It’s Red-wash at Catalunya

Kimi Raikkonen’s total assurance rang out another worrying message to the opposition throughout the 66-lap race, writes Alan Henry.

Kimi Raikkonen took another confident step towards a second consecutive drivers’ title when he led the Spanish Grand Prix from start to finish to make it two wins in the season’s first four races. On a day full of incident the Finn crossed the line 3.2sec ahead of his Ferrari team-mate, Felipe Massa, to clinch the 19th win of his career. It was the 78th team one-two since the World Championship began in 1950.

Raikkonen’s total assurance rang out another worrying message to the opposition throughout the 66-lap race, run in warm but not oppressive conditions at the Circuit de Catalunya, the favourite European testing venue for most of the teams.

Britain’s Lewis Hamilton took third place in his McLaren-Mercedes, his first podium finish since he won the season’s opening race in Melbourne in March. His team-mate Heikki Kovalainen crashed spectacularly, but without serious injury, on the 22nd lap.

Although Hamilton started on the third row after qualifying a slightly disappointing fifth, he was determined to maximise the potential of his McLaren MP4-23 and passed Robert Kubica’s BMW Sauber on the inside of the tricky first right-hand turn. For a fleeting moment it seemed as though Massa might try to draw level with Raikkonen on the outside as they reached the braking area but the champion moved to the left to signal that his team-mate would be well advised to stay where he was.

On the fourth corner Sebastian Vettel’s Toro Rosso collided with Adrian Sutil’s Force India, leaving both cars stranded on the edge of the gravel trap. To let the debris be cleared the safety car was deployed even before Raikkonen had completed his opening lap. It was eventually withdrawn after three laps and the world champion came slamming across the line next time around a full 1.3sec ahead of Massa.

Even at this early stage the shape of the race was irrevocably defined. “We didn’t get the perfect start but it was good enough to stay in front,” said Raikkonen. “For sure we could have run a bit faster but there is no point to push when you don’t need to. It was closer than we expected.”

The Finn added that starting from pole at a circuit where overtaking is so hard was a vital factor. “This circuit is very difficult to overtake and the start is the best place. With the safety car you might be lucky or unlucky but the best place to try and win is from the front.”

Raikkonen’s effort in qualifying on pole was hardly unexpected, given the impressive testing performance of the Ferrari F2008 at this circuit. But the double world champion Fernando Alonso delighted a home crowd of 100,000 by joining the Finn on the front row after a stellar performance in the Renault R28.

Like most of their rivals, Renault had worked hard during the three-week break since the Bahrain GP to complete a major aerodynamic and suspension revamp for this opening race of the European leg. “You can see a very different engine cover and some subtleties around the bargeboards and front brake areas,” said Pat Symonds, the team’s director of engineering. “And there are some changes to the suspension, quite a lot of things.” In the race itself Alonso delighted the Spanish crowd by running a strong third, staying ahead of Hamilton until making his first fuel stop on lap 16, after which he resumed in 11th.

Massa made his first refuelling stop on lap 19, followed by Raikkonen on lap 20 and Hamilton on lap 21, the British driver being followed in by Kubica. Almost immediately the safety car was once again deployed to slow the field while marshals battled to rescue Kovalainen from the cockpit of his wrecked McLaren after it had slammed into the tyre barrier on the outside of the 140mph, fifth-gear Campsa right-hander. It took until the end of lap 28 before the debris was finally cleared.

There were still almost 40 laps left but Raikkonen simply was not to be challenged and the remainder of the race became a procession for the top placings, although Kubica kept up the pressure in fourth, ahead of Mark Webber in the Red Bull and Jenson Button’s Honda, both of which delivered impressive performances.

Raikkonen later admitted that on one occasion he locked his brakes and only just avoided skidding sideways, but he still eased out Massa, who had beaten him in Bahrain. Hamilton was 4.1sec down in third after a strong performance which was just the tonic McLaren needed on a day when their other car had been involved in such a heart-stopping, spectacular accident.

Meanwhile, Bernie Ecclestone, the sport’s commercial rights holder, angrily denied rumours that he was attempting to oust the controversial FIA president Max Mosley. Ecclestone met all the team principals over the weekend and reports emerged that the future of Mosley was discussed, with Ecclestone said to be willing to back his removal if all teams signed a letter demanding his resignation. However, Ecclestone said: “That’s a load of nonsense.” Reports claimed that seven of the 10 teams — Super Aguri were not present — backed the proposed letter. Ferrari, Toro Rosso and Williams were reportedly the three who abstained.

Hamilton rattled by team-mate’s crash

Track marshals pull Heikki Kovalainen out of the wreckage of his McLaren-Mercedes.-AP

Lewis Hamilton said that he was “terrified” after his team-mate, Heikki Kovalainen, slammed off the track into a tyre barrier at about 145mph during the Spanish GP. The Finn was trapped in the cockpit of his shattered McLaren for about 10 minutes before he could be released and taken to the circuit medical centre for an urgent check-up.

The car went off the track at turn nine on lap 22 of the 66-lap race. Although Kovalainen gave the thumbs-up as he was removed from the accident scene strapped to a stretcher, he was suffering from concussion and was taken by helicopter to a local hospital.

As Kovalainen wrestled to keep his car on its planned trajectory through the fifth-gear right-hander, the left front tyre exploded and the car skidded straight on, ploughing into a protective tyre barrier and becoming lodged underneath.

“As I passed I just saw a car in the wall and it was red,” said Hamilton. “I didn’t know if it was Heikki or one of the Ferraris but then the team told me it was Heikki, although at that moment they did not know how bad he was. They later came on the radio and said he was OK, just slightly concussed. I was terrified for whoever it was because I saw the impact was quite heavy.”

It was reported that the forces involved in the impact were in excess of 25G, in which case Kovalainen will have to undergo FIA medical checks with the official doctors before starting practice for the Turkish Grand Prix in 11 days’ time. McLaren’s chief executive, Martin Whitmarsh, was hopeful that Kovalainen would be back then.

Asked whether he expected the Finn to participate in the next race, Whitmarsh said: “I’m not a doctor but all the signs are that he will be fine by the time we get to Turkey.” He added of the crash: “We don’t have a lot of data on the issues but we can detect from the data that we had a sudden deflation of tyre pressure. We don’t believe it was a tyre failure. There was evidence of part of the rim becoming detached. It wasn’t a classic structural failure. Potentially a bit of debris, a stone or maybe part of the car got inside the rim, which caught it, machined it and the rim failed, which then caused that sudden deflation.”

Ron Dennis, the McLaren chairman, later offered the view that the failure was almost certainly that of the wheel rim, which was virtually brand new and had covered less than nine miles before being fitted to the car before the race.

Alan Henry © Guardian Newspaper Limited 2008