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A Wild, Unpredictable Weekend For F1

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, May 16 2012

Spanish Grand Prix Report

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Pastor Maldonado’s breakthrough victory in the Spanish Grand Prix is the latest installment in an FIA Formula 1 World Championship that continues to be delightfully…unprixdictable!

Maldonado, of Williams/Renault, became the fifth different winner driving for a fifth different constructor on the Circuit de Catalunya, holding off Spanish hero and two-time World Driving Champion Fernando Alonso of Scuderia Ferrari by 3.195-seconds. Kimi Raikkonen of Lotus/Renault finished third, the second consecutive podium result for the 2007 World Champion in his return to F1.

Maldonado _ first Venezuelan to win an F1 race – gave team principal Sir Frank Williams his 114th overall victory and first since Juan Pablo Montoya claimed the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2004. But the celebration, including recognition of Williams’ 70th birthday, was muted when a fire in the team’s garage later Sunday left 31 people injured.

FIA, the sport’s governing body, reported the injured initially were treated by the circuit’s medical staff. Seven of the injured were flown to area hospitals for treatment. Catalonia’s regional government reported in a statement that one person was airlifted to a hospital in Barcelona with serious burn injuries, while the others were being treated for smoke inhalation.

Williams F1 officials confirmed a fuel leak caused the problem, with three of its staff treated for injuries. One team member remained hospitalized in Barcelona for treatment of unspecified burns, but was reportedly going to return to the United Kingdom within the next 48 hours. In addition, the Caterham team reported four of its members were injured as the fire and thick smoke spread through adjacent team paddocks.

“Everyone at Williams F1 is extremely relieved that this event was contained as quickly as it was, and the damage which occurred was, relatively speaking, limited in its nature,” Williams said in a statement after returning to Great Britain on Monday. “While the incident was unexpected and definitely most undesirable, it has demonstrated the genuine cohesiveness, camaraderie and spirit of cooperation that exists within the Formula One paddock. The astonishing response from the teams and other paddock personnel was immediate, unconditional and overwhelming.”

Maldonado qualified second on Saturday but started the 66-lap race on-pole after Lewis Hamilton of McLaren/Mercedes was penalized for stopping on-track after his final hot-lap. McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh instructed Hamilton to stop after securing the pole, worried there might not be enough fuel in the tank to provide stewards with a complete sample. Drivers are required to have enough fuel to return to the paddock and provide such a sample. Hamilton subsequently was excluded from the session and forced to start 24th and last.

The 2008 World Champion, Hamilton employed a two-stop strategy to rally and finish a respectable eighth – one spot ahead of teammate Jenson Button, who started 10th. But Maldonado and the spotless drive that returned Williams to the top of the podium for the first time in eight years emerged as perhaps the feel-good story of the young season.

“I think it’s a wonderful day, not only for me but for the team,” said Maldonado, who was hoisted onto the shoulders of Alonso and Raikkonen during the public podium ceremony. “We’ve been pushing so hard since last year to try to improve race-by-race. And here we are.”

Maldonado, 27, scored his first F1 win in his 24th career start. He earned a single point in 2011 driving a Cosworth-powered Williams.

“We had a great qualifying and it was a tough race because the strategy with the rear tires,” Maldonado said of the Pirelli-supplied rubber choices. “After a couple of laps, we were struggling with (tire degradation). But I need to say I’m pretty happy because the car was competitive since the first lap. Fernando did a better start than me but I was following the pace. It’s my first podium and my first victory, so you can imagine what I feel.”

Sunday’s results continued the no-repeat pattern as the series reached the one-quarter mark of the 20-race season. Jenson Button, the 2009 World Champion, won the season-opening Australian Grand Prix for McLaren/Mercedes. Alonso followed with a victory for Ferrari in the Malaysian Grand Prix. Second generation star Nico Rosberg of Mercedes AMG posted his first career F1 win in Round 3 in China, while two-time reigning World Champion Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull Racing/Renault halted an early-season slump by winning the Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix.

The FIA-sanctioned series will return to the United States for the inaugural Formula 1 USGP at Circuit of The Americas, a $300-million facility under construction in Austin, Texas, Nov. 16-18.

Alonso, who started second after Hamilton’s penalty, took the lead when he out-dragged Maldonado down the front stretch of the 2.9-mile, 15-turn layout and beat the Venezuelan into the Turn 1 right-hander. “Yeah, it was a fantastic start again,” said Alonso, who scored his sixth podium result on his home track. “The team prepare quite nicely the clutch and everything. It was close on the straight into Turn 1 with Pastor, and then we had the better side inside. We took the momentum there and we lead the race for the first part.”

Maldonado took the lead from Alonso during the second round of pits stops, with Raikkonen running third. Maldonado noted a “small mistake” during his third and final stop put him behind new leader Raikkonen, who took the point when Alonso made his third/final stop for fuel. Maldonado regained the lead when he passed Raikkonen on Lap 47 and began to open a gap on Alonso, who passed the Finn one lap later and began to close on the leader.

“We were looking to manage the tire degradation, so I wasn’t pushing that hard, just to keep the tires alive for the end of the race,” Maldonado said. “And Fernando get too close. There was some moment that he got so close, especially at the end of the straight. But I was managing the gap and controlling everything, I think. Our pace was pretty strong.”

Alonso credited the Williams strategy that allowed Maldonado to pass him during his second stop. “At the end it was close because we had maybe newer tires than Pastor,” Alonso said. “We try a couple of times but it was not possible. Then the very last laps, I felt the car strange…also we were out of grip. We were very slow; I mean, we were close to Kimi to fight for third position. We were lucky at the end, and second place feels fantastic at home. And definitely a step forward in terms of championship possibilities.”

Alonso and Vettel exited the initial grand prix of the European season tied for first in the driver’s championship with 61 points, while Hamilton is third with 53. Raikkonen, fourth in the driver’s standings, continued to raise the profile of Lotus/Renault. The Finn made up nearly 20 seconds over the final stretch to finish 3.8-seconds behind Maldonado and ahead of Lotus teammate Romain Grosjean.

“In the end we were very good but it was too late,” Raikkonen said. “We were not fast enough in the beginning of the race and that’s why we couldn’t fight for a win. We showed in the end we have the speed; we just have to look what we did. Maybe we took the wrong tire choice in the first pit stop. I was disappointed because I saw I could not follow (keep pace) in the beginning. But then in the end, when you catch them after almost 20-seconds (deficit) it gives you quite a feeling. We needed a few more laps to maybe fight for first place. But it’s good points for the team.”

Raikkonen, who finished second to Vettel in Bahrain, was asked if he felt close to his first win of 2012. “Yeah, twice already,” said Raikkonen, who podiumed for the first time since 2009 at Bahrain. “You get the chance then you should take it because it’s not every race that you’re going to be able to fight for that position. Hopefully we can keep doing what we’re doing now and then on a certain point things will go exactly right and we can win.

“So far it’s been a good step and the car is strong everywhere. Next race is Monaco. It’s hard to say how it goes there but the team has done a good job. We still have work to do and things to improve but so far it’s going in a good way and I’m happy with it. OK, we’re not 100 percent happy because we are not winning, but that’s a normal thing.”

F1’s crown jewel _ the Monaco Grand Prix _ is next up on Sunday, May 27, and Maldonado allowed himself to think of back-to-back wins. Opening practice at the Principality will be on Thursday, May 24, with Friday the traditional off-day. The field will be set in qualifying on Saturday.

“I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for us to be strong again,” said Maldonado, the 2010 GP2 Series champion for the Rapax Team. “For sure, I will do my best with the driving. The team is looking for the car, so we need to continue like that _ keep pushing with the car to update as soon as possible. And the consistency will be there, the most important thing this championship.”

Meanwhile, seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher will head to Monaco in the midst of a disastrous season following a last-place finish in Spain. Schumacher’s race for Mercedes AMG ended when he plowed into the rear end of Bruno Senna’s Williams/Renault near the braking point of the front straight heading into Turn 1 on Lap 14. Schumacher, who has failed to finish three of the season’s five races, will be forced to serve a five-spot grid penalty at Monaco for the incident. Schumacher’s most recent F1 victory was in the 2006 Chinese Grand Prix, predating his retirement from Ferrari. The German’s best finish for Mercedes has been fourth.

The constructors’ championship is topped by Red Bull with 109 points, followed by McLaren with 98 and Lotus with 84. Ferrari is fourth with 63 points.

FIA Formula 1 Spanish Grand Prix results with car number in parentheses, driver, country, chassis/engine and time/laps differential:

1. (18) Pastor Maldonado, Venezuela, Williams/Renault, 1 hour, 39:09.145-seconds

2. (5) Fernando Alonso, Spain, Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro, plus 3.195-seconds

3. (9) Kimi Raikkonen, Finland, Lotus/Renault, plus 3.884-seconds

4. (10) Romain Grosjean, France, Lotus/Renault, plus 14.799-seconds

5. (14) Kamui Kobayashi, Japan, Sauber/Ferrari, plus 1:04.641-seconds

6. (1) Sebastian Vettel, Germany, Red Bull Racing/Renault, plus 1:07.576-seconds

7. (8) Nico Rosberg, Germany, Mercedes AMG, plus 1:17.919-seconds

8. (4) Lewis Hamilton, Great Britain, Vodafone McLaren/Mercedes, plus 1:18.140-seconds

9. (3) Jenson Button, Great Britain, Vodafone McLaren/Mercedes, plus 1:25.246-seconds

10. (12) Nico Hulkenberg, Germany, Force India/Mercedes, plus 1 lap

11. (2) Mark Webber, Australia, Red Bull Racing/Renault, plus 1 lap

12. (17) Jean-Eric Vergne, France, Scuderia Toro Rosso/Ferrari, plus 1 lap

13. (16) Daniel Ricciardo, Australia, Scuderia Toro Rosso/Ferrari, plus 1 lap

14. (11) Paul di Resta, Great Britain, Force India/Mercedes, plus 1 lap

15. (6) Felipe Massa, Brazil, Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro, plus 1 lap

16. (20) Heikki Kovalainen, Finland, Caterham/Renault, plus 1 lap

17. (21) Vitaly Petrov, Russia, Caterham/Renault, plus 1 lap

18. (24) Timo Glock, Germany, Marussia/Cosworth, plus 2 laps

19. (22) Pedro de la Rosa, Spain, HRT/Cosworth, plus 3 laps

20. (15) Sergio Perez, Mexico, Sauber/Ferrari, (DNF) 39 laps completed

21. (25) Charles Pic, France, Marussia/Cosworth, (DNF) 35 laps completed

22. (23) Narain Karthikeyan, India, HRT/Cosworth, (DNF) 22 laps completed

23. (19) Bruno Senna, Brazil, Williams/Renault, (DNF) plus 12 laps completed

24. (7) Michael Schumacher, Germany, Mercedes AMG, (DNF) 12 laps completed

Fastest lap: Romain Grosjean, 1:26.250-seconds, Lap 53

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, May 16 2012
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