It all seemed so incredibly easy. After 57 laps of the Valencia Street Circuit, Sebastian Vettel cruised to a comfortable European Grand Prix victory.
Of course, while the ten second advantage Vettel possessed over Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso may not seem like an excessive margin of victory, the Red Bull pilot could so easily has extended his lead further than that – had he wanted to.
As a show of his dominance throughout the weekend, Vettel stalked and gathered information during the Friday practice sessions, leapt to the top the standings in final practice, before securing pole position a few hours later.
Come the race, the reigning Champion led all but a single lap (surrendered during his first stop), controlled from the front with little trouble and then set the fastest lap late on for good measure.
Suffice to say, the other twenty-three cars and drivers were Vettel’s playthings for ninety-nine minutes of tedium. Yes, this was a non-entity of a race aided and abetted by one of the poorest circuits on the calendar.
Dominance From the Line
Vettel even cleared away well from the start. Red Bull teammate, Mark Webber, was less fortunate with his getaway, very nearly finding himself crowded out by a pair of Ferrari’s, led by Alonso.
As Webber regained ground and grip through the turn 2/3 chicane, the Red Bull duo led away from Alonso, while McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton’s second row start became 5th on the opening tour when he was passed by Felipe Massa in the second Scuderia machine.
Jenson Button (McLaren) also suffered a sluggish start, falling behind Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) prior to the opening turn as they battled for 6th and 7th.
The 2009 World Champion returned the favour by pressing the German through the opening five laps, but it would not be until the sixth tour that Rosberg succumbed to pressure; yet even in these early stages, Button had already lost a dozen seconds.
Button was not the only driver that suffered off the line. Both Vitaly Petrov (Renault) and Pastor Maldonado (Williams) endured horror starts, with Petrov losing five spots off the line to assume 16th, while Maldonado fell from 15th to a lowly 22nd.
Petrov – pinned at the rear of a competitive midfield battle – remained in 16th until his first stop (lap 15), while Maldonado patiently swallowed up the Lotus and Virgin machinery to take 18th at the time of his first tyre change (lap 10).
While Petrov and Maldonado lingered in the distance, Vettel, Webber and Alonso engaged in their own game of “follow the leader”.
The trio – separated by just five seconds – tailed each other around the Valencian docks, but whereas Alonso drew to the rear of Webber by the eighth tour, Vettel seemed imperious out front.
In the distance, the wary shapes of backmarkers became apparent, yet the lead Red Bull rarely let the gap to Webber fall below three seconds. With each Grand Prix weekend, Vettel seemingly extends the gap to his veteran teammate – indeed, variables only seem to exist when Webber isn’t there.
Alas, tyre strategy was not going to split the leading trio on this occasion, all of whom emerged unfiltered after pitting on laps 13 and 14. If pressure were to emerge from anywhere, an Alonso charge would be the most likely – and it would not take too long for the Ferrari hero to break the Red Bull barrier.
Indeed Alonso stayed in Webber’s wheel tracks following the stops as the Red Bull driver found the Pirelli softs difficult to handle.
With the gap holding steady at less than a second for several laps, Alonso finally sensed an opportunity come lap 21, spearing down the inside of Webber at turn twelve to take 2nd place.
It was a move that left Webber completely wrong-footed and gave Alonso the track down Vettel, now three seconds up the road.
Massa had opposing fortunes in the second Ferrari. Having been held at bay by Massa in the early stages, Hamilton stopped on lap 12, three tours ahead of the Brazilian.
Ferrari, choosing to leave Massa out for a further three laps, helped sacrifice his top four position. Indeed as Massa exited the pits, Hamilton was a ghost down the road in 4th spot.
Michael Schumacher was on a charge too, but not the kind that would have found favour at Mercedes. The veteran had spent race chasing his teammate, Rosberg, until the 14th tour, when a pitstop brought him out behind by the recovering Petrov.
Keen to put the Russian behind him quickly, Schumacher slid as he underestimated his gripless Pirelli’s, clumsily ploughing into the rear of the Renault.
Petrov escaped unscathed, but Schumacher was not so lucky as hobbled back to the Mercedes box carrying a bruised ego and damaged front wing. Returning to the track just ahead of Maldonado, his day would not recover.
Long and Short Running
One less aggressive driver was Spanish homeboy Jaime Alguersuari. The Toro Rosso man endured a tough qualifying, leaving him to start 18th, but a long running strategy would see Alguersuari slyly draw into contention for points.
It would prove to be a canny performance from the 21-year-old. A tense early fight with Toro Rosso teammate Sebastien Buemi, Petrov and Sauber’s Sergio Perez for positions 14 through 17 kept the group on their toes.
With Alguersuari placed second in the group, the Spaniard held his position well, without pushing Buemi too hard to pass.
Perez was the only driver to run longer than Alguersuari. Starting 16th, the Mexican fancied the potential of a one-stop strategy, leaving Perez on track until lap 25. The Mexican was less successful than Alguersuari at carving through the field – a fact hammered home as Perez’ tyres began to degrade badly near the end of his stints.
By the 21st lap Nick Heidfeld (Renault), Rubens Barrichello (Williams) and Buemi had all retaken Perez following their early pit stop loss – this was not going to be a repeat of the Melbourne heroics for Perez.
In the following laps Alguersuari, Petrov and Sauber teammate Kamui Kobayashi also took Perez dropping the Mexican well down the order. He would finally stop on lap 27.
Unfortunately for Sauber, Kobayashi was also struggling. The Japanese driver opted for an entirely different strategy to that of Perez by taking a short first stint, followed by two longer ones.
An early battle with Barrichello for 12th during the race’s formative stages offered Kobayashi a glimmer of hope, only for form to fall away after his first stop.
Before Kobayashi would change his tyres for a second time, the rush for new Pirelli’s once again took hold up front, with Hamilton being by far the earlier stopper on lap 25.
Webber followed on lap 28, with Alonso one tour later and the single lap gap was enough for the Ferrari to lose out. As Alonso filtered back onto track, Webber’s single lap dash of the circuit brought him ahead of the Spaniard as the approached turn two – the Red Bull wall had been built once again.
Vettel – unworried about the battle for 2nd – came in on lap 30 for another set of used softs, this time retaining the lead ahead of Massa.
Two Sides of the Coin
Massa’s second stop did not come until lap 31. Unlike those around him, the Brazilian suffered another slow tyre change – a regular feature in his 2011 season. While he did not lose position this time, he was now well adrift of Hamilton’s McLaren.
The Button / Rosberg fight for 6th and 7th took a respite on lap 30. As Button again emerged in 6th, a radio message confirmed a lack of KERS for the McLaren driver. Considering his victory in Canada two weeks previously, Valencia was not proving to be quite as fruitful for the former Champion.
Rosberg, however, must have sighed as he rejoined the race. As Button raced into the distance, a Toro Rosso came into view, stealing 7th temporarily. Alguersuari – now well into his second stint – pulled ahead of the Mercedes and with both only needing one more stop, the onus was on Rosberg to pass.
This he did, but not until ten laps later, by which point Button had long since disappeared. With no one ahead and Alguersuari falling behind, Rosberg prepared himself for a potential best of 7th place.
One driver taking advantage of the conditions was Force India’s Adrian Sutil. The German pilot has been suffered personal difficulties recently, but with a calm head, Sutil gave Vijay Mallya’s team his best drive in some time.
An early stop (lap 12) followed by a second tyre change on lap 29 paired with decent pace saw the 28-year-old climb from the fifth row of the grid to 8th. Following his second run through the pits, Sutil fell to 9th behind the long running Alguersuari.
Heidfeld also found himself in the running for points at the midway stage. Having lost out to Sutil early on, the Renault man battled with Paul di Resta (Force India) for a time, while Barrichello and Kobayashi looked on in 12th and 13th places.
Bringing his experience to the forefront, Heidfeld held the rookie Scot at bay until the final stint, when di Resta began to fall backward.
Six Wins from Eight
Vettel was also doing his fair share of defending up front, although it is unlikely that the pressure from behind was quite as intense.
With Webber to Vettel’s rear, the reigning champion held a three-second gap to the Australian, effectively matching lap times each way around the harbour. This was an exercise in control.
When Vettel finally made his last dash to the pits for new medium compound tyres on lap 47, a firm gap had long since been established. With no one in his mirrors, the 23-year-old German only had to coast to the flag.
“From the outside, I’m not sure if it seemed that much was happening in the race, but I enjoy it so much when it’s between you and the car on every single lap. I had a gap before the first pitstop, but I came out very close to them, so again I had to push hard while judging the tyres and trying to imagine what the end of the stint might be like.
You are trying to foresee the strategy (…)”
There was not to be a Red Bull 1-2 though – Fernando Alonso would see to that. A slow in-lap (combined with an embarrassing off at pit entrance) lost Mark Webber valuable time. To make matters worse, Webber rejoined the circuit behind a battling Petrov and Kobayashi. As Webber fumbled on new mediums behind the relative backmarkers, Alonso put in three stunningly quick laps on ageing softs.
It is conceivable that Webber would not have held off Alonso regardless of his own efforts. An ailing gearbox cut Webber’s forward thrust in the final few laps, dropping the Red Bull man some 17 seconds behind Alonso.
When Alonso finally changed to mediums on lap 45, the Spaniard emerged ahead of the second Red Bull, but even Alonso was not going to catch Vettel.
“Today, the first hundred metres were not that great but I knew that starting on the dirty side would cost me something: then I was lucky enough to find there was still a gap on the outside and I managed to make up one place on my grid position. We concentrated on Webber and reached our objective. Then, when I was sure he was behind me, we tried to think about Vettel (…)
The Red Bull’s are still significantly superior, but it was equally significant to stay close and stop them getting a one-two.”
Webber, however, was left to rue lost points:
“I think we should have finished second today. It was a good race with Fernando, I think it was my best race of the year to be honest until the last pit stop …it was my fault basically. (…) It was not really known how the medium tyre would behave on the out lap, but it was a risk I decided to take.
We had a gearbox problem at the end, so we backed right off, but we had a massive gap to McLaren, so we could cruise to the end and look after the gearbox.”
(A Long Way) Behind the Trio
A long last stint probably put Lewis Hamilton under more pressure than he should have experienced. Having changed to mediums on lap 42, the Briton held a solid advantage over Felipe Massa, yet the Ferrari pilot – easy on his softs – kept the pace with his McLaren rival.
Not changing to mediums until lap 48 gave Massa an advantage of fresh tyres over Hamilton, but the gap was too much to overcome. The Brazilian tried no doubt, but 5th place was the best he had thanks to some lazy Ferrari pit work.
Jenson Button, too, had to settle. Despite the mid-season alteration to the aerodynamic regulations, the McLaren driver simply could not match Vettel’s pace. By the flag, Button was an entire minute shy of the race winner – a shocking gap for the 2009 World Champion.
Nico Rosberg took 7th – as expected. There were few frills late on for the German as he circled Valencia virtually alone in his Mercedes.
The same could not be said for Jaime Alguersuari and Adrian Sutil. Having made their final stops on laps 42 and 43 respectively, Sutil caught the slightly lagging Alguersuari late on, yet the Force India man did not have the top end pace to steal 8th from the Spaniard.
On every straight, Sutil pulled toward Alguersuari’s Toro Rosso, but as he closed in on the Italian machine, the Force India had not enough seventh gear to finish the move.
Despite the status quo come the flag, the European Grand Prix showed promising performances from both Alguersuari and Sutil – it will be interesting to see if they keep it up for the season.
Close behind the Alguersuari / Sutil fight was Nick Heidfeld. The Renault man was the final points finisher in Valencia, although the German will be disappointed with that result. The R31 is not a car that should be beaten to the flag by a Toro Rosso or a Force India.
There Were Other Racers?
In the end Sergio Perez wasn’t too far away from the points, but in the Valencian heat, a one-stop strategy was never going to work. The Sauber man took 11th ahead of Rubens Barrichello (12th), who kept a feisty Sebastien Buemi (13th) and Paul di Resta (14th) at bay.
Vitaly Petrov registered 15th in the second Renault having never recovered from his poor start. The Russian beat Kamui Kobayashi (16th) to the flag – both of who had races to forget.
Neither Michael Schumacher nor Pastor Maldonado enjoyed their Valencia experienced following early race woes. The Mercedes and Williams drivers took a lowly 17th and 18th respectively as the struggled to make any hay around the Valencia harbour.
At the rear, the result was as expected. Heikki Kovalainen beat Jarno Trulli to 19th in the Lotus / Lotus battle, while Virgin’s Timo Glock claimed 21st ahead of teammate Jerome d’Ambrosio (22nd). Vitantonio Liuzzi assumed 23rd ahead of fellow Hispania driver Narain Karthikeyan, who started and finished dead last.
All this gives Vettel a stunning 77 point lead over Webber and Button, with Hamilton a further 12 points adrift.
Indeed Vettel’s advantage is so great, he could miss the next three Grand Prix and still be leading the title race. With only nine races remaining, the following challengers will need to a miracle if they want to take Vettel on.
Consider this. Only once since last year’s Singapore Grand Prix has Vettel been outside the top-two positions in a race – the exception being the Korean Grand Prix where retired from the lead with an engine failure ten laps from the end.
The European Grand Prix became only the third race in Formula 1 history where every entry finish, giving Narain Karthikeyan the unenviable record of being the first ever driver to finish 24th.
Race Rating: 1.5 out 5
2011 European Grand Prix (Rd 8, June 26th) Pos Driver Team Time 1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1h39:36.169 (57 laps) 2. Alonso Ferrari + 10.891 3. Webber Red Bull-Renault + 27.255 4. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes + 46.190 5. Massa Ferrari + 51.705 6. Button McLaren-Mercedes + 1:00.000 7. Rosberg Mercedes + 1:38.000 8. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1 lap 9. Sutil Force India-Mercedes + 1 lap 10. Heidfeld Renault + 1 lap 11. Perez Sauber-Ferrari + 1 lap 12. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth + 1 lap 13. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1 lap 14. Di Resta Force India-Mercedes + 1 lap 15. Petrov Renault + 1 lap 16. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari + 1 lap 17. Schumacher Mercedes + 1 lap 18. Maldonado Williams-Cosworth + 1 lap 19. Kovalainen Lotus-Renault + 2 laps 20. Trulli Lotus-Renault + 2 laps 21. Glock Virgin-Cosworth + 2 laps 22. D'Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth + 2 laps 23. Liuzzi HRT-Cosworth + 3 laps 24. Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth + 3 laps Fastest lap: Vettel, 1:41.852 World Championship standings, Drivers: 1. Vettel 186 2. Webber 109 3. Button 109 4. Hamilton 97 5. Alonso 87 6. Massa 42 7. Rosberg 32 8. Petrov 31 9. Heidfeld 30 10. Schumacher 26 11. Kobayashi 25 12. Sutil 10 13. Alguersuari 8 14. Buemi 8 15. Barrichello 4 16. Perez 2 17. Di Resta 2 World Championship standings, Constructors: 1. Red Bull-Renault 295 2. McLaren-Mercedes 206 3. Ferrari 129 4. Renault 61 5. Mercedes 58 6. Sauber-Ferrari 27 7. Toro Rosso-Ferrari 16 8. Force India-Mercedes 12 9. Williams-Cosworth 4