Vettel hits new heights with four-in-a-row
Sebastian Vettel continued to be unstoppable in a Grand Prix, the Red Bull once again leading every lap to cruise home to victory ahead of Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber.
Another weekend, another race, another venue - but the headline and the story remained the same: a lights-to-flag victory for Sebastian Vettel in the 2012 F1 Grand Prix of India, and another step closer to his dream of holding on to the F1 world championship in 2012.
Events meant that Mark Webber was denied the opportunity to make it a second consecutive Red Bull 1-2, after Fernando Alonso managed a stand-out performance to battle his way up from fifth on the grid to take second place ahead of Webber, who suffered late-race KERS issues that put him off his stride for a crucial period.
Despite coming home in fourth and fifth places, it had been a frustratingly average day for the McLaren drivers. For them, the pattern for the afternoon was set within seconds of the start as they were involved in the most thrilling battle of the day on track only for them both to get eclipsed by Alonso moments later.
It was a very short hold on the lights before the race was on: and as feared, the Red Bulls almost immediately disappeared into the thick haze hanging over the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida. Sebastian Vettel comfortably maintained his pole position into the first corner ahead of team mate Mark Webber, and that was that as far as the battle for the race win went.
Behind them, things were a lot less serene as a fierce battle broke out over third place. Lewis Hamilton lost out to a flying start from his team mate Jenson Button, and the two McLarens exited turn 3 onto the long straight side-by-side with the position still in dispute. Then Fernando Alonso got a huge run on both of them, benefiting from drafting in the slipstream of the two McLarens and by a perfect seventh gear setting to blast past them both, although Button was able to take the next corner ahead of the Ferrari and leave Alonso sandwiched between the McLarens.
Even so, Alonso's superiority down that straight was so emphatic that it only took a few minutes before he was able to line up Button down the straight and pass the McLaren with ease on lap 4; within a couple of laps he was already a second ahead and out of DRS activation danger. Button couldn't manage the same trick over Hamilton and soon succumbed to his team mate on lap 6.
The net result was that the McLaren running order was reset to starting grid default positions, but Alonso had succeeded in passing them both. But the Ferrari was still six seconds back from the lead Red Bull duo and not able to reel them back in by more than the occasional tenth of a second here and there. Further back, his team mate Felipa Massa had held on to sixth place behind the McLarens and was running ahead of Lotus' Kimi Raikkonen, Sauber's Sergio Perez, Force India's Nico Hulkenberg and Mercedes' Nico Rosberg as the race settled down into a relatively processional stint after the first-lap thrills at the front. Rosberg was having to work hard to keep tenth ahead of Pastor Maldonado, Romain Grosjean and Bruno Senna, who were a comfortable four seconds ahead of the still-struggling Paul di Resta.
It was proving to be another deeply disappointing day for Michael Schumacher, who suffered a right rear puncture through the crowded first corners of the race. He had to limp the Mercedes back to pit lane for a change of tyres, which put him well out of the running and the team would eventually opt to retire him in the pits before the end of the race; Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne was also involved and lost his front wing in the collision, forcing him into pit lane as well for running repairs. The two of them were running at the back of the field for the early part of the race, with Vergne taking until lap 13 to catch HRT's Narain Karthikeyan who was already struggling with brake temperatures.
Sauber surprised everyone when they were the first team to bring a car into pit lane for fresh tyres, with Perez coming in from the top ten on lap 15 complaining of a lack of race pace, having just lost a position to the DRS-boosted Hulkenberg down the long straight. Also struggling for pace was Maldonado, who was seemingly a sitting duck for Grosjean to pass in the run into turn 3 on lap 17: Maldonado lost momentum on the exit and was promptly passed by his team mate Senna as well.
In a largely static stage of the race, the most interesting driver to watch was Sergio Perez, who had rejoined the race in 16th after his pit stop and immediately looked much more on the pace on the fresh rubber, quickly making an easy meal of his team mate Kamui Kobayashi and then lining up his sights on Daniel Ricciardo for 14th. This first attempt ended up in a lock-up that ran him wide and off the track, and his second resulted in his right rear tyre getting sliced into by the front wing of the Toro Rosso on lap 20. That blew out the tyre and sent Perez limping back to the pits, where the team was eventually forced to retire the car with suspected floor damage.
That put paid to that experiment, and no one else seemed inclined to choose to deviate from a one-stop strategy despite several drivers starting to struggle well short of the midway point that they needed to make: Jenson Button reported understeer and vibration; Mark Webber was falling away from Vettel and into the clutches of Alonso; and Nico Rosberg was soon easy pickings for Romain Grosjean to pass on the long straight on lap 24; however, Rosberg was able to respond to a similar pass by Bruno Senna two laps later and retake the position despite his troubles.
Button was the first man to call it quits and head for pit lane on lap 26, switching to a new set of hard tyres intended to carry him through to the end of the 60-lap race. Senna was a hairy entry into the pit lane next time by, and on lap 28 Kimi Raikkonen was in slightly earlier than planned in an attempt to leapfrog Felipe Massa for position having been unable to make the move stick out on track. Ferrari reacted and promptly called in their man next time around, and got Massa back out just in front of the Lotus. Raikkonen pressed the advantage of having warmer tyres and got in front, only to hand the DRS advantage to Massa down the long straight to lose the position again to restore the former status quo.
There was a steady stream of pit stops now - including a new steering well in addition to tyres for Hamilton on lap 33 - with Pastor Maldonado coming out of pit lane immediately behind Kamui Kobayashi who was in 11th place but yet to stop. Maldonado immediately went on the attack and passed the Sauber, but then jinked across the track to take his racing line into the next left hander just slightly too early before he'd fully cleared the front of the slower car. Front wing end plate met rear wheel rubber for the third time in the afternoon, and with the same result: Maldonado's new tyre was sliced open and the Williams slithered off into the gravel. The Venezuelan was able to keep momentum and return to the track to limp back to the pit lane for repairs, and in the process managed to hold up the race leader Sebastian Vettel.
Grosjean and Kobayashi were among the last cars to pit on lap 38, and the Lotus' longevity had been costly to Jenson Button who had been stuck behind Grosjean since his own early stop and was now ten seconds off the back of his team mate Lewis Hamilton who was in fourth place and doing his absolute best to catch up to Alonso and Webber ahead of him up the road, even at the cost of possible excessive tyre degradation.
Behind Button, Massa was still keeping a lid on Raikkonen despite being given warnings about his critical fuel situation by race engineer Rob Smedley; Hulkenberg, Grosjean and Rosberg rounded out the top ten, but Senna was threatening to depose the latter from the points at any minute. That minute finally came on lap 52, when a small mistake by Rosberg gave Senna the chance to use DRS to get around the outside of the Mercedes through turn 4.
Vettel had a margin of ten seconds over Webber and all was looking well for another Red Bull 1-2; a good old safety car to close everyone up and reset the battle for a rousing climax wouldn't have come amiss, but unfortunately none was forthcoming - even when Pedro de la Rosa's HRT suffered brake failure and spun backwards into the barrier at turn 4 on lap 45 to require recovery by the track marshals.
But the Red Bull 1-2 was not to be after all: Webber had reported a KERS failure on lap 46 that gave Fernando Alonso the chance to catch right up to the back of the Red Bull. On lap 48 the Ferrari was finally in position to blast past Webber down the long straight, despite the fact that Alonso was also now being warned by the Ferrari pit wall to save fuel. Further down the road, Lewis Hamilton was spurred on by the reports of Webber being among the walking wounded and was now closing the gap between the McLaren and Red Bull with all possible speed. However, it was not to be for Hamilton: Webber had adjusted his driving and picked up the pace again, and when Hamilton locked up in the penultimate run through turn 3 it gave Webber the breathing space that he needed to hold on to a podium finish.
Vettel meanwhile was taking the chequered flag, a peerless performance despite a frisson of concern at Red Bull in the final laps when the floor of Vettel's car suddenly seemed to be running very low through the DRS zone and sparking on the track in a way that hadn't been the case up till then. No matter: Vettel and the team managed it and brought the car home with a crucial win over Alonso by over nine seconds, who had done all he could to minimise the damage to his title hopes in the championship standings.
It was a landmark victory for Sebastian Vettel: the first time he's won four consecutive races in the same season, he's not actually been out of the lead in a Grand Prix since the moment that Lewis Hamilton's gearbox failed in Singapore. That means he's now been out in front and in a class of his own for 205 consecutive laps (the fourth-longest streak in F1 history, behind Alberto Ascari's 1952 record of 305 and two runs for Aryton Senna in 1988 and 1989) which includes heading every single lap of the last three Grand Prix races. Amazingly, Vettel is the only driver to have ever led a lap of a Grand Prix race in India.
The gap between Vettel and Alonso in the world championship might still be 'only' 13pts with three races remaining, but in terms of on-track performance the gulf between the two title contenders is starting to look disturbingly large. Rather than Ferrari managing to close the gap, it seems that Red Bull are simply getting in increasingly dominant mood with every passing race weekend. Alonso and Ferrari will need to pull something out of the bag next weekend at Abu Dhabi if they're to stay in the game in the 2012 championship battle.