Victorious Vettel: Abu Dhabi GP race report

Sebastian Vettel today won the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to win the world championship at the last.

The Red Bull man led, with the exception of pit stops, from lights to flag and on the basis of this weekend’s performance there could be no more deserving world champion.

As the sun set over the Yas Marina circuit in the early evening, the tension was rising. There could be only one winner of the 2010 championship, yet there were four competitors still in contention. All eyes on the grid were very much on Fernando Alonso – in fact, there was a veritable scrum around the Spaniard, and even the King of Spain was having to queue up to give Alonso his best wishes.

Fifth on the grid sat Mark Webber, and he too was the focus of a lot of attention. His job had been made more difficult by his lacklustre qualifying session, and he knew his principal target was to get past Alonso. Between him and his team mate on pole, though, were the two McLarens, neither of whom would be slouching this afternoon. Webber was on the back foot.

Meanwhile, two things were happening away from the media and royalty scrum that were worthy of note. Firstly, the lack of attention around Sebastian Vettel was surely taking some of the pressure off the young German. It was clear what was required of him…to win, basically. There were so many permutations that he could not be concerned with the ins and outs of them all.

The second curious incident was concerning Robert Kubica. The pole, down in 11th on the grid, had decided to gamble on the hard tyres whereas the vast majority of the field were on the super-softs. This would be crucial later on.

And then they were off. As they flew off the start line your eyes fell on Jenson Button, who was like lightning. He managed to take Alonso down into the first turn, which left the Spaniard theoretically at the mercy of the Red Bull in the hands of Mark Webber behind him.

The field piled through, and it was at the first chicane that the first key incident happened. Michael Schumacher, in close tyre-to-tyre combat with a number of people, put his foot down a bit early and spun. Although two or three cars managed to miss him, Vitantonio Liuzzi could not, and hit him hard. There was debris everywhere, but it was a relief that Schumacher had not been injured.

Cue Safety Car, which seemed to last a while. Rosberg, Alguersuari and crucially Vitaly Petrov chose at this moment to make their mandatory pit stop, a move that looked hasty at the time but would pay dividends later.

At the end of lap 5 the Safety Car was to come in, and Vettel let Bernd Maylander go early and played with the following Lewis Hamilton’s reflexes a bit. It was close to the envelope as far as those sort of tactics are concerned, but there would not be repercussions for Vettel.

The restart was without incident, and the order was now Vettel, Hamilton, Button, Alonso, Webber, Massa, Barrichello, Kobayashi, Kubica, Sutil, Heidfeld, Buemi, Hulkenberg, Rosberg, Kovalainen, and Trulli. The minor teams followed, with Alguersuari and Petrov in attendance.

Vettel went on his way and promptly set a couple of fastest laps, as clear a statement of intent as he had yet given. He quickly pulled out a gap of more than a second and a half over Hamilton, demonstrating his latent pace. Webber was being dropped, down where he was. By lap 8 he was six and a half seconds down on his team mate, and watching his championship evaporate. He was now 1.7 seconds adrift of the man directly in front (Alonso) too, seemingly unable to threaten. His misery was compounded on that same lap 8 when he brushed the wall on the outside of the hotel complex. Massa was just behind. It wasn’t going well.

Further back down the field, Kobayashi was trying to overtake Barrichello, but failing. That set the tone for overtaking maneouvres throughout the race, drivers making it difficult for their competitors.

Around lap 11 the race looked like it might get interesting at the front. Lewis Hamilton looked as though he was catching Sebastian Vettel, as the German started to experience a bit of graining on his front tyres. Others were immediately alert. Were the tyres going off? No one involved in the championship could afford to take any risks. Webber, who had just been on the radio complaining about his own rear tyres, decided to pit. It was lap 12. Hamilton was now within nine-tenths of Vettel.

Webber came out and it seemed like he was a long way down. Ferrari smelt blood, and made the call to deploy Felipe Massa, who had been just behind Webber, tactically. Maybe he could act as a bit of a roadblock. He was pitted immediately after setting some quick sector times once in the clear air. It was in vain, though, as Massa suffered a minor delay in the pits and came out behind Webber.

Here, Ferrari overestimated Webber’s pace, and decided to call their championship contender Alonso into the pits to attempt to maintain track position over him. On lap 16 the Spaniard came out ahead of Mark Webber and it looked like curtains for the Australian’s title bid unless something drastically untoward came to pass.

Then we arrived at the pivotal moment of the race. Vettel’s tyres, which had looked as though they were on their last legs, came back to him, and you could immediately see him building the gap back up to the chasing Hamilton. This meant that the graining period had been only a phase, and he was back on it now.

Meanwhile, things were going wrong for Alonso and Webber. They arrived at the back of Vitaly Petrov, who had pitted early during the Safety Car. Petrov was racing for position, as was Nico Rosberg in front of him, and Alonso would have to pass them both if he wanted to put himself in mathematical contention. “We know you’re doing your best, but it’s critical to pass him,” Ferrari told Alonso.

By lap 24 Alonso was starting to get frustrated, perhaps as he sensed his championship hopes diminishing by the lap. Petrov was driving superbly, making his Renault wide in the corners and profiting from its excellent traction and straightline speed to lord it over the Ferrari along the long straights.

Hamilton then pitted and came out without incident. The following lap the race leader pitted, and Red Bull were more than half a second faster than the McLaren boys had been working on Lewis. This translated to a bigger gap on the racetrack but importantly also to a two-car cushion in the form of Kobayashi and Kubica, both of who were yet to pit. “How did he get so far in front?” a bemused Hamilton asked his team.

The next lap, lap 26, saw Kubica take Kobayashi, and Hamilton follow suit soon after. Their moves were rendered all the more remarkable through their rarity. Out front, Jenson Button was now ploughing a lonely furrow, running extremely long and sitting in the lead. His team mate Hamilton was joining battle with Robert Kubica, but neither were slow, and it looked as though Button would pit and slot in behind Hamilton. Leastways, Vettel was not racing the man in the lead at this moment.

The order was now Button, Vettel, Kubica, Hamilton, Kobayashi, Sutil, Buemi, Rosberg, Hulkenberg, Petrov, Alonso, Webber, Alguersuari, Massa, Heidfeld, Barrichello, Kovalainen, Trulli, Glock, di Grassi, Senna and Klien.

Lewis Hamilton and his great rival Fernando Alonso were now locked in a similar battle, though on very different parts of the racetrack. Both were stuck behind yellow and red Renaults, and neither of them could find a way past. It was more frustrating for Alonso than for Hamilton, but the longer they both spent where they now found themselves, the less chance they had of taking another world title.

Button and Kubica were the main men yet to pit at this stage. Such was Kubica’s pace, though, that it looked like he might now jump Alonso when he came out. How extraordinary that even if Alonso managed to get past his nemesis Petrov, he would now have another Renault in front of him. And that was without mentioning Nico Rosberg, who he also needed to get by. Ferrari were doing their level best to gee up their star man. “Use your talent, we know how big it is,” they told him. Alonso was running out of time and choices, and his driving became increasingly erratic as the pressure told.

With Kubica out of the way and safely out in front of the ailing Alonso, Hamilton set about Vettel, setting two fastest laps in a row. He was now closing at a rate of six-tenths per lap, but it was because Vettel was at this point super-cautious, knowing that any slight mistake would cost him so dearly. He must have also been conscious of the strain he was putting on his Renault engine, with reference to his experience in Korea only a few weeks ago.

As the race slowly died, Red Bull radioed Mark Webber and effectively closed the door after the horse had bolted, telling him to have a go at Alonso. The hapless Webber could not have succeeded if he had tried, such was his bewildering lack of pace today. He could not keep tabs on Alonso, let alone the McLarens or his pumped-up team mate.

And so it wound down, Christian Horner’s legs jiggling anxiously on the pit wall as the laps remaining ticked down agonisingly. Even as Vettel crossed the line, they could not celebrate, for we had to wait until the drivers in between him and his championship rivals had finished. A coming-together, or a couple of retirements, would change the picture drastically.

Ferrari, though, were resigned to defeat after a tactical call to cover Webber’s stop did not work for them. A small mistake that is only evident in hindsight, but it is over such fine things that world championships are won and lost.

And Vettel was then champion, and he cried over the radio. The fulfilment of a lifetime dream for the German who has been one of the brightest stars in the firmament since his arrival in the sport. 2010 has not been without mistakes, and perhaps he could have won it earlier had mechanical demons not haunted him, but it was his sheer pace that makes him the deserving winner of this, the greatest accolade in motorsport.

Pace that was on determined show today, as he took the world championship in dominant style.