|Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso drinks champagne during the podium ceremony after the European Grand Prix at the Valencia street circuit on Sunday, June 24, 2012. (Albert Gea/Reuters)
VALENCIA, SPAIN - Spaniard Fernando Alonso became the first repeat winner of the 2012 Formula One season and moved atop the world championship standings with a stunning victory in the European Grand Prix.
After starting 11th, Alonso, from Ferrari, delighted the Spanish crowd on hand at the Valencia street circuit when he grabbed the lead from Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel just past the halfway point in the 57-lap race. Vettel, the two-time defending F1 world champion and winner of the European GP the past two years, stalled on the track due to a mechanical issue and was forced to retire.
Vettel had led the first 33 laps and held a 20-second advantage over then second-place Romain Grosjean from Lotus before the safety car was deployed for an incident involving Caterham's Heikki Kovalainen and Jean-Eric Vergne from Toro Rosso.
"I was in control, but the safety car came out, and that was the beginning of the end," a disappointed Vettel said. " The safety car broke us. It leaves a bit of bitter taste in your mouth to be stranded on the track in that way."
Alonso was running in third during the caution period, but after the race resumed, he overtook Grosjean for second. After inheriting the top spot upon Vettel's demise, Alonso ran in front for the remainder of the event, crossing the finish line 6.4 seconds ahead of Kimi Raikkonen from Lotus.
"It's really difficult to express in words what my feeling is at the moment of winning your home grand prix," Alonso said. "It is unique and a very special feeling. I had the opportunity to win in Barcelona (Spanish Grand Prix) in 2006, and I still remember that day perfectly. And now, I did the same here in Valencia."
Alonso, a two-time F1 titleholder, recorded his 29th career win. His first victory this season came in the March 25 Malaysian Grand Prix. Alonso also won the European GP in 2005 and '07, when it was held at the Nurburgring in Nurburg, Germany.
"This race is probably the best victory I've ever felt, or in terms of emotions, nothing maybe compares this one," he added.
This F1 season had featured a record seven different winners in as many grand prix.
McLaren's Lewis Hamilton was running in second with two laps remaining, but Hamilton was fading on his old tires, allowing Raikkonen to pass him for position.
"I think everybody had old tires at the end of the race, but I had just enough tires left to get past Hamilton," Raikkonen said. "I didn't have the speed today to challenge for the win."
For the first time since coming out of retirement in 2010, Michael Schumacher from Mercedes made his first podium appearance with a third-place run. Schumacher, the record seven-time F1 champion, took a three-year break from the sport following the '06 season.
"I actually didn't think about a podium at all," he admitted. "At the end of the race when I was crossing the line, I asked my guys where did we finish, because I saw (Mark) Webber's pit board, and close to the end, it showed him eighth and then seventh, so I knew I was one place ahead of him. And the boys told me that it was third - that's podium. I couldn't believe that. It's something that I really didn't expect."
Webber from Red Bull finished fourth, while Force India's Nico Hulkenberg took the fifth spot.
Shortly after Raikkonen took second from Hamilton on the penultimate lap, Pastor Maldonado from Williams caught up with Hamilton and battled him for third. Both drivers made contact, with the McLaren driver spinning out and making contact with the barrier.
Hamilton and Maldonado met with the stewards following the conclusion of the race to discuss their incident. Maldonado, who managed to nurse his car to a 10th-place finish, put the blame on Hamilton.
"He tried to put me off of the track, and he didn't leave me any room," said Maldonado, who won the Spanish GP last month. "I jumped over the curb and couldn't avoid the accident. I don't know why he drove like that."
Hamilton finished 19th.
"Today was just a bad day in the office, but that's motor racing," he said.
Alonso has accumulated 111 points so far this season, compared to 91 for Webber. Hamilton entered this race with the points lead but has now dropped to 23 markers behind. Vettel is 26 down.
Marussia's Timo Glock did not compete in the European GP due to a stomach bug. The ailment also prevented Glock from taking part in Saturday's qualifying session.