After the Hungarian Grand Prix, Jenson Button was starting to realise that his lead was not as strong as it used to be. While he was still considerably in the lead, by 18.5 points to Mark Webber, with Sebastian Vettel only 4.5 points behind him. Red Bull were also catching up to Brawn in the constructors’ championship. The Brawn car was turning against Button, as he was constantly struggling for control. So, when Valencia cam around, there could well be a change of fortunes for his title rivals.
Before any of the sessins began though, Rubens Barrichello showed off his new helmet, paying tribute to Felipe Massa, who was sidelined for the rest of the season after his heavy crash in Hungary. His race seat would be filled by Ferrari test driver Luca Badoer, who had spent an incredible 10 years straight testing for Ferrari. He had said that it was a dream come true for him, to finally get a drive for Ferrari.
It was completely the opposite for Nelson Piquet Jr. After yet another dissapointing performance in Hungary 4 weeks ago, Flavio Briatore snubbed his own (managed) driver, and decided to replace him for the rest of the season. He would be replaced by GP2 driver Romain Grosjean. The 1-race ban on Renault, which was given after Fernando Alonso was unsafely released with a damaged wheel in Hungary, was overturned before Hungary, which allowed Grosjean to make his debut there.
In the practice sessions, it became clear that Force India were starting to make improvements, with Adrian Sutil finishing 6th in both Friday Practice sessions. Romain Grosjean was making a decent debut so far, but Badoer was miles behind anyone else, and was last in FP1 and FP2. In qualifying, it seemed as if Heikki Kovalainen would take pole position, but he locked up and slid into the final corner, and only took 2nd place. This left Lewis Hamilton free to take his first pole position of the year, with the Brawn of Barrichello in 3rd, and Button languishing in 5th. It was the first time that a KERS equipped car had taken pole position in Formula 1.
The McLarens of Hamilton and Kovalainen lead the field at the start
With their KERS systems to defend them, the McLarens were unstoppable at the start. Further back, Jenson Button made a terrible start, getting stuck behind Jarno Trulli at the first corner, and falling to 8th. Even worse, he slipped and cut a corner, meaning he was instructed to give 8th place to Mark Webber. To make matters even more complicated for him, he soon started to suffer tyre graining issues. Meanwhile, the new drivers clashed, as Romain Grosjean ran into the back of Luca Badoer, causing him to fall to the back of the grid, after he had made good progress on the first lap.
Sebastian Vettel, at his first pit stop, suffered a fuel rig failure, and was forced to pit again next lap. The extra time spent stationary strained the engine, and it blew a few laps later, leaving Vettel on the sidelines. He had extended his contract with Red Bull on Friday, but he had since lost his chance to take vital points off Button.
At the front, Kovalainen lost 2nd place to Barrichello at the first set of stops, and the Brazilian soon started to challenge Hamilton for the lead. At the very back, Badoer pitted alongside Grosjean. While Luca was released alongside Romain, he made a mistake and allowed him past, and then ruined his afternoon by crossing the white line at pit lane exit, and earning himself a drive-through penalty.
Sebastian Vettel retires with an engine failure
Problems were starting to develop for Hamilton, as his team instructed him to try and cool the rear brakes, as the temperatures were going out of control. This allowed Barrichelllo to break through the 10 second gap to the McLaren between the first and second pit stops. Things got even worse at the second stop, when a miscommunication mean that Lewis pitted before the McLaren mechanics were ready for him. The 14-second pit stop threw the advantage to Barrichello, who had 5 more laps to push before his second stop.
Mark Webber lost out during the second stops, falling behind Button and Robert Kubica. Meanwhile, when Barrichello pitted, he emeged in the lead, well ahead of Hamilton, and was well on course to take the victory. Also, Heikki Kovalainen lost 3rd place to Kimi Raikkonen at his second stop. Behind the top 4, Nico Rosberg and Fernando Alonso were 5th and 6th, and Button and Kubica taking the final points positions.
While Hamilton made a late charge, it wasn’t enough to stop Rubens taking his first Grand Prix win in 5 years, the first since the 2004 Chinese Grand Prix. It was also the 100th win for a Brazilian driver in Formula 1. He also slammed himself back into contention for the championship, as he was now lying 2nd, 18 points behind Button. He dedicated his win to fellow countryman Felipe Massa, which was shown with his helmet after the race.
Rubens shows us his helmet - the writing says "Felipe, see you on track soon!"
Romain Grosjean spun later in the race, although he still finished 15th, ahead of Jaime Alguersuari, who was at only his 2nd race. His team-mate, Sebastien Buemi, suffered a brake failure late in the race, while Kazuki Nakajima retired with a few laps to go, thanks to a puncture. Luca Badoer was unable to recover after being hit at the start, and finised last, which meant that it was his 49th Grand Prix without a point, an extension on his record.
With Red Bull not scoring a single point all weekend, Brawn moved away in both tables. With Rubens back in contention, it was clear that it would be a 4-way fight for the title from now in 2009.