In the past few days, a debate has raged on the Motor Sport website about how much double World Champion Sebastian Vettel still has to prove as a racer.
The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix promised answers to those questions, as the Red Bull ace found himself facing the daunting challenge of slicing through the field from his starting place in the pitlane. In his quest to limit the damage to his tight points lead over Fernando Alonso, would Vettel show the mettle some believe he’s lacking?
Well, typically of Formula 1, there was no definitive answer from a race that was as dramatic and incident-packed as the previous one was dull.
Two early wing-damaging mistakes threatened to ruin Vettel’s afternoon. But ironically, the second led to a strategy change that put him right back in the hunt for a decent points haul. Then at the end, Sebastian proved he can pass cleanly with a brave move on Jenson Button to land himself an invaluable podium finish, just one place behind the brilliantly determined Alonso.
The upshot is that Sebastian lost just three points to his adversary, and 10 separate the pair with two races to go.
But the day in Abu Dhabi belonged to another World Champion. Kimi Raikkonen’s performances during his F1 return this year have been immense, but until Abu Dhabi his season had been missing the victory he and his Lotus team deserved. The cards fell his way this time thanks to McLaren once again letting Lewis Hamilton down, but there was a lot of racing still to be done when the Briton pulled off with another car failure on lap 20 – and Kimi stepped up with his trademark calm assurance to score a first GP victory since the Belgian GP of 2009.
Raikkonen’s start would prove key to the result, as he got the jump on both Pastor Maldonado and Mark Webber from fourth on the grid to follow poleman Hamilton into the first corner in second place. Behind him, the two Force Indias made contact, Nico Hulkenberg then cannoning into Bruno Senna’s Williams. The new Sauber signing was out on the spot.
As Vettel was released from the pitlane – his punishment for a Renault miscalculation in qualifying that had left him bereft of an adequate fuel sample for the FIA – Alonso was attempting to make hay. Starting sixth, the Ferrari was past Button from the lights and then pulled a brilliantly committed move on Mark Webber. The pair were wheel-to-wheel at nearly 200mph, and Fernando swept around the outside into fourth place, behind Maldonado’s Williams.
Hamilton had proven dominant in qualifying and he was clearly determined to stamp his mark on the race in the same fashion. Cold tyres almost caught him out on lap two and he ran wide, briefly giving Raikkonen hope of taking the lead. But Lewis survived the error and got his head down to open a gap.
Meanwhile, Vettel was beginning his hoped-for charge through the field – and making a bit of a mess of it. His dive down the inside of Senna’s Williams was optimistic, his front-right wing endplate snapping off against Bruno’s right-rear tyre. Would he need a new nose? It seemed not – at least at this stage. He was up to 14th position by lap four.
The first of two safety car periods followed as the leaders began lap nine, when Nico Rosberg suffered a violent crash in a moment of confusion with Narain Karthikeyan. The Mercedes driver appeared to misjudge the closing speed as he approached the slowing car ahead of him and was launched over the HRT. Rosberg slammed hard into the barrier, but thankfully emerged uninjured, if perhaps a little bewildered.
As marshals cleared the debris, Vettel almost made his own race-ending misjudgement. He was up to 13th and running behind the Toro Rosso of Daniel Ricciardo. As they attempted to keep warmth in their tyres down the back straight, Vettel suddenly swerved right to avoid the car in front and smashed trough a polystyrene DRS board – and almost into the barrier. Sebastian reacted furiously on the radio, claiming Ricciardo had almost come to a stop – but to be caught out so would have been a cringe-inducing way to retire from a GP. Especially for a double World Champion.
His battered front wing sustained more damage in the impact with the board, and this time Red Bull was forced to call him in. Vettel had started on the medium-compound prime tyre and would now switch to the soft Pirelli with 41 laps still to go. One stop was all that would be required to run this race, in ideal circumstances. But with a stop this early, would Vettel be able to make it to the end without another set of boots?
As Hamilton led the restart on lap 15, Vettel had it all to do again, then got mixed up in a scrap with Romain Grosjean – of all people! He survived the skirmish, narrowly avoiding a potential penalty in the process by using more track than allowed to pass the Lotus. Sebastian let Grosjean back past on the orders of his team, then did it again properly. This was hardly the assured performance we’d been looking for.
Then shock for McLaren: Hamilton was stopping. A total lack of power had left him with no option but to pull up. In different circumstances, Lewis would have been forgiven if he’d shown a flash of temper. But with his destiny for the future lying elsewhere, he was able to shake the hands of his team members and smile with a shrug for the cameras. He’s ticking off the races to end his McLaren career, and is clearly already looking forward to a new start at the other silver team in 2013.
Raikkonen now led from Maldonado – but not for long. A lap after Hamilton’s demise, Alonso passed the Williams for what was now second place. Vettel, on his soft rubber, was just out of the points in 11th.
It was at this point that Kimi gave us all much to smile about with his snappy reply to team info over his radio. His “leave me alone, I know what I’m doing” response was exactly what we’d expect from a hard-as-nails old pro. It was good to hear.
Button was the next man on the move, passing Maldonado for third on lap 24. A couple of laps later, Webber made a mess of passing Felipe Massa, the Brazilian spinning as a consequence. Mark now found himself in the uncomfortable position of having his team-mate right behind him. Red Bull removed any chance of further embarrassment by calling Webber in for his pitstop.
As the frontrunners all headed in, Sebastian moved up the order. Incredibly, given his race so far, he found himself only second to Raikkonen once the stops had been completed – one place, of course, ahead of his title rival Alonso. Against the odds, was he about to stretch his points lead after all?
No. Those soft Pirellis weren’t going to last and Red Bull called him in on lap 37. But as long as the pitstop went to plan, the team had worked out he would remerge in fourth place – still more than he could have expected about 20 minutes earlier.
Vettel duly charged back out ahead of a juicy scrap that included Grosjean, Paul di Resta, Sergio Perez and Webber. The quartet went at it – with the inevitable result. Perez was the man at fault this time, his outside passing attempt on di Resta pushing him wide, leaving him prone to attack by Grosjean. The pair made contact as he rejoined the track, the Lotus jinking left and into the path of the hapless Webber. The Lotus and the Red Bull were out, and Perez would be handed a stop-go for his trouble.
The safety car was called on again as the mess was cleared, with Raikkonen leading from Alonso, Button, Vettel, Maldonado and the rest.
Now the pressure was back on Kimi. Alonso would clearly fancy his chances of stealing the win at the restart, so the Finn had to be on alert. His team helpfully reminded him that tyre temperature would be key – and Kimi responded again with suitable short shrift.
Lotus shouldn’t have worried. Raikkonen handled the restart perfectly, getting the jump on Alonso and making sure he’d be clear of the Ferrari once DRS was enabled again. That’s not to say it wasn’t nail-biting as Alonso shadowed him all the way to the flag, but Raikkonen had it all under control to deliver his team its first win for five years – and its first of course under its current guise as Lotus.
“Thanks guys, great job,” was Raikkonen’s underwhelmed response to his team’s whoops of joy over the radio. Just priceless.
Alonso was more than happy with his second place, but his pleasure was sullied by the presence of his title rival on the final step of the podium. Vettel had passed Button with a wonderfully committed move around the outside into Turn 10. In the circumstances, it showed balls and Sebastian was perhaps fortunate that the move was on a driver who races as cleanly as Button. He wouldn’t have got away with it against others we could mention.
But the reward for his risk was worth it. However he’d got there, Sebastian had come from the pitlane to the podium and the damage had indeed been limited. “Never lift. Never stop believing,” Sebastian told his team as it all sunk in after the flag.
Next stop, Austin. Vettel still leads and he’s still got the quicker car, but that man Alonso will not give up. As cliffhangers go, this is even better than Homeland.