Raikkonen finds perfect pace to dash home hopes

For Raikkonen this was a particularly satisfying success on a circuit he loves but has been unlucky on over the years, writes Alan Henry.

Lewis Hamilton’s hopes of winning the British Grand Prix at his first attempt evaporated over 59 high-speed laps of Silverstone’s daunting swerves, his pole position on Saturday converted into only a distant third place at the chequered flag.

Instead Kimi Raikkonen won his second Grand Prix in eight days and became the first driver to win three so far this season by grabbing the lead from Fernando Alonso’s McLaren-Mercedes during the final round of refuelling stops. In the closing laps the Finn rammed home his advantage to send a firm message to the world champion, beating him by 2.459sec at the finish.

Hamilton retained his record of getting on the podium in all the Formula One races he has contested, finishing in the top three for the ninth time in as many races, but there was no concealing his disappointment with this result, coming as it did at the end of a week in which the McLaren team had been under siege after the revelations of alleged industrial sabotage involving their chief designer Mike Coughlan.

For Raikkonen this was a particularly satisfying success on a circuit he loves but has been unlucky on over the years. “It was a very nice feeling to win the race,” he said. “I have been close here several times. Now finally we got the win.”

He beat Alonso despite the Spaniard emerging ahead after the first round of refuelling stops. A longer second stint then allowed the Ferrari driver to pass the McLaren driver when Alonso pitted. “We had a little traffic but we had a good car all day and all weekend,” Raikkonen added. “I just tried to save some fuel and look after the tyres and the car, and when Lewis pitted I pushed to gain some time and Fernando did a very short stop so I knew I was going to run longer in second stop. So I tried to push as hard as I could when he came in and that was enough.”

On the face of it this may have seemed a processional and rather predictable race but in reality it was a finely balanced, intensely tactical affair with refuelling strategies and tyre choices defining the outcome for the top three contenders. Not since the days of Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill had Silverstone’s grandstands been packed with such a partisan capacity crowd, Lewis-mania gripping the former RAF base on a breezy summer’s day.

Hamilton’s qualifying effort rocked his rivals on that Saturday afternoon as he slammed through the 170mph Stowe corner with a deft flick of opposite lock to the delight of the traditionalists. As the chequered flag fluttered he vaulted from third fastest to pole position, pushing Raikkonen back into second just as the Finn was congratulating himself.

That meant that Raikkonen — after a slight slip coming out of Woodcote on his best lap — had to move to the dirty right-hand side of the circuit, leaving Alonso to line up immediately behind Hamilton for the race, with Felipe Massa sustaining the front-running symmetry by qualifying fourth ahead of Robert Kubica’s BMW Sauber. There was spine-tingling anticipation as Hamilton led the 22 cars briskly round on the pre-race formation lap, only for the expectancy to be deflated as Massa stalled his Ferrari, was sent to the back of the grid for the restart and triggered a second formation lap before the race finally got under way.

Away from the line Hamilton eased neatly into Copse corner a couple of lengths ahead of Raikkonen, the Finn briefly toying with a lunge to the outside. To the delight of his supporters Hamilton completed the opening lap 0.7sec ahead of Raikkonen’s Ferrari while Alonso kept a watching brief from third place.

After six laps or so it became clear that Hamilton was having trouble with his handling. “I struggled all weekend with the handling balance,” he said afterwards. “I spent too much time trying to drive round the problem. I wanted to use the softer tyre choice for the first stint of the race but it was too much of a gamble.”

He made his first stop at the end of lap 16, almost getting off to a false restart as he accelerated away before the warning “lollipop” had been raised to signal that the car was ready to resume the race. He just checked it but the mistake cost him a couple of seconds. Raikkonen went through into the lead but then stopped on lap 18, allowing Alonso to go ahead.

The Spaniard piled on the pressure before making a very quick 6.3sec stop, taking on a relatively small amount of fuel which he hoped would allow him to build his lead sufficiently to stay ahead at his second stop. But Raikkonen was too quick; after Alonso made his second stop on lap 37 the Ferrari driver increased his lead by a second a lap through to his own second stop six laps later, after which he resumed with his lead unchallenged and reeled off the remaining miles to his third chequered flag of the year.

Even in defeat Hamilton could count himself fortunate. Had Massa not stalled his Ferrari on the grid he would almost certainly have finished third at the McLaren driver’s expense.

The Brazilian fought back through the field to take fifth behind an impressively composed Robert Kubica, who refused to be ruffled by the Ferrari’s relentless presence in his BMW Sauber’s mirrors all the way to the end.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007