Turkish GP - Sunday - Race Report
Vettel wins Istanbul but Alonso takes fight to Red Bull
Sebastian Vettel took his third win in four races as Red Bull Racing scored its first 1-2 finish of 2011 in the Turkish GP. The team did not have things all its own way though, with Fernando Alonso pushing Mark Webber all the way to score Ferrari's first podium of the season.
Vettel had given everyone false hope when he crashed on Friday morning evaluating the Pirelli intermediate tyre in worsening conditions, depriving himself of dry running in the afternoon. It mattered little. Such is the world champion's confidence that it took him precisely seven laps on Saturday morning to assert himself at the top of the time sheet, and he went on to qualify four tenths clear of Webber.
Any chance of anyone offering a realistic challenge was scuppered at the start when third-placed Nico Rosberg did just what he had cheekily told Webber he was going to do, and simply drove by him as Mark attempted to get away from the dirty side of the grid. Hamilton tried to go around the outside of the Red Bull into Turn 1 as well but Webber defended and Lewis got on the dirt and was passed by Alonso and team mate Button.
"That was the defining moment of my afternoon," Hamilton said, "if I hadn't dropped behind Fernando and Jenson I could have got up to third and battled for second. The fight with Jenson and the fact that I had too much front wing dialled in, meant I struggled to look after the rear tyres, which kick-started the four-stop strategy. Considering the lost time at my third stop [a cross-threaded wheelnut], we recovered well."
It took Webber five laps to get past Rosberg and Alonso a further two laps, by which time Vettel was 5s up the road and no longer vulnerable to any undercut at the first round of stops. He was in control thereafter and even had the luxury of changing to a four-stop race in the closing stages.
Vettel's third stop was 40 laps into the 58 and as Button (who pitted a lap earlier), proved, going to the end on a new set of hard Pirellis was feasible. In that situation, however, you are vulnerable if a Safety Car closes up the field and anyone behind is on soft tyres. Rosberg and both Renaults all had soft Pirellis for the final stint, Rosberg's new, and so Red Bull took the safe option and made a fourth stop on lap 47, one lap after they had seen Alonso enter the pits for the fourth time.
Mercedes, happy with Rosberg's qualifying speed, was not happy with its long run pace from the start of the weekend.
"It wasn't very good on Friday," Ross Brawn admitted, "we didn't have a great high fuel balance and one of the priorities overnight was to find a better race set-up." That involved a bit of guesswork because FP3 on Saturday morning is only an hour and therefore too short to do meaningful high fuel running."
The team had the opposite problem to Ferrari, which showed strong race pace but lacked qualifying speed. Rosberg was therefore happy to finish fifth, splitting the McLarens and getting to the chequered flag 12s clear of Button, for whom a three-stop race did not work out.
"The first stint seemed to go well," Jenson said. "Strategy-wise, I don't think we got it right. My battle with Lewis was great fun and there was a lot of on track excitement but I was disappointed to finish where I did. We didn't leave the stops late enough - the tyres were still good at the end of every stop, so we should have stayed out longer because the last stint was extremely difficult."
If Rosberg was disappointed at falling back two slots from his qualifying position, teammate Schumacher had a total nightmare. Starting eighth, he made contact with Petrov's Renault at Turn 12, appearing to turn in as if the Renault wasn't there, for which he accepted responsibility, and immediately pitted for a new nose. Out of synch thereafter, he spent the rest of the afternoon fighting battles, often losing ones, with Felipe Massa and a selection of Force Indias and Toro Rossos, ultimately getting the car home 5s behind Massa in 12th place.
For poor Massa it was another disappointing race, the seeds of which were sewn when Ferrari somewhat inexplicably sent him out on option tyres in Q1 despite it being obvious that Kamui Kobayashi was not going to run due to a fuel pump problem and that Felipe could have gone through to Q2 on the harder tyre. The explanation was that they were worried about a potential improvement from Heikki Kovalainen and didn't want to risk being marooned in Q1, as happened to mark Webber in China. In reality though, there was no threat from Kovalainen.
The upshot was that Felipe, having used another set of option rubber in Q2 was compromised in Q3 and could only qualify 10th. He had been just seven hundredths slower than Alonso in FP3 on Saturday morning and there was to be no real recovery from there at a track on which he has won three times. He picked up three places when Schumacher pitted and he passed the Renaults but fell back again due to problematic pit stops and an excursion at Turn 8 just after his third stop. It will have been doubly galling for him that Alonso demonstrated that the car had near Red Bull equaling pace at Istanbul Park.
Nick Heidfeld beat team mate Petrov to seventh place after they banged wheels at the final complex of corners, while Sebastian Buemi and Kamui Kobayashi took the final points after excellent drives from 16th and 24th on the grid respectively.
There was no stopping the Red Bull express in Turkey but Alonso came closer than expected, a fact that Webber was quick to acknowledge. He was passed by the Ferrari with DRS just after half distance and only re-passed Alonso on lap 51 with the benefit of a new set of hard Pirellis while the Ferrari was on a used set.
It did not look easy and despite claiming he had no KERS problems, Webber did not appear to be using it at that stage.
"Fernando drove fantastically today and it was a bit unexpected to have to fight him," he said.
The message is that while Red Bull is still undeniably the team to beat, Ferrari cannot be discounted.
"Sebastian was 99% favourite today," Alonso admitted, "and our 1% chance was gone when we lost a bit of time behind Rosberg at the beginning. But fighting with Red Bull is tough so it was good to be close. The car feels much better now -- better in qually and better today than in previous races. It was a surprise to be half a minute in front of McLaren and so the car is doing something better."
Red Bull will be well aware that even though Alonso is 52 points behind Vettel in the championship chase, he was almost as far behind at the hallway stage half last year but still went to the final race as championship favourite...