You half wondered whether the fight might continue in the weighing room – and if the contest switched to bare knuckles you probably wouldn’t back Sebastian Vettel. The controversial pivot was marginal, fleeting and thrilling to behold, the German all but brushing the pit wall as he dived past team-mate Mark Webber en route to Turn One at the dawn of lap 46, then finally making a move stick three corners later. Trouble was, they were supposed to hold order at that stage. “Come on Seb,” team principal Christian Horner had said via the radio, “this is silly…”
Almost every team went into the race in an uncertain frame of mind with regard to tyre performance and durability – and they anticipated a free compound choice after rain affected Saturday’s Q3 session. They would start as the top 10 had qualified, however, intermediates being the order of the day after it began to rain about 40 minutes before the start. Parts of the circuit were almost dry when the lights went out, but others – particularly around Turn Three, where several drivers slid wide during the installation laps – remained sodden.
Sebastian Vettel made a clean start to lead away from pole, while Fernando Alonso swatted aside team-mate Felipe Massa to take second. Entering Turn Two, though, the Spaniard got a little too close to Vettel and snagged his front wing against the Red Bull’s gearbox.
“It was a surprise to find him there, almost stopped,” Alonso said. “I don’t know what speed he was doing. It might have been better if the wing had come away completely. It drooped a bit, but the car felt OK through the first two sectors.” He was able to keep Mark Webber at bay until the lap’s end, but the wing slipped lower still approaching Turn 15, the final hairpin. “I couldn’t see that from where I was,” he said, “and the team had only a couple of seconds before the pit entry in which to make a call. It was a risk to continue, but we felt we’d lose less time by staying out and then replacing the wing when I stopped for slicks, which we knew we’d have to do after only a few laps.”
The fractured carbon gave way shortly after he’d crossed the line, however, depriving him of steering and condemning the Ferrari to the Turn One gravel.
That cemented an early Red Bull one-two, with Lewis Hamilton third from Jenson Button, Nico Rosberg and the slow-starting Massa. Rosberg gave the top four added symmetry when he passed Button on lap three.
Vettel and Massa were first to commit to slicks, on lap five, and the German conceded it was probably a lap or two too early. The first part of the track remained treacherous – and the move also dropped him into traffic. Webber delayed until lap seven and within another lap the whole field had switched, with the Australian now leading from Vettel, Hamilton (who momentarily paused at McLaren’s pit during his stop), Rosberg, Button and Nico Hülkenberg. Force India lost out during the pit sequence, the team being unable to secure Adrian Sutil’s front left wheel and obliging Paul di Resta to queue behind. It was the first of a chaotic series of stops for the team – and the cause was the same every time. The wheel-changing system has been the same since testing, with no previous hint of trouble, but after a few more fumbles both cars were retired as a safety precaution.
Webber continued to lead through the second round of stops, with Vettel and the Mercedes drivers in close attendance, but Hamilton managed to split the Red Bulls after the next pit visit, the Englishman coming in on lap 30, two before his quarry, and turning a one-second deficit into a slight advantage. It would be lap 39 before Vettel was able to reclaim the position, a squirt of DRS giving him the advantage on the run to Turn One. Both Mercedes were on the harder tyre at this stage and didn’t work as well as they had on the medium. Rosberg had already drifted a little and Hamilton would soon join him, not least because he was being asked to save fuel to counter unexpectedly high consumption.
Hamilton made his fourth and final stop on lap 41, when still within three seconds of Vettel, and the German came in next time around to cover. Webber was far enough ahead for that minor disadvantage not to matter, but the cars were almost level following the Australian’s final stop at the end of lap 43. He was on hard Pirellis and Vettel mediums, but the long-time leader held his ground and edged his team-mate wide through Turn One before preserving his advantage into the left-handed Turn Two.
“At that stage,” Webber said, “I thought the race was over, so I turned down the engine and prepared to cruise to the finish, to make sure the tyres lasted.”
Horner: “We hadn’t expected to be in a position such as this, given the way things had gone on Friday, but we discussed such a possibility before the start and agreed the drivers should hold station if we were running first and second after the final stops. From a team perspective, we just wanted to bag 43 points and weren’t bothered which way around the two cars finished. It didn’t make sense to have one following the other too closely, given the potentially detrimental effect on tyres.”
The instruction was confirmed during lap 44 but, in Webber’s words, “Seb took his own decisions.” The Australian’s post-race demeanour left you in no doubt how he felt.
Horner confirmed that Vettel had simply ignored specific orders and that the matter would subsequently be discussed behind closed doors. For his part, Vettel apologised, accepted he’d done wrong and claimed the same wouldn’t happen again if he could rewind the clock. By then, though, he had the extra seven points he craved.
“We’ve seen it before, from both our guys,” Horner said, “and I’m sure we’ll see it again. Racing drivers and teams have different sets of perspectives.”
The Mercedes duo behaved slightly more obediently, Rosberg being told to hold station even though he’d demonstrated all afternoon that he could run slightly more briskly than Hamilton. Team principal Ross Brawn wanted to guarantee that both cars finished and reined in the German’s ambitions. “I feel a bit embarrassed to be standing here on the podium,” Hamilton said, “because really it should be Nico.”
Somewhere in a parallel universe, Massa made a late final stop (lap 47) and capitalised on fresh rubber to pass the three-stopping Lotus-Renaults of Romain Grosjean and Kimi Räikkönen, the latter made to fight hard for seventh in the face of fierce defence from Hülkenberg. Sergio Pérez and Jean-Eric Vergne completed the scorers, Vergne surviving a pit clash with Charles Pic’s Caterham. The incident cost both drivers their front wings and Toro Rosso a €10,000 fine for unsafe release.
Button might have finished fifth, but dropped from contention when he was sent on his way with a loose right front wheel after his third stop on lap 35. McLaren recovered the car and packed him on his way once more, but his left front later started to lock and triggered such a vibration that the team felt it prudent to stop.
Compared with events at Red Bull, ’twas but a minor tremor.