Spanish GP - Sunday - Race Report
Four out of five for Vettel
BY TONY DODGINS
Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing took their fourth win in five 2011 races in that rarest of things - an exciting Spanish GP at Barcelona.
Once again, a full one second gulf in qualifying pace between Red Bull and their closest challengers did not translate in the race, as Lewis Hamilton harried Vettel all the way to the flag and Jenson Button, using a different strategy, comfortably beat pole man Mark Webber to the final podium position.
How come? It's a question being asked repeatedly.
"It's all about the tyre," said RBR team principal Christian Horner. "We got a great lap out of it in qualifying but I don't think you can drive them like that in the race. If you tried, you'd have been going for a five-stopper here. Two weeks ago Ferrari was very competitive in the race and here, McLaren was. The encouraging thing for us is that we've been to five different types of circuit and we've been competitive everywhere."
Quite how much it was all about the tyre was perfectly demonstrated by Fernando Alonso. Vettel and Hamilton both drove superb races but you had to have sympathy for Alonso. His qualifying time stunned McLaren. From a Q2 time that was the best part of a second down on both McLarens, he split Hamilton and Button on the grid, three thousandths slower than Lewis and two thousandths quicker than Jenson.
"It was the perfect lap," Fernando said, "I could try 20 times and not repeat it." Having put the Ferrari fourth on the grid, he made a fantastic start and, as Webber moved to cover Vettel, he shot down the inside of both Red Bulls to lead through Turn 1. All things being equal, a qualifying lap and start like Alonso's should win you a race. But, in Barcelona, all things were far from equal.
The fact that Ferraris are not at their best on hard compound tyres, be they Pirellis or Bridgestones, is not a new concept. But here, with the debut of an even harder compound Pirelli, Ferrari was in trouble on the prime. Consider this: on lap 18, just before his second tyre stop, Alonso led the grand prix. Eleven laps later, with his three sets of used softs all gone, he bolted on his first set of new primes. And by lap 63, three seconds a lap off the pace, he was lapped!
The fact that both Red Bulls fell behind Alonso at the start spelled ultimate frustration for Webber. As Christian Horner explained: "It made it a very interesting and difficult race. We thought that if anyone might get the jump on us at the start it would be Lewis but Fernando seemed to get a tow and got past both our cars. Then he didn't seem to have fantastic pace and you end up trapped behind in the dirty air stressing your tyres.
"We therefore went for an aggressive undercut with Seb (pitting him after nine laps). There was a risk to it because it put him out behind Jenson and Massa but he lost little speed re-passing them."
Alonso and Ferrari responded on the next lap, however, and Fernando hung onto his lead. Red Bull tried the same tactic after another nine laps, Ferrari again responded by pitting Alonso next time around, but this time Vettel jumped him.
"Unfortunately, Ferrari reacting each time meant that we couldn't get Mark past," Horner said. "Also, the aggressive undercut at the second stop meant that the tyres had to go a long way. We had to make sure we didn't degenerate them too much and end up in a world of pain."
Webber went through the frustration of pitting on the same lap as Alonso at each of the first three stops (laps 10, 19 and 29 of the 66). Webber had a new set of softs to Alonso's used set at the second stop but still couldn't do anything about the Ferrari. The last corner at Barcelona being so quick limited the closeness anyone could get to the car in front, and hence the effectiveness of DRS, added to which Webber didn't have the use of KERS, again, from early in the race.
Trapped for the entire stint, he almost got ahead at the third stop as the Ferrari and Red Bull left the pits as one, but with Fernando just ahead. Webber finally found a way by into Turn 10 after 35 laps, but ran a fraction wide and Alonso re-passed.
In the end, it was left to the team to sell Ferrari a dummy. Just five laps after Vettel had put his first set of hards on (lap 34), the Red Bull mechanics headed out into the pit lane again and Ferrari, obviously thinking RBR were trying to undercut them with Webber, called Alonso in after just 10 laps on his first set of hards. Fernando, in front of Webber on the road, pitted, the Red Bull mechanics headed back into the garage, and Webber stayed out.
Once sprung, Webber was 2s quicker but by then he was the best part of half a minute behind his team mate. Vettel had Hamilton's McLaren within 1.5s and Button, who had been switched to a three rather than four-stop strategy when he came around 10th at the end of the first lap, was also on course to beat the second Red Bull.
Suggest to anyone on Saturday night that Webber would finish the race without mechanical drama but would not be on the podium, and they'd have sent for the men in white coats. Already on Saturday, and not for the first time this year, Webber had been expressing his doubts about this year's prime tyres.
"We need to be careful in F1 with our long run pace, that we don't get too close to the other categories in terms of lap times," he said. "We still need to be the pinnacle of the sport and we need to be able to push the cars to the limit throughout a grand prix and have strong lap times - man against the machine, pushing to the limit. I don't think the long run time around here were very impressive for F1 cars. Some of my laps towards the end were 1m30s, which was only about 8s quicker than the GP3 cars, and I think the budget's a little bit different..." And perhaps he had a point. The GP2 cars were down to in the 1:33s...
It would perhaps be wrong though, to set too much store by Webber's race this time, with a specific combination of unfortunate circumstances combining to get him home 48s behind the winner.
For McLaren, it was a first rate afternoon, their starts notwithstanding, with an updated chassis that could almost have been a B-spec car. Hamilton got by Webber at the first stops despite pitting a lap later. He was helped by the ability to do a lap in clean air when they both stopped and the fact that Webber pitted out behind Button. Jenson, who qualified fifth, found himself hung out to dry on the outside of Turn 1 and was only 10th at the end of the opening lap. He lost touch with the front-runners when he spent the first four laps behind Sebastian Buemi's Toro Rosso, hence the decision to change to three stops.
McLaren, rather than respond to Red Bull's aggressive strategy, chose instead to maximise their useage of the option tyre.
"The drivers did a good job of looking after the tyre and trying to minimize the time on the prime," team principal Martin Whitmarsh said. "Every time you could extend the stint length you were extending your time on the faster tyre, and you would also have fresher tyres at the end, that was the thinking."
In fact, Vettel also ran a long third stint on his one set of new options and so Lewis was only in one lap later than the world champion for each set of primes. If anything though, McLaren was quicker than Red Bull on the prime tyre and Vettel had his hands full for the last stint.
"We were pretty hopeful when Lewis caught him," Whitmarsh said, "but Seb is driving very well and he was also assisted quite a few times by backmarkers, so that he could defend with DRS, which was a bit disappointing."
Vettel, delighted with the win, said: "Going into the last 10 laps I was feeling a bit like China. I felt my tyres going away and I was praying that the same thing would happen to Lewis. He seemed to be so much quicker, especially in the last sector, so he was always getting into the DRS zone, so he could use his wing on the straights."
What saved Sebastian though, was that Lewis couldn't get the McLaren through the last corner as quickly as a car with the Red Bull's downforce.
"By the end of the straight though, you looked in the mirror and he was there or thereabouts and you didn't know if you should defend or not," Vettel explained. "It was really close."
He was not helped by Red Bull once again having to finely manage the use of KERS. "When you get a message to say you can't use it, it's not the best thing in the world to hear!" Vettel smiled.
Behind Vettel, Hamilton, Button, Webber and Alonso, Michael Schumacher beat Nico Rosberg in a race for the first time this year, largely by dint of a fabulous start which saw the seven times champion go from 10th to sixth. Rosberg tracked him to finish seventh, the pair of them only just getting to the line ahead of a fast-closing Nick Heidfeld.
Heidfeld's race was interesting. After the trials and tribulations of his Saturday morning fire in the final session of free practice, he hadn't taken part in qualifying and so started at the back of the grid, but with three brand new sets of option tyres.
Renault started him on the primes to get them out of the way and Heidfeld did a great job to pass six cars on the opening lap before getting trapped behind Heikki Kovalainen's Lotus. He ran them to lap 21, then took three sets of softs on laps 21, 36 and 50.
It mirrored Webber's approach to Shanghai and while not as spectacular, Heidfeld was not in a Red Bull and the DRS zone was not as influential as China, so it was still a fine effort. Good enough, in fact, to finish half a minute in front of Vitaly Petrov in the other Renault, who had started sixth, ahead of the likes of Rosberg and Massa. Food for thought.
Sauber scored points for the fourth consecutive race with Sergio Perez collecting the first two points of his F1 career for ninth place, while Kamui Kobayashi overcame a first lap trip into the gravel and puncture to deliver a typically fighting drive back through to 10th.
And so Sebastian Vettel continues on his imperious way at the top of the championship table, now 41 points clear of Lewis Hamilton and 51 ahead of Webber with five races down. But Monaco is next, just seven days hence. The supersoft Pirelli makes its debut, in partnership with the soft. On current form, anything could happen...