"Welcome to the world of winning, the first of many." Heikki Kovalainen has waited a long time to hear those words of congratulation from McLaren team principal Ron Dennis, and on his slowing down lap in yesterday's Hungarian Grand Prix they came as sweet consolation over the onboard radio.
The Finn scored a surprise victory in a race that should really have been Felipe Massa's, but this time Lady Luck chose to bestow her favours on him after largely ignoring him for most of the season.
McLaren were expected to win, after championship leader Lewis Hamilton took an easy pole position from Kovalainen, leaving Massa only third on the grid in his Ferrari and his team-mate, the on-off Kimi Raikkonen, only sixth. But the first upset came immediately the red lights went out. Hamilton led initially, but Massa made a blinding start in a car perhaps crucially carrying one lap less fuel. On a circuit where overtaking is as hard as it is in Monaco, the little Brazilian snatched his chance with both hands and thrust his Ferrari alongside Hamilton, on the outside. Smoke plumed from his tyres under heavy braking as he hung tough, and when he exited the corner ahead of the Englishman the die was cast.
Hamilton kept Massa honest in the early going, but gradually the latter was able to open up a small but critical gap of just over three seconds by the time he stopped for fuel on the 18th lap. Hamilton did likewise a lap later, handing the lead to Kovalainen until the Finn also refuelled. As things stabilised again, Hamilton took up the chase but track position is always crucial here and it was clear that this would be Ferrari's day barring disaster.
When the first drama finally unfolded in what had hitherto been yet another of those famously dull races that the configuration of the Hungaroring so frequently generates, it was Hamilton in the role of victim.
His challenge had reached stalemate by the 32nd lap, as he maintained the deficit to Massa at four seconds. He even reduced it to 3.7 seconds by the 37th lap, but then he began to lose time: six-tenths of a second, four-tenths, three. The reason became clear on the 41st lap as his right front Bridgestone tyre began to deflate, forcing him to creep back to the pits for a fresh set. That dropped him from his fighting second place – and the status of the man who would have benefited from Massa's subsequent misfortune – to 10th place. "Ferrari's pace wasn't a surprise," Hamilton told ITV.
"For sure, it was a surprise that we weren't as quick as we should have been. I was quick at the beginning, but then I just struggled with the tyres and then I think at the end I had a problem with my car after the flat-spot. I was a little bit disappointed that I let Felipe past. But he just did a better job, got a better run on me and it was better to play it safe than sorry.
"What could I do when you have a puncture? Last year I probably lost the championship on a puncture so it's nothing new to me. But it is nowhere near as bad as it could be. I think I salvaged the best of the worst I guess. We could have had Felipe and Kimi right at the front. Congratulations to Heikki, he did a fantastic job and I'm really happy, and Glock did well too. They are taking points away from everyone else which was good."
Now it was Massa's race to lose, though in truth Hamilton would have had his work cut out to do anything about the Ferrari. Kovalainen was 15 seconds adrift with 20 laps to go, as Massa seemed poised to snatch back the championship points lead with his fourth win of this topsy-turvy season. But gradually the McLaren moved closer to the red car as the final laps were reeled off. Massa completed the 67th of the 70 in the lead, but then a spectacular engine failure stopped car No 2 just past the start/finish line. As the Brazilian clambered out, the Finn swept past en route to a triumph that made up for the poor fortune he has had to endure this season as Hamilton's partner.
"It's difficult to say what Felipe was doing but I was catching him every lap, and the car felt particularly good," Kovalainen said. "I was cautious in the first two stints after running into trouble previously with tyre degradation. I kept my own pace and tried to increase it bit by bit, and in the last stint it all worked fine.
"Of course I am very happy. There have been various incidents this year when I was in a position to challenge for the win and things have gone wrong and not functioned properly. Halfway through the race it started to work for me better and I could put pressure on Felipe and hope for something to happen. It worked fine for me today, so I am happy for me and all the hard work the team put in over the last few months. It's very respectable and I'm very glad to score the first victory. It's fantastic, a great moment and a moment I have been targeting for many years now since I started getting the idea about being an F1 driver. It's very pleasing finally to achieve this result."
Behind him, Raikkonen finally got his Ferrari going the way he wanted it to on the softer tyre compound, but was unable to overtake Germany's Timo Glock who drove the race of his life to second place a fortnight after his last outing ended in an ambulance. The rookie's performance equalled Toyota's best, and left him almost as delighted as Kovalainen.
"It's just unbelievable," Glock said. "I couldn't believe it when I saw Felipe's engine go. I was under pressure from Kimi in the final stint on the soft tyres; we knew from Friday that they'd be difficult. We were fast at Hockenheim but then came the big crash. But here in Budapest we kept our speed and the car was perfect until it got a bit tricky in the last stint. To finish on the podium makes it just a perfect weekend."
1 Heikki Kovalainen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1hr 37min 27.067sec
2 Timo Glock (Ger) Toyota +00:11.061
3 Kimi Räikkönen (Fin) Ferrari 00:16.856
4 Fernando Alonso (Sp) Renault 00:21.614
5 Lewis Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 00:23.048
6 Nelsinho Piquet (Br) Renault 00:32.298
7 Jarno Trulli (It) Toyota 00:36.449
8 Robert Kubica (Pol) BMW Sauber 00:48.321
9 Mark Webber (Aus) RedBull-Renault 00:58.834
10 Nick Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber 01:07.709; 11 David Coulthard (GB) RedBull-Renault 01:10.407; 12 Jenson Button (GB) Honda +1 lap; 13 Kazuki Nakajima (Japan) Williams-Toyota +1 lap; 14 Nico Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Toyota +1 lap; 15 Giancarlo Fisichella (It) Force India-Ferrari +1 lap; 16 Rubens Barrichello (Br) Honda +2 laps; 17 Felipe Massa (Br) Ferrari DNF; 18 Sebastien Bourdais (Fr) Toro Rosso-Ferrari +3 laps. Retired: Adrian Sutil (Ger) Force India-Ferrari +8 laps; Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Toro Rosso-Ferrari +48 laps.
Constructors' championship: 1 Ferrari 111pts; 2 McLaren-Mercedes 100; 3 BMW Sauber 90; 4 Toyota 35; 5 Renault 31; 6 RedBull-Renault 24; 7 Williams-Toyota 16; 8 Honda 14; 9 Toro Rosso-Ferrari 8.