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Fernando Alonso has become the first two-time race winner of 2012, winning the European Grand Prix in Valencia from 11th on the grid. After Sebastian Vettel retired, having previously held a 20-second lead, Kimi Räikkönen stole second place from Lewis Hamilton, who then crashed while battling with Pastor Maldonado. The incident helped Michael Schumacher seal a first podium result since returning to Formula 1.
On Saturday, Vettel achieved a hat-trick of Valencia pole positions and was aiming for a similar result in today’s race. With another blue sky on offer, the increased temperatures were expected to throw up a number of variables, but eventually the track surface was only two degrees hotter than 24 hours ago. Instead, a mixture of pit-stop strategies, on-track incidents and the deployment of the Safety Car would be the greatest influences.
A clean start saw Vettel pull away from Hamilton, stretching out a very comfortable advantage until his pit-stop on Lap 15; he duly remained in the lead when leaving the pits. Behind, Romain Grosjean had grabbed third place off the line before pulling a superb move on Hamilton around the outside of Turn 12. The Safety Car was then deployed when Jean-Éric Vergne drove into Heikki Kovalainen, leaving both drivers with punctures.
Unbelievably, Vettel ground to a halt when the race restarted on Lap 27, possibly because of an issue which built up under Safety Car conditions. To the delight of the Spanish crowd, Alonso – who has just overhauled Grosjean in an aggressive move at Turn 2 - now led the race, having previously jumped Kimi Räikkönen in the pits and made on-track overtakes on Nico Hülkenberg, Pastor Maldonado, Mark Webber, Michael Schumacher and Paul di Resta, who was the only man to stop once.
On the run-up to the race weekend, Romain Grosjean had been tipped as a favourite by many; now running second, he possessed fresher tyres than Alonso and was looking to mount a challenge. However, the Franco-Swiss suffered an alternator failure and stopped at the back of the marina on Lap 41. It was at this point that Schumacher dived into the pits for fresh tyres before building up a remarkable recover drive.
The race featured a number of mishaps. First, Bruno Senna and Kamui Kobayashi made contact at Turn 7, as the Williams driver moved towards the Sauber and pitched himself into a dramatic spin; Senna was duly given a drive-through penalty. Now out of contention thanks to a broken front wing, Kobayashi received a penalty of his own for driving into the Ferrari of Ferrari Massa while coming off the swing bridge. Another man in the wars was Daniel Ricciardo; after Vitaly Petrov’s three-stop strategy failed to pay off, losing a points position, the Russian was clipped by the Australian at Turn 14, with the latter flying into the air.
In the closing stages, Alonso led and controlled the pace as second placed Hamilton’s tyres began to fall off the cliff. Kimi Räikkönen, making up for some of the disappointment suffered by Grosjean, stole the position at Turn 12. Maldonado, who had started third and ran in the top five for most of the race, then attacked in the same place on the penultimate lap; halfway alongside Hamilton but given little space at Turn 13, the two cars touched as the McLaren flew into the barriers – an incident not dissimilar to that of Monaco 2011. A furious Hamilton was left to walk back to the pits as Maldonado, with a broken front wing, finished tenth.
With impressive pace in the closing stages, Schumacher had fought his way up to sixth as he and Mark Webber passed Nico Hülkenberg shortly before the chequered flag; the Hamilton-Maldonado collision allowed the pair to finish third and fourth, marking Schumacher’s first rostrum result since the Chinese Grand Prix of 2006. As Hülkenberg recorded a career-best finish, Nico Rosberg set a string of fastest laps to shoot from 11th to sixth place in the final minutes of the race. The Safety Car scuppered Paul di Resta’s day, with Jenson Button scoring only four points for eighth. Sergio Pérez managed ninth for Sauber as team-mate Kobayashi was handed a five-place grid penalty for the next race at Silverstone.
Alonso’s 29th F1 victory means he is the man who ends the run of seven different victors at the start of the 2012 campaign. He last won on home turf for Renault, having celebrated victory six years ago at the Circuit de Catalunya. As the championship lead changes yet again, he now carries a 20-point lead over Mark Webber, whose own amazing drive saw him reach fourth from 19th on the grid.
The 2012 Formula 1 season continues with Round 10 at Silverstone, the home of British motor racing, in two weeks’ time
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