European GP 2011: full race report

Vettel takes straighforward win in Valencia heat

Normal service resumed as German faultlessly goes from lights to flag

Home hero Alonso second; Mark Webber third after nursing gearbox issue late on

McLarens hard on tyres; unable to challenge Red Bull or Ferrari on pace

Sebastian Vettel today won the European Grand Prix at Valencia in confident manner, putting well behind him the bad memories of having lost out to Jenson Button in Canada two weeks ago.

The German was peerless in his ability to manage the tyres in what was a race characterised by the Pirelli rubber’s rapid degradation, partly due to the Spanish heat.

Fernando Alonso was a strong second place in his second home grand prix of the year, and he spent most of the race combating Mark Webber in the other Red Bull. Despite a late gearbox gremlin Webber came home second.

The McLarens were unable to take the fight to Red Bull and will be disappointed to find themselves behind Alonso on race pace too. Lewis Hamilton drove what was by his recent standards a very quiet race to come home fourth, while Jenson Button with no KERS was sixth. Alonso’s team mate Felipe Massa managed fifth place after an even afternoon.

Seventh place was occupied by Nico Rosberg, while Jaime Alguersuari made the most of a two-stop strategy to finish eighth in front of his home crowd. Adrian Sutil harried the Catalan in the closing stages but could not get past and was ninth, with Nick Heidfeld a reasonable tenth.

The story at the start was very much in what measure the European Grand Prix could live up to the thrill-fest that was Canada. One hoped that this season’s all-singing, all-dancing regulations would permit Valencia, which has been a mediocre venue for entertainment thus far in its F1 career, to come alive. Two DRS zones would ideally liven it up into the bargain. What was certain was that it would be hot – track temperature a scorching 47C, with air temperature 27C. Tyres, then, were going to be an issue – how long would Pirelli’s finest stand up to brutal, twisting contact with the near-molten Spanish tarmac?

The start approached and it transpired that all of the field, with the exceptions of Vitaly Petrov and the returning Sergio Perez, would be on the softer tyres. The majority were betting that the softer compound would yield immediate pace and that the strategy choice would be between a two- and a three-stopper depending on the rate of wear. Perez, though, planned a one-stop. At this moment they could only guess as the waves of heat rose from the track.

As they lined up on the grid the expectation was that Vettel, on pole position as is his wont, would have to bolt from the start so as to avoid a threat from behind as DRS was activated. And, as they left the grid, that was exactly what he did. He led into the first turn from Webber and Alonso, fourth-placed Felipe Massa having made a wonderful start that could have resulted in more had he been more ruthless with his competitors into the first corner. The McLarens had gone backwards – neither of the Englishman had had good getaways, and Hamilton slotted in fifth with Button seventh, sandwiching Nico Rosberg in sixth. A severe critic might say that Hamilton was overly conservative into the first turn, but maybe a lack of contact with other cars was a good idea for him today.

By the end of the first lap Vettel was doing precisely what was required. He was ahead of Webber by 1.342 seconds as they crossed the line. He would be a mere shape in the distance by lap 4 when DRS was enabled, at which time the field had settled. Fighting back from his poor start, Button was determined to show that McLaren still had bragging rights over Mercedes, swarming all over the back of Nico Rosberg in sixth. He chased the German for a couple of laps, the effective traction of the W02 in front and the comparative lack of bite from DRS and KERS frustrating the Montreal hero. But as lap 6 came, so he got by into the first turn, Rosberg braking mysteriously early and the Englishman snapping up the place.

Although Mark Webber was doing his level best to keep Vettel in sight, not much could be done. Webber’s fastest lap on lap 6 of 1m45.113 was swiftly bettered by his tormentor the very next lap, Vettel posting a 1m44.712. Fernando Alonso was not far behind the Australian either, and looking menacing as he was cheered every time round by every grandstand lining the harbour. Alonso’s pace was not shabby by any means – he was less than a second behind while the rest of the top ten had settled into 1.5 second intervals from each other.

Lower down the field, however, there was more entertainment. Around lap 10 an interesting little conflagration developed around 12th placed man Rubens Barrichello and a crowd in close attendance consisting of Kamui Kobayashi and the Toro Rossos of Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari. Buemi launched an attack on Kobayashi down at Turn 12 and ran wide but Alguersuari was not quite close enough to capitalise. He looked quick in race trim, though, did the young Spaniard.

On lap 12 Nick Heidfeld and Rubens Barrichello were the first of the runners to pit. They were followed by the first big name just a lap later, Lewis Hamilton diving in for more soft Pirellis. Despite a tasty out lap, it was already looking as though a podium would be the very best Hamilton could aim for, with a points finish the much more likely outcome to his latest adventure. Vettel was not a realistic target, at any rate – the Red Bull now led by 3.5 seconds and Webber was pitting now into the bargain. Serenely Vettel took his stop on lap 15, followed by Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button in his visit to the old fish market.

Michael Schumacher had been running in the top ten until his stop and a bizarre incident just afterwards. Exiting the pits on lap 16 the seven-time champion ran perilously close to the white line, although he would escape sanction. By the time he reached turn one, he was racing Vitaly Petrov, who cut across him severely. But yet again it seemed that Schumacher’s petulant reluctance to yield a position on the racetrack had come into play and would ruin his afternoon. He limped back to the pits with a broken front wing, terrifying spectators who feared the appendage coming loose.

Back towards the front and a slow stop for Felipe Massa had meant that he had lost a place to Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton’s immediate speed on the new tyres merited the improvement in his fortunes, although it still did not look as though he would win the race. Most of the field were now on new rubber, as well, so Hamilton’s advantage would not last long. Still on old tyres, Perez’s one-stop strategy was being found out – he had barely enough grip to keep the thing on the road and lost two places in quick succession to Heidfeld and Barrichello, falling to 12th.

On lap 18, the order ran Vettel, Webber, Alonso, Hamilton, Massa, Button, Rosberg, yet-to-stop Alguersuari, Sutil, Heidfeld, Barrichello, Perez, di Resta, Buemi, Kobayashi and Petrov.

One man determined to change this running order was Fernando Alonso. He signalled his intent by setting a fastest lap and then inching ever closer to the Red Bull of Mark Webber in front of him. On lap 20 he was on his gearbox before sweeping past the Australian the following time round, into the turn twelve hairpin. Realistically, Webber could not have fought it, Alonso using his KERS, DRS and the goodwill of the crowd to push him past.

It was also a good day for his fellow countryman Jaime Alguersuari, who had dropped down after his stop, but was already up on Perez in 11th and on lap 23 getting past the Sauber man. The Mexican must have realised at this point that his team’s idea to only stop him the once was sub-optimal, losing as many positions and as much time as he now was. On lap 26 he had dropped down to 15th and was being threatened by his team mate Kobayashi, a whole stint ahead of him in effect.

Over at McLaren, tyres were on the pitwall’s mind. “They will start deg[rad]ing soon,” they warned Jenson Button. A few laps later they were earnestly contactly Lewis Hamilton, who had pitted for the second time on lap 25. “Please look after your tyres and manage your pace,” pleaded the team to a driver who seemed to be enjoying the grip he could find when the rubber was fresh. He had set the fastest lap on lap 27, a 1m43.119, and again the following lap, but this kind of punishment seemed unwise. On lap 30 they got back on to him, urging him to chill the beans. “I can’t drive any slower,” responded Hamilton, without apparent irony.

Meanwhile, Mark Webber had decided it was time to pit and lay down a marker to Ferrari. It was a good call by Red Bull, because a mere lap later Alonso’s tyres fell off the mythical cliff that is so often referred to, describing the rapid decrease in performance that these Pirellis suffer when they have outlived their immediate purpose. On lap 29 Alonso slithered into the pits and stopped cleanly, but when he got back out he realised he had lost too much time on the in-lap. Webber was back into the net second place.

No such drama befell Sebastian Vettel, who pitted without problem again on lap 30, but Massa, now leading, suffered a similar fate to his team mate. Firstly Webber and then Alonso came up on him, with the added complication of a backmarker so very nearly causing a big accident for the Spaniard as he followed Webber through the traffic. Gesticulation was the only recompense for Alonso on a day when in general the slower cars proved that sometimes they can be mobile chicanes. Anyway, Massa emerged from the pits into fifth, behind Hamilton.

On lap 33 Vettel led from Webber, Alonso, Hamilton, Massa, Button, Alguersuari, Rosberg, Sutil and Heidfeld. The race then went through an extended period of dullery, with the only slightly interesting developments being the news that Button’s KERS had failed and that Sebastian Vettel had set some more fastest laps. The answer to the question whether Valencia would thrill this year was being answered firmly in the negative. Oh, hang on! Massa is catching Hamilton! Slowly! Alonso is hunting Webber! Even more slowly!

“Vettel is playing games at the front,” observed Martin Brundle on the BBC. He was – he had a lead of over three seconds again, and looked irritatingly as though he had pace in the locker. Being fair to the young German, he was demonstrating that his mastery of these tyres in these conditions on this car was far superior to anyone else’s, and that is something that is no mean skill and for which he should be applauded.

In another moment of light relief, McLaren were reacting to the emerging threat of Felipe Massa to their own Lewis Hamilton, urging him to speed up this time. Surely smiling as he pressed his radio button, Hamilton responded: “This is as fast as I can go.” He was shortly to pit for the harder compound which all drivers are required to use at some point during the race, and duly did so on lap 43. Mark Webber, who had just been in himself, was not finding the harder compound to his liking. He seemed to be sluggish on the out-lap – would it be costly?

It would. Alonso pitted on lap 46 and swept out in front of the Australian. There was traffic ahead of them but the Spaniard would be a hard man from whom to wrest that second place. He set off for Vettel, the tantalising idea that he might catch and pass another Red Bull as brief as it was illusory. Vettel pitted for the final time on lap 47 for tea and a biscuit.

More action was taking place down the field. 13th placed Sebastien Buemi was fighting off a determined Kamui Kobayashi, Paul di Resta and Vitaly Petriv. It was the closest of dicing we had yet seen in this race, and in less than a lap, di Resta had got past Kobayashi. The Scot was taking advantage of a Force India car that looked as good as it has done at any point in 2011, although his team mate Sutil, up the road in ninth, was outdoing him. The German, perhaps set on proving that off-track distractions are not affecting his performance, looked distinctly as though he would threaten Jaime Alguersuari on older tyres for eighth position as the race drew into its final stages.

With only a few laps left the order was Vettel, Alonso, Webber, Hamilton, Massa, Button, Rosberg, Alguersuari, Sutil, Heidfeld, Perez and Barrichello. No one had yet retired – a real tribute to the reliability of the modern machinery in such testing conditions. It must have been sauna-like in those men’s cockpits – especially if, like in the case of Jerome d’Ambrosio, your water bottle was not working. The Belgian would have lost 3kg of body weight by the time the race finished.

The race was done and dusted four laps from the end. Vettel was playing up at the front, setting fastest laps for fun, whereas Webber now knew about his gearbox problem and was short-shifting to pre-empt a disastrous retirement. Alonso had settled for second and Massa did not have enough in his pocket to make Lewis Hamilton sweat for fourth. Sutil, meanwhile, who might have had Alguersuari in the closing laps, was bouncing off his rev limiter when he deployed both KERS and his DRS. This set-up error ultimately arguably cost him a higher placing.

So having completed 57 laps of exemplary driving that in many ways looked so easy, Sebastian Vettel won the European Grand Prix. He was excellent, his tyre management unparalleled, his pace supreme. His masterclass performance cannot be faulted, nor can that of his team, who seem set to have their engineering advantage cruelly reduced by a mid-season regulation change for the next race. So we must give them their moment in the sun, and marvel at exactly how good this car and this driver really are. Vettel is proving that from pole, in this Red Bull, he is without peer.