David Tremayne: Vettel, Red Bull again as strategy takes centre stage
29 October 2013
In his latest exclusive feature on Crash.net, David Tremayne - three time Guild of Motoring Writers Journalist of the Year Award winner and multi-award winning F1 author - takes a look back over the Indian Grand Prix…
Six in a row. The tenth of the season. A clean sweep of all three Indian grands prix. A fourth consecutive world championship for himself. Ditto for Infiniti Red Bull Racing….
Was there anything else that Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull could have hoped for in the last running of a grand prix at Buddh International Circuit?
Well, yes, the team, if not the driver, would have hoped for Mark Webber to take second place, and the only fly in the ointment was the Australian's retirement on the 39th lap with alternator failure.
But Vettel's success put that completely in the shade and cemented another fabulous year for the Milton Keynes team. It's achievement in winning both championships for the last four years is one of the greatest in the sport and ranks it right up there with the best of all time.
Yet the Indian GP didn't really start as a foregone conclusion, because strategy was going to play such a key part. Pirelli had adopted an aggressive stance and brought its medium and soft compounds. And it soon became clear that the latter were likely to last around five laps in the race. So high was the degradation that the Italian company placed advisory limits on how long teams should run them: 15 laps on the softs, 35 on the mediums. It wanted the FIA to make these mandatory, but wisely the governing body elected to advise teams of the limits with the addendum that if there were any incidents involving those who elected to run longer, penalties might be applied.
Vettel, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton elected to qualify on softs, as did Kimi Raikkonen, Nico Hulkenberg and Felipe Massa, who defied the suggestions of Ferrari's race engineers. Webber, however, was convinced that starting on mediums was the way to go and lined up an excellent fourth. Fernando Alonso in eighth and the two McLaren drivers, Sergio Perez and Jenson Button, did likewise. Way back, Romain Grosjean started his 17th placed Lotus on softs, having got caught out in Q1 when a gamble to run mediums backfired.
When Webber lost too much time in his first stint, the game turned in Vettel's favour, even though he got off the softs after only two laps and dropped to 17th. That gave the lead to Massa until he stopped after eight laps, and thence to Webber. He kept going until lap 28, did four laps on softs, then took more mediums. Meanwhile, Vettel stopped again for mediums on lap 31, and came out with a 12.5secs lead over Webber when things had settled down. Game over.
Grosjean made his softs last 13 laps, which brought him right into contention, and then he made his mediums last an amazing 47 laps. That wasn't enough to hold Rosberg back, as the German had one of his best runs to take the 'best of the rest' place which had been Mercedes' aim – doesn't that say everything about how dominant Red Bull has been in the second half of the season? Hamilton had got stuck behind Massa throughout the race, but Rosberg's crew got him ahead of the Ferrari in his first stop, and that proved crucial.
Grosjean was thus able to finish on the podium for the third race in succession, to his complete disbelief given where he'd started, but not before there had been aggro with team-mate Raikkonen. The Finn ditched his softs on the seventh laps and was trying to make his mediums last to the finish. But, as Grosjean came ever close, his team-mate's intransigence became silly and perhaps highlighted the tension between Raikkonen and Lotus where money has become very tight in recent weeks. He was losing two seconds a lap but still tried to fight Grosjean and they actually touched as the Frenchman got the job done. There were harsh Anglo-Saxon words between the Finn and Lotus's Alan Permane over the radio.
Massa's fourth place was small consolation for Ferrari but great news for him, as he'd been in contention to fight Grosjean for the podium slot until his tyres went off. That's because Alonso was involved in a first-lap clash between Raikkonen and Webber, then clobbered Button all by himself. Thereafter neither the Ferrari nor the McLaren ran properly as both drivers endured ghastly afternoons. Alonso finished eleventh, unable to pass either Adrian Sutil or Daniel Ricciardo who took the last points, Button 14th.
The good news for McLaren was Perez's fighting drive to fifth. He was actually running third for some time early on, outlasting others on his mediums, and, after a quick stint on softs, his return to mediums saw him able to take on and jump both the fading Raikkonen and the slow-on-the-straight Hamilton in the closing stages to take a respectable fifth in the improved McLaren MP4-28.
There was also welcome news for Force India with Paul di Resta taking a well-paced eighth ahead of Sutil. The latter's was one of the drives of the race as he made his mediums last for 41 laps, then did an incredible 19 on the softs while still managing to keep Ricciardo and Alonso behind him. Six points helped keep the team clear of Sauber, who should have taken eighth before Hulkenberg's brakes failed.