My Classic European GP: Nurburgring, 2007

Andy ShawCorrespondent IAugust 17, 2009

NURBURG, GERMANY - JULY 22:  Fernando Alonso (R) of Spain and McLaren Mercedes celebrates with team principal Ron Dennis (L) after winning the European Grand Prix at Nurburgring on July 22, 2007 in Nurburg, Germany.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

Welcome to the first part of the "My Classic GP" series. The aim of this set of articles is to outline a classic example of each Grand Prix left on the calendar, from my own experience of watching F1 since about 1997.

The races I choose may not always be the most spectacular, but each is memorable to me in some particular way. To begin, therefore, My Classic European Grand Prix is the race that took place at the Nurburgring, in 2007.

Lewis Hamilton came into the race, the 10th of 17 that year, with a 12-point lead in the world championship over McLaren teammate Fernando Alonso. However, Kimi Raikkonen had won the previous two races in France and Britain, and Ferrari were confident that the Nurburgring would suit the characteristics of their car better than that of the McLaren.

In qualifying Ferrari duly delivered, with Raikkonen qualifying on pole ahead of Alonso and the Finn's teammate Felipe Massa. Hamilton was down in 10th place, a wheel failure putting him into the barriers in the third part of qualifying.

As the race began on Sunday, rain threatened. The Ferraris took the lead into the first corner, Massa barging Alonso down to third. Hamilton made a spectacular start to move up into sixth by Turn One.

However, carnage ensued as Robert Kubica clipped his BMW teammate Nick Heidfeld in the second corner, forcing Hamilton to dive off the track to avoid collecting the German cars. When he regained the road, it became apparent that he had suffered a puncture.

At around the same time, rain began to fall on part of the track; when the field reached the wet segment of the lap several drivers fell off the road. As the rain spread to other parts of the track it became apparent that this would not be a light shower; the teams made the decision to bring in their cars at the end of the first lap, changing to wet-weather tyres.

Race leader Raikkonen, however, made a mistake at the slippery pit entrance, missing the pit lane entirely and forcing him to complete another lap on dry tyres. Massa and Alonso, therefore, led the field into the pit lane, followed by most of the other drivers. A few stayed out, though this gamble would fail to pay off for them.

One team who had gambled correctly were Spyker; Markus Winkelhock, starting his first (and to date only) Grand Prix, had been called into the pits at the end of the formation lap by technical director Mike Gascoyne. Winkelhock was changed to wet tyres, giving him a huge advantage as the rest of the field struggled around the slippery first lap.

After a lap and a half Winkelhock had caught and passed Raikkonen, who slid off the road at the hairpin. By the end of the second lap he was leading Massa and Alonso by 19 seconds.

In fourth place was Jenson Button, who took advantage of the confusion and a well-timed tyre stop to rise up the field in his underpowered Honda. But on the first corner of the third lap, he aquaplaned off into the gravel.

He was not the only one; Adrian Sutil hit the barrier in roughly the same place a few moments later. The pair were then joined by Nico Rosberg, Scott Speed and Vitantonio Liuzzi, the latter almost collecting the safety car—which had been scrambled in the meantime—as he spun off the road.

Conditions at the first corner were clearly treacherous, with what has been described as a "river" flowing across the circuit.

Also finding himself buried in the gravel trap was Lewis Hamilton, while Anthony Davidson spun his Super Aguri but managed to stay out of the gravel, coming to a halt on the tarmac run-off instead. Davidson was able to keep the car going, but Hamilton could not extricate his car from the gravel.

The British rookie had, however, managed to keep his engine running, so as Winkelhock came around to pick up the safety car at the end of his third lap—having extended his lead in that time to 33 seconds—Hamilton signalled for the trackside marshals to help his car back onto the track.

Unbelievably, the marshals complied, making use of a crane to lift the McLaren out of the gravel and place it back on the circuit. Never before or since in the history of Grand Prix racing has this happened; in fact, in response to Hamilton's remarkable escape, the practice was banned at the end of the season.

Hamilton was now a lap down, but still in the race, as the clerk of the course adjudged that conditions at the first corner were too dangerous and the race should be stopped. The red flags came out a few moments later and the cars gathered on the grid for the restart.

After about 15 minutes the race was restarted behind the safety car. Unusually the silver Mercedes stayed out for longer than the single lap dictated by the regulations in these circumstances. Even more unusually, Hamilton was allowed to overtake all the other cars and therefore regain the lap he had lost in the gravel.

While the 2007 regulations did allow for lapped cars to unlap themselves behind the safety car, it was only supposed to be permitted if the cars were lined up out of sequence. Since Hamilton was already at the back of the field, he should not have been permitted to reclaim his lap.

Whatever vendetta the authorities of motor racing were alleged to have against Hamilton the following year, it is clear that in 2007 nothing of the kind existed; indeed, the McLaren driver appeared to be positively favoured by the race stewards that day in Germany.

Nonetheless, the race proper restarted after a few laps, with Winkelhock quickly losing his lead as Massa and Alonso battled at the front. Kimi Raikkonen picked his way through the field to claim third shortly after, and was beginning to challenge the leaders on the now-dry track, but he was forced out of the race with a mechanical failure.

That left the battle for the win to be fought between Massa and Alonso, with the Brazilian holding the advantage. As predicted, the Ferrari was faster than the McLaren in dry conditions at the Nurburgring, and it looked as though the reigning world champion would have to settle for second.

However, with eight laps to go the rain fell again, and Alonso began to reel in the Ferrari. Less comfortable in the wet than its rival, the Italian car could not seem to lap as quickly as the McLaren.

Alonso passed Massa with a wheel-banging move on lap 56, going on to win ahead of an evidently irate Brazilian. The pair were joined on the podium by Mark Webber, who had driven a canny race from sixth on the grid to hold off the Williams of Alexander Wurz for third in the end.

Alonso's victory, his third of the season, brought him within two points of the championship lead, while Hamilton finished ninth and out of the points, tyre gambles failing to pay off as he tried in vain to pick his way through the field.

For me the 2007 European Grand Prix was the most memorable race to be held under that banner; Alonso's win in dramatic style showcasing his wet-weather skill and the joy of winning for a McLaren team where the relationship had not yet deteriorated.

Lewis Hamilton, too, showed himself not be infallible with the mistakes he made during the race, but with a little help from the authorities elevated himself into a reasonable finishing position.

And Alonso's unexpected win breathed new life into the world championship, providing a decent race in a season where the excitement on the track was few and far between. Given the bitter taste left by much of 2007, with political wranglings off the track overshadowing the racing, it's nice to be able to look back on at least one race with fond memories.