Sebastian Vettel’s dream 2011 continued in New Delhi on Sunday, with the world champion scoring his 11th victory of the season.
Vettel headed off a race long challenge from the McLaren of Jenson Button, while Fernando Alonso secured a credible podium for Ferrari, beating Vettel’s Red Bull teammate, Mark Webber, to the flag.
Quick in Qualifying, Quick in the Race
The champion made it look easy for the most part and while Button kept Vettel in his sights, the Red Bull man rarely looked truly threatened.
Leading from pole, Vettel only had to focus ahead, although the usual first lap melee saw some positions jumble amongst a carbon fibre jungle.
Not for Button though. Starting 4th, the McLaren pilot picked off a sluggish Webber, while the quick starting Alonso hit the gripless surface in the opening corner, rendering him defenceless.
With field behind still sorting themselves out, Vettel led clear away from Button, Webber and Alonso.
Just behind the front four, McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton made another speedy launch, only to be crowded out in the first turns. Taking advantage was Ferrari’s Felipe Massa, assuming 5th ahead of the Englishman.
Behind the leading six were the two Mercedes. Nico Rosberg kept his solid 7th on the grid on the opening tour, while veteran teammate Michael Schumacher jumped from 12th to 8th ahead of Adrian Sutil (Force India).
Bruno Senna made an equally good start in his Renault, leaping to 10th from 14th in initial few miles.
Carbon fibre Love Affairs
It was far from pretty in the pack however. An over ambitious dive into turn one by the Williams of Rubens Barrichello saw the Brazilian clouting Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi, who in turn hit Timo Glock (Virgin).
His car’s front end wounded, Barrichello could not help, but plough into teammate Pastor Maldonado. Both Barrichello and Glock would pit to have damage repaired; however Kobayashi’s day was done.
“After the start I was hit from behind and immediately I saw smoke and fire coming from my car. There was severe damage, so I had to stop and switch the car off.”
Kobayashi would soon be joined on the sidelines. Timo Glock managed a further three laps, before the true extent of the damage became clear – come the end of the fourth tour, the German pulled in to retire.
“I just came down into Turn 1 on the outside and all of a sudden I saw bits flying around. I braked a bit earlier than normal and when I turned, suddenly Kamui Kobayashi drove straight into me and I couldn’t avoid the crash. My front wing was damaged so I came back in to change it, and we realised that we also had quite a lot of damage on the left side of the car, so we decided to stop.”
There was to be further calamity two corners on, as hometown hero, Narain Karthikeyan (HRT) spun the Lotus of Jarno Trulli around, damaging the green and yellow machine. He too would pit for repairs.
Maldonado would continue for a time, but as the race progressed the Venezuelan’s gearbox began to cough, eventually giving up on the thirteenth tour.
Barrichello, Glock and Trulli were not alone in the pits; however some chose to play the strategic card surprisingly early.
Worried about losing time on the hard tyres, Sergio Perez (Sauber) stopped for softs after completing the first tour, with Paul di Resta (Force India) and Vitaly Petrov (Renault) doing the same on laps 2 and 3 respectively.
It was a risky move for the trio, all of whom were willing to play the long game on the softs in Delhi’s dusty arena.
There were no such thoughts up front. His lead growing steadily, Vettel peeled away from Button, tenths-of-a-second at a time.
Four laps in, Vettel was 2.7 seconds up; it was 4.3 second two circulations later – that was all Vettel really needed. As long as the undercut was covered, the race would be in his hands.
Meanwhile, Button’s considerations were elsewhere. All the time one Red Bull was pulling away, another loomed large in his mirrors, while Webber applied the pressure. Webber, too, had to be wary. Not far behind the Australian, Alonso and his red Ferrari kept the Red Bull pilot keenly aware of the Spanish threat.
As the race reached ten laps, the trio were rarely split by more than three seconds, although that gap would extend to just over five seconds as the first set of stops approached.
One driver keen to make progress was Toro Rosso’s Jaime Alguersuari. Successful upgrades in recent weeks have allowed the Spaniard (and teammate Sebastien Buemi) to stretch his legs somewhat and this race was no different.
Alguersuari fell to 11th at the start after qualifying 10th – a position rectified on lap nine as the Toro Rosso ushered Senna out of the way in turn four. That would become 9th five laps later thanks to a pass on Sutil – a promising opening stint for Alguersuari whose used Pirelli softs were holding their own.
Buemi, too, spent several laps recovering from a difficult start. Falling to 12th (from 9th) on the opening tour, appeared disastrous initially for the Swiss pilot, although overtakes on Senna (lap 10) and Sutil (lap 15) alleviated the problem somewhat.
Buemi’s progress would soon be halted though. Having risen as high as 8th during the first stops, the Ferrari engine in the rear of the Toro Rosso gasped its last, drawing to a halt twenty-five laps in.
“I am very disappointed with what happened this afternoon, because I was having a very good race. When the car stopped, I was lying eighth and (…) if we look on the positive side, our pace all weekend has been good, confirming the step forward we showed in Korea.”
Making Pirelli Last
Vettel had no such issues in the lead Red Bull machine. Such was his comfort out front, the champion ran the longest first stint of the top four, pitting on lap 19 for a second set of used softs.
His tyres not quite up to temperature, the Red Bull man drove warily for a time – the gap to Button having shrunk to under three seconds. Stopping a lap before the Red Bull star allowed the McLaren pilot to claw back some time, but with only one lap of a difference, it would never be enough.
As soon as Vettel’s tyres reached their optimum temperature, the gap for the lead extended once again – once again, everything was going Red Bull’s way. Well, nearly everything.
Status quo reigned in Vettel’s mirrors beyond Button, while Webber and Alonso enjoyed clean stops (both lap 16), maintaining their respective positions in the process; however the pair had now fallen ten seconds behind the lead.
To add to the feeling of separation, Alonso very nearly lost out at this point as well. Emerging from the pitlane, the Spaniard found himself behind the yet-to-stop Schumacher for a lap and four corners. Despite passing the soft-Pirelli shod Mercedes, the delay cost Alonso time to Webber – and very nearly dropped him behind Massa.
For his part, Massa came in for used softs on lap 17, one lap after the eager Hamilton (also used softs).
Falling into a now common pattern of pushing his tyres early in a stint, Hamilton closed on Massa, pressing the Brazilian in every conceivable venue. Despite every dodge, flicker or skilled shuffle, the Ferrari man had an answer – it would have to be a dive, but where?
Common Friends, Common Foes
After several tours of chasing, Hamilton held Massa close, looking for a opening – a solitary gap that finally appeared on lap 25 but just for a moment. Approaching turn five, Massa offered the briefest of gifts and Hamilton seized, only for the door to close instantly.
As the Scuderia machine pulled back across, Hamilton could not withdraw quickly enough, resulting in an almost inevitable “bosh” between the pair – a sound now common between the pair.
Spinning wilding for a moment, Massa continued, grazed by the contact, while Hamilton bore the brunt of the collision, requiring a replacement front wing – a stop that would drop him to 9th behind Alguersuari.
The McLaren pilot had dispatched the Toro Rosso man for 7th by lap 31, but with his MP4-26 beginning to suffer handling issues that would be as high as he reached. Following the race, Hamilton appeared more bemused than irritated by yet another accident with Massa, claiming:
“…the contact with Felipe was just one of those things. I really didn’t feel like I was at fault – it was a racing incident.”
In a surprise move, Massa garnered a drive through penalty for a clash that was little more than a racing incident. The Brazilian was less than pleased with the stewards’ decision:
“I can only say I do not share the opinion of the Stewards who inflicted the punishment. I simply stayed on the ideal line, braking on the limit and staying on the part of the track that was rubbered in. What else could I do? It’s the umpteenth time that Hamilton runs into me this year and it seems it’s some sort of fatal attraction…”
It all came to nothing soon afterward. After taking his drive through penalty on lap 30, Massa stopped again on the following tour for a new front wing and a set of hard tyres to take him to the end of the race.
Unfortunately, his race ended three laps later with a significant clump into the barriers at turn eleven. As on Saturday, Massa took to much kerb into the quick turn, breaking suspension over the orange slab inside the corner, well and truly ended his race on the spot.
The main beneficiaries of the Hamilton / Massa mess were the Mercedes – a team that has shown improved form of late.
Although still not a match for the “big three”, both Rosberg and Schumacher had pulled away somewhat from the rest of the midfield, leaving them a solid 4th in the Constructors Championship.
With Massa now absent, that translated to 5th and 6th, with Rosberg leading the pairing; however Schumacher’s ominous presence offered a renewed threat for the younger Rosberg, while Hamilton and Alguersuari lingered amongst the Delhi shadows.
Sutil, too, was keeping his head above water. By lap 35, the German was confidently holding his Force India 9th, ahead of the long-running Perez and Senna.
In a surprisingly mature run, Heikki Kovalainen spent the Indian Grand Prix wringing the neck of his Lotus-Renault, reaching 12th place thanks to some solid laps; however even he surely knew the position could not be maintained.
With each passing circulation Petrov and di Resta drew closer to the Finn, demoting him to 14th by the flag.
Unchallenged to the Flag
Not that any of this even entered Sebastian Vettel’s mind. For the German, battles over 12th place and onward ceased to be an issue long ago – now his focus was on winning races, something he was having no problem doing in 2011.
Every lap saw the gap extend ever so slight, reaching a peak of seven seconds, before the life of Vettel’s soft Pirelli’s began to wane. The gap to Button had indeed shrunk to just under five seconds, but that would be as close as the Englishmen could get.
One final stop for hard tyres on lap 47 solidified Vettel’s advantage and as with the previous stints, the champion eked out an untouchable lead, eventually crossing the line 8.433 seconds clear of Button. As with so many other races this year, the German’s victory was a consummate one; appreciated no doubt by the fans around the Delhi circuit.
“It was very good race for us and I enjoyed it. I had a bit of a fight with Jenson in the distance who was always around 4 seconds away, but strangely he kept closing in around the pit stops. It was crucial to manage the tyres and make sure we had enough left at the end, but it was a very smooth race. The car was very well balanced and it was a fantastic race today. It’s been a great race, a great event and the circuit is fantastic, so thanks a lot to all the people in India.”
While slightly disappointed with 2nd place, Jenson Button understood how tough catching and passing Vettel would have been. With the close of the race drawing ever closer, McLaren brought Button in for his hard tyres on lap 46, but as with the previous stop, he did not have enough to capture Vettel.
It was still a sterling effort by the Englishman who had carved a large gap to the Alonso / Webber battle in the final stint.
“I got a good start, made up places on the first lap and then settled down to keep Mark [Webber] behind me. Eventually, I think we ‘broke’ his rear tyres, which enabled me to establish a gap. Then I could set about Seb [Vettel] – but it was very difficult to close him down. At the final stop, it was a risk going to the harder tyre earlier than Seb, but we had to give it a go and it worked pretty well as I was able to close him down by a further three, but it wasn’t quite enough.”
Swapping at the Stops
Unlike Vettel, there was not such a sweet ending for Mark Webber. As the final round of stops approached, the Australian’s rears were suffering once again, only this time Fernando Alonso was the benefactor.
Having lost precious time behind Schumacher, the Spaniard charged toward the rear of the Red Bull, while showing little of the high tyre wear rates that the Ferrari suffered earlier in the season.
By lap 37, Alonso had closed to within half-a-second of Webber, as the Red Bull man dived in for a set of new hard Pirelli’s. Sadly, it was always going to be a lose-lose situation – the time it took to get the hard tyre up to temperature on top of Alonso running in free air hurt Webber badly.
When Alonso did pit two laps later, the deed was completed – the Ferrari exited the pits, with Webber firmly in his mirrors. The Australian still pushed Alonso to the flag, but there was simply not enough left to help Webber overhaul the red machine. The outcome left the Spaniard reasonably with his result:
“At the start, I did not get away particularly well and so Button was able to pass me. Then I tried to stay close to Webber and when he slowed down a bit, I closed right up and, staying out on track a few laps longer than him, I was able to get ahead of him. Being patient paid off.”
The Mercedes also swapped positions in the pits. Indeed fast wearing Pirelli’s hampered the end of Nico Rosberg’s middle stint; however a sluggish final stop (lap 45) held him even further.
As with Webber, it was Rosberg’s rugged pace and early switch to hards that would cost him. As one Mercedes pilot haemorrhaged time, the other held steady, keeping his softs usable for a further five laps.
When Michael Schumacher finally did pit with ten tours remaining, his gap to Rosberg was just significant enough to secure 5th place. It was a top five that would remain unchallenged to the flag.
Just under twenty seconds down the road trailed Lewis Hamilton, still struggling for pace following his clash with Massa. It was a disappointing result for the former-champion who had little choice but to settle for 7th.
In the Distance
If Hamilton appeared to be disappointed with, Jaime Alguersuari would have gladly taken off of him. Alas, 8th was the best the Toro Rosso could manage, but it was enough to send a clear message to his midfield rivals.
The Spaniard had actually dropped to 12th following his first stop, climbing to 8th as others peeled away. It was a position no one could touch as the race aged and despite awarding only four points, it bring the Spaniard ever closer to the top ten in the Drivers Championship.
For the final two points positions, it was a more frenzied affair. A very long middle stint (34 laps) on softs saw Bruno Senna take his Renault to 9th place ahead of Adrian Sutil, Sergio Perez and Vitaly Petrov, but despite the worthwhile tactic, it was not enough to keep the Brazilian in the points at the end.
A regulation change to hard tyres with four laps remaining dropped Senna to 12th – his slowing pace in the latter stages of his stint losing what advantage had been gained.
Realistically, neither Renault had been quick enough in the race, something aptly demonstrated by Petrov’s run to a point-less 11th spot, although he did keep Perez honest.
Long final stints by Sutil-Perez-Petrov trio would eventually bring them together come the flag, with Sutil assuming 9th (only 2.4 seconds up on Perez, 10th). Meanwhile, the Sauber rookie kept Petrov out of the points by a mere 0.877 seconds.
That Perez overshot his pitbox during his final stop and that Petrov had a brief off at turn five on lap 32 should weigh heavily.
Even Further Back
Paul di Resta had little to celebrate in Delhi. His odd tyre strategy was not enough to bring him into points, rendering him a 13th place limbo.
Indeed the Scot had been battling with both Perez and Petrov in the initial stages; however his second stop left him battling amongst the Kovalainen’s Lotus and the HRT’s. Such was the loss of time, di Resta’s race never really recovered.
Heikki Kovalainen did eventually claim 14th after a brilliant run. The Finn did breach the top ten momentarily during the first stops, but he would falter late on, as the Lotus struggled to garner heat for its hard Pirelli’s.
Following his first lap ruckus, Rubens Barrichello endured an utterly forgettable day, coming home 15th.
Only Jerome d’Ambrosio (16th, Virgin), both HRT’s (Narain Karthikeyan, 17th; Daniel Ricciardo, 18th) and a recovering Jarno Trulli (19th, Lotus) finished behind the Brazilian, registering a tortuous day on what must surely be one of his final Grand Prix. That Barrichello only managed to overtake Karthikeyan on lap 43 says much about the Brazilian’s display.
Of note, both Karthikeyan and Ricciardo displayed promising pace, with the India remaining consistent throughout, while Ricciardo peaked at a decent 15th spot for a time.
Admittedly, the inaugural Indian Grand Prix was not a thriller, but the track will be helped with further events.
While the Drivers Championship is long gone, Button closes in on securing the runner-up spot thanks to 13-point advantage over Alonso and a 19-point gap to Webber. Hamilton, meanwhile, is 38 points adrift of his teammate…
Race Rating: 2 out of 5
2011 Indian Grand Prix (Rd 17, 60 laps) Pos Driver Team Time 1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1h30:35.002 2. Button McLaren-Mercedes + 8.433 3. Alonso Ferrari + 24.301 4. Webber Red Bull-Renault + 25.529 5. Schumacher Mercedes + 1:05.421 6. Rosberg Mercedes + 1:06.851 7. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes + 1:24.183 8. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1 lap 9. Sutil Force India-Mercedes + 1 lap 10. Perez Sauber-Ferrari + 1 lap 11. Petrov Renault + 1 lap 12. Senna Renault + 1 lap 13. Di Resta Force India-Mercedes + 1 lap 14. Kovalainen Lotus-Renault + 2 laps 15. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth + 2 laps 16. D'Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth + 2 laps 17. Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth + 3 laps 18. Ricciardo HRT-Cosworth + 3 laps 19. Trulli Lotus-Renault + 4 laps Fastest lap: Vettel, 1:27.457 Not classified/retirements: Driver Team On lap Massa Ferrari 33 Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 25 Maldonado Williams-Cosworth 13 Glock Virgin-Cosworth 3 Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1 World Championship standings (Rnd 17; Drivers) 1. Vettel 374 2. Button 240 3. Alonso 227 4. Webber 221 5. Hamilton 202 6. Massa 98 7. Rosberg 75 8. Schumacher 70 9. Petrov 36 10. Heidfeld 34 11. Sutil 30 12. Kobayashi 27 13. Alguersuari 26 14. Di Resta 21 15. Buemi 15 16. Perez 14 17. Barrichello 4 18. Senna 2 19. Maldonado 1 World Championship standings (Rnd 17; Constructors) 1. Red Bull-Renault 595 2. McLaren-Mercedes 442 3. Ferrari 325 4. Mercedes 145 5. Renault 72 6. Force India-Mercedes 51 7. Sauber-Ferrari 41 8. Toro Rosso-Ferrari 41 9. Williams-Cosworth 5