Singapore GP 2011
SEPTEMBER 26, 2011
Race Report - Vettel champion in all but name
BY TONY DODGINS
Sebastian Vettel is now within a single point of claiming back-to-back world championships after a lights to flag win in the Singapore GP. It was the German's ninth win in 14 starts this season and his third in a row.
Vettel took the lead from pole position and it was Jenson Button's McLaren and Fernando Alonso's Ferrari, from third and fifth on the grid, who were through Turn 1 second and third.
Mark Webber had another poor getaway from the dirty side of the grid and moved left to cover Lewis Hamilton coming down the inside. Hamilton had to lift and was down in eighth place at the end of the first lap - a fact that defined his afternoon.
Vettel's early pace was astounding. The Red Bull was 2.5s clear at the end of the opening lap, and then the gap went out to 3.5s, 4.4, 5.5, 7.0, 8.2, 9.1, 9.9, 10.9 on successive laps. Behind him, the order was: Button, Alonso, Webber, Massa, Hamilton, Rosberg, Schumacher, Sutil and Di Resta.
Force India, as suspected, split their tyre strategy after electing not to run in Q3 and having freedom of choice; Sutil started on the option tyre and Di Resta the prime.
Last year, Alonso and Ferrari were able to get the better of Vettel and Red Bull around Marina Bay, but not this time. Alonso could not keep pace with Button in the early stages and was the first of the leading quartet to pit for new tyres, going onto the prime just after Webber had relieved him of third place on lap 10.
This was unexpected. The Ferrari has been renowned for being kinder to its tyres than the opposition and it was anticipated that Alpnso's long run pace on the supersoft might make him a threat.
Next time around Massa and Hamilton pitted from fourth and fifth, the Ferrari fitting soft Pirellis and the McLaren supersofts. Hamilton, keen to get by before the Ferrari's rubber came up to temperature, looked to come alongside on the right-hand side as the pair approached the Turn 7 left-hander, the same spot at which Hamilton ended his race against Mark Webber last year.
A move was never on and as Hamilton tucked back in he caught the Ferrari with his front wing, puncturing Massa's right rear tyre. Felipe had to stop for another set of tyres and Hamilton was back in for a new front wing. Lewis also earned himself a Drive Through penalty for his troubles.
Massa was deeply unimpressed. "Thanks for ruining my afternoon..." he told Hamilton during a bit of argy-bargy in the TV interview pen after the race.
Vettel's early hard work was undone by a Safety Car on lap 29, when Michael Schumacher misjudged a move down the inside of Sergio Perez's Sauber.
The seven times champion got airborne and thumped into the tyres at Turn 8, earning himself a reprimand from the stewards and bringing out the Safety Car.
Amusingly, the driver representative on the stewarding panel in Singapore was Schumacher's old sparring partner and compatriot Heinz Harald Frentzen...
"The Safety Car didn't fit our plan," Vettel smiled, "but I had a good restart and was lucky to have some back markers between me and Jenson. I pulled a large gap again and was happy about that because this track can be tricky with traffic.
"On the last lap I faced five cars but I was in control. The final pit stop (for used supersofts with 12 laps to go) we didn't have to make but we did it the lap after Jenson because we would have been more vulnerable to another Safety Car on scrubbed tyres. There was not much we could have done better this weekend."
Vettel's biggest concern was probably a close shave leaving the pits after stopping at the same time as Heikki Kovalainen's Lotus, which then almost collected the Red Bull as it left the pits, earning Team Lotus a $10,000 fine for unsafe release.
"It was close. I had to lift," Vettel explained. "I was watching their lollipop lights and saw them going off as I was approaching and I think Heikki just didn't see me. It's a difficult angle that you're at."
In the closing stages Button really got the hammer down, setting the race's fastest lap and eating into Vettel's advantage by more than a second a lap. But he was unimpressed with being held up by Kobayashi for more than a lap at the restart.
"I'm not saying it made any great difference because I don't know how hard Sebastian was pushing at the end," Button explained, "but it's something we need to look at because I spent more than a lap behind Kobayashi. There was no reason for him not to let me by, he had a clear circuit in front of him. None of us are stupid - we know if we're being lapped..."
Jenson was under no illusions. He'd seen Vettel's early race pace and while he'd thought he would have been in with a chance at Spa and Monza but for delays, he admitted that there would have been no matching Red Bull in Singapore.
Webber readily admits that he struggles at Marina Bay. He'd enjoyed another battle with Alonso but conceded that it is not something he'd sign up for every weekend as, given the Red Bull's pace, perhaps he shouldn't be around Fernando.
Hamilton, despite no fewer than five visits to the pitlane, ended up fifth with the aid of the Safety Car. He passed Sutil on lap 36, Rosberg on lap 38 and Di Resta a lap later.
It was another race in which Hamilton's judgment had been suspect, to add to Monaco, Canada and Spa. It was again left to Button do achieve the McLaren's potential.
"Jenson is now second in the championship and I think deservedly so," said McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh at the same time as refusing to be too tough on Hamilton: "Lewis is an exciting and aggressive driver and we all make mistakes..."
Sixth place on the lead lap was the result of a fine drive from Paul Di Resta, the British rookie's best result of the season and his fifth time in the points for Force India. He got to the line in front of Nico Rosberg's Mercedes, with Adrian Sutil making it a double helping of points for Vijay Mallya's crew.
Force India is now a clear sixth in the constructors' championship, some 22 points behind Lotus Renault GP. That might seem like a big ask with five races to go. But, a look at current form reveals that over the past five races, Force India has outscored Renault by 36 points to five.
The disgruntled Massa got the second Ferrari home ninth, overhauling Perez in the closing stages. The Mexican had to make his second stop earlier than scheduled after being savaged by Schumacher and was powerless to resist the Ferrari on a set of prime tyres that had done more than half the race.
And so the Vettel steamroller rumbles on an on and Sebastian is champion in all but name. To be denied he has to fail to add to his total in the final five races with Button winning them all. And that, is simply not going to happen.