Posts Tagged ‘jenson button’

Although I do most of my writing on motorsports now over at, 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.


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.


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 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 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.


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.


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.


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 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.


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


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

For a while there, it looked as though we could have a truly wild and unpredictable and exciting F1 Grand Prix of Turkey at Istanbul Park.

Unfortunately, that moment was on Friday morning, when Istanbul was strangely cold, grey, wet and windy – unseasonal conditions that caught out everyone, including championship leader Sebastian Vettel who managed to wreck his car in a nasty aquaplaning incident in the rain. Did this mean that we were in for an upset this weekend and a dramatic opening up of the race for the 2011 driver and team titles?

08.05.2011- Race, Sebastian Vettel (GER), Red Bull Racing, RB7 race winner Pictures by arrangement and prior agreement with CrashNet/CrashPA

Sadly the answer turned out to be no. Sunday brought with it hot, sunny and dry conditions, and while the cars looked all the better for having the sun glinting off the bodywork, the excitement and unpredictability of the race was diminished by the absence of the bad weather.

Blessed with the clean side of the grid, Sebastian Vettel was able to get away from the starting grid without any problems, and thereafter sailed serenely around 58 laps always on course for victory and never having to deviate from Plan A. After the excitement of the earlier races thus far in 2011 where it seemed that the competition might just possibly be catching up with Red Bull, it was remarkable just how much in cruise control he was allowed to be here.

Behind Vettel at the start, Mark Webber was lumbered with the dirty side of the track and it was as tricky for him as it had been for others similarly handicapped in the support races like GP2: the wheels spinning on the dust and struggling to grip, he had no chance to stop Nico Rosberg flying through from third place on the other side, and had to settle for holding off Lewis Hamilton into the first turn.

Lewis Hamilton had managed to overcome the dirty side jinx and hold off Fernando Alonso for fourth; Alonso was left holding on to the outside line through turn 1, wheel to wheel with Jenson Button, but once through and into the right hand turn 2 the advantage shifted to the Ferrari and Button had to let him go, settling for retaining the sixth place from which he had started.

08.05.2011- Race, start

But Hamilton – who had seen one of his finest GP2 performances here, charging from the back of the grid in his pre-F1 days – then squandered his chance and pushed Webber too hard into turn 3, ending up running wide instead and having to brake, which allowed Alonso through to take the position. Worse, it also allowed Button through as well – and Button was in no mood to show him motorway etiquette and allow his team mate to blend in ahead of him, so instead Hamilton had to grit his teeth and settle for sixth in front of Michael Schumacher. He wasn’t happy with this state of affairs and immediately set about throwing everything he had at Button to get past.

Behind the squabbling McLarens, Vitaly Petrov decided to make a lunge on Schumacher down the inside into turn 12. It was a silly move – there was no chance he wasn’t going to outbrake himself and miss the apex – but the odd thing was that Schumacher himself apparently didn’t see it coming, and didn’t allow Petrov to have the accident. The Young Schumacher was far cleverer than this: but the Old Schumacher seemed oblivious, turned into the corner as normal, and a collision was inevitable. It wrecked Schuey’s front wing and he was obliged to pit a couple of corners later, putting him to the back of the field alongside Sergio Perez, who had already pitted for a damaged front wing at the end of the first lap. As for Petrov, the Renault ironically escaped any serious damage from the collision and carried on in eighth, Felipe Massa having slipped the Ferrari past them both to lay claim to seventh during the conflagration.

Any hope of avoiding a Red Bull lock-out now seemed to rest on Nico Rosberg in second; but once the Drag Reduction System (DRS) adjustable rear wings were enabled for use down the backstraight, it was just a matter of minutes before Webber lined up the Mercedes and blew past him into turn 12 on lap 5. Rosberg had nothing for him and looked like he was standing still, although he did try and counter attack through the final corners and down the main straight after Webber’s boosted speed made him struggle to to run off. But the Aussie did hold it together, Rosberg’s retaliation faltered, and the Red Bulls were one-two.

Next time through there, Lewis Hamilton had the DRS edge over Jenson Button and put it to good use: but Jenson fought back through the remaining corners and the two came out side-by-side onto the main straight, Jenson even pulling back in front before Hamilton then switched to the inside line and took turn 1 of lap 7 first and left Button with no right of reply – until the next time through, when the DRS show was on the other foot, and Button was able to snatch the position back with a very similar move, while just in front of the battling McLarens Alonso was also putting DRS to good use to dispatch Rosberg for third place.

Having tried, succeeded and failed to overtake his team mate, Hamilton went into a bit of a funk – most likely because he had shot his tyres with all those antics on the opening laps. He was falling off the back of Button and into the clutches of Massa behind him, and at the end of lap 9 Massa got the DRS upper hand and relegated Lewis down to seventh; but two corners later and both cars were in pit lane for new tyres, at which point Hamilton got the better stop and was away again before Massa and the two went side-by-side down pit lane until Massa finally had to concede the position as they exited pit lane and back on track in 12th and 13th places. Arguably Ferrari should have been penalised for an unsafe release from the pit box right into the McLaren’s path, but the officials seemed to take the view of “no harm, no foul” and that Massa had indeed yielded the place. Eventually.

Alonso and Rosberg were into the pits next time around, it was clear that several teams were facing their worse case tyre degradation and were having to switch from a three- to a costly four-stop strategy, which several teams euphemistically dubbed “Plan B” in their lightly coded radio communications to their drivers. Jenson Button was one of the last of the leaders to pit and duly briefly led the race on lap 12 and looked set for a three-stop strategy. Of course, whether McLaren’s Plan A was a patch on Red Bull’s was another matter entirely.

After more laps on degraded tyres once he did pit at the end of lap 13, he emerged in seventh behind Hamilton and Massa, a net loss of two positions. The driver that had made the extended first stint pay off perfectly for him was Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi, who – having started from the back of the grid after qualifying problems – had muscled his way up to a staggering fifth place by the time he came in for his own pit stop at the same time as Button did, the Sauber emerging back in 13th.

08.05.2011- Race, Lewis Hamilton (GBR), McLaren Mercedes, MP4-26 and Jenson Button (GBR), McLaren Mercedes, MP4-26

Rosberg meanwhile was still proving remarkably easy prey for his rivals, with Hamilton using DRS to pass him on lap 14. “We knew we had a little bit of vulnerability on high fuel,” explained team principal Ross Brawn later. “When we got into the race we started blistering the rear tyres which we hadn’t seen in practice [sessions,] so that’s why we fell away so quickly.” However the situation was improving as the fuel load lessened, and he was able to fend off the advances of Felipe Massa for several laps despite having the advantage of DRS, until the end of lap 21 saw Massa finally force his way past – and Jenson Button then dive through as well, putting the McLaren wheel to wheel through the final corners were Button somehow made the outside line off the final corner work as an overtaking point as Rosberg got loose on the apex. Two laps later and Massa locked up on the run down to turn 12 and flat-spotted his tyres, allowing Button through; Massa took to the pits for new rubber in the meantime.

Massa’s team mate Fernando Alonso had now clearly emerged as the biggest potential fly in Red Bull’s ointment, running just 2.5s off the back of Webber who in turn had closed up to within 3.3s of the leader, Sebastian Vettel. Everyone else was holding a busted flush: Hamilton, running in fourth behind Alonso, was 10s off the Ferrari and losing almost a second a lap to him, forcing him to come in for new tyres as early as lap 10 and confirming a four-stop strategy. Webber and Alonso were in for their stops shortly afterwards, but the surprise was that Vettel was able to pump in some fast laps – faster even than those on fresh rubber – and still remain out on track until lap 25 when he finally pitted for soft tyres, confirming him on a three-stop strategy and now over 8s clear of Webber and Alonso battling over second. Button was in two laps later from fourth, but a problem on the rear left wheel cost him a second and it put him out in traffic in seventh, just ahead of Rosberg and behind Massa.

Alonso managed to pass Webber at the midpoint of the race with the help of the DRS despite being far back on the run down into turn 12 at the end of the back straight, after which things finally calmed down a bit where the only major battle of interest on track were the repeated attempts by Button to overtake Massa for sixth, but getting continually frustrated by the Brazilian who was looking something back to his old form; Button finally managed to bring DRS to bear successfully at the end of lap 34 to took the position, at which point Massa dived into the pits anyway.

Already in the pits was Lewis Hamilton for his third stop of the afternoon; and it was not going well. A major problem with the front right wheel nuts lost him horrendous amounts of time and then – to add insult to injury – once the job was finally complete, the lollypop man had to hold him still longer because of Massa arriving at the pit stall right in front of them.

“It was a disappointing day on my behalf, I would say,” Hamilton conceded, dubbing it “Not one of my best races.” He admitted to damaging his tyres in his early battle with Jenson which forced an earlier-than-planned first pit stop; “and then at one of the stops we lost a lot of time … But in general I was already behind from turn 3.” Given all that, he maintained that “I felt that I recovered reasonably well considering how much time I lost throughout the race,” even though it meant he was never in with any shot at the win or even a podium position. “I just apologised to the guys – they worked as hard as they could. We were definitely able to do better today.”

Massa’s day was also slowing going downhill; a slow pit stop followed by a run-off into the marbles and off track at turn 8 when he rejoined left him in 14th before he went on to re-overtake Kobayashi under DRS into turn 12 – a move that was starting to look suspiciously easy and hum-drum after so many demonstrations this afternoon. Kobayashi himself had been compromised by slight contact with Sebastien Buemi which meant that he got a slow puncture and had to take his final pit stop early, resulting in an uncomfortably long 20-lap final stint. “Otherwise I think I could have finished seventh and scored more points,” he said, but ultimately had to settle for tenth place.

08.05.2011- Race, Nico Rosberg (GER), Mercedes GP Petronas F1 Team, MGP W02, Felipe Massa (BRA), Scuderia Ferrari, F-150 Italia and Jenson Button (GBR), McLaren Mercedes, MP4-26

Vettel took what appeared to be final stop at the end of lap 40 and emerged some 7s ahead of Alonso in second, with Webber close behind him and then a huge gap back to Hamilton who still had another stop to make before the end. Rosburg was in fifth while Button had already come in for his final pit stop on the same lap as Vettel and was in sixth ahead of Petrov, Nick Heidfeld, Massa and Michael Schumacher who were all running very closely together on track.

Rosberg was in for his fourth and final stop at the end of lap 44; Webber was in next time around with a slightly slow stop, and Alonso, Hamilton and Massa all came in the next lap after that, and Massa got a poor stop as the rear right wheel was still revolving as Massa failed to properly engage the clutch, thwarting the crew’s efforts to mount a new tyre on it.

Alonso had been reacting to cover Webber’s own stop, and that forced Red Bull to take a safety-first approach and call in Vettel for a fourth stop after all at the end of lap 47. He had the gap over the opposition to do so, and it was better than risking leaving the leader out for another ten laps only to see the tyres fall apart and gift the win to Alonso. That left Jenson Button staying out as the only one of the front runners to try and make it on three stops only.

The strategy cards had been played – who would come out the winner? Webber immediately put out a statement of intent with a new fastest lap of the race straight away, and was charging down Alonso to take second and make it a one-two for Red Bull after all. Button was up to fourth ahead of Hamilton and Rosberg, but on considerably older rubber than they were and without anything like the cushion that Vettel would have enjoyed at the front.

Despite doing a everything he could to husband his tyres with his trademark smooth driving style, the task was beyond Button: on lap 50, he put up no fight as his team mate took the position in the DRS zone. More disappointingly, the car’s pace dropped off a cliff shortly after that and he was a sitting duck for Nico Rosberg to breeze past three laps before the end.

Button rued the decision to try and stretch the final set of tyres as long as they did – especially as they had alternatives, as he pointed out after the race. “We didn’t leave the tyres long enough,” Button suggested. “The tyres were still good at the end of every stint, but we came in … We should’ve stayed out for longer because it made the last stint just impossible, just too many laps.”

Toro Rosso’s Sebastien Buemi could sympathise with Button: he had also tried the three-stop strategy and was running in seventh only to succumb to the attentions of both Renaults, Heidfeld and Petrov, in the closing four laps and end up in ninth just ahead of Kobayashi.

There was no tyre mismatch between Alonso and Webber, but you’d have been forgiven for thinking there was by the way Webber slashed his way through Alonso’s lead and closed right up to the back of the Ferrari. As the two cars came down into turn 12 on lap 51, the DRS kicked in and Webber was made to sweep around the outside line as Alonso did everything he could to make it difficult for him as they went side-by-side through the final turns. Alonso then fought back down the main straight, but Webber protected the inside line and stopped the Ferrari from diving through. A small mistake by Alonso through turn 5 then put him outside striking distance next time through the DRS danger zone, and after that Webber was away, job done. No worries, mate.

08.05.2011- Race, Sebastian Vettel (GER), Red Bull Racing, RB7 race winner

That confirmed the podium as Vettel, Webber and Alonso, with Hamilton and Rosberg deserving their fourth and fifth places and Button sadly the victim of what had proved to be an unwise tyre strategy after all.

It had proved to be an interesting day for team mates: last year at Turkey produced that memorable and devastating crash between Vettel and Webber, and earlier in this year’s race we saw that hard but mercifully contact-free fight between Hamilton and Button; there was also the strange moment on lap 13 when Nick Heidfeld and Vitaly Petrov had come through the final corners side-by-side and wheel-to-wheel in what looked like a concerted effort to wreck both Renaults. Petrov pushed Heidfeld so wide that the German was nearly sent shooting into the pit lane entrance, and the two madly gesticulated at one another as they emerged onto the main straight.

“Yeah, that’s not nice. It shouldn’t happen,” Heidfeld said afterwards. “He just pushed me wide and we made contact. It’s not a safe thing to do.”

But the man having quite simply the worst time of it in Turkey this afternoon was Michael Schumacher. After that early encounter with Petrov that put him to the back of the grid, he found himself going wheel to wheel with the backmarker minnows and making heavy weather for it. Without a Benetton or a Ferrari underneath him, his ability to deal with traffic just seemed to have deserted him and he was overtaken by the likes of his former Ferrari team mate Rubens Barrichello, despite Rubens now being in the troubled and deeply unloved 2011 Williams, as well as by Kobayashi and Adrian Sutil making an opportunistic pass on the old master on lap 16, and later in the race Sebastien Buemi used DRS to perfection to breeze pass Schuey on lap 45, who no longer even seemed interesting in fending off such assaults.

He did have a nice moment on lap 54 when Felipe Massa passed him in turn 12, only for the old instincts to kick in again and allow Michael to perform a perfect switchback to re-pass Massa. Next time into turn 12 the two of them came up on the back of Jamie Alguersuari just to complicate things: the DRS feature went into passing the Toro Rosso, and then Massa and Schumacher battled down the start/finish straight. The Ferrari had the better straight-line speed and took the inside line into turn 1, forcing Schumacher out wide in a brutal move by Massa reminiscent of the ruthless moves of Schumacher himself at his best (or his worst, depending on your point of view.)

It was all rather dispiriting for the German, and Schumacher admitted for the first time after the race that he was no longer feeling happy with his day job: “Mostly I was able to go forward, but the big joy is not there right now,” he said, adding that the early clash with Petrov has sealed his entire day’s fortunes. “The race was a given from there, lots of fighting, lots of action, but for nothing. The golden helmet, that’s what we call it in Germany, that’s what I got and nothing else, so it’s a bit of a shame.”

For the first time it seems that the multiple world champion’s mask has cracked, and you have to wonder: is 2011 the year he will finally call it a day on his F1 career?

After the remarkable endurance achievement of all-but-one cars finishing the last race in China, Turkey nearly repeated the feat: only Timo Glock (who failed to even take to the starting grid because of a gearbox problem) and Paul di Resta (ordered to park his Force India on lap 45 on safety grounds shortly after a pit stop, after telemetry suggested a wheel was improperly attached) failed to make it to the end of the race. Williams’ Pastor Maldonado was given a pit lane speeding penalty, a drive-thru that saw him finish well off the lead lap in 17th.

08.05.2011- Race, Sebastian Vettel (GER), Red Bull Racing, RB7 race winner

But reliability and lack of retirements aside, the biggest achievement of the race was just how far in front of the competition Red Bull now appear to be. Far from a return to Europe meaning the teams would bunch up again in terms of performance, it seems to have added just another growth spurt to Red Bull. At this race, the question of 2011 is not if Vettel and Red Bull will win the titles, but with how many races in hand they’ll achieve it.

Race result

Pos Driver       Team                 Time
 1. Vettel       Red Bull-Renault     1:30:17.558
 2. Webber       Red Bull-Renault     +     8.807
 3. Alonso       Ferrari              +    10.075
 4. Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes     +    40.232
 5. Rosberg      Mercedes             +    47.539
 6. Button       McLaren-Mercedes     +    59.431
 7. Heidfeld     Renault              +  1:00.857
 8. Petrov       Renault              +  1:08.168
 9. Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +  1:09.300
10. Kobayashi    Sauber-Ferrari       +  1:18.000
11. Massa        Ferrari              +  1:19.800
12. Schumacher   Mercedes             +  1:25.400
13. Sutil        Force India-Mercedes +     1 lap
14. Perez        Sauber-Ferrari       +     1 lap
15. Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth    +     1 lap
16. Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +     1 lap
17. Maldonado    Williams-Cosworth    +     1 lap
18. Trulli       Lotus-Renault        +     1 lap
19. Kovalainen   Lotus-Renault        +    2 laps
20. D'Ambrosio   Virgin-Cosworth      +    2 laps
21. Karthikeyan  HRT-Cosworth         +    3 laps
22. Liuzzi       HRT-Cosworth         +    5 laps

Fastest lap: Webber, 1:29.703

Not classified/retirements:

Driver    Team                  Lap
Di Resta  Force India-Mercedes  45
Glock     Virgin-Cosworth       1

World Championship standings after round 4

Drivers:                Constructors:             
 1. Vettel        93    1. Red Bull-Renault     148
 2. Hamilton      59    2. McLaren-Mercedes     105
 3. Webber        55    3. Ferrari               65
 4. Button        46    4. Renault               42
 5. Alonso        41    5. Mercedes              26
 6. Massa         24    6. Sauber-Ferrari         8
 7. Petrov        21    7. Toro Rosso-Ferrari     6
 8. Heidfeld      21    8. Force India-Mercedes   4
 9. Rosberg       20   
10. Kobayashi      8   
11. Buemi          6   
12. Schumacher     6   
13. Sutil          2   
14. 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

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

For the last five seasons, Brazil has been the place where the Formula 1 titles have been decided. With the driver’s championship at least so close coming into this weekend, it seemed unlikely that any one of the top contenders could win the 2010 title this weekend, but there was every possibility that several of them could lose it and drop out.

After Nico Hulkenberg’s remarkable pole position performance on Saturday, it made the young German an unpredictable element on the front row of the grid. Would his presence cause mayhem, or would it play into the title rivals’ hands?

The worst-case scenario as far as the spectacle was concerned was that the two Red Bulls would quickly pass Hulkenberg and be able to use the Williams as a mobile chicane behind them while they disappeared into an unassailable lead. And unfortunately, that’s pretty much what happened.

Hulkenberg tried to sweep over to the inside line to stave off Sebastian Vettel off the line, but it was no good: Vettel was already alongside, and he took the optimal line into turn 1 and was away, leaving Hulkenberg to contend with Mark Webber instead. But the Williams was not strong in the opening corners, and when Hulkenberg ran wide into the entry to Decida do Lago Webber was quick to take advantage and pass him on the exit. The Red Bulls were away and that was the end of that.

Next up to take on Nico Hulkenberg was Fernando Alonso, but it took seven laps of sustained pressure before Hulkenberg finally failed to cover the inside line again through Decida do Lago and allowed Alonso to complete the move. Then it was Lewis Hamilton’s turn, and despite battling hard the Briton was unable to get past, his best opportunity coming on lap 10 when it looked like Hamilton had the edge going into turn 1 on the inside; but it looked like Hulkenberg was going to turn in on him, and rather than risk a race-ending collision Lewis backed off. Lewis was not a happy bunny the entire afternoon, complaining early on about having no grip, and then later also querying whether the F-Duct system was working as it was giving him zero advantage.

It was down to Hamilton’s team mate Jenson Button to spark the next shake-up in proceedings, when he decided to pit from 10th place on lap 11, much earlier than anyone was expecting. That freed him up from the crowded midfield pack and put him back out in clean air and on fresh rubber that allowed him to put in some fast laps; immediately, the rest of the midfield runners realised that their hand was being well and truly forced, and in they came much earlier than intended or really wanted, given the tyre wear at Interlagos.

Fortunes were mixed – Felipe Massa, second to pit, had a disaster when a wheel nut was cross threaded, forcing him to limp around a lap before returning to the pits for a new front right tyre. But for Button it worked like a dream, leaving him up in fifth place after all the other pit stops had cycled through, just behind Lewis Hamilton who had been kept out longer by McLaren after he was released by Hulkenberg pitting on lap 14. Hamilton stayed out till lap 20: any longer and Button’s pace would have cost Lewis fourth place, but instead the stop was timed to perfection.

But nothing was threatening the Red Bull domination up front, or Alonso’s third place. Nothing, that is, until Vitantonio Liuzzi hopelessly misjudged his exit from the Senna Esses on lap 54 and ran wide, catching the tyre barrier on the outside of the corner which ripped off the left hand side of the car. Liuzzi was fine, but the wreck was in a perilous situation, right where cars would sweep out wide and crash straight into the Force India. With no easy way of removing it quickly, as it was on a spur of land between the race track and the pit lane exit, the safety car was inevitable. Suddenly all those long gaps built up by the Red Bulls and by Alonso was gone.

By this time, Lewis Hamilton – who had finally been having a good, fast stint in the midsection of the race after all his complaints earlier in the afternoon – was back in dissatisfied mode again, most likely having pushed his tyres too far after the pit stop and burnt them out. So there wasn’t much surprise when Lewis opted to take advantage of the yellow flags to come into pit lane while the field was still getting gathered up by the safety car; more surprising was McLaren’s decision to bring in Jenson Button for fresh tyres a lap later. It seemed as though it must surely put Button at least well down the running order, but instead the drivers maintained their fourth and fifth classifications – it was just track position that suffered as they fell in among a clutter of lapped traffic.

At the restart, Sebastian Vettel got off to a perfect getaway, catching Mark Webber out behind lapped traffic. It was clear that Red Bull were not about to give any team orders, even though allowing Vettel to win over Webber was not the brightest move in trying to head off Alonso. If Webber wanted the win, he would have to forcibly take it off Vettel: but even if had been so inclined to risk everything, the car was suffering from overheating brakes and the team was issuing warnings from pit lane. Webber would have to settle for second place, a solid result for the Australian and yet still disappointing and frustrating as the dream of the world championship remained tantalising out of reach.

It was a poor day at Interlagos for the Brazilian contingent: Massa’s early pit stop disaster put him well down the running order, and he then tangled with the likes of Sebastien Buemi into turn 1 on lap 61, resulting in contact and shards of carbon fibre with Massa then running off the track to end up promptly ceding the place back to Buemi. Lucas Di Grassi pitted his Virgin on lap 45 for extensive repair works, and while he eventually returned to the fray he was now eight laps down and outside the classified finishers. Rubens Barrichello also had problems, clashing with Jaime Alguersuari on lap 36 that resulted in the Toro Rosso’s front wing piercing Barrichello’s front left tyre. Rubens limped back to the pits on the punctured wheel, ending up a remote 16th position. And Bruno Senna – who despite the family pedigree had never raced at Interlagos before this weekend in any category – was consigned to the usual HRT race of bringing up the rear, with only his team mate Christian Klein behind him on track after Klein’s car broke down on the warm-up lap and had to be recovered to the pits for repairs even a the race got underway, costing Klein some six laps.

Barrichello’s team mate, pole man Hulkenberg, eventually ended a rather disappointing eighth place, behind the two Mercedes drivers – Michael Schumacher frustratingly beaten by Nico Rosberg, despite Rosberg suffering a fraught and confused second stop under the safety car on lap 55 which required a quick return to pit lane next time around.

Behind Robert Kubica in ninth place, Kamui Kobayshi picked up the last point. The Sauber driver had been involved in several pivotal moments in the race, including making contact with Buemi into turn 1 on lap 56, but it was the moment when Jenson Button sliced past Kobayshi down the first corner of lap 31 that evoked memories of their battle here one year ago, when Button was fighting his way through the field to clinch the title and Kobayshi – a brash newcomer – was proving a huge problem for the world champion wannabe. This year by contrast it was the race that ended Button’s championship campaign, and even Kobayshi seemed relatively muted compared with his banzai style of recent Grand Prixs.

At the front, the world championship is still wide open – between three drivers at least. Jenson Button is indeed now formally out of the running and while Lewis Hamilton is still mathematically in the running, in reality McLaren’s interest in the title fight is now over. Despite Red Bull’s success here in Brazil, the team’s decision not to prioritise Mark Webber on track means that Fernando Alonso remains in the lead in the points – and now only needs second place in Abu Dhabi to clinch the 2010 title.

At least one championship was still decided at Brazil: with their 1-2, Red Bull clinched the constructors’ title for 2010, a remarkable achievement for them to beat the likes of Ferrari and McLaren in just six years of existence since they rose out of the remains of the old Stewart GP and Jaguar teams and by no means something that should be overlooked. Given that the team has claimed 14 out of a possible 18 pole positions and won seven GPs this year, it is a title that no one can deny is thoroughly deserved.

Now all that remains is to know whether one of their two drivers will take the drivers’ championship as well. And if so – which one? We find out in just one week.

Race results

Pos  Driver       Team                 Time
 1.  Vettel       Red Bull-Renault     1:33:11.803
 2.  Webber       Red Bull-Renault     +     4.243
 3.  Alonso       Ferrari              +     6.807
 4.  Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes     +    14.634
 5.  Button       McLaren-Mercedes     +    15.593
 6.  Rosberg      Mercedes             +    35.300
 7.  Schumacher   Mercedes             +    43.400
 8.  Hulkenberg   Williams-Cosworth    +     1 lap
 9.  Kubica       Renault              +     1 lap
10.  Kobayashi    Sauber-Ferrari       +     1 lap
11.  Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +     1 lap
12.  Sutil        Force India-Mercedes +     1 lap
13.  Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +     1 lap
14.  Massa        Ferrari              +     1 lap
15.  Petrov       Renault              +     1 lap
16.  Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth    +     1 lap
17.  Heidfeld     Sauber-Ferrari       +     1 lap
18.  Kovalainen   Lotus-Cosworth       +    2 laps
19.  Trulli       Lotus-Cosworth       +    2 laps
20.  Glock        Virgin-Cosworth      +    2 laps
21.  Senna        HRT-Cosworth         +    2 laps
22.  Klien        HRT-Cosworth         +    6 laps

Fastest lap: Hamilton, 1:13.851

Not classified/retirements:

Driver     Team                   On lap
Di Grassi  Virgin-Cosworth        63
Liuzzi     Force India-Mercedes   50

F1 world championship standings after round 18

Drivers:              Constructors:             
 1. Alonso      246   1. Red Bull-Renault     469
 2. Webber      238   2. McLaren-Mercedes     421
 3. Vettel      231   3. Ferrari              389
 4. Hamilton    222   4. Mercedes             202
 5. Button      199   5. Renault              145
 6. Massa       143   6. Williams-Cosworth     69
 7. Rosberg     130   7. Force India-Mercedes  68
 8. Kubica      126   8. Sauber-Ferrari        44
 9. Schumacher   72   9. Toro Rosso-Ferrari    11
10. Barrichello  47  
11. Sutil        47  
12. Kobayashi    32  
13. Hulkenberg   22  
14. Liuzzi       21  
15. Petrov       19  
16. Buemi         8  
17. De la Rosa    6  
18. Heidfeld      6  
19. Alguersuari   3  

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   

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