris.

Fernando Alonso

Alonso frustrated after respecting rules

Webber was already on his back foot because of a calamitous first lap, when he went from the front row all the way back to ninth as he constantly lost out in various battles.

The Australian needed to change strategy to have any chance to leapfrog a few cars and this would mean an early stop to use fresh tyres in clear air to pump in some very fast laps. This concept and a poor pit stop would initially put him towards the back of the field near the new teams and slower cars.

That's when the irresistible force met the immoveable object. Heikki Kovalainen took up the Lotus position at 190mph and Webber's Red Bull definitely had wings as it headed skywards, miraculously not collecting any bridges or marshals en route to a second heavy impact with the barriers.

Kovalainen is entitled to defend his position but frankly there was no point. Webber had a race-winning car and was clearly going to pass before the end of the lap.

Kovalainen is racing Virgin and Hispania, with an envious eye on Toro Rosso and Sauber; there is no point him losing time or crashing out of the race defending hard in a straight line against Webber.

Webber misread the Lotus's moves across the track as letting him through. Nonetheless he allowed himself to get way too close under the rear wing to maximise the slipstream and was simply not prepared for Kovalainen to lift or brake 80 metres before Webber would normally hit the anchors.

Alonso's emotions got ahead of his common sense

But at such speed we are talking of a second or so. In my view neither driver is totally to blame. Both were out of the race instantly with sizeable impacts, and both could have done more to avoid the incident. But these things happen.

After such a difficult start and the slow pitstop, I suspect Webber's head wasn't particularly calm or rational as he approached Kovalainen.

It was so reminiscent of my crash in Melbourne in 1996. In that situation, you just feel like you're in suspended animation and slow motion, you have all the time in the world to think about things and wonder what's going to happen next.

Webber had two aspects to that. The first was, having taken to the air, how would the car land - and luckily it hasn't appeared to hurt his spine. He then faced the scariest thing - a passenger ride in a high-speed sled towards the inevitable second impact.

Red Bull's Mark Webber

Webber feeling 'lucky' after big crash

The second impact can be nasty if the car has lost its structural integrity, all the bits that protect you and absorb the energy - the front wing, nose, wheels, suspension.

Luckily, Webber's car held up brilliantly. It's a testament to the cars, the debris fencing, and the conveyor belt in front of the tyre barrier, which are all so carefully tested and developed.

The survival cell chassis are squeezed and smashed up using data from real accidents and that's why F1 cars bounce down the track at 190mph and the driver simply throws away his steering wheel in disgust and jumps out.

Webber's accident triggered an inevitable safety car and that could have been Hamilton's chance to snatch the race from Vettel if he had pitted as soon as the safety car board came out.

Lewis Hamilton

Hamilton unconcerned with Alonso claims

But the team were obviously furiously calculating and they have to make a split-second decision based on so many factors.

The golden rule normally is to pit immediately and even anticipate a safety car because you don't want to end up at the back of the crocodile behind the safety car as Schumacher did, or have to wait in the pit lane while the team services your team mate's car, as Ferrari had to, with Felipe Massa behind Fernando Alonso.

Hamilton did not pit and as he swept through Turn One he saw the safety car in the pit lane exit, and as he hesitated the safety car just beat him over the critical second white safety-car line.

The rules are complex and Hamilton was managing warning beeps and messages in his ear while managing his speed and trying to second guess where exactly the safety car was. He chose to pass and this allowed him to pit to collect his mandatory second set of tyres and a new nose and front wing

He received a drive-through penalty for passing the safety car. Without this, it could have been a very close fight but in the end, looking at how Vettel responded when Hamilton put him under pressure, I don't think the result would have changed.

Alonso and Ferrari were incandescent that Hamilton had squeezed past the safety car and that the subsequent penalty still left him in second place, while both their cars had to complete a full lap at safety car speed and ended way back down the field.

Hamilton didn't harm them; it was just fate and co-incidence as to where the safety car emerged. They should be equally unhappy about Vettel, who was just in front Hamilton.

Whether the safety car should only emerge just in front of the leader is another matter but it's not easy choreographing that given the closing speeds, and the fact that in the pit-stop phases often associated with these incidents the leader can very quickly be a different car.

Alonso's emotions got ahead of his common sense, and his mood wouldn't have been helped when the Ferrari-powered Sauber of Kamui Kobyashi on fresh tyres passed him on the penultimate lap.


The Japanese driver's pass into the very last corner on Toro Rosso's Sebastian Buemi was very brave. Kobayashi reminded me for the first time of the driver who was so impressive in Abu Dhabi at the end of last year.

Post-race nine drivers were given a five-second penalty because when under the safety car they rushed back to the pits faster than the computer-created 'earliest time of permitted arrival' which is shown on their steering wheels and is used to prevent cars racing when clearly there is a serious incident somewhere.

Jenson Button said he was right on top of the pit lane so had no chance to moderate his in-lap, but all nine drivers could not have been. They should consider themselves lucky to receive such minor penalties, even if Buemi slipped behind Alonso and Sauber's Pedro de la Rosa did lose his point for 10th place.

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see also
Alonso angry at 'unfair' result
27 Jun 10 |  Formula 1
Hamilton unconcerned with Alonso claims
27 Jun 10 |  Formula 1
Webber 'lucky to be in one piece'
27 Jun 10 |  Formula 1
Vettel beats Hamilton in Euro GP
27 Jun 10 |  Formula 1

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