2009 Chinese Grand Prix - Click above for a high-res image gallery
Those who tuned in on Saturday for the qualifying session at this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix would not have been surprised by the top three: Brawn's Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello took first and third on the starting grid, respectively, sandwiching Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel in second. No big surprise there – after dominating the first four rounds of the season, these three drivers hold the top three spots in the standings, after all. But coming in right behind them was a daunting wild card in Felipe Massa, who took fourth place on the grid. Of course only in this topsy-turvy season could Ferrari's golden boy, runner-up in last year's championship, be considered a wild card. Call it a sign of the times. But would Massa be able to turn around his dismal fortunes, take on the erstwhile underdogs and restore the Scuderia to its rightful place in the winner's circle? Follow the jump to find out.
After four rounds in the East, this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix formed the first race in the European stage of the world championship. And with it came fresh opportunity for those teams which dominated the last season but crushingly found themselves fighting from the back this year. Keen to start afresh and regain lost ground to the teams which, in their view, were surely usurping their place and disturbing the natural order of things, Ferrari, McLaren and BMW Sauber all came to Barcelona with important aerodynamic changes which almost constituted redesigned cars altogether. The question on everyone's minds, then, was would it be enough.
With the exception of Massa's ascending fourth-place qualification, the answer on Saturday afternoon seemed to be an affirmative "no". BMW's Robert Kubica qualified tenth, Nick Heidfeld 13th. Behind him was defending champion Lewis Hamilton in 14th, his McLaren wingman Heikki Kovalainen a dismal 18th, with the remaining Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen sandwiched in 16th. So much for putting up a fight.
These erstwhile premier teams hadn't fared any better by the end of the race itself, either. After holding on to his fourth place all through the race, Felipe Massa fell victim to Ferrari's tragically shortsighted pit strategy. Battling against Sebastian Vettel for fourth, the two drivers twice entered the pits together, both times Massa's Ferrari coming out ahead and holding on for dear life. But the second time, the Scuderia was in such a rush to get their car out of the pits ahead of Vettel that they didn't give him enough fuel to last the race. With only three laps to go, Massa got the call from his race engineers that their projections left him one lap short on fuel. He would have to back off to make it to the finish line, and in the process gave up his spot to a persistent Vettel pushing the whole way. And then another spot to Fernando Alonso, who closed in on the limping Ferrari from sixteen seconds down.
As bad as Massa's race turned out, it was still better than the drivers he was scrapping with all of last year. Heidfeld came in behind the struggling Massa in seventh. Lewis Hamilton came in ninth, out of the points and one lap down having been lapped by the race leader. Robert Kubica also finished outside the points in 11th place, while Raikkonen and Kovalainen didn't finish the race at all, retiring on laps 17 and 7 respectively.
The Finns were in good company, however, as a total of seven drivers failed to finish. Williams driver Kazuki Nakajima ended his race on lap 48 with insuficient oil pressure. But long before that, in the second corner of the very first lap, Toyota' Jarno Trulli, Force India's Adrian Sutil and both the Toro Rosso Sebastiens (Bourdais and Buemi) collided, sending debris everywhere, all four drivers out in one fell swoop and the safety car out immediately.
Not before an ambitious Rubens Barrichello sailed around his team-mate to take the lead, though. The elder statesman of the Formula One grid ultimately couldn't hold back Button, the two on different fuel strategies. The Brawns held on to an impressive lead over the race distance, but Barrichello – racing's equivalent embodiment of "always the bridesmaid, never the bride" – had to be disappointed to lose out to his team-mate yet again.
Following closely on the Brawn 1-2 was an equally impressive Red Bull 3-4. Although Sebastian Vettel was the one who looked poised to return to the podium, it was his team-mate Mark Webber who ultimately put up the strongest fight against Barrichello, taking third place, the ambitious Vettel only taking his fourth from the aforementioned encumbered Ferrari in the closing laps. After local hero Alonso in fifth, Massa a crushing sixth and Heidfeld in seventh, Williams' Nico Rosberg took the final point in eighth place.
The results further entrench Jenson Button's lead in the drivers' title with 41 points to runner-up Barrichello's 27. Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel follows closely in third with 23 points, Mark Webber in fourth with 15.5, while Toyota's Jarno Trulli takes fifth place in the standings with 14.5 points and Timo Glock in sixth with 12. The constructors' championship subsequently follows the same order, with Brawn at a practically unassailable 68 ahead of Red Bull's 38.5 and Toyota's 26.5. Tune in again in two weeks' time as the circus rolls in to Monte Carlo for F1's crown jewel: the Monaco Grand Prix.