The air was ripe with the pop of champagne corks – and the desperate yelps of Kai Ebel, a German TV presenter with a spectacularly lurid wardrobe. Right now he was being rugby tackled by Norbert Vettel, Sebastian’s father, who was trying to separate Ebel from a particularly ridiculous pair of trousers. Vettel junior had triggered the uproar by securing Red Bull Racing’s first world title – an energy drink company having done a rather better job with the team than previous proprietor Ford.
Colleague Mark Hughes and I worked our way through the frivolities and entered Red Bull HQ. The ground floor echoed to the clink of flutes while hard-pressed staff battled to replenish guests’ fast-emptying glasses, but we side-stepped the party, snuck upstairs and tapped gently on the third door along. Inside, all was calm: Mark Webber was there with parents Alan and Diane, partner Ann and Roger, his physio at the time. For the next 40 minutes we chatted about the season just past and the title that had so freshly eluded him… which was now very audibly being celebrated below. The contrast was as poignant as it was striking.
Some of the specifics were confidential and will remain so, but Webber saw no shame in defeat, for his had been a strong season. “It probably hurts more to have lost the title at the final race,” he said, “but I think I’ve proved a point to a few people this season and I take a lot of positives from the way things have gone. We didn’t lose the title today. It’s the consequence of a whole range of factors over the year.”
He’d been leading the title fight until Korea, where he spun off in foul conditions. When Vettel’s engine blew later that afternoon, Fernando Alonso stole in to win and seize the championship initiative.
One week before Abu Dhabi, in Brazil (good calendar planning, that), the title-chasing trio finished 1-2-3, with Vettel winning from Webber and Alonso as Red Bull eschewed a chance to use team orders to improve the prospects of its best-placed driver. Heading for the Middle East, Alonso had 246 points, Webber 238 and Vettel 231, while Lewis Hamilton was clinging on by his fingertips, on 222, and retained an outside chance of taking the championship. In reality, though, he required a drama of meteorite strike proportions. Not that Vettel’s prospects looked a great deal better…
The German took pole, however, and led away – although the race was soon neutralised when one of his compatriots – Schumacher M – spun and collected Tonio Liuzzi’s Force India. That triggered a safety car and several drivers pitted immediately to discard Bridgestone’s super-soft in favour of mediums. At the time it appeared a random tactic, but the effects would rapidly become significant.
Vettel led from Hamilton, Jenson Button, Alonso, Webber and Felipe Massa when the race resumed, but the Australian soon felt his rear tyres wilting. He brushed the Turn 19 wall on lap eight, without harm, but three laps later he was called in for mediums.
Ferrari responded by pitting Massa on lap 13, in a bid to get him ahead of Webber for useful nuisance value, but that ploy failed. Two laps later, to general incredulity along the pit wall, it summoned Alonso. In Ferrari’s defence, it did look as though Vettel’s tyres were beginning to lose their edge… but he’d just come through a period of graining and posted another quick time just as Alonso entered the pits. The Spaniard rejoined behind Nico Rosberg and Vitaly Petrov, two of the drivers that had stopped at the end of lap one (without great loss of time, given the safety car’s presence), and would remain gummed behind them for the balance of the race.
“With hindsight,” said Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali, “it is obvious that we made a mistake, but at the time we thought we were doing the right thing. We wanted to get in before the tyres deteriorated and, although we realised that we’d come out behind some of the cars that had already stopped, we didn’t imagine it would be so difficult to pass them…” That didn’t explain, though, why the team had reacted to Webber – a lesser title threat at that particular moment – rather than Vettel. “They were aiming at two tongs,” Webber said, “but had only one hammer…”
Alonso and Webber were thus condemned to finish seventh and eighth, a result that would have been enough for the Spaniard if Vettel failed to win. That, though, never looked likely. The German nursed his super-softs until lap 24… and recaptured the lead once Button had pitted 15 laps later. The latter would go on to finish third, behind team-mate Hamilton.
“For the final ten 10 laps,” Vettel said, “I was wondering what was going on. My race engineer [Guillaume Roquelin] was trying to give me advice every lap, to help me carry the car home. I was thinking, ‘Why is he nervous? We must be in a bloody good position’. As I crossed the line he came on the radio very quietly and said, ‘It is looking good, but we have to wait until all the cars finish’. I didn’t know what he meant – I hadn’t been looking at the screens because I didn’t want any distractions, but then he came on the radio and screamed that we’d won the title.”
It was the only time all season that Vettel had led the world championship standings…
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