Posts Tagged ‘ferrari’

Although I do most of my writing on motorsports now over at Crash.net, I don’t get to do “op-ed” pieces there and give our views on things. Happily, that’s what a blog like this is for.

So without further ado, a few notes on how Friday’s practice and Saturday’s qualifying went compared with expectations and now updated with notes following the Grand Prix – and what it all might means for the teams for the forthcoming season…

Red Bull

I’d expected the competition to cut the gap to the world champions, but still thought Red Bull would be the class of the field. I spent most of Saturday waiting for them to kick into high gear and clinch the pole, only to find that someone had forgotten to install the high gear button after all. That’s a real surprise – I’d almost say a shock – and unless they’ve got improvements coming on line or there were one-off reasons for their average showing in Melbourne so far, I’d say we’re in for a real seismic shift in the F1 line-up. I’m not sure I give much weight to Webber out-qualifying Vettel in Australia, but the Aussie’s not going to exit the team without a fight in 2012.

Post-race update: More encouraging in race trim, and almost a match for the McLarens during the GP with the exception of the opening laps where the Woking cars opened up such a huge initial lead over the Red Bulls. It confirms that this should be a close season and no one should be counting Vettel out just yet – as if we ever did.

McLaren

The closest thing there is to ‘my’ team on the F1 grid, I confess that I was worried coming into Australia that the team had badly missed a vital trick. The fact that they had managed to design a car without the horrific ‘step nose’ deemed unavoidable by the likes of Adrian Newey and Ross Brawn made me think that McLaren had sacrificed performance for aesthetics (and to be honest, I was rather on their side in the debate.) I certainly didn’t expect them to cruise pretty comfortably to a front row lock-out in Oz. Could this be the year that Hamilton and Button have a private fight for the world championship? That’d be nice!

Post-race update: Wow. The initial race pace was something else, and while it settled back into something more on the level of Red Bull, it still seemed like an easy win for Button. A strangely downbeat Hamilton at the end raises fears that he still hasn’t got his race brain back together again after the confidence-sapping 2011 season.

Ferrari

I was pretty sure that Ferrari were in dire straits from everything that came out of pre-season testing. Even so, it was still shocking to see just how dreadful the car was on the track in Melbourne, and their slump to 12th and 16th on the grid appears sadly about right. Alonso is doing his best with an evil-handling car, and his talent is frequently making the Ferrari look better than it really is; Massa, on the other hand, seems to be confirming that he’s sadly past his sell-by date. This looks like being one tough year for the poor Tifosi.

Post-race update: Alonso continued to hugely flatter the car, and fifth place is almost entirely down to his efforts. It’s rather like the feat Casey Stoner managed in MotoGP to make the Ducati look acceptable. However it was a dismal start to the year for Massa and the gossips are already talking about a mid-season driver change at Maranello.

Mercedes

Mercedes went through testing with a certain quiet assurance oozing from the team and their drivers. Friday practice appeared to confirm it, and it seemed that just maybe Ross Brawn and his technical staff might have pulled off another decisive innovation that might see them charge away into an unassailable lead of the championship in just the way they did with Button and Barrichello in 2009. All that said, 4th and 7th on the grid now seems somewhat less than hoped for, so perhaps it’s a mirage. It’s interesting that old man Schumacher is looking stronger than young Rosberg, and I wouldn’t be surprised that if there is a break-out performance to come from the Mercedes camp that it’s not led from the front by the multiple world champion in one last bid for glory.

Post-race update: So. No secret weapon anywhere under the hood. Possibly the biggest disappointment of the race weekend, and looking very far back from the McLaren and Red Bull cars.

Lotus F1

Lotus F1 always look good in pre-season testing and put on all the best fighting talk; but time and again we’ve seem them deflate the minute the cars hit the track for the start of the season, and then slowly wither away over the course of the year. I was rather expecting the same thing here, but instead we got two completely bipolar extremes: there was Raikkonen’s shocking performance on his return to the sport that saw him fail to get through to Q3, far worse than I expected; and then Grosjean stunning up the other end with a scintillating third place on the grid. One or other of these performances is a one-off blip, an outlier: the question is, which?

Post-race update: The race was another bipolar experience, with Grosjean’s rookie status showing when he was punted out of the race on lap 2, but Raikkonen playing a blinder at times as he charged back from the disappointing qualifying to finish in seventh place. You have to say, the car has something to it this year – it only remains for the drivers to consistently tap into it.

Force India

If I’m honest, I had no expectations of Force India – and I still don’t. Despite the presence of the likeable and very talented driver line-up, the team just seems to fall into the blur of the average midfield for me. Hulkenberg did as well as I’d have possibly have expected for them in ninth while di Resta apparently hit outlap traffic at just the wrong moment and slumped to a disappointing 15th. But to be honest, it’s hard to see them doing much more than picking up low-hanging points from time to time in 2012.

Post-race update: Still anonymous, even though some last-lap skirmishes popped Paul di Resta into an unexpected points finish. By then, Hulkenberg was long gone (out on the very first lap) and there really didn’t seem any pep or energy to the team as a whole at the start of 2012.

Sauber

Sauber just seem to be slipping a little bit further back every season, and 2012 looks set to continue to the trend. Kobayashi managed 13th for the Melbourne grid while gearbox problems stopped Sergio Perez coming out at all in Q2 and the resulting penalty will drop him to the back row. It’s a shame: team, manager and drivers are all very likeable, but there’s a chronic malaise threatening to settle over the operation.

Post-race update: I take it back, and admit I was a little harsh on Sauber. They still have it where it counts thanks to zesty race performances from Perez and Kobayashi, a mixture of interestingly different race strategies and some on-track fireworks that makes the team consistently one of the most enjoyable and interesting outfits to watch. Both drivers in the top ten, they have to be happy with that.

Toro Rosso

Toro Rosso are trying to shake off that very same sense of encroaching torpor as Sauber, and they’ve done it by firing their previous driver line-up and bringing in Ricciardo (who sneaked into the final ten in Oz qualifying) and Vergne (11th) in what’s billed as an X-Factor style audition to replace Mark Webber in the senior Red Bull team. Some impressive Friday practice runs made us think that they might have something strong for 2012, but I’m unconvinced and expect them to settle into midfield anonymity once more a few races in.

Post-race update: Not really seeing any signs of a quantum leap forward for the Red Bull B-team; it seems fitting that they ended up ninth and 11th, sandwiching the leading Force India. They didn’t do anything particularly eye-catching in the race, which is to say that they didn’t do much wrong but they didn’t do anything particularly encouraging either.

Williams

After a wretched 2011, Williams could hardly have got much worse in 2012. But perhaps no one was expecting the sort of performance that they pulled out of the bag at Melbourne, Pastor Maldonado shrugging off the “pay driver” tag to put in a blistering performance that saw him into the final ten. Bruno Senna also impressed over the two days in Melbourne so far. It might be a little early to say it, but these look like potential green shoots of recovery and that Williams may soon once again be at least the “best of the rest.”

Post-race update: Wow. That run by Pastor Maldonado was astonishing, and confirmed that Williams weren’t just showboating in qualifying but have something genuinely strong here. It’s a shame that a first lap incident pretty much sidelined Senna, and then that last lap accident for Maldonado was very painful on a number of levels, but there’s a huge amount to be happy and excited about at Williams for the first time in a long while.

Caterham

I had genuinely high hopes for Caterham, thinking that they would break out of the ‘new teams ghetto’ that has seen them routinely stuck in the last three rows of the grid. I was, frankly, very disappointed when they showed no such evidence of any forward movement in Melbourne and duly finished qualifying in 19th and 20th place. Chances are that means they’re going to spend 2012 as they did 2011: fighting the battle of the wooden spoon with HRT and Marussia.

Post-race update: Uh oh. Not only did they show no great improvement in their race pace, but their reliability (so good and the source of their strength last year) seems to have taken a major hit with both cars retiring within minutes of each other with steering problems. Hopefully this is an issue that can be quickly addressed, or else they’re going to go backwards in their battle of the newbie teams.

HRT

It can’t be any surprise that HRT won’t even be on the starting grid in Australia on Sunday. They’ve had barely no runs in the car and the whole pre-season preparation has had an air of barely suppressed panic. The fact that Narain Karthikeyan seemed to go out of his way to hold everyone up in qualifying made it all-but certain that the stewards would decide that this was exactly the sort of unacceptable performance that the 107% rule is designed to eliminate and so neither car will be allowed to start. Frankly, I wouldn’t wonder that the team aren’t a little relieved that they dont’ have to race and don’t just see the whole Australian leg as their first testing session of the year.

Post-race update: Erm … Yes. Best move on.

Marussia

Marussia should be in much the same dismal state as HRT, being the last team to get their car through the mandatory pre-season FIA crash tests which has meant no test runs at all. So it’s actually genuinely quietly impressive that they showed up, got both cars out on track, avoided any dramas and duly set times within 107% and make the grid on Sunday. That’s no small achievement and the team should feel pretty proud of itelf. Of course, they’re still going to spend 2012 filling out the back row of the grid and the bottom spots on every race classification, sadly.

Post-race update: Okay, so they were firmly at the back of the field all afternoon (save for a battle-damaged Bruno Senna) and never troubled anyone on pace. But I’d almost say that Marussia were the biggest surprise of the day, because having had no testing and barely scraped through the mandatory crash tests, both cars probed bullet-proof in terms of reliability and finished the race in a perfectly creditable 14th and 15th. Such an achievement is nothing to be sneered it, and they deserve a pat on the back and a large beer tonight for what they’ve done here.

Conclusions

So what are we looking at?

Certainly it seems that my fears that McLaren sacrificed performance for style were unfounded. It’s also great that they’re not starting off the season on the technical backfront, as has been their habit in recent years. If Sunday confirms this then McLaren are looking stronger than they have for some time, and the only question is which of their drivers – Lewis Hamilton or Jenson Button – will end up as world champion.

But don’t count Red Bull out – I’m sure there is more to come from them. I’m also very wary of Mercedes, who I still think are threatening to break out a major surprise that could change the whole game.

It’s possible that Lotus will be joining this fight at the front, but I doubt it. I also fear that the notoriously difficult team atmosphere at Lotus will lead to another ill-tempered break-up with a driver (Kimi Raikkonen is not going to stand for being mistreated or ill-served.) But Grosjean could yet prove to be the unexpected joker in the pack that changes everything: in his hands lies the answer to whether Lotus are duking it out among the top four or merely skirmishing in the midfield, probably with Williams as their main contenders – which would be a major bounceback from the edge for that venerable team.

Of course, normal health warnings apply: the dataset for these conclusions is far too limited. Everything could change after the Australian Grand Prix which offers the first test of the durability and reliability of the cars, which could be the deciding factor in 2012. And it could all be different again in Malaysia, let alone what the teams get on with developing between now and their return to Europe which is when the major upgrades will start.

But for now, lovers of McLaren’s beautiful car versus the ugly step-nosed sisters can take heart, and dream of triumphs and successes for one night at least.

Post-race update: And they can carry on dreaming for the whole of the week, after a hugely impressive display especially by Jenson Button. A poor start and an unfortunately timed safety car did for Hamilton’s hopes and I’m worried about his mental outlook at this point, and Sebastian Vettel can’t be counted out by any means, but it’s a great start for the Woking squad.

The European Grand Prix on the streets at Valencia offered much to interest fans, and yet somehow everyone – even drivers and commentators – came away deflated and struggling not to use the word ‘boring’.

It was always possibly – likely, even – that after the dazzling Canadian Grand Prix a fortnight ago, whatever followed it would be an anticlimax and provoke a bit of the blues. Add to that the calendar’s least promising circuit for exciting races and you’re almost assured that everyone will be muttering that F1 is back to being dull and boring again.

The writing was on the wall early on in the Valencia race, when Jenson Button found himself behind Nico Rosberg off the starting grid and struggled to get past him. He deployed all the current generation F1 toys – KERS and DRS – and they made precisely no difference. In the end it was an old-fashioned lunge by Button into turn 2 on lap 6 that pulled it off.

But it set the tone for the race – that despite all the recent improvements brought in to enliven the Grand Prix show, none of them worked here. DRS made oddly little impact, especially surprising given the advance anxieties of many that the “double DRS” zone would lead to an overload of non-stop passing everywhere. Not so, it turned out: the meandering nature of the streets on which the race is set just resisted any such gauche attempts to inject life.

Even so, it should have been any interesting and exciting race, with varying tyre and pit stop strategies playing out through the race and some genuinely bold and impressive overtaking moved by Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa and Mark Webber meaning that the finishing positions of the top six were always slightly in flux and in doubt. Well – all but one of the top six positions. From the moment that Sebastian Vettel leapt away in the lead, the number one slot was never in question.

Further back it was a horrible start for the McLarens. Not only did Button lose a spot to Rosberg, but Lewis Hamilton bogged down at the start and was overtaken first by Felipe Massa darting down in the middle line, and then by Fernando Alonso who held back and struck into turn 2, going around the outside line to pinch both Massa and Hamilton to slot into third.

It was clear from this point on that Ferrari were the main threat to Red Bull here, and McLaren were curiously subdued and relegated to supporting player status, almost intentionally ceding the limelight to local hero Fernando Alonso. Alonso went on to overtake Webber on lap 22 using DRS into turn 12, and when Webber then regained the position via an early second stop strategy the Ferrari driver then had a stunning final pit stop on lap 46 and jumped in front of the Aussie a second time.

By contrast, McLaren’s day was a litany of frustrating glitches, everything from malfunctioning KERS to small hold-ups in pit stops to overheating brakes and excessive rear tyre wear. The pit wall was issuing instructions to drivers to speed up, slow down and do all sorts of other mutually incompatible things throughout the afternoon, and Lewis Hamilton sounded irritated by the whole thing but determined just to keep his head down and put in a day’s work at the office without any more crashes or controversy – although he did get the satisfaction of beating Felipe Massa with a canny early pit stop that Ferrari failed to respond to in time. Button on the other hand was his usual solid self, putting in the laps but declaring afterwards that it had all been very boring and he had hardly seen another car all afternoon.

Which is surprising, given how crowded it was out there – the one startling fact of this race being that there wasn’t a single retirement all afternoon, despite many teams hitting gremlins during the afternoon (such as Jerome d’Ambrosio, whose water bottle failed from the get go and left him dehydrated and three kilos lighter by the end of the race.) 24 cars started, and 24 finished – a huge achievement for reliability but not one that says much for the spectacle.

There were some interesting moves down the field – Rubens Barrichello, a former winner here, was very off the pace in the Williams and ended up holding up multiple cars behind him as he circulated, which allowed for some fun battles between Paul di Resta, Vitaly Petrov and Kamui Kobayashi in the final dozen laps. And Michael Schumacher had an interesting early battle with Renault’s Vitaly Petrov that saw him get the Mercedes’ front wing sliced off as he emerged from pit lane.

Still, for all this activity – which two or three years ago would probably have been hailed as an interesting, eventful race – there was no disagreement to the line that it had been a boring race. The drivers said it, and even the TV commentators admitted it – although some of them chose to characterise it as “tense” and “engrossing”, or one for the connoisseur – damning phrases all, in media parlance.

At the end, Sebastian Vettel had one again and further extended his championship lead; and although Mark Webber was pushed down to third, the Red Bull constructors’ championship was also in rude health after Valencia. The season seems all but done, and all we have is the thrill and entertainment of individual races to keep us entertained and hooked; and sadly, Valencia simply failed to do this.

Race results

Pos Driver       Team                 Time
 1. Vettel       Red Bull-Renault     1:39:36.169
 2. Alonso       Ferrari              +    10.891
 3. Webber       Red Bull-Renault     +    27.255
 4. Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes     +    46.190
 5. Massa        Ferrari              +    51.705
 6. Button       McLaren-Mercedes     +  1:00.000
 7. Rosberg      Mercedes             +  1:38.000
 8. Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +     1 lap
 9. Sutil        Force India-Mercedes +     1 lap
10. Heidfeld     Renault              +     1 lap
11. Perez        Sauber-Ferrari       +     1 lap
12. Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth    +     1 lap
13. Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +     1 lap
14. Di Resta     Force India-Mercedes +     1 lap
15. Petrov       Renault              +     1 lap
16. Kobayashi    Sauber-Ferrari       +     1 lap
17. Schumacher   Mercedes             +     1 lap
18. Maldonado    Williams-Cosworth    +     1 lap
19. Kovalainen   Lotus-Renault        +    2 laps
20. Trulli       Lotus-Renault        +    2 laps
21. Glock        Virgin-Cosworth      +    2 laps
22. D'Ambrosio   Virgin-Cosworth      +    2 laps
23. Liuzzi       HRT-Cosworth         +    3 laps
24. Karthikeyan  HRT-Cosworth         +    3 laps

Fastest lap: Vettel, 1:41.852

World Championship standings after round 8

Drivers:                Constructors:             
 1.  Vettel      186   1.  Red Bull-Renault    295
 2.  Webber      109   2.  McLaren-Mercedes    206
 3.  Button      109   3.  Ferrari             129
 4.  Hamilton     97   4.  Renault              61
 5.  Alonso       87   5.  Mercedes             58
 6.  Massa        42   6.  Sauber-Ferrari       27
 7.  Rosberg      32   7.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari   16
 8.  Petrov       31   8.  Force India-Mercedes 12
 9.  Heidfeld     30   9.  Williams-Cosworth     4
10.  Schumacher   26   
11.  Kobayashi    25   
12.  Sutil        10   
13.  Alguersuari   8   
14.  Buemi         8   
15.  Barrichello   4   
16.  Perez         2   
17.  Di Resta      2   

McLaren’s day went from hope to despair only to finish in ecstasy in a quite extraordinary Canadian Grand Prix that took more than four hours to complete.

All pictures by arrangement and prior agreement with CrashNet/CrashPA

At one point during the Canadian Grand Prix, so much had gone wrong for the McLaren team and their two drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button that I quipped to a friend, “Well, this race isn’t going to make it onto the McLaren greatest hits compilation DVD.”

Which just goes to show what I (or any other expert or fan) knows, because by the end Jenson Button described it as “a fantastic race – even if I hadn’t win I would have enjoyed it. An amazing win and possibly my best.” He went on, “Definitely one of those grands prix where you are nowhere and then somewhere. The last one is the important one to be leading and I was leading half of it. An amazing day, I don’t know what else to say really.”

Frankly, everyone was in the same situation – speechless and reeling from a succession of incidents, any one of which would have been enough to dominate the headlines after a “routine” Grand Prix and yet this week shunted into being mere passing notes and anecdotes.

The early signs hadn’t been promising. While some rain had been forecast for the day, the amount of rainfall prior to the face had caught everyone by surprised and the race officials decided that the race would have to start behind a safety car, always the most anti-climactic way to begin any motor race. After five laps of this, the safety car finally came in racing got underway with polesitter Sebastian Vettel pulling out all the usual tricks to ensure he kept the lead, but even so nearly getting caught out by Fernando Alonso on the run down into turn 1.

Vettel’s team mate Mark Webber was also looking a little wary at the start and approached turn 1 with trepidation – but Lewis Hamilton had no such qualms, and when he saw Webber going a little wide at the first corner he decided it was an invitation to dive through. Contact was the result, Webber spinning on the approach into turn 2 and Hamilton forced to run off-track to avoid further hits. Both cars came through without damage but they lost positions – the Red Bull dropped to 14th.

“What Hamilton did there goes beyond all boundaries,” Niki Lauda said, working as a commentator for RTL television at Montreal. “He is completely mad … If the FIA does not punish him, I do not understand the world any more. At some point there has to be an end to all the jokes. You cannot drive like this – as it will result in someone getting killed.”

Inevitably the word came down that the incident was being looked at by the race stewards – given Hamilton’s torrid time with authority at Monaco, new penalties seemed almost a given. He didn’t help himself when he pressed on regardless and pressured Michael Schumacher into the turn 10 hairpin, only for Schumacher – looking back to near his best in these wet conditions – made an emphatic jink left that forced Hamilton out wide to avoid another collision.

That caused Hamilton to lose more places and drop immediately behind his McLaren team mate. Hamilton was not happy with this as he was clearly the faster of the team’s two cars at this stage, and something like red mist descended on Lewis as they came down the start/finish straight on lap seven. When Button was slow out of the final corner, Lewis thought he saw an opening on the outside line between Button and the pit wall – but that was right on the normal racing line Button would take into turn 1. Not expecting a rash challenge from his own team mate, and unsighted by the water spray, Button moved along his normal line … Only to find Lewis already there trying to overtake.

The two collided; Button got off relatively lightly – although he was on the team radio to yell angrily “what is he doing?” – but for Hamilton the situation was far worse. The situation ha thrown him into contact with the pit wall and the impact had wrecked his left rear wheel and suspension. Thinking it was just a puncture he tried to nurse it back to the pits only to be ordered by the team to park it up. He seemed in a sulky mood about being ordered to park up by the team when he spoke to reporters: “The team said I had a broken suspension and so I pulled over, but when I got out that wasn’t the case”, Hamilton told reporters. “It was only the tyre that was busted.”

Actually it wasn’t, and when the car was finally returned to the pit lane under safety car conditions it was clear that more serious damage had been done to the rear suspension and driveshaft and that the team had been right to order him to stop: the damage was certainly terminal. Meanwhile Button had to pit for new tyres (opting for the risky intermediates) and a check-up – and was also under an investigation by the stewards for the clash with Hamilton – and this looked like the worst possible race outcome for McLaren especially when for good measure Jenson was then handed a drive-thru penalty for not keeping to the safety car speed differentials as he had tried to race back to pit lane.

This was the moment when any McLaren fan would have packed up and decided “not our week”. In front, it was still firmly looking like Sebastian Vettel’s day, and the two Ferraris were also coming on strong as was Michael Schumacher, perking up more than any other time we’ve seen him since his comeback to active racing. Mark Webber was also having some fun as he sought to work his way back up from the midfield from his costly contact with Hamilton at the start.

Just to prove how badly things were turning for McLaren, even the Hail Mary risky decision to switch to intermediates had backfired. It had allowed Jenson to make some impressive headway from way back down the field following his penalty, but then around 25 minutes into the race a new weather front arrived at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and it started to rain – a lot. Button, and everyone else who had risked the change from full wets, were forced into the pits.

This weather front had been expected, and had been described as a “shower”. No one was expecting what followed, which rapidly ramped up to a monsoon of almost Malaysian intensity. And nor was it a brief shower, either. Soon even the TV cameras – which much better sensitivity in such conditions that the human eye – were displaying just banks to featureless grey clouds of water. Whether it was water from the falling rain, rain bouncing up from the tack or rain being thrown up by the F1 cars no longer mattered, all that did was that no one could see anything. And the track was flooding, too.

The race officials called in the safety car before one minor incident became a total wipe-out; ten minutes later, after receiving feedback from the drivers, the officials went one step further and threw a red flag to suspend the race at the end of lap 25 and park everyone up on the starting grid to allow the weather front to pass through. The race was no where near the three-quarter distance that would allow the race to be called with full points, so a restart was very much on the cards.

Hoping that it would be a brief pause for the shower to roll over, it turned instead into a two hour hiatus as the track staff worked overtime to try and do something about the streams of water and deep pools collecting on the track. Finally, though, the skies lightened and the rain eased off: drivers who had been wondering around pit lane were recalled to their cars and TV commentators who had been left with the nightmare scenario of filling dead time with nothing to talk about except the local wildlife were given something to commentate on.

After nine laps behind the safety car, the track was deemed safe enough to resume proper racing. In fact the officials had been too cautious and the track was now already safe enough for most drivers to decide it was time for intermediate tyres, so everyone duly plunged into the pit lane with Vettel – putting safety first – among the last to make the switch.

Just when we thought we’d seen the last of the safety car and that things couldn’t get any worse for Jenson Button, we were proved wrong. Button had been putting his new intermediates to good use and was scything his way up the positions but then came up against Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari at turn 3. Alonso seemed to be running wide, Button went down the inside, Alonso turned in – and contact was inevitable. It was relatively innocuous for Button who continued back to pit lane for some new tyres as a precaution, but the contact spun Alonso around and left him beached on the high banked kerbing which meant a safety car was needed to allow the Ferrari to be retrieved. Inevitably word came down form the stewards that the incident would be investigated after the race.

The race was quickly underway again and after his latest stop, Jenson Button was starting from dead last (21st position.) The adage that “things always look darkest before the dawn” must have seemed like very black humour to Jenson at this point, but he wasn’t about to just curl up and die: he had fresh tyres, a fast car, and a lot of backmarkers to take his frustration out on. He started moving up the field, and suddenly his race came alive as he found he liked nothing more than a bit of real, rough-and-tumble racing and the thrill of some actual motor racing rather than putting in the laps and staying out of trouble. And sometimes, actual motor racing can pay off, even in these sanitised days of high-precision technical cars.

Once the DRS was activated (it had been disabled under wet conditions) it was as if someone had attached an after-burner to the McLaren and Button was able to tear through the field. Pretty much everyone had written him off by this time, but then suddenly there he was on the timing screens and on the television coverage bearing down on Kamui Kobayashi for fourth place – and blasting by him with ease, his pace now a staggering four seconds a lap faster than the race leader, Sebastian Vettel.

Behind him, Nick Heidfeld attempted to close up on Kobayashi himself but instead ran into the back of the Sauber at turn 2 when the Japanese driver had struggled to get the power down. Heidfeld’s front wing was wrecked, but then unfortunately fell off right in front of the Renault and launched it briefly into the air in one of those nightmare scenarios all drivers worry about. Fortunately in this case airtime was limited and Heidfeld returned to earth, slid along the barrier and down into an escape road without too much drama.

The race, however, needed yet another safety car period because of the amount of front wing debris now scattered all over the track. A flaw with the current safety car procedures was also apparent: with drivers having to stick within the “safety car speed differentials” wherever they were on the track, it left the field very string out and taking a long time to catch up with the safety car itself. That meant that every time the track marshals through they had a gap to go out onto the track to remove the debris, another straggling group of cars would show up around the bend. The TV cameras caught one heart-stopping moment when a marshal fell on the still-wet slippery track surface just as a car appeared: even under safety car conditions an F1 car is going at a good 60 or 70mph and for a moment both marshal and driver were grappling with which way to dive to avoid a potentially dreadful collision.

The safety car period did mean that the field was packed closer together for the restart with nine laps remaining – which meant that Button was close to Vettel, Schumacher and Webber and in with a shot of a podium place after all. A chance was all he needed to be motivated to get down to work.

Vettel was first to act, realising the danger and now putting his foot down to pull out an immediate safety cushion at the end of the caution period. Webber was next to act, dispatching Schumacher on lap 65 only then overrun the chicane in so doing, forcing him to hand the position back to Schumacher (which he neatly managed to do without offering Button any opportunistic opening) and try again next lap by.

But instead, the next lap through saw Webber make a mistake through the final chicane and nearly lose the back of the Red Bull into the wall of champions; Button saw the red carpet, and even though it meant moving off the dry line and onto a fully wet part of the track on his slicks, he went for it. He was rewarded with third place and quickly pulled away from Webber before any counterattack could ensue, and Button then quickly caught up with Michael Schumacher and blasted past him with the aid of the DRS system.

That left Button in second place, but Vettel was now too far in front. By the time Button had closed up on the leader it was the penultimate lap, and despite being the slower car it was clear that the Red Bull held all the high cards and should have no trouble holding on for the last couple of minutes before the chequered flag came out, the final lap just slipping inside the two hour time limit despite the five extended safety car periods.

Jenson Button must still have been grinning from ear to ear at the sensational recover he had made – from last to second place, one helluva achievement considering the nightmare early laps for McLaren. Perhaps, when he saw Vettel skate off the track ahead of him, Button thought that we was literally dreaming – delierious, even – because there was no way in hell that this would actually happen: Vettel never cracked. Vettel never made silly mistakes. Vettel had been perfect the entire race, there was no way he’d give it away just a few turns from the end.

But Vettel had. He ran deep into turn 3 and went sideways, just about controlling the car and preventing total disaster but not nearly good enough to stop Button from blasting his way past into the lead. A minute later and Button was through the final corner, past the wall of champions – and staring at the chequered flag, which was for him for the first time since China in April 2010.

From disaster to triumph, Button had given McLaren perhaps its most famous victory in the last few years: “The 2011 Canadian Grand Prix may well be remembered as one of the most eventful, exciting and suspenseful races in Formula 1 history,” said the team’s Martin Whitmarsh. “I’ve heard the word ‘unbelievable’ shouted at me by joyful colleagues about a hundred times this afternoon, and in truth Jenson’s drive was exactly that: absolutely unbelievable. Other adjectives that spring to mind are ‘heroic’, ‘majestic’, ‘magnificent’ and ‘superb’!”

The battle wasn’t entirely over at the chequered flag, however – there was still the outstanding matter of the investigation into Button’s clash with Fernando Alonso mid-race, which could yet have seen Button lose the victory. However it seemed that the race officials – bolstered this week by two-time world champion Emerson Fittipaldi as the drivers’ representative – had every desire to get out of Montreal without being lynched by irate fans, and the decision came down that no action would be taken against Button over the collision.

Their statement pointed out that Alonso had been on a slow out-lap from the pits and that Button had his car “firmly established on the inside line prior to the entry of the corner and drove onto the kerb to avoid Car 5 on the outside.” Accordingly, “In view of the conditions and the statements by both drivers and their team representatives, the Stewards decide that this was a ‘racing incident’ and have taken no further action.”

Even Ferrari’s team principal Stefano Domenicali seemed to concede that, while Button was still mainly responsible for his driver’s exit in his eyes, he couldn’t be expected to take all the blame. “The conditions were tricky because on the inside the line was slippery, because Jenson had a little bit of understeer in that moment,” he said. “We just had bad luck today.”

Nor was there any steward action arising from Button’s clash with Hamilton earlier in the race: “It appears from the position of Hamilton at that moment … that Button was unlikely to have seen Hamilton,” said the stewards’ statement. “At the point of contact Button had not yet moved as far to the left of the track as he had on the previous lap, or that Schumacher had on that lap.

“The Stewards have concluded that it was reasonable for Hamilton to believe that Button would have seen him and that he could have made the passing manoeuvre. Further, the Stewards have concluded that it is reasonable to believe that Button was not aware of Hamilton’s position to his left.

“Therefore, the Stewards decide that this was a ‘racing incident’ and have taken no further action.”

Cue a sigh of relief from everyone in the paddock, because no one – not even Red Bull – would have wanted one of the all-time great GPs ruined by post-race tinkering.

There were of course plenty of other stories going on during the wet Sunday afternoon. There was Paul di Resta having a fabulous race until he ended up running into the back of Nick Heidfeld and wrecking his front wing, getting a drive-thru and then finally ruing an early attempt to switch to slicks that saw him snap out, touch the wall and wreck his suspension.

And there was Michael Schumacher, suddenly looking more alive than anytime since his return from retirement, who looked set for a podium position at long last until finally the Mercedes was outclassed in the drying conditions later in the race and proved no match for Button and Webber going through.

There was also Ferrari, who lost Alonso in that incident with Jenson Button mid-race and then saw Felipe Massa – who had been running strongly right behind his team mate early in the race – slump to a rather underwhelming sixth place by the end; or Kamui Kobayashi who was in second place when the race was red flagged thanks to not having been lured in for any pit stop tyre changes up to that point, who was disappointed to end up in seventh just ahead of Toro Rosso’s Jamie Alguersuari who had been wild and accident-prone in the practice and qualifying sessions at Montreal amid rumours that he’s about to be replaced at the team, but who did a quietly impressive and accident-free race performance.

But really the crux of the story of Montreal 2011 would be Jenson Button’s astounding, triumphant day; Lewis Hamilton’s red mist; the weather playing a major, starring role in proceedings; and that rarest of sights, a mistake by Sebastian Vettel at a critical moment that showed a chink (at last!) in the young German’s armour after all.

Race result

Pos Driver              Team                      Time
 1. Jenson Button       McLaren-Mercedes    4:04:39.537s
 2. Sebastian Vettel    Red Bull-Renault     +    2.709s
 3. Mark Webber         Red Bull-Renault     +   13.828s
 4. Michael Schumacher  Mercedes             +   14.219s
 5. Vitaly Petrov       Renault              +   20.395s
 6. Felipe Massa        Ferrari              +   33.225s
 7. Kamui Kobayashi     Sauber-Ferrari       +   33.270s
 8. Jaime Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +   35.964s
 9. Rubens Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth    +   45.117s
10. Sebastien Buemi     Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +   47.056s
11. Nico Rosberg        Mercedes             +   50.454s
12. Pedro de la Rosa    Sauber-Ferrari       + 1:03.607s
13. Tonio Liuzzi        HRT-Cosworth         +    1 Lap
14. Jerome D'Ambrosio   Virgin-Cosworth      +    1 Lap
15. Timo Glock          Virgin-Cosworth      +    1 Lap
16. Jarno Trulli        Lotus-Renault        +    1 Lap
17. Narain Karthikeyan  HRT-Cosworth         +    1 Lap
18. Paul di Resta       Force India-Mercedes +    3 Laps

Retirements:

Driver             Team                Laps
Pastor Maldonado   Williams-Cosworth     61
Nick Heidfeld      Renault               55
Adrian Sutil       Force India-Mercedes  49
Fernando Alonso    Ferrari               36
Heikki Kovalainen  Lotus-Renault         28
Lewis Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes       7

World Championship standings after round 7

Drivers                      Constructors             
 1. Sebastian Vettel   161   1. Red Bull-Renault     255
 2. Jenson Button      101   2. McLaren-Mercedes     186
 3. Mark Webber        94    3. Ferrari              101
 4. Lewis Hamilton     85    4. Renault               60
 5. Fernando Alonso    69    5. Mercedes              52
 6. Felipe Massa       32    6. Sauber-Ferrari        27
 7. Vitaly Petrov      31    7. Toro Rosso-Ferrari    12
 8. Nick Heidfeld      29    8. Force India-Mercedes  10
 9. Michael Schumacher 26    9. Williams-Cosworth      4
10. Nico Rosberg       26
11. Kamui Kobayashi    25
12. Adrian Sutil        8
13. Sebastien Buemi     8
14. Jaime Alguersuari   4
15. Rubens Barrichello  4
16. Sergio Perez        2
17. Paul Di Resta       2

In one of the most eventful, competitive and flat-out exciting Grands Prix of recent times, Lewis Hamilton managed to thwart Sebastian Vettel’s run of victories – and yet still wasn’t the driver of the day.

Pictures by arrangement and prior agreement with CrashNet/CrashPA

The first GP of the year, Australia, showed promise for all the new tyres and gizmos that the FIA had introduced to improve the racing spectacle, but it was largely unfulfilled. Then we went to Malaysia and we thought that it was all fitting together and that it was actually pretty darn good. But nothing quite prepared us for the flat-out exhilaration of China, where suddenly all the disparate bits gelled and F1, to paraphrase a well-known energy drink advertising slogan, suddenly got given wings and took flight like rarely before in modern times in a dry race.

It hadn’t exactly been hugely promising immediately before the start. Sebastian Vettel was once again in charge at the front; Mark Webber, one of the few people able to challenge him, was back in 18th after a dreadful qualifying and was once again deprived of KERS, so it was hard to see him making much progress or even competing for points. And then came word that Lewis Hamilton was in trouble, too, with McLaren going into high panic mode with a suspected fuel leak just when they were meant to be hustling Lewis off to the starting grid. In order to avoid starting at the back from the pit lane, they had to send him out without an engine cover and deal with putting the car back together on the grid, but the question was whether he would even get away for the warm-up, let alone how many laps he would be able to limp around.

But all was not well in the world of Vettel, either. Considering he’s been untouchable so far this season, the reigning world champion would have been forgiven for strutting around the paddock looking like the king of the world. But in fact it was anything but, and Seb was looking preoccupied and worried in the moments leading up to the start, fiddling with his helmet and generally looking less than confident about the whole affair.

Maybe he had had a premonition: in which case it was an accurate one, because when the lights went out and the race began, it was a disaster for Vettel who got a horrible start. Holding Jenson Button back going into the first corner was an almost immediate lost cause, and instead he had to focus on beating Lewis Hamilton for second: he failed, despite pushing Hamilton onto the grass verge in a hard but firm move. And as if that wasn’t enough, Vettel was having to battle with Nico Rosburg who was alongside him into the tight turn 1/2/3 spiral. Vettel won that one, leaving Rosburg to play nicely (or not) with the Ferrari pair of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso to keep fourth place.

Vettel failing to take the lead and race off into the distance exploded all expectations for the race. Jenson had a lead of over a second, which kept him safe from attack from behind by anyone making use of the drag reduction system (DRS); Lewis was not so lucky and never pulled out a significant lead over Vettel despite putting up the fastest sectors and laps early on.

There was action all through the field, but the one person we had expected to set off fireworks – surely Mark Webber would be scything his way through the backmarkers? – failed to spark off. He gained a few positions by passing Sergio Perez and Rubens Barrichello but then seemed to get stuck behind Nick Heidfeld in a train of cars headed by Jamie Alguersuari. Having started on hard tyres, and with his adopting a four-stop strategy for the race, it looked like it was going to be a thankless task for him – especially when a hyped-up Perez managed to re-pass him for 15th.

Just when things seemed to be settling down, pit stops started with Alguersuari and Michael Schumacher at the end of lap 11; it was a disaster for Alguersuari whose rear right wheel simply dropped off a few corners after rejoining the track and he became the only retiree of the entire race when he finally pulled over at turn 8. Schumacher’s pit stop showed the Mercedes’ hand at strategy – Rosburg was also in early on lap 13. The other cars in front were trying to stretch it, but already handling was dropping off badly and they quickly realised how much time they were losing each lap to Rosburg’s fresher rubber, and needed to react fast.

Button and Vettel both came into the pits at the end of lap 15. And we watched agape as Jenson pulled into the pit box … at the Red Bull garage. The mechanics waved him through frantically before it held up their man, but in the end Jenson’s mental software glitch worked to Seb’s advantage as it lost the McLaren critical seconds, and Vettel emerged back on tack ahead of Button. Jenson had no excuses, spoke vaguely after the race about “looking down at something in the cockpit”, but must have known that this was a game-changing moment that had surely released Vettel to a third consecutive victory at the start of 2011. It would have been bad enough for a rookie to make that sort of error, but it was absolutely extraordinary for a former world champion.

And just to complete McLaren’s misery at this point, Lewis’ tyres seemed to have fallen off the proverbial cliff and the next lap saw him lose a position to Felipe Massa before they both came in for his own pit stop at the end of lap 16; unsurprisingly when Lewis came out from pit road, it was well behind Vettel and Button and even behind the yet-to-pit Sergio Perez, although he was quickly dispatched by Hamilton through turn 6.

It all seemed to be coming good for Vettel despite bogging down at the start, but there was still one fly in the ointment: he still wasn’t in the lead, because Nico Rosburg’s early stop and subsequent fast laps had put him in front of everyone by a huge 5.5s margin, although he would have an extra pit stop to fit in during the race that would cost him later. Vettel was also behind Vitaly Petrov as both Renaults went for extremely long tyre stints, but the Red Bull was able to get past Petrov on lap 19, using the adjustable rear wing /drag reduction system (DRS) into turn 13.

The race seemed to settle in terms of position, but there was still plenty of action and high drama to watch on the track: Hamilton was trying to make a move on Massa but finding the DRS zone just not working for him; Schumacher was holding off Fernando Alonso in a battle of the former world champions; Adrian Sutil, Kamui Kobayashi and Mark Webber were scrapping over 9th, 10th and 11th; Perez was battling away in a Renault sandwich with Petrov in 12th and Heidfeld behind in 14th.

One person who wasn’t in the game at this stage was Jenson Button, who was losing ground on Vettel and who needed to pit again for fresh soft tyres at the end of lap 26, dropping him back down to eighth. Rosburg was in from the lead the following lap after trying to stretch his tyres and fuel during his second stint to maximise the success of his first pit stop strategy. He came in at the same time as Lewis Hamilton, which released Vettel into the lead for the first time in the race; further back, Mark Webber was also in, freeing him up from a frustrating battle trying to pass Kamui Kobayashi but dropping him down to 15th in the process, in a “two steps forward, one step back” sort of afternoon. Just to make the Aussie’s day, the team gloomily confirmed that his KERS was once again unavailable for the remainder of the race.

If that had been it – if the rest of the race was now a procession to the chequered flag – then Shanghai would still have counted as a “well above average” race based on what we had seen. But the true miracle of this year’s Chinese Grand Prix was that it’s only as we pass the midway point that we get to deploy the truly miraculous sentence: “And then things started to get really interesting.”

Vettel was leading ahead of Massa and Alonso, but all were on a two-stop strategy and had yet to make that final stop; Nico Rosburg was in fourth ahead of Jenson Button, while Lewis Hamilton was starting to fly on his latest set of tyres and made short work of Paul di Resta (having a solid afternoon up to this point for Force India) for sixth on lap 29. Another driver suddenly finding it all clicking together was Mark Webber, who carved through a 2.8s gap between him and Rubens Barrichello in a single lap to pass the Williams for 14th place on lap 30.

In the single lap that followed we also saw Rosburg make a bold move on Alonso through the final corner that paid off; then Button ease past the Ferrari and finally Lewis Hamilton breeze past his old rival in turn 7 as Alonso simply couldn’t make the two-stop tyre strategy work for him nearly as well (surprisingly) as Felipe Massa seemed to. And up in front, things were also starting to sour for Sebastian Vettel: his pace was falling off as he too reached the end-of-life point on his tyres, and to complicate the forthcoming pit stop he had also developed radio problems and could no longer be heard by his team, who were having to resort to alternative state of the art technology instead – ye olde pit board.

Vettel pitted at the end of lap 31, having to stick to hard tyres to make them last to the end from here; Alonso came in next time around, the most compromised of the two-stoppers, with Massa on at the end of lap 33 to take his final set of prime tyres as well. That swung the track position advantage back to the three stoppers – Rosburg leading Button and Hamilton, all of them needing to make the most of this transition period before they had to come in for their later pit stops. At this point Rosburg’s gap over Vettel was 16s – not enough to pit again and come back out in the lead.

Further back, Petrov was now defending from Michael Schumacher and Mark Webber – and lost out to them both on successive laps as Webber in particular was coming alive and really flying on this latest set of fast but short-life soft tyres, putting the Red Bull “second driver” up to seventh place – but still looking at one more pit stop before the end on his four-stop strategy.

As the race reached lap 35, Hamilton was clearly the faster of the two McLarens and was visibly frustrated at being held up by his team mate, while the pit crew sent a “look after your tyres” message to him which could be loosely translated as “We’re not giving you team orders, but whatever you do be careful and don’t take your team mate out.” Lewis Hamilton’s racing brain duly read this message as a green light to “come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough” – and he did, putting in a mammoth run on Button down the start/finish straight (which meant he didn’t even have access to the DRS feature.) Button was either playing nice or was just plain dopey, and stayed on the outside line instead of defending the inside run through into turn 1: Hamilton took it as a welcome mat and blasted his way through, but was incredibly lucky that Button reacted at last and stopped himself turning in on Lewis, or else it would have been a disastrous end for both McLarens there and then.

The move was done: Hamilton was in second, and pulling away from Button fast, almost 3s over the course of the next two laps. He had his sights set on claiming Rosburg’s scalp, and moreover needed to thrash the living daylights out of his car if he was to come out of his final pit stop with any sort of a chance of carrying the fight to Vettel.

Button was first to pit after locking up and flat-spotting his tyres, meaning he was in at the end of lap 37; Hamilton was in next time round and Rosburg the lap after that. Hamilton got the best stop of the three, Button a long way back and Rosburg emerging from pit road tantalisingly close ahead of Hamilton, who immediately tried an overtaking move on the German through turn 6 but couldn’t quite make it stick. Lewis still wasn’t getting a good enough run through turn 13 to take advantage of DRS, and then he flat-spotted his tyres pushing too hard. It seemed that this was the pivotal moment of the race and that it was all slipping away from Hamilton.

But then on lap 42 Rosburg got a panic flash message from his pits that fuel was critical: unless he eased off and leaned out the mix, he wasn’t going to make it. That made all the difference and this time Hamilton’s attack through turn 6 couldn’t be resisted, and Lewis was through to third place. Rosburg was also easy prey for Jenson Button a few corners later, but it had been a tremendous afternoon’s performance for Nico all the same.

The pit stops and the harder tyres for Vettel and Massa compared with the searingly fast set of soft tyres Hamilton was on has collapsed the distances between the top three: Vettel’s lead over Massa was just 3.9s and Hamilton was just 1.7s behind the Ferrari. But catching is one thing, passing quite another in this sport: would all the new F1 rule tweaks really prove their worth when the chips were well and truly down?

Hamilton demonstrated that the answer was yes, although once again he did the business down the start/finish straight without any of that new-fangled DRS malarky. He passed Massa with ease at the start of lap 45, and still had over ten laps to work on that 3.7s gap to Vettel and do battle for the lead. It wasn’t easy – Vettel put in a splendid rear-guard action to try and maintain enough of a gap over Hamilton to keep him outside the 1s activation zone for the DRS – but by lap 50 the McLaren was all over the back of the Red Bull and just desperate to pounce.

Hamilton tried activating DRS down the outside line but Vettel cleverly positioned his car on the apex of the switchback to force Hamilton to check up and lose critical momentum, foiling the move; he tried again at the hairpin next time around and was still repulsed. Then finally, out of nowhere, Hamilton caught Vettel out at turn 7 and surged past for the lead, leaving Vettel looking startled and without an answer to this sudden reversal of fortunes. For the first time, perhaps, it dawned on the young German that this wasn’t a race that was going to come good at the end after all. Once past, Hamilton pulled away as if his life depended on it – he couldn’t afford to dangle even the smallest chance in front of Vettel at this stage.

Further back from this battle, Mark Webber had come in for his final stop on lap 41, and if we thought his pace had been good before then it was nothing to what we saw on this final set of sorts tyres as he racked up the fastest laps and positively eviscerated everyone who stood in his way. Alonso – seemingly no happier on this latest set of tyres than the previous ones, although he was still able to hold off Michael Schumacher for seventh in the dying laps – was easily dispatched for sixth on lap 45, and Webber simply screamed past Massa for fifth on lap 51, looking for all the world like he was in a different race from the tired plodders trying to eke out fuel and rubber all around him.

Webber was all over the back of Rosburg by the end of lap 53, and the two were locked together as they crossed the start/finish line. Rosburg couldn’t break away and the two cars went into the turn 1/2/3 spiral locked together; still Nico held on, but as the track opened out into turn 4 and 5 he had nothing left to see off the superior pace of the Red Bull. Webber was through and up to a magnificent fourth place, with under three laps to spare.

Except – Mark wasn’t done yet. Jenson Button wasn’t far up the road, and Webber wasted no time closing right up on him. On the penultimate lap he took the inside line through turn 14 and ejected Button from third place; Jenson tried to fight back but the Aussie was having none of it.

The top three had been turned inside out in the last five laps: anyone saying that F1 was boring and that the lead never changes simply has to watch the replay of this race, because you could have placed bets on the podium positions as late as lap 50 and still been caught out completely by the final result. Small wonder then that Hamilton was ecstatic and more than a little emotional after claiming the chequered flag ahead of the two Red Bulls. Button, finishing fourth, must have been ruing that amazing pit box blunder early in the race, but in truth it probably wouldn’t have made any difference to the end result – the top three best and fastest cars and drivers won out, which is surely what should happen in a proper motor race?

Racing throughout was astonishingly clean and collision-free, although Sauber’s Sergio Perez displayed his youthful inexperience and exuberance with two incidents. The first saw him get some front wing damage by trying to hold on to the inside line through turn 2 long after Nick Heidfeld had reasonably shut the door on an attempted pass by Perez on lap 45. That incident had already been declared one that the stewards would look at after the race, when two laps later Perez spied what he thought was an opportunity to pass Adrian Sutil on the inside line of the turn 1/2/3 spiral, only to find his old tyres had no where near the grip required to pull it off and the Sauber drifted wide and into heavy sideways contact with the Force India. Both cars ran off and suffered damage, with Sutil having to pit for a new front wing and the stewards not having to take any time at all thinking about handing Perez a drive-thru penalty which dropped him all the way back down to 15th.

“I’m very sorry for the accident with Adrian – I am sorry for him and sorry for my team,” said Perez, who explained that he had felt under pressure to act to hold off Vitaly Petrov behind him. “Unfortunately I lost the rear when I was already on the inside of Adrian and crashed into him.”

Ultimately, it was the sort of race that left drivers unable to remember or talk about just what had happened in the mayhem when asked about it straight afterwards; and left commentators hoarse with the effort of trying to keep up with it all for the last 100 minutes; and left video machines tasked with collecting potential highlights of the race with an inadvertent copy of the entire event, and then some. And poor humble race reports like this one, no matter to what length they were by now bloated, found themselves sweeping huge swathes of incidents to one side which in olden times might practically have been the headline banner moment of the whole weekend.

The most wonderful thing is that it put a stop to Vettel’s run of victories. Nothing against Seb in the slightest, but the stat looming over everyone’s heads coming into this race weekend was how a driver who has won all first three races of the season has never failed to win that year’s world title, and how depressing would it be to have the championship title essentially decided before the end of April? Even Vettel’s own team mate let slip his relief during the televised post-race interviews: “Shame McLaren won in a way, but also we can’t let Seb get too far away.

“Congratulations to Lewis,” he said, then adding : “It was good that someone finally…” before finally catching himself and hastily retreating from being just a little bit too admirably frank. “Of course Seb is in the same team, but he’s been on a phenomenal run and we’re all here together fighting for victories.” Ahem: yes, Mark, good boy!

If a tie-breaker for “driver of the day” were needed, then this slip would surely have swung it to Webber. But in truth none were needed: despite Hamilton’s huge effort to clinch the win – arguably his best win if not his best overall race in his entire F1 career – and some beautiful moves on Button, Massa and Vettel on track and all outside the DRS “cheat” area, there’s no doubt that Webber’s charge from 18th on the grid and from 15th at the midpoint of the race to claim a podium place despite having no KERS is a truly superlative achievement of race craft by Webber.

It’s just as well there is a three week break before the next F1 outing: this was a race that genuinely reminded us all to make time to check our supplies of valium, and to go and have our pacemakers checked out, tuned-up and recharged before daring to put them through this sort of ordeal again on May 8 at the Grand Prix of Istanbul. Turkey has a lot to live up to if it’s to compare with Shanghai, which was the most wonderful surprise present any F1 fan could have asked for in 2011.

Race results

Pos Driver       Team                 Time
 1. Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes     1:36:58.226
 2. Vettel       Red Bull-Renault     +     5.198
 3. Webber       Red Bull-Renault     +     7.555
 4. Button       McLaren-Mercedes     +    10.000
 5. Rosberg      Mercedes             +    13.448
 6. Massa        Ferrari              +    15.840
 7. Alonso       Ferrari              +    30.622
 8. Schumacher   Mercedes             +    31.206
 9. Petrov       Renault              +    57.404
10. Kobayashi    Sauber-Ferrari       +  1:03.273
11. Di Resta     Force India-Mercedes +  1:08.757
12. Heidfeld     Renault              +  1:12.739
13. Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth    +  1:30.189
14. Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +  1:30.671
15. Sutil        Force India-Mercedes +     1 lap
16. Kovalainen   Lotus-Renault        +     1 lap
17. Perez        Sauber-Ferrari       +     1 lap
18. Maldonado    Williams-Cosworth    +     1 lap
19. Trulli       Lotus-Renault        +     1 lap
20. D'Ambrosio   Virgin-Cosworth      +    2 laps
21. Glock        Virgin-Cosworth      +    2 laps
22. Karthikeyan  HRT-Cosworth         +    2 laps
23. Liuzzi       HRT-Cosworth         +    2 laps

Fastest lap: Webber, 1:38.993

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                Lap
Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari  12

World Championship standings after round 3

Drivers:              Constructors:             
 1. Vettel     68    1. Red Bull-Renault     105
 2. Hamilton   47    2. McLaren-Mercedes      85
 3. Button     38    3. Ferrari               50
 4. Webber     37    4. Renault               32
 5. Alonso     26    5. Mercedes              16
 6. Massa      24    6. Sauber-Ferrari         7
 7. Petrov     17    7. Toro Rosso-Ferrari     4
 8. Heidfeld   15    8. Force India-Mercedes   4
 9. Rosberg    10    
10. Kobayashi   7    
11. Schumacher  6    
12. Buemi       4    
13. Di Resta    2    
14. Sutil       2  

An eventful, exciting and unusual qualifying session saw Sebastian Vettel put in an astonishing laptime of 1:33.706s that wiped the floor with McLaren and everyone else who might have been feeling that they were inching they way back into contention with the reigning champion.

Red Bull also provided the other big shock of qualifying, but in a far less happy way for Mark Webber. Webber’s car was still being repaired from its electrical problems in early practice, and the team were unable to rescue the KERS system on the car leaving Webber with a deficit of some 0.35s per lap. Despite this the team were confident that they could get through to Q2 even sticking to the prime tyres in order to save the softer options for the subsequent rounds and for the race; but in the final moments of Q3 the teams further back down the running order started to switch to the options and the boost in sped was over 1s a lap, causing the relative driver positions to go into slot machine chaos. Webber was unable to find the pace and was finally ejected from Q2 by Pastor Maldonardo’s final flying run on softs.

Q2 also proved eventful, with Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button all safely sitting in the pits on unbeatable one-lap runs on options, but everyone else feeling nervous about suffering the same sort of last minute shock as Webber and heading back out on the track on softs. Nick Heidfeld was just taking to the track on his only qualifying lap of the session when his team mate Vitaly Petrov put in an excellent time to go fourth – only for his car to then die on him immediately afterwards, with problems in either the gearbox or hydraulics that left him stalled in the middle of the track in turn 5, resulting in a red flag with only 2:02 left to run in the session; Heidfeld didn’t get to complete his lap and had to come back into the pits, that set of options wasted.

Two minutes was borderline for cars to get out and start a flying lap before the chequered flag came out: not only did the contenders queue for over a minute in the pit lane, but once the track went green again there were astonishing scens on the out lap as the cars jockeyed and raced each other hard for position. In the end, the confused and busy conditions meant that the final runs mostly failed to change the standings as they had been prior to the red flag: the most significant development was that Nico Rosberg managed to push himself up into the top ten and into Q3 while his team mate Michael Schumacher failed and would have to start from 14th on the grid. Nick Heidfeld did manage to get his run in, but could only manage 16th after the disruption – there would be no repeat of the Renault’s stunning start at Malaysia here in Shanghai.

Heidfeld’s team mate Petrov was through to Q3 but – as the rules don’t allow a recovered car to take any further part in qualifying – he did not run in Q3 and will duly start in 10th position on the grid tomorrow.

Vettel supplied the only surprise of Q3 by coming out very early for his first fast lap, with Jenson Button, and proceeded to put in a sensational record time that had jaws audibly dropping up and down pit lane. Button’s time was over seven tenths off but still proved to be the best of the rest, as Lewis Hamilton’s late single flier failed to beat his team mate by 0.04s. Hamilton admitted afterwards that he had needed to compromise Q3 to an extent in order to get the tyre strategy right for the race itself: “We are in quite a strong position: the options I just qualified on, a new set of options and a new set of primes and a decent set of options as well,” Hamilton explained. “I just wanted to increase chances for the race because that is what counts.”

Nico Rosberg popped his Mercedes onto the second row of the grid alongside Hamilton pushing the two Ferraris onto the second row, while birthday boy Paul di Resta (25 today) split the two Toro Rossos of Jamie Alguersauri and Sebastien Buemi, who had emerged from the disrupted Q2 with an excellent result of putting both cars through into the final session.

Qualifying times and grid positions

Pos  Driver                Team         Time           Gap   
 1.  Sebastian Vettel      Red Bull     1:33.706s
 2.  Jenson Button         McLaren      1:34.421s  + 0.715
 3.  Lewis Hamilton        McLaren      1:34.463s  + 0.757
 4.  Nico Rosberg          Mercedes     1:34.670s  + 0.964
 5.  Fernando Alonso       Ferrari      1:35.119s  + 1.413
 6.  Felipe Massa          Ferrari      1:35.145s  + 1.439
 7.  Jaime Alguersuari     Toro Rosso   1:36.158s  + 2.452
 8.  Paul di Resta         Force India  1:36.190s  + 2.484
 9.  Sebastien Buemi       Toro Rosso   1:36.203s  + 2.497
10.  Vitaly Petrov         Renault      No time

Q2 cut-off time: 1:35.858s

11.  Adrian Sutil          Force India  1:35.874s  + 1.388
12.  Sergio Perez          Sauber       1:36.053s  + 1.567
13.  Kamui Kobayashi       Sauber       1:36.236s  + 1.750
14.  Michael Schumacher    Mercedes     1:36.457s  + 1.971
15.  Rubens Barrichello    Williams     1:36.465s  + 1.979
16.  Nick Heidfeld         Renault      1:36.611s  + 2.125
17.  Pastor Maldonado      Williams     1:36.956s  + 2.470

Q3 cut-off time: 1:36.147s

18. Mark Webber            Red Bull     1:36.468s  + 1.196
19. Heikki Kovalainen      Lotus        1:37.894s  + 2.622
20. Jarno Trulli           Lotus        1:38.318s  + 3.046
21. Jerome D'Ambrosio      Virgin       1:39.119s  + 3.847
22. Timo Glock             Virgin       1:39.708s  + 4.436
23. Tonio Liuzzi           HRT          1:40.212s  + 4.940
24. Narain Karthikeyan     HRT          1:40.445s  + 5.173

107% time: 1:41.941s

Okay class, let’s recap what we learned from the first race of the season at Australia: Red Bull (or at least Sebastian Vettel) is in a class of his own; only McLaren are anywhere close, and it was all thanks to Lewis Hamilton with Jenson Button already looking like the second-string driver; the rest of the field aren’t even in sight, especially a disappointing Ferrari and a Renault team feeling the loss of Robert Kubica’s leadership; the adjustable rear wing/drag reduction system (DRS) is a dud; KERS makes no difference; and overtaking is still a strikingly rare occurrence in Formula 1. That just about does it – the season review for 2011 all written and correct.

Except then we had Malaysia, and it turned out that the summary is not entirely accurate. Or to be it another way: Sepang saw some very interesting developments and surprises indeed.

Heidfeld beats Hamilton around the outsidePictures by arrangement and prior agreement with CrashNet/CrashPA

Yes, Vettel is still the cream of the crop, able to cruise to a victory like no one else in F1 at the moment. But qualifying showed that McLaren are tearing lumps out of Red Bull’s advantage, and Lewis Hamilton very nearly bumped Vettel from pole position. When it came to the race itself, if only Lewis hadn’t been beaten into the first turn by the Renault of Nick Heidfeld then the race could have had a very different shape to it – and potentially a different leader by the midpoint of the afternoon.

Now, wait a minute – did you spot the startling little fact I sneaked through in that last sentence? In case your shocked mind refused to absorb it, I’ll say it again: Nick Heidfeld beat Lewis Hamilton into the first corner and stole second place. This is not a drill, nor a mistake, although it will certainly have caused consternation in the McLaren camp, since the last thing anyone expected was Renault suddenly finding any pace. And yet Heidfeld (starting from sixth) and team mate Vitaly Petrov (starting from eighth) steamed down the outside line into turn 1, first going four-wide with the Ferraris of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa who had had to weave either side around the bogged-down Red Bull of Mark Webber on the grid; and then as the first corner approached, the Renaults out-braked the Ferraris and slipped alongside the McLarens of Hamilton and Jenson Button. Heidfeld was two-wide with Hamilton, and the two banged wheels, but Heidfeld was able to hold on to the outside line long enough for them to turn into the left hander turn 2, and suddenly Nick had the upper hand in the battle and Lewis had to yield and settle for third place. He must have been staring at the unfamiliar JPS paint job on the Renault’s rear wing trying to work out exactly who it was and what had just happened.

Vettel leads Heidfeld and Hamilton at the end of lap 1

Unfortunately for the race itself, Heidfeld’s success was to the race’s detriment, because he was no match for Vettel and instead simply kept Hamilton bottled up behind him as the Red Bull’s lead grew and grew over the first stint of the afternoon.

But the other Red Bull, that of Mark Webber, was not faring so well. The car had needed its KERS batteries replaced in parc fermé prior to the race, but the team had already determined that the system had failed completely as Webber cruised around for his warm-up lap. That was the reason his car bogged down at the start (Vettel’s KERS was working fine at this point and indeed the young world champion credited KERS with being essential to getting away in the lead and to winning the race): not only did Webber not have the extra 80 horsepower to call upon, he was also lugging the dead-weight of the installed system around with him. This meant that going down the long Sepang straights, he was a sitting duck for other nominally slower cars; but once the tables were turned and he was behind someone else, then he could instead kick in the DRS boost and get past them that way. It left Webber exchanging positions like mad with Kamui Kobayashi during the early laps, and once the two finally parted (after Webber was revealed as being on a four-stop strategy, seemingly still having problems with Pirelli tyre wear), Kobayashi went on to have similar battles with the likes of Michael Schumacher who doubtless didn’t appreciate having the young Japanese pup snapping all round his heels for much of the afternoon.

Schumacher and Kobayashi doing battle

But all this action certainly displayed how effective the DRS actually can be, in contrast to Melbourne where it had been a damp squib: there was no arguing that it allowed fast cars to get up alongside the car in front and have a chance (but not a foregone conclusion) of getting through, which is exactly what it’s designed to do. It wasn’t so performance-distorting that it allowed Hamilton to dispatch Heidfeld, but it gave us more successful and close overtaking moves in one afternoon than we’ve typically seen all year in recent F1 seasons. Unexpectedly, DRS emerged from Sepang as a grade A hit for the sport – although you can still argue it’s too complex and gimmicky to appeal to lay-fans of the sport.

A more low-tech way of mixing up races has always been to add a little rain, and there were certainly some dark clouds circling overhead for much of the afternoon. For the most part the rain held off, offering just some light drops for a period of 20 minutes that – while it possibly made the track slippery in places and contributed to a few minor un-offs and incidents – didn’t have a major impact on proceedings. It’s just as well, because it doesn’t just ‘rain’ in Sepeng – once it starts, it’s more like the proverbial Biblical event, with the safety car needing to be replaced by Noah’s latest sports-model ark to have a chance of keeping on the circuit.

That meant pit stops were a fallback to mixing up the positions. Webber was first in on lap 11 at the start of that horrible (but presumably essential) four-stop strategy, while Hamilton was one of the first of those on a three-stopper when he came in on lap 12. He had one lap before Heidfeld came in, and he put it to good use by pulling off fast times that meant he was ahead of Heidfeld after the Renault came in next time around; Jenson Button came in at the same time as Heidfeld and was given a great service by McLaren that put him out ahead of

Now Hamilton could concentrate on seeing if there was anything he could do about that huge lead of Vettel’s, forlorn hope that it was. Except it wasn’t: Hamilton was taking huge chunks out of Vettel’s lead with every lap. This battle wasn’t over yet, and when Red Bull broadcast instructions to Vettel over the team radio that he was not to use KERS anymore for the remainder of the race (something McLaren learned by listening to the BBC television feed, apparently) suddenly the team knew that this thing wasn’t done yet. In fact the last person in the world to hear about Vettel’s problem was Seb himself, who apparently missed the significance of the first broadcast and needed it relaying again a few moments later.

But as eager as McLaren were for Hamilton to get up there and do battle for the lead, they were also worried about the state of his tyres. He was back in pit lane on lap 24 and had to take the harder tyres, but he stuttered away from the pit box and the slight delay meant he came out right behind Vitaly Petrov who threatened to hold him up much as his Renault team mate had done in the early laps; however, Hamilton dispatched him with a great move around Petrov on turn 5 and looked set to resume hunting down Vettel, who had also pitted in the meantime and come out on the softer tyres but facing his own traffic problems of a duelling Nick Heidfeld and Felipe Massa. Things evened out and ultimately made little difference to the battle, and Hamilton was under 4s away from the leader, with Button some way back in third ahead of Alonso, Webber, Heidfeld, Massa and Kobayashi at the halfway point.

But in fact, a corner had been turned: Vettel was now fast again and was setting the fastest laps, pulling out more of a lead over Hamilton who seemed to be struggling on this set of tyres and losing time even to Button behind him. By lap 36, Vettel had doubled his lead to 8.8s, and Hamilton would have been relieved to come in shortly afterwards for this third and final stop – except that the team had to stick with the harder compound to make the remaining 18 lap distance to the chequered flag, and worse still had a fumble on the front left wheel change that cost Lewis valuable tenths.

By contrast, Jenson Button’s pit stop a lap later was a proverbial stonker – and he was back out in front of his team mate and flying. Hamilton’s surge for the race win was well and truly over, and now he wasn’t even going to be second. In fact, he was now going so slowly that the cars behind him were eating their way through what had appeared an impossibly big gap at such a rate that there was no chance of him not losing still more positions before the end. And first up to try his luck passing the McLaren was Lewis’ old rival, Fernando Alonso.

Alonso was right up to the back of Hamilton by lap 44, but Ferrari had bad news for their man: the DRS adjustable rear wing had failed, depriving him of the biggest weapon he had in his arsenal for overtaking the McLaren. Fernando was already not in the best of moods – he’d been heard earlier curtly telling his race engineer not to send him any more information by radio, a motorsports term for “you’re talking too much, shut up and stay out of my head” – and he’s not known for his patience at the best of times, so when Hamilton started some blatant blocking moves, Alonso started to see read and decided to harass and hassle his old enemy out of the way.

Except- whoops! – he misjudged it, and late-braked all the way into a collision with the rear of the McLaren. It was a dumb move that left him with a crunched rear wing that forced him into the pits for a new nose next time around; Hamilton was able to continue, the contact seemingly not having punctured his rear tyres, but his pace was now to shockingly poor that he went on to be easy prey for an overtaking move by Nick Heidefeld for third on lap 52, then Mark Webber got past on lap 53 when Hamilton ran off the track entirely. McLaren had to declare defeat on stretching his final set of tyres to the end and pitted Lewis on lap 53, causing him to fall to seventh place by the chequered flag.

Button, Vettel and Heidfeld make an unexpected podium

Hamilton would lose another place post-race when handed a 20s penalty for blocking Alonso, and Alonso was also penalised 20s for causing an avoidable accident although in his case the gaps in the times meant he kept sixth place. The only other driver to be penalised on Sunday was Sebastien Buemi, who was given a strangely severe 10s stop-and-go penalty for speeding in the pit lane rather than the more usual drive-thru. “I had the impression that the pitlane speed limiter had not been engaged,” explained Bueumi. “I immediately pressed it again, which deactivated it, so I sped in the pit lane.”

Vitaly Petrov inadvertently provided the race with its most spectacular moment. After that formation start with team mate Heidfeld off the starting grid which put him up in fifth place behind Jenson Button, Petrov has blotted his copybook by running wide at turn 14 on lap 6 which lost him all of the places he’d gained and dropped him to ninth. He then had a fairly quiet race up until lap 54, when he ran wide at turn 8 and attempted to return to the track without taking his foot off the accelerator. Unfortunately the uneven runoff area wasn’t intended for off-roading, and Petrov bounced into a dip and was then launched into the air before crunching back onto the track with an impact that broke the steering column mount in his hands. The car skidded off and came to a rest against a 150m marker board.

“To be honest I still don’t understand what I did,” Petrov said. “I think I picked up just a little bit of rubber, and as soon as you take one piece of rubber, you have a little bit of understeer … You should be able to come back to the track there, so I just kept going – but then I hit the big bump.” Fortunately Petrov was not injured by the accident – drivers have suffered serious spinal harm in incidents far less eye-popping than this one – but Petrov said that the track owners should look at the run off areas and sort out the bumps for next year before it causes a more serious accident in the future.

It was a bad day indeed for the Williams team. Rubens Barrichello was hit from behind by Adrian Sutil as he turned through the final corner of turn 1 and suffered a left rear puncture as a result; worse, he had to crawl through a full lap to get back to the pit lane for a new set of tyres while Sutil zipped on ahead for a new front wing. Not that it mattered to Barrichello, because he was to make multiple stops before finally retiring on lap 23 with a hydraulic problem, by which time his team mate Pastor Maldonado was already parked up in the garage with a chronic misfire problem.

Both HRT cars also retired during the race, although in their case simply making it into the race and comfortably beating the 107% cut-off was a small triumph in its own right. Narain Karthikeyan retired from the race after 15 laps with high water temperatures and the team did not want him to risk carrying on and damaging the car; Tonio Liuzzi’s car suffered from rear end stability and the team decided he should park up on lap 47 for safety reasons rather than risk seeing him go flying off the circuit.

After his on-track success (and cruel off-track exclusion) in Australia, Sergio Perez returned to the reality of F1 motor racing with retirement on lap 24 when he was hit by debris falling off Sebastian Buemi’s car in front of him, setting off the Sauber’s fire systems and cutting off the electronics as a result. A clutch problem did for Jarno Trulli on lap 32, and Jerome D’Ambrosio’s race ended on lap 43 when the power switch was affected by a hard hit on the kerbs which resulted in the car stopping dead out on track.

Vettel celebrates with the Red Bull crew

But up in front, Sebastian Vettel was once again triumphant – but it was not as clear sailing as Melboune had appeared, and there were times when his Red Bull looked distinctly vulnerable to attack from McLaren. And not just from Hamilton – once he took over in second, Button also did well to cut Vettel’s lead right back in the second half of the race, although he admitted that his race strategy was probably too complex for its own good. “It was a really confusing race in a way, understanding or trying to understand the pitstops and whether it is worth looking after the tyres or not, so pretty tricky,” he admitted afterwards.

As a result, Jenson Button slides into second place in the drivers’ championship and suddenly looks every bit a match again for Lewis Hamilton who is tied on points with Mark Webber who despite another difficult race managed some nice damage limitation to take fourth place.

Renault came out of nowhere to be a real player (pun intended) at Sepang and in particular Nick Heidfeld suddenly becoming every inch the stand-in team leader they so desperately needed after all ater a disappointing time in Australia; and Ferrari would have been a stronger contender if not for Alonso’s red mist moment with Hamilton and a strangely pallid performance from Felipe Massa who increasingly is looking like a driver in the winding down phase of his F1 career. And even though it sounds like incomprehensible alphabet soup to casual fans and bound up in too many technicalities on timing and place of use, KERS and DRS also finally proved their worth at Sepang, hugely enriching the spectacle and giving us more racing and overtaking moments than we could ever have imagined.

If nothing else, Malaysia showed that the 2011 season review has only penned its first introductory lines and there is still a lot of story to tell, and many twists and turns in form and fortune to unfold. And yet for all that, you wouldn’t bet against that season review having the overall headline “Vettel wins second championship” – is there anyone who can stop him taking win afer win in 2011?

Race results

Pos  Driver       Team                  Time
 1.  Vettel       Red Bull-Renault      1:37:39.832
 2.  Button       McLaren-Mercedes      +     3.261
 3.  Heidfeld     Renault               +    25.075
 4.  Webber       Red Bull-Renault      +    26.384
 5.  Massa        Ferrari               +    36.958
 6.  Alonso       Ferrari               +    57.248 *
 7.  Kobayashi    Sauber-Ferrari        +  1:07.239
 8.  Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes      +  1:09.957 *
 9.  Schumacher   Mercedes              +  1:24.896
10.  Di Resta     Force India-Mercedes  +  1:31.563
11.  Sutil        Force India-Mercedes  +  1:41.379
12.  Rosberg      Mercedes              +     1 lap
13.  Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari    +     1 lap
14.  Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari    +     1 lap
15.  Kovalainen   Lotus-Renault         +     1 lap
16.  Glock        Virgin-Cosworth       +    2 laps
17.  Petrov       Renault               +    4 laps

* After 20s penalty applied

Fastest lap: Webber, 1:40.571

Not classified/retirements:
Driver       Team               On lap
Liuzzi       HRT-Cosworth       47
D'Ambrosio   Virgin-Cosworth    43
Trulli       Lotus-Renault      32
Perez        Sauber-Ferrari     24
Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth  23
Karthikeyan  HRT-Cosworth       15
Maldonado    Williams-Cosworth   9

World Championship standings after round 2

Drivers                     Constructors             
 1. Sebastian Vettel   50   1. Red Bull/Renault      72
 2. Jenson Button      26   2. McLaren/Mercedes      48
 3. Lewis Hamilton     22   3. Ferrari               36
 4. Mark Webber        22   4. Renault               30
 5. Fernando Alonso    20   5. Sauber/Ferrari         6
 6. Felipe Massa       16   6. Toro Rosso/Ferrari     4
 7. Nick Heidfeld      15   7. Force India/Mercedes   4
 8. Vitaly Petrov      15   8. Mercedes               2
 9. Kamui Kobayashi     6
10. Sebastien Buemi     4
11. Adrian Sutil        2
12. Michael Schumacher  2
13. Paul di Resta       2

Sebastian Vettel got the perfect start to the race, and consequently the best possible start to the season, with a dominant victory in Australia. But further back there were quite a few eye-catching surprises.

There’s no getting around it, this year’s Formula 1 season has a potential major problem: Sebastian Vettel is driving so well, is so far ahead of the rest of the field and making so few mistakes that this year’s championship could be decided in record time. In some ways that would only be right, since Vettel and Red Bull should have walked it last year if not for some early season technical problems and human errors, but if Vettel and his team are not going to give the rest of the field the same sort of handicap this year then Vettel’s lead of up to a second a lap at times in Melbourne is going to be decimating.

Pictures courtesy CrashNet/CrashPA

Let’s get the race win out of the way: Vettel got away perfectly, led into the first corner and was over 2s ahead of the rest of the field by the end of the first lap. Job done, race won given that the Red Bull displayed bullet-proof reliability for the whole of the race.

In second, Lewis Hamilton had a somewhat more testing time – too much wheel spin off the grid left him battling to retain second position, but he just about managed to do so. Vettel pulled out a substantial lead over the next five laps, but then as the tyres started to wear it was Vettel’s pace that faltered and Hamilton closed up to within 2.5s of the leader before the first round of pit stops. Vettel came in first on lap 15, while Hamilton seemed to be managing his tyres better; but after two laps more, Hamilton came in to the pits and found those extra two laps had proved very costly: Hamilton was now 6.5s behind the leader and his challenge was on the wane.

With the two on more-or-less identical strategies from then on, Hamilton never had another chance to make any impact on Vettel. Then on lap 34 Hamilton had a slow lap and ran off onto the grass; replays showed that even before the run-off, the undertray of the McLaren was damaged and hanging down, ruining the aerodynamic handling of the car. Hamilton was able to continue but was now nursing his car home, but the final 22s gap between first and second was by no means representative of the respective form of the two and Hamilton would have been a lot closer if not for the undertray damage that left the team nervously awaiting news from scrutineering to see whether the car’s technical regulation compliance regarding ride height had been compromised. However, despite this red herring issue, this was a substantial bounceback and return to competitiveness in just three weeks considering the almost suicidal despondency in the McLaren camp after the last pre-season tests which were disastrous for the team

Nor was it a fluke, given that Jenson Button’s form was also very strong. Unfortunately a couple of mistakes by Button himself wrecked his chances for a decent result: the first came off the starting grid, when he was so busy trying to cover Fernando Alonso attacking down the outside line that he allowed first Vitaly Petrov and then Felipe Massa to muscle him aside from the inside line. That left Button staring at the back of the Ferrari, and despite a clearly faster car he was unable to get past for lap after lap of sustained pressure, even using the adjustable rear wing (or more properly, the drag reduction system) down the main straight. The stalemate continued through to lap 12 when Button’s latest attack saw the McLaren have to take to the escape route at turn 12 to avoid a collision, giving Button the pass as a side-effect. Clearly he’d done so by “not respecting the track limits” and should have given the position back, but a critical delay in communication between driver, team and stewards saw Ferrari perform a quiet switch behind them putting Alonso ahead of Massa: if Button had to allow Massa round to pass then Alonso got through as well by default. In the end the Ferraris pitted in the meantime and so the stewards had no alternative but to give a disgruntled Button a drive-thru penalty that cost him several positions. After that, Button was in recovery mode: he showed that he could use the drag reduction system when he used it to blast past Kamui Kobayashi on lap 26, and on lap 48 he got a measure of revenge on Massa by passing him with ease on the start/finish straight, Massa virtually pulling over to one side making Button’s assertive push almost redundant. Massa’s passivity at this late stage might be explained by the fact he was in for his final pit stop shortly thereafter which dropped him down to a very disappointing ninth position.

Vettel’s team mate Mark Webber showed that by contrast, Red Bull’s form is slightly more mixed than McLaren’s than Vettel’s own race-winning performance might suggest. Webber had nearly taken second place from Hamilton off the line, but once he failed to do so he dropped back, suffered from early tyre wear that made him the first front-runner into the pits, and after that he drifted around in an underwhelming and doubtless frustrating fourth. He briefly ran off track on the new, cool tyres after his second pit stop which allowed Alonso to pick up fourth, and Webber was then unable to push Alonso for the position because of some late technical issues that saw him pull over immediately after the chequered flag and park up in the pit lane exit with some signs of smoke coming from the front of the car. “I was pushing as hard as I could but I wasn’t getting much back so I don’t know why,” he admitted afterwards.

With Webber and both Ferraris somewhat muted from expectations going into the weekend, there were openings for some surprise stars of the race – and of all people it was Vitaly Petrov who seized the chance, running to a hugely impressive third place. He managed to hold off pressure from Alonso in the closing laps to become the first Russian driver on a Formula 1 podium. Considering that Petrov has been much criticised for being a “pay driver” only in the seat because of the money he brings to Renault, this was a quantum leap forward from his stumbling, often bumbling 2010 performances. It’s almost as though the enforced absence of the injured Robert Kubica had unbottled Petrov’s own potential and made him think and act like a team leader at last. Heaven knows, Kubica’s direct replacement Nick Heidfeld wasn’t in a position to do so, limping around well down the running order in an unimpressive return to active F1 duty after a collision on the first lap left him with severe damage to the right hand bodywork, sidepod and engine cover that wrecked the car’s aerodynamic handling.

GP2 graduate Sergio Perez dazzled the brightest in his first F1 outing. Sauber is not exactly known for being one of the strongest cars on the grid and no one had particularly singled them out for much success, but Perez ran in the top ten for much of the race. Most impressively of all he did it on a one-stop strategy, in a race where concerns about the durability of new manufacturer Pirelli’s product was leading many teams to feel that even two stops was a big ask. Quite frankly there’s no way that Perez should have been able to manage the tyres to pull off a one-stop strategy – especially as it was revealed this was an ad hoc decision decided during the race and thus not even something Perez had planned or prepared for. Sadly Perez’ achievement was overshadowed by the Sauber team’s subsequent disqualification from the Grand Prix because of a technical infringement relating to the uppermost rear wing element – the stewards effectively saying that it was too flat, allowing more air through the moveable rear wing gap, hence reducing drag and making the car run faster unfairly.

Another F1 rookie, Paul Di Resta, also made a very good start to his Grand Prix career. He benefited from Perez and Kobayashi’s disqualification by being bumped up to tenth place in the final results, meaning that he scored an F1 point in his first outing for Force India by finishing just behind his much-fancied and much more experienced team leader Adrian Sutil, in a race that saw him twice voluntarily cede track position to Sutil during the race as the two were on different strategies.

In retirements, Pastor Maldonado pulled over on lap 10 with gearbox failure; Heikki Kovalainen exited on lap 19 after a water leak led to an overheating radiator on his Lotus; and Timo Glock ground to a halt on lap 50. Michael Schumacher was also an early retiree: he was hit from behind by a fast-starting Jamie Alguersuari on the first lap which saw both cars into the pits, Schumacher for new tyres after suffering a rear right puncture, and Alguersuari for a new front wing. However the damage to Schumacher’s Mercedes proved too serious and the team opted to call him in on lap 19 on safety grounds.

Rubens Barrichello had flown off the track into the gravel trap on lap 1, but able to rejoin and start making up some of those lost positions as the race settled down. He had just pulled off an impressively daring overtaking move on Kobayashi (not known as being an easy target!) on lap 22 when, emboldened, he then tried a vastly over-ambitious lunge down the side of Nico Rosberg into turn 3 which ended badly for Rosberg, the side of the Mercedes seriously damaged and ultimately not even allowing Rosberg to make it back to the pits before quitting on him. Unsurprisingly, Barrichello was given a drive-thru penalty for causing the accident but in the end he found himself pulling into his garage to retire as well, suffering from the same gearbox problems that forced his new team mate Maldonado out earlier in the afternoon.

So at the end of the first day of F1 in 2011, what have we learned?

Well, the adjustable rear wing/drag reduction system had a muted and mixed introduction. It failed to give Button the boost he needed to overtake Massa in the early stages, but a few drivers found it more helpful later on and it arguably gave the race more overtaking than usual, although primarily it seems that what it really does is give a clearly faster car a chance to overtake instead of getting bottled up behind a slower one, rather than levelling any playing fields.

KERS played a part in that as well; but Red Bull revealed afterwards that neither of their cars had even been fitted with the system following much pre-race speculation that they might be bending the rules by having a start line-only, pre-charged KERS-type power boost system instead. Given Vettel’s clear domination of the ensuing race without the burden of the carrying the weight of the KERS system, other teams may also be wondering if whether it’s really worth it or not.

The tyres fared much better than expected too, after excessive wear in pre-season testing made teams wonder whether a full race distance was even viable. But even so, and even allowing for the team’s subsequent disqualification, Perez’ astonishing achievement on a one-stop strategy defied belief: “can he walk on water, too?” quipped the BBC’s commentator Martin Brundle.

As for the teams: Vettel as expected is operating in a different level from everyone else, even his team mate; McLaren’s bounceback from pre-season testing depression is astounding; Ferrari, after seeming strong in testing, were rather mediocre; and Petrov’s podium is a huge breakthrough for Renault but Heidfeld’s performance shows just how much they’re missing Kubica.

So it was an interesting and entertaining Grand Prix with much to watch and assess. Whether it augurs a season as good as 2010’s proved to be depends rather heavily on whether anyone can do anything about the reigning champion, or whether Sebastian Vettel is set to sweep the year’s championship in record time.

Race results

Pos Driver       Team                 Time
 1. Vettel       Red Bull-Renault     1h29:30.259
 2. Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes     +    22.297
 3. Petrov       Renault              +    30.560
 4. Alonso       Ferrari              +    31.772
 5. Webber       Red Bull-Renault     +    38.171
 6. Button       McLaren-Mercedes     +    54.300
 7. Massa        Ferrari              +  1:25.100
 8. Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +  1 lap
 9. Sutil        Force India-Mercedes +  1 lap
10. Di Resta     Force India-Mercedes +  1 lap
11. Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +  1 lap
12. Heidfeld     Renault              +  1 lap
13. Trulli       Lotus-Renault        +  2 laps
14. D'Ambrosio   Virgin-Cosworth      +  3 laps

Fastest lap: Massa, 1:28.947

Not classified/retirements:

Driver       Team              On lap
Glock        Virgin-Cosworth   50
Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth 49
Rosberg      Mercedes          22
Kovalainen   Lotus-Renault     19
Schumacher   Mercedes          19
Maldonado    Williams-Cosworth 10

Perez        Sauber-Ferrari    Disqualified
Kobayashi    Sauber-Ferrari    Disqualified
Liuzzi       HRT-Cosworth      Did not qualify
Karthikeyan  HRT-Cosworth      Did not qualify

World Championship standings after round 1

Drivers:              Constructors:
 1.  Vettel    25     1.  Red Bull-Renault   35
 2.  Hamilton  18     2.  McLaren-Mercedes   26
 3.  Petrov    15     3.  Renault            18
 4.  Alonso    12     4.  Ferrari            15
 5.  Webber    10     5.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari  4
 6.  Button     8     6.  Force India         3
 7.  Massa      6
 8.  Buemi      4
 9.  Sutil      2
10.  Di Resta   1

So, here we are. The sun setting over the glorious hi-tech Yas Marina circuit was a fitting visual metaphor for the sun setting on the 2010 Formula 1 season. But before the day and the year could be done, there was one final all-important piece of business to attend to: the crowning of the new world champion.

Ahead of the green lights, the smart money had to be on Fernando Alonso, ahead in the points and able to clinch his third title just by finishing fourth or better. Mark Webber had the best prospect of the Red Bull drivers and there was a hint that Sebastian Vettel might have to lay down his own title bid for that of his team mate should the opportunity and need arise. And then there was Lewis Hamilton, still mathematically in with a chance, but realistically needing a first lap disaster to take out the others to have a genuine shot.

Four contenders, one race, one champion.

Vettel had the critical advantage of starting from pole, but that also meant that he had to deal with Lewis Hamilton starting alongside him. Hamilton rarely gives any quarter, and the risk for Vettel was that they could take each other out and leave it wide open for Alonso to claim the title.

Both drivers got good starts, and both aimed for that first turn apex. Vettel was careful to leave enough but not too much space for the Mclaren, pinching him across the corner – and Hamilton blinked, having to lift off to avoid losing his front wing which got the lightest brush of the Red Bull’s tyres. Vettel was away, in the lead, and his destiny was well and truly in his own hands.

Hamilton managed to hold on to second despite losing momentum, and would have been surprised to find the big challenge from behind was not from Alonso who has been third on the grid, but Jenson Button getting a flier from fourth. That pushed Alonso down to fourth – not ideal, but still okay in terms of the championship especially with Mark Webber one further place back in fifth.

Racing came to an abrupt and premature pause a few seconds later, however, when the two Mercedes went into turn 5 side-by-side – and Nico Rosberg gave a slight touch to Michael Schumacher’s car which sent the veteran driver into a spin, leaving him face-on into the traffic. Most of the cars following through were able to react and avoid the blockage, but then Tonio Liuzzi arrived on the scene. Unsighted, he reacted too late and the Force India ploughed right into the Mercedes, climbing right over and up the front in a shower of debris. Despite the relative low speed of the accident, it was a chilling vision: the front wing heading straight toward the one part of the driver’s helmet that was exposed. Fortunately the F1 safety features coped with even this worst case scenario, and Schumacher was soon out of the car and walking away with Liuzzi.

The mess the crash had created needed a safety car, and the cars were sent round a detour while the shards were gathered up. It also gave some of the cars lower down the running order a chance to pit for their mandatory tyre change, and in came Nico Rosberg, Vitaly Petrov, Jamie Alguersuari, Bruno Senna, Lucas di Grassi and Christian Klien

But up front, it was still Vettel leading the field at the restart – and backing the field up so abruptly that at one point Hamilton overshot and almost passed him. There were shades of stewards intervention affecting the outcome of the world championship, but fortunately sensible heads prevailed and no action was taken. The race was back underway, and Nick Rosberg claimed first blood at the restart with a start line move on Timo Glock for 16th, and seconds later Robert Kubica made a daring, brilliant move to overtake Adrian Sutil for 9th; up front, Vettel had a clear edge over Hamilton, but Lewis was hanging in there just a second off the lead.

Mark Webber was in the most uncomfortable position, sandwiched between Alonso in front and Felipe Massa behind and needing to get in front of Alonso if his title bid was to have any possible chance of success. He pushed hard – and on lap 9 almost too hard, the backend stepping out through turn 19 and brushing the armco barrier in a shower of sparks. Fortunately it seemed to have done no serious damage, but it certainly underlined the fact that Webber wasn’t going to get past Alonso on track especially as he was soon struggling with the supersoft tyres wearing badly.

Red Bull reacted by calling an early pit stop for Webber on lap 12. It was truly a make or break decision: by putting him back out on fresh rubber in relatively clear air with easy targets like Alguersuari to dispatch for 16th, Webber could put his foot down and punch out some fast laps to jump Alonso and who knows how many others before the other leaders came into the pits.

Ferrari was quickly aware of the danger of the situation, and after a couple of laps of apparent indecision they called in Felipe Massa to the pits. Massa had been trying to put in fast laps of his own and hopefully come back out ahead of Webber, but the opportunity never materialised and Massa was back out on track behind the Red Bull. Now the threat was whether one or both of those cars would end up ahead of Alonso come the world championship contender’s own stop: Ferrari’s hand was forced, and they called in Alonso on lap 16 to make sure he was out again in front of them both despite Webber setting a fastest lap in the meantime.

Ferrari had covered Mark Webber, who appeared at that point to be the major threat to Alonso claiming the title. But they had been deceived: he was back out in 13th place and suddenly locked up in traffic. Worse, among that traffic were cars that had pitted under the safety car and would not be coming in again for the rest of the evening. Could Alonso get past them and work his way up again, or would he get stuck?

Upfront, Vettel and Hamilton had also been struggling for tyre wear on the supersofts, but they had enough of a lead over a lonely Jenson Button in third to tough it out, and by lap 19 the tyres were coming good again and they were able to continue running without adverse effect through to lap 25. It kept them well out of trouble, although Button gave them both a brief scare by extending his stint much further and at one point approached the kind of lead that would allow him to get in and out of the pits and take position; but McLaren kept him out past this tipping point, the lead declined, and when he finally pitted on lap 40 his advantage had ebbed away and he returned to the track safely in third. One might almost conjecture that McLaren had planned it that way, to keep Lewis Hamilton in front and his remote championship chances alive until the very last moment.

The full disaster of the situation was suddenly dawning on Ferrari: with Vettel in the lead, and looking beyond any challenge, suddenly the threat to Alonso’s title bid wasn’t Weber who was still contained and neutered behind them. No – it was now Vettel himself, who no longer had to give any thought or consideration to the prospect of team orders and whether he would have to do anything to help out Webber.

Alonso was soon stuck behind the Renault of Vitaly Petrov, who had the benefit of straight line speed boosted by an effective F-duct that gave Alonso few opportunities to attack. From lap 19 until the end of the race, Alonso would find himself staring at the back end of Petrov’s car, probing for overtaking chances – and finding none.

Alonso’s frustration would tell come the chequered flag, when he gesticulated to Petrov on the cool-down lap to tell the Russian driver that he had cost Alonso the championship – not exactly true, but understandable in the heat of the moment before calming down for the post-race press interviews. But it all meant that Alonso’s bid was done: when the final pit stops filtered through, he was to find himself in a remote 7th place. Not nearly good enough.

Alonso was out of the running, then; so was Webber behind him, and Hamilton despite running second still needed everyone else to retire. So it was all down to Sebastian Vettel, and all Vettel needed to do was to get to the chequered flag. We’ve seen in the past that this is no assured deal, that the car could blow up or break down at the final moment, or the tyres could wear and fade.

But instead, the moment seemed preordained: after tense lap followed by tense lap, it was finally here – the chequered flag and the end of the 2010 season. For a few seconds there was deathly quiet on the Red Bull pit wall as they held their breath, mindful of the way that in Brazil 2008 Ferrari had started celebrating prematurely only to see the title slip away because of a last corner change of position in the midfield that had given the title to Hamilton over Massa. They wanted to see the results on the screen before they celebrated, to make sure that Alonso hadn’t somehow made up four positions in the final seconds.

He hadn’t, and finally the Red Bull pit wall exploded. The radio comms delivered the news to Vettel, who hadn’t even been sure of the situation until then; and from his strangled, high pitched voice over the air waves there was no doubting the emotion there, too. Vettel had come into this race third favourite at best, but he had pulled it off.

And so at last, we had a new world champion – and it was the youngest ever, 23-year-old Sebastian Vettel. Fittingly he took the top step on the podium, but strikingly it was a podium of world champions with Lewis Hamilton in second and Jenson Button hanging on to a fine and well deserved third. Suddenly the era of Michael Schumacher’s dominance seemed a very, very long time ago.

The best season of Formula 1 of all time? It’s easy to overreach into hyperbole on the adrenalin of a season finale, but 2010 has certainly had enough highlights to make it a strong candidate. But perhaps more importantly than that is the prospect of 2011: with five world champions in the field (Vettel, Button, Hamilton, Alonso and Schumacher), with 20 races at 20 impressive and ever-improving facilities, and with the rules and technical regulations in flux once more (good bye Bridgestone, hello Pirelli; farewell F-Duct, welcome back KERS and greetings to adjustable rear wings) there is no way of predicting whether next year’s champion will be driving a Red Bull, or Ferrari, or McLaren, or Renault – or perhaps something completely out of the blue like Brawn GP last year.

We’ll start the journey to find out in 120 days, when the next generation of F1 cars take to the track in Bahrain.

Race results

Pos Driver       Team                 Time
 1. Vettel       Red Bull-Renault     1:39:36.837
 2. Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes     +    10.1s
 3. Button       McLaren-Mercedes     +    11.0s
 4. Rosberg      Mercedes             +    30.7s
 5. Kubica       Renault              +    39.0s
 6. Petrov       Renault              +    43.5s
 7. Alonso       Ferrari              +    43.7s
 8. Webber       Red Bull-Renault     +    44.2s
 9. Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +    50.2s
10. Massa        Ferrari              +    50.8s
11. Heidfeld     Sauber-Ferrari       +    51.5s
12. Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth    +    57.6s
13. Sutil        Force India-Mercedes +    58.3s
14. Kobayashi    Sauber-Ferrari       +    59.5s
15. Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +  1:03.1s
16. Hulkenberg   Williams-Cosworth    +  1:04.7s
17. Kovalainen   Lotus-Cosworth       +    1 lap
18. Di Grassi    Virgin-Cosworth      +    2 laps
19. Senna        HRT-Cosworth         +    2 laps
20. Klien        HRT-Cosworth         +    2 laps
21. Trulli       Lotus-Cosworth       +    4 laps

Fastest lap: Hamilton, 1m41.274s

Not classified/retirements:

Driver     Team              On lap
Glock      Virgin-Cosworth       44
Schumacher Mercedes               1
Liuzzi     Force India-Mercedes   1

F1 World Championship standings after round 19

Drivers                 Constructors   
 1. Vettel      256   1. Red Bull-Renault     498
 2. Alonso      252   2. McLaren-Mercedes     454
 3. Webber      242   3. Ferrari              396
 4. Hamilton    240   4. Mercedes             214
 5. Button      214   5. Renault              163
 6. Massa       144   6. Williams-Cosworth     69
 7. Rosberg     142   7. Force India-Mercedes  68
 8. Kubica      136   8. Sauber-Ferrari        44
 9. Schumacher   72   9. Toro Rosso-Ferrari    13
10. Barrichello  47       
11. Sutil        47       
12. Kobayashi    32       
13. Petrov       27       
14. Hulkenberg   22       
15. Liuzzi       21       
16. Buemi         8       
17. De la Rosa    6       
18. Heidfeld      6       
19. Alguersuari   5

A dramatic and eventful Korean Grand Prix more than delivered on high expectations of this brand new circuit – and made a dramatic and possibly decisive intervention in the the 2010 championship battle.

After all the doubts over whether the Yeongam track would be finished in time – and after Herculean efforts by the organisers to ensure that it was ready against the odds – it was especially ironic that the race itself should be delayed after all, albeit only by 10 minutes, because of the weather. Persistent and at times heavy rain overnight and all morning had left the place sodden, echoes of the atrocious weather than had plagued construction work earlier in the year. The race was eventually started behind the safety car, red-flagged when the rain continued and conditions didn’t improve, and then restarted again behind the safety car nearly an hour later. The clock was ticking – how much of the race could they get through before the light started to fail?

Pictures courtesy CrashNet/CrashPA

It would be wrong to absolve the circuit of all responsibility for the struggles at the start, however. While the immediate cause for the delays was the rain, it was no worse than we’ve seen at many venues where the race has proceeded normally. Here, however, the water simply refused to clear off the track – the drainage wasn’t proving effective, and the bitumen-rich composition of the new track was also stopping the water soaking in. Add to that the fact that the tarmac – laid only two weeks ago – was still weeping oily chemicals and the combination with the rain was leaving the track treacherous for all concerned.

The cars ran behind the safety car for a total of seventeen laps. All the time the rain was easing off and the full wet tyres were shifting water off the race surface, as demonstrated by the safety car going visibly faster and faster. However, there were still remonstrations from some of the drivers with most to lose – Sebastian Vettel, Mark Weber and Fernando Alonso chief among them – claiming it was too dangerous to start the race proper. Lewis Hamilton was almost a lone voice in saying there was no problem, conditions were fine, why couldn’t they get underway?

And finally on lap 18 they did: ironically it was Vettel (who hadn’t wanted to start) who leapt away at the front thanks to the clear visibility resulting from not having anyone ahead of him, while Hamilton (keen to get going) immediately fell victim to Nico Rosburg who put in a lovely move down the inside of turn 3 to claim fourth place. Further back, Michael Schumacher – who had been putting all those peerless old skills to good use behind the safety car, really exploring the Mercedes’ limits under yellow – was past Robert Kubica before turn 1. Other cars slithered off the track into that first corner but everyone got through the first lap unscathed and it looked a good call to get racing underway.

But the luck didn’t last long, and next time out there was a crash. And a big one when it comes to impact on the championship: Mark Webber drifted wide out of turn 12, over the kerb on the outside, and lost grip. The Red Bull was thrown into a one-eighty spin across the width of the track to hit the wall, which was enough to wreck the car on its own. No longer controllable, the car then rolled backwards across the racing line – Fernando Alonso was already through, but Nico Rosburg was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and was left with no where to go even after taking to the grass. The impact wrecked the right hand side of the Red Bull, and terminated the Mercedes’ involvement in the race. A safety car was immediately called for and the track went yellow once more for another four laps; a handful of backmarkers came in for a switch to intermediates, but most of the field felt it was still too wet.

At the restart, there was early contact between Jarno Trulli and Bruno Senna that left Trulli’s front wing on the track at turn 6, and Trulli himself into the pits; Lucas di Grassi slid out and into a heft impact with the tyre wall a couple of laps later; and Michael Schumacher continued to perform strongly, taking on the struggling McLaren of Jenson Button – who simply could no find no grip today – to wrest away fifth position. Button’s response from this was to pit for intermediates, but they would turn out to be no improvement in terms of grip and it also left him behind a long train of backmarkers.

Button’s only hope was that he would pick up positions when the rest of the field came into pit, but it turned out that this hope was also in vain because just three laps later the safety car was out again after Sebastien Buemi misjudged a move on Timo Glock and smashed into the side of the Virgin Racing car (earning Buemi a five place grid penalty for Brazil for causing the accident): now everyone had the chance to pit under yellow and Button’s race was well and truly screwed.

Most of the cars came in straight away and it initially appeared that the two leaders – Vettel and Alonso – had lost out. But they were able to make another circulation without picking up the safety car, pit and still come out ahead of the field. Or at least, Vettel did; Alonso would have done if not for a problem with a front wheel nut that caused him to rejoin the race just behind Lewis Hamilton, effectively a position lost; but fortune smiled on the Spaniard and at the restart Hamilton slid off into turn 1 and handed the position back to Alonso straight away.

The top five – Vettel, Alonso, Hamilton, Felipe Massa (having a quiet but effective race) and Schumacher – seemed set barring any further incidents or crashes, allowing attention to turn back down the field to some of the other battles going on. Where Japan had turned into The Kamui Kobayashi Show, so Korea was quickly becoming the Adrian Sutil Special as he tangled with car after car, some with more success than others. On lap 36 he tried a move up the inside of Jenson Button, drifted wide in the process and ended up forcing the McLaren off the road entirely, costing Button yet more positions and putting him down to 15th place. He would never recover into a points position, which meant that – along with Webber – two of the five title contenders had ended up with total disasters this weekend.

Sutil went on to make swift work of Jamie Alguersuari, then was past Nick Heidfeld on lap 38 and then Kobayashi the next time around, only to then outbrake himself at turn four and hand the position straight back to the Japanese, and another mistake a lap later than promptly let Alguersuari back past as well. Sutil then set about recovering his positions and was back past Alguersuari and Heidfeld before finally badly misjudging a braking on Kobayashi into turn 1 on lap 48, the car getting unstable and putting him into the side of the Sauber. There was major damage to the Force India and Sutil retired on the spot, but amazingly the Sauber stood up well and Kobayashi was able to continue through to a very creditable eighth place by the chequered flag. Sutil was handed a five-place penalty for Brazil for causing the accident, and also got a $10,000 fine “in view of the driver’s admission that he was aware of brake problems with his car throughout the race” which went some way to explaining his dramatic and erratic performance.

By this point – with all the safety cars and the red flag period – it was half past five local time, and sunset was imminent. The rain had stopped, and while there were patches of water on the track it was now very much into manageable intermediate territory; but the big problems were the rapidly fading light and the fact the intermediates were now getting very worn and losing the tread that gave them their grip. A lot of cars were struggling out there.

Pictures courtesy CrashNet/CrashPA

Whether it was the tyres or some standing water, Vitaly Petrov lost grip in the direction change through the kink between turns 17 and 18, spun and went off-track and across the pit lane entrance to make a heavy impact into the tyre wall, completely wrecking the Renault. He climbed out and the stewards were able to avoid calling a safety car out, which this late in proceedings would almost certainly lead to calls for an early finish because of low light and unsafe conditions.

Vettel for one was claiming that he couldn’t see into turn 1, and wanted the race to be called; in a replay of their respective positions at the start of the race, Hamilton continued to be more gung-ho and dismissed suggestions there were any problems at all. The TV cameras made it all look perfectly reasonable, but anytime a light source strayed into the picture – like those of the lit pit lane buildings – the dazzlingly bright lights demonstrated just how much the cameras were amplifying the twilight conditions. But the stewards were determined to do everything they could possibly do to allow the inaugural F1 Grand Prix to run its full allotted distance.

Then, out of nowhere, there was the sound of an engine in distress as the three leaders came down the start-finish straight. Who was it? How bad was it? It was quickly evident that it was the race leader, Sebastian Vettel who was slowing down. He was passed by Alonso into turn 1 and by Hamilton seconds later; and as for “how bad”, the answer was soon visibly “as bad as it gets” – smoke spewed out and so did large chunks of engine parts as the cylinders and internal workings seized and ripped each other apart, annihilating the engine and leaving a trail of sparks and metal down the long straight after turn 2. Vettel was composed enough to coast the car to a gap in the wall to leave the track clear, and then he was out and immediately in search of a fire extinguisher as the destruction led to the car catching fire. Like Heikki Kovalainen in Singapore, Vettel was temporarily the world’s most highly-paid fire marshall.

Pictures courtesy CrashNet/CrashPA

That was it: Fernando Alonso was in the lead and looking as though he was managing his tyres better than anyone else, meaning he was able to pull out a big gap over a struggling Lewis Hamilton who was nonetheless safe from Felipe Massa and Michael Schumacher. They nursed their cars home and crossed the finish line just before six o’clock local time with the light now fading fast: by the time the podium ceremony took place just ten minutes later it was pitch black, the podium spotlights and the flashes from the press photographers competed with the high-beam huge smile on Alonso’s face as he celebrated not only the race win but taking over the world championship lead from poor Mark Webber.

The Korean Grand Prix may have taken an inordinately long time to get going today, but once it did it was hugely worth the wait and enthralling from eventual start to twilight finish, and with a profound impact on the championship as well as being highly entertaining on track as well.

Perhaps the best and most accurate comment on the afternoon’s proceedings came from the radio communications between Ferrari and their race winner. The team bosses put in nice, diplomatic, politically-correct, carefully-worded (possibly even scripted) messages of congratulations to their number one driver. And then the radio switched to Alonso, and all that could be heard was a long stream of manic, hysterical laughter. It summed up the jubilation, the relief, the release from tension, and the sheer absurdity and unpredictability of Formula 1’s first visit to Yeongam.

Let’s hope that all future visits here come close to this standard. But maybe, without the hour and a half delay next time, ‘kthxbye.

Pictures courtesy CrashNet/CrashPA

Race results

Pos  Driver      Team                 Time
 1.  Alonso      Ferrari              2:48:20.810
 2.  Hamilton    McLaren-Mercedes     +    14.999
 3.  Massa       Ferrari              +    30.868
 4.  Schumacher  Mercedes             +    39.688
 5.  Kubica      Renault              +    47.734
 6.  Liuzzi      Force India-Mercedes +    53.571
 7.  Barrichello Williams-Cosworth    +  1:09.257
 8.  Kobayashi   Sauber-Ferrari       +  1:17.889
 9.  Heidfeld    Sauber-Ferrari       +  1:20.107
10.  Hulkenberg  Williams-Cosworth    +  1:20.851
11.  Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +  1:24.146
12.  Button      McLaren-Mercedes     +  1:29.939
13.  Kovalainen  Lotus-Cosworth       +     1 lap
14.  Senna       HRT-Cosworth         +    2 laps
15.  Yamamoto    HRT-Cosworth         +    2 laps

Fastest lap: Alonso, 1:50.257

Not classified/retirements:

Driver    Team                 On lap
Sutil     Force India-Mercedes 46
Vettel    Red Bull-Renault     45
Petrov    Renault              39
Glock     Virgin-Cosworth      31
Buemi     Toro Rosso-Ferrari   30
Di Grassi Virgin-Cosworth      25
Trulli    Lotus-Cosworth       25
Webber    Red Bull-Renault     18
Rosberg   Mercedes             18

F1 Championship standings after round 17

Drivers:               Constructors:             
 1. Alonso      231    1. Red Bull-Renault     426
 2. Webber      220    2. McLaren-Mercedes     399
 3. Hamilton    210    3. Ferrari              374
 4. Vettel      206    4. Mercedes             188
 5. Button      189    5. Renault              143
 6. Massa       143    6. Force India-Mercedes  68
 7. Kubica      124    7. Williams-Cosworth     65
 8. Rosberg     122    8. Sauber-Ferrari        43
 9. Schumacher   66    9. Toro Rosso-Ferrari    11
10. Barrichello  47   
11. Sutil        47   
12. Kobayashi    31   
13. Liuzzi       21   
14. Petrov       19   
15. Hulkenberg   18   
16. Buemi         8   
17. De la Rosa    6   
18. Heidfeld      6   
19. Alguersuari   3   

Singapore saw Fernando Alonso supercharge his title bid with a dominant win, a lucky Mark Webber achieve a critical piece of damage limitation – and another out and out disaster for Lewis Hamilton.

Considering how hyped up it had been prior to the race, the start was relatively straightforward – Alonso getting off the line reasonably well and robustly covering off Sebastian Vettel against the wall on the inside line into turn 1. Vettel had had the better start, but once blocked was now reduced to sweeping across the track to fend off any attacks from Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button off the second row. It turned out that Lewis had the worst start of the front runners and had his hands full just keeping third place from his team mate into turn 1. Once it settled down, however, it looked as though everyone had got away cleanly, with Felipe Massa at the back after his qualifying problems and Jamie Alguersuari starting from pit lane after a water leak saw him fail to get to the grid on time. Massa sought to turn the situation to his advantage with am immediate pit stop at the end of lap 1 to discard the option tyres, hoping for a safety car to boost him up in the positions.

And sure enough, things were brewing in the midfield, with Nick Heidfeld clashing with both Force Indias – which left Heidfeld with a broken wing requiring a pit stop, and Tonio Liuzzi with serious suspension damage that saw him crawling to a halt on track just after the faux chicane of turn 10. The Force India was difficult to retrieve from here and a safety car was deployed.

Now came the major strategic moment of the evening: whether to follow Massa’s lead and get the pit stop out of the way, or whether that was asking too much of the tyres and opt to stay out. Alonso, Vettel, Hamilton and Button all opted to stay out, but Webber was into pit lane. In the end just ten cars opted to remain out on track, meaning Webber led the pit stoppers back in 11th place immediately behind Timo Glock and set for a lengthy period of frustration working his way through slow traffic.

Although Webber was soon past Glock at the restart, it was soon apparent that the leading four had vastly superior pace and were pulling away fast – possibly even fast enough to make pit stops under green at mid-race distance and still come out in front of Webber. The Aussie passed Kamui Kobayashi on lap 7 after the Japanese driver ran wide into turn 5, and then had the same good fortune with Michael Schumacher of all people gave him a similar opening four laps later to take the championship leader up to eighth place. Still, the leaders were getting away and his chances of retaining the world title lead appeared to be dwindling and Rubens Barrichello was proving an altogether more difficult obstacle to get past. Finally a scary moment on lap 23 when the car faltered under braking into turn 18 – needing some quick hands from Webber to avert disaster – persuaded Mark to ease up and take a breather.

The next stage of the race was, frankly, rather dull – the biggest entertainment on track was Glock in 11th holding up a huge train of clearly much faster cars, among them Adrian Sutil, Nico Hulkenberg, Felipe Massa, Vitaly Petrov, Sebastien Buemi and Jamie Alguersuari back in 17 all chomping at the bit to get past. Sutil was past on lap 15 but it took almost 7 laps before the dam finally broke and Glock was bundled down the running order.

Alonso was setting fastest laps at the front and stretching out a 3.4s lead over Vettel, who was claiming to be taking it easy in second. Lewis Hamilton, meanwhile, was being urged to speed up by as much as half a second if he wanted to pull out the requisite 28s over Webber for a pit stop: and he wasn’t able to, the option tyres starting to go off as they approached mid race distance. Indeed, Webber was now starting to cut the time between himself and both McLarens and every extra lap was costing Lewis and Jenson time and track position: on lap 29, Hamilton came in for new rubber.

No one had been expecting Alonso or Vettel in, but a lap later they surprised everyone by not only coming in, but coming in together rather than trying to find tactics to jump one another. It’s possible that they were both reacting to McLaren’s move – Button was also in on lap 30 – and failed to notice that their main rival was also coming in. It was an opportunity lost for Red Bull, especially when Vettel had a sluggish getaway from the pit box which saw him almost stall, and it pretty much sealed the win for Alonso there and then. Unless there were any major incidents and upsets.

Singapore is an endurance circuit, both in terms of the oppressive humidity taking its toll and the fact that the running time is pushed to almost two hours compared with 80 minutes at Monza; the twist and turns of the street track make overtaking something of an impossible dream unless between massively mismatched cars (such as Webber on Glock) or by mistake (Webber again on Kobayashi and Schumacher.) So by the time we got to lap 31 with relatively little incident and on-track battles few and far between, it already seemed like this race had been running forever and was overstaying its welcome. But no matter – things were about to get a lot more entertaining as the endurance conditions started to take their toll on drivers and machines.

It started with an attempt by Kobayashi down the inside of Schumacher that resulted in heavy side contact that sent Schumacher sliding across and making rear end contact with the tyre wall; Schumacher was into the pits next time around, but Kobayashi tried to stay out and paid for it when his front wing failed exiting turn 18 leaving him understeering straight into the barrier. The next car through was Bruno Senna, and without the warning of yellow flags he ploughed straight into the side of the stricken Sauber leaving an even bigger road block to the following cars. Small wonder, then, that an immediate safety car was deployed.

With the field compressed for the restart, McLaren saw the opportunity to tell their freshly-rubbered drivers to push Webber, whose own tyres were almost half a race old. Hamilton did exactly that, getting into the draft of the Red Bull as Webber dealt with some lapped traffic, and then popping out to pass him on the outside line. It looked a done deal, Hamilton ahead of Webber into the corner, but then Webber’s front right wheel connected with Hamilton’s rear left and the McLaren went bouncing over the kerbing – and then crawled into a run-off area, the car crippled beyond repair. Hamilton threw the steering wheel out in disgust, devastated by the serious damage this does to his title big (and indeed to McLaren’s prospects in the constructors’ championship.)

It was also a nerve-wracking moment for Webber, who feared wing or suspension damage on his own car, but the team reported that it was all looking okay – and certainly for the rest of the race he was able to easily control any challenges from Jenson Button who had inherited fourth from his departed team mate. When the cars lined up parc fermé, shots of Webber’s front right wheel – the one that had connected with Hamilton’s car – was startling bent, to the point where it was almost impossible to believe that the car had been drivable. The magnitude of Webber’s luck here was clear for all to see: it’s the kind of stroke of good fortune that can win world championships.

There were more incidents to come: on lap 39 there was another collision at turn 7, this time between Schumacher and Nick Heidfeld. Heidfeld was punted into the barrier while Schumacher spun, briefly pointing the wrong way before betting back underway with a damaged front wing that required a costly pit stop that saw him finish a lap down.

Then on lap 46, Robert Kubica – running a strong 6th – suddenly returned to the pits despite having made his scheduled stop under the previous safety car period. It seemed that a low puncture had cost him any shot of points, but that wasn’t how Kubica saw it: he was soon back on track and determined to recover as many lost positions as possible, starting with Alguersuari for 12th on lap 48 and then laying siege to Sebastien Buemi, whose rude defence lasted until lap 52 before Kubica was able to apply the superior Renault power to best effect. Kubica’s team mate Petrov put up no opposition over the Anderson bridge on lap 53, and overtaking Massa on lap 54 was child’s play compared with Buemi as the Ferrari second driver was clearly struggling on the tyres he had taken on back at the end of lap 2. Kubica was on a roll and next lap around he was past Hulkenberg, and later that same lap he pulled off perhaps the best move of all to breeze around the sole remaining Force India of Adrian Sutil. In less that ten laps, Kubica recovered all but one of the positions he’d lost from his enforced pit stop: only Rubens Barrichello remained out of reach, some thirty seconds up the road which was too much to make up in the time remaining.

With the final laps just squeaking in under the two hour time limit, the sole remaining close race on track was between Heikki Kovalainen and Sebastien Buemi for 13th following a late pit stop for the Toro Rosso. The two made contact after Buemi tried an overtaking move, spinning the Lotus and seemingly severing fuel lines within the bodywork. Kovalainen and the team appeared not to notice how serious the damage was, and despite having the option to come into the pits Heikki continued on round to the pit straight – before suddenly realising that the back of the car was now seriously on fire, flames everywhere. Kovalainen pulled up against the pit wall and jumped out, and appealed for a fire extinguisher from the Williams team the other side of the wire fence before calmly setting about tackling the developing inferno as cars raced past at nearly two hundred miles per hour by just feet away, even under waved yellows.

The waved yellows put the final corner out of commission for any last gasp overtaking moves on the final two laps, and it was not entirely a moot point as Vettel had closed right up on the back of Alonso and looked to pull off a last minute ambush. Alonso was having none of it, however, and never gave Vettel that slightest opportunity to make the move – and minutes later he took the chequered flag for a perfect victory over the two Red Bulls.

Standing on the podium, all three looked exhausted and dehydrated to the point of illness. But something else was shining from Fernando Alonso’s face: not just a sense of victory, but of destiny and steely-eyed determination. If one man up there was convinced beyond doubt that he was on the way to a world championship, it was the Spaniard who has now moved up to second in the points.

Webber might still be in the lead, and there are still only 25pts (one race victory) between the top five contenders, but the balance of power in the 2010 season just swung a little bit more in Maranello’s favour. And if we really do lose one of the remaining four races of the year (Korea’s readiness is said to be doubt) then it really could be the team with the momentum – Ferrari – who clinch the championship in November.

Race result

Pos Driver      Team                 Time
 1. Alonso      Ferrari             1:57:53.579
 2. Vettel      Red Bull-Renault     +    0.293
 3. Webber      Red Bull-Renault     +   29.141
 4. Button      McLaren-Mercedes     +   30.384
 5. Rosberg     Mercedes             +   49.394
 6. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth    +   56.101
 7. Kubica      Renault              + 1:26.559
 8. Massa       Ferrari              + 1:53.297
 9. Sutil       Force India-Mercedes + 2:12.416 *
10. Hulkenberg  Williams-Cosworth    + 2:12.791 **
11. Petrov      Renault              + 1 lap
12. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari   + 1 lap
13. Schumacher  Mercedes             + 1 lap
14. Buemi       Toro Rosso-Ferrari   + 1 lap
15. Di Grassi   Virgin-Cosworth      + 2 laps
16. Kovalainen  Lotus-Cosworth       + 3 laps

Fastest lap: Alonso, 1:47.976
* includes 20s penalty for cutting turn 7 on lap 1
** includes 20s penalty for leaving the track on lap 1

Not classified/retirements:

Driver    Team                 Lap
Glock     Virgin-Cosworth      51
Heidfeld  Sauber-Ferrari       35
Hamilton  McLaren-Mercedes     34
Klien     HRT-Cosworth         30
Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari       29
Senna     HRT-Cosworth         28
Trulli    Lotus-Cosworth       26
Liuzzi    Force India-Mercedes  1

World Championship standings, round 15

Drivers:              Constructors:             
 1. Webber      202   1. Red Bull-Renault     383
 2. Alonso      191   2. McLaren-Mercedes     359
 3. Hamilton    182   3. Ferrari              319
 4. Vettel      181   4. Mercedes             168
 5. Button      177   5. Renault              133
 6. Massa       128   6. Force India-Mercedes  60
 7. Rosberg     122   7. Williams-Cosworth     56
 8. Kubica      114   8. Sauber-Ferrari        27
 9. Sutil        47   9. Toro Rosso-Ferrari    10
10. Schumacher   46  
11. Barrichello  39  
12. Kobayashi    21  
13. Petrov       19  
14. Hulkenberg   17 
15. Liuzzi       13  
16. Buemi         7  
17. De la Rosa    6  
18. Alguersuari   3 




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