Alonso proves his class

The McLaren driver took the chequered flag after a spectacular late scuffle with Ferrari’s Felipe Massa in a race defined by rain. The Spaniard’s victory slashed his team-mate, Lewis Hamilton’s championship lead from 1

The McLaren driver took the chequered flag after a spectacular late scuffle with Ferrari’s Felipe Massa in a race defined by rain. The Spaniard’s victory slashed his team-mate, Lewis Hamilton’s championship lead from 1

There was an unwelcome cold shower for Lewis Hamilton’s World Championship hopes as the European Grand Prix was swamped by torrential rain that transformed the circuit into a skating rink for cars and led to the race being temporarily halted by the red flag after only four of its scheduled 60 laps.

Hamilton’s McLaren, though re-shod on wet-weather tyres after the first lap, as many were, was one of six cars that ended up in the same gravel trap on the first corner of the circuit on the third lap after they were caught in a downpour for which no tyres would have been adequate. But, unlike the others, the British youngster was rescued by the intervention of a trackside crane and his car was hauled back on to the track as it was in a position of potential danger. When the race was restarted, Hamilton was consigned to the back of the field and eventually finished ninth, missing out on a point by a single place.

The race was won by Hamilton’s McLaren team-mate, Fernando Alonso, after a spectacular late scuffle with Felipe Massa’s Ferrari, a result that slashed the Briton’s championship lead from 12 points to two. “It was an exciting race both to drive and, I hope, to watch,” said Alonso. “The Ferraris had a slight edge in the dry but perhaps our car worked slightly better in the wet. The rain at the end helped us a lot. I had six laps to pass Felipe. We touched twice but I enjoyed the race hugely. I like changing conditions and, when the rain came, I knew I had to go for it.” Minutes before the start a light shower brushed the circuit but the cars accelerated away on their formation lap without undue delay. Within seconds, though, most of the drivers were frantically radioing their pits warning them they would be stopping for intermediate or wet-weather tyres at the end of the opening lap. As it transpired, events would turn out to be a whole lot more spectacular.

As the starting signal was given, Kimi Raikkonen edged ahead of Massa going into the first corner and, while everyone squeezed through the tight right-hander quite successfully, the two BMW Sauber drivers collided, causing the rest of the pack behind to scatter in all directions. Within a few moments a deluge hit the German track and several drivers crashed as a river formed at the first corner.

Jenson Button, Tonio Liuzzi, Scott Speed, Nico Rosberg and Adrian Sutil retired, with Liuzzi lucky not to hit the safety car, though his Toro Rosso made slight contact with one of the cranes. The Formula One rookie Markus Winkelhock benefited from having started with wet-weather tyres from the pit lane to move into the lead as all drivers came into the pits when the rain started to fall. The safety car was initially deployed but the race was red-flagged moments later. The eventual restart saw the field boxed in behind the safety car to enable the pack to feel their way and become acclimatised to the treacherous conditions. The field was finally unleashed to resume the racing proper at the end of lap seven, Massa easing away from the pack with Alonso and Raikkonen following in the Brazilian’s wake.

Alonso finally passed Massa on the 56th lap, leading to a row over the Spaniard’s aggressive tactics. Massa felt the world champion’s technique was questionable. Away from the microphones it was later reported that Massa told him he ought to learn how to drive in traffic to which Alonso responded by telling the Brazilian to push off — only he did not say “push”. The Spaniard quickly apologised.

“Towards the end I fitted a set of tyres which were vibrating a lot and I could not keep the pace,” said Massa. “Prior to that I was controlling the race but then came the rain and I could not stay ahead.”

After Raikkonen retired with a transmission failure the way was clear for Mark Webber to storm through to claim third position and a place on the rostrum with the Red Bull Renault, while his team-mate, David Coulthard, came home fifth, behind Alex Wurz in the Williams, which was only 0.2sec behind Webber as they crossed the finishing line.

Sixth and seventh were the warring BMWs of Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica while Heikki Kovalainen just kept Hamilton away from eighth place on the run-in to the chequered flag. Ralf Schumacher’s hopes of delivering a vaguely respectable result for the Toyota squad evaporated when he drove into Heidfeld as his compatriot attempted to overtake on the right-hander before the pits. Schumacher’s elder brother Michael was watching from the Ferrari pit.

Schumacher reckoned Heidfeld had attempted to push through at a point where there was not enough room but from the sidelines it looked as though the Toyota driver was not paying attention. It all seemed a far cry from Ralf’s victory here at the wheel of a Williams in 2003.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007