Indian GP 2011: full race report

Vettel unrelenting as he takes inaugural Indian GP win

Button only credible resistance to the German, taking second

Alonso third; team mate Massa in yet more contact with Lewis Hamilton

Sebastian Vettel won the first Indian GP today in the style for which he is becoming renowned – relentless. The German did not appear to realise that he was the world champion already, and looked intent adding to his margin of dominance, on crushing the opposition in the final tally as he sped off into the distance at the Buddh International Circuit.

Jenson Button was in many respects the only man in India today who could hold a candle to Vettel. Button drove competently and speedily and in infrequent bursts, usually around the stops, looked as though he might match Vettel’s pace. Ultimately, however, he could not make inroads into the Red Bull man’s lead.

Fernando Alonso was third after a race-long battle with eventual fourth-placed man Mark Webber in the other Red Bull. Alonso yet again pulled a performance from a car that had not looked competitive in the slightest – which, in fact, was still having its front wing endplate screwed in position mere minutes from the start.

In the other main story of the race, Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa renewed their on-track acquaintance on lap 24. The clash, for which Massa was given a drive-through sanction, contributed to the Englishman’s lack of front-running dynamism and the Brazilian’s demise and retirement.

Before the off the stories were of a practical nature. Bernie had described the first India GP as “a bit chaotic”, and that was certainly the atmosphere around the Buddh International Circuit. What would the track in the environs of Greater Noida throw up? Would the off-line dust make overtaking risky? How dangerous were the high kerbs in the mid-section? And how come the Pirellis had not done their magic super-quick degradation yet in the race-sims?

Among such mundanity a minute’s silence was also held for IndyCar’s Dan Wheldon and MotoGP’s Marco Simoncelli, both tragically killed in the last two successive weekends.

The minutes ticked away to the start and very soon it was on us. Most of the drivers had opted for the soft compound Pirellis, but Paul di Resta, Vitaly Petrov and Sergio Perez were on the harder compound. On the basis of extensive and exhaustive testing since Friday, the Pirellis just were not degrading in the same way as they had been famed for doing so far this year. The plan of di Resta et al was presumably to get the slower compound out the way early, and would go particularly well in the event of a Safety Car.

They were not held long by the race director and soon were coming down to the first corner, a ninety-degree right hander. Vettel had had a perfect launch – Webber, off second, not so much. The Australian was already defending from Jenson Button on his right, which allowed Fernando Alonso into the space on his left, behind Vettel. Alonso misjudged his braking slightly and ran wide at the first turn, but not too much to his detriment. They filed through, Vettel-Webber-Button-Alonso-Massa-Hamilton.

Elsewhere everyone followed the leading pack, but then there was contact at the back. Kamui Kobayashi was involved…and it wasn’t long before there was more incident, at Turn Four. Jarno Trulli was tagged and Narain Karthikeyan, in his home event, was also caught up. Rubens Barrichello, somewhere along the line, had hit his team mate – a cardinal sin – for which he would be forced to pit for a new nose.

But meanwhile down the back straight, Button was sitting under Mark Webber’s rear wing. Before the DRS was even enabled, the McLaren man had found that his Mercedes powerplant was very juicy, and had made use of it. At the hairpin he was through into second, a place which Webber did not defend with alacrity. The other drivers must scent over-caution following the start coming off the back of that Red Bull.

By this point it was lap 3 and with a vaguely sinking heart, fans were watching Sebastian Vettel exerting a now familiar level of control over the race, by beginning that slow and deliberate extending of his lead. More was happening behind him – Webber had gleaned that he was participating in a motor race and was threatening Button for second. But the Englishman was solid and resolute in his defence and repelled him effectively, if with a complete lack of compromise. By lap 7 Webber seemed to have given up.

The order at this early stage was Vettel, Button, Webber, Alonso, Massa, Hamilton, Rosberg, Schumacher, Sutil and Senna. Both Toro Rossos were following the Renault of the Brazilian closely, Alguersuari ahead of Buemi. They would need watching, as the Scuderia’s car did not look at all shabby around this fast-flowing track. On lap 9 Alguersuari passed Senna, and Buemi followed suit a corner or two later. Senna complained that his KERS had gone, but the Catalan and his Swiss team mate were driving well. In four laps’ time they would both hunt down and pass Adrian Sutil in ninth.

On lap 12 it started to look as though Button might threaten the leader Vettel. He closed that dreadful gap to four and a half seconds on that lap and on the next by another three tenths. The same could not be said for his team mate Hamilton, who was inexplicably slower than he to the tune of four tenths a lap. Could it be strategy? Not really, no. As many a wise racing head has said, going slowly is not much of a plan.

The first big names to pit came in on lap 17. Webber, Alonso and Hamilton all opted to go in, with Alonso coming back out smack behind Michael Schumacher. This had the effect of bringing Massa right onto that battle once he pitted a tour later. Alonso got past the German once he knew he had Massa for company, but he had been held up.

Second-placed Button also paid a visit to his team on lap 19, whereas Vettel went round once more. The race had developed a strange kind of sterility by this point, as though none of the drivers were sufficiently motivated by what was on offer. But they continued, as they had to, and there would be action enough for the armchair viewer yet.

On lap 21 it was Vettel, Button, Webber, Alonso, Massa, Hamilton, Rosberg, yet-to-pit Senna, Schumacher, Kovalainen (also yet to stop but having a good afternoon nonetheless), Alguersuari, Buemi, Sutil, Perez and Petrov. Schumacher had no compunction about ruining all that effort by passing Senna.

It had been clear for some laps that Hamilton’s pace was much better on this set of tyres than he had been. Felipe Massa was in the firing line, and the Englishman closed up for some laps. Massa was under pressure and made a small mistake into Turn One, handing the initiative to the hungry, chasing McLaren. Caution has recently been absorbed into the Hamilton psyche, and he left it at least a lap, including one aborted attempt, before making a deliberate move.

It did not come at a recognised passing place, though. No, Hamilton was so much quicker through the fast back section that he drew almost level with Massa through a lightning left hander. Despite his being so very nearly parallel, there was no space, and as Massa drew left to take the racing line, there was sudden and dramatic contact. The Ferrari speared off the track, and Hamilton continued, though with a strong possibility of damage to the car.

Two laps later and after consideration, the stewards slammed Massa with a drive-through penalty. Presumably this was because replays showed him looking at the McLaren twice before turning in, but it is also very difficult to say what else Massa could have done. Yielding to Hamilton at that particular juncture would be a concretely deferential move, something to which racing drivers are not usually inclined. The upshot was that blame had been laid at Massa’s door; he may feel justifiably aggrieved.

It was a jolly good thing that this had given us all something to ponder, for there was sweet fanny adam happening elsewhere. In a disappointing turn of events, Buemi had retired on lap 26, although Alguersuari continued in eighth. Hamilton, his nose replaced after the incident, was bearing down, though, and had the Catalan on lap 31.

The other protagonist in the drama, Massa, had had an interesting time of it since. On lap 32 replays showed his front wing oscillating alarmingly down the straight, for which Ferrari were obliged to call their man in. After that, he was presumably driving with too much passion, for he clipped the high kerbs over the chicane and in a virtual mirror-image of what had happened in qualifying, he broke the suspension of his car. In lieu of all other criticism that is levelled at Massa, no one else made the same terrible mistake in both qualifying and the race.

Just outside the points-paying positions there was an earnest battle going on. It involved Sergio Perez, who was having one of his infrequent marvellous races, Heikki Kovalainen and Vitaly Petrov. Kovalainen was in the process of giving us what I would call his best showing of the year, but on lap 36 he succumbed to the Russian’s pressure and surrendered 12th.

On lap 38 Button and Webber pitted for the second time for their hard tyres. They had apparently heard that Massa’s lap times had not suffered unduly while (just before his crash) he had been sporting the harder compound. Plus, Webber was being caught by the chasing Alonso. Conventional wisdom – that the harder tyres were much slower – was being gradually confounded, and this trend was proven when Webber looked quick in his new boots. Alonso dived in to copy and came out ahead of the Red Bull man on lap 40! The Australian locked up a wheel into the hairpin as his frustration visibly brimmed over.

It was now lap 44 and the order was as follows: Vettel, Button, Alonso, Webber, Rosberg, Schumacher, Hamilton, Alguersuari, Senna, Sutil, Perez, Petrov, di Resta, Kovalainen, Barrichello, Karthikeyan, d’Ambrosio, Ricciardo, Trulli. The Mexican Perez was in feisty mood and gesticulated angrily at d’Ambrosio after he felt the latter held him up. Perez had felt perhaps that he stood a chance of taking Sutil, who was looking vulnerable to quick cars behind him.

On lap 47 the final flurry of pitting began. Button was first to blink, after exciting us all briefly by destroying Vettel’s lap times up to his stop. Vettel came in the following tour, and for a tantalising time the gap had been reduced to a mere two and a half seconds. It would turn out to be smoke and mirrors, because once the German was comfortable, he reasserted his dominance. But for McLaren and Button this instance is perhaps a key to unlocking the Red Bull/Vettel fortress.

The fight continued to rage for the lower points positions. Alguersuari in eighth was being caught by Senna in ninth, although the latter would have to stop again still. Sutil was hanging on in tenth but behind him a motley crew comprising Perez and Petrov were on his case.

With ten laps to go Schumacher was racing his team mate and his team mate only for fifth. Rosberg had gone onto the hards on lap 46, which had slowed him a bit, where the elder German had stayed out on the softs. The idea was that he would pit later and jump his team mate. On lap 51 he did just that, and despite a brief period immediately after when Rosberg closed up, it was a done deal. Quite possibly Rosberg will be asking his team why this came to pass. He would be justified in indignance.

On lap 56 Senna pitted, destroying his slim chances of a points finish. He emerged in 12th, leaving Sutil-Perez-Petrov in that same order but now in ninth-tenth-eleventh. Petrov would try to nick the last point as the race entered its denouement, but ultimately without success.

Much in the same way as Button had flattered to deceive with Vettel, in the final few laps Webber briefly closed the gap to Alonso, but he could not change the order. So there it was, Vettel doing his trick of taking the win and the fastest lap on the very last tour. He broke another record today – that of the number of laps led in a season. It isn’t funny any more, Sebastian. But it is worthy of a very great deal of admiration.

Pos Driver Team Time
1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1h30:35.002
2. Button McLaren-Mercedes + 8.433
3. Alonso Ferrari + 24.301
4. Webber Red Bull-Renault + 25.529
5. Schumacher Mercedes + 1:05.421
6. Rosberg Mercedes + 1:06.851
7. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes + 1:24.183
8. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1 lap
9. Sutil Force India-Mercedes + 1 lap
10. Perez Sauber-Ferrari + 1 lap
11. Petrov Renault + 1 lap
12. Senna Renault + 1 lap
13. Di Resta Force India-Mercedes + 1 lap
14. Kovalainen Lotus-Renault + 2 laps
15. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth + 2 laps
16. D’Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth + 2 laps
17. Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth + 3 laps
18. Ricciardo HRT-Cosworth + 3 laps
19. Trulli Lotus-Renault + 4 laps

Fastest lap: Vettel, 1:27.457

Not classified/retirements:

Driver Team On lap
Massa Ferrari 33
Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 25
Maldonado Williams-Cosworth 13
Glock Virgin-Cosworth 3
Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1