Victorious Vettel in Brazilian epic

Sebastian Vettel yesterday became the youngest ever triple world champion in one of the most dramatic grands prix ever seen. In wet-dry conditions at the Interlagos track in Sao Paulo, the Red Bull man survived an early scare, damage and further attrition to finish sixth – and with rival Fernando Alonso only managing second to McLaren’s Jenson Button, Vettel took the world championship.

The talk prior to the race was all of what might come to pass in this final instalment of a wonderful season. As was written in this column, many had a premonition that drama would be on the menu – and it was. A great start from the McLarens saw them leading into the Senna S, with Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India up there with Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso. Vettel, having been rather uncharitably squeezed by his team mate into the first turn, was in the pack.

This boded ill for the German’s aspirations. Worse was to come. Turning into the left hander at the end of the next straight, with Kimi Raikkonen’s Lotus spearing right to avoid the Red Bull’s overcautious braking, Vettel found a typically banzai Bruno Senna, who broadsided him hard. Vettel spun round to face the oncoming traffic – a terrifying scenario to behold, and made no better for him by another clump by Senna for good measure.

How damaged was the Red Bull? The left exhaust covering, previously tapering to an elegant Red Bull rear end, had a gaping hole. Bodywork flapped. Vettel was last. His team radioed him to tell him they could not fix the damage. It all looked dire.

Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton led, and Jenson Button nicked second from Felipe Massa. Mark Webber was shadowing the Ferrari but behind him Fernando Alonso showed no reticence to get stuck in and took them both in an audacious move into the first corner. If they had finished where they now stood, Alonso would have been champion.

But that was about to change. Vettel was now producing some vintage driving, in so doing repudiating strongly the myth that he cannot engage in man-to-man, wheel-to-wheel combat. By lap 8 he was incredibly up to seventh position on track – almost entirely by his own hand. The pendulum was swinging; Alonso had had his own ‘fans hide behind the sofa’ moment, taking to the astroturf at the Senna ‘S’, losing a position to the competitive Hulkenberg, but managing to defend from Mark Webber.

It all made for frantic viewing. It had started, by this point, to drizzle intently, and the increasingly greasy track was claiming victims, notably in the shape of Romain Grosjean, who clouted the wall at the bottom of the hill. Jenson Button, ever the master of such conditions, nailed Lewis Hamilton for the lead. The question was on everybody’s lips over whether, and if so when, to opt for intermediate tyres. Mark Webber was the first of the big guns to dive in, Red Bull hoping his times would provide the answer for their title contender.

Hamilton went in for inters, though Button stayed out, on the dry tyres that seemingly only he and Hulkenberg could make work on the treacherous track. Then, on lap 11, the two championship men came in, Alonso leading his rival, and so out into clear air. Vettel emerged behind Webber, who promptly let him by – this was no time to be playing games. Meanwhile, in the pits, Adrian Newey was intently studying a smartly-taken photo of the damage to Vettel’s car, trying to figure out if and how his driver’s race would be affected. Fortunately for them, the rain was definitely in play – any material disadvantage Vettel had was tempered by the conditions. In fact, he was the fastest car on track.

The battle for the lead was hotting up, too, with Hulkenberg making a nuisance of himself with the leader Button. On lap 19 he got by, using his KERS to pass the Englishman. Sometimes overlooked next to his more illustrious compatriots on the grid and his inexplicably more highly-rated team mate, Hulkenberg was showing his quality at a circuit he loves. But the sky was lightening and the track was drying; at this point Vettel would be champion, but more twists were in store.

Mercedes’ dire form of late did not abate – Nico Rosberg picked up a puncture on lap 21. Alonso, who needed another card dealt, was immediately on the radio asking for a Safety Car because the track was littered with debris from various incidents. Charlie Whiting responded and Bernd Maylander came out. At this point it was Hulkenberg, Button, Hamilton, Alonso, Vettel, Kobayashi, Webber and di Resta. Everybody was still doing the sums – yes, Vettel still champion as it stood at this moment.

As the Safety Car came in, it looked like it was going to rain some more. Kobayashi, in perhaps the last chance F1 saloon in this brave new world, was emphasising his credentials by harrying Alonso, who he got past on lap 32. Felipe Massa was not far behind and doing his best for the team by attacking Vettel. It momentarily came right for Ferrari – Alonso re-passing the Japanese a lap later, and Massa sweeping past a careful Vettel. Hamilton, more comfortable on his new rubber, was also going forward, nicking second from Button. He then set about hunting down Hulkenberg, who was reporting some difficulties with his downshifting.

On lap 49 it came, the pressure telling on the German. He made a mistake at Turn Six and Hamilton was past in a flash, though Hulkenberg’s recovery was swift. The rain was still waxing and waning and few teams or drivers knew what the best strategy would be. A gamble could win it all, but also lose it all, and in that situation the best thing, it seems, is to do nothing – to wait for the optimum choice to become the obvious one.

Vettel, sitting pretty still, then had his next dollop of bad luck. Radio problems. Vettel sounded as though he was in a submarine, though his engineer could still be heard loud and clear. Despite the rain, he now pitted for slicks, rather rapidly deciding a couple of laps later than that had been the wrong choice. His second pit stop was fraught – Red Bull did not have the right tyres available, and it looked like a complete hash. How would it affect the German’s position – and his precarious title? The answer was, not so badly. Schumacher almost let him go freely, refusing to fight his successor-elect; and then Nico Hulkenberg lost it into turn one and slammed into Lewis Hamilton, ruining both their races. Hamilton was now out, and Hulkenberg shortly to be landed with a penalty for his misdemeanour.

The rain was now heavier, and Alonso was struggling to keep the Ferrari pointing in the right direction. Vettel pitted yet again. Talk came of the full wet – would it be necessary? The Spaniard had a very slow lap as he slithered round on slicks, but came out just behind Felipe Massa, who would of course prove no difficulty for his team mate. They swapped, and the race started to enter its denouement.

So Button led from Alonso and Massa, from Webber, Hulkenberg and Vettel. It looked like the end, unless more rain or unreliability from anyone entered the picture. But there was to be one last twist – Paul di Resta losing it going up the hill and forcing the Safety Car out for the second time.

And so Button won, with the championship the real issue unfolding behind him. Alonso secured second but Vettel had got sixth, more than enough – a three point margin – to help him win an amazing third title. The only caveat, which sat in Sky Sports viewers’ minds, was whether he might incur a penalty for overtaking Kobayashi under yellows. But from the stewards came nothing, which meant we were free to bask in Vettel’s reflected glory.

Plaudits will come thick and fast for the man who has swept all before him in this most complex of sports. All talk of how good the car is defeats the point – Vettel has been supreme, particularly in the latter part of the year. He has shot up the all-time great list in so doing, as has his rival – the wonderful Alonso, who had absolutely no right to be this close to this championship. An incredible finale to an incredible year, and two truly incredible men.

*I was a little surprised to see the following as an editorial in today’s Independent: ‘Yesterday’s Brazilian Grand Prix crowns a season that has revived Formula One after years in which it seemed doomed to decline’. Sorry, what? Just for reference, the Independent’s daily circulation figures are in the region of 105 000 copies, down drastically over the last few years. The average F1 race attracts a TV audience of around 500 million people, and has done for many years. So why is the Independent, for whom writes the excellent David Tremayne, indulging in this pot-calling-the kettle?

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