Vettel’s Grand Chelem in India’s Grand Prix

By on Monday, October 31, 2011

Sebastien Vettel during the Indian GP podium ceremony

(Ali Unal) After taking pole position on Saturday, which sets a new record based on the number of pole positions in a single year for a team, Sebastian Vettel went on not only to win the race, but set the fastest lap and led every lap to be included in yet another exclusive club of Formula 1: The Grand Chelem. 24 year-old German took his 11th victory on Sunday, beating the record of most laps led in a season which was previously held by Nigel Mansell in 1992 with a car designed by !surprise surprise! Adrian Newey. Again.

Apart from the little power cut-off and infrastructure problems here and there, the Indian Grand Prix is set to be one of the best venues for years to come. Although Sunday’s race was a bit off standard compared to what we witnessed throughout the season in terms of overtaking and strategic differences, the Buddh International Circuit seems to be one of the most favored Tilke circuits among drivers. Elevation changes, sweeping corners and long right handers resembling Turn 8 in Istanbul are nothing but a good promise that everything could be better next year once they solve these little problems.

Pirelli went too conservative on the choice of tyres

Despite Pirelli’s fears and the dusty tarmac, teams were able to use the soft tyres long enough without having a significant performance drop off. Therefore, in hindsight of course, Pirelli could well have brought supersoft tyres here which would have allowed the teams to come up with different strategies and thus make the race a bit more unpredictable. Instead, Pirelli wanted to be on the safe side of the fence. Fair enough. Even though we had some close battles between Button and Webber, Hamilton and Massa, and among mid-fielders, the race was a bit dull.

At the start Vettel made it clear that he wanted to chase Michael Schumacher’s record of having the most wins in a single season. He launched perfectly off the line and tried to block Webber against any attempt to take the lead. I think this moment answered the question whether Vettel would yield the lead if Webber was behind him, since Webber is still in the running for the runner-up spot. Although Webber openly admitted he would neither accept nor request such a “helping hand” from neither his team nor his team mate, Vettel wiped out that little doubt once and for all: He wants everything he can claim. Who can blame him?

Meanwhile Alonso was forced to take the dirty line and lost both time and a place to Button, he would pass Webber in a couple of corners to take the second spot after starting 4th on the grid. Schumacher, yet again, did a perfect getaway, staying out of trouble in Turn 1 and waiting for his moment on the back straight thanks to his KERS and the Mercedes horsepower. He duly took his reward and was in 8th after the first lap, just behind his team mate.

“At the start, everything worked out according to my strategy as I deliberately didn't want to use KERS in the first two corners and save it for the long straight where I knew that I could make up some positions,” said Schumacher after the race. It is a bit ironic that starts usually were not Schumacher’s strong suit during his first spell. Schumacher v2 interestingly has become a cracker starter and a first lap fighter. He had gained a total of 25 places until the Indian GP and that figure had increased to 28 now that he was 8th at the end of the first lap after starting from 11th on the grid. This of course stems from the fact that he starts races in a lower-than-usual grid position, but his strong getaways off the line and his ability to get through traffic is just phenomenal.

Outside the top 10, there were only three drivers out there who chose a different strategy. Sauber, Force India and Renault decided to split strategies and gave Perez, di Resta and Petrov new hard tyres for the first stint in a hope of early Safety Car. That didn’t happen so all of them dived into the pits and changed to soft tyres as early as Lap 3. Meanwhile both Toro Rossos, having qualified in the Top 10 and having shown strong race pace in the last two races, lost positions at the start. Having started in 9th and 10th respectively, Buemi dropped to 12th and Alguersuari dropped to 11th. However, their race pace was such that by Lap 15 they had reclaimed their 9th and 10th positions, albeit with the drivers swapped this time. The gamble of these mid-field teams didn’t pay off except for Perez, who drove a very good race to claim the last point although it is very likely that Sauber will lose their 7th spot in the WCC table to the ever improving Toro Rosso.

“I am very disappointed with what happened this afternoon, because I was having a very good race, after an excellent qualifying yesterday. When the car stopped, I had just passed Hamilton, I was lying eighth and I think we could have finished in the top eight. So when you go from that promising situation, to a non finish with no points, it's a bit difficult to take,” said Buemi having to take to the sidelines following an engine blow up on Lap 24. This was the second Ferrari engine problem after Alonso’s engine troubles on Friday. In case anyone would hint Kobayashi’s engine blew up as well, I should underline that Kamui suffered a broken radiator after the first lap crash.

On Lap 13, the picture of the race outcome became visible. Webber’s tyres started to lose performance and he dropped from Button. Meanwhile both Button and Vettel managed to eke out more from their tyres in a bid to prolong their stints, which would be beneficial later in the race when they switched to the less desirable hard tyres. That was one of the hallmarks of Vettel’s success and his dominance over his team mate this season. Webber pitted on Lap 16, whilst Vettel managed to do 3 more laps to pit on Lap 19. On Lap 18, Webber on fresh tyres was only a tad faster than Vettel on 18-lap used tyres. That's a practical example of how important tyre usage is this season and how Vettel was on top of it more than anyone else on the grid.

“We lost the podium in the middle of the race really. It's pretty much the general story of this year; I just don't have the pace at the end of the stints, so I run out of tyres and then lose strategy, it means I have to pit earlier and it makes life harder,” said the disappointed Webber after the race. It is important to point out that Button, Vettel and Schumacher were the drivers who pitted after their team mates and managed to finish the race in front of them. The undercut just didn’t work here.

The classification before the first stops remained the same after the stops. Lewis Hamilton, although right there with the top five, didn’t seem to be feisty enough in the first stint. After the first stop, he was right behind Massa and lapping significantly faster than the Ferrari. That seemed to be the start of Hamilton’s surge as he had been very quiet up to that point. On Lap 24, Murphy’s law stating that anything that can go wrong between Massa and Hamilton will go wrong on the track was proven once more when the two did not manage to share a piece of track. Hamilton had a good exit at Turn 4 and by using his KERS, he duly placed his car inside of Massa’s Ferrari into Turn 5, which is a very fast corner not for proper overtaking. Hamilton was inside, whilst Massa moved to his racing line, which was clear, therefore he was able to brake later in confidence and was committed to the corner. They touched. Hamilton’s front wing was damaged, Massa was lucky enough to continue.

“The contact with Felipe [Massa] was just one of those things. I really didn't feel like I was at fault – it was a racing incident,” said Hamilton about the incident. Massa disagreed. “My view is that I was in front, I braked later than him and I was in front, I was on the grippy area as well and then I started to turn and I didn't see him on the left as he was behind. He touched my rear wheel. So, to be honest I don't understand why I have the penalty. It is not really understandable.”

Massa and Hamilton tangled for the sixth time this season

It was a racing incident. Drivers could have been forgiven and no further action would have been taken. However, if someone had to be penalized, I am not sure it should have been Massa. He defended his position and then he moved to his racing line, which is perfectly normal, he left space for Hamilton, who decided to take it but did not manage to put his car in front of or side by side with Massa. The corner was Massa’s to turn into and Hamilton’s overtaking attempt was premature. It didn’t deserve a penalty, but nor did Massa deserve one. He wasn’t supposed to give up without a fight. He didn’t have back off. Instead, it was Hamilton who should have backed off as he didn’t quite complete the pass. According to reports, stewards decided to give Massa penalty as he was looking his mirrors while he was taking the corner, which suggested that he, Massa, actually saw him, Hamilton. Even if that was the case, that wasn’t enough to point the gun at the Brazilian. That doesn’t mean he steered into Hamilton. He expected Hamilton to back off, I’d imagine.

From that point on, both Hamilton’s and Massa’s race were done. Lewis dropped to 9th and finished the race in a lowly 7th. His pace was not good after the contact as his car apparently took damage. He never recovered. On the other hand Massa lost it all and broke his suspension by running on these infamous “orange kerbs” yet again. The contact didn’t affect Massa too badly in fact, he could have recovered but I suppose he mentally collapsed.

Meanwhile Vettel was leading Button and the gap was increasing bit by bit all the way. Alonso never ever dropped from Webber. The gap was a mere 1,5 seconds between the two and Webber had started to lose his tyres as the first one to pit. Therefore, according to logic, he was the first one as well to pit for the second and last time for fresh hard tyres. This may well be an attempt to undercut but a perfect in-lap from Alonso and a quick response from the Ferrari pit wall, the Spaniard pitted after 2 laps from Webber and managed to leapfrog him. It was actualy down to a poor first stint from Webber, which forced him to pit early every time. He had started 2nd on the grid and now he was 4th.

Red Bull waited for Button to react and mirrored what he did. Standard practice from the Red Bull pit wall this year. Whatever Button and McLaren threw at them, they were ready to smooth the ball and throw it again. They were one step ahead in India and I don’t think Button or Hamilton could have changed it. When Button decided to disturb Vettel, he had the answer under his collar. On the penultimate lap, Vettel set the fastest lap and was ordered to back off, but he knew someone could spoil his party, in the name of Button, so he didn’t back off and he set the fastest lap of the race on the last lap despite the order from the team. Button actually was trying to do it on the last lap as he set his personal best on Lap 60 as well. Looking at his lap on Lap 59, which was a lowly 1:29.572, his last effort 1:27.967 was the evidence that he even didn’t have the chance to spoil it as it would have not been enough. Vettel was on it this week end and especially in S3. He was blindingly quick there.

“I haven't got a clue!” answered Button to a question about Vettel’s S3 performance. “That's the first I know about it. I don't know. I'm guessing turn 13, 14, 15 and 16 probably! I don't know why that's different to the other sectors.” He then added: “At the final stop, it was a risk going to the harder tyre earlier than Seb, but we had to give it a go and it worked pretty well as I was able to close him down by a further three seconds. My car felt really good: before Seb could find his rhythm on the Prime, I was able to get the gap down to 2.8 seconds, but it wasn't quite enough.”

Schumacher is much closer to his team mate this season

After the usual suspects in the top 4, there was Michael Schumacher in the 5th spot with a different strategy from his team mate. Schumacher stayed out in the second stint on his option tyres, while his team mate had already made the switch to prime tyres. Michael was closing on in Nico in the second stint and managed to preserve his tyres for another 5 laps compared to his team mate, which ensured he leapfrogged Rosberg during pit-stops. He does seem to be on top of his tyre issues this season and he has had the upperhand in races for quite some time. On qualifying pace, Rosberg still holds an advantage but come race day, Michael has developed a new sense of race ability which enables him climbing through the field. His race pace in Spa, Monza and in India suggest that Schumacher now learnt how to use the Pirelli tyres and how to set-up his car according with that information. His only weakness lies in one-lap performance. If he sorts it out, we can see him beyond 2012, provided that Mercedes give their drivers a car capable of winning.

In the mid-field, it was tense more than ever. Renault seemed to drop back right at the end of the group. Toro Rosso now leads the mid-field pack, closely followed by Force India and Sauber. I have a feeling that STR will leapfrog Sauber in the standings and will surprise Force India if a wet race in Brazil shakes up the order. Force India is now 6th with 51 points, Sauber in 7th and Toro Rosso in 8th tied in points, 41. Anything can happen in two races and future looks very bright for Toro Rosso, after they cut the cord with Red Bull and started to design their own car. This a very encouraging and promising sign for other small teams and a message to those who think customer cars should be brought back.

“About the car, I think it's something we need to think about. It's not something we should jump straight into and give a comment. I think it's difficult for the teams that do build their own car. They put all the effort into designing a car and working on that car over a winter to suddenly be racing against a Red Bull re-badged or something or a McLaren re-badged or a Ferrari re-badged. It's a little bit unfair on teams that are in the middle of the pack and they build their own car, but I don't know the full extent of the conversations that are going to take place and when this is going to be for,” said Button in the pres conference regarding customer cars and I fully agree with him on that front.

Lotus with Kovalainen again showed impressive race pace, although they lost their speed when they switched to hard tyres. Apparently, they couldn't get heat to that compound. They also get better and better week in week out, so it would be very pleasing to see them fighting in the mid-field in 2012.

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