On the surface it looked straightforward – and the reality wasn’t greatly different. Sebastian Vettel took the lead at the start of the second Indian Grand Prix and led every millimetre of the way, the German extending his world championship lead in the process.
He is the only driver ever to have led a Formula 1 race at the Buddh International Circuit and, indeed, has not been headed since Lewis Hamilton’s failed gearbox gifted him victory in Singapore.
Vettel’s Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber made a slightly better start, but conceded the first corner to optimise his line for a clean run to Turn Three, which precedes the circuit’s longest straight. The outcome was rarely in doubt thereafter, Vettel pulling 1.273s clear during the opening lap’s course and edging away gently. Pirelli’s chosen tyre compounds – hard and soft – proved remarkably durable, sufficiently so to make this a rare, one-stop race. After loping along in the 1m 31s, Vettel increased his pace by about half a second after 20 laps – to see how much performance he had in reserve – and finally came in on lap 33 of 60 before completing his fourth consecutive F1 success, the first time in his career that he’s accomplished such a run. From the pit wall, the only momentary scare came with fewer than 10 laps remaining, when sparks could be seen from beneath the front of the leader’s car. “We think it was just a skid plate bolt that worked loose and fell out,” said team principal Christian Horner, “but it didn’t affect his performance.”
Webber ran a comfortable second until his kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) began to malfunction. “He lost it completely for a couple of laps,” said Horner, “but the guys managed to reset it – although only in reduced power mode. That left him vulnerable to attack from Fernando Alonso, who was absolutely flying on the harder tyre.”
The Spaniard’s race began spectacularly – a longer seventh gear and double slipstream enabling him to overtake the McLarens of Jenson Button and Hamilton as they drafted towards Turn Four on the opening lap. Both McLarens repassed him under braking, but only momentarily in Hamilton’s case. Alonso then used his drag reduction system to overhaul Button on the fourth lap and began catching Webber when the Australian’s KERS woes kicked in. Webber remained second after their tyre stops – on laps 30 and 29 respectively – but on lap 48 he lost time behind lapped local hero Narain Karthikeyan and Alonso was able to get within DRS passing range. Two laps later, he was second.
The McLarens swapped places on lap six – Hamilton squeezing ahead of Button into Turn Five – but the 2008 champion was plagued by a notchy transmission, particularly on the downshift. “He wanted to change the steering wheel during his tyre stop,” said team principal Martin Whitmarsh, “but at first I was against the idea – I thought it might cost three or four seconds because there are all sorts of electrical connections you have to line up, but in fact the whole stop took only 3.1s. Lewis had the wheel removed almost before the car had come to a stop: he and the team did a brilliant job.”
Like the Ferrari, the McLaren proved devastatingly effective on the harder tyre but Hamilton was unable to shift the resilient Webber before the end, despite applying fierce pressure during the final few laps.
Button took fifth and Felipe Massa completed the top six, a fine drive from the Brazilian because he had been battling to stave off the effects of high fuel consumption (the team had been unable to make accurate calibrations on Friday afternoon, because he was unable to complete a long run after spinning and flat-spotting a tyre). It didn’t help that he had to resist Kimi Räikkönen’s Lotus for much of the afternoon.
Nico Hülkenberg, Romain Grosjean and Bruno Senna completed the scorers, the Brazilian receiving a helping hand when team-mate Pastor Maldonado ploughed through the Turn Five gravel on lap 31.
Afterwards, Vettel was asked whether he felt as though he had one hand on the world championship trophy. “If I have,” he said, “then Fernando and a few others are holding the other side.”
The German leads the title race by 13 points, but 75 remain unclaimed as teams prepare for Abu Dhabi next Sunday.
By Simon Arron