"Horrible, quite bad race." That's how one of the championship front-runners described the results from today's Spanish Grand Prix. We're not about to tell you who summarized his day with such frustration – for that you'll have to read through to the end, or at least click past the jump and scroll down. But the circumstances he described came as one of a few surprises in an otherwise largely processional race this weekend in Barcelona. Follow the jump to read how it unfolded.
Saturday's qualifying session placed Red Bull on the pole once again for the fifth time in so many races so far this season, but instead of the young Sebastian Vettel leading his veteran wingman Mark Webber to pole, it was the other way around. The world champions dutifully lined up behind them: Lewis Hamilton in third, followed by Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button and Michael Schumacher. Three highly-rated young guns subsequently fell in line, with Robert Kubica in seventh, Mercedes' Nico Rosberg in eighth and Ferrari's Felipe Massa in ninth. The rest of the midfielders and back-markers took their places on the rest of the grid, the only big surprise was seeing Rubens Barrichello fail to make it out of Q1 for an 18th-place starting position.
Unlike some of the previous rounds that have seen surprising shake-ups as early as the first corner, the parade proceeded from the start in a largely orderly fashion, with few noteworthy collisions or passing maneuvers to speak of. Vettel tried to squeeze past Webber, and Alonso on Hamilton, but each maintained his position.
By lap 10, gaps of several seconds were already opening up between the race leaders, Webber pulling away from Vettel, who in turn stayed in front of Hamilton, with Alonso likewise following a couple of seconds behind. Four laps later, just before the first round of pit stops, the order remained largely the same, the only major shake-ups resulting from Kubica having dropped in the opening stint from seventh on the grid to tenth in the race, and Rosberg – who'd been having a stellar season so far after two consecutive podium finishes – dropping down from eighth on the grid to eleventh.
Driving the newly revised Mercedes, Schumacher was among the first into the pits, along with Massa. When the seven-time world champion completed his first post-pit "out lap," defending world champion Jenson Button was just pulling his McLaren out of pit lane. In the first bit of notable drama in the race, Schumi completed an impressive passing maneuver at the start of lap 17 on Button to snag fifth place. A race-long battle would follow as Button refused to give in to the returning veteran, and Schumacher in turn holding on to position for dear life.
The following lap after Schumi's pass on Button, Hamilton managed a similar move on Sebastian Vettel for P2. Making the best of a Virgin car moving aside to let the race leaders, already lapping back-markers, get by unimpeded, Hamilton squeezed by Vettel and promptly shut the door on him, forcing Vettel to fall in line behind.
Further back, the battle between Schumacher and Button raged on. By lap 25 they headed into heavy back-marker traffic and Felipe Massa closed the distance from behind to intensify a now three-way battle for positions five, six and seven. A back-marker moved aside under the passing flag to let the champions by, but evidently didn't see Massa joining the fight as well and shut him down, sending the Brazilian into the rear of the back-marker and slightly damaging his front wing. The impediment, however, turned out to be anything but, as Massa managed to squeeze off even faster times as his front-left winglet fluttered in the slipstream out of position, in turn forcing the Ferrari mechanics to wonder if their driver hadn't inadvertently stumbled upon an aerodynamic improvement.
Come lap 30 – nearly halfway through the race – Webber remained in the lead, well ahead of Hamilton in second, and Vettel close behind in third. Alonso trailed still in fourth, and Schumacher lagged some 20 seconds behind in fifth as he fought to keep Button at bay, who in turn was forced to defend against Massa in seventh. Adrian Sutil showed once again how far Force India had come with his eighth place position, ahead of Renault's Kubica (9th), Williams' Barrichello (10th), Toro Rosso's Jaime Alguersuari (11th) and William's Nico Hulkenberg (12th). Renault's Petrov, Sauber's Kobayashi, Force India's Liuzzi, Mercedes' Rosberg, STR's Buemi, Lotus' Trulli, Virgin's Glock and Di Grassi rounded out the order, while HRT's Chandhok, Sauber's de la Rosa, HRT's Senna and Lotus' Kovalainen were already out of the race.
The grand prix proceeded largely without incident for the following laps. Still in P4 by lap 42, Alonso was setting the fastest times, but was still four seconds behind Vettel ahead of him, and naturally even farther adrift race leader Webber.
A fight ensued farther back, however, between the Nicos, dueling it out for P15. Rosberg had managed to pick his way through traffic to catch up with Hulkenberg in the Williams, finally passing him in his faster Mercedes on lap 51.
Three laps later, Vettel surprised by running wide through a sharp corner. He managed to recover and get back on track without losing his third-place position behind Hamilton and ahead of Alonso, but proceeded directly into the pits for fresh tires, falling to fourth behind the two-time champion, a local favorite, in the process. As it turned out, his Red Bull was suffering from failing brakes, and his technicians advised him over the radio to slow down as the situation deteriorated to a critical level that endangered his chance of finishing the race altogether. With four laps to go, Vettel was noticeably slower, but with 21 seconds separating him from both Alonso in front and Schumacher behind, he stood little chance of either gaining or losing position.
The tear-jerking surprise, however, came for Hamilton on the penultimate lap. Holding on securely to a vital second place position, the McLaren blew a tire and skidded off the track and – somewhat ironically – into a tire wall. His race was finished with only one lap to go.
Hamilton's misfortune propelled everyone else up a position, catapulting Alonso to second and Vettel, despite his malfunctioning brakes that held together to the finish line, to the podium.
Schumacher finished an entirely respectable fourth place, his best result so far this season (doubtlessly thanks, in no small part, to the revised chassis) and outperforming his young team-mate for the first time since his return. Button followed across the finish line in fifth, Massa in sixth, Sutil an impressive seventh, Kubica eighth, Barrichello ninth and Alguersuari picking up the last championship point in 10th place.
The race results leave Button still in the lead for the championship with 70 points, ahead of Alonso in second with 67. Vettel trails with 60, Webber with 53, Rosberg with 50, Hamilton and Massa with 49 apiece and Kubica with 44. Schumacher, meanwhile, lies ninth in the standings with 44 points. McLaren likewise leads in the constructors' standings with 119 points, just ahead of Ferrari's 116 and Red Bull's 113.
In the post-race press conference, Webber was suitably elated after a flawless and unrivaled performance, scoring his third career victory and his first this season. Alonso was suitably satisfied with his performance as well. But Vettel, despite having landed on the podium and brought in a 1-3 victory for his team, was practically despondent, characterizing the day with our opening quote. Imagine, then, how Hamilton must have felt. Guess it's all a matter of perspective.