It might have taken him six races to do it, but Sebastian Vettel was ebullient after regaining the top step of the rostrum following Sunday's European Grand Prix – and starting to sense that the F1 2010 title fight could be boiling down to a two-horse duel between Red Bull Racing and McLaren-Mercedes.
In the wake of his contentious Turkish Grand Prix collision with team-mate Mark Webber in Istanbul last month, Vettel had become something of the black sheep of the F1 fraternity – and the momentum inside the RBR garage seemed to be firmly on the side of the in-form Australian. However, pole position in Valencia and a commanding triumph 24 hours later have vaulted the sport's youngest-ever grand prix-winner firmly into the reckoning once more as the chase for the crown hits the halfway mark.
“It's good to be back winning and on a circuit where we didn't expect to be that strong,” the German reflected. “It is about time, I would say! It hasn't been the easiest [season] so far, but what happened, happened – we cannot change it. We were quick enough at all times in the race to pull away, build a gap and then guide the car home. Looking at the first stint and then after the re-start, when we were in the 'pushing' mode, let's say, I was very happy and the pace seemed to be very strong and we were able to pull away at two or three tenths a lap.
“I thought I had a very good initial launch, and then I saw in the mirrors Mark and Lewis [Hamilton] fighting. I think Lewis passed him right away, and then into Turn One I saw that Lewis was quite late on the brakes on the inside, so I tried to give as much room as I could. Once you set your braking-point it is difficult to react and say 'okay, I will delay it'. It was closer than I expected, closer than I wanted, but there wasn't much I could have done to go further to the left.
“I think we touched, [but] I was quite lucky. I felt the hit in Turn Two; what I was most afraid of was that his front wing had touched my rear tyre and given me a puncture, but a couple of corners later I could feel there was nothing wrong with the car and everything was alright. I think he (Hamilton) hit the inside kerb a little bit, so there is not much you can do. When I came back in after the race and stopped the car I saw that the right-hand-side floor was damaged a little bit, but it didn't seem to make that great a difference
“After that I was very happy with the car, and I pulled away and managed a very good gap. I tried to manage the tyres and I have to say the 'Options' at the start worked really, really well – I did not try to push too hard [because] you don't know the reaction after five or ten laps, but I never got the feeling that they were dropping away, and balance-wise I was extremely happy.
“I was a bit afraid when I saw the safety car boards, as I was just on the main straight and I thought 'this will be tough as the cars that follow might get a stop for free' – 20 seconds or ten seconds earlier and I would have been able to react right, but I was lucky that the first couple of cars were in the same situation that I was and I think we managed it well.
“The re-start was tight again and after the safety car I had a huge lock-up into last corner trying to brake as late as I could. I was trying to defend and probably was a little bit too late, plus I underestimated the tyre temperature at that stage – after the pit stop and when you go around slowly, you never really have the chance to bring the tyres up to temperature. They were colder than I expected, but I could stay in front.
“After that I had a bit of a front-right flat-spot, but it was alright. Obviously [there were] a lot of laps to do, but I never really tried to push hard because I didn't want to do anything stupid. When I got the message that Lewis [Hamilton] had to go to the pits to get his drive-through, I could adjust the pace and backed off a bit. It is good to get a lot of points. It is good for the championship, and I'm very pleased. I think the guys can be extremely proud. It was another tough weekend for them [with] very little sleep, but it pays off.”