Sebastian Vettel has been assaulting the record book since his very first F1 start back in 2007, and in Austin he hit another target by logging his eighth consecutive victory.
The great Alberto Ascari achieved famously achieved nine split over the 1952-53 seasons, but no one has done it in one year before, and in achieving the record Vettel eclipsed his old pal Michael Schumacher. Remarkably 112 days have passed since he last failed to win a race, in Hungary.
Seb ended his afternoon with another display of victory doughnuts on the run-off area, this time achieved with an impressive symmetrical perfection. A relieved Christian Horner pointed out that the RB9 gearbox, abused in India, Abu Dhabi and now Austin, had now reached the end of its FIA-mandated life. The champ will have a new one to play with in Brazil…
For this second Austin event a healthy crowd watched Vettel undertake another demonstration run at the front, but there was at least some action behind him with overtaking up and down the field. But overall there was very much an end of term feeling to proceedings, despite the major stakes involved in the battle for second, third and fourth in the constructors’ championship.
Saturday’s qualifying session, held in cool and blustery conditions, had thrown up an interesting grid. There wasn’t much of a surprise on the front row of course, which had a familiar dark blue hue to it, but the fact that the next five cars represented five different teams was a clear indication of how hard it was to get the tyres into the right window.
“It was a very unusual day,” said a slightly bewildered Nico Rosberg, one of several high-profile ‘victims’. “Very hard tyres and very cold conditions and very smooth asphalt. A combination of all those three meant the tyres weren’t gripping properly and they weren’t working properly, and that’s why there’s surprises. If the car works the tyre properly even if it’s fundamentally slower car you get so much more grip from the tyre itself, and that’s why you are able to go quick.”
With everyone aiming for one stop – and all cars bar Jean-Éric Vergne starting on the medium option tyre – there was never much chance of strategy providing any excitement, although the much hotter conditions compared to qualifying forced drivers to focus on protecting their tyres.
From pole Vettel stayed safely in front at the start, and as expected those on the dirty inside line got away badly. Mark Webber was squeezed down to fourth as third and fifth qualifiers Romain Grosjean and Lewis Hamilton both got past on his outside.
Meanwhile further around the lap Adrian Sutil and Pastor Maldonado made contact on the straight, and the Force India spun hard into the barriers, bringing out a safety car. Maldonado carried on unharmed while Esteban Gutiérrez also had first lap contact, and had to pit with a puncture.
After four laps under yellow the field was released, and not surprisingly Vettel soon began to build up a lead. He was 2.4s ahead of Grosjean after two laps, and then as usual he kept an eye on his tyres as he continued to edge slowly away, opening up an advantage of 3.8s by the 10th lap, and then 8.3s by the 20th.
It was around that time that the guys further down the order began to make their first and only pitstops, but those at the front preferred to stretch things out. Hamilton had run third initially before losing out to Webber on lap 13, and he was the first of the top group to pit, coming in on lap 25. Unusually Vettel didn’t wait for all his immediate pursuers to stop, and the leader came in on lap 27. Webber followed a lap later, and Grosjean – after briefly leading – came in a lap after that.
Sebastian Vettel in 2013
Became the first driver to win eight consecutive Grands Prix in a season
Became the third driver to score two consecutive grand slams (after Ascari and Clark)
Became the fourth driver to win four Formula 1 World Championships (after Fangio, Prost and Schumacher)
When it all shook out Vettel had a slightly extended 10s lead over Grosjean, while Webber – who had a record pitstop time – was 2s down on Grosjean. The main excitement over the latter half of the race involved Webber and his prospects of relieving the Frenchman of second place. At one stage it looked like he might do it, but after dropping back and subsequently making a second and final charge over the closing laps he couldn’t quite manage it.
Vettel had paced himself and let his lead fall into the 7s range, although inevitably he took the chance to bang in the race’s fastest lap right at the end, much to the consternation of his engineer. Grosjean meanwhile enjoyed a faultless race to second, surviving the pressure from Webber in impressive style and logging yet another good podium finish. The opportunity to take up the team leader role, in the absence of Kimi Räikkönen, was clearly one he relished.
Behind them Hamilton had a relatively lonely run to fourth, but the Mercedes driver was happy enough with the result and felt that at least he had been able to push hard all day without a dramatic drop-off in tyre performance. He had Fernando Alonso in his mirrors in the closing laps, and was happy to stay safely in front of his old rival.
“I had a great start today and that was crucial to my race,” said Hamilton. “We had to give up third place to Mark fairly easily to make sure our tyre management and strategy worked as it was more important for the team to finish ahead of Ferrari. There was no way I was letting Fernando past at the end; I was ready for him to make his move and had a couple of tenths ready to pull out if he did!
“We’ve had a few difficult races on my side of the garage and I’m so proud of the team for all the hard work they have put in. We’re all determined to maintain our second place at the final race in Brazil next weekend.”
Having lost a place to Sergio Pérez off the line Alonso jumped the Mexican for sixth with a later pitstop, and later he passed Nico Hülkenberg to claim fifth. The Sauber driver fought back in the closing laps, briefly getting ahead, but the wily Alonso managed to reclaim the position. Nevertheless sixth was another great result for Hülkenberg and yet another sales pitch for his great talent.
Pérez shrugged off his obvious frustration and did a good job to claim seventh, while Valtteri Bottas was one of the stars of the race for Williams, turning his ninth on the grid into eighth at the flag with a feisty performance. From 12th Nico Rosberg had a tough race that saw him recover only to ninth, while Jenson Button claimed the final point after passing Daniel Ricciardo right at the end, but the former champ was very much overshadowed by his team-mate.
Heikki Kovalainen’s return with Lotus was spoiled by a bad start, and then an extra pitstop after a problem with his front wing, which was not the result of contact. Later he was further hampered by a KERS failure on his way to 15th.
Just one more race remains of this season, and indeed the current engine formula. Let’s hope that rain or some other intervention makes for a less predictable afternoon in Brazil…