Vettel victorious in the battle of Barcelona

By on Monday, May 23, 2011

On Saturday, Sebastian Vettel was gracious in having surrendered a grid advantage over Mark Webber for the first time since August last year. 24 hours later though and the reigning world champion was at his imperious best, finishing a staggering 47 seconds ahead of his team mate. A mere statistic such as that though does not represent the full story of an intriguing Spanish Grand Prix, for the fact that Lewis Hamilton was just 0.63s behind Vettel after 66 laps suggests that despite a 41 point lead in the championship, Vettel has not won the 2011 crown just yet.

The result of qualifying came of little surprise to many, as Red Bull locked out the front row, with the McLaren’s a fair distance behind. What was surprising was Fernando Alonso finding himself in 4th, after putting in a lap he described as ‘perfect’. He was elated at his effort, but at the start of the race, the elation was transferred to the majority of the crowd who had come to see the hero.

Webber did not get the greatest of starts and whilst he was busy defending from Vettel, Alonso surged from behind to sneak down the inside, taking advantage of a gap that was mere inches wider than his car. He judged his move to absolute perfection and exited the first turn in the lead.

The order at the end of the first lap was as follows: Alonso, Vettel, Webber and Hamilton. Jenson Button, who started 5th, had slipped to 10th, from which McLaren began planning an alternative strategy.

Despite the DRS zone lasting for 830m, it was not effective enough to make a difference in Barcelona. The front four ran within two and a half seconds of each other throughout the opening stint, but none of the quadruplet was able to pass another. Vettel was the first to blink and pitted on Lap 10. He was serviced quickly by the Red Bull mechanics, but was fed back out into traffic. The next lap probably won him the race.

On fresher tyres, Vettel passed Massa, Rosberg and Button in the space of one extraordinary lap, dispelling the theories that he cannot overtake. He’d shown he could do it under little pressure in Australia, Malaysia and Turkey, but on a tight and twisty Circuit de Catalunya – irrespective of the tyre state – three passes in one lap should be applauded. His heroics, however, were not enough to jump him ahead of Alonso, who regained the lead once Hamilton also stopped.

The second stops on Lap 17 and 18 were crucial to the race outcome as well. Vettel again stopped before the home hero and his pace on Lap 18 meant that he jumped the Ferrari when he stopped one lap later. McLaren left Hamilton out until Lap 22, which was perhaps a lap too late. Hamilton emerged five seconds behind Vettel, but critically he was now ahead of Alonso.

Webber and Alonso pitted simultaneously, but the Australian’s chances were hindered due to being behind the Ferrari. Vettel and Hamilton escaped from the duo as they set a relentless pace, with the McLaren slowly cruising up behind the Red Bull. How they dealt with traffic was also going to be crucial, with vital tenths being lost or gained.

Behind the leaders, Button passed Webber and Alonso in quick succession for the McLaren driver was mid-stint on a set of soft tyres, whilst his rivals were struggling with their hard tyres. Webber eventually jumped Alonso in the next set of stops, although Alonso slipped back as a lack of soft tyres meant he had to complete the final stint on hard tyres. The Ferrari handled badly towards the end of the race and the Spaniard was a subdued 5th, lapped for the first time in two years.

Button was clear of Webber in 3rd, the 2009 champion managing his tyres expertly to secure his second podium finish of the season whilst his team mate was still hounding Vettel for the race win. Hamilton was urged by his team to pressurise Vettel, who was told by Red Bull that his KERS was working only intermittently. Irrespective of this issue, Vettel managed his problem perfectly and ensured that he gained maximum traction out of the final turn so that Hamilton could not get close enough. The closing stint was tense, but the expected move never materialised. Vettel hung on by just over half a second. Amazingly, Vettel’s gap to Hamilton after 66 laps was less than the difference in qualifying times between the two drivers. It is the clearest signal yet that the MP4-26 can match the RB7 in race pace and that the championship isn’t yet sewn up. Hamilton though needs to be at the top of his game to stop his young German rival.

Amongst the lapped cars – of which there were many – Mercedes finished 6th and 7th, with Michael Schumacher recording his best finish of the season so far, ahead of his younger team mate. Nick Heidfeld managed his strategy perfectly to claim 8th place, despite starting 24th after his car caught fire on Saturday morning. There was also some joy for Sauber as they came home 9th and 10th, with Sergio Perez claiming his maiden F1 points after his Australian haul was stripped from him back in March. Kobayashi’s 10th also means he has finished in the top 10 in every race this season, although like his team mate, he was also disqualified from the season opener.

Behind the points scorers there was little joy for the remainder of the field. Vitaly Petrov’s strong qualifying pace appeared to desert him as he slipped from sixth to eleventh, whilst Paul di Resta could not sustain speed on the soft tyres, after a long opening stint on the harder compound elevated him as high as fifth.

Williams had another day to forget as Maldonado’s top ten start soon became irrelevant and they struggled to 15th and 17th places, the Venezuelan driver ahead of his South American team mate as Barrichello’s predicted charge through the field in the race never happened. Trulli enjoyed a more positive outing for Lotus, setting a strong pace despite a few issues. Team mate Heikki Kovalainen crashed out twenty laps from home.

One man in particular with a day to forget was Felipe Massa. Winner of this race in 2007, the Brazilian struggled through the event, being passed several times, having a half spin at Turn 10 and eventually parked his car in the gravel six laps from the end. On a weekend where Fernando Alonso extended his contract until 2016, Massa would be grateful just to be in the car next year. Or at this rate, even by the end of the season as the young chargers at Sauber continue to turn heads.

So Vettel will rock up in Monaco this week with 118 points, four poles and four victories to his name. With the next two races potentially throwing up a lottery of a result – remember the tyres may well last half a lap in Montreal – if he can get to mid-June with his lead intact, you’d be hard pressed to stop him. Just keep your eye on Lewis though.

Result, 2011 Spanish Grand Prix:

 1.  Vettel        Red Bull-Renault           1h39:03.301
 2.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes           +     0.630
 3.  Button        McLaren-Mercedes           +    35.697
 4.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault           +    47.966
 5.  Alonso        Ferrari                    +     1 lap
 6.  Schumacher    Mercedes                   +     1 lap
 7.  Rosberg       Mercedes                   +     1 lap
 8.  Heidfeld      Renault                    +     1 lap
 9.  Perez         Sauber-Ferrari             +     1 lap
10.  Kobayashi     Sauber-Ferrari             +     1 lap
11.  Petrov        Renault                    +     1 lap
12.  Di Resta      Force India-Mercedes       +     1 lap
13.  Sutil         Force India-Mercedes       +     1 lap
14.  Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari         +     1 lap
15.  Maldonado     Williams-Cosworth          +     1 lap
16.  Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari         +    2 laps
17.  Barrichello   Williams-Cosworth          +    2 laps
18.  Trulli        Lotus-Renault              +    2 laps
19.  Glock         Virgin-Cosworth            +    3 laps
20.  D'Ambrosio    Virgin-Cosworth            +    3 laps
21.  Karthikeyan   HRT-Cosworth               +    4 laps

Fastest lap: Alonso, 1:26.727

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                         On lap
Massa         Ferrari                      60
Kovalainen    Lotus-Renault                49
Liuzzi        HRT-Cosworth                 29

1.  Vettel       118
2.  Hamilton      77
3.  Webber        67
4.  Button        61
5.  Alonso        51
6.  Rosberg       26
7.  Heidfeld      25
8.  Massa         24
9.  Petrov        21
10.  Schumacher    14
11.  Kobayashi      9
12.  Buemi          6
13.  Sutil          2
14.  Di Resta       2
15.  Perez          2

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