Early May saw F1 return to its European heartlands, three weeks after events in China. The first stop was the Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona where, finally, a Red Bull driver converted pole position into a race victory. That driver was Mark Webber, who took his first win of the season.
The first European race provided the first real opportunity for the teams to bring major upgrades to their cars, and the vast majority of them did. Unfortunately for all but Red Bull, the lap time that got Lewis Hamilton third on the grid was more than seven tenths of a second slower than that of Sebastian Vettel. In short, Red Bull blew the opposition away in qualifying, showing that their early season form was by no means temporary and their car was improving faster than their rivals'.
Hamilton will look back on the race in Spain as one of the points where his championship challenge could have been lost. He was running second with two laps remaining before a punctured front-left tyre forced him to retire. That promoted Fernando Alonso to second and Vettel – who had plenty of problems of his own that Sunday afternoon – up into third.
The Spanish Grand Prix was by no means a classic, but it rarely is. It is a winter-testing venue and so the teams generally know their optimum set-ups and the drivers could probably make their way around the lap blindfolded. However, the race did tell us a bit about the relative performance of the cars in the dry conditions though – specifically that the Red Bull was very fast, Ferrari and McLaren needed to find more pace, and Mercedes were even further behind.
One week later in Monaco, Webber took another pole position, and another victory. This took him level on points with his team-mate at the top of the drivers' standings. Jenson Button lost out on points after his McLaren overheated behind the safety car on Lap 3. One of his mechanics had left a cover over his right-side pod.
Button had only qualified eighth in Monaco, and was perhaps not going to be scoring that many points. However, they all count at the end of the season, and this was an error that should have been avoided.
Monaco also gave us another glimpse of Alonso's fallibility. He crashed out in Free Practice 3 on the Saturday morning, damaging his car so badly that it could not be repaired in time for qualifying. Starting from the back row, the Spaniard scythed his way through the field in the incident-pack race – which required four safety-car appearances – and eventually finished sixth.
But that sixth place was a point of controversy. Michael Schumacher made a great, opportunistic overtaking move on the Ferrari driver coming out of the final corner of the race. The German was punished for this move – despite the fact that the safety car had returned to the pit lane – with a twenty-second time penalty, and left Monte Carlo without any points.
The legitimacy of the pass was a matter of debate in the days after the race, but Mercedes decided not to appeal against the penalty, despite having a good case. The FIA later reassessed the safety car rules in light of these ambiguities.
As F1 left Monaco, Mark Webber was undoubtedly in the ascendancy. He had recovered from the mistakes of his early season – running into Hamilton in Australia and allowing his team-mate to pass him to easily off the line in Malaysia – and had beaten Vettel in a straight fight in Monte Carlo. He was now a championship contender!
It seemed Webber's unrelenting push for the title was going to continue in Turkey, right up until Lap 40 of the race in Istanbul. He took pole position, Red Bull's seventh in seven races, and led from the start, holding off a strong challenge from Lewis Hamilton as the race got underway. Vettel then overtook Hamilton during the pit stops, setting Red Bull on course for a second consecutive one-two finish.
What happened next was a pivotal moment in the team's season. Vettel had been catching Webber, whilst his second place was under threat from Hamilton, who was showing good speed around the Istanbul Park Circuit. Vettel attempted to pass Webber, and the Australian moved to the left to cover the gap, but left just enough room for his team-mate. Vettel got his nose in front and then – inexplicably – shifted right, and into the side of Webber.
The contact sent Vettel spinning out of the race, and he was seen walking away from his damaged RB6, helmet in hand, making the internationally recognised gesture for someone you suspect to be mentally challenged – it was clear where he thought the blame lay. Webber recovered from the collision, but only after Hamilton and Button passed him.
A misunderstanding between McLaren and their two drivers over the team radio almost led to a similar incident a few laps later. Hamilton was told to slow and conserve fuel, and was told that Jenson would not attempt to pass him. It turned out that Button had been told nothing of the sort, and so, when Lewis started to slow, thought he would try his luck.
Hamilton was understandably a bit annoyed at being passed by his team-mate, and promptly took the position back. The two McLarens actually touched around the first corner of the next lap, but Hamilton successfully muscled his way through, and went on to take his first race win of 2010.
While McLaren shrugged off this incident as a bit of miscommunication between team and drivers – easy to do when you have just claimed a one-two finish – Red Bull handled their situation badly. Helmut Marko, head of their young-driver programme and consultant to Dietrich Mateschitz, blamed Webber for the accident. This view was at odds with most of the watching fans and media, but Christian Horner didn't stand up for Webber, blaming both drivers for not giving each other enough room. He reiterated these views a few days later.
The fall-out from Turkey was so bad that Vettel, Webber and Horner had to have clear-the-air talks in Milton Keynes later that week to put the incident behind them. Despite this, there was still a strong feeling amongst observers that Red Bull favoured Vettel over Webber, and wanted the product of their driver programme to win the title.
In a way though, the accident in Turkey actually helped Webber. He may have missed out on a hat-trick of race wins, but he had extended his lead in the championship standings. Victory for Hamilton meant that he was now third in the title race, but just four points behind team-mate Button.
There is a definite affinity between Hamilton and Montreal. He has now visited this track three times as an F1 driver and taken pole position every single time. That was a particularly impressive feat this season, as he became the first non-Red Bull driver to start from the front of the grid all season. Hamilton claimed his maiden F1 win at Canada in 2007 and was in with a good chance of victory the following year until he crashed into the back of Kimi Raikkonen in the pit lane.
Hamilton took his second Canadian Grand Prix victory this June, and Button secured a second consecutive one-two finish for McLaren. This gave Hamilton the lead of the championship, three points ahead of Button, who was now three points ahead of Webber. Alonso and Vettel were beginning to lose touch in this championship battle, and needed a decent result as F1 returned to Europe at the end of June.
Valencia has never really produced an exciting race, and this year's event was largely processional. However, it will be remembered for a spectacular accident for Mark Webber and, to a lesser extent, Fernando Alonso throwing his toys out of his pram.
The natural order of qualifying was restored as Vettel took pole position and Webber joined him on the front row of the grid, despite Red Bull playing down their chances of success on the Spanish street circuit. A poor start was the beginning of Webber's troubles though, and he plummeted from second to ninth on the opening lap. This led to an early stop for fresh tyres, which left him stuck behind the Lotus of Heikki Kovalainen.
Webber then failed to appreciate the speed difference between his RB6 and Kovalainen's T127, and the need for the Finn to brake much earlier than he for corner. Webber was flung high into the air after driving over the back of the Lotus. He landed upside-down, rolled, and then slid at considerable speed into a tyre wall. Both drivers walked away from the incident, but Webber recorded his first of two crucial DNFs of 2010.
The accident brought out the safety car. Lewis Hamilton was unsure of whether he should have been in front or behind the safety car as it emerged from the pits alongside his McLaren. He decided to stay in front, whilst Alonso, who was running third, had no choice but to tuck in behind it. Hamilton had actually made the wrong choice, and was later penalised with a drive-through penalty.
Luckily for Hamilton, the advantage he had gained from being able to do an extra lap without being stuck behind the safety car meant that he could retain second place after his pit stop, and even had time to replace the front wing that had been damaged at the start of the race. Alonso, in contrast, had to lap at the pace of the safety car and then came out of the pits in traffic. By the time Hamilton was notified of his penalty, the Brit was able to serve it without losing track position.
To say that the Spaniard was unhappy about how events had unfolded would be an understatement. He was moaning about Lewis to his race engineer as soon as the safety car came out, and continued to whine about the situation after Lewis came in for his penalty and re-emerged in second place. Ferrari top brass added to their driver's complaints after the race, with comments from vice-president Piero Ferrari, team principal Stefano Domenicali, and Luca di Montezemolo. Lewis Hamilton accused Alonso of 'sour grapes', rightly pointing out that Alonso's race had not been affected at all by what had happened to him.
These events suggested that Alonso's lack of form was getting to him, and his eighth place finish in Valencia was not helping his championship challenge. Vettel's second victory of the season meant that Alonso was the only championship contender with only one race win to his name in 2010. Hamilton still led the championship from Button at this stage, and Alonso was a distant 29 points behind his old McLaren team-mate in fifth.
Alonso's mood did not improve at the British Grand Prix where he was subjected to more safety-car related misery. During the race he overtook Robert Kubica, but had to go off-track to do so. Normally, if a driver gains a position unfairly, he just needs to let the wronged driver back through to avoid a penalty. Unfortunately for Alonso, Kubica retired soon after the incident. The stewards gave the Spaniard a drive-through penalty as punishment, the award of which coincided with the deployment of the safety car.
Penalties can't be taken under these conditions, so Alonso had to wait until the Mercedes road car had bunched the field up before he could drive through the pits, dropping him right down the field as a result. He finished the race a lowly fourteenth but, despite now being 47 points behind championship leader Hamilton, insisted that he could still win the title.
The weekend at Silverstone saw further disharmony in the Red Bull garage. The team had just two of their new-spec front wings available for this race weekend, but Vettel's was broken in Free Practice 3. As Vettel was ahead in the drivers' championship, Christian Horner decided that the new wing from Webber's car should be transferred to Vettel's – a move that Webber was very unhappy about, especially when Vettel then put his car on pole.
However, rather than sulk, whinge, or moan, Webber instead overtook his team-mate off the line, and went on to win the race. “Not bad for a number two driver” was Webber's sarcastic response to Horner's congratulations over the team radio. Horner later admitted that he had made the wrong decision in taking the wing off Webber's car. Vettel suffered a puncture after being tagged by Hamilton in the opening stages of the race, and could only finish seventh.
Webber's comments put the driver relationship at Red Bull under yet more scrutiny, but the gaze of the media and fans was about to shift markedly to one of their rivals as F1 went to Hockenhiem.
But that is a story for Part 3, which tells of how Fernando was faster than everyone, and the title race was subject to many more twists and turns.