Some readers might think the spoiler-warning headline above is itself a spoiler, but trust us: we haven't given away anything that the TiVo crowd would rather keep hidden. So before you go rushing to conclusions, consider that this season (arguably more than any other in recent memory) is packed with "the mighty."
With a quartet of world champions on the grid – two of them multiple winners, no less – no fewer than four teams have shaped up as frontrunners in contention for the title. It's a given that some of these "mighty" drivers will park their "mighty" cars on the podium at the end of each grand prix. It's just a matter of finding out which ones make it and which don't. Follow the jump learn how things played out at the Mediterranean seaside track in Valencia, Spain.
After a heated qualifying session on Saturday, Red Bull took pole position for the eighth time in nine races so far this season. But after three straight grands prix of Mark Webber as the polesitter, this weekend it was Sebastian Vettel who landed the choice spot, with Webber in second and Lewis Hamilton in third. Ferrari's Alonso and Massa took fourth and fifth on the grid, followed by Renault's Robert Kubica in sixth, Jenson Button in seventh, Williams' Nico Hulkenberg and Rubens Barrichello (admirably) in eighth and ninth and Renault's Vitaly Petrov in tenth. Michael Schumacher, for those still following the returning champion's progress, managed no better than fifteenth in qualifying.
Schumi did, however, manage to significantly improve his position once the race got underway, achieving the best off-the-line advancement in jumping to eleventh by the first corner. The fortunes were reversed for Mark Webber, who first lost position to Hamilton off the line, then Alonso, followed by Massa. Over the course of the opening lap, Webber was passed as well by Kubica, Button, Reubens Barrichello and Nico Hulkenberg to wind up in ninth place before the group crossed the start/finish line for the second lap.
By lap eight, Webber was forced to pit, but a jammed front wheel resulted in his return to the track in eighteenth place. That wasn't even the extent of his catastrophic day, either.
Trying to get past Heikki Kovalainen down the straightaway on lap 9, Webber hit the back of the Lotus at high speed, sending his RB5 airborne. Heikki spun into the barricade, while Webber landed upside-down and crashed into the tire wall at around 120 miles per hour. Both drivers walked away unscathed from the spectacular crash, but were sidelined for the rest of the race with their cars totaled.
The crash brought the safety car out under yellow, sending most of the field into the pits. Schumacher was one of the last drivers to pit – ahead of hold-outs Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber) and Virgin's Lucas di Grassi and Timo Glock – but poor timing forced the seven-time champion to wait at the pit lane exit for the green light before he could rejoin the procession behind the safety car. Having pitted from third, Michael returned in 21st position, second to last.
When the safety car was finally recalled on lap 15, Vettel remained in the lead, followed by Hamilton. Kobayashi, still having held out on his mandatory pit stop, held on to third, blocking Button from advancing from fourth and challenging the leaders. Barrichello followed in fifth ahead of Kubica (6th), STR's Sebastian Buemi (7th), Force India's Adrian Sutil (8th), Williams' Nico Hulkenberg (9th) and Fernando Alonso stuck in tenth. De la Rosa, Petrov, Rosberg, Liuzzi, di Grassi, Glock, Massa, Alguersuari, Chandhok, Senna, Schumacher and Trulli filled out the rest of the order as the race got back underway.
Unfortunate strategies under the safety car proved disastrous for both Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz, the latter of which would suffer from brake issues that forced both its drivers to take it easy for the remainder of the race.
While the leading pair continued to pull away from the rest of the field, a number of captivating battles ensued for the remaining positions. Driving for Williams and Renault respectively, Barrichello and Kubica battled ardently for fifth place. But the most exciting – and surprising – battle ensued further adrift of the lead between the likes of Buemi, Sutil, Alonso, Hulkenberg and Kobayashi.
Lap 51 saw Hulkenberg sidelined and forced to retire, agitatedly kicking the tire wall in frustration at his misfortune, but the rest continued to fight. Shortly after Nico climbed out of his Williams, Kobayashi finally pitted from third place. Thanks to the fierce jockeying for position behind him, Sauber's Japanese driver eventually found himself ninth position after his stop. That alone would have been the best result for both driver and team so far this season after a series of early retirements, but Kobayashi wasn't done yet. With less than two laps to go, he managed, unbelievably, to squeeze by Alonso to take eighth place, and on the very last corner of the final lap, he got past Buemi to take seventh place across the finish line.
Up ahead, Sebastian Vettel took the checkered flag in a flawless victory from pole. Lewis Hamilton had been handed a drive-through penalty for illegally passing the safety car on its in-lap, but brilliant racecraft on McLaren's part saw him retain second place, with his teammate landing in third to park both McLarens on the podium. No fewer than eight additional drivers – Button, Barrichello, Hulkenberg, De la Rosa, Petrov, Sutil, Liuzzi and Kubica – were cited for the same safety car infraction, with penalties potentially to be issued some time after the race that could stand to alter the finishing order.
In the meantime, Barrichello took an impressive fourth place finish, the best result for Williams so far this season. Renault's Kubica followed in fifth, Force India's Sutil in sixth, Sauber's Kobayashi in seventh, Toro Rosso's Buemi in eighth, Ferrari's Alonso in ninth and Pedro de la Rosa completed the red-letter day for Sauber with an additional points finish in tenth. Petrov, Rosberg, Liuzzi, Massa, Alguersuari, Schumacher, di Grassi, Glock, Chandhok, Senna and Trulli all finished outside the points.
The results further cement Hamilton's lead in the drivers' standings ahead of Jenson Button, while Red Bull's mixed fortunes leapfrog Vettel past Webber for third and fourth places. Alonso still trails in fifth. The combined team standings retain the same order, with McLaren leading Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes.
Watch this space for an update on the race stewards' decision regarding those eight drivers cited for passing the safety car and tune in again on July 11 for the British Grand Prix from Silverstone.
*UPDATE: Jenson Button, Rubens Barrichello, Nico Hulkenberg, Robert Kubica, Vitaly Petrov, Adrian Sutil, Sebastien Buemi and Vitantonio Liuzzi were all handed five-second penalties after the race for speeding on their way into the pit lane when the safety car was deployed following Mark Webber's crash. An additional 20-second penalty was handed to Timo Glock for failing to heed to blue flag warnings.
The revised finishing times after the penalties were issued have Buemi and Alonso switching positions, Alonso bumped up to eighth from ninth and the inverse for Buemi; and Nico Rosberg bumped up to 10th instead of Pedro de la Rosa.