2010 Brazilian Grand Prix (Interlagos, Round 18, November 7th)

Interlagos track layout. © FIA

And so it goes to Abu Dhabi. After eighteen races, the Championship will be decided at the final turn at the plush Yas Marina circuit thanks to a stellar driver from Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel.
If one were to search or a definition of control, one would only need to look to Vettel’s performance at Interlagos.

Of course, there was the small matter of qualifying. The Red Bull driver found himself on the outside of the front row thanks to a stunning pole effort by Williams’ Nico Hulkenberg.
The 23-year-old may have snatched the top spot by 1.1 seconds in changeable conditions on Saturday afternoon, but Hulkenberg’s Cosworth-powered machine was never going to hold Vettel back off the line. It was unfortunate for the Williams driver – as solid as their qualifying pace has been in 2010; the early race pace has simply not existed, with positions often evaporating in a race’s opening sequence.

Falling backward
This was the case again today. As soon as the lights went out, Vettel had muscled his way into the lead into turn 1, before Vettel’s Red Bull teammate, Mark Webber had also manoeuvred his way by three turns later.
Fernando Alonso would also shove his way passed Hulkenberg on lap 7, but not before he made a decisive move on McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton on the second lap. The McLaren driver tried desperately to hold off Alonso’s more powerful Ferrari on the start / finish straight; through the next couple of turns, Hamilton was tailgated by the Spaniard, only to eventually lose the position when he went wide in turn four.
Like Hamilton, Hulkenberg was no pushover – the young German defended vigorously where he could, only to lose out to more powerful and better-balanced machinery. With one-tenth of the race in the bag, Vettel had a 2.3 second gap over Webber and Alonso nine seconds adrift. Behind the Ferrari, a queue of cars was forming behind the struggling Hulkenberg.

Whereas Hulkenberg was having difficulties racing faster cars, Hispania’s Christian Klien was having issues just getting out on track. The Austrian had suffered a fuel pressure failure prior to making the grid and only joined the race four laps in. Later, Klien would reflect that:

“Unfortunately, the car stopped on the way to the grid due to fuel pressure problems. But the mechanics did a very good job and managed to fix the car so that we could go in the race after four laps. The race was a test for us in order to gain some race kilometres. The lap times were good and we could keep up with the pace of the other new teams.”

Klien would eventually feed into the path of the leaders early on and thankfully pulled his Hispania to one side without blocking.

That’s not to say Hulkenberg was blocking – in fact, the young German was defending impeccably; however it was clear a queue was forming behind him. One of those cars in the queue was reigning Champion, Jenson Button. A good run in the race would surely only improve Button’s morale – the Englishman, his father and several McLaren team members escaped an armed ambush following Saturday’s qualifying session.

On the verge of losing his crown, the former Brawn pilot started from 11th, but had only made his way to 10th place when he pitted on lap 12. It would be an inspired move. The McLaren driver emerged from the pits down in 18th, but in clean air. When the Ferrari of Felipe Massa changed tyres a lap later, Button had made enough ground to pounce on the Brazilian as he took to the track.
A difficult weekend was about to get worse for Massa. The Brazilian was back in his pitbox again on lap 14; his right front tyre had not been properly fitted, leaving the Ferrari to hobble lamely back for new rubber – he exited 23rd.

Massa’s Brazilian counterpart, Rubens Barrichello was busy maintaining his string of poor luck at Interlagos. Williams, like McLaren, sensing an opportunity to gain some ground, brought Barrichello in for new tyres, only to for to go awry with a painfully slow stop.
As if things could go not get worse for Williams, the team pitted Hulkenberg a lap later, but the car’s poor race pace was proving to be very costly. As the 2009 GP2 Champion rejoined the circuit, Button had made his way passed Hulkenberg and into the top 12. That became 11th on lap 17 when the Englishmen strode down the inside of Renault’s Vitaly Petrov into turn four.

Button coming through the field, passed the pits
With the field beginning to pour in for fresh rubber, Hamilton decided lap 21 would be his time. Pursued down the slow lane by the veteran Michael Schumacher, Button would hit the track in 6th place – only just ahead of Button. It seemed like such a simple act, but those few laps the Champion had in free air was enough to jump him four places.
Schumacher on the other had a good stop ruined when he exited the pitlane right behind Adrian Sutil’s Force India. Sutil had decided to go for a long opening stint in an attempt to counter his low starting position. While he may have had older tyres, his Mercedes-powered machine was displaying fantastic straight-line speed. This and a solid defensive performance would keep Schumacher behind his fellow German for quite some time.
With those behind all fulfilling their required stops, Fernando Alonso became the first of the leaders to change tyres on lap 25. Within two laps, both Red Bull’s had also committed to swapping rubber – a set of clean stops ensuring that the status quo at the front remained intact.
As the halfway point approached, Vettel led comfortably from Webber, Alonso, Hamilton and Button – the five title protagonists, appropriate in the top five positions.

Schumacher’s Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg was once again having a solid, if unspectacular day. Not quick enough to stay with the leading trio, yet faster than those behind had left the 25-year-old in racing limbo – it was not to last too long; pitting on lap 27, Rosberg emerged behind Button, but crucially just ahead of Sutil.
Hamilton, meanwhile, set about registering fastest laps, eventually stealing 4th off of a struggling Kamui Kobayashi into turn one; by lap 30, Button pulled a similar move on the Japanese rookie bringing him into the top five. The Sauber man would lose another place on lap 38, when Rosberg forced his Mercedes through a gap in the first turn. It would be a further ten laps before Kobayashi would pit for tyres – a move that would drop the Sauber driver to 15th spot.

Following his slow stop earlier in the event, Rubens Barrichello found himself in the wars once more. Battling to get around the outside of Jaime Alguersuari into the turn one for 13th place, the Toro Rosso driver clipped Barrichello’s left front wheel, instantly puncturing his Bridgestone tyre and leaving the 38-year-old mired near the rear of the field.
Fellow Brazilian Lucas di Grassi was also having something of a nightmare home race. The Virgin Racing driver was having a horror of a home race as once again reliability problems plagued the Nick Wirth designed machine. After pitting several times, di Grassi was seemingly parked for good on lap 44, only to be released back on track at the beginning of the 47th tour.
Indeed the Virgin driver fed into a steady stream of traffic that contained around eight cars – amongst this gaggle of Formula 1 machinery were the Red Bull’s. As they sliced through pack, the gap remained steady at two seconds.

The Vitantonio Crunch
It would be a gap that proved to be crucial. While the leaders found themselves temporarily slowed, Force India’s Vitantonio Liuzzi had stopped altogether with a smash on lap 51. With failing brakes, the Italian attempted to guide his Mercedes-powered car around the famous Brazilian track, only for them to let go and throw into the turn three barriers. His machine lifeless and stripped of its left-front wheel; carbon fibre shards dirtying the graceful Senna esses would be enough to bring out the safety car.
Afterwards, a clearly disappointed Liuzzi claimed:

“…I had been struggling with the brakes all race and then going into the second corner something on the car let go and I couldn’t turn in. The car just went straight on and into the barriers.”

Twenty laps remained and the race was neutralised, yet before the pack could be caught by the safety car, Lewis Hamilton, Adrian Sutil, Nick Heidfeld, Vitaly Petrov and Felipe Massa dived into the pitlane for fresh rubber. Rubens Barrichello, Christian Klien and Nico Rosberg also took advantage of the slowed speeds at this point to change to fresh tyres.
Jenson Button would also change to fresh Bridgestone’s on lap 53, but he would be joined again by Rosberg. Confusion in the Mercedes crew saw the incorrect tyre attached to Rosberg’s machine, yet a quirk of his on-track position would see him only drop one place to 7th, despite two extra stops.

The safety car pulled in on lap 56, but while Webber was technically close by on the timing screens, in reality there were three lapped cars standing in between the leading pair. It was enough for Vettel – as Webber negotiated traffic, Vettel sauntered off into the distance. This was also true for those who followed – as the field became more spread out as the final laps counted by.
In amongst this lapped battle was Felipe Massa. Still determined to make something of his home race, the Sao Paulo native jumped from 15th to 13th with moves on Nick Heidfeld (lap 57) and Adrian Sutil (lap 58); however an attempt to go around the outside of Sebastien Buemi turn 4 resulted in both going off circuit, dropping Massa back to 15th.
Buemi had to defend vigorously again on the following lap – this time to try and hold off Sutil; however this time the young Swiss driver could not hold off the attack, as Sutil seized 12th spot. In the midst of these battles, a warning shot was made clear to the backmarkers, as Heidfeld found himself penalised for blocking the leaders, although considering the sheer amount of traffic in the pack, one can sympathise with the Sauber driver.

Taking the victory; Seb style
Sadly, the fate of his fellow German mattered little to Sebastian Vettel. Once the slower traffic was cleared, the Red Bull driver disappeared into the distance in what was a near flawless driver. Mark Webber rolled home 2nd, some 4.2 seconds behind his team mate; however late race overheating issues with his Renault engine meant that the Australian would never have gotten close in the final stages.
Webber had enough left in him to hold off 3rd place Fernando Alonso – this Red Bull 1-2 finish secured the team’s first Constructor’s Championship and the ninth title for Renault as an engine supplier. An ecstatic Sebastien Vettel declared:

“We are the 2010 constructors’ champions! It has been a pleasure for me so far this year to drive that car. Everyone matters in this team and I’m proud of them and also of myself today – we had a straightforward race, no issues and we were able to control it. There are a busy few days before the next race, but I think back in Milton Keynes and here in Brazil, there will be a couple of drinks tonight.”

It could be argued that the Constructor’s title should have been wrapped up some time ago – indeed, Red Bull have had the car to do it, but with McLaren fading towards the end of the season and only one Ferrari realistically challenging, this particular title was always going to be theirs.  Less clear-cut is the Driver’s Championship. Alonso’s finish in Interlagos means that the Spaniard now holds an eight point advantage over Webber and a fifteen point lead over Vettel as they head into Abu Dhabi next week.
When considering the result, a pragmatic Alonso said that:

“All things considered, I am pleased with this result. We have only lost three points to our closest rival and, given how things turned out yesterday in qualifying, it went well… We were very cautious in the very first corners, because everyone was very aggressive and we did not want to risk touching anyone. …it took me several laps to get past Hulkenberg, while passing Hamilton is never easy.”

Lewis Hamilton’s 4th place finish gives him a mathematical chance of claiming his second crown, but with the 2008 World Champion some twenty-four points adrift, it would require a miracle for him to overcome the deficit.
Reflecting on his race, Hamilton revealed that

“…this was a tough race for me. I actually feel quite lucky to have finished where I did. Fernando shot past me at the start, too – and it almost felt like my F-duct wasn’t working perfectly.”

Jenson Button’s hopes for retaining his title are now officially sunk. Despite driver a good race from 11th, the Briton was always going to struggle to get further up the order.  Afterwards, he didn’t seem too disappointed:

“We finally sorted the car out for the race, I had some pretty decent race pace, I made some great passing moves, and the team made a couple of perfect calls on strategy. From where I started, I couldn’t have done any better, so it feels good to have finished fifth.”

The last cars on the lead lap, Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher brought their Mercedes machines home next to a respectable 6th and 7th double-finish. It was enough to secure fourth in the Constructor’s Championship for the German squad – a poor showing considering their title winning form as Brawn only one year ago.

Polesitter Nico Hulkenberg eventually came home 8th ahead of Robert Kubica (9th) and final points scorer, Kamui Kobayashi (10th). Sadly, the Williams simply did not have the pace up front and the 23-year-old lost out badly in the early stages, although Hulkenberg did not seem too discouraged by the result.

“I was struggling quite a lot with the car, it really wasn’t easy to drive, but I kept Kubica behind me all the way. The team did a great pit stop and chose the right strategy; we just needed some more car pace.”

Jaime Alguersuari (11th), Adrian Sutil (12th), Sebastien Buemi (13th), Rubens Barrichello (14th), Felipe Massa (15th), Vitaly Petrov (16th) and Nick Heidfeld (17th) all finished one lap and relatively close together thanks to the late safety car.
Of the rear gunners, Heikki Kovalainen (18th), Jarno Trulli (19th), Timo Glock (20th) and Bruno Senna (21st) were all two laps down following relatively quiet races. Despite his pre-race set back, Christian Klien brought his Hispania home in 22nd, some six laps adrift; however Virgin’s Lucas di Grassi was less fortunate. The Brazilian suffered so many stoppages that he crossed the line nine laps adrift and unclassified as a finisher – the small team deciding to use the race as a test session instead.

Indeed, the 2010 Brazilian Grand Prix started off with plenty of action, but come the mid-point, field spread had suffocated much of the excitement. While the packed field may have made the later laps somewhat tense, the sheer number of back markers in between the leaders settled the race before the safety car had even returned to the pits.
One thing is for sure – the title run in is set up perfectly for Abu Dhabi next Sunday as the 2010 Formula 1 season reaches its climax.
Race Rating: 3 out of 5
*All quotes courtesy of Formula1.com.

Interlagos, Brazilian Grand Prix (Round 18, November 7th)
1  VETTEL       Red Bull     1h33m11.8s
2  WEBBER       Red Bull     +4.2s
3  ALONSO       Ferrari      +6.8s
4  HAMILTON     McLaren      +14.6s
5  BUTTON       McLaren      +15.6s
6  ROSBERG      Mercedes     +35.3s
7  SCHUMACHER   Mercedes     +43.5s
8  HULKENBERG   Williams     +1 lap
9  KUBICA       Renault      +1 lap
10 KOBAYASHI    Sauber       +1 lap
11 ALGUERSUARI  Toro Rosso   +1 lap
12 SUTIL        Force India  +1 lap
13 BUEMI        Toro Rosso   +1 lap
14 MASSA        Ferrari      +1 lap
15 PETROV       Renault      +1 lap
16 BARRICHELLO  Williams     +1 lap
17 HEIDFELD     Sauber       +1 lap
18 KOVALAINEN   Lotus        +2 laps
19 TRULLI       Lotus        +2 laps
20 GLOCK        Virgin       +2 laps
21 SENNA        HRT          +2 laps
22 KLIEN        HRT          +6 laps
NC DI GRASSI    Virgin       +9 laps
R  LIUZZI       Force India  +22 laps

Driver Team Points
1. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 246
2. Mark Webber Red Bull Racing 238
3. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull Racing 231
4. Lewis Hamilton McLaren 222
5. Jenson Button McLaren 199
6. Felipe Massa Ferrari 143
7. Nico Rosberg Mercedes GP 130
8. Robert Kubica Renault 126
9. Michael Schumacher Mercedes GP 72
10. Rubens Barrichello Williams 47
11. Adrian Sutil Force India 47
12. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber 32
13. Nico Hulkenberg Williams 22
14. Vitantonio Liuzzi Force India 21
15. Vitaly Petrov Renault 19
16. Sebastien Buemi Scuderia Toro Rosso 8
17. Pedro de la Rosa Sauber 6
18. Nick Heidfeld Sauber 6
19. Jaime Alguersuari Scuderia Toro Rosso 3
Constructor Team Points
1. Red Bull Racing 469
2. McLaren 421
3. Ferrari 389
4. Mercedes GP 202
5. Renault 145
6. Williams 69
7. Force India 68
8. Sauber 44
9. Scuderia Toro Rosso 11

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