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Sunday, August 3, 2008

Massa’s Hungarian heartbreak gives Kovalainen his maiden victory

The question heading into the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend was could anyone catch Lewis Hamilton?

Felipe Massa’s answer was an emphatic yes as the Brazilian stormed off the line, dusted off Heikki Kovalainen, and passed Hamilton on the outside in the first corner to take the lead at the Hungaroring.

Massa put in a dominating drive in hot, dry conditions, and his lead was never really in doubt. When Hamilton suffered a puncture on lap 41, it looked like the Scuderia had solved the McLaren problem.

But Formula One can be terribly callous, and fate played its hand just two laps from the end, when Massa’s engine went up in smoke, delivering Kovalainen his maiden grand prix victory in front of a raucous crowd of Finnish fans.

“Today obviously I knew Massa and Lewis were both very fast at the beginning of the race but half way through the race I felt it was starting to work for me a little bit better and then at the end I just tried to put pressure on Massa and hoped something would happen and obviously it looked like he had a mechanical failure, so it all worked fine for me today and I am very, very happy about it,” Kovalainen said.

Massa’s engine was especially difficult on a day when the team and driver got everything right.

“It happened completely without warning, without giving the slightest indication,” Massa said. “I am very frustrated at the moment, because today we had a great car and we had done everything perfectly until just a few kilometers from the finish. Unfortunately, racing can be a cruel sport. We had given it our all, but these things can happen.”

But while racing can be cruel, it can also be incredibly poetic. One race after Toyota’s Tim Glock suffered a heavy crash at Hockenheim, the German proved his race fitness by holding off Kimi Raikkonen in the closing laps to grab a stunning second.

“It is just unbelievable. I couldn't believe it when I saw Felipe's engine going and I knew that I was P2,” Glock said. “After the race in Hockenheim, where we had a good race pace and the big crash, now we have come to Budapest and just kept the speed there and just had a really good car from Friday onwards... I am in my first year with just half of the season over and I am on the podium. It is just a perfect weekend.”

Raikkonen finished third.

The result puts McLaren second in the constructors championship, while Lewis Hamilton, who finished fifth, maintains his lead in the drivers table.

McLaren looked to dominate this race following its 1-2 in qualifying, but Massa’s blistering start put paid any ideas of an easy day for the Silver Arrows.

As the Brazilian slowly edged away from Hamilton, the question became one of fuel load. Was Massa light?

Indeed, the Ferrari was the first to make a stop, Massa pitting from the lead on lap 18.

Hamilton stayed out for two more laps, but the strategy didn’t pay off as the Briton emerged in P6 behind Kimi Raikkonen.

Raikkonen would soon come in himself. The Finn, starting in sixth for the second straight race, could not find a way past Fernando Alonso. Both drivers came in on lap 22, put Raikkonen would find no joy there either, as the Spaniard edged him out on the exit.

“I think we could have managed to do the race a little bit better but we were stuck behind Alonso all the way to the second stop,” Raikkonen said. Then on the in-lap I was eight-tenths faster on my own but it was a bit late at that point.”

Sebastian Vettel’s hard-luck weekend came to a close on lap 25 as he pulled his Toro Rosso into the garage. Vettel had recovered from limited Friday running to qualify well, but the gremlins finally won out.

As Massa maintained his lead up front on Hamilton, one of the sub-stories of the day surrounded refueling rigs, as Sebastien Bourdais, Rubens Barrichello and Kazuki Nakajima saw flames erupt around their filler caps. Toyota also had difficulties.

“We have to really look at it," Toyota’s John Howett told autosport.com. "We lost about five seconds and we think it is partly temperature. “When you get these high temperatures you get a bit of pressure coming out of the tank. With the fuel we can't cool it that much and everyone was struggling.”

Were refueling issues going to hit our title contenders?

“All we can identify so far is that the refueling rig didn't go on exactly square, so it was as simple as that,” said Honda’s Nick Fry. “It will be interesting to know what happened on the other cars because it is unusual to have so many small fires. It might be coincidence but it does seem to be a bit coincidental.”

One thing was certain, Massa certainly had not entered the comfort zone, and the next round of stops looked like they were going to be crucial. But suddenly, on lap 41, that all changed when Hamilton’s left front tire deflated.

It took some time for the Briton to limp around the course and back to his pit. When all was said and done, Hamilton was down in P10, and it became a matter of damage control.

Massa was soon in for his second fuel-problem-free stop, and it was just a matter of cruising home to break McLaren’s recent string of success.

Things were looking up for Raikkonen, as well, the Finn finally getting past Alonso in the second round of stops. Now, it was Massa in the lead, with Kovalainen and Glock between him and his teammate as the race settled into a steady rhythm until the action picked up just laps from the end.

First, Adrian Sutil pulled into the garage on lap 66, becoming just the second retirement of the race. Then, Massa’s heartbreaking engine failure gifted Kovalainen the first win of his career.

In a season which has had more than its share of ups and downs, the Finn was obviously elated.

“It is fantastic. It is a great moment. Of course it is a moment I have been targeting for many, many years now since I started to get an idea about the possibility of becoming an F1 driver,” Kovalainen said. “I started to work hard and improve my fitness. I have spent a lot of time to achieve this goal, so to finally achieve it, is very pleasing. Hopefully this is the first of many.”

Glock finished second as Raikkonen, who had been pressuring, backed off and settled for third.

“I was ready to try anything. I don't really care if I had lost a win but unfortunately we needed to back off,” Raikkonen explained. “We were much faster like we were with Alonso but it is so difficult if the guy in front does not make a mistake, it is really, really difficult to get past. You need to get something very special in one corner to get close enough.”

Alonso finished fourth in the Renault, followed by Hamilton, who recovered for fifth.

Nelson Piquet finished a quiet sixth in the second Renault, Jarno Trulli seventh in the second Toyota, and Robert Kubica finished eighth, taking the final points paying position in a disappointing weekend for BMW Sauber.

“We were completely off the pace during the race. Neither driver was able to do the lap times we expected after the sessions on Friday and Saturday,” said BMW Motorsport Director Mario Theissen “It was the same on both tyre compounds. The reason for that is currently not clear, but we shall analyse everything.”

The circus now takes its traditional summer break with both championships far from decided, reconvening in three week’s time for European Grand Prix on the brand new Valencia street course.

Kovalainen, for one, thinks it's anyone’s ballgame.

“I think it is still very, very close and it is very difficult to draw any conclusions who is ahead. It just depends whoever nails it on the day,” he explained. “It is so sensitive at the moment that if you don't get the set-up perfect and if you don't get the tyres feeling perfect and if you don't get your driving perfect there are going to be three or four guys ahead of you straight away.

“I think it is quite interesting. I think it is really spectacular for all the fans,” Kovalainen continued. “For us it puts a lot of pressure on everybody to maximise everything but it should be a very interesting end of the season with all the teams pushing very hard to see who comes out on top at the end.”
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