Sebastian Vettel’s world championship-winning drive in the Indian Grand Prix wasn’t quite as audacious as that. As with all magic acts, this was merely an illusion.
And it wasn’t even Vettel doing the conjuring. It was Pirelli who conjured up a vision of Vettel being out of contention for the lead in the opening half of the race, as he waited for his rivals to get their obligatory run on the soft tyres out of the way and resume their usual positions behind his rear wing.
Without that, Vettel would probably have led every lap of the race just as he had the previous two Indian Grands Prix at the Buddh International Circuit. It was probably out of more than just sentiment that he said after the race “it?óÔé¼Ôäós a shame we are not racing here next year”.
Red Bull’s decision to reduce Vettel’s running on the soft tyres to just two laps was made after the champion-elect was spooked by their behaviour during practice.
“These Pirellis are so sensitive,” team principal Christian Horner told the BBC on Saturday. “And what we see they’re going OK, they’re going fine, then suddenly they drop off.”
“Sebastian thought he had a puncture yesterday, came into the pits and said ‘I’ve got a major problem with the back of the car’. It was just that the tyre had gone off.”
It wasn’t just Red Bull who were wary of the soft tyre’s performance. Paul di Resta and Jean-Eric Vergne got rid of theirs at the end of the very first lap.
Like Red Bull, their teams had split strategies between their drivers, putting the other car on mediums. Ferrari were in the same boat and took the calculated gamble of putting Fernando Alonso on the medium tyres at the start.
Early blow for Alonso
It was a bold decision as Alonso’s Q2 time indicated he might have been able to qualify on the front row on soft tyres. Instead he lined up eighth, a vulnerable mid-grid position that isn’t called the ‘carbon fibre zone’ for nothing.
Sure enough as he accelerated around turn two Webber dodged right and smashed Alonso’s front-left endplate into shards. Then at turn four he tangled with Button. Alonso was doomed to pit to replace his front wing, and in that moment the slim chance of Vettel being denied the title was all but extinguished.
It was a blow for Button, too. “I got hit quite hard on the right-hand-side by Fernando. I don?óÔé¼Ôäót quite know why he couldn?óÔé¼Ôäót make to the apex, as I?óÔé¼Ôäód given him loads of room, but he hit me in the side pretty hard.”
“The contact damaged the car and damaged the wheel rim, which also gave me a puncture, although it didn?óÔé¼Ôäót cause me an issue until about three laps later.”
The lead changes hands
Felipe Massa’s fortunes in the other Ferrari were considerably better: he had started on softs and taken advantage of a mistake by Lewis Hamilton at turn three to pass both Mercedes drivers on the first lap.
Vettel’s lap two pit stop handed Massa the lead. Nico Rosberg tried to pass the Ferrari by making his first stop early, but with the midfield not having spread out yet he was delayed behind Valtteri Bottas and couldn’t make it work. Hamilton came in with Massa on the next lap and they resumed in the same order.
By lap nine the Indian crowd were enjoying their third different race leader – two more than the previous two years put together – as Mark Webber took up the charge.
Webber had started on medium tyres and lost three places, all to drivers on soft tyres who then pitted. The medium tyres proved much more durable, and he remained up front until lap 28, just short of half-distance.
In the meantime Vettel made light work of the cars between him and his team mate. It undoubtedly helped his cause that most of them appreciated they were unlikely to keep him behind for any length of time – particularly as the main DRS zone had been extended by 160 metres this year – and mostly didn’t waste their energy or tyres going off-line to defend their position. By lap 21 he was up to second.
For those who started on the medium tyre the question now was whether to try to stay out until they could make it to the end on soft tyres, or to make two stops, with the soft tyre stint at the middle or the end of the race.
Adrian Sutil was the only driver who started on the medium tyres and one-stopped. “We thought that the soft tyres would only last around five laps,” he said afterwards, “so I made sure I really looked after them, and in the end I managed just under twenty”.
For those who two-stopped, leaving the soft tyres until the end risked leaving them vulnerable in the event of a Safety Car. This mattered less for those nearer the rear of the field so Bottas, Esteban Gutierrez and Max Chilton all took that route.
Webber, however, used his soft tyres for the middle stint: “You?óÔé¼Ôäóve got to protect against a Safety Car”, he said. Sergio Perez and Daniel Ricciardo did likewise having been running third and fourth respectively. All were back in the pits within five laps.
Alternator robs Red Bull of one-two
Vettel made his final pit stop in between Webber’s two visits, leaving the pair running to the end on medium compound tyres. The stage was set for a formation Red Bull finish followed by a double coronation.
But it wasn’t to be. The RB9 shares the same Achilles’ heel as its predecessors – reliability – and this time it struck down Webber. A gearbox glitch proved the first indication of a terminal electrical fault, and he pulled off at turn two as lap 40 began.
“The most disappointing thing today was obviously the failure on Mark?óÔé¼Ôäós car when we were set for a one-two finish,” said Horner afterwards, “We had a sudden alternator failure.”
This recurrence of a problem which caused the team multiple retirements last year occurred despite them having changed suppliers for the part. Vettel was quickly urged to take every possible precautions.
“I wasn?óÔé¼Ôäót allowed to use the drinks bottle in the race, we switched the KERS off,” he said. “We did everything to try and save energy at the end”.
Raikkonen frustrates Grosjean
As has often been the case this year there was plenty of vying for position some distance behind Vettel. Rosberg made an early second pit stop and jumped Massa but Hamilton came in on the same lap as the Ferrari – Mercedes seemingly not having told him to do the opposite to whatever Massa did.
Massa and Hamilton came out of the pits behind another car – Romain Grosjean’s Lotus. Having started on soft tyres he’d made a late switch to mediums and was gambling on making it to the end of the race.
Kimi Raikkonen was attempting to do the same but lacked the benefit of fresh tyres for his first stint and was getting through his mediums more quickly than Grosjean. On lap 52 Rosberg easily stripped him of second place.
Grosjean has had to make way for Raikkonen more than once this year but if he expected any such co-operation from his team mate he was to be disappointed. Despite instructions from Lotus to move aside and the deteriorating state of his tyres Raikkonen moved to cover the inside of turn four as Grosjean approached, then forced his team mate off the track.
Lotus’s trackside operations Alan Permane gave Raikkonen an earful and his driver responded in kind, which gave FOM’s team radio censor plenty to do. Raikkonen finally waved Grosjean through having held him up so badly Massa was now within DRS range.
Despite warnings from his team to look after his engine, Grosjean clung on to his podium position. Raikkonen had to pit on the penultimate lap for soft tyres to get to the end, crossing the line well behind Hamilton.
Nico Hulkenberg was on course for eighth place when he hit trouble. “When I was braking into the last turn something clicked and all of a sudden my brakes were gone,” he said. “Something must have been broken on the car.”
He retired in the pits, promoting the Force India drivers to eighth and ninth courtesy of their unorthodox strategies.
Daniel Ricciardo held on for the final point, resisting attacks from Alonso grappled with an ill-handling car after his first-lap contact.
Vettel ready to do it all again
India was an appropriate place for Vettel to seal his fourth world championship victory in as many years. He remains undefeated at the track in the race and qualifying, a situation which will remain the case for at least another 12 months as the race is absent from the 2014 F1 calendar.
With the title in his hands he let rip, spurned FIA protocol and headed back to the pit straight to perform doughnuts in front of the cheering crowd.
“I would actually love to take the time out and travel India, travel around here, because I think this country has the possibility to teach you so much,” he said after the race.
“The majority of people are very poor, if you compare the living standards to Europe. I think it?óÔé¼Ôäós within human nature that you always find something to complain about. Being German, maybe it?óÔé¼Ôäós in my roots to find something to complain about but you come here, the majority of people have a very difficult life you would say, but they are very happy.”
But then, for a moment, he came back down to earth. “There?óÔé¼Ôäós not enough time in the off-season, to be honest. It?óÔé¼Ôäós a very busy schedule.”
“It?óÔé¼Ôäós a big, big, big project waiting for us next year. I think teams like Mercedes, Ferrari spend a lot of time thinking of new ideas. It?óÔé¼Ôäós a new car, it?óÔé¼Ôäós a new engine so it will be an incredibly big challenge. We already start testing in January…”
And just like that, the 2013 world champion was planning how to beat them all again in 2014.
2013 Indian Grand Prix
- Vettel takes fifth Driver of the Weekend win
- This year’s Indian Grand Prix voted best so far
- F1 still struggling to gain a foothold in India
- 2013 Indian Grand Prix fans’ video gallery
- 2013 Indian Grand Prix team radio transcript