The first Indian F1 Grand Prix was a complex puzzle for the teams but a no-brainer for Sebastian Vettel, who took a lights-to-flag victory from pole position and recorded the fastest lap of the race. It doesn’t come any more straightforward than that.
Through the haze of Greater Noida one thing was abundantly clear: Sebastian Vettel is not taking his eyes off the prize or his foot off the throttle. He won the Indian Grand Prix without ever having appeared troubled, getting away cleanly from pole, leading every lap and impishly securing fastest lap as he took the checkered flag. That isn’t victory: that’s a rout.
India provided F1 with an excellent new circuit, a real snorter with loops and whirls and dangers lurking at every turn for the unwary, but in the end Sebastian killed the entertainment factor stone dead by simply not letting anyone get close enough to trouble him. Behind him, however, things were a bit more interesting.
The Battle for Second
McLaren’s Jenson Button got a good start from fourth place and passed Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari for third. Then he got a better exit onto the long back straight than Mark Webber and converted third into second and, despite Webber’s best efforts in the first quarter of the race, nothing was going to shift him. Behind the leading four, the second Ferrari of Felipe Massa managed to squeeze past Lewis Hamilton.
Towards the back of the grid there was first-lap mayhem. The two Williams tangled and Rubens Barrichello needed a new nosecone, behind him Kamui Kobayashi and Timo Glock got involved with each other and neither was able to continue. Up ahead at Turn Three Jarno Trulli got pushed into a spin by a HRT and had to limp back to the pits.
But Vettel was well clear of any trouble. As has been his practice with monotonous regularity this year, he banged in a series of quick laps to get well clear of DRS trouble. By lap five he’d pulled out 3.3 seconds on Button, who was mostly occupied with the other Red Bull of Mark Webber looming large in his mirrors.
Webber had a good go on the long, undulating back straight but Button stayed brave, held a wide defensive line and repelled the attack successfully. It could have ended badly but the pair left each other just about enough space. “We both braked very late, both ran wide, but kept the position and then I was able to kick in and pull a gap,” said Button succinctly. Others might take note.
But more of that later. All the front runners had started on the soft tire and the first round of pitstops started on lap 16 -- Webber, Alonso and Hamilton came in on that lap. Massa followed on 17, Button on 18 and Vettel on 19 -- depressing for the competition, as he had been setting fastest laps without hurting his rubber -- and everybody maintained their position.
Hamiton and Massa Tangle
There was a little more drama in the second stint with Lewis Hamilton catching Felipe Massa on lap 24. As the moth is drawn to the flame so Hamilton’s McLaren seems drawn to Massa’s Ferrari this year. Hamilton attempted a pass up the inside into Turn Five. Massa turned in for the corner and the pair collided for the third time in four races.
Hamilton struggled back to the pits for a new nose and complained of vibration for the rest of the race, Massa spun off but got back onto track without losing his position. It looked like a 50-50 but the Stewards decided to blame Felipe this week and gave him a drive-through penalty.
Unsurprisingly Felipe had a different take on events. “I can only say that I don’t 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 now it seems it’s some sort of fatal attraction.”
Hamilton’s comments didn’t entirely disagree: "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,” he said.
Ultimately the penalty did not affect Massa’s race. He would complain of handling trouble and eventually break his front suspension going hard over a kerb before rolling to a halt. On the one hand it was a very similar failure to what he experienced in qualifying; on the other it was on the side of the car that collided with the McLaren.
Up at the front the positions were static and it was going to be a question of who blinked first for the pit stops. It was Mark Webber, who came in earlier than expected on Lap 37. He made the mandatory change to the hard tire. Given that the soft was much faster, this gave Fernando Alonso an opportunity to steal third. The Ferrari driver began to grind out fast laps while Webber struggled on cold, hard rubber.
Alonso did two extra laps, dived into his pit and emerged comfortably in front. Webber briefly challenged to take the place back, but never got near enough to launch a real attempt.
“We lost the podium in the middle of the race really,” said the Australian. “It’s pretty much the general story of this year; I just don't have the pace at the end of the stints, so I run out of tires and then lose strategy. It means I have to pit earlier and it makes life harder. In the end, I wasn’t quick enough.”
“We know that with the hard tires, the first two laps maybe they are not as good as the soft and we were debating on the radio what to do in the second stop,” said Alonso. “Stop one lap before Mark or wait? The team made the right call, waited for Mark to stop and then tried to take advantage of the extra lap or the extra two laps, expecting some warm-up issues with the hard tire for them.”
Button and Vettel went longer and made regulation stops on Lap 46 and Lap 47, respectively, and held their positions. It stayed that way over the line with Vettel recording his 11th win of the year. Button strengthened his grasp on second in the Drivers’ Championship with second place, while also securing second place in the Constructors’ for McLaren.
Alonso was third, Webber fourth and Michael Schumacher managed to hold off Nico Rosberg as the two Mercedes fought their own battle for fifth and sixth. Hamilton trailed home seventh, ahead of Jaime Alguersuari who had a spritely eighth for Toro Rosso, drawing them level with Sauber in the fight for seventh in the Constructors’. Adrian Sutil managed ninth for Force India at their home race, while Sergio Pérez picked up the final point for Sauber.
“The car is fantastic,” said a very happy Sebastian Vettel. “The team is enjoying it and we have been on a run, basically since the beginning of the season and it is great. We enjoy every race. The great thing is you walk into the garage every morning and you see the guys and they are flat out. They are pushing very hard and there is no sign of getting lazy and not paying attention to detail. It is really enjoyable to see that knowing that we have already achieved a lot this year, but we are still hungry.”
It wasn’t a classic, but the 95,000 who came to the Buddh International Circuit saw an interesting race, and given the level of attention F1 has enjoyed in the local media this week and the way that F1 fever seems to have grasped India, they’ll probably all be back next year with friends -- though they’d probably get more of a spectacle if Sebastian wasn’t quite so good…
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