Indian GP - Sunday - Race Report
Vettel breaks more records
It might have been a new country and a new circuit but the storyline was familiar. The inaugural Indian Grand Prix once again fell to Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing.
The world champion led every one of the 60 laps, with Jenson Button the only driver who looked remotely like troubling him. Along the way Vettel beat Nigel Mansell's record number of laps led in a single season, set in 1992.
"Really?" smiled Sebastian later, "I didn't know there were any records left that didn't belong to Michael!"
There was a nice pre-race tribute to Dan Wheldon and MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli in the form of a minute's silence on the grid before the race got underway.
It was fitting that top performers in other disciplines of motorsport were recognised by the F1 fraternity, but you did wonder about the timing of bringing such thoughts to the forefront of minds just before everyone climbed into their cars to do battle.
Mark Webber had hoped he might be able to beat his team mate into Turn 1 and launch a meaningful bid for his first win of the season but as things turned out he had to go deep to fend off Fernando Alonso's Ferrari, which attempted to go around the outside.
Alonso went a little too deep, allowing Jenson Button through into third place on the inside of Turn 1. Button then blew by Webber on the long straight - DRS inactive until lap 3 remember.
The order across the line on lap 1 therefore, was: Vettel, Button, Webber, Alonso, Massa, Hamilton, Rosberg, Schumacher (up three places from 11th on the grid), Sutil and Senna.
Further back, Turn 1 contact between the Williams pair saw Barrichello in for a new nose, while Kobayashi and Glock tangled, Kamui out on the spot while Timo retired at the pits with damage to the left side of the car.
Vettel did his customary disappearing act at the front, 4.2s to the good after five laps, making sure that Button was never within DRS range, but thereafter the gap stabilised. Webber looked threatening initially but, even with the aid of DRS, was unable to seriously trouble Jenson.
The midfield constructors championship battle is getting interesting, with a significant difference in the remuneration for sixth through eighth places in the championship. Going in, Force India had 49 points, Sauber, 40, and Toro Rosso, 37.
However, by virtue of an exhaust update in Japan, which proved troublesome at Suzuka but worked well in Korea, Toro Rosso is very much the in-form team.
Both Sebestian Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari qualified in the top 10 in India and if the start didn't go their way, Alguersuari was soon on the move. The car is super-quick in a straight line and the young Spaniard was able to dispatch Senna and Sutil. Buemi was looking strong too, but unfortunately suffered a rare Ferrari engine failure.
Force India, meanwhile, had decided to split strategies. Sutil, also firmly in the top 10 in qualifying, started on the soft tyre while team mate Paul Di Resta went for the hard.
It was a gamble, but with five Safety Car appearances in the last six races and a new venue, it was clearly not beyond the bounds of possibility that we would see the official car early on. If so, and the early pitting hard tyre starters effectively got a free stop, they would have been looking good with three sets of softs for the rest of the afternoon.
Sergio Perez, now the lone Sauber after Kobayashi's demise, went for the same tactic and pitted after the opening lap to go onto the soft. Vitaly Petrov did likewise on lap three but lost time when he had a clutch problem.
Webber, Alonso and Hamilton all stopped together on lap 17, the Ferrari pitting out just behind Schumacher's Mercedes. Massa and Rosberg came in next time, with Felipe rejoining just behind Alonso. Button and Schumacher came the lap after, with Vettel not taking on another set of softs until 20 laps were on the board.
This being a new track, Pirelli had gone conservative on the rubber and there was no high degradation on the soft. Wheareas an early stop in 2011 has usually afforded a significant advantage on fresh rubber and the chance of an undercut, it was not the case here.
With the first stops done, Vettel led Button by 3.5s with Webber 5s further back, Alonso 2s behind the second Red Bull with Massa and Hamilton in attendance, then a 15s gap to Rosberg, who had 5s in hand over team mate Schumacher at this stage.
Ominously given their 2011 record, Hamilton began to close in on Massa...
For the sixth time this year there was contact between the pair as Hamilton tried to go inside the Ferrari on the run to Turn 5 on lap 24.
The picture was complicated slightly by Massa using all his KERS to defend against the McLaren on the long run from Turn 3 to Turn 4, also a DRS zone.
Hamilton, however, kept some KERS in reserve and used it to make strong early gains on Massa out of Turn 4. Having sussed the situation out on the previous lap by having a look down the right-hand side of Massa, this time Lewis went left.
Once out of KERS, however, Hamilton did not get fully alongside the Ferrari and by the time they reached the turn-in point Massa, by dint of braking later on the ideal line, the grippy part of the track, was almost a car length ahead once again.
From there, there's no way that a driver is not going to turn-in and Hamilton admitted that when he realised Massa was not going to give him room, he tried to back out of it. By then, it was too late.
The pair touched and while Massa was pushed into the run-off area and lost 10 seconds, Hamilton had to pit for a new nose.
Somewhat unfathomably the stewards, including driver representative Johnny Herbert, placed the blame at Massa's door and gave the Brazilian a Drive Through penalty. His thoughts on the matter were predictable enough (see separate story).
Massa's afternoon went from bad to worse but not, interestingly, before his front wing -- the controversial oscillating one that had been noted in practice -- started to do it once more. Something to do with ride height/fuel load perhaps?
Whatever, when Felipe made his second tyre stop two laps after serving his penalty, which had put him behind Schumacher, Ferrari changed both tyres and the front wing, which was interesting. Concern about post-race scrutineering or even allegations of unsafe construction perhaps?
As it was, Massa didn't actually make it to the end, the Ferrari suffering a front suspension failure after clouting a kerb, as it had in qualifying. This time though, it was the left side not the right.
Before his exit Massa's pace on the hard tyre and with a downshift problem was better than expected. On lap 38, Webber stopped to go onto the hard Pirellis. The remaining 22 laps seemed a long way to go on the harder tyre but Webber was finding his pace okay early in the stint but not strong enough as the laps went by.
Alonso, however, was able to do another couple of laps on the soft and pit out ahead of the second Red Bull, putting himself into a podium position.
Once the delayed Hamilton had re-passed Alguersuari for eighth, the remaining interest was a close Mercedes contest.
Schumacher seemed to have slightly better pace and closed to within 2.5s of Rosberg. Nico came for his set of hard Pirellis on lap 45 and Michael stayed out another six laps, emerging from the pits comfortably ahead of his team mate, where he stayed.
"Today just worked out perfectly to plan," Schumacher said. "I didn't use KERS during the first two corners and saved it all for the long straight, which made me places at the start. There was no need to run too close to Nico and destroy the tyres and I just drove my race.
"My tyres were still in good shape at the end of the second stint and I was able to pull a gap -- I don't think it was a strategy advantage."
Schumacher is now just five points behind Rosberg in the championship and while he says that's not a priority, you can bet it's a deficit he'd love to overturn.
Button made his final stop on lap 47 with Vettel covering him a lap later. When they were back up to speed, Jenson was within 3s and it looked like it might turn interesting. But Sebastian was in control and calmly reeled off the remaining laps until cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar waved the chequer at him.
"Jenson started closing in around the pit stops even though I was pushing hard in and out of the box," Vettel said. "We'll have to look at that but the car was well balanced and I felt more confident on hard tyres at the end.
"I've got mixed emotions. I'm happy for the first GP in India but on the other hand, looking back at the last weekends we lost two of our mates. I didn't know Dan Wheldon but I got to know Marco Simoncelli and obviously our thoughts are with them."
Button certainly did know Wheldon, ever since they became karting rivals at eight years of age. After yet another polished drive, he echoed Vettel's sentiments, as did Alonso.
Webber had to be content with fourth, Schumacher was delighted with fifth and, behind Rosberg and Hamilton, Alguersuari was a fine eighth for Toro Rosso. Force India rivals Sutil and Perez took the final points behind him, so that the sixth place championship battle now reads: Force India, 51 points; Sauber and Toro Rosso, 41. With just two races to go, it's tight.
It was good to see local hero Narain Karthikeyan get the HRT home 17th, even if he did attract a waved fiest or two en route.
The verdict on India was undeniably positive. The track itself is one of Hermann Tilke's best, the crowd was a decent size and the facilities were good. It's just that, at the moment, whoever writes the script and wherever the screenplay takes place, the ending is the same...