Whilst insisting that he was 'not frustrated' at having missed out on a second consecutive Formula 1 victory in the Bahrain Grand Prix at the weekend, Sebastian Vettel did admit that there is only one step of the podium that really matters to him – with his team boss describing the sport's youngest-ever winner as 'a very cool customer' indeed.
Having claimed Red Bull Racing's breakthrough triumph in the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai a week earlier, Vettel travelled to the desert kingdom clearly keen on making it back-to-back glories for the energy drinks-backed outfit. Though he was just third-quickest in qualifying behind the two front row-sitting Toyotas, with considerably more fuel on-board than either Jarno Trulli or Timo Glock ahead of him, he remained confident of getting the jump during the first round of pit-stops. And then Lewis Hamilton intervened...
“I think we had a good start – a normal start,” the 21-year-old recalled, “and when I first looked in my mirrors Lewis was far behind and I basically had no concerns. I was concentrating on the two Toyotas in front, but maybe I should have gone more to the right to close the door on the inside, because Lewis probably pressed his special button (KERS) and all of a sudden he was alongside me on the inside. I couldn't run to the outside because Jenson [Button] was there, so I had to give way to both of them and then unfortunately after turn two I was only P5. The first lap did not go according to plan, and it was extremely difficult from then.”
Indeed, spending the entire opening stint trapped behind the defending F1 World Champion's McLaren-Mercedes was patently not what either Vettel or Red Bull had anticipated, and whilst – in clear air after forcing his way by Hamilton at the beginning of lap two – Button was able to leapfrog both Toyotas during the pit visits, Vettel succeeded in moving ahead of only one of them, and would spend the whole of his middle stint again tucked up in traffic behind Trulli, with the Italian now struggling on Bridgestone's lesser-favoured medium-compound rubber.
The roles were subsequently reversed in the final sprint to the chequered flag, with Red Bull ahead of Toyota but Vettel now on the 'prime' tyres – and though the young German succeeded in withstanding Trulli's pressure, by then Button was long gone and he found himself having to settle for 'only' second place this time.
“I'm not frustrated,” reflected the man from Heppenheim, who courtesy of the runner-up laurels in Sakhir has closed to within just a single point of the second Brawn GP of Rubens Barrichello in the drivers' title chase, “but in the end all that matters is to win the race obviously. That was our target and we didn't succeed, but I'm still happy with the result.
“In the first two stints we were stuck in traffic – that probably was the story of our day – and the best we could do from there was P2, which we did. The last stint wasn't easy, because I had Jarno's Toyota behind me and he was on the soft tyre whereas I was on the hard one. He was pushing hard so there was no room for mistakes, but we survived and we managed to stay ahead.”
The performance certainly drew words of praise from RBR team principal Christian Horner, whose squad are now looking very strong indeed for sustained success over the balance of the campaign. With the 'double-decker' split-level diffuser yet to be fitted to the Adrian Newey-penned, Renault-powered RB5, rivals fear there is considerably more pace still to come from the Milton Keynes-based concern's challenger – and some are concerned that could just put Vettel out of reach.
“It was a very strong second place,” former racer Horner summarised, “but we can't help but feel slightly disappointed with second. I think our race was dictated at turn two, when both Lewis and Jenson opportunistically managed to get ahead of Sebastian as he found himself slightly boxed in. Our strategy worked well for us and we had the pace, but unfortunately we just gave away too much time behind Lewis in the first stint, and that very much dictated our race.