Sunday, 22 July 2007

European Grand Prix: Awesome.

Just finished watching the European Grand Prix and I honestly, genuinely, can't remember when I've seen a more exciting race.

It began in chaos: the track was damp during the first lap that meant several cars spun off and lost grip. Then, somewhere in the sky, a switched was flipped and the heavens opened: the track became a river and six cars slid off at the first corner in identical bouts of aquaplaning. Debutant Marcus Winklehock, driving for the perenially 22nd Spyker team, started from the pitlane so he could begin the race on wet tyres after the team anticipated heavy rain very soon. The move turned out to be inspired. His rivals floundered on the track on intermediate or slick tyres, losing pace and grip, or just ended up in gravel traps, and Winklehock coasted through.

Eventually, the situation became more than tinged with farce and red flags were waved: the race would be restarted from the grid with cars in the same order. Winklehock led from the restart, with Lewis Hamilton 17th - he had been a lap down, after sliding off at the first corner in the wet and also getting a puncture, but gained it back under the safety car - and confusion reigning over the teams and their mechanics. The only problem with the leader was that he was still on wet tyres, and more rain didn't fall. He dropped quickly through the field and eventually retired with a hydraulics problem. But what a debut. He brought back memories of Minardi and the intrepid adventurers of Formula 1, snatching glory for just a few laps - he's instantly become one of my favourite drivers. I never said I wasn't fickle.

Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso quickly settled into first and second positions respectively, and we didn't see much of them for the bulk of the race as the action was centred elsewhere. The track quickly dried out, with teams opting for slick tyres and a genuine race developing: Mark Webber, Kimi Raikkonen, David Coulthard (who led briefly), Heikki Kovalainen, Alex Wurz and Gaincarlo Fisichella battling for the points positions, as well as Hamilton, who was trying to fight through the pack from 14th position but was hampered by being lapped and inevitable pit-stops. Webber eventually held of a late challenge to grab third place after Raikkonen's electrics failed and caused a rare technical problem for Ferrari. Hamilton also nearly snatched a precious World Championship point at the end after Kovalainen gambled away a certain 5th position. He dove into the pits late on and, anticipating more rain, switched to intermediate tyres: he'd lose pace initially, but as everyone else scrambled to change tyres, he'd take places back. The rain clattered down again, but not as badly as before - the gamble didn't pay off and after Hamilton snuck past Fisichella on the final lap it looked as if he could have grabbed the point but didn't quite make it.

And then, there was the finish. After the leaders had endured a quiet and relatively uneventful race for much of the afternoon, controversy and anger. Alonso hadn't got a chance of catching Massa until the late rains began to fall, and the McLaren driver quickly closed the gap in front. They were jostling for position with 5 laps to go when Massa's defensive driving let him down and Alonso snuck around the outside, the cars briefly touching during the tussle, until Alonso pulled away and won. Hamilton still leads the Championship, however.

What a fantastic, exciting race. Makes me feel like I felt when watching Formula 1 for the first time, all those years ago, before Schumacher turned grands prix into a procession. Get in.

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